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The NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year Contenders, Ranked

There’s a clear-cut favorite on defense, but we’ve got a three-man race on the other side of the ball

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Ringer’s weekly NFL rankings, where we’ll break down the good, the bad, and the absurd of the 2019 season. Every Tuesday, we’ll have a ranking of the moments, players, or story lines that are driving the conversation around the league. This week, we’re exploring the first-year players who could take home hardware this winter.

They grow up so fast. The players who crossed the stage at the NFL draft in April are more than halfway through their first pro season. At the college level, they’ve already been replaced by the latest prospect obsessions (hello, Joe Burrow and Chase Young). At the pro level, they’re competing for the Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year hardware that will be handed out this winter. But why wait to figure out who’s going to win?

First, some context. For the past 20 years, the Offensive Rookie of the Year has been split between seven quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young, Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, and Dak Prescott), 10 running backs (Edgerrin James, Mike Anderson, Anthony Thomas, Clinton Portis, Cadillac Williams, Adrian Peterson, Eddie Lacy, Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, and Saquon Barkley), and three receivers (Anquan Boldin, Percy Harvin, and Odell Beckham Jr.). As those lists make clear, players who win the award can have Hall of Fame–caliber careers, wash out of the league within a few years, or be anything in between. All that the Rookie of the Year honor guarantees is that a player had a good first year. So without further ado, let’s rank the candidates for each award and hand out some honorable mentions.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Honorable Mentions

Terry McLaurin, Receiver, Washington
McLaurin was the best rookie receiver out of the gate, but has seen his pace slow in Washington’s stagnant offense.

Marquise Brown, Receiver, Baltimore Ravens
Three of his four touchdowns and 227 of his 454 receiving yards have come against the Dolphins and Bengals.

Daniel Jones, Quarterback, New York Giants
Jones’s encouraging rookie showing has been marred by too many turnovers, as he’s had multiple giveaways in all but one of his starts. He has an astonishing 10 fumbles in his past four games and more fumbles on the year (13) than anyone did last season (12).

The Contenders

4. Gardner Minshew II, Quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars
Minshew has been benched for Nick Foles, who will return this Sunday from the collarbone injury he suffered in Week 1. Minshew could rejoin the awards conversation if he takes over for Foles again, but otherwise Minshewmania will be remembered as store-brand Linsanity.

3. DK Metcalf, Receiver, Seattle Seahawks
Metcalf has proved his doubters (including yours truly) wrong. He provides a vertical threat that perfectly complements slot receiver Tyler Lockett and has helped launch Russell Wilson to the forefront of the MVP conversation. Metcalf leads all rookies in targets (64), catches (35), and receiving yards (595) through 10 weeks and is tied for the rookie lead in receiving touchdowns (five). And he comes up big when Wilson needs him most: He had a 28-yard, game-sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh in Week 2, a 40-yard touchdown catch to take an eight-point lead against the Rams in Week 5, and then 106 yards and a touchdown combined in the fourth quarter and overtime against Tampa Bay in Week 9.

2. Josh Jacobs, Running Back, Oakland Raiders
Here are the rookie running backs since 1980 who had 800 or more rushing yards in their first nine games:

  1. Eric Dickerson, Rams, 1983 (1,096)
  2. Adrian Peterson, Vikings, 2007 (1,081)
  3. Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys, 2016 (1,005)
  4. Billy Sims, Lions, 1980 (896)
  5. George Rogers, Saints, 1981 (879)
  6. Doug Martin, Buccaneers, 2012 (862)
  7. Edgerrin James, Colts, 1999 (854)
  8. Julius Jones, Cowboys, 2004 (819)
  9. Marshall Faulk, Colts, 1994 (812)
  10. Josh Jacobs, Raiders, 2019 (811)
  11. Eddie George, Oilers, 1996 (808)
  12. Kareem Hunt, Chiefs, 2017 (800)

That’s a hell of a list. Oakland has increasingly leaned on Jacobs as the season has worn on, and he has stepped up. In his past five games, Jacobs has 504 yards and five touchdowns, and has averaged 4.8 yards per rush attempt. He has 23 more yards than Dallas’s Ezekiel Elliott on 10 fewer carries, six more touchdowns than Jacksonville’s Leonard Fournette, and almost a yard per carry more than Saquon Barkley. Fair or not, if the Raiders make a playoff push, the credit will go to Jacobs, not quarterback Derek Carr. (One weird factoid: Jacobs would be the first player from the AFC to win OROY since Vince Young in 2006.)

