Carolina Panthers

2011 NFL Predictions: Top Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates, Sleepers

J FCorrespondent IMay 31, 2011

2011 NFL Predictions: Top Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates, Sleepers

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20:  Cam Newton attends the NFL PLAYERS Premiere League Flag Football Game at UCLA on May 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
    Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

    For many fans, the NFL season ends when their teams are eliminated from playoff contention and they are forced to find other things to devote their passion to.

    Some look forward to the Pro Bowl—that is, if any of their favorite players were even invited. Some choose to cheer wholeheartedly against the teams they despise and root for all the postseason feel-good stories.

    However, some fans take great pride when a player from their favorite franchise is gifted with an individual award. It can even become a sign of hope no matter how poorly the season turned out, especially in the case of the Rookie of the Year.

    In 2010, QB Sam Bradford was declared the league's top offensive rookie, as he almost led the Rams to a playoff berth. After several dismal seasons, fans in St. Louis are now looking forward to September.

    In this particular slideshow, I'll examine the offensive rookies with the best chance to win the prize following the 2011 regular season, as well as several sleepers who could come out of nowhere to snatch it.

    Will another quarterback breathe life into a struggling franchise, or will a receiver or running back steal the show next season?

    Note: I am only considering wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks because they are the only positions that have ever received the award. Some info used from Wikipedia and player updates gathered from Rotoworld.

Long-Shot Sleepers

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    BOISE, ID - SEPTEMBER 25:  Wide receiver Titus Young #1 of the Boise State Broncos runs the ball against cornerback Brandon Hardin #17 of the Oregon State Beavers at Bronco Stadium on September 25, 2010 in Boise, Idaho.  (Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty
    Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images

    Titus Young, WR

    As a speedy third receiver and kick returner for the Lions, Young has the potential to explode into the Rookie of the Year conversation.

    Mikel Leshoure, RB

    Leshoure will share carries with Jahvid Best, but he could become the Lions' main goal-line option. If Best suffers another injury, Leshoure's Rookie of the Year chances could go way up.

    Ryan Williams, RB

    Williams will probably get more opportunities as a pass catcher in an Arizona backfield already crowded with Beanie Wells and Tim Hightower, so his Rookie of the Year chances are slim to none.

    Randall Cobb, WR

    Cobb has often been compared to Percy Harvin, who won the award two seasons ago, and will have immediate opportunities to rectify the Packers' return game. Although he will be buried on the depth chart at receiver, with Donald Driver in decline and James Jones likely on his way out, Cobb could see some looks in the slot from one of the league's top QBs.

Capable Sleepers

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    INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 27: Quarterback Christian Ponder of Florida State looks on during the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 27, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Jonathan Baldwin, WR

    Although he is expected to start opposite of Dwayne Bowe, Baldwin isn't likely to have an extremely productive rookie campaign with the Chiefs.

    Christian Ponder, QB

    Unless the Vikings were just grasping in darkness after the draft's top QBs went off the board, they certainly have some faith in Ponder's ability to resurrect the franchise after Favre's final retirement. Even though the Vikes might bring in a veteran to help ease the transition, Ponder plans to start immediately. Only time will tell if he can take a talented offense to the next level.

    Mark Ingram, RB

    Ingram will be a workhorse for New Orleans in his rookie season, even with Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and possibly Reggie Bush also getting touches. He was a steal for the Saints, and he could also steal the Rookie of the Year award if he emerges as the team's definitive starter and franchise back.

    A.J. Green, WR

    Green has the potential to be Carson Palmer's top target in Cincinnati in 2011 with the pending departures of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco—unless, of course, Palmer also leaves town and forces the Bengals to trust two rookies to lead the offense.

5. Jake Locker, QB

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    INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 25: Washington Huskies quarterback Jake Locker answers questions during a media session at the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 25, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Tennessee Titans are most likely to bring in some veteran QB competition, possibly Matt Hasselbeck, rather than push Jake Locker into the starting role in 2011.

    Like Dalton on the Bengals, Locker is loved by Tennessee's coaching staff, and if he shows he has what it takes right away, then whatever veterans the Titans bring in could take a back seat to the rookie.

    Locker is a stretch for the Rookie of the Year, but I won't diminish the possibilities.

4. Julio Jones, WR

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    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Julio Jones, #6 overall pick by the Atlanta Falcons, holds up a jersey on stage during the 2011 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on April 28, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    If Julio Jones can overcome the pressure of the blockbuster trade that sent him to Atlanta on draft day, he will waste no time becoming yet another explosive weapon in Matt Ryan's arsenal.

    The Falcons believe he's a guaranteed playmaker who will complete a potent offense lacking only an elite wideout to play opposite Roddy White.

    The doubters who criticized the move for Jones will dissipate if he earns the honor of the NFL's top offensive rookie and perhaps even pushes the franchise to the big game.

3. Colin Kaepernick, QB

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20:  Colin Kaepernick attends the NFL PLAYERS Premiere League Flag Football Game at UCLA on May 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
    Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

    While he is not expected to be the first-game starter for the 49ers in 2011, mostly due to the lockout and his leg surgery, many scouts believe it is an undeniable fact Colin Kaepernick will dethrone incumbent QB Alex Smith at some point early in the season.

    It's obvious the Niners can't move forward with Smith at the helm, and they believe Kaepernick is more talented..

    If it turns out he is the answer in San Fran, he could also be the answer for the Rookie of the Year award.

2. Andy Dalton, QB

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20:  Andy Dalton attends the NFL PLAYERS Premiere League Flag Football Game at UCLA on May 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
    Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

    Yes, there have never been too many decent red-haired quarterbacks in the NFL, and obviously one has never won the Rookie of the Year award, but as they say, there's a first time for everything.

    Cincinnati's new carrot-topped QB could find himself in the starting role as early as opening day if Palmer follows through with his foolish idea of retiring.

    The organization has strong faith in him because of his football smarts, and if they give him the reins in 2011, Dalton will have the opportunity to prove his skill as well.

1. Cam Newton, QB

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20:  Cam Newton attends the NFL PLAYERS Premiere League Flag Football Game at UCLA on May 20, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
    Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

    The No. 1 pick is also the No. 1 candidate to earn the Rookie of the Year award.

    It is uncertain how the Panthers will completely address their ugly quarterback situation. While they may bring in a veteran, it is a good bet Cam Newton is pushing hard to be the Week 1 starter over Jimmy Clausen.

    Of all the recently drafted quarterbacks, Newton has the best chance of playing a full season and putting up the best numbers in order to be called the top offensive rookie.

    Although you never know when the next big draft bust will be revealed...

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