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Rookie of the Year candidates: David Johnson surging

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Every week in this space, Chris Wesseling will roll out the power rankings for one specific NFL position, attribute or award.

As we turn our attention to the stretch run, it's time to start thinking about NFL Honors. This week, we examine the top candidates for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year.

On to the list:

1. Todd Gurley, St. Louis Rams running back: This placement isn't meant to be a definitive statement. The Rookie of the Year chase is close enough that the events of the next two weeks could shake up the entire list, leaving a handful of players capable of stealing the award with difference-making performances down the stretch.

As I outlined in last week's Rookie Watch, Gurley has the slight edge to date because he has been one of the top three players at his position. The same cannot be said of his competition. Since joining the starting lineup in Week 4, the Pro Bowl running back ranks among the league leaders in rushing yards, 100-yard rushing games, rushing touchdowns and yards per carry.

2. Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders wide receiver: Cooper's Week 15 performance was emblematic of his rookie season. He won handily versus reigning Defensive Rookie of the Month Demarious Randall for 120 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but failed to pull in a key third-down catch that sabotaged a third-quarter drive. Cooper will close out 2015 with one of the most productive seasons by a rookie receiver this century. There's also a good chance he will lead the league in drops. Regardless, his presence is one of the prime factors in Derek Carr's breakout season.

3. Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback: Winston is one of the best pure throwers to enter the league since Peyton Manning in 1998, so it's fitting that he needs just 318 more yards to coast past Manning for the third-most passing yards by a rookie in NFL history. His best selling point is assuming a leadership role as the youngest player on a team that improved from 2-14 to a respectable 6-8 with a chance to finish at .500. With Winston as the centerpiece, the Buccaneers have transformed from a forgotten organization to one with an exciting future.

4. Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback: Peters stole the show in Week 15, intercepting Jimmy Clausen twice, one of which was run all the way back for a 90-yard touchdown. The Pro Bowler was the perfect first-round pick for a Chiefs organization that managed just one interception from its cornerbacks all of last season. Peters leads all NFL cornerbacks in interceptions (7), interception return yards (234) and passes defensed (30) on a defense-driven team with a chance to close out the season on a 10-game winning streak.

5. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans quarterback: Mariota's most impressive statistic: a sterling 15:0 TD-to-INT ratio in the red zone. Playing through a pair of MCL sprains and a change in head coaches and play callers on a team that lacks quality surrounding talent, Mariota authored three of the top 25 quarterback performances of the season. It's telling, though, that all three came at the expense of wretched defenses. He wasn't nearly as effective against quality foes.

It's a shame the Titans' pass protection couldn't keep Mariota healthy. He had a legitimate shot at Offensive Rookie of the Year honors had he played all 16 games and led his team to more than three victories. Fear not, Nashville denizens, the future is bright with Mariota as the face of the franchise.

6. David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals running back: Venerable Cardinals offensive consultant Tom Moore compared Johnson to Hall of Famer Franco Harris for his combination of size, speed, power and receiving ability. That package was on full display versus the Eagles, as Johnson turned 33 touches into 229 yards and a trio of touchdowns -- sailing past Ottis Anderson and Tim Hightower for the most touchdowns by any rookie in franchise history.

Johnson has proven to be a marked upgrade on Chris Johnson, averaging 157 yards from scrimmage since taking over as the featured back early this month. If he finishes the season with 15+ touchdowns, he's going to garner serious consideration for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

7. Ronald Darby, Buffalo Bills cornerback: If you wanted to rank Darby higher than Peters, I wouldn't quibble. A strong Defensive Rookie of the Year argument can be made for each of the two cornerbacks. Although he lacks Peters' flashy playmaking ability, Darby has been more of a lockdown corner, allowing fewer targets, catches, yards and touchdowns. By Week 16, though, Peters has the advantage in opposing completion percentage (53.7 to 54.8) and passer rating (72.6 to 79.0), per Pro Football Focus.

8. Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks: Among receivers with at least 50 targets, Lockett's 80.7 catch percentage ranks second only to Danny Amendola's 82.9. Since Week 11, Russell Wilson has generated a passer rating of 154.7 when targeting the rookie. The Pro Bowl return specialist has joined Hall of Famer Gale Sayers as the only rookies all-time with five receiving touchdowns in addition to scores on both kickoff and punt returns. It's hard to believe such as a versatile and explosive playmaker lasted until the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

9. Leonard Williams, New York Jets defensive end: The grunts up front can thank new-age analytics for exposing their strengths in ways that traditional stats never could. Aaron Donald wouldn't have earned 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year honors had he entered the league a decade earlier.

Williams' three sacks and 51 tackles don't jump off the page, but Pro Football Focus credits him with 41 combined quarterback hits and hurries -- 14 more than the next-closest rookie. He has been disruptive force against the run, while showing plenty of pass-rushing promise.

10. Thomas Rawls, Seattle Seahawks: Rawls started only seven games, yet still ranks in the top 10 in rushing while leading the league in yards per carry (5.6). The undrafted former Central Michigan star outplayed Marshawn Lynch, broke the franchise's single-game rushing mark, drew comparisons to bruising Hall of Famer Earl Campbell and established himself beyond doubt as the future in Seattle's backfield.

If not for the ankle fracture that ended his season in Week 14, Rawls would be pushing Gurley for the top spot on this list.

Honorable mention: Stefon Diggs, T.J. Yeldon, Karlos Williams, Ameer Abdullah, Mario Edwards, Damarious Randall, Eric Kendricks, Kwon Alexander, Stephone Anthony, Hau'oli Kikaha, Byron Jones, Eddie Goldman, Henry Anderson

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