Heading into the 2016 season, Dallas Cowboys rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott seems to be the consensus favorite for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, and rightly so. As colleague Sam Monson wrote shortly after the draft, Elliott to Dallas was a dream scenario for both parties — the most complete back in the class landing behind the best offensive line in the league (at least for the past two seasons).
It’s worth noting, however, that a few other rookies have legitimate shots at the award, as well. Here we’ll discuss three players who — because of skill-set and surrounding situations — have a chance to challenge the former Buckeye rusher.
1. Hunter Henry, TE, San Diego Chargers (Round 2, pick No. 35)
A former Arkansas Razorback, Henry entered the draft as the class’ top tight end prospect. In 2015, he earned the highest receiving grade of any FBS TE, a bump up from his fourth-place rank in 2014.
As colleague Mike Renner noted in PFF’s scouting report on Henry, the former Razorback completed the entire 2015 season without a drop, and only had two the season prior. Volume wasn’t an issue, either, as Henry hauled in each of his 51 catchable targets, good for sixth-most in the FBS.
What favors Henry’s chances for the ORoY honor more so than his hands is the situation he enters in San Diego. This offseason, former Chargers TE Ladarius Green hit the free-agent market, ultimately signing with the Steelers. That leaves Antonio Gates — still the team’s top TE target in 2015 at age 35 — as the only incumbent at the position.
What’s more, Malcom Floyd — Philip Rivers’ second-most targeted wide receiver in 2015 — retired at the end of the 2015 season.
Simply put, Henry will have the opportunity to make an immediate impact in 2016. Last season, Rivers threw to his WRs the fourth-least (percentage-wise) of any QB (behind Tennessee's Marcus Mariota, Philadelphia's Sam Bradford and New England's Tom Brady). Conversely, he targeted his TEs 23.6 percent of the time (12-highest). Although the Chargers did add former Browns WR Travis Benjamin this offseason — PFF’s 66th-highest-graded receiver last year — San Diego’s offense will provide both TEs with plenty of chances to make plays. In 2015, Gates and Green lined up in the slot more frequently than any other pair of NFL TEs, and the Chargers utilized two-TE sets on 26.8 percent of their offensive snaps.
With limited receiving options, look for Rivers to continue to utilize his bigger targets — including the best receiving TE in college last year — through the air.
2. Kenneth Dixon, RB, Baltimore Ravens (Round 4, pick No. 134)
Another rookie benefiting from his surroundings, Dixon’s arrival in Baltimore comes at a key time for the Ravens. Last season, the backfield featured the league’s 36th- and 62nd-ranked running backs (in terms of overall grade). With Justin Forsett and Javorius Allen still the top returning options, Dixon could get a chance to prove himself immediately.
The former Louisiana Tech rusher entered the draft as the No. 47 overall prospect on PFF’s draft board — a steal for Baltimore at pick No. 134 — after owning the top college receiving grade among all RBs in the class.
Like Elliott in Dallas, Dixon will line up behind a solid offensive line — Baltimore was the eighth-highest-graded run-blocking team last season, and finished 13th overall in our season-end rankings.
Dixon’s greatest skill is his ability to make would-be tacklers miss. Last year, he forced more missed tackles on receptions (16) than any other RB in the class, and owned the second-best elusive rating (behind only Giants rookie Paul Perkins), which is PFF's measure of how good a runner is at generating yards independent of his blocking.
What’s more, the Ravens play in a division that wasn’t particularly stout against the run last season — the Bengals, Steelers and Browns finished 2015 ranked 13th, 24th and 31st in run defense, respectively.
If Dixon is given opportunities early and often, especially on passes out of the backfield and possibly even the slot from QB Joe Flacco, expect the former Bulldog to be a surprise rookie standout in 2016.
3. Corey Coleman, WR, Cleveland Browns (Round 1, pick No. 15)
The only first-rounder on this list, Coleman heads to a Cleveland offense that earned the third-worst receiving grade in the league last season. Coleman was the No. 9 overall prospect and No. 1 wide receiver on our draft board, so he was a relative steal with the 15th overall pick.
If the Browns’ receiver situation was dire in 2015, things only got worse in terms of returning targets this offseason. As previously mentioned, Travis Benjamin will be running routes for San Diego QB Philip Rivers in 2016, and Cleveland recently cut Brian Hartline (No. 59 WR in PFF grades last season). That pair accounted for 58.0 percent of the Browns’ WR targets in 2015.
While the team’s most-targeted player last season — TE Gary Barnidge — is still on the roster, new head coach Hue Jackson is likely to immediately lean on Coleman. The former Baylor star earned the ninth-best overall grade among FBS WRs last season, but was in the top five before QB Seth Russell suffered a season-ending injury in just the Bears’ seventh game.
Coleman’s greatest strength is his ability to get separation from coverage both before and after the catch using his quickness and speed, and that translated to his stat line. At 3.97, his average yards per route run mark trailed only Washington Redskins rookie Josh Doctson in the 2016 draft class.
Realistically, much of Coleman’s success will revolve around the re-initiation of Robert Griffin III as a starting QB. The former Redskin will have a stable of young receivers at his ready (Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis and Jordan Payton could each see significant targets as rookies, too), and will try to recreate the production we saw in 2012. During the height of Griffin's NFL career thus far (his rookie season), Griffin ran play-action fakes on 40 percent of his dropbacks that year—the highest rate PFF has recorded in the past four seasons. In 2015, Baylor QB Seth Russell ran play-action fakes on 54.2 percent of his dropbacks, with Coleman on the receiving end of many of those targets. What's more, under Jackson as the Bengals offensive coordinator, Andy Dalton ran play-action fakes the ninth-most of any NFL QB last season.