NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year Predictions
With the NFL Draft concluded, predicting which players will be in contention for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Updated: May 7, 2019 • 10:30 AM ET
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Devin Bush is expected to make an immediate impact.
Every year, a new crop of youngsters looks to make their mark in the NFL, but only one offensive and defensive player can take home the coveted Associated Press NFL Rookie of the Year award at the end of each season.
While the rookie awards might seem like an afterthought compared to the more sought-after MVP and Offensive/Defensive Player of the Year awards, players only have one chance to take home Rookie of the Year honors, arguably making the title more prestigious.
Often, the honor is the first step in an illustrious career for a player, as three offensive winners since 2007 (Adrian Peterson, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton) have gone on to win NFL MVP in future seasons. The defensive rookie award boasts an impressive group of winners since 2010, including Ndamukong Suh, Von Miller, Luke Kuechly and Aaron Donald.
While the defensive award has historically favored linebackers, three defensive linemen and two cornerbacks have won it in the last six years. On the offensive side of the ball, only quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers have claimed the Rookie of the Year title in the Super Bowl era, which is notable, because my first candidate to take home the honor at the end of the upcoming season is a tight end.
Predicted Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates
Noah Fant, TE, Denver Broncos
As previously mentioned, no tight end has ever taken home the Offensive Rookie of the Year award in the Super Bowl era. This is due in part to the NFL having a steep learning curve for the position from the college game, but all that might change this year with Broncos tight end Noah Fant.
The 20th overall pick will start the season as the potential No. 1 target for the traded-for Joe Flacco, who has a reputation for favoring tight ends in the passing game. The tight end learning curve shouldn’t apply to Fant, as he’s entering the league with a unique skillset and a rare size/athleticism combination that should create similar mismatches to the ones he faced during his career at Iowa.
Speaking of his Iowa days, Fant was a touchdown machine in college, putting up 18 scores in his last two seasons. Talent is rarely anything without a good scheme fit and supporting cast for skill position players, and Fant will enjoy both in Denver. If he can (realistically) put up 800 yards and 10-plus touchdowns, Rookie of the Year could be his to lose.
Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
A first-overall pick winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award is rarer than you might expect, only happening five times since the creation of the award all the way back in 1957. Those aren’t the only odds stacked against Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, who is entering the league as a 5-foot-10 quarterback, but his big-play-ability and the eagerness of new coach Kliff Kingsbury to maximize his potential spell blood in the water for NFC West secondaries.
Murray was uber-productive in his last season at Oklahoma, putting up 4,361 passing yards to go with 42 passing touchdowns against just seven interceptions. He added 1,001 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, putting the cherry on top of his Heisman-winning season. While any similar production would be incredible, a quarterback also has to lead his team to success to claim Rookie of the Year, and the Cardinals making the playoffs would be a better nod to Murray’s worthiness of the award.
An upgraded offensive line, with J.R. Sweezy replacing Mike Iupati at left guard and Marcus Gilbert entrenched at right tackle, and a much better receiving corps than the one at Josh Rosen’s disposal in 2018 (the Cardinals added a massive target in Hakeem Butler and a speedster in Andy Isabella through the draft to take some pressure of Larry Fitzgerald in his likely final season), will be welcomed by Murray, who will also have the aforementioned Kingsbury’s offensive genius to propel him.
A few key signings on defense with Terrell Suggs bolstering the Cardinals’ pass rush and Jordan Hicks holding down the middle of the field should make things easier on everyone, and a playoff run isn’t out of the question for Arizona. Murray will take home the award in all likelihood if he puts up 30 total touchdowns and leads the Cardinals to a winning record.
Josh Jacobs, RB, Oakland Raiders
This one is simple: running backs that get a lot of touches put up big numbers.
The era of the feature back is behind us, for the most part. Most backfields now employ a committee approach, using different backs for goal-line and passing down situations. Only a few true workhorses remain, including Saquon Barkley (Offensive Rookie of the Year last season) and Todd Gurley (won the award in 2015).
Josh Jacobs will likely enter the 2019 campaign slotted atop the Raiders’ running back depth chart, which just lost Isaiah Crowell to an Achilles tear. Jacobs was the first running back off the board at this year’s draft, going 24th overall to the Raiders.
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden was said to covet a back who could “do it all,” and while Jacobs isn’t the best blocker, he’s equally gifted as a ball carrier and a pass catcher. A passing attack that added Antonio Brown, Tyrell Williams, Hunter Renfrow and J.J. Nelson in the offseason should pull defenses back off the line and open lanes for Jacobs to hit the second level with regularity.
If all goes according to plan for Oakland, Jacobs should get a lot of reps as the Raiders look to get leads early with their new high-powered collection of receivers. If Jacobs can put up 1,200 total yards and at least 10 total touchdowns, he has a solid case for taking home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He’s all alone in the backfield and will certainly get the opportunities he needs to shine.
