The race for the NFL's Rookie of the Year awards is basically a dead heat, and one big performance can swing the outcome either way.
With just two weeks remaining, a couple of running backs are jockeying for the title of best offensive rookie from the 2013 draft class. Picking between them involves picking between two different approaches to the position and how their respective styles translate to the stat sheet.
On the defensive side, two AFC East players have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, both in terms of rookies and players at their position in general. One is a linebacker who's all over the field, while the other has excelled in the trenches. It's a nuanced question who's better, and who comes out on top might be a matter of how thoroughly voters are willing to consider the comparison.
There's still time for either candidate to pull ahead, and there are still a couple of dark horses lurking if they can deliver flashy performances as last impressions.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
1. Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
There are two reasons Eddie Lacy has the lead in the OROY race right now: He has already eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing, and he put up 141 of those yards in Green Bay's dramatic comeback win against the Dallas Cowboys, in which he scored the go-ahead touchdown.
With the proliferation of running back committees and the diminishing role between-the-tackles power backs play in the NFL today, Lacy's play stands out, and the league has taken notice.
Even though he is picking up a middling 4.1 yards per carry, his 1,028 yards are good for seventh in the league. He also has eight rushing touchdowns, tied for fifth with Frank Gore, DeMarco Murray and Rashard Mendenhall.
Though he's lacking a bit in the efficiency department, Lacy has emerged as one of the league's most reliable running backs in his first season, and that's remarkable.
2. Giovani Bernard, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Here's a blind comparison of two running backs:
|Yards from Scrimmage||Yards per Touch||Total TDs|
It's probably not hard to figure out that Player A and Player B are the two guys vying for the award in question. Eddie Lacy is Player A. Giovani Bernard is Player B and is much closer to Lacy than you might think.
Every advantage Lacy gets for being a bell-cow back, Bernard loses for being a situational playmaker.
Though technically a backup behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis for passing situations, the rookie trails the vet by just 13 rushing yards—666 to 653—and gets significantly more out of his touches.
#Bengals Giovani Bernard is on pace for 9 TDs, most by rookie since '88...Ickey Woods.— Chris Roling (@Chris_Roling) December 15, 2013
A similar argument can be made for Bernard against Lacy. Bernard is not going to finish anywhere close to Lacy in rushing yards, though you can argue that the Bengal has made a bigger impact when he has the ball.
But the prestige of the 1,000-yard rusher swings this race against the new-age back. Unless Bernard has a couple of huge games to finish off the season, Lacy has this one.
3. Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego Chargers
Lurking behind the backs is wide receiver Keenan Allen, who suffers in this conversation by virtue of being a wide receiver.
With 931 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, Allen is having a fine season, though those stats place him third behind Lacy and Bernard already. Making matters worse, historical stigmas against receivers will prevent him from making up ground.
Even if he explodes in Weeks 16 and 17 and somehow catches Lacy for most yards from scrimmage for a rookie, Allen won't get all the credit. A good portion will go to Philip Rivers, the star quarterback who put the opportunistic rookie in a position to excel.
Since QB is the most important position in football, wideouts will always be considered the beneficiaries of the men under center. That's a big reason why only seven wide receivers have ever been named Offensive Rookie of the Year; running backs have won the award 31 times, more than all the other positions have combined.
Allen deserves plenty of credit for his impressive rookie campaign and his important role in the Chargers offense; the AP just won't give it to him here.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
1. Kiko Alonso, MLB, Buffalo Bills
Not to disparage Kiko Alonso or denigrate his play, but giving him DROY is more easy than it is right.
As a linebacker, Alonso's value is easy to qualify. He is easy to spot in the middle of the Bills defense, roving to hunt down ball-carriers, get after the passer, intercept passes and force fumbles. His 137 tackles are the third most in the NFL among all players, which is why he's receiving Pro Bowl consideration even though he's in the middle of a poor defense.
Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kiko Alonso all top 4 in Pro Bowl voting. Imagine if the Bills were top 25 against the run— Jerry Sullivan (@TBNSully) December 20, 2013
No other defensive position allows rookies the opportunity to influence so many parts of the game in so many measurable ways. Voters expect rookie linebackers to play well immediately and know to watch for them; after all, linebackers have won DROY 24 times before.
Looking at Alonso, he has all the makings of a Defensive Rookie of the Year. But it would be a shame if voters hand him the award without at least thinking hard about another candidate.
2. Sheldon Richardson, DE, New York Jets
In a vacuum, it doesn't seem like Sheldon Richardson is anywhere near as impactful as Alonso. The Jets defensive end has 70 tackles, 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble on the season—hardly world-shattering numbers, unless you think about what they mean.
Remember when J.J. Watt had his monster 2012 and won the Defensive Player of the Year award? The 20.5 sacks were a big part of that, but it was impressive enough for a 3-4 defensive end to get 81 tackles in a season.
Through 15 weeks, Watt has 69 tackles. Richardson leads all 3-4 defensive ends, trailing only Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich among defensive linemen. What's more, the Jets rank first in the league with 3.2 yards per carry allowed; the Bills give up 4.3, good for 23rd.
But that's where it gets tricky.
Using traditional stats, it's not really possible to explain how much Richardson is doing to bolster that run D, especially with Muhammad Wilkerson eating up blockers at the other end spot.
There's a strong argument to be made for Richardson, but unfortunately for him, the argument for Alonso is much simpler.
3. Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina Panthers
Star Lotulelei is your classic ROY also-ran.
The Panthers only allow 3.7 yards per carry, and the nose tackle must play a large role in that, so why not give him a second- or third-place vote? It's hard to substantiate him being the best defensive rookie in the league, but there's no need to qualify the third-place guy. That's the politics of it.
It's also the right decision because Carolina's playmakers wouldn't have room to shine without the space-eating rook in the middle.
Lotulelei's job is relatively thankless but necessary job. Luke Kuechly needs him to be able to submit his DPOY campaign from the second level, but clogging the middle of the line doesn't translate into any significant stats for Lotulelei.
He'll need something like multiple defensive touchdowns to even sniff consideration for first-place votes, but even that is unlikely at this point. More likely his impressive line play would make Richardson's seem more common, swinging favor more toward Alonso.
Regardless, Lotulelei is used to being unsung. It takes nothing away from his performance.