Ranking the NFL’s Top Rookie of the Year Candidates

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Ranking the NFL’s Top Rookie of the Year Candidates

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    The NFL‘s next superstar is already with their team and ready to make an impact, though nobody knows exactly who it is.

    Whoever steps to the forefront by season’s end will be named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.

    The award itself is somewhat confusing since three different versions name and award the top rookie: the Associated Press, Pro Football Writers of America and NFL.com’s fan vote. The Pro Football Writers of America anointed Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, whereas New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley won the popular vote. Yet, the NFL considers the Associated Press’ vote its official honor. Unlike the other two, the Associated Press doesn’t name a definitive rookie of the year—instead awarding one offensive ROY and one defensive, as Barkley and Darius Leonard won, respectively, in 2018.

    Again, confusing. 

    Also, the accolade is very much slanted toward offensive prospects. Only one defender, Ndamukong Suh, won the overall award from the Pro Football Writers or online voting. For the purposes of this article, this year’s top candidates will be viewed through that same prism: the single rookie, on either side of the ball, with the most impactful 2019 season. 

    With more defensive players drafted than offensive in the first round (including seven of the first 10), the 2019 class isn’t built quite like other draft classes. Nonetheless, skill positions still dominate this year’s top Rookie of the Year candidates.

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs are prepared for life without Tyreek Hill. 

    Right now, the organization doesn’t know whether Hill will be available this season. It responded by selecting Mecole Hardman in this year’s second round. 

    The 5’10”, 187-pound Hardman provides a similar skill set. Hill has been so successful because his speed and explosion are unequaled. Hardman comes close with 4.33-second 40-yard-dash speed. 

    “He has some things that not many other people have,” Chiefs area scout David Hinson said, per Arrowhead Pride’s Kent Swanson. “The speed, burst and quickness are not things we can coach.”

    If Hill misses time due to a suspension or if the Chiefs eventually cut the Pro Bowl receiver, the rookie can be used in a similar manner. If he puts up similar results, he would be a dark horse ROY candidate.

    “We know we can work him on the screen game, we know we can work him on reverses,” Hinson said. “We see him running the vertical stuff. Running gos, running posts, running corners so he has all those routes we can see him get down the field and make plays down the field. But at the same time doing that quick stuff, getting the ball in his hands quick and have him make plays.”

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    The top target in Kyle Shanahan’s offense receives plenty of snaps, and, more importantly, plenty of targets.

    The share rate Andre Johnson and Julio Jones once demanded under Shanahan’s tutelage was staggering (an average of 168.5 targets per season). The San Francisco 49ers’ second-round pick, Deebo Samuel, isn’t the same type of receiver, but he’s perfect for what Shanahan prefers—which should give him an edge over the team’s other returning receivers, who all weigh less at similar heights. 

    The head coach’s system is rooted in West Coast principles and reliant on rhythm passing where receivers are counted upon to create after the catch. 

    “Deebo, to me, is a big receiver,” Shanahan told reporters. “Look at his body [5’11”, 214 lbs]. Look how he runs with the ball. It hurts for people to tackle him. It doesn’t hurt him as bad. That’s a physical receiver, to me, and a big guy and when you have the hands like that and you have the speed [4.48-second 40-yard dash].” 

    Samuel ranked fourth in the class with 21 forced missed tackles last season, per Pro Football Focus. Shanahan will concoct ways to get his rookie receiver into space and take advantage of his open-field elusiveness. 

    If San Francisco plays well with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo, Samuel’s contributions will be a big reason why. And if that entails a major improvement over the 49ers’ 4-12 mark last season, those contributions should be enough to push Samuel into ROY candidacy.

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    A pair of off-the-ball linebackers—the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Devin White and Pittsburgh Steelers’ Devin Bush—came off the board among this year’s top 10 draft selections. 

    Usually, the position doesn’t warrant major draft capital (the last time two linebackers were selected in the top 10 was in 2011, with Pro Bowlers Von Miller and Aldon Smith). Still, both teams saw exceptional talents and overlooked position value. As a result, either could be listed among the projected top rookies.

    Bush earns a slight edge for a few reasons. 

    First, this year’s 10th overall pick enters a better situation. Despite their faults, the Steelers finished sixth overall in points allowed last season. Bush can step into the starting inside linebacker role, fly sideline to sideline as he does, make a significant amount of tackles and receive credit for being the missing piece to a top-notch unit.

    “He’s a great leader, very vocal,” fellow rookie Justin Layne said, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Gerry Dulac. “He’s going to be good. I can tell. You can tell. He was calling the right defenses and everything. He knows what’s going on.”

