Zach's Draft Corner: Analyzing Potential Rookie of the Year Candidates
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Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
It’s that time of the year when it’s a tad too early to get really deep into the 2020 draft prospects, no real football is being played, and people are trying to understand who they should be getting hyped over. The 90-man rosters are taking shape, and fans everywhere can truly let the projections run wild, guessing which teams and players will find success this season. Las Vegas has made an entire market out of these futures bets, so I’m going to outline the best bets for the AP Rookie of the Year Award for these 2019 season rookies.
In order to predict the future, it’s best to look at trends of the past. As such, I’ll look through the past 25 years (since 1994) to see what the writers are looking for when they pick this award. Of the past 25 OROY winners, there have been 14 running backs, 4 wide receivers, and 7 quarterbacks. There has never been a tight end or offensive lineman to win this award, so let's just remove them from the conversation. Sorry, T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant. I know you are my large adult children, but I can’t list you as a best bet. And if Quenton Nelson can have an all-pro season as a rookie and still not win the OROY, an offensive lineman is likely never going to win.
Given that running backs seem to be the default, we’ll begin by looking at the other positions and what it takes for them to win the award.
Previous Winners - Dak Prescott (2016), Robert Griffin III (2012), Cam Newton (2011), Sam Bradford (2010), Matt Ryan (2008), Vince Young (2006), Ben Roethlisberger (2004)
Looking at the past winners since 1994, four of the seven quarterbacks (Prescott, RG3, Ryan, and Roethlisberger) led their team to the playoffs. Young and Bradford led their team to within one game of the playoffs while having average statistics. The only quarterback to win the award while not leading his team close to the playoffs was Cam Newton in 2011, who had an all-time great season for any quarterback as a rookie (more than 4,000 yards passing, greater than 700 yards rushing, 35 total touchdowns, 19 turnovers).
Team success seems to be the main factor here if you aren’t expecting your quarterback to be absolutely elite. In fact, there were only five times a rookie quarterback led their team to the playoffs and didn't win OROY in the past 25 years. Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck both led their respective teams to the playoffs in 2012, but lost the OROY award to RG3, who also led his team to the playoffs. The same goes for Joe Flacco, who led the Ravens to the playoffs in 2008 but lost to Matt Ryan, meaning three of the five were instances where the quarterback leading their team to the playoffs lost the ROY to another quarterback who also led their team to the playoffs. Andy Dalton led the Bengals to the playoffs in 2011, but nobody was going to beat Cam Newton that year. The final quarterback is Mark Sanchez, whose Jets made it to the playoffs in 2009 despite his terrible performance (2,444 yards, 12 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, 3 lost fumbles). He lost the award to Percy Harvin, who had one of the best rookie seasons ever for an all-around skill position player (790 receiving yards (2,081 all-purpose), 6 receiving touchdowns, 2 kickoff touchdowns).
In other words, you need to start a majority of your team's games and either make the playoffs, get your team close to the playoffs while having a good season, or have an all-time great season regardless of team's success if you are a rookie quarterback. Which quarterbacks have a chance to do that this year?
(As a primer, odds written as “+” followed by some number mean that, if you were to bet 100 dollars on this event occurring and you were to win that bet, you would receive your 100 dollars back, as well as the number following the +-sign. In other words, if you put 100 dollars down on Dwayne Haskins to win OROY, and Haskins did win the award, you would receive your 100 dollars back and an additional 700 dollars of profit. All odds were retrieved from MyBookie on May 15, 2019.)
Dwayne Haskins, Washington Redskins
Haskins will start majority of the games for a team that was winning their division in 2018 until Alex Smith got hurt. Washington improves this offseason, meaning Haskins could easily make the playoffs. Haskins is also too responsible with the football to have a Mark Sanchez-like TD:INT ratio. Haskins is likely to have a decent season, and if Washington makes it to the playoffs, he’s all but a lock to win OROY as the only rookie quarterback to make the playoffs in 2019. This makes Haskins my favorite bet for OROY with +700 odds.
Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
Murray is likely the only other rookie QB to start a majority of his team’s games. In Kliff Kingsbury's wide open system in a pass happy league, it is conceivable that he could have a season similar to Bradford in 2010 (3,500 yards, 18:15 TD:INT ratio). This would have to be the case, as I don't see Arizona pushing for the playoffs. Murray’s odds are +400, the highest of any offensive rookie. I don’t love this bet, as I think there will be players with a better case. Murray may take a Baker Mayfield route to the season, having some splash plays that warrant OROY chatter but ultimately are not enough.
