NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates: Joe Burrow leads field

A year ago, we had Kyler Murray and Josh Jacobs as our exacta for the 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and the ticket came through in that order when the hardware was handed out in February. Keep in mind that finding and slotting OROY candidates has as much to do with team/scheme fit as it does with individual talent in many cases.

Before I began this exercise, I went mining for historical trends that could help piece the puzzle together. Here are a few interesting tidbits I found helpful:

  • Since 1990, just four players have won the Heisman Trophy and OROY in consecutive seasons (Kyler Murray, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Eddie George).
  • No tight end or offensive lineman has ever won the award.
  • Just three wide receivers have won the award over the last 21 seasons.
  • The OROY award has been won by NFC rookies for 13 straight seasons.

Now, looking ahead to this season, here are my top 10 candidates to take home the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

1) Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Provided his monstrous senior season at LSU was not just a product of then-passing game coordinator Joe Brady's system, Burrow should be the clear-cut favorite for this award. A.J. Green didn't play last season, but assuming he returns to the team on the franchise tag (which he has not signed as of the publishing of this post) or a long-term contract (the two sides have until July 15 to work out a multi-year deal), he'll be back as a top target for Burrow. One thing we saw with Burrow last season is that he loves to isolate slot targets and throw with placement to them. Tyler Boyd fits that bill as a strong, capable safety blanket. Top it all off with rookie Tee Higgins, who can stretch the field and win those tight-window jump balls outside the numbers, and Burrow seems set up to be relatively successful right away, despite some concerns about the Cincy offensive line.

2) Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

We know the Chiefs are going to score points with Patrick Mahomes running the attack. However, the selection of Edwards-Helaire with the final pick in Round 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft shows how serious the Chiefs are about improving their running game. Kansas City's run blocking might not be as good as it was in 2017, when then-rookie Kareem Hunt rushed for a league-high 1,327 yards, but Edwards-Helaire appears to be just as talented as Hunt both on the ground and as a pass catcher. While Damien Williams is still very much in the mix for his share of playing time at running back, CEH should step into a starter's role with loads of touches headed his way.

3) D'Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions

Swift deserved more run in conversations about the top offensive players in the 2020 draft. He ultimately slipped to Round 2, where the Lions nabbed him with the 35th overall pick. While Matthew Stafford has filled up stat sheets on a consistent basis during his 11 seasons, Detroit hasn't won a playoff game since the 1991 campaign, and the team's running-game woes have been a main culprit for that drought in the past two decades. Swift enters the NFL with plenty of tread still on the tires. He features outstanding vision and change-of-direction efficiency to make the most of what is blocked for him. His team might not win as many games as Edwards-Helaire's this season, but his numbers could look similar.

4) Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

If Taylor manages to wrangle the lion's share of carries away from Marlon Mack this year, he could challenge Burrow for the title of top offensive rookie. Taylor spent three seasons as the ramrod for Wisconsin's downhill rushing attack and should fit right in with the bully ball that the Colts like to play behind their talented offensive line. Mack, who's in a contract year, has been consistently productive when healthy, but he's missed time in each of his three seasons, which could portend more rookie carries for Taylor than some expect.

5) Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver Broncos

Only one receiver has won the OROY award over the last 10 years (Odell Beckham Jr., 2014), but Jeudy is one to keep an eye on this season. He can break ankles with his crisp routes and instant directional change. He also has the speed to hit it big over the top or as a catch-and-run option on slants, shallow crossers and screens. While he could become the second-most targeted pass catcher on the squad behind Courtland Sutton, it's worth noting that Noah Fant is an emerging pass-catching tight end, and second-year quarterback Drew Lock is still very green.

6) Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams

One of the reasons I'm so high on Akers is that his Florida State tape is filled with plays in which he get yards for himself behind a poor offensive line. His ability to make his own lemonade could be very important, considering the Rams' issues on the interior O-line. A bounce-back season from Jared Goff and the passing game would ease some of the burden on Akers, who has the talent to become a three-down runner right out of the gate.

7) Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Jefferson was good in 2018, but he was great in 2019, showing off improved route running and impeccable ball skills. He steps into a pretty good situation, taking over for the departed Stefon Diggs in a role that should feature accurate, catchable throws coming his way from Kirk Cousins. Adam Thielen should return healthy after a hamstring injury slowed him last season, and Dalvin Cook -- assuming he does not end up holding out -- appears to be the focal point of the offense, but there should still be plenty of action coming Jefferson's way as the WR2 in Gary Kubiak's scheme.

8) Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins

If Tagovailoa, coming off November hip surgery, proves to the Dolphins' staff that he's game-ready and wins the starting job for Week 1, then he'll belong in the top three of this list. The reality, however, is that despite his potential, the Dolphins are unlikely to be in any type of hurry to rush him into action, with wily veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick still doing his thing in Miami. Tua could find his way into the starting lineup this season, but I think it's unlikely to be early enough for him to win this award.

9) Henry Ruggs III, WR, Las Vegas Raiders

The slotting of Ruggs at No. 9 on this list is certainly not indicative of what I think of his ability to be an impact talent in the league. He possesses instant, electric speed and can threaten defenses in a variety of ways. However, it's hard for me to ignore the fact that Derek Carr has had tight ends as his leading receivers for three straight seasons (Darren Waller last year and Jared Cook in the two prior) and has consistently been in the bottom half of the quarterback rankings in yards per completion since entering the league in 2014. I fear Ruggs is like a Bugatti with a driver who refuses to speed behind the wheel, which is why I don't have him ranked higher here.

10) Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts

Having Pittman ranked ahead of a player like CeeDee Lamb might surprise some people, but that decision is a reflection of my opinion that Pittman's in a better situation for rookie success. We know Philip Rivers is not afraid to find a favorite target and seek that player out over and over again. While T.Y. Hilton is still a very talented receiver, he's small (for his position) and fast, which might not make him the optimal fit for Rivers' arm strength. On the other hand, Pittman is a big target with good ball skills and toughness who might work his way into the good graces of the veteran quarterback early on.

TOP DARK-HORSE CANDIDATE

Zack Moss, RB, Buffalo Bills: Moss is unlikely to see the workload it would take for a running back to win this award, as he'll be competing for carries with Devin Singletary, who's coming off a nice rookie season. That said, Moss is built for the rugged rushing attack that the Bills want to employ. Keep in mind that Singletary had just two rushing touchdowns to Josh Allen's nine last season. It would behoove the Bills to keep their young quarterback out of harm's way and allow Moss to do more of the dirty work in the red zone. Given Moss' violent style and ability to move the chains, he could garner plenty of fourth-quarter carries as the Bills look to put games away.

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter @LanceZierlein.

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