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NFL rookie award predictions: Scouting and analyzing a deep group

By Rob Rang

FOXSports.com NFL Draft Analyst

Not since 2001 have the NFL’s Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year both been selected outside the first round. That could very well change this year.

Amidst all the hype of the NFL draft and rookie mini camps, optimism is high that every first-year player in the NFL is going to make an immediate impact. 

And, of course, most of the hype revolves around the players selected earliest. 

After all, the Offensive Rookie of the Year (as voted by the Associated Press) has been a first round pick each of the past five years, including 2022’s winner Ja’Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals. 

On the defensive side of the ball, one need only go back to Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard in 2018, but he is the only non-first round pick in the past 15 years to take home the hardware. While a superstar at South Carolina State, Leonard was a true surprise as Defensive Rookie of the Year, unlike last year’s predictable winner, Micah Parsons of the Dallas Cowboys. 

But identifying this year’s winner for each award is not as simple as just listing the first players selected in the draft. 

Who really has stood out throughout training camp and the preseason and possesses the raw talent, supporting cast and opportunity to be crowned this season’s NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year? 

Below we dive into the favorites (players listed in order of draft selection), identify a handful of sleepers and explain why this could be the first year since 2001 where both winners (Chicago Bears RB Anthony Thomas, Pittsburgh Steelers LB Kendrell Bell) were selected outside of the draft’s opening frame. 

Favorites for Offensive Rookie of the Year

Drake London, WR, Atlanta Falcons (Selected No. 8 overall)

Projecting immediate success for wide receivers is not for the faint of heart, with Chase becoming just the fourth player at the position since Randy Moss in 1998 to take home the award. London, however, is masterful at using his powerful 6-foot-4, 219-pound frame to box out defensive backs, making him a tantalizing red-zone target. Critics will point out that the Falcons already boast the freakish Kyle Pitts for this role and are relying on Marcus Mariota (or rookie Desmond Ridder) to get each the ball. The presence of Pitts should leave plenty of one-on-one opportunities for London and the run-heavy offense favored by head coach Arthur Smith should result in many play-action opportunities for touchdowns. London is terrific at plucking the ball outside his frame, turning poorly thrown passes into flashy scores. Highlight-reel touchdowns are hard for voters to ignore. 

Chris Olave, WR, New Orleans Saints (Selected No. 11 overall)

Defensive-minded Dennis Allen has taken over for Sean Payton as head coach of the Saints but that should not slow down Olave, especially with long-time offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael calling plays and Jameis Winston still among the league’s better deep ball passers. One can make too much of statistics, but Olave was dominant at Ohio State, recording a school-record 35 touchdown receptions over his career, hauling in those passes from the late Dwayne Haskins, current Chicago Bears starter Justin Fields and current Buckeyes signal-caller CJ Stroud. Olave is a silky smooth route-runner with excellent speed as a vertical threat and the body control to contort and make difficult grabs look easy. With veterans Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry likely to hog the targets, Olave may not enjoy the game-to-game consistency to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, but no one should be surprised if he leads this rookie class in touchdown receptions. 

George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (Selected No. 52 overall)

If Olave is the favorite to lead this year’s rookie class in touchdown receptions, Pickens is the logical candidate to top all first-year players in highlight-reel plays. One must be careful when describing Pickens in the context of the many great Steelers receivers, but he boasts an exciting size/speed combination that begs comparisons to Plaxico Burress and has shown flashes of the grace and soft hands which helped Lynn Swann become a legend. Of course, Georgia fans know that he flashed similar potential in college but struggled with durability and consistency. Should fellow rookie Kenny Pickett take over for extended duty this season, he could emerge as a dark-horse candidate for league honors. After all, six quarterbacks have earned top rookie honors since 2010 but Pickett’s rapid ascension this past year coincided with a Biletnikoff Award-winning performance from wideout Jordan Addison (now at Southern California). If the Steelers rookies are to make a splash in 2022, Pickens will be leading the charge. 

Dameon Pierce, RB, Houston Texans (Selected No. 107 overall)

With all due respect to the receivers, most would agree that the easiest position on offense to make an immediate impact is at running back, and my goodness, has Pierce flashed during training camp, wrestling away the starting role for an old-school minded head coach in Lovie Smith who might just lean (quite heavily) on his prized rookie. Smith certainly has lauded praise on Pierce throughout training camp, and for good reason — the vision, burst and toughness he’s shown is the stuff of a true workhorse. How Pierce didn’t get more reps at Florida is beyond me, but I can tell you that he starred at the Senior Bowl, both as a runner and in pass protection — a bugaboo that has stolen regular season opportunities from many preseason rookie “stars” at running back. Snap after snap, Pierce plays with the physicality Smith has prioritized at every position. While Houston may lack the supporting cast around him to generate truly jaw-dropping numbers, he is the easy favorite at this point to lead all rookies in rushing touchdowns. If second-year quarterback Davis Mills is the ascending talent I think he is, the Texans are real candidates to be surprisingly competitive in the AFC South, with Pierce serving as the gritty and inspirational battering ram capable of turning close games into victories. Barring injury, I expect a similar season to what James Robinson enjoyed with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2020 — when, despite missing two games with injury, he registered 1,414 all-purpose yards and 10 scores, good enough to rank 9th among all NFL players.   

Romeo Doubs, WR, Green Bay Packers (Selected No. 132 overall) 

In the 20-plus years I’ve scouted the west coast, the Packers have stolen Davante Adams (Fresno State), James Jones (San Jose State) and now Doubs (Nevada), each of whom possess extraordinary ball skills and, of course, had the great fortune of matching up with a future Hall of Fame quarterback. Like the aforementioned star pass-catchers, Doubs is a smooth, gliding athlete who tracks the ball well over his shoulder and has strong hands to pluck passes outside of his frame – the kind of traits that can earn the confidence of a veteran quarterback. I won’t bet the house that Doubs wins Rookie of the Year, but I’ll tell you this: I’m investing a late-round fantasy flyer on him and so should you. 