Previous Winners - Odell Beckham, Jr. (2013), Percy Harvin (2009), Anquan Boldin (2003), and Randy Moss (1998)
As described above, Harvin won OROY because of his all-around game, including kickoff returns. There doesn't look to be any top receiver who is going to be tasked with being the team's main kick returner in addition to being a good receiver (unless there is, but more on this later). Otherwise, it took Beckham, Boldin, and Moss averaging 1,331.67 yards and 12.3 touchdowns on 87 receptions to be considered for the award. In other words, a rookie wide receiver will need to have an all-time great season in order to be considered for the award. Is there anyone situated for that type of season this year?
N'Keal Harry, New England Patriots
I'm admittedly not the highest on Harry as an all-around player, but I can see him having a ton of success in the Patriots quick-strike system. New England is losing 1,214 receiving yards and 82 catches between Rob Gronkowski and Chris Hogan. Without knowing how long Josh Gordon will be out, that's an additional 720 receiving yards and 40 catches to go around. Julian Edelman might take some of these yards and catches, and the starting tight end is bound to see some more of those yards. However, it's at least conceivable that N'Keal Harry could have an Anquan Boldin-esque rookie season of around 90 catches and approximately 1,300 receiving yards simply because of the overall strength of this offense and the opportunity presented to him. Harry’s odds come in at +1800, and he is my best bet if a wide receiver is to win OROY in 2019.
Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers
Now, I'm not predicting that Deebo Samuel will have the type of season Beckham, Boldin, and Moss put up in their rookie years. But it's realistic that he could match Percy Harvin's production. Samuel averaged 29.0 yards per return on 42 kick returns with 4 touchdowns in his college career. In Harvin's rookie season, he averaged 27.5 yards per return on 42 kick returns with 2 touchdowns. While he likely won't put up 1,300 yards, I could see Samuel getting to 800 yards in his rookie campaign pretty easily if Jimmy Garoppolo stays healthy. If Samuel reproduces his production as a return man with the amount of opportunities Harvin received as a rookie, he could sneak his way into the conversation. Samuel’s odds are not listed, so he would be included in the +800 field bet, for now. However, as he receives playing time in training camp and the pre-season, he may work his way into the named odds and have some good odds, at that.
Previous Winners - Saquon Barkley (2018), Alvin Kamara (2017), Todd Gurley (2015), Eddie Lacy (2013), Adrian Peterson (2007), Cadillac Williams (2005), Clinton Portis (2002), Anthony Thomas (2001), Mike Anderson (2000), Edgerrin James (1999), Warrick Dunn (1997), Eddie George (1996), Curtis Martin (1995), Marshall Faulk (1994)
Running back seems to be the default position to win OROY, mainly due to them having the clearest path to playing time as a rookie and the easiest transition to the pros. The worst production for a running back who won OROY was by Cadillac Williams in 2005, when he had 1,259 combined rushing/receiving yards with 6 total offensive touchdowns. While this seems like pretty paltry production, it goes to show how easy it is for running backs to win this award. That year was truly an example of RBs winning by default. The best receiver was Reggie Brown with 571 yards and 4 touchdowns, and the best quarterback was Kyle Orton with 1,869 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 15 games started. So if you are looking for a running back to get 1,300 all-purpose yards with around 7 or 8 touchdowns, who are the most likely candidates to get to that level of production?
Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders
The Raiders, as a team, rushed for 1,628 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2018. Further, their running backs had a total of 816 receiving yards. This production was spread around to a number of running backs, but Jacobs looks to be the lead back in Oakland after getting drafted in the first round. Jacobs, as the lead back, seems like a shoe-in to get 1,300-plus all-purpose yards and 8 touchdowns in his rookie season, barring injury. If Washington misses the playoffs (definitely possible) and no receivers have a game-breaking season (also definitely possible), Josh Jacobs may win the award by default. His odds are currently listed at +800, which seem like too good of odds to pass on.
