Every year, fans wait for the next big star to take the league by storm. The verification of that star typically includes being named rookie of the year. I’m going to break down some players who I believe have the best chance of obtaining that distinction, but first let’s look at some of the stats.
I looked at the past 27 years which is when the NFL Draft was finally reduced to only 7 rounds. There has never been an AP Rookie of the Year winner (either offense or defense) that was undrafted. That isn’t to say it can’t happen because there’s always a first for everything. The average draft position for the players who won the award is approximately 30th overall. There are a few outliers whose deviation from the norm is outstanding. In the year 2000, Denver RB Mike Anderson was able to receive the award being drafted 189th in the 6th round. Most recently in 2016, Cowboys QB Dak Prescott being drafted 135th overall in the 4th round also received the award. By removing those 2 extreme outliers, we’re looking more along the lines of the average draft position being at about 19th overall. Giants WR Kadarius Toney would be the closest to that position just in case you were wondering. He is not in my top rankings. Sorry.
Another obvious note is that the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year has never been given to an offensive lineman even since its inception in 1957. It’s apparent that the voters of the award are looking for players that not only make an impact on the game but also get credited with statistics. Unfortunately, some of the best offensive linemen get overshadowed by players that score points. The only player worth mentioning in that regard is Miami Dolphins’ great Richmond Webb who was named UPI and Sporting News Rookie of the Year in 1990. By the way, Webb still isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite being named to the Pro Bowl 7 times (Sorry for the rant, but OL never receives enough love). The NFL considers the awards by the Associated Press to be its official honor.
Based on the last 27 years, the Offensive Rookie of the Year was awarded to a RB the most (52%), QB second (33%) and WR in 3rd place (15%) (It would seem as if we are due for a WR in order to balance out the world.).
Another item to note is that the winner of the award doesn’t necessarily have to come from a winning team. Players such as Kyler Murray, Saquon Barkley, O’Dell Beckham, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, Anquan Boldin and Curtis Martin were all on teams that won 6 games or less and were still able to receive the award. Granted, not every player who receives the Rookie of the Year Award goes on to have a phenomenal career and get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The purpose of the article isn’t to predict long-term success; however, I’m presenting who I believe might win the award.
*One other note regarding this list. I am only considering players who have officially been named starters. There are several players who I like that have been omitted. I confirmed starters using OurLads NFL Depth Charts.*
- Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets
The Jets decided to do a complete rebuild, moving on from Sam Darnold and rolling the dice with Zach Wilson. I have to admit, I had my doubts about Wilson. He really only had one great year in college, and that’s always concerning given that I personally prefer to invest in a player with more experience. Yet, Wilson has shown nothing but promise this pre-season. Even though his baby face doesn’t strike too much fear into his opponents, he’s been very confident since day one in his pursuit of a Lombardi Trophy. Wilson has been very accurate this preseason. He went 6 of 9 against the Giants and 9 of 11 with 2 TDs against the Packers. He doesn’t appear to have much competition for the starting job and continues to improve his numbers. If his progression continues into the regular season, I look for him to be the frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
- Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s no secret that Alabama churns out some of the best talent year in and year out, and Harris is exactly what the Steelers have been waiting on ever since they parted ways with Le’Veon Bell. Let’s face it, Roethlisberger isn’t getting any younger. He’s old and beat up, looking like a stubborn boxer in the ring that won’t go down. He’s still got a bit more juice in his arm, yet I feel the Steelers will have the most success leaning on their run game.
Harris brings so much to the table as an athlete, being not only a punishing bruiser of a back but an explosive player who can dash down the field for a nice gain. I look for him to be the workhorse in Pittsburgh since James Conner left to join the Cardinals. Harris reminds me of fellow Alabama Alum Derrick Henry in his style of play. Not many defenders are brave enough to get in his way. A strong illustrious season would easily pave the way for Harris to be Rookie of the Year.
- Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Contrary to what other writers might think, I feel that Lawrence has a good chance for success and could win Rookie of the Year. There’s been a lot of speculation about Urban Meyer and his decision to come to the NFL ranks as a coach. It was clear that he didn’t want to be an NFL coach until the perfect opportunity arose. The Jaguars were mostly in rebuild mode, and with the #1 overall pick, they were destined to take Trevor Lawrence. He certainly comes in as a rookie with all eyes on him, being under a microscope. That pressure didn’t stop him as the top recruited freshman in 2018 when he went on to win the College National Championship. Sure, preseason hasn’t looked too promising for Lawrence. He’s still learning how to be a pro. As he continues to gain more experience, his confidence will get better and he’ll improve. Urban Meyer is married to Lawrence for the time being, and Lawrence will get as many chances at the starting role as possible before he gives Gardner Minshew his job back. All of those chances for Lawrence will yield stats. The voters for the Rookie of the Year can be very QB-friendly, especially if the player has started every game. Lawrence has a big arm and several receivers who are serious deep threats. He will easily put up at least 3500 yards if he starts every game, getting plenty of play-action from fakes to James Robinson.
Most betting sites have Lawrence listed as the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year Award. I’m not saying he’s going to come out and win 10+ games. No one expects the Jaguars to have a miracle season and get to the playoffs. To think so would be silly. Lawrence just happens to have all the tools to win the award.
- DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Philly has been quite a mess since firing the head coach who won them a Super Bowl just a few years ago. Devonta Smith brings a glimmer of hope and a bit of familiarity for the offense. Reuniting with his former Alabama QB Jalen Hurts puts him in one of the best situations of any rookie WR. Ja’Marr Chase is in similar circumstances, reuniting with his former LSU QB in Joe Burrow. Although, there isn’t much speculation about Jalen Hurts with his health unlike Burrow, and I feel like the fit with the Eagles suits Smith better.
Truthfully, I didn’t have DeVonta Smith as my highest-rated WR in the 2021 draft, being behind fellow Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle and LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase. I think many evaluators questioned Smith because of his size and how he might adjust to the pros. Smith was given the opportunity at Alabama when Jaylen Waddle went down with an injury and had the responsibility as the go-to target. Smith took that situation and ran with it, winning the College National Championship and being awarded the Heisman Trophy. Smith pairs up with last year’s first-round pick in Jalen Reagor which makes them one of the best deep threat tandems in the league. Expect a lot of deep bombs to come Smith’s way which will turn into plenty of yards and TDs.
- Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons
First of all, there aren’t too many tight-ends that get drafted as high as Pitts was at 4th overall. Indeed, the last tight-end to be drafted remotely that high was when the 49ers drafted Vernon Davis 6th overall in 2006. Pitts is a dynamic player and with the loss of Julio Jones, Pitts will certainly be heavily involved in the passing game. Despite his immediate impact, you have to question whether or not voters would even consider a tight-end. Pitts would be the first tight-end to win the Rookie of the Year Award since 1961 with Mike Ditka. I feel like as long as Pitts is healthy, he will deliver a solid year for the Falcons, reminding fans of the days of having Anthony Gonzalez. The Falcons obtained Gonzalez towards the later part of his career and weren’t able to benefit from the gaudy statistics that Gonzalez had for the Chiefs. Before coming to the Falcons, he was able to put together excellent seasons as a receiver, going over the 1000-yard mark 4 times. If Pitts is able to showcase those types of numbers as a rookie, he must be considered for the award.
- *Sleeper* D’Wayne Eskridge, WR, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks didn’t have much of a draft this year, only having 3 total picks. They knew that at least one of those picks had to be a slam dunk. The Seahawks were very aggressive in selecting Eskridge a lot sooner than most expected him to be drafted. Yet, I feel like they got the guy that they knew would contribute on day one. What I like about Eskridge is that he’s a very exciting player when healthy. He’s a serious deep threat that really shined at the Senior Bowl. I also like that he has experience as a return specialist, and if we consider the all-purpose yards that players pile up over the season, Eskridge could be one of the top rookies. Comparing him to a previous winner, let’s look at Percy Harvin. Harvin had almost 800 yards receiving and over 1100 yards as a kick returner. Eskridge has the ability to be that type of player. The question is whether the production of other players might overshadow his accomplishments to the voters.