Are we witnessing a mini-Golden Age of young running back talent?
There was a time when the most decorated rookies were ball carriers. From 1993 to 2002, running backs won nine of the 10 Offensive Rookie of the Year awards handed out, with receiver Randy Moss (1998) serving as the one outlier in that period. Since then, however, a running back has won the award just four times, including in 2015, when Rams wunderkind Todd Gurley -- incidentally, my preseason pick to win it last year -- claimed the honor on the strength of a 1,106-yard, 10-touchdown campaign, despite playing in just 13 games.
Are we returning to a backfield bonanza? Could we see yet another running back claim supremacy among offensive rookies? Below, you'll see my current top five candidates to win the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year award (plus one bonus candidate), listed in reverse order.
This award has never been won by an offensive lineman, and Kelly is unlikely to be the first to pull it off. I really just wanted to take this opportunity to highlight an offensive rookie who has a chance to make a huge impact, even if he has no real shot to actually take home any hardware. Kelly is a very good player who has come out of a great program at Alabama, and he should turn some heads if a dramatic reduction in sacks helps fuel a bounceback season by Andrew Luck. Kelly figures to be a fixture in Indy for the next 12 years.
The Titans' desire to lean on the ground game should mean big things for Henry. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has rare size and speed for his position. He's sure-handed, having fumbled just five times in 602 collegiate carries, and he has a history of producing, having become the third person in SEC history -- joining Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson -- to post four games of 200-plus yards in one season (last year, when he also set the conference's single-season rushing record with 2,219 yards). The presence of DeMarco Murray is the only real drag on his potential here, and while it's a significant factor, it's possible for Henry to capture the award even while splitting carries with the veteran. He just has to make the absolute most out of every opportunity he's given -- as he did last weekend, racking up 74 yards and a score on 10 carries in Week 1 of the preseason.
The nephew of Keyshawn Johnson is doing well in New Orleans, garnering plenty of preseason praise and posting four catches for 67 yards in his NFL debut. He has long arms, big hands and a wide catch radius. The very strong receiver plays with a chip on his shoulder and knows how to make the first tackler miss. He needs to work on getting off the line, but Thomas should fit very well into the Drew Brees-led New Orleans attack, filling the catch-machine role of former Saint Marques Colston.
The Baylor product combines the speed needed to create separation with some serious leaping ability (he posted a 40.5-inch vertical jump and 10-foot-9 broad jump at the NFL Scouting Combine). He tracks the ball with ease and excels on picking up yards after the catch. He's very good on quick-slant and screen plays. The tough competitor also knows how to score (33 touchdown receptions in three college seasons) and make big plays (18.4 yards per catch in 2015). Offensive-minded coach Hue Jackson has a real feel for receivers. The Browns also have very little in the way of proven options at the position, with Josh Gordon a bit of a question mark after a full season away from the field. Much depends on what kind of quarterback play Cleveland gets, but Coleman has the speed and ability to be a factor in 2016.
The tough and competitive Treadwell will try to bury you in blocking. He plays much faster than his timed speed. As I've said before, Treadwell reminds me of Michael Irvin. He'll catch the quick slant to move the chains. He runs very good routes, has great athleticism and excels at tracking the ball over his shoulder. The all-time leading pass catcher at Ole Miss is off to a bit of a slow start, given that he didn't start Minnesota's preseason opener. But I think the Vikings drafted him to be the Irvin of their team, and I think he can come through. I fully expect Treadwell to establish himself as a big part of coordinator Norv Turner's offense.
Elliott is a well-rounded offensive force. He has big hands, which allow him to catch the ball well, and he's a very good blocker who is great at picking up the blitz. He runs through arm tackles and has quickness, balance, vision and competitiveness. He's the most complete back I've seen come out of college in the last five years. He's also very smart. The Cowboys' season is riding on Elliott -- and I think he'll come through. With Elliott poised to serve as a difference-making star in a high-profile spot behind a juggernaut of an offensive line, I think there's a good chance we'll see this award go to a running back for a second consecutive year (for the first time since Clinton Portis followed Anthony Thomas in 2002).