Rookie Of The Year at the Halfway Point

Senior NFL writer Nick Dunkeyson loves to watch rookies, which sounds kind of creepy. But it means you get this piece where he looks at rookies so far, hands out midseason awards and predicts end of year winners for Offensive and Defensive Rookie Of the Year.

Nine weeks into the season is more than halfway, yes I know. But even I know enough about promoting a website to know publishing pieces at half nine on a Sunday night is daft. So. It’s been a fascinating year for rookies. Every year, you get a few positions – often running back and edge rusher – where a few rookies thrive. You also get a few – wide receiver, cornerback – where they struggle. Well, without wishing to spoiler the rest of the article, some of that’s true for 2017, and some of it, very much not! So, let’s look at some rookie of the year contenders so far, and some to keep an eye on for the rest of 2017.

 

Offensive Rookie Of The Year

As a top-3 player at his position, it’s unsurprising that Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt is several furlongs ahead of the pack. Announcing his presence by bouncing back from a first-carry fumble to record a gobsmacking 148 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD (from 17 carries!) and 98 receiving yards and 2 TDs (on 5 catches!) against the Patriots, Hunt has been dominant, frankly. Despite slowing down from week 6 on, he’s on 800 rushing yards and 331 receiving yards through 9 weeks. Add to that 6 total TDs, and you have 2,000 yard/11 TD pace, which is impressive!

Other running backs? Well, Leonard Fournette is the obvious #2 from this draft class. Facing stacked boxes, he’s still thriving in Jacksonville. Fournette hit 596 yards and 6 TDs rushing through six games, to go with 136 receiving yards and 1 TD. An ankle injury and a mysterious “team rules” suspension saw him miss Jags games 7 and 8. That’ll probably count against him in the final reckoning, but he’s slower than Hunt as is. Elsewhere, Dalvin Cook had a good start to the season but tearing an ACL has, predictably, done for his chances. Christian McCaffrey and Joe Mixon have played poorly. The horse to watch coming up on the outside is the Saints’ Alvin Kamara. He may only have 652 total yards (341 receiving), through 8 games sure. But 5 TDs and an ever-increasing role in the Saints offense could see him explode in the second half of the season.

At quarterback, Texans QB Deshaun Watson would have been the obvious alternative candidate. Alas, that torn ACL in practice has put paid to that. But a word on Watson’s excellent first half of 2017. Watson is a play-making machine with arm and leg. Most impressively, he’s turned the Texans into a watchable team. He’s still a little streaky at times, but most quarterbacks are. Still, a 15:5 TD:INT passing ratio, with 1,297 yards through six games is impressive for a rookie. Add to that his often clutch 202 rushing yards and 2 rushing TDs, and you’ve got a real game-changer. I still put Hunt a sniff above him at halfway, though it’s not as if Houston don’t have a potential long-term star.

Deshaun Watson (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today)

Other quarterbacks have…not done so well. Mitchell Trubisky has been turned into a handoff machine by the Bears, with John Fox trying to get him throwing as little as possible. DeShone Kizer is another quarterback being mismanaged by his coaching staff, but his 3:9 TD:INT ratio doesn’t help. And they’re all we’ve seen!

People got a bit spoiled for wide receivers by the gonzo 2014 rookie class. Beckham, Evans, Watkins, Landry, Benjamin, Robinson and co took the league by storm in a way rookie receivers seldom do. Since then, most years have been a return to reality, and 2017 is no exception. First-rounders Mike Williams, Corey Davis and John Ross have barely played due to injury. Second-rounders Zay Jones and Curtis Samuel have struggled to find roles in their respective offenses. The best performer has probably been JuJu Smith-Schuster, but he’s only topped 60 yards in a game once. Admittedly that was a 193-yard, 1 TD performance, and I do expect him to have a very good second half. Who else? Cooper Kupp, who has 318 yards and 3 touchdowns in 6 games, which is fine. There have been other serviceable performances, but none will challenge for Rookie of the year.

Tight ends also never win rookie of the year – it’s a very challenging position to learn in the NFL. This year’s crop are receivers extraordinaire, fantastic athletes, but not all of them can block. OJ Howard looked like the most complete tight end in the draft but he’s made a slow start. Evan Engram is a dynamic receiving tight end, but the Giants offense stinks and I don’t know how you give a rookie award to a tight end who doesn’t block. Elsewhere, David Njoku, Gerald Everett and Jonnu Smith have shown potential, but are prospects for future years rather than now.

Offensive linemen? Well, obviously in a skill-position obsessed league they never win rookie of the year. Heck, Joe Thomas didn’t win it. Orlando frickin’ Pace didn’t win it. So middling tackles like Garret Bolles, Ryan Ramczyk or Cam Robinson won’t.

