Chris Olave Is NFL's Biggest Dark Horse to Win Rookie of the Year

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 8, 2022

LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 28: Chris Olave, Ohio State University is selected as the number eleven pick by the New Orleans Saints during the NFL Draft on April 28, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Bettors, adjust your Offensive Rookie of the Year expectations accordingly. Wide receiver Chris Olave landed in a spot where he can immediately shine as one of the focal points in an offense.

In the first round of the 2022 NFL draft, the New Orleans Saints traded up for Olave, moving from No. 16 to the Washington Commanders' slot at No. 11.  

This offseason, wide receivers stole the spotlight as teams traded star players such as Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown. All three big-name pass-catchers signed lucrative deals with their new teams. In need of offensive playmakers, the Saints made a move for a wide receiver high on their draft board.

As The Athletic's Katherine Terrell points out, Olave will likely see plenty of targets right away.

"The Saints are going to expect Olave to play early and often," Terrell wrote. "They feel like they are a team that can contend for the playoffs again this year if they can stay healthy, and the wide receiver cupboard was bare enough that he can get his share of catches right away."

For the 2021 season, running back Alvin Kamara led the Saints in catches with 47, and wide receiver Marquez Callaway had a team-leading 698 receiving yards. 

Obviously, the Saints desperately needed pass-catchers, so Olave will fill a huge void on offense. Fortunately for the team, he has the skill set to fill that need and produce gaudy numbers.

WR Chris Olave
WR Chris OlaveIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

As a sophomore at Ohio State, Olave became a consistent contributor and big-play receiver who led the program's offense in receiving yards (849) and touchdown receptions (12) for the 2019 term. He topped the Buckeyes' pass-catching group in both receiving categories and in catches (50) for the 2020 campaign.

In 2021, Olave had to share targets with fellow first-rounder Garrett Wilson, whom the New York Jets selected at No. 10, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba, who's a potential top-10 pick in next year's draft. Yet, he made the most of his opportunities in the passing game, registering a personal high in touchdown receptions (13) through a single collegiate term.

Averaging 15.4 receiving yards per outing in his college career, Olave knew how to beat defenders downfield, and despite his thin frame (6'0", 187 lbs), he frequently found the end zone. Pro Football Focus tracked his big-play receiving numbers on 20-plus-yard receptions since his sophomore season: 

PFF College @PFF_College

Chris Olave on 20+ yard targets since 2019: 🥇 29 catches (1st) 🥇 1,054 yards (1st) 🥇 19 TDs (1st) https://t.co/q2dtZ8wT5E

Pro Football Focus also noted Olave's success against one-on-one coverage, which tops all collegiate receivers in scoring production since 2019:

PFF College @PFF_College

Chris Olave: 12 receiving TDs against single coverage since 2019 Most among all WRs in College Football🔥 https://t.co/YeYWRwhGOS

How does Olave do it? 

Bleacher Report NFL scout Nate Tice highlighted the wideout's ability to separate with precise routes, an understanding of how to break down coverages and a physical part of his game.

"Olave is a great route-runner with polish. He shows an understanding of not only the routes he runs, but the concept that the offense is running and will tempo his routes accordingly.

"Olave plays with balance and body control, which allows him to battle through contact and also attack defenders vertically before running by them or uncovering on a route. His understanding of space is on display when he's asked to run more 'advanced' routes and also during scramble drills, where he has to find unoccupied areas of the field."

Olave's traits and qualities should translate at the pro level. As he transitions from a loaded wide receiver corps at Ohio State to a depleted group in New Orleans, the talented wideout should see a spike in his receiving volume. 

Even with Olave's skill set, someone has to deliver well-placed targets and deep balls to elevate his numbers. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year, had Joe Burrow under center. The Saints hope to welcome back big-arm quarterback Jameis Winston after he tore his ACL in Week 8 of the 2021 season.

QB Jameis Winston
QB Jameis WinstonParas Griffin/Getty Images

On The Rich Eisen Show, head coach Dennis Allen spoke about Winston's recovery (h/t NFL.com's Grant Gordon).

"Well, certainly that's certainly the plan," Allen said about Winston's status for the season opener. "There's a lot of days between now and Week 1, but we certainly like where he's at right now. We like the progress that he's making."

