For the better part of the last two decades, an NFL player’s chances of claiming either Offensive or Defensive Rookie of the Year honors seem to be deteremined by their draft status. Players drafted in the first round often seem like locks to win the award.
In the last 11 seasons, 10 of the Offensive ROY winners were selected in the first round, with 2013’s winner and Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy the only player taken outside of the first 32 picks to win the honors. Lacy was actually the second-to-last pick in the second round.
On the other side of the ball, first-round picks have dominated even more with all but one Defensive ROY since 2002 a first-round selection, linebacker second-round pick DeMeco Ryans with the Houston Texans in 2006.
This factor of course narrows the list of this year’s ROY contenders significantly, but it doesn’t quite explain what a rookie needs to do to garner votes for their first piece of hardware.
For offensive rookies, especially over the last four years, putting up gaudy stats or pulling off several heart-pounding plays have all but guaranteed the award. Last season, New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. shined with 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns off 91 receptions in a mere 11 games, but what separated him from the stellar pack rookie of receivers was his still mesmerizing catch against the Dallas Cowboys on national television. The same could be said of Lacy and how seamlessly he fit with a pass-heavy Packers offense and gained more than 1,000 yards, and of course quarterback Robert Griffin III and his countless electric plays in 2012 with Washington.
For defensive rookies, very few have the opportunity to point to one play as their defining ROY moment. Instead there seasons are viewed as a whole, making the task that much harder. Last season, St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald proved to be one of the most versatile at his position, balancing his 9.0 sacks with 11 run stuffs, tied for the third-highest total in the league.
With all this in mind and the kickoff of the 2015 season less than three weeks away, here are six rookies who could hoist the ROY awards be the end of the year.
Offensive ROY Candidates
Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders
The former Alabama star and Heisman candidate has the opportunity to put up similar numbers as Beckham this year. Cooper is already projected to be quarterback Derek Carr’s No. 1 receiver and he’s carried over some stellar work during OTAs into the preseason. In his debut, Cooper caught three of his four targets from Carr, all of which came on an opening field-goal drive in the 18-3 victory over the Rams. Then Cooper showed his deep-threat abilities with a 40-yard bomb grab against Minnesota a week later.
Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In line to be the first quarterback to win the award since Griffin, Winston showed he has a steep learning curve by improving on his inconsistent preseason opener with a near-perfect 80-yard opening drive against Cincinnati on Monday night. He completed all three of his passes and capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run en route to a 25-11 victory.
Winston arguably has the best personnel around him to fly by the rest of the rookie class. Receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, and a host of running backs led by Doug Martin, could all make Winston’s job much easier as he racks up stats.
TJ Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
A second-round pick and another Alabama star, Yeldon hasn’t made his preseason debut yet after sustaining a pinkie finger injury but is expected to play with the first-team offense in Friday’s matchup with Detroit. A powerful back already capable of busting tackles and getting into the open field, Yeldon has very little competition behind him in Toby Gerhart, Denard Robinson, and Bernard Pierce and if stays healthy and plays well against the Lions the starting job should be his. Yeldon does have work to do, with Jacksonville owning the No. 21 rushing attack in the league last season, but a steady improvement will be enough to garner some votes for Yeldon.
Defensive ROY Candidates
Leonard Williams, DL, New York Jets
An overpowering force at USC who fell to the Jets at No. 6 overall, Williams could be New York’s second ROY in the last three seasons and reason why could be 2013 winner and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Though he’s a rising star and already one of the most dominant tackles in the game, Richardson will miss the first four games of the season for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, which allows Williams the chance to shine beside defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson.
Williams already flashed his power and speed with a second-quarter safety against Atlanta in New York’s 30-22 preseason victory last week.
Randy Gregory, DE, Dallas Cowboys
Like Yeldon, if Gregory can help a beleaguered Cowboys pass rush that ranked No. 28 in the league with 28 sacks, he too could secure ROY honors. The former Nebraska standout has already recorded two sacks in two preseason games, one in each, and can get even more familiar with Dallas’ defensive schemes while defensive end Greg Hardy serves his four-game suspension.
Vic Beasley Jr., DE, Atlanta Falcons
Another squad in serious need of dynamic pass rusher, the Falcons may have found their defensive leader of the future in Beasley. He’s received heaps of praise for his work in the preseason, especially for how well he’s worked in tandem with fifth-year defensive end Adrian Clayborn and for how he manhandled Jets Pro Bowl offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson.
Beasley’s already ascended to the starting defensive end spot, and he stands to improve an Atlanta pass rush that was 30th in the league with 22 sacks last season and hasn’t ranked higher than No. 25 in the league the last five seasons.