    Second, the rookie will benefit from playing in an aggressive system, behind an outstanding defensive front, that creates pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

    Finally, the Steelers generate national attention, and Bush’s play will be pushed to the forefront. 

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Nick Bosa is an exceptional talent. But defenders simply don’t receive the same recognition as skill position performers for Rookie of the Year voting. 

    Even so, Bosa still has an outside shot to win the award because of the class’ unique configuration. 

    Defensive linemen headlined this year’s incoming crop. The class broke an NFL record with 11 defensive linemen selected in the first round. Bosa’s name was called first as San Francisco chose him with the second overall pick. 

    The class wasn’t loaded with talent at quarterback (unlike 2018), running back or wide receiver. Meanwhile, Bosa is a wrecking ball off the edge as a run defender and pass-rusher. 

    “You can tell he’s been working on his pass rushing since he was about four years old, is what it looks like,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said, per 49ers Webzone’s David Bonilla. “… That’s usually why it takes guys a little bit longer in the league, but when you have that skillset with that practice, it makes him different than the rest.”

    When paired with Dee Ford, the havoc those two create could get voters to look past traditional mindsets and seriously consider Bosa as the game’s top rookie.

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles know how to find good running backs, and the front office makes sure to keep the backfield fully stocked. 

    Even with Corey Clement, Josh Adams, Donnel Pumphrey and Wendell Smallwood already on the roster, the team acquired Jordan Howard via trade from the Chicago Bears. 

    Outstanding depth didn’t stop general manager Howie Roseman from selecting Miles Sanders with the team’s initial second-round draft pick. 

    “Miles was a staff favorite, a coaching staff favorite, a personnel staff favorite, all of us, front-office favorite,”
    Roseman said, per Penn Live’s Daniel Gallen. “Really that guy, he reminded us of some other players we’ve had around here. He has great lateral quickness.”

    The amount of raw talent found in Philadelphia’s backfield will likely dissuade some from thinking Sanders can create a major impact. But the Eagles front office and coaching staff valued the 211-pound back because of his versatile skill set. 

    “You see a guy with great feet, great balance, lateral quickness,” vice president of player personnel Joe Douglas said. “He has quick strike ability. We’re very excited about Miles.”

    It’s hard to keep dynamic players off the field, especially those who contribute in multiple areas and create chunk plays. Sanders does both and prolific running backs magnetize public attention.  

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    A productive running back can be found at nearly any point in the draft process. 

    Two years, ago the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Kareem Hunt in the third round, and he led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards as a rookie. Last season, the Denver Broncos’ Phillip Lindsay didn’t hear his name called and went on to become the first undrafted offensive rookie to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl.

    The Chicago Bears traded up to select David Montgomery with the 73rd overall pick after trading the team’s leading rusher, Jordan Howard, to the Philadelphia Eagles. 

    Montgomery will share the backfield with Tarik Cohen and the recently signed Mike Davis. The incoming rookie is the complete package, though. 

    “It’s everything you look for in a running back starting with his instincts, his vision and his ability to make players miss,” general manager Ryan Pace told reporters

    Pace’s final point portends an expanded role for Montgomery despite a crowded backfield.

    The 222-pound back forced an absurd 185 missed tackles over the last two seasons just as a runner, per Pro Football Focus. Montgomery’s balance and shiftiness through the hole are exceptional.

    Already the best pure runner on the Bears roster before playing an official snap, Montgomery could end up the lead back on a team looking to make postseason noise after last season’s Wild Card exit. If that’s the case, ROY voters will have to take note.

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The fact N’Keal Harry is the first wide receiver Bill Belichick drafted in the first round can’t be stressed enough. 

    The New England Patriots don’t make kneejerk decisions. The team didn’t draft a tight end after Rob Gronkowski‘s retirement. The Patriots remain patient and won’t force matters. 

    “We’re not really concerned with what’s happened in the past,” director of player personnel Nick Caserio said of Harry’s selection, per NESN’s Doug Kyed. “I think we look at this year’s group of players across the board then we stack the players up horizontally and vertically, and then we work across. … Whatever happened in the past really has no bearing, because it has no relevance this year to what happened last year or in years past.”

    Harry’s selection is all about what he brings to the Patriots offense as an outside receiver. He’s a big-bodied target (6’2″, 228 lbs) who overwhelms defensive backs. 

    “One of the things he does well is he plays the ball in the air,” Caserio said. “I’d say the coverage in this league is tight regardless of the type of player, receiver you are. Coverage is tight. You’re going to have to make plays in some tight quarters.”

