The way I see it, there are 4 strong candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year. It’s hard to pick between them because they all played very well at their respective positions and it’s tough to compare players across position. I’m going to narrow the field down by eliminating one of the two players who play the same position, running backs Giovani Bernard of the Bengals and Eddie Lacy of the Packers (Le’Veon Bell is in there to an extent, but I think Bernard and Lacy had noticeably better seasons).
Bernard and Lacy both had very good seasons, but were polar opposites in terms of how they play. Lacy is a 230 pound bruiser, while Bernard is somewhere around 200-205 and is already one of the best in space running backs in the NFL. Other than that though, they’re very comparable. They had the exact same grade on Pro Football Focus, tying for 4th among running backs (for comparison, Bell was 26th) with Lacy excelling as a runner and Bernard excelling in the pass game. They both averaged 4.1 yards per carry with 2.3 yards per carry after first contact.
Lacy saw more usage (319 touches to 225), but they played a comparable amount of snaps, with Bernard playing 627 and Lacy playing 689. In terms of elusive rating (which takes into account broken tackles and yards after contact), Bernard ranked 10th and Lacy ranked 11th. Bernard also averaged 9.2 yards per catch, while Lacy averaged just 7.3 yards per carry. Lacy outrushed Bernard by far (1178 to 695) and scored 11 total times to Bernard’s 8, but in terms of yards from scrimmage the gap was smaller, as Lacy was at 1435 and Bernard was at 1209, even though Bernard had 94 fewer touches. Lacy was the more traditional back and I think had the slightly bigger impact, which is why I’m giving him the edge, but few running backs are scarier when they have room to run than Bernard. Other writers seem to agree as Lacy was named to the 2nd team All-Pro, while Bernard wasn’t.
The next candidate is someone who probably won’t even get consideration from the voters, but unfairly because of his position. There’s never been an offensive lineman win the award, let alone a guard and frankly if Joe Thomas couldn’t win in 2007, I don’t think any offensive lineman will win the award until we have a serious shift in the way the position is viewed. Also, I’m probably not talking about the offensive lineman you’re thinking about. In a draft that had offensive lineman go 6 times in the first 11 picks and 9 times in the first round overall, the one who had the biggest impact was a 3rd rounder out of Kentucky by the name of Larry Warford.
Warford played every snap one of Detroit’s 1158 offensive snaps as a rookie on a much underrated offensive line that surrendered 23 sacks, 2nd fewest in the NFL. Some of that is because of Matt Stafford’s strong pocket presence and quick release, but you kind of need to have a quarterback with elite pocket presence and a quick release to allow fewer than 30 sacks over the course of a 16 game season, so I wouldn’t hold that against them or Warford. Warford didn’t allow a single sack from the right guard spot and only allowed 5 quarterback hits and 10 hurries, while committing just 4 penalties this season. That’s insane, regardless of who his quarterback is.
Warford played every snap over a 16 game season and only allowed his man to even get close to the quarterback 15 times. In fact, he only allowed more than 2 quarterback pressures in a game once and that was against Cincinnati, when he was frequently matched up with all-everything defensive tackle Geno Atkins, before Atkins’ injury. On top of that, the right guard gap produced 4.8 yards per carry for the Lions, a team that averaged just 4.0 yards per carry overall. As a result, Warford was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard and was an obvious Pro-Bowl snub.
The final candidate is someone who gets much more attention, San Diego wide receiver Keenan Allen. Like Warford and Lacy, what Allen did that was so impressive was he didn’t seem like a rookie. He was one of the best receivers in the NFL and by far his team’s best receiver, taking on the opponent’s #1 cornerback and double teams with frequency. His 1046 receiving yards were just 21st in the NFL, but Pro Football Focus takes into account how much attention from the defense he was getting and they graded him 10th overall and 8th in pass catching grade.
He also did that despite being a healthy scratch week 1 and not becoming a starter until week 4. He caught 70.3% of passes thrown to him and he ranked 7th in the NFL in quarterback rating when thrown to, among eligible receivers, as Philip Rivers had a 118.1 QB rating throwing to Allen. Wide receivers almost always take a year or two to develop. Rookie wideouts aren’t supposed to do what Keenan Allen did. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and didn’t come close to what Keenan Allen did this year as rookies (58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively).
At the end of the day, it’s a very tough choice. Like I said earlier, all 3 of these guys didn’t resemble rookies at all. They’re already among the best players in the NFL at their respective positions. I’m giving it to Larry Warford because I think he dominated his position more than the other 2, but it could really go either way. It’s tough to compare across positions. For what’s it’s worth, Warford had the highest grade among the 3 on Pro Football Focus, though you can’t compare players across positions. He also tied for highest ranked, coming in 4th at his position. Also, Warford has zero chance of getting the actual award, so it’s nice to give him some recognition here.