Top 10 Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates to Watch in 2014 NFL

Jeff YoderContributor IJune 13, 2014

Top 10 Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates to Watch in 2014 NFL

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    Craig Ruttle/Associate Press

    The 2014 NFL draft was one of the more exciting drafts in recent memory. A rookie class loaded with talent—with arguably the deepest wide receiver class in NFL history—basically gift-wrapped one legitimate candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors to every team. 

    Of the first 100 picks, 58 of them were on the offensive side of the ball, including 20 or more offensive picks in both the second and third rounds. Of those 58, 35 were skill-position players. And while not every team sent Roger Goodell to the podium with a playmaker’s name in the envelope early on, the majority of them swiped first-round talent for a second- or third-round price tag.  

    Of those first 35 rookie skill players, here are my top 10 candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2014. 

10. Cody Latimer: WR Denver Broncos

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    Indiana's Cody Latimer (3) is tackled by Illinois' Darius Mosely (24) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, in Bloomington, Ind. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)
    Doug McSchooler

    No. 10 on the list is Indiana wide receiver Cody Latimer. He mostly makes the list because of the quarterback who will be throwing to him this season: Peyton Manning

    Latimer had his breakout year in 2012 with the Hoosiers, pulling down 51 grabs for 805 yards and six touchdowns. And when you thought his production couldn't get much higher—at least not with a mediocre Big Ten team—he became the Hoosiers' go-to offensive weapon in 2013, snagging 72 balls for 1,096 yards and nine trips to the end zone.

    He is a rangy target at 6'1" and 215 pounds. And while he's a great player, he wouldn't be on the list if he wasn't drafted by the Denver Broncos, who likely took him in the second round to fill the role of the departed Eric Decker, who is now with the New York Jets.  

9. Blake Bortles: QB Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles (5) dashes for a rushing touchdown as Baylor safety Terrell Burt (13) defends during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuter
    Rick Scuteri

    No. 9 on the list is UCF quarterback Blake Bortles. Having him this far down on the list might cause you to question numbers eight through one, but I think he's a great quarterback with a huge upside.

    The reason he slides down this far is because of the team that drafted him. I can't imagine any great offensive player making a huge push for Rookie of the Year honors in Year 1 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, especially after the departure of Maurice Jones-Drew and only a few decent receivers to complement Cecil Shorts III. 

    Sure, Bortles is a smart quarterback. He's the safer long-term pick than the other two first-round QBs in Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater, but the safe pick usually doesn't give you breakout numbers in Year 1. If you ask me who's the better quarterback of the three in five years, it's Bortles, but Year 1 in Jacksonville doesn't look promising. 

8. Eric Ebron: TE Detroit Lions

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    Jim Dedman/SI.com

    Ebron is a freak. He'll become one of the next great tight ends. He has the sure-handedness of Antonio Gates and the athleticism of Vernon Davis. When the Detroit Lions put him in the middle of the field with Calvin Johnson on the outside, defenses will face a matchup nightmare.

    Ebron caught 62 passes for 973 yards in 2013. Only three of those catches ended in touchdowns, but it could be a different story with Matthew Stafford throwing him the football. If Stafford can be consistent and Johnson continues to play at a high level and draw attention, Ebron could be open in the red zone often. 

7. Teddy Bridgewater: QB Minnesota Vikings

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    John Sommers II/Getty Images

    No. 7 on the list is the talented yet questionable Louisville quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. In 2012 he completed 68.5 percent of his passes as he amassed more than 3,700 yards and 27 touchdowns with just eight picks. In 2013 he was even more impressive, throwing for 3,970 yards, 31 touchdowns and just four interceptions while completing more than 70 percent of his passes. 

    With those ridiculous numbers and being running threat and a nice young man, Bridgewater was the favorite to go No. 1 overall back in the middle of the college football season. After much criticism and a poor pro day in April, his stock dropped, and he fell all the way to Minnesota with the last pick of the first round.

    While there are questions about whether or not he'll even start this year for Minnesota, it will only take three weeks of mediocre play by Christian Ponder before the rookie gets thrown in and succeeds. 

6. Jordan Matthews: WR Philadelphia Eagles

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    No. 6 on the list is one of my favorites for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Already drawing comparisons to Terrell Owens, Jordan Matthews is T.O. with a positive attitude. No. 81 in Philadelphia is a big, physical ball hawk who gets to learn under head coach Chip Kelly. Maybe Matthews is not at Owens' level yet, but there's a hole to fill in Philly with the departure of DeSean Jackson, and the rookie is turning heads. 

