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Top 10 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates: Najee Harris top threat to Trevor Lawrence

It seemed like a forgone conclusion that Trevor Lawrence would be the first pick of the 2021 NFL Draft since he led Clemson to a national championship as a true freshman back in 2018. As expected, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected him No. 1 overall, and now he heads into his debut season leading a deep crop of talented rookies, many of whom are in position to see extensive playing time right out of the gate.

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

  • Regarding 2020 Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith's chances, just four players have won the Heisman and OROY in consecutive seasons (Kyler Murray, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Eddie George) since 1990.
  • Just three wide receivers have won the award over the last 22 seasons.
  • No tight end or offensive lineman has ever won the award.
  • Last season marked the first time since 2006 (Vince Young) that a player from the AFC won the award (Justin Herbert).

Now, looking ahead to this season, here are my top 10 candidates to take home the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Travis Etienne
Clemson · RB

There was a time when running backs were the top contenders to take home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, but now quarterbacks are typically the front-runners for the award. That said, Etienne has big-play potential as a ball carrier. He has really developed his talent as a pass catcher, too, which is something the Jaguars clearly intend to utilize. Etienne's talent alone earns him a place on this list despite the competition for touches in his own backfield from James Robinson and Trevor Lawrence.

Javonte Williams
North Carolina · RB

I think folks might be sleeping on Williams' OROY potential. His primary competition for carries is Melvin Gordon, but I can envision a scenario where Williams -- like Jonathan Taylor in 2020 -- clamps down on a majority of the touches by midseason and finishes the season with a bang.

Trey Lance
North Dakota State · QB

Some like Lance's chances here much more than I do. The reason for the disparity might be that I see this playing out in a similar fashion to Patrick Mahomes' rookie season with the Chiefs, when he started only one game. The 49ers nearly won a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm of Kyle Shanahan's offense just 17 months ago, so it shouldn't surprise anyone if San Francisco plays the veteran and allows Lance to gain much-needed seasoning from the sideline. However, any talented rookie quarterback under the direction of Shanahan has a shot to win this award.

DeVonta Smith
Alabama · WR

I had Justin Jefferson in this very spot a year ago, and you argue that he was just as deserving of last season's OROY award as the recipient, Justin Herbert. Like Jefferson, Smith comes into the league with great ball skills, the ability to work from a variety of spots and game-breaking talent on all three levels of the field. Eagles QB Jalen Hurts and Smith already have a rapport, having played together at Alabama. Smith is extremely quarterback-friendly with his separation skill and catch radius. Given Philadelphia's depth chart at wide receiver, the rookie pass catcher could see a heavy dose of targets from Hurts in 2021.

Look, I'm probably being too aggressive with this ranking for Chase. Only three receivers have won this award since Chase was born in 2000 -- and one of those winners, Percy Harvin, benefited from his kick-return talent as an NFL rookie. To make this projection more difficult, Chase opted out of the 2020 season, so he hasn't played competitive football since the College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 13, 2020. However, he had 9 catches for 221 yards and two touchdowns in that championship tilt and he has the same quarterback throwing to him now that he did in his final collegiate season. History might not be on the wide receiver's side, but the Joe Burrow-to-Chase combination has a chance to be electric this fall.

Zach Wilson

A lingering hesitation to back a Jets player for this award might be understandable due to the team's recent woes, but GM Joe Douglas has put together a much more competitive supporting cast for Wilson than we saw with Sam Darnold under center. The offensive line is a more fortified unit with rookie Alijah Vera-Tucker and free-agent signee Morgan Moses sticking their hands in the dirt. Plus, the additions of Corey Davis and rookie Elijah Moore at wideout add undeniable juice to a passing attack that should be able to challenge on all three levels of the field.

Kyle Pitts
Florida · TE

A tight end has never won the OROY award, but Pitts is not your normal tight end. With the departure of Julio Jones, Pitts' expected target share rises. The Falcons are likely to move him all over the field to create mismatches against smaller or slower defenders. Pitts is big and fast with outstanding ball skills and dominant potential in the red zone. With Matt Ryan pulling the trigger, Pitts is the most viable tight end candidate I've seen for this award. 

Justin Fields
Ohio State · QB

It seems like the entire city of Chicago wants to see Fields on the field in Week 1, but head coach Matt Nagy is sticking to the script that says Andy Dalton is the QB1. While Ohio State quarterbacks have traditionally struggled upon entering the league, Fields has a real shot of reversing the trend as a rookie. In 2020, the Bears' offense showed improvement when coordinator Bill Lazor took over the play-calling duties in the second half of the season. He has an offensive background that could mesh well with Fields' strengths. Of course, Lazor has a history with Dalton, having coached him in Cincinnati, and Nagy will be calling plays again in 2021. Fields is a bit of a hit-or-miss candidate for this award.

Najee Harris
Alabama · RB

This award has become quarterback-centric in today's pass-oriented game, but running backs should not be counted out. An RB has been named OROY in four of the past eight years, and Harris is certainly a worthy contender. Pittsburgh understands that Ben Roethlisberger may no longer be capable of carrying an offense with his right arm. Harris gives the Steelers a bruising three-down back with qualities similar to former Steelers star Le'Veon Bell. Harris is a tenacious runner with good vision and the agility to make tacklers miss when needed. He should stack up rushing yardage, but his ability as a pass catcher and touchdown maker could be the difference if he is to win the award.

Trevor Lawrence
Clemson · QB

The clear-cut favorite has several things going for him, in addition to his immense talent. He's played plenty of high-leverage football on big stages, so the jump to a smaller-market team in Jacksonville where he has a long runway to succeed should take some pressure off of him. He has a decent offensive line in front of him (if it can stay healthy), and the continued presence of Clemson teammate Travis Etienne should create positive chemistry early on. It's also worth noting that the Jaguars added Marvin Jones at wideout, and the offense will twice see Houston and Tennessee -- two pass defenses that ranked in the bottom third of the league in 2020.

Top dark-horse candidate

Despite throwing for 4,500 yards and 41 touchdowns in a season that culminated with an Alabama victory in the national championship game, Jones didn't make my top 10. In general, he has received somewhat-tepid acclaim as he heads into the pros. The former Tide QB will have to navigate a modest group of wideouts and a battle for playing time against veteran Cam Newton, but if he has the it factor that is so hard to quantify, we could see him on the field earlier than expected, which could give him a chance in the OROY race. 

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter.

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