NFL Picks: 2020 AP Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year Awards

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This is the third in a five-part series picking the winners of each AP season-long award. Check back soon for the next piece. Previous articles:

Continuing this week’s NFL Picks series with predictions for the Associated Press season-long awards, we move today to Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year.

As noted previously, I’ve reviewed the past winners looking for trends that can help us make smarter picks for the upcoming season, specifically using the past decade’s winners. Obligatory disclaimer that COVID-19 makes predicting these awards particularly difficult this season.

For each of these award picks, I’ve been noting the odds-on favorite, the “trendy pick,” my “best bet” pick, and my “best longshot” pick. My “best bet” is who I think is most likely to win, while “best longshot” is the higher-payout option that may be worth sprinkling a little additional Monopoly money on if you feel so inclined.

Without further ado, let’s get into it, continuing today with my picks for the AP Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year Awards.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Favorite: Chase Young (+300)

Trendy Pick: Isaiah Simmons (+800)

Last Decade:

Trends to point out:

  • Pass rushers, whether they come from the edge or the interior, have won this award 60% of the last ten years.
  • 40% of winners were top-3 overall picks; 90% of winners were first-round picks
  • 90% of winners played college football in a Power 5 conference (30% from Ohio State alone).
  • Team record is not a factor for this award.

As I mentioned with my Coach of the Year picks, narratives play a big part in these awards, so in addition to the above trends, we also want someone the media has covered and propped up since before even entering the NFL. That Power 5 conference trend is part of this, small school players don’t usually see a lot of rookie-year preseason hype.

That means we’re looking for a high-profile, first-round pass rusher out of a Power 5 conference, preferably a top-3 pick. In the last 10 years, an edge rusher was selected in the first 3 picks a total of 8 times and won this award in 4 of those years (non-winners include Dion Jordan, Jadeveon Clowney, Dante Fowler, and most recently, Myles Garrett).

Let’s not overthink this one. Chase Young is the favorite for a reason. The Bosa brothers each won this award in their rookie years out of Ohio State, Nick with 9 sacks and Joey with 10.5, and I believe the Buckeye narrative will help Young maintain his frontrunner status throughout the season. He checks all the boxes as a high-profile pass rusher selected in the top three picks of the draft.

Darius Leonard won this award as an inside linebacker after he led the entire NFL in tackles—I don’t think Isaiah Simmons, the rookie with the next best odds to win behind Young, will be able to do that. I also don’t think Arizona’s defense will get the same attention as Washington’s with Ron Rivera taking over and attempting to re-form the culture of that team.

If we look at what happened to Myles Garrett in 2017—the last time a highly touted pass rusher was unable to win this award—we’ll easily see why. First, Garrett only played 11 games, racking up 7 sacks. That’s good for an 11-game span, but not attention-grabbing on a national scale. But the main reason he was not considered for the award is the Browns going 0-16. A team that goes 0-16 is not deserving of winning any awards for any players.

Again, I’m not overthinking this. Unless you think Washington is going 0-16 this year, it’s Young’s award to lose. I think he becomes the 4th Ohio State player in the last 5 years to win it.

Best bet: Chase Young (+300)

Looking beyond the obvious, Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Peters each won this award with big interception totals (five for Lattimore to lead all rookies in 2017, eight for Peters to lead the entire NFL in 2015). The best cornerback in this year’s class is hands-down Jeff Okudah, who went third overall to the Detroit Lions, so he at least checks that box of being a top-three pick.

If you think Chase Young might only end up with seven or eight sacks, maybe you look at Okudah or Isaiah Simmons to win this award. All of the corners drafted in the first round meet the criteria outlined above: C.J. Henderson (+2500) out of Florida, A.J. Terrell (+5000) out of Clemson, Damon Arnette (+10000)–the other Ohio State corner–and Jeff Gladney (+5000) from TCU.

I’m simply going with the most high-profile guy, as media coverage will be important to this award. I’m not betting on anyone emerging from the Jacksonville dumpster fire, A.J. Terrell is still living with his horrible NCAA Championship performance, I don’t think the Raiders defense will be strong enough to produce a DROY candidate, and Jeff Gladney hasn’t been able to outshine fellow rookie Cam Dantzler in Minnesota.

The Lions defense was so bad a year ago that a marginal improvement might be seen as a huge contribution from the rookie, as Okudah steps into the CB1 role right away. If he manages 4 or 5 interceptions and Chase Young “only” has 7 or 8 sacks, we could see Okudah edge out Young for this award and still give the Buckeyes their 4th DROY win in 5 years.

Best longshot: Jeff Okudah (+2000)

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Favorite: Joe Burrow (+225)

Trendy Pick: Clyde Edwards-Helaire (+350)

Last Decade:

Trends we see here:

  • 50% of winners were quarterbacks, while a strong 40% were running backs.
  • 50% of winners were either the first or second overall pick; 70% were selected in the first round.
  • 40% of winners won the Heisman trophy in college.
  • As with the other rookie award, team record does not play much of a factor in this one.
  • 100% of winners played college football in a Power 5 conference.

So we’re looking for a quarterback or running back drafted with the first or second overall pick who won the Heisman trophy in college at a Power 5 school.

We are NOT looking for a wide receiver. If you bet on a receiver to win this award, you are throwing away money. I don’t care how much you like CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Brandon Aiyuk, Bryan Edwards, Jalen Reagor, or any other receiver you might be high on. It just doesn’t happen.

Last year, A.J. Brown had about as good a rookie season at the wide receiver position as anyone could realistically hope for, putting up over 1,000 yards and setting a historical record for yards-per-catch with over 1000 yards for a rookie, and doing so in a notoriously run-first offense. He also led the entire NFL in yards-after-catch and yards-per-target and posted 667 total yards and 6 touchdowns in his final 6 games, when it most matters to get voters’ attention.

Despite this impressive season, he was beat out by a quarterback who threw just 20 touchdowns (tied for 21st in the NFL) compared to 12 interceptions (T-11th) with an average yards per attempt of just 6.9 (T-21st). In fact, a running back, Josh Jacobs (who missed three of the final four weeks of a good-but-not-special season), also received more votes than Brown! Just being a “decent” quarterback or running back is more important for this award than being a great receiver.

The one caveat: Odell Beckham Jr. won this award in 2014, but the circumstances were as special as it gets. Despite missing the first four games of that season with a hamstring injury, Beckham proceeded to lead the NFL in receiving yards per game with 108.8, finishing 10th overall in receiving yards and tied for third in receiving touchdowns with 12 after playing in just 12 games. He missed all of training camp and preseason and stepped in at one of the hardest positions for rookies to produce at and had a truly spectacular season.

Beckham also made what many people consider to be one of the greatest catches of this century on a huge stage (Sunday Night Football) against “America’s team,” helping further drive his rookie-of-the-year narrative.

What’s more, 2014 was an utter wasteland for both quarterbacks and running backs, with Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater the only first-round signal callers to be drafted, neither taken with the first or second pick (one of only two years in the past 10 with no quarterback taken in the top-two picks). That was also the year the Titans famously made Bishop Sankey the first running back off the board in the back half of the second round.

So to recap, Beckham had perhaps the best season for a rookie wide receiver in NFL history (Randy Moss’s 17 touchdowns as a rookie notwithstanding—Beckham had just 8 less receiving yards than Moss did in his rookie year in 4 less games), he had a huge media spotlight that included his insane catch on Sunday Night Football, and he had no competition from the positions that usually win this award—not even a player with a pedigree deserving of preseason hype (no Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback or highly touted prospect)!

So unless you think an unexpected perfect storm will swirl about again in 2020, don’t bet on a receiver to win this award. In fact, we already know this year is not that perfect storm, because we have a highly touted quarterback prospect drafted with the first overall pick!

Turning back to who you should bet on… In the last 10 years, a quarterback has been selected first or second overall (or both) 8 times. 5 of those years (62.5%), one of those quarterbacks won this award. One player meets this and the rest of the aforementioned criteria.

Coming off the best season by a quarterback in college football history, taking over a Bengals team that went 0-8 in one-score games last year (easy road to massive improvement in wins), Joe Burrow seems like a no-brainer pick to me here.

Best Bet: Joe Burrow (+225)

I’m not picking a longshot for this award because it feels like a waste of my Monopoly money, so we’ll stick to favorites. Just look at the list of the last ten years’ winners; even for the non-quarterbacks, 70% of the last 10 winners were first-round picks. It’s really hard for a true longshot to win this award.

So for my other selection here, I’m going with the other favorite: Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

With the opt out of Damien Williams, “CEH” stands to take over the backfield of one of the most dominant teams and offenses in the league. Kareem Hunt joined the Chiefs as a third-round rookie in 2017 and went on to lead the league in rushing, so we know Andy Reid isn’t shy about turning over the backfield reigns to a rookie (and that was before Patrick Mahomes had taken over as the starting quarterback). Reid’s history of hand-selecting running backs includes Brian Westbrook and LeSean McCoy.

CEH is also one of the most prolific dual threat runner/pass-catchers we’ve seen enter the NFL at the running back position in some time. Alvin Kamara was able to win this award as a 3rd-round pick in 2017 largely due to his ability to be productive both on the ground and through the air.

Here’s a fun bit of math: with Burrow’s odds at +225 and CEH at +350, you could bet equal money on both and come away positive if either of the former LSU Tigers wins the award (just hope a random player, like Tua Tagovailoa (+800) or Jonathan Taylor (+1200), doesn’t sneak up and steal the spotlight).

Best “Longshot”: Clyde Edwards-Helaire (+350)

Author: Justin GraverPerhaps best known as @titansfilmroom on Twitter, Justin Graver has been writing and creating content about the NFL and the Tennessee Titans for nearly a decade as a longtime staff writer (and social media manager) for the SB Nation site Music City Miracles. Although JG no longer writes for Broadway Sports, his Music City Audible podcast with co-host Justin Melo continues.


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