1. Kyler Murray, Quarterback, Arizona Cardinals
The no. 1 pick is getting better every week. In Murray’s four September games, he threw four touchdowns and four interceptions, and took 20 sacks. In the six games since then, he has eight touchdowns and one interception, and has taken 11 sacks. Murray set the record for consecutive passes without an interception by a rookie this season (211), breaking the mark of 176 shared by Dak Prescott and Derek Carr. As Murray has learned to protect himself and the ball, Arizona has gotten better. The Cardinals nearly beat San Francisco in Week 9—not bad for a team that was the worst in football last season. Murray could be punished for his rate stats (he’s thrown the second most passes this season but is 19th in touchdowns), but he is also no. 12 in QBR—one spot ahead of Tom Brady. If Arizona finishes the season strong, Murray is the safest pick for the winner.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Honorable Mentions

Quinnen Williams, Defensive Tackle, New York Jets
Hard to see a member of the Jets defense winning anything.

Brian Burns, Outside Linebacker, Carolina Panthers
Burns helped rejuvenate Carolina’s defense with 11 quarterback hits in his first six games, but missed a month with a wrist injury.

Devin White, Inside Linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
White is a future star who hits ludicrously hard but has not been consistent in pass coverage.

Darnell Savage Jr., Safety, Green Bay Packers
The no. 21 pick has been key to Green Bay’s improved pass defense.

Chase Winovich, Pass Rusher, New England Patriots
He might go down as a better player than his more heralded Michigan teammate, Rashan Gary.

The Contenders

3. Josh Allen, Defensive End, Jacksonville Jaguars
Leading Sacksonville as a rookie is no small task, but the no. 7 pick out of Kentucky is pacing the Jaguars with seven sacks. His 13 quarterback hits are second on the team to Calais Campbell and second among all rookies behind a player further down the list. His biggest impediment to winning the award is that most football fans confuse him with the Buffalo Bills quarterback drafted with the same selection a year earlier.

2. Devin Bush Jr., Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers
While the arrival of defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick has been crucial to Pittsburgh’s defensive turnaround, Bush has been nearly as important. The son of former NFL safety Devin Bush, the younger Bush was taken no. 10 out of Michigan this season to fill the void in Pittsburgh’s defense left by linebacker Ryan Shazier. Bush leads the Steelers in tackles (69) and is tied for the league lead with a whopping four fumble recoveries, but his impact is best quantified by the team’s overall improvement this season. Pittsburgh is the highest-graded defense by Pro Football Focus through Week 10, compared with no. 15 last season, and the defense is the fifth-most efficient squad, according to Football Outsiders, compared with no. 13 in 2018.

1. Nick Bosa, Defensive End, San Francisco 49ers
Bosa has tossed the rest of the competition for this award aside much like he tossed Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth aside in Week 6. Bosa leads all defenders in quarterback pressures per pass-rush snap, according to Pro Football Focus. Not rookies. Defenders. Among first-year players, he leads in sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries. Not only does Bosa have all the numbers, he has the narrative. The 49ers defense was abysmal last season, posting the lowest interception total on record since World War II. General manager John Lynch bet a better pass rush would make life easier for Richard Sherman and Co., and Bosa’s impact after being taken no. 2 in the draft has been undeniable. Entering Week 9, the 49ers pressured opposing quarterbacks more than any other team (on 31.8 percent of dropbacks) despite sending a four-man rush on 84 percent of plays, more often than all but two teams. That type of pressure without extra defenders blitzing is defensive nirvana (no wonder 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh is always so happy). After Sherman, Bosa is the face of the movement. He also has the highlights, like his flag plant after sacking Baker Mayfield on Monday Night Football, which was a defining moment of the half-season, or a stupidly athletic play against Carolina in Week 8. In the Panthers play, Bosa avoids a cut block and then instinctively leaps up and snatches an interception out of midair, becoming the first person to ever do a burpee in a highlight.

Anything can happen with a six games to go, but it looks like Murray and Bosa, the no. 1 and no. 2 picks in the draft, will be the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year. It would be the third time in a decade the top two picks win the awards, after Sam Bradford and Ndamukong Suh did it in 2010 and Cam Newton and Von Miller did it in 2011. We’ll be having this conversation again a year from now when Joe Burrow and Chase Young win the same awards from the same draft spots.