    According to Pro Football Focus, Harry ranked second among this year’s prospects with 17 contested catches last season. 

    Tom Brady throwing to a big-play receiver worked well in the past and garnered plenty of attention. If Harry breaks out, voters may be swayed by his contributions to Brady’s legacy.

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Don’t count out Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins as a Day 1 starter. 

    “I’m going to prepare like I’m the starter,” Haskins told reporters. “That’s me in the weight room, me in the meeting rooms, me with the younger guys, me with the older guys. Every opportunity is an opportunity for me to show that I’m the guy.”

    Washington already moved on from injured starter Alex Smith, though he’s still on the roster. The team traded for Case Keenum, but the front office chose Haskins for a reason. Well, multiple reasons led to the selection. 

    First, Haskins is an exceptional passer with outstanding arm strength and touch. 

    “He has a cannon of an arm, but he doesn’t throw it hard all the time like some quarterbacks with big arms do,” head coach Jay Gruden said, per The MMQB’s Albert Breer

    Second, the 22-year-old exudes charisma. 

    “[Haskins] has a demeanor and aura about him, kind of similar to Cam Newton coming out, just an aura of confidence,” the coach added. 

    Finally, the rookie is further along for a one-year starter than most believe. 

    “They were doing all kinds of dropback and quick game and play-action, things that conceptually are very similar to what we do,” Gruden said of Ohio State’s offensive scheme. 

    An outstanding skill set paired with a great attitude and solid fundamentals provides Haskins with the necessary tools to succeed sooner rather than later. If he can bring the Redskins back to playoff contention, that could be enough to make him the fifth quarterback awarded ROY in the past decade. 

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    A Saquon Barkley-caliber running back talent wasn’t available in this year’s draft. Only Josh Jacobs heard his name called during the opening round when the Oakland Raiders selected the Alabama running back with the 24th overall pick. 

    The Raiders finished 25th overall in rushing yardage last season with an aging Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin. The 21-year-old Jacobs now steps into the lineup with little-to-no competition for the featured role. 

    “He’s physical, he’s dynamic,” Gruden said, per 247 Sports’ John Newby. “He’s a great story indeed. Where this kid has come from. There is something inside of him that I didn’t go through as a young man, and I think he’s going to be a centerpiece at some point.”

    Jacobs wasn’t the starting running back for the Crimson Tide, but he certainly finished opponents with a bruising running style and the surprising short-area quickness to make defenders miss in the hole if needed. According to Pro Football Focus, the 220-pound back led the nation by converting 41 percent of his runs into a first down or touchdown. 

    Plus, Jacobs is a natural route-runner and receiver out of the backfield. 

    The pathway toward becoming Oakland’s offensive centerpiece, as Gruden stated, got a little easier when Isaiah Crowell suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon during organized team activities.

    The Raiders re-signed Martin for depth, but nobody is really in Jacobs’ way to claim the starting role and shoulder a significant portion of the offense. A bellcow on a team that demands national attention is a definite recipe for stardom, especially if Oakland gets chosen to feature on HBO’s Hard Knocks.

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    The No. 1 overall pick is the logical choice as the top projected rookie performer this season. But Kyler Murray‘s standing has nothing to do with his draft slotting. Everything is based on his situation and skill set. 

    No questions exist about who the Arizona Cardinals’ starting quarterback will be. 

    “We didn’t draft him one overall to ride the pine,” general manager Steve Keim during an interview on The Rich Eisen Show (via Pro Football Talk’s Charean Williams). “I know it’s a lot to put on his back, but that’s why we drafted him.”

    Without any competition, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner can maximize his reps and time with head coach Kliff Kingsbury, who doubles as the Cardinals’ offensive play-caller. 

    “It’s always been hands-on for me,” Kingsbury said, per the Associated Press’ Jose M. Romero. “I’m going to be involved in coaching the quarterbacks as long as I’m a coach,” Kingsbury said. “I do think there’s a comfort level there.”

    There should be. Kingsbury’s Air Raid scheme is very similar to the one Murray ran at Oklahoma. The head coach learned the concepts from Mike Leach, just like Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley did. It’s a wide-open approach that attacks every blade of grass. This will allow Murray to post significant passing numbers, especially if the Cardinals are often trailing. 

    The undersized Murray is a true pocket passer, who happens to be a dynamic runner when he escapes pressure.

    The combination of significant passing yardage plus highlight-reel runs will be difficult for any other first-year performer to overcome along Murray’s campaign to be the latest NFL Rookie of the Year. 

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