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
Similar to Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders is the leading candidate to be the lead back for Philadelphia after being taken in the second round. The Eagles did not get as much production from their running backs as Oakland in 2018 (1,438 rushing yards and 660 receiving yards). Philadelphia also relies on the passing game more than Oakland, leading to Jacobs being the favorite for this position group. However, at +2000 odds for a lead back, Sanders might be worth a bet.
Justice Hill, Baltimore Ravens
Hill is the last running back I foresee getting enough touches to reach the minimum benchmarks to win OROY. Hill may become the lead back for Baltimore, a team that got 1,655 rushing yards, 437 receiving yards, and 17 touchdowns from their running backs in 2018. Even if Hill only sees 75 percent of the touches, that translates to 1,241 rushing yards, 328 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns. That is easily an OROY-caliber season, and at +2500 odds, Hill could be a great guy to take a chance on.
The defensive numbers are a bit more spread out, with 9 linebackers, 3 cornerbacks, 9 defensive ends, 4 interior defensive linemen taking home the award over the past 25 years. No safeties have won the award since 1990, and only two safeties have ever, so we get rid of them. If Derwin James can’t win the award, then I’m not sure any safety can. So what does it take for someone to win DROY?
Previous Winners - Marshon Lattimore (2017), Marcus Peters (2015), Charles Woodson (1998)
These three averaged 6 interceptions and 22 passes defended in their rookie campaigns (Note: Passes defended was not a stat until 1999, after Woodson's rookie season, so only the passes defended stats from Lattimore and Peters were used in the calculation). Even this, though, isn't enough. In the past 25 years, 29 different rookies have had 5 or more interceptions. In 2001, Anthony Henry had 10 interceptions and still lost DROY to Kendrell Bell. Jairus Byrd had 9 interceptions in 2009 and lost to Brian Cushing, while Orlando Thomas also had 9 interceptions in 1995 while losing to Hugh Douglas. In 2017, 2015, and 1998, no player had significant tackles or double digit sacks, leading to the writers allowing a cornerback to win the award. In other words, the only way a cornerback can win the award is if every other defensive rookie is so average that writers are forced to acknowledge the existence of cornerbacks.
So let’s say, for a second, that the highly-touted defensive rookies in this draft class end up being merely average in their rookie campaigns. Who could rise from the depths to win the award?
Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals
Murphy. That’s it. This year's cornerback class is not strong, and I don't see many having a chance at getting the stats needed to win this award at this position. However, if Murphy lives up to his talent (he was my CB1), he could get there. He will play a majority of his games opposite one of the best corners in the NFL in Patrick Peterson, meaning he will get tested early and often. If he can get the interception and passes defended numbers, writers may overlook instances of him getting burned. At +3500 odds, it is conceivable that one out of every thirty-five simulations of this season result in nobody having double-digit sacks or triple-digit tackles. It’s a flier bet, but it could pay off handsomely.
Previous Winners - Aaron Donald (2014), Sheldon Richardson (2013), Ndamukong Suh (2010), and Tim Bowens (1994)
Let's disregard Bowens, who won DROY before a lot of advanced stats were around. I apologize for not wanting to look up tape from 1994 to study Bowens and how disruptive he was. Donald had 9 sacks, 18 additional tackles for loss, and 13 additional quarterback hits in 2014 when he won DROY. Richardson had 3.5 sacks, 12 additional tackles for loss, and 8 additional quarterback hits, while also having 77 total tackles in 2013. Suh had 10 sacks, 13 additional tackles for loss, and 17 additional quarterback hits in 2010. In other words, in order to win as a defensive tackle, you have to be extremely disruptive throughout the entire season to make plays along and behind the line of scrimmage. Luckily, there are two players in this rookie class who excel in doing just that…
Quinnen Williams, New York Jets
Playing next to Leonard Williams, Quinnen won't receive double teams up the middle. He should be able to generate plenty of pressure immediately. There just isn’t much to dislike about Quinnen Williams as a prospect, and it should translate to a very successful rookie campaign. This seems like a relatively easy bet, which is understandable when you consider that his +400 odds put him tied for being the favorite in this crop of rookies.
Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills
Oliver is likely to see more double teams than Quinnen Williams, but Oliver's game is built on disruption. With the stronger secondary in Buffalo, the tradeoff between Williams and Oliver is that Oliver will have more time to cause disruption, while Williams will have fewer bodies to move around. I can see Oliver easily matching the sexy stats from Suh's rookie season, and should be in consideration at +800 odds.