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Predicted Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidates
Andraez “Greedy” Williams, CB, Cleveland Browns
Where Williams falls short in tackling, he makes up for with ball-hawking prowess. In his first season as a starter, the LSU product racked up six interceptions, and a similar number of takeaways in his rookie season would likely lock him in as the Defensive Rookie of the Year. In his last season as a Tiger, Williams only grabbed two picks, due to opposing passers’ tendency to target any receiver but the one he was covering, a similar situation to the one former Seminole Jalen Ramsey found himself in his last year at Florida State.
Williams shouldn’t have the same problem in Cleveland, as recent addition Morgan Burnett will join a secondary held down last year by rookie corner Denzel Ward and safety Damarious Randall. Williams will likely be tested early and often, but the departure of Antonio Brown to the West coast makes the division a little easier to compete against, with A.J. Green and Juju Smith-Schuster likely drawing a matchup with Ward in their two games each against the Browns this season. Marcus Peters won Rookie of the Year in a rookie campaign featuring seven interceptions, and Greedy Williams will look to put up numbers in that range to make his own case for the award.
Nick Bosa, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers
Bosa will have a lot of competition for sacks in San Francisco, but he’ll get a ton of reps and opportunities to make his mark. The bright side of playing on a defensive line featuring Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas is that Bosa will draw a lot of lone blockers this season, and we saw how he did against single matchups at Ohio State last year.
Getting 10 sacks isn’t out of the question for Bosa in his rookie season. He enters the league with a full arsenal of pass-rushing moves and the functional athleticism to make the jump from facing weaker, smaller college o-lines. If all goes according to plan and Jimmy Garoppolo can stay healthy, this 49ers team should be in the playoffs next winter, and Bosa can realistically aspire to be the defensive MVP on a team that has seen a lot of turnover on that side of the ball.
Notable pass rushers drafted second-overall include Lawrence Taylor, Julius Peppers and Von Miller. Bosa hopes to be a part of that list 10 years from now; and if his college career was any indication, it seems likely that a strong rookie showing will just be the start of a successful NFL career.
Devin Bush, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
I had Devin Bush as my favorite pick from day one of this year’s draft in an earlier article about the winners and losers from the draft. Bush will step up and try to be this defense’s new look for Ryan Shazier, who was lost to a gruesome injury the season before last. Bush will be called upon to lead this defense from day one, and he’s definitely got the talent to do so.
One hundred tackles should be his benchmark for success, and if he eclipses that number, Bush will certainly be in the Rookie of the Year conversation. He and recent signee Mark Barron sit atop the depth chart in Pittsburgh, whose defensive scheme means they’ll be the only linebackers consistently on the field. The opportunities are there, and Bush’s versatility means he can make the most of his reps, playing in coverage, stuffing the run and blitzing gaps — he’s truly a three-down linebacker.
The Steelers and Devin Bush seem like a great match, now it’s time to wait and see what he can do on the field.
Late-round Picks to Look out For
Kelvin Harmon, WR, Washington Redskins
The sixth-round pick will have a chance to compete for a starting spot in the nation’s capital. A slow time pushed him down from his earlier round 1 or 2 grades, but the talent is still very much there.
Foster Moreau, TE, Oakland Raiders
I know, another tight end, but hear me out: Moreau, drafted in the fourth frame, should step in and be a day one starter for the Raiders at tight end. He could be a volume receiver in the red zone and a road-grader in the run game. If he can develop his game in the lead-up, big numbers are possible.
Armon Watts, DT, Minnesota Vikings
Watts will compete with former starter Shamar Stephen to replace the departed Sheldon Richardson inside for the Vikings. He was productive at Arkansas and is a high-upside player who could surprise us all with a few more sacks than expected.
Justice Hill, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Despite the signing of Mark Ingram, we know this Ravens team covets speed (evident with the capital put into Lamar Jackson, Marquise Brown and formerly Breshad Perriman) and Hill has speed to boot. If Hill can carve out a sizable early-down role, he’s bound to impress.
Undrafted Player to Watch
Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
An undrafted player has yet to win Rookie of the Year, offensively or defensively, in NFL history. However, we saw Phillip Lindsay make a case for the award last year after going undrafted out of Colorado, so anything is possible.
This year, Nick Fitzgerald presents the best possibility for the impossible in this writer’s opinion. The Mississippi State quarterback signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and we know Jameis Winston is on shaky footing with the organization that drafted him first overall in 2015. If Winston’s off-the-field antics continue to slide downhill, and/or his play on the field underwhelms more than it did last season, Fitzgerald could see a start or two early in the season. If he impresses in his trial runs, Fitzgerald could keep the starting job through the 2019-20 season.
We all know starting quarterbacks are a commodity, even though this offseason gave us a buyer’s market at the position for the first time in a long time. Fitzgerald is unlikely to see the field much or even at all, but again, the chance could be there to take the reins and hold them.