This year’s edition of the NFL hasn’t made much sense to the experts, so why should the chase for Rookie of the Year be any different? Bears’ fourth-round pick Tarik Cohen is in the mix to win Offensive Rookie of the Year more than Panthers’ No. 8 pick Christian McCaffrey.
This week, their teams will face off in Chicago—one of a handful of matchups between top rookies across the league. New Orleans boasts Marshon Lattimore against Green Bay’s Kevin King, and in Indianapolis, Malik Hooker will try to stop Leonard Fournette on the ground.
The offensive race is loaded with talent, and any of my top three candidates could legitimately stake a claim for the top spot. On the defensive side, it’s not as sexy… yet.
Here’s a look at the top candidates for the awards heading into Week 7:
1. Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs: Hunt is the only player in the league averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game. He leads the league in yards from scrimmage (he broke 1,000 yards in Thursday night’s game against the Raiders; at 1,002, he’s 236 yards in front of No. 2 Todd Gurley). And he’s been the most consistent offensive player on the league’s top team. He’s breaking off 20-yard rushes at least once a game and averaging 5.8 yards on each carry. Though the Chiefs have lost their last two games against Pittsburgh and Oakland, with both teams holding the rookie to a combined 108 rushing yards and no touchdowns in those games, Hunt has still been far and away the most impressive youngster on the field.
2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans: Ever since he replaced Tom Savage in the second half of Houston’s Week 1 game against the Jaguars (when he should have been the first-half starter...), Watson has looked like the most impressive rookie quarterback since… well… Dak Prescott. He’s 2–1 in his last three starts, losing only to New England in a tight game while throwing 12 touchdowns to two picks in that span. The AFC South, like the rest of the league, is mired in mediocrity, but if Watson continues this pace at the sport’s most important position and gets to the playoffs, he wins this award.
3. Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars: If the award were for most exciting rookie of the year, Fournette would have this wrapped up. His only two rushes this season longer than 20 yards were 75- and 90-yard touchdowns. His six rushing scores are tops in the league, and his 130 carries and 596 rushing yards are both second. He is the only reason the Jaguars’ offense is keeping its head above water, since its model of avoiding pass plays with Blake Bortles isn’t sustainable. With a few spells from Chris Ivory, Fournette is proving he’s the bellcow we thought he could be coming out of LSU.
4. Tarik Cohen, RB, Bears: He’s cooled slightly since his big debut against the Falcons in Week 1 (66 rushing yards, 47 receiving yards and a touchdown). Still, Cohen is on track to account for 1,000 yards of offense as the No. 2 to Jordan Howard, who finished in second for last season’s rushing title. Cohen is also in the top-10 in punt return yardage this season.
T5. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Steelers | Cooper Kupp, WR, Rams: There’s only one ball to go around in Pittsburgh and that ball usually finds Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown. That Smith-Schuster has been able to haul in 15 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns is impressive, and that’s before we talk about him taking away Martavius Bryant’s snaps. Kupp has been Jared Goff’s second-favorite target behind Robert Woods and has turned 15 of his 19 receptions into first downs.
Honorable mentions: Alvin Kamara, RB, Saints; Marlon Mack, RB, Colts; Christian McCaffrey, RB/WR/PR, Panthers; Taywan Taylor, WR, Titans; Evan Engram, TE, Giants; O.J. Howard, TE, Buccaneers.
1. Marshon Lattimore, CB, Saints: The fourth defensive player chosen in the draft has so far been the best and most consistent defensive rookie in the league. The Ohio State product has four passes defended, one pick-six, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in four games. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s allowing 0.71 yards per coverage snap and quarterbacks have a 53.0 passer rating when targeting him, which ranks him the best among all corners. New Orleans has had a very bad, no-good defense the past few years, but it could have turned the corner last week against Detroit in a winnable NFC South.
2. Tre’Davious White, CB, Bills: White could easily take the top spot here. The former LSU Tiger already has 11 passes defended, one pick and a fumble recovery for the 3-2 Bills. He has won the only Defensive Rookie of the Month award given out after his spectacular September. But he followed that up with a poor showing against the Bengals where he let A.J. Green run wild on him.
3. Malik Hooker, S, Colts: Indianapolis is allowing 410 yards per game, and Hooker hasn’t been the most consistent safety in the league. But he has three picks on the season, which is tied for second-most in the NFL. Hooker would have to get double-digit picks (or at least close to it) to be considered for this award with the Colts’ lousy defense.
4. Myles Garrett, DE, Browns: A high ankle sprain kept the first overall pick away from the field in September, but he’s played like the guy we all thought he would be through two games. Garrett has three sacks in two contests and is, along with Joe Thomas, the only bright spot for the 0-6 Browns. Garrett could follow the Joey Bosa mold from last season and capture this crown after missing the first month.
5. T.J. Watt, OLB, Steelers: The rookie has somehow made James Harrison an afterthought this season. He took the veteran’s job in August and already has three sacks, one pick and three passes defended. He dealt with a groin injury earlier in the season but has seemingly bounced back well from it. If the Steelers’ defense is going to put up performances like the one in Kansas City last Sunday, Watt has a chance to win the rookie award that eluded his brother in 2011 (Von Miller).
Honorable mention: Solomon Thomas, DL, 49ers; Jarrad Davis, LB, Lions; Jamal Adams, S, Jets; Jourdan Lewis, CB, Cowboys; Jamal Agnew, CB/PR, Lions (his defensive stats are lacking, but his two punt returns for touchdowns cannot be ignored).