Defensive Ends (including outside linebackers who were mainly pass rushers in their rookie seasons)
Previous Winners - Joey Bosa (2016), Von Miller (2011), Shawne Merriman (2005), Terrell Suggs (2003), Julius Peppers (2002), Jevon Kearse (1999), Peter Boulware (1997), Simeon Rice (1996), Hugh Douglas (1995)
It seems clear that the quickest way winning DROY is to get double-digit sacks. These nine players averaged 11.61 sacks on their rookie season, and every one had double digit sacks. Bosa and Miller, the only two to win since tackles for loss (TFLs) were consistently tracked, also averaged 18 additional tackles for loss and 25 additional quarterback hits. Since 1994, there were only five players who lost the award while still getting double-digit sacks and who also lost to a player who did not also have double-digit sacks. For instance, Aldon Smith had double-digit sacks in 2011, but lost DROY to Von Miller, who also had double-digit sacks. Those five players were Mark Anderson, Darren Howard, Kamerion Wimbley, Brian Orakpo, and Clay Matthews. Which rookies in 2019 look like the surest bets to get double-digit sacks in 2019?
Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers
Bosa has the best chance to make an immediate impact from the edge position. With Dee Ford and Deforest Buckner on the same line, Bosa will see plenty of single blockers. Combine that with his very translatable technical prowess, and Bosa should have an immediate impact. He is tied with Quinnen Williams as the favorite at +400 odds, and those are odds that I like.
Josh Allen, Jacksonville Jaguars
Allen is not as refined as Bosa, but has just as nice of a situation in Jacksonville. Allen will play opposite Yannick Ngakoue and alongside Calais Campbell. This means that Allen should see plenty of single blockers, and with his elite physical traits, he could get the sack numbers even if he doesn’t create a ton of overall pressure. At +600 odds, Allen is the bet to make if you don’t trust Bosa to get double-digit sacks.
Montez Sweat, Washington Redskins
You might see a trend in who I’m picking from this group. I want rookie defensive ends that play opposite another stud edge rusher and alongside at least one stud defensive tackle. For Sweat, he gets to play opposite Ryan Kerrigan, while playing alongside a number of former stud Alabama defensive tackles. Sweat should also see plenty of single blockers, and at +1800 odds, I like Sweat to be in the conversation at the end of the season.
Previous Winners - Darius Leonard (2018), Luke Kuechly (2012), Brian Cushing (2009), Jerod Mayo (2008), Patrick Willis (2007), DeMeco Ryans (2006), Jonathan Vilma (2004), Kendrell Bell (2001), Brian Urlacher (2000)
If there isn't a player who gets the benchmark 5 interceptions or 10 sacks (and sometimes, even if there is), the best linebacker generally wins the award by default. However, as the linebacker's value has decreased, so has the likelihood that one wins the DROY award. Leonard won the award in 2018 because of his league-leading amount of tackles combined with 7 sacks and 6 forced turnovers (2 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles). However, this decade, only two linebackers have won the award, meaning a player has to take the Darius Leonard route of filling up the rest of the stat sheet in addition to tackles if he is going to be in consideration for the award. If none of the above players has the type of season that meets the described benchmarks, which linebackers could follow the Darius Leonard blueprint and win the award this year?
Devin Bush, Cincinnati Bengals
Devin White may have the higher overall potential for his prime, but Devin Bush is better situated to make a more immediate impact. Bush is better in coverage, which could lead to better counting stats in the passing game. Additionally, there isn't another linebacker to fight for tackle stats in Cincinnati. I could see Bush leading the league in tackles on his way to a DROY award if everyone else falters. At +1500 odds, this is too good of a bet to pass up.
Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While Bush has a better situation, White still has a good chance to take home DROY in his own right. Lavonte David has a very long injury history, meaning White could be the main linebacker in Tampa at some point this season. Additionally, his raw athleticism could put him in position to make more plays than Bush, leading to more votes. White has +1200 odds, which might be worth a shot if your gut tells you to do it.
8 Best bets if I had 40 dollars to spread out (5 dollars on each):
Dwayne Haskins, +700
Josh Jacobs, +800
Miles Sanders, +2000
Justice Hill, +2500
Nick Bosa, +400
Quinnen Williams, +400
Devin Bush, +1500
Montez Sweat, +1800
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