Top 10 NFL Rookie of the Year candidates

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 25: Running back Ezekiel Elliott #21 of the Dallas Cowboys warms up prior to the game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on August 25, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Cowboys 27-17. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The 2016 regular season is nearly upon us, and with it, our attention turns away from preseason action to look ahead at the real football to come. The most exciting thing about the early part of any season to many people is the performance of NFL rookies, the influx of young talent that can define a franchise moving forward.

A good rookie class can rejuvenate a franchise and take it places, while a disaster of a rookie crop can set a team back years.

The preseason has shown glimpses of the talent this year’s class possesses, but who are the young players that will have the biggest impact in year one?

1. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys

If I’m honest, I think this list is one guy and then nine honorable mentions. The combination of Ezekiel Elliott behind the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line is too perfect a match, and as soon as the team made the pick at No. 4 overall in the draft, I think this award was locked up (barring injury or suspension). The O-line in Dallas was good enough last season to make Darren McFadden look like a productive starter, and we saw from the seven carries Elliott got against Seattle exactly what he can bring to the table that most other runners cannot. Anybody rushing behind that line will be productive, but Elliott will add yards to the other end of that by attacking defenders at the second and third levels and gaining significant yards after contact. During his final season at Ohio State, he topped 1,000 yards after contact for the season, and he should be in line for a huge rookie year that will lock up this award.

2. Will Fuller, WR, Texans

Will Fuller is a wildcard in this race. I’m not in love with him as a prospect or his skill-set, but he has blazing speed that can take the top off a defense and lead to huge plays in a heartbeat. He also has a tendency to drop the ball, with double-digit drops in each of his final two college seasons. That combination makes his potential production a very volatile thing. His average depth of target this preseason was 17.4 yards downfield, and as that kind of deep threat, three drops either way could be the difference between three touchdowns and a whole chunk of yardage. It’s not likely that his hands will suddenly improve in the pros, but over small enough sample sizes, it’s definitely possible that he has a run of drop-less production and approaches 10 touchdowns for the season, which would vault him into this conversation.

3. Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Buccaneers

It’s tough for defensive backs to get into the Rookie of the Year conversation, because they need a boatload of interceptions to get recognized. Of all of the corners this season, I think Hargreaves has the biggest potential to snag his share of those. He is a natural ballhawk with lightning-quick movement skills and the tendency to attack the ball in the air looking for a pick, not just shooting to break up the pass. This preseason, he allowed just one catch over eight targets and picked off two passes himself. If Hargreaves is targeted enough in 2016, he could potentially haul in enough interceptions to be in the Rookie of the Year discussion by season’s end.

4. Tajae Sharpe, WR, Titans

In his final collegiate season, Tajae Sharpe earned the fourth-highest receiving grade among WRs in the 2016 draft class. Almost from day one, the fifth-round rookie was running with the first team in Titans camp, and now at the end of the preseason, he may be the team’s No. 1 WR. He caught nine of the 12 passes thrown his way for 163 yards, and showed the kind of veteran savvy and route-running smarts that has made him such a feature already. He clearly has the confidence of quarterback Marcus Mariota, and could put up a very respectable season straight off the bat. Sharpe is the rare rookie that is unquestionably one of the best targets his team has, and is advanced enough to make the right adjustments consistently to the correct spot for the ball.

5. Ronnie Stanley, LT, Ravens

This is the first name on the list that has virtually no chance of winning the NFL's Rookie of the Year award, but a reasonable chance of deserving to. Offensive tackles tend to struggle badly in year one—just playing at a league-average level for the position would be considered a good achievement for most rookies. Through four preseason games, Ronnie Stanley looks significantly ahead of that curve. He allowed just two pressures over his 81 snaps of action, and didn’t allow his QB to hit the ground once, nor was he penalized. If Stanley can carry that forward into the regular season and play at that kind of level all season long, it will be a performance thoroughly deserving of the award, given the expected struggles of rookies at that position.

6. Chris Jones, DE, Chiefs

Chris Jones was the No. 12 player on PFF’s final draft board, but he lasted until the second round of the draft, where the Chiefs snagged him with the 37th overall pick. He has dominated in the preseason, playing just 59 snaps, but posting one of the best grades of any interior defender, bettering even players with two to three times the playing time. He didn’t notch any sacks, but posted eight pressures and a batted pass, and showed a relentless ability to disrupt plays in the run and pass game with a rare combination of size and speed. As an interior player, Jones will likely need a run of sacks to get award recognition, but he certainly has the ability to dominate enough that they will come.

7. Dak Prescott, QB, Cowboys

This one relies a little bit more on outside circumstances than most, as I don’t think there are any real scenarios in which the Cowboys would not give Tony Romo his job back once he returns to full fitness (if the current timeline for his absence holds true). But Romo, at this point, seems to be made out of glass, and could easily suffer a second injury, or re-aggravate his current one to give Prescott the majority of the season under center for the Cowboys—if not the whole thing. Prescott likely won’t light things up in the regular season the way he did in the preseason, but behind that offensive line—with Ezekiel Elliott running the ball—it’s about the best possible circumstances you could insert a rookie passer into for him to have success. If he gets a break and winds up starting for most of the year, he would likely be in Rookie of the Year consideration simply as a result of the supporting cast he has helping him on offense.

8. Robert Nkemiche, DE, Cardinals

Thought of at one time as a much higher first-round prospect, Nkemdiche was eventually selected with the 29th overall pick by the Cardinals, and then sidelined for much of camp and the preseason with an injury. Once he returned to the field however, he produced 60 snaps of dominance and showed the kind of rookie impact he could have for this defense. He was disruptive against both the run and the pass, knifing into the backfield and affecting plays in both facets. Without needing to be an every-down player for the Cardinals, he could easily produce an excellent statistical season as a situational man in Arizona's rotation. Nkemdiche produced a sack, hit, and three hurries in the preseason on just 31 pass-rushing plays.

9. Hunter Henry, TE, Chargers

For years, Antonio Gates has been the fulcrum of the Chargers' passing offense, but he is 36 years old and getting by purely on veteran savvy at this point. Hunter Henry is unlikely to be a new Gates, but he is stepping into an offense that wants to lean on its tight ends. Henry caught five of the six passes thrown his way in the preseason from just 73 snaps of play, and showed the kind of weapon he can be down the seam against the Titans in his first preseason action. The former Razorback will likely be fed the ball plenty in this offense, and has the kind of receiving skills to respond to that with a fairly productive year. It will be tough for a TE to snag the Rookie of the Year award, requiring a pretty spectacular set of numbers, but it’s not out of the question.

10. Jordan Howard, RB, Bears

At this point in time, this is the most unlikely of the options. Given the opportunity, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry may have a far better chance of winning the award, but I don’t think he’ll ever win enough of the workload to produce what will be needed to do so. Jordan Howard is further down the depth chart in Chicago, but I see a clearer path to a full-time spot—and the workload that comes with it—for him. He was by far the Bears' best back in the preseason, leading Chicago's running backs in yards per carry (4.8), yards per carry after contact (3.4), and broken tackles (six). Against Cleveland, Howard seemed to be ripping off 10 yards every time he touched the ball, doing much of the work himself. If he can continue that production when given the opportunity, he will soon be the lead back on that team, and could have the kind of numbers that gets him into Rookie of the Year contention.


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