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Why Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris is the best value pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year

Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22) against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The post-draft NFL landscape can be barren of excitement. We’ve analyzed picks, we’ve passed out grades and every one of the 32 fan bases can dream of a better team and a brighter tomorrow. As the offseason progresses, we’ll hear more about how the particulars of rosters will shake out and what to expect in 2021.

Whether it’s in fantasy football drafts or earlier offseason prop betting, there’s a human instinct to waiting to act until we have the superficial certainty that accompanies the conclusion of training camp battles and “reliable” coaching assessments for how workloads will shake out in the coming year.

That feeling of reassurance is comforting for the individual, but it isn’t a unique advantage in competitive markets. Waiting to place your bets on outcomes doesn’t increase your return as long as the market improves with you — which it does when everyone is paying attention. This early offseason presents a good opportunity to take advantage of markets that haven’t properly adjusted to new information, either due to misunderstandings of market dynamics or under- or overestimating the value of landing spots.

The market for Offensive Rookie of the Year presents one of those opportunities. I looked through the historical trends of the award, along with our post-draft projections for offensive rookies, and found one position group being undervalued as a whole and a particular player with longer odds who has an ideal setup to win the award.

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Know the Historical Market

There are key differences between the most prestigious awards for all NFL players (MVP) and that for rookie offensive players (OROY). Quarterback has become the de facto winning position for MVP, with signal-callers taking home eight straight awards and 13 of the past 14. There’s always a possibility that another position can win MVP, but the NFL’s larger shift toward passing and the increased understanding of lower running back value has permanently changed market dynamics. We’re no longer in the environment of 1991-2000 when running backs won MVP just as often as quarterbacks.

Because of the big shift in the MVP landscape, the perception of a market for OROY exists. Digging deeper into the shows that the positional allocations for OROY have similarly shifted over time, though from a vastly different baseline.

Zero quarterbacks won Rookie of the Year in the 1990s. The primary difference was that rookie quarterbacks, even those taken near the top of the draft, didn’t typically start in their first NFL seasons. That has changed over the past few decades. But even so, running backs were still nearly as likely to win OROY as quarterbacks in recent years.

Running backs have a much greater advantage in OROY balloting compared to MVP for a few reasons. First, you need only look at the name of the award, specifically the term “value.” Player of the year is a much different discussion than most valuable player. It could be dismissed as semantics, but the view of OROY would change if value was part of the title.

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