Ranking the NFL's Top 5 Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates in 2021

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 18, 2021

Ranking the NFL's Top 5 Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates in 2021

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    When a player wins Offensive Rookie of the Year, he proves that his team made the right choice on draft day. Those who won the award between 2011 and 2019 also earned a Pro Bowl nod within their first two years.

    Over the last six seasons, quarterbacks and running backs have swept the OROY awards. Odell Beckham Jr. was the last wide receiver to achieve the honor, back in 2014. Despite missing the first quarter of his rookie season with a hamstring injury, he led the league in receiving yards per game (108.8). 

    Beckham's rookie performance provides a barometer for wideouts Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith and Ja'Marr Chase. Perhaps tight end Kyle Pitts can make a case for himself as well.

    We'll look ahead and rank the top five candidates most likely to take home the Offensive Rookie of the Year hardware.

    The listing is based on projected playing time, the quality of the supporting cast and a player's role within the offense.

    Is the running back a three-down playmaker? Does the quarterback have the offensive weapons to rack up yards and touchdowns? Will the pass-catcher compete with a star veteran for targets? 

    Who's set up to finish atop major statistical categories and dazzle the league in his rookie year?

5. WR DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Tim Tai/Associated Press

    DeVonta Smith was the third wide receiver off the board in the 2021 draft, and although he's behind Jaylen Waddle in the selection order, the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner has a better chance to win Offensive Rookie of the Year than his former Alabama teammate. 

    Unlike Waddle, Smith won't compete against an established No. 1 wideout. The former will play alongside DeVante Parker, a six-year veteran who recorded 1,202 receiving yards in 2019. William Fuller V will also command a fair number of targets.

    Smith could open the 2021 season as the Philadelphia Eagles' lead pass-catcher since wideout Jalen Reagor, the team's 2020 first-rounder, didn't establish himself last year. He caught 31 passes for 396 yards and a touchdown through 11 contests. 

    Furthermore, NBC's Dave Zangaro believes there's a "very good chance" that Zach Ertz won't suit up for the Eagles in 2021. Philadelphia granted the veteran tight end permission to seek a trade, and multiple teams have expressed interest in him, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport

    Coming off an electric season that helped him earn the most prestigious collegiate honor, Smith should see plenty of targets.

    On the flip side, Smith isn't higher than the fifth spot on this list because he's reliant on quarterback Jalen Hurts, who has started in just four games and finished his rookie campaign with a 52.0 percent completion rate. 

    At Alabama, Smith and Hurts played together, but not as full-time starters in the same term. They'll need to work on their on-field chemistry.

4. QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Zach Wilson has a supporting cast that's bursting with potential.

    During free agency, the New York Jets signed wideout Corey Davis and running back Tevin Coleman, who's familiar with offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur from their two seasons together with the San Francisco 49ers.

    After the Jets selected Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick, they added offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker, wideout Elijah Moore and running back Michael Carter.

    If Vera-Tucker starts at left guard alongside Mekhi Becton, Wilson should have strong pass protection on his blind side. The BYU product will have time to air out some deep throws to receivers.

    Wilson has the arm strength to stretch the field, throws with anticipation and makes highlight-reel plays. In 2020, he averaged 14.9 yards per completion with a 73.5 percent accuracy rate. His precision and big-play ability will give him a good shot at posting big numbers.

    However, as a first-time offensive coordinator, LaFleur is a wild card. Over the last four years, he served as the 49ers' wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. In each of those terms, San Francisco ranked 15th or better in passing yards, but it listed 17th or worse in passing touchdowns for three of those seasons. 

    One has to wonder if LaFleur leans heavily on the run in crucial situations, especially inside the 10-yard line with a three-back committee featuring Coleman, Carter and La'Mical Perine.

    If so, Wilson may accumulate a ton of yards because of his aggressive playing style, but LaFleur may rely on the ground attack to finish drives with a rookie signal-caller.

    As a collegian, Hurts had some accuracy issues, and he struggled with ball placement last year, which leads to concerns about wideout DeVonta Smith's 2021 outlook. Wilson's arm talent and supporting cast propel him to the fourth spot.

3. WR Ja'Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Before Ja'Marr Chase even stepped on the practice field, he set lofty goals for himself.

    "I'm going to break every record they've got," Chase said after the Cincinnati Bengals drafted him. "That's my goal right there. I'm telling you right now. "I don't know how I'm going to do it, but it's going to get done." 

