One of the NFL's most popular honors, Rookie of the Year takes into account a player's full contribution, including offense, defense, and special teams. PFF also take into account the learning curve for the position, and how well rookie players typically perform in that role.
Below you'll find PFF's Rookie of the Year selection for the 2015 NFL season, as well as four runners-up who kept the race tight.
Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While Tampa Bay, as a team, didn’t have a season to remember, Jameis Winston made the Buccaneers look pretty smart by drafting him first overall. After a slow Week 1 start, Winston was a top 10 quarterback from Week 2 and on.
While some young quarterbacks in recent years have played conservatively and relied on the talent around them, Winston was asked to do much more with lesser talent. His average depth of target of 10.3 was the fifth-highest among quarterbacks this year behind MVP candidates Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, and Ben Roethlisberger. He accomplished a 4,000-yard season despite a below-average offensive line in pass blocking efficiency. On paper, he has a strong receiving core around him, but Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed over half the season, and Vincent Jackson missed six games. The Buccaneers lacked consistency from their third and fourth wide receiver spots.
Where Winston was most impressive was his big-time throws. He had 39, which tied him for sixth-best alongside Tom Brady. If he can take away some of the negatives, the former FSU standout could be a Pro Bowler by his second season. When you consider how many outright busts there have been at quarterback over the past three years, and how long it’s taken for others to develop, the fact that Winston was this good this early is incredibly impressive.
Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo Bills
Although another rookie cornerback attracted more media attention, Ronald Darby was the most consistent first-year CB this season. His 87.1 PFF grade places him fourth-best among cornerbacks, while is 13 passes defended were tied for fifth-most. He allowed a low 54.3 percent catch rate and 11.6 yards per catch, which are both below the league average for cornerbacks. His 11.9 tackling efficiency was also good for the top 20 at the position. Teams tried to take advantage of him by targeting him 105 times, which was fifth-most, but they rarely were able to beat him. His 660 yards allowed were the fewest among the 10 most-targeted cornerbacks.
Some might prefer Marcus Peters here because he had more positive plays than Darby, including more interceptions and passes defended. Peters led all cornerbacks in positively-graded coverage plays, but Darby wasn’t far behind at sixth-best. However, cornerback is more of a position meant to prevent big plays, as opposed to making big ones. Peters had the second-most negatively-graded plays in coverage, just behind Brandon Browner, while Darby wasn’t even in the top 15.
Regardless of who you prefer, both of these players are especially impressive when you consider the typical play of rookie cornerbacks. We’ve seen rookie CBs be successful in recent years, but typically just in part-time roles. Ronald Darby was able to become a day one starter—and keep the job—despite other good cornerbacks on the roster, and never allowed a 100-yard game.
Leonard Williams, DT, New York Jets
When the Jets drafted Williams, we weren’t sure how much playing time he would get with the other talented defensive linemen on the roster. The Jets found a way to get him on the field, though, which led to 827 snaps by Williams—over 150 more than any other rookie interior defender. We often see rookie defensive linemen who can contribute as a pass rusher or a run defender, but is a liability in the other area. Williams was the rare player who could contribute in both facets immediately.
Against the run, Williams' 26 run stops were the sixth-most for 3-4 defensive ends. His PFF run defense rating of 90.4 ended up being eighth-best for all 3-4 defensive linemen or 4-3 defensive tackles. As a pass rusher, he had 50 total pressures, seventh-best for 3-4 defensive ends. He had 23 combined sacks and hits, which was just behind J.J. Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson at the position. While we see rookie defensive linemen making impacts every year, Williams was able to be one of the better linemen in the league in 2015, making him a clear top-three rookie on the year.
Tyler Lockett, WR/KR/PR, Seattle Seahawks
While plenty of receivers came into the season with a lot of hype, Tyler Lockett was one of the few to exceed expectations. He wasn’t the most targeted receiver of the group, but when he was thrown at, the Seahawks had an NFL passer rating of 130.4, which was the second-most for any receiver this year. He stood out from Amari Cooper because he had far fewer drops (three versus 18), and his special teams contribution helped him stand out from Stefon Diggs. He was named the PFF All-Pro second team punt returner, and the AP All-Pro first team returner. He had the third-most kick return yards and fourth-most punt return yards, the only player top five in both.
Todd Gurley, HB, St. Louis Rams
While Todd Gurley didn’t play a complete season, and we’ve seen plenty of rookie running backs succeed in the past, what Gurley did in 2015 was impressive in its own right. He was the fourth-most elusive back this year, with an elusive rating of 53.9. He made 42 players miss tackles on his carries, which was fifth-most in the league. (That was with everyone higher on the list having more carries than him.) He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, despite running behind the seventh-worst run blocking offensive line in the league. For now, we can say he was one of the best rookie runners this year; but behind a better offensive line and a full season of work, we should see some pretty impressive numbers from Gurley in the future.
For more PFF awards, visit the following pages:
Dwight Stephenson Award (Given to the best player in the NFL)
Most Improved Player of the Year