Honorable Mentions: Garrett Wilson, WR, New York Jets; Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers; Isaiah Likely, TE, Baltimore RavensAlec Pierce, WR, Indianapolis Colts; Breece Hall, RB, New York Jets

Projected Winner: Pierce

Favorites for Defensive Rookie of the Year

Travon Walker, Edge, Jacksonville Jaguars (Selected No. 1 overall)

I can hear the critics already: ‘Way to go out on a limb with the No. 1 overall pick, Rang!’ In reality, projecting the top pick to win Defensive Rookie of the Years is, in fact, quite the projection, as it has never happened in the 54-year history of the award (since 1967). Further, with an established star in edge rusher Josh Allen to take some of the pressure off Walker, the rookie should face plenty of one-on-one blocking. Sacks (and turnovers) are the key statistics for Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates and Walker’s athleticism, power and high-revving motor in pursuit will put him in excellent position to post better statistics in the NFL than he ever did at Georgia. 

Aidan Hutchinson, Edge, Detroit Lions (Selected No. 2 overall)

As the most dominant draft-eligible defender in college football a year ago, Hutchinson is an easy favorite for this list, with the extra attention gained through Hard Knocks and playing for his home-state Lions providing all the more reason why any list previewing this award must highlight him. While perhaps not the physical specimen Walker is, Hutchinson is significantly further along in his development as a pass rusher, incorporating moves like a 10-year NFL veteran. With all due respect to journeyman Charles Harris — the only player on Detroit’s roster to ever record as many as six sacks in a single NFL season — Hutchinson does not have the luxury of joining a club with an established pass rush. As such, if the Lions do make a jump back into relevance this season, Hutchinson is likely to be the defensive leader who helps spark it. Even without eye-popping numbers, a change in culture could earn Hutchinson votes. 

Trent McDuffie, CB, Kansas City Chiefs (Selected No. 21 overall)

There have only been two cornerbacks honored as Defensive Rookie of the Year (Marshon Lattimore, Saints – 2017, Marcus Peters, Chiefs – 2015) since Charles Woodson took home the honors way back in 1998, but of all the rookies I saw in person this summer, McDuffie was the most impressive. He played a lot of zone coverage at Washington but has been tasked with man-to-man duties in defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme and has excelled, showing terrific athleticism, awareness and composure with the ball in the air. Scouts often talk about FBI — which stands for football intelligence — and McDuffie stands apart in that regard, starring not only on defense at the collegiate level but on all four special teams units. That kind of awareness typically translates into a relatively quick transition to the pro game. The star quarterbacks in the AFC West are going to rest the rookie, which should only give him more opportunities to shine as clubs hope to match Patrick Mahomes point-for-point. With a terrific pass rush and safety tandem insulating him, I expect McDuffie to quickly emerge as a force. Projecting McDuffie to excel ahead of earlier, more celebrated cornerbacks like Houston’s Derek Stingley and the Jets’ “Sauce” Gardner, both of whom were selected in the top five, will be questioned by many and I expect strong rookie performances from them, as well. McDuffie should have plenty of opportunities for the gaudy interception total that can earn him Rookie of the Year honors. I feel even more confident that he will be earning Pro Bowl consideration by the end of his rookie contract. 

Sam Williams, Edge, Dallas Cowboys (Selected No. 56 overall)

There are plenty of defenders with an easier route to consistent playing time and the statistics needed to sway Rookie of the Year voters but talent, of course, trumps all. Even with the Cowboys boasting one of the elite 1-2 punches in the NFL in last year’s top rookie, Parsons, and DeMarcus Lawrence, Williams is simply too explosive not to see the field. He’s been a terror in the preseason and is exactly the kind of moldable clay that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn (a renowned defensive-line coach) has excelled with in the past. In much the same way that savvy fantasy football players often dedicate some of their final picks on backup running backs to “handcuff” stars, it is worth dropping a little money on Williams at FOXBet, as he will be in a perfect position to explode should anything happen to the Cowboys’ stars. There is no doubt in my mind that Williams is going to be a more productive NFL player than he was at Ole Miss. And that’s saying something, as he finished his last season with 12.5 sacks and forced four fumbles.

Tariq Woolen, CB, Seattle Seahawks (Selected No. 153 overall)

People need to chill with the Richard Sherman comparisons for Woolen, as one of the many areas in which the five-time All-Pro excelled was as an open-field tackler — an area that the sushi-raw Woolen still needs to work on. That said, Woolen’s incredible blend of size (6-foot-4, 205 pounds), speed (4.26) and length (34″ arms” allow him to corral receivers at the line of scrimmage and simply smother them downfield in coverage. Woolen has quickly mastered Pete Carroll’s step-kick technique and he’s shown remarkable hand-eye coordination to rip the ball out of the hands of receivers even as catches appear to be a given. Say what you will about Seattle’s concerns at quarterback, cornerback is a position in good hands — especially given the expectation of an improved pass rush and Seattle’s star safeties Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs

Honorable Mentions: Drake Jackson, Edge, San Francisco 49ers, Derek Stingley, CB, Houston Texans, Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, CB, New York Jets, Arnold Ebiketie, Edge, Atlanta Falcons; Jalen Pitre, S, Houston Texans, Malcom Rodriguez, LB, Detroit Lions

Projected Winner: McDuffie

Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.


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