Barring a major surprise, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year will go to a position other than quarterback for the first time since 2009. And for the first time in a decade, the award will almost certainly go to a player who wasn't drafted in the first round.
Keenan Allen and Eddie Lacy are the only two correct answers for this award. Anyone who suggests a different player should have diced tomatoes thrown at their face. Allen and Lacy have both exceeded all their draft-day expectations, have been integral parts of playoff contenders and even overcome their own internal controversies to get the job done.
We know that one of those two will win the award for the simplest of reasons. One, EJ Manuel has spent a ton of time on the sidelines due to injury and Geno Smith is terrible; there are no quarterback contenders. And two, because offensive linemen never win anything. Going back to 1967, only quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers have taken home the AP Rookie of the Year.
Running backs dwarf all other positions with 31 wins. It's the easiest position by a mile to translate from college, making running back the linebacker of offense.
Now, the order of Lacy-Allen is still up in the air, and I suspect that we'll be looking at an extremely close vote. The race between the two is so close that it may come down to the final week, where both Lacy's Packers and Allen's Chargers will find out whether they'll be playing January football.
With that in mind, let's check in on my theoretical vote for the award heading into Week 17.
1a. Keenan Allen (WR, San Diego Chargers)
The NFL hasn't always been kind to Keenan Allen. After a stellar three seasons at Cal, Allen declared for the draft a season early and was expected to garner serious first-round consideration. Instead, the Chargers scooped up Allen midway through the third.
San Diego didn't even realize what a gem it had. Allen didn't play a single offensive snap in a Week 1 loss to the Texans, a move Allen recently revealed had him on the precipice of walking away from football altogether.
"'I need help. I'm losing. I'm about to quit,'" Allen recalled telling his mother in September, per of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "(I wasn't) living up to my expectations of starting. I've never been a role player-type guy. Not easy at all...I've never had to do it before. I never had to adjust."
Let's just say that you don't have to be the quickest learner to excel in the NFL. Allen finally started receiving offensive snaps in Week 2, and it was quickly apparent he should have been on the field all along. Heading into the season's final Sunday, Allen has scored eight touchdowns and is 43 yards short of a 1,000 yards receiving.
I know what you're thinking; 1,000 yards receiving in today's NFL isn't great shakes. Hell, Josh Gordon nearly did that in a four-game span earlier this season. How special could a season be when a player is 23rd in yardage at their own position?
Answer: historically special. Allen would be the first 1,000-yard rookie receiver since A.J. Green in 2011 and just the eighth in the last quarter-century. No matter the proliferation of pass-heavy offenses—the transition from college receiver to pro receiver is just too hard. And looking at the list of wideouts, Allen is in awfully good company.
Green. Marques Colston. Anquan Boldin. Terry Glenn. Randy Moss. Michael Clayton. Well, OK, not all good company. But suffice it to say when the low end of a career trajectory is probably Colston, the Chargers found themselves a gem. Football Outsiders actually ranks Allen as the eighth best receiver in football this season.
The other guy we're about to discuss is great, but Allen gets points for difficulty. Fifty-seven running backs have gone quadruple-digits in their rookie season since the merger. Eleven receivers have done so. That's enough to separate the two fantastic youngsters.
1b. Eddie Lacy (RB, Green Bay Packers)
Anyone remember when Eddie Lacy was fat? Or when folks were wondering why Johnathan Franklin wasn't getting more playing time? Or when some were making the point that the Packers are just historically inept at developing running backs?
Lacy may not be the sveltest figure, but NFL defenses have found out that's not necessarily a bad thing. The former Alabama standout has recovered from a slow start, taking the reins full-time starting in Week 5 and never letting go. He's eighth in the league with 1,112 rushing yards and third behind only Jamaal Charles and Marshawn Lynch with 11 touchdowns.
Lacy has also set a record this season for Most Keeper League Fantasy Owners Driven to Alcohol Abuse After Releasing Good Player, or MKLFODAAARGP for short. (Acronyms are not the strong suit of these awards.) He's scored eight touchdowns over the Packers' last 10 games, which is not unimportant considering they've been without Aaron Rodgers for much of that time.
With Rodgers returning for Sunday's NFC North-deciding game against the Bears, Lacy may wind up getting a boost should he have a solid game. Packers-Bears and Cowboys-Eagles are the two games nearly every fan will have some vested interest in watching; the same can't be said for Chiefs-Chargers, in which Kansas City will likely rest some starters.
One problem: Lacy is currently dealing with an ankle injury. Head coach Mike McCarthy said Thursday, via the Packers' official Twitter account, he expects Lacy to suit up, but anything can change between now and Sunday. One wouldn't necessarily think that sitting or playing would create that much of a swing, but Lacy and Allen are so close in this race that any little thing could shift momentum.
While I'd vote for Allen, it's hard to quibble with those who'd put him second. Football Outsiders' DYAR metric notes that Lacy was worth 191 yards more than a replacement-level running back, the fourth-best in football. That puts him well ahead of notables like Adrian Peterson (23rd), Lynch (10th) and Chris Johnson (19th). Lacy is even fleeter of foot than you would expect, ranking ninth in Pro Football Focus' "elusive" rating.
Lacy has been awesome. Just not awesome enough.
3. Giovani Bernard (RB, Cincinnati Bengals): You'll always wonder what could have been for Bernard. It's disappointing that he can't pass block, but anytime he has touched the ball it has become obvious he should be doing so more. Bernard is quietly well over 1,000 total yards, is probably the Bengals' second-best offensive weapon behind A.J. Green and should be the unquestioned starter in 2014. You know, unless Marvin Lewis decides it's a good idea to get 3.3 yards per carry 200-plus times from BenJarvus Green-Ellis again.
4. Zac Stacy (RB, St. Louis Rams): Not as versatile as Bernard nor quite as productive as Lacy, Stacy still finds himself as a strong long-term replacement for Steven Jackson. He's a strong, smart runner who rarely breaks out and makes your jaw drop, but will always somehow end up with solid overall numbers. He might be better, though, if the Rams find a complement who can catch the ball better out of the backfield—something Stacy still doesn't do all that well.
5. DeAndre Hopkins (WR, Houston Texans): Hopkins has been your typical promising rookie wide receiver. He has had some big flashes, specifically his 117-yard outing against the Titans in Week 2. But more often than not Hopkins has been an enigma, someone who just shows up and disappears whenever he damn well pleases. It will help in 2014 when the Texans find some competency at quarterback. Still, Hopkins' overall numbers compare favorably to most of his contemporaries.
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