Forget Mac Jones and Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle Is the NFL Rookie of the YearDecember 28, 2021
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle hasn't received the same fanfare as the Cincinnati Bengals' Ja'Marr Chase or New England Patriots' Mac Jones, but he's been every bit as good, if not better, than both during their rookie campaigns.
So much so, his Monday Night Football performance highlighted the fact this year's sixth overall pick should now be considered the frontrunner for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Waddle is on a record-setting pace despite playing in a deficient offense, and his 10-catch, 92-yard performance in a 20-3 road victory over the New Orleans Saints shows how he's become an elite performer despite limitations found with the Dolphins' scheme and his draft status being held against him throughout this process.
Now, the rookie is the leading receiver on a team that has won seven straight games and currently sits in the AFC's seventh and final playoff slot.
Historically, Waddle's 10 receptions tied a Monday Night Football record by a rookie. Who's record did he match? Jerry Rice.
Anytime an all-time great is invoked, everyone should take notice. But it's more than just a one-game performance that places Waddle atop the current rookie of the year standings.
Waddle's biggest competition likely comes from Chase, whom the Bengals chose one pick ahead of the Alabama product in April's first round. The two heard their names called with the fifth and sixth selections, respectively.
The Dolphins received plenty of flak for their decision because they traded up to the sixth overall pick (after trading down to the 12th) and surrendered a 2022 first-round pick to complete the deal. In doing so, a sentiment percolated about Miami overspending to acquire Waddle. Why? He was never viewed as WR1 in the class or the best receiver on his collegiate team since DeVonta Smith, who claimed the 2020 Heisman Trophy, played opposite Waddle.
But general manager Chris Grier and head coach Brian Flores knew what he could bring to the offense.
"If you've got guys who can run on the perimeter, if you load the box, there's more opportunity for one-on-one matchups and opportunities downfield. Defenses have to make that decision when you have those types of players on the field," Flores explained after the Dolphins added Waddle and Will Fuller V this offseason. "If you don't load the box and you play for those big plays, then there's less people in the box and less people to block, and I think it really becomes kind of a numbers/math game."
"When you have guys on the perimeter and guys who demand some attention—that kind of attention— then there could be more space. ... It's a chess game and obviously the run game and how you attack the run game, that's part of it."
A tinge of irony exists within the answer because the Dolphins still aren't adept at driving the ball downfield, even with Waddle. His value to the offense increases as a result.
Right now, the Dolphins have arguably the worst offensive line in the league. In fact, they were ranked dead last in pass-block win rate coming into this weekend's action, per ESPN Analytics. The lack of time contributes to an inability to run longer developing routes. Furthermore, Tua Tagovailoa's inconsistencies as a deep passer only contribute to the inefficiency found within Miami's downfield passing attack.
Yet Waddle continues to produce with six or more receptions in nine of 14 games despite being hamstrung to a degree. For comparison, Chase has at least six catches in only five contests.
The biggest factor in Chase's favor to take home the hardware is his explosiveness, which is represented in his receiving yardage. The Bengals rookie ranks seventh overall with 1,163 yards. His average of 17.1 yards per catch ranks second among wide receivers with 35 or more receptions. No one can deny how spectacular Chase has been and how he's affected the Bengals' offense, though his contributions are far more scattershot.
This year's fifth overall draft pick already has four 100-yard efforts, including a 201-yard explosion in Week 7 against the Baltimore Ravens. At the same time, Chase endured a seven-game stretch after that career performance where he managed 284 combined yards before torching the Ravens again this past Sunday.
While Chase gets the nod in yardage and explosive plays, Waddle has multiple advantages over his counterpart.
First, Waddle's 10 receptions placed him second all-time with 96 receptions as a rookie. He's only six catches shy of breaking Anquan Boldin's all-time rookie record of 101. Waddle surpassing Boldin's mark seems like a formality with two games left to play.
Second, the Dolphins pass-catcher entered Monday's contest as the league's highest-graded rookie receiver, per Pro Football Focus.
Finally, as good as Chase has been, Waddle actually has more first-down receptions by any rookie receiver since 2014 through 15 weeks of play.
From a team standpoint, Waddle set a Dolphins' rookie franchise record with 941 receiving yards (and counting).
Yes, the Bengals currently sit atop the AFC North and Chase has been a big part of their success. However, they're only one game better than the Dolphins in the muddled AFC. It's not like one is clearly helping to create a bigger overall impact for his respective franchise. If anything, Chase has far more help with Cincinnati's outstanding wide receiver corps and the unflappable Joe Burrow behind center.
Quarterback play is always a major factor in these decisions, hence why the position won the award in each of the last two seasons despite standout performances by wide receivers A.J. Brown and Justin Jefferson in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Jones looked like a shoo-in for the trophy, but the signal-caller's play slipped in recent weeks. Jones' three measly attempts in Week 13 shouldn't be held against the rookie since 40 MPH wind gusts dictated the Patriots' offensive attack. However, Jones threw four interceptions over the last two weeks with a completion percentage dipping under 52 during the Patriots' current two-game losing streak.
"I think it just goes back to execution, throwing it to the right guy, regardless of the weather," Jones told reporters. "I'm still learning, obviously. The accuracy needs to improve."
While the quarterback slips as the weather worsens, everyone else has gained ground or even surpassed him.
Offensive linemen never receive serious consideration for this award, of course, which is a shame because Kansas City Chiefs center Creed Humphrey definitely deserves the recognition. The Los Angeles Rams' Rashawn Slater and Detroit Lions' Penei Sewell would be in the conversation as well.
A historic season doesn't guarantee recognition as the game's top rookie, either. Jefferson can attest to this after last season's record-breaking performance, though the Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert broke the rookie record for touchdown passes. The thought of Waddle not winning the award while surpassing 101 receptions—which should occur in 16 games—and clearly being on the same level as others in his class would be a travesty.
Waddle has lived up to his namesake as the slow and steady participant who should clearly be named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after others started much faster.