With six weeks of the NFL season in the books, we’re starting to get a handle on which rookies are going to make a significant impact this season and really chase rookie of the year honors.
With that in mind, and knowing how the NFL landscape functions, let’s take a look at some of the early favorites for Rookie of the Year honors, as informed by PFF grades.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
As much as analytics has been presenting evidence that running backs aren’t the players contributing the most to winning games, that message is taking its time getting through to much of the NFL landscape. Any rookie back that does well is therefore naturally in a good position to attack Rookie of the Year, and though the Raiders have been hot and cold, Josh Jacobs has looked excellent. He currently has the second-best overall PFF grade (85.6)—trailing only Christian McCaffrey—and he actually has the highest rushing grade of any back (85.4). Jacobs has broken 23 tackles on 88 carries and has more yards after contact than David Johnson has rushing yards total.
One of the most underrated players in the draft, Terry McLaurin fell to the third round as the Ohio State system masked his abilities while putting a shine on those of teammate Parris Campbell. Through six weeks, McLaurin has a top-10 grade among all wideouts (83.3) and ranks one spot ahead of Michael Thomas, a player who previously saw his talents overlooked by playing in the same role in college. McLaurin has at least 50 receiving yards in every game he has featured in so far, and he has caught five touchdowns in five games. Against the Patriots, he drew the Stephone Gilmore treatment and caught three passes for 51 yards, a better tally than many have managed against arguably the best corner in the game right now. With little help in that offense and the quarterback situation in Washington, what McLaurin is doing is pretty remarkable, and he deserves serious recognition if he can continue it all season.
Next up are the quarterbacks, and while Gardner Minshew may be leading the way by virtue of a couple of signature moments of clutch play so far, he has work to do to stave off Nick Foles once the presumptive starter gets healthy from a clavicle injury. Minshew Mania may be real, but he can’t afford more games like the one he just had against New Orleans – posting the worst PFF grade of his season (31.6) as well as the worst grade among the entire Jacksonville offense this week. Early in his run, Minshew was deadly accurate and had real moments of inspiration within the offense, but he needs to maintain that level to even keep his hold on the job when Foles comes back, and his accuracy just deserted him against the Saints. He had the lowest adjusted completion percentage (51.9%) among quarterbacks this week, something which he doesn’t have the physical tools to overcome if it continues.
Though Kyler Murray hasn’t necessarily had the same inspiring moments that Minshew has—and he certainly doesn’t rock the same level of mustache—he still has an advantage over his fellow rookie in that nobody is coming for his job. Murray has also played his best football most recently, albeit coinciding with the easiest competition he has run into. Over the past two weeks, he has a top-five PFF grade (87.6) and really began to exploit his rushing threat, adding seven more first downs on the ground. The entire Arizona offense looks like a work in progress, and if progress can indeed be made over the season, nobody stands to benefit more than their rookie quarterback.
Lamar Jackson looks to his tight ends first and foremost, but he does seem to have something of a connection already with rookie speedster Marquise Brown. Only Terry McLaurin has more receiving touchdowns than Brown among rookies, and his debut performance showed the kind of devastating impact he can have. Again, he trails only McLaurin in terms of yards per route run among rookies (2.23) and is only ever a snap away from breaking another big play to really boost his numbers. Brown has 10 targets on deep (20-plus air yards) attempts this season, but only three of them have been catchable passes, such remains the inconsistency of Lamar Jackson as a passer. If he can corral a few more of those pass attempts over the remainder of the year, Brown could suddenly see a big leap in explosive plays and production, and catapult himself into Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
There are fewer standout defenders thus far, but Nick Bosa has definitely been one of them. A signature game against the Browns on Monday Night Football saw Bosa rack up nine total pressures on just 25 pass-rushing snaps. He has two of his four sacks on the season in that game and really announced himself on the national stage with a celebration mocking Baker Mayfield’s planting of the flag celebration from college. Bosa leads all rookies in total pressures, with 30, and that’s a mark good enough to rank inside the top-10 league-wide. With the 49ers' defense looking legit, a consistent run of sacks throughout the season will put Bosa in pole position to notch Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Panthers rookie Brian Burns actually has one more sack than Bosa, but 11 fewer total pressures on the season from 35 more pass-rushing snaps. On a down-to-down basis, he has been a less-impactful pass-rusher but has been able to make those splash plays, and nothing gets edge rushers noticed more than sacks. Like Bosa, Burns also has a forced fumble to his name, and with the Panthers now relying on him as one of their primary sources of pass-rush, he figures to get an extended run of playing time and no shortage of opportunity to rush the passer and generate pressure over the remainder of the year.
Josh Allen hasn’t been quite as good as either Burns or Bosa, but he is tied for the rookie lead with five sacks, which means he is in the running given the way people judge these awards. Allen also has a significant college pedigree and had the highest PFF pass-rushing grade in the nation last year (94.4), higher than either Bosa or Burns, who each both also grade above 90.0. Allen has 19 total pressures and actually more playing time than either of the other two, but his PFF pass-rushing grade is just 68.1, suggesting either that his sack rate will decline over the year or that he needs to step up his down-to-down consistency if he is to maintain it.
The lowest-graded of our contenders, it is difficult to ignore just how often Devin Bush is around the football and how many splash plays seem to have fallen into his lap already this season. He already has two fumbled recovered and returned for touchdowns to go along with a pair of interceptions. Bush also leads the league among rookies in terms of tackles (by PFF’s count) and defensive stops (19). Bush has yet to put together the kind of complete game he is capable of, so his PFF grade (57.7 overall) has yet to match the gaudy statistics, but these awards tend to find their way to the players with the most impressive box-score numbers, and Devin Bush is making a habit of collecting those.