    The all-time SEC leader in both receptions (262) and receiving yards (3759), he also tallied 24 touchdowns. He slid under the radar— at least through the first round— and Kelly may have found a better fit for his system than Jackson. 

5. Bishop Sankey: RB Tennessee Titans

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Next up is another player who's high on the list because of his ability to step in right away. Similar to Cody Latimer taking the place of Eric Decker and Jordan Matthews replacing DeSean Jackson, Washington running back Bishop Sankey is the rebound of the Chris Johnson era in Tennessee. 

    The rookie ran for 36 touchdowns and more than 3,000 yards in his last two years at Washington. At 5'10" and 200 pounds, he resembles a young Frank Gore with his downhill running.

    Sankey will have to share some carries with Shonn Greene in the backfield, but with the quarterback battle between Jake Locker—whom the Titans have seemingly given up onand rookie Zach Mettenberger from LSU, expect a heavy dose of the run game from Tennessee. 

4. Kelvin Benjamin: WR Carolina Panthers

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    USA Today

    No. 4 is a guy who could easily be No. 1. Kelvin Benjamin is tall and athletic with the sure hands of Julio Jones, and he's stepping in as the No. 1 target for a star quarterback and hungry competitor in Cam Newton.

    Forget that Benjamin caught the winning touchdown in the BCS National Championship Game to defeat the Auburn Tigers. Newton wants him in his corner. And though I'm sure a joke or two has been made about the new teammates' alma maters, there's no jokes about winning now in Carolina. 

    Benjamin recorded 54 catches, more than 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, but the significant stat is his 18.7 average yards per catch. He's a "throw it up and go get it" type of receiver, which is ideal for Newton's gunslinger mentality.

    The Panthers were on the brink of greatness last season, and with the departure of wide receiver Steve Smith, they will need Benjamin if they want to go back to the playoffs. 

3. Mike Evans: WR Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Getty Images

    Next up is the sad story. I doubt the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win more than four games this season. I doubt they even compete in half of their losses. Most of all, I doubt that Mike Glennon is the long-term answer in Tampa Bay. But one thing I don't doubt is that the Bucs will likely play from behind for much of 2014, and that means a lot of throwing the football. 

    In just two season at Texas A&M, Mike Evans was Johnny Manziel's favorite target, pulling down 151 catches for nearly 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns.

    Hopefully, a healthy Doug Martin will put a little life into Tampa Bay, but if he's not in the same form as 2012, the Bucs will rely on the growth of Glennon and his new toy Evans. 

2. Johnny Manziel: QB Cleveland Browns

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    Scott Haleran/Getty Images

    I hesitated putting Johnny Football at No. 2, and just like the Browns in the draft, picking Manziel for anything is hit or miss. 

    His stats don't need to be mentioned here. He doesn't require a huge analysis about what he can or can't do with the football.

    It's simple: If the Browns don't play him Week 1 and Brian Hoyer doesn't win games, Manziel will come in with fire, passion and a will to win. He could perform poorly. He could try to do too much and get injured. He could not play a snap this season as a Brown.

    But he could also resurrect Cleveland, draw obnoxious amounts of media attention and be a shoo-in for Offensive Rookie of the Year if Cleveland goes .500 or better in the win column. 

    Take it or leave it, Manziel is the bad-boy media equivalent to Tim Tebow. He could lead the Browns to the playoffs—like Tebow in Denver—or he could sit third on the depth chart and still be talked about more than the starter—like Tebow in New York. 

1. Sammy Watkins: WR Buffalo Bills

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins takes the cake in this list. He's undoubtedly the most talented receiver in the draft and is in a position to be successful right away.

    Buffalo may not produce a lot of playoff wins, have a Hall of Fame quarterback under center or even be an attractive place to stay long term for Watkins. However, Calvin Johnson's statistical success in Detroit is a great case study and comparison for Watkins' potential productivity. 

    Buffalo, like Tampa Bay, may be in a position to play from behind and throw the ball quite often. The Bills also might surprise you playing in a division with the struggling Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. Whether they're in games until the end or playing from behind, they're likely to let quarterback EJ Manuel—Buffalo's first-round pick in last year's draftopen up the playbook and jell with his new star receiver.

    Watkins caught passes from Tajh Boyd at Clemsonwho has a similar playing style to Manueland surpassed 3,000 yards to go along with his 240 catches and 27 touchdowns in his collegiate career.

    At the end of the 2014 regular season, expect to see Watkins boasting Rookie of the Year honors and the Buffalo Bills game-planning for their first playoff game since 1999.