    With that level of confidence, Chase sounds like the front-runner to lead all rookie pass-catchers in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He's also in a good spot with quarterback Joe Burrow, his former LSU teammate. 

    Back in November, Burrow tore his MCL and ACL, but the second-year signal-caller told Cris Collinsworth that he's "very optimistic" about playing in Week 1 (via ProFootballTalk).

    Assuming Burrow remains on schedule to suit up for the season opener, he could put Chase over the top in the running for Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

    Burrow had a strong start to his own rookie season, throwing for 2,688 yards, 13 touchdowns and just five interceptions with a 65.3 percent completion rate. If the 24-year-old picks up where he left off, Chase could easily eclipse 1,200 receiving yards in the upcoming season.

    The last time Burrow and Chase played together, the latter won the 2019 Fred Biletnikoff Award. He very well could add to his trophy case at the end of the 2021 campaign.

    Although Chase's rapport with Burrow gives him an advantage over DeVonta Smith and Zach Wilson in terms of supporting cast, he falls behind a three-down running back and a presumptive starting quarterback who could lead a high-powered offense on this list.

    Chase will play alongside Tee Higgins, who had a solid 2020 showing, catching 67 passes for 908 yards and six touchdowns, and slot receiver Tyler Boyd, a five-year veteran with two 1,000-plus-yard seasons on his resume. The rookie wideout will have to split targets with high-quality teammates in three-wide receiver sets.

2. RB Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers lost their lead ball-carrier from the 2020 campaign when James Conner signed with the Arizona Cardinals in April. Pittsburgh then selected Najee Harris with its first-round pick to fill the hole Conner left on the roster. According to The Athletic's Mark Kaboly, the rookie has a clear pathway to a workhorse role with question marks behind him on the depth chart:

    "Tomlin loves his bell cows and Harris is one of those. He touched the ball over 700 times during his collegiate career and there's no reason to think he won't push the 275-touch mark as a rookie. The only question is who is No. 2 and would there be specific roles for Benny Snell Jr., Kalen Ballage, or Anthony McFarland? Likely not."

    In his last two collegiate seasons, Harris made notable strides as a receiver, hauling in 70 passes for 729 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's an every-down running back who should touch the ball 20 or more times in each game in 2021.

    Snell, Ballage and McFarland have yet to record a touchdown reception or log 30 catches in a single term.

    Without much competition for carries or targets in the short passing game, Harris holds the second spot over wideout Ja'Marr Chase because of his prospective role and potential impact on the Steelers' offense.

    However, Harris comes up short of the top spot because he's going to run behind an offensive line with three new primary starters. The Steelers lost left guard Matt Feiler and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva via free agency along with center Maurkice Pouncey, who retired. 

    Harris has the volume to literally run away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but his questionable supporting cast knocks him down a notch.

1. QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Trevor Lawrence's situation checks all the boxes for Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite.

    As the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 draft, Lawrence doesn't have any competition for the starting spot. He underwent shoulder surgery but doesn't expect his recovery to keep him out of action much longer.

    "I'm trusting that," Lawrence said after Day 2 of rookie minicamp. "That's—the medical staff, the coaches. Everyone is on the same page. We've got a good plan, we know what we're doing and I'm just trusting that. It won't be long before I'm full-go, so I'm ready."

    Lawrence has a solid wideout group that features Marvin Jones Jr., DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. 

    Jones and Chark have both eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in a single season, and Shenault brings versatility to the unit. He can line up on the outside, in the slot or in the backfield.

    Lawrence's Clemson teammate, running back Travis Etienne Jr., will join him in Jacksonville and play a versatile role as a ball-carrier and receiver. The 5'10", 215-pound back caught 102 passes for 1,155 yards and eight touchdowns as a collegian. 

    The Jaguars could return all five starters across the offensive line, which gives Lawrence a unit that should communicate well and experience few breakdowns in pass protection.

    Lawrence has the starting role, familiarity within a solid supporting cast and an experienced play-caller in Darrell Bevell, who fielded a top-10 passing attack in 2019 and 2020. 

    If Lawrence stays healthy, we should see him post impressive numbers like he did in his three seasons at Clemson. The 6'6", 213-pounder sees the entire field, fits passes through tight windows and moves the pocket when necessary. In terms of on-field traits, that's everything you would want in a franchise quarterback. 

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