In his first year as a starter for the Saints, Winston threw for 1,170 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions through seven outings. He didn't throw for more than 280 yards in any of the games, but the eighth-year veteran had four- and five-touchdown performances despite a limited pass-catching group without wideout Michael Thomas, who missed the entire 2021 campaign because of ankle surgery and then a setback while on the mend.

With Olave in the fold, Winston should be able to push the ball downfield a lot more in the upcoming season. Though former Saints head coach and lead play-caller Sean Payton retired, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael will take over full-time play-calling responsibilities, which maintains a bit of continuity on offense. He's called plays for full games in the past.

Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael
Offensive coordinator Pete CarmichaelIcon Sportswire/Getty Images

In 2006, Payton added Carmichael to his Saints coaching staff. The latter served as a quarterbacks coach and a passing game coordinator before he became the offensive coordinator in 2009. With 16 years under Payton, Carmichael could carry over some concepts and designs that worked for Winston last year.

If Winston plays comfortably in the offense, we could see him perform at a level closer to his 2019 form when he threw for a league-leading 5,109 yards. In that year, the signal-caller had two receivers (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin) with at least 1,157 yards and eight touchdowns. Of course, the Saints would want Winston's 33 touchdown passes but not the 30 interceptions that came with all of that passing production.

Winston finished a shortened 2021 campaign with a 1.9 percent interception rate—his lowest frequency as a primary starter. With better decisions in the pocket, he could have a bounce-back year with Olave as the top beneficiary.

WR Michael Thomas
WR Michael ThomasMitchell Leff/Getty Images

At this point, Allen seems optimistic about Thomas' return for Week 1, but on Eisen's show, he also said (via Terrell) that the wide receiver has a few "hurdles"—as any injured player does—while on the mend. 

Thomas has already gone through complications in a lengthy recovery process, though. The former suffered a setback in an effort to return last year, and he hasn't played a down since January of 2021 in the playoffs.

Even if Thomas suits up for Week 1, he may have to knock off some rust because of a long stretch on the sideline. The two-time All-Pro isn't familiar with Winston as the leader in the huddle during live action. The veteran quarterback could develop an immediate rapport with Olave, who's healthy and ready to play.

Running back Alvin Kamara
Running back Alvin KamaraTodd Kirkland/Getty Images

Moreover, the Saints may have to lean on the passing game without Kamara for several games in 2022. He faces a felony charge of battery resulting in substantial bodily harm and a gross misdemeanor count of conspiracy to commit battery. Kamara has a hearing for the case on Aug. 1. The league could suspend him for violating the conduct policy.

If Kamara cannot play for a notable stretch, don't expect the Saints to hand the ball off to 32-year-old Mark Ingram II 20-plus times. Fellow backup running back Tony Jones Jr. only averaged 2.6 yards per carry last year.

Without Kamara, Winston would likely take on a bigger responsibility in moving the ball through the air, which potentially creates more opportunities for Olave.

Because of the uncertainty around Kamara and Thomas, Olave has a good chance to take home Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even if Winston has to miss a few games while on the mend, the Saints have an experienced backup quarterback in Andy Dalton, who doesn't threaten defenses over the top but throws a fairly accurate ball. He completed at least 63.1 percent of his passes as a fill-in starter for each of the past two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears.

This year's top quarterbacks, Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder and Malik Willis, all have to beat out veteran signal-callers to see the field. The Jets picked Breece Hall, the top running back, in the second round, and he'll split carries with Michael Carter. 

With the Atlanta Falcons, fellow first-round wideout London Drake has a quarterback in Marcus Mariota, who hasn't started in a game since 2019. In New York, Wilson would need quarterback Zach Wilson to make a significant second-year leap after he threw for just nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2021. Treylon Burks could be the Tennessee Titans' No. 1 wide receiver, but the club employs a run-heavy offense with Derrick Henry.

As at least the No. 2 wide receiver on the Saints' depth chart, Olave's case for Offensive Rookie of the Year looks more appealing because of his potential for early opportunities and a bigger workload.  


College statistics are provided by cfbstats.com.

Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.