After 10 weeks, several rookies have risen above this year’s class and are neck-and-neck for the NFL’s Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards. What’s stood out most is the high number of first-round picks who have responded to enhanced roles almost immediately.
On offense, it’s been an incredible year for wide receivers. Many have lived up to their pre-draft hype and are No. 1 threats on their respective squads. The same can be said for a couple of offensive linemen who were thrust into starting roles, and have responded with play beyond their years. On defense, players at nearly every position have made their cases, but two linebackers appear to be frontrunners.
The one position you likely won’t see take home a Rookie of the Year award is quarterback. Five of the last eight years a quarterback has taken home the hardware, but the Jacksonville Jaguars' Blake Bortles, the Minnesota Vikings' Teddy Bridgewater and the Oakland Raiders' Derek Carr have combined for four victories all season. Johnny Manziel, who entered the NFL as arguably the most recognizable player, has thrown just one pass, an incompletion, as a member of the Cleveland Browns.
Rookie running backs haven't exactly shined much either. Only the Browns' Terrence West and the New York Giants' Andre Williams have garnered more than 100 rushing attempts this season.
Let’s take a look at five players on both sides of the ball who could win the award by season's end.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo made a huge bet on Watkins, and it's more than paid off. Showing electric speed and playmaking abilities all season, Watkins is second among rookies in receiving yards (617) and touchdowns (5). Among the skill position players, Watkins is the only one with the chance to lead his team to the playoffs.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
From the start of the season, Benjamin was the Panthers No. 1 receiver due to the departure of Steve Smith and the front office's inability to sign anyone else. Benjamin has responded with 43 receptions, and has led all rookies with 659 receiving yards and seven touchdowns.
Mike Evans, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Another top 10 pick who has lived up to lofty expectations, despite some adversity. Evans battled a groin injury early in the season and has dealt with Tampa Bay’s glaring issues at quarterback. He’s tops among rookies with 13 receptions of 20 or more yards, and already knows how to exploit his 6-foot-5 frame over smaller defensive backs.
Corey Linsley, C, Green Bay Packers
Selected in the fifth round, Linsley was supposed to add depth behind J.C. Tretter, but quickly moved up to the starting role after Tretter went down with a knee injury two weeks before the start of the season. He and the rest of the Packers offensive line took a bit of a beating the first three weeks, allowing nine sacks, but since then have let up only 12 in the last six games. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently said Linsley deserves Pro Bowl consideration and head coach Mike McCarthy has had nothing but praise for Linsley as well.
Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys
The Notre Dame star was almost passed over for Manziel. Instead, Martin has played like a veteran, helping Dallas and running back DeMarco Murray rack up the league’s No. 2 rushing attack. It's no wonder Martin started 52 games in college.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Green Bay Packers
The Packers were No. 24 versus the pass in 2013, and allowed 30 passing touchdowns, the fourth worst in the league. This year, they’ve moved up to No. 9 overall, and have let up only 13 touchdowns. Credit deserves to be heaped on Clinton-Dix, who’s third on the team and fifth among rookies with 47 combined tackles, along with four passes defended and one interception.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Baltimore Ravens
Far and away one of the two favorites to win the award, Mosley has helped slow the run and dropped back into pass coverage. He’s first among rookies with 90 combined tackles, and has two interceptions with nine passes defended. Voters may hold it against Mosley that he has such a strong defensive line featuring Haloti Ngata up front, and Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs next to him.
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
Another first-round selection to be proud of, Donald is second among rookies with 3.0 sacks and he didn’t make his first start of the season until Week 6. The former Pittsburgh standout is already making headway as one of the best defensive tackles in the entire league.
Bradley Roby, CB, Denver Broncos
The last pick of the first round, Roby’s made a huge impact on a unit that features top defensive backs like Chris Harris and Aqib Talib. Some might suggest that Roby is thriving because of the veterans around him, but he has provided the secondary with solid play from the start when he was nominated for the NFL's Rookie of the Week award after seven tackles in the season opener.
Anthony Barr, LB, Minnesota Vikings
Barr has led rookies with four sacks and three fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown that led to a Vikings victory. More importantly, he has helped a unit make up for the loss of pass rusher Jared Allen, and his defensive line has only one starter that has played more than five years in the league.
Offensive Rookie of the Year Prediction: Watkins
Defensive Rookie of the Year Prediction: Barr