Who’s going to win it? It’s hard to look past Hunt, short of an injury. I would’ve put Watson second and Fournette third, which’ll default to Fournette second. Short of a breakthrough for a wide receiver or better performances from Evan Engram, it’ll stay that way.

Kareem Hunt finds the pylon in Week 1 (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Defensive Rookie Of The Year

There’s less positional bias on the defensive side, so this is always an award that can go anywhere. Still, it’s surprising that the two early front-runners are cornerbacks, another position traditionally hard to learn early. Both the Saints’ Marshon Lattimore and the Bills’ Tre’Davious White have been fantastic cover corners, with a couple of splash plays.

Lattimore has the hot hand in terms of stats, perception and all-round performance. He’s already won Defensive Rookie of the Week twice (weeks 6 and 8). He has 8 passes defended, a forced fumble and two interceptions, one returned for 6. Pro Football Focus noted you would get a better passer rating throwing into the dirt than targeting Lattimore.

Lattimore is playing excellently and has national attention. This all helps. As does the shock the NFL world has at the Saints defense really turning up, with Lattimore as its figurehead. Don’t sleep on Tre’Davious White though. The Bills rookie hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet as much as Lattimore (one fewer INT, one fewer TD). But he’s played fantastically, though his play in Weeks 8 and 9 was a notch below. Other rookie corners like Marlon Humphrey, Jourdan Lewis, Kevin King and Rasul Douglas have also played well.

Marshon Lattimore runs one back against Detroit (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Safeties? The Jets pair of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye have received deserved attention, giving the Jets more identity on defense. Saints rookie Marcus Williams has been good too. Malik Hooker looked like the pick of the bunch before going on IR. But as hard as it is for a cornerback to win defensive rookie of the year, it’s harder for a safety. Mark Carrier in 1990 is the only safety winner ever. I don’t want to write this class off, because for real there’s about five or eight future Pro Bowlers amongst them. But this is about award winners, and that’s seldom about a position that makes such a comparatively invisible influence as safety. But you should definitely get your safety’s name on your custom jersey.

Linebackers? That’s a devalued position these days, and it takes a Luke Kuechly-esque impact to win. Again though, this looks a great linebacker class. Detroit’s Jarrad Davis looks a well-balanced player, but 41 tackles through 8 games isn’t enough to really get noticed. Reuben Foster is a sadly-injury-prone playmaking machine. Houston look to have a keeper in Zach Cunningham. Tyus Bowser has a couple of sacks and an interception. But these are good rookies, not great ones.

So, it’s back to the pass rush and the defensive line. We can do the interior linemen first, as there aren’t any obvious candidates here. Jonathan Allen was the standout – a run stopper supreme – but he went on IR in week 6. Alas, poor rookie. So, let’s move onto the pass rush. First, the situational or rotational rookies who have shown a lot. Derek Barnett looks like he has a bright future in the league (provided he learns how to set the edge against the run). He has 2.5 sacks. Deatrich Wise has been a predictable Day 3 steal for New England, and has 3 sacks. They’ve done well.

But three edge rushers have 4 or more sacks. TJ Watt and Myles Garrett have 4 while Carl Lawson has 4.5. Lawson’s 4.5 are exceptional, especially for a day 3 pick. But that “situational” tag, when considering who the other two players here are, will count against him. I can’t wait for the Bengals to train him up against the run and unleash him on every down though. So far, Watt has the biggest stat sheet of this bunch. He’s an every-down player, and has shown good form against the run. You’ve noticed Pittsburgh’s run defense this season? No? You should have, it’s brutally good. Having said that, a couple more games and I expect Myles Garrett will take over that mantle. Garrett got a sack on his very first NFL snap, which, wow. He’s looked good against the run too, on a team that is generally surprisingly stingy against the run. (Feel free to argue this is because teams run when 3 touchdowns up on the Browns, against stacked boxes).

Who’s my mid-year winner? Well, this might be homerism but I’m giving it to Lattimore. It’s so difficult for a cornerback to win this award – Marcus Peters needed 8 interceptions to do it and didn’t play as well as Ronald Darby the year he won it. The Saints had a remarkable draft, with Lattimore its Hope Diamond. Having said that, don’t be surprised if he’s overtaken by Myles Garrett by season’s end. Garrett has 4 sacks in 4 games – maybe he’ll get 12! Joey Bosa only played 12 games last year en route to winning. Sacks, as a countable stat, are an easy thing for voters to focus on when choosing their rookie. But heck, this defensive class. So many of them are going to be so good (many already are!) it almost doesn’t matter who wins.

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