For the 3rd installment of my NFL preseason futures series, we are moving from Coach of the Year and MVP to a much harder to predict market: Offensive Rookie of the Year. This is a market offered by many offshores, and the limits are about the same as the first two we dove right into.
With a lot of the markets, there were rules that we could establish that could help us narrow down a list of candidates. There was a profile of a type of team that we were looking for: generally one that could be wildly successful, and we could use the markets to help guide us. The award for best coach and best player (MVP) at the NFL Honors are generally a reflection, in some way, of “best team.” Or at least, close to the best.
With this award, there are also rules we can follow, or precedents, to help us narrow the field and make the best decision. But narrowing the field really only gets us so far here, because the #1 thing you want in a candidate is opportunity. And opportunity is something that can be difficult to pick up on before the season starts. A rookie of the year winner needs to just flat-out make a lot of really good plays. He needs to have compelling “counting” statistics (things like touchdowns, or yards, or receptions, or passes). And a player cannot achieve that if he is not playing. So he needs opportunities to make those plays. The more opportunities the better.
With rookies, it can always be difficult to tell who is in for the lion’s share of usage within any given offense, so that part of the equation is really up to the handicapper themselves. Is the player in question practicing with the first or second unit? (or worse). In the limited preseason game snaps we have observed, is the player playing the 1’s or with the 2’s (or worse)? What is the media saying about what the player’s expected role might be, and is that just conjecture and guesswork, or is it supported by what the coach and general manager have said? For example, we all WANT Daniel Jones to start at quarterback for the Giants, but if the people running the Giants do not want that, then there is no opportunity for Jones to win the award. Even missing a few starts is enough to torpedo his chances. Just ask Baker Mayfield last year.
So this exercise will be different than the previous two markets. The first thing we can do is examine who generally wins the award. But then after we’ve done that, we need to look at who will get the opportunity to win it. Then we can try to make some smart choices, or at least avoid the dumb choices. Here are some notes about Offensive Rookie of the Year winners in the past:
1. Since 2000 (the last 19 seasons), a running back has won the award 9 times, a quarterback has won the award 7 times, and a receiver has won the award 3 times. Even in this current era of prolific passing offenses and high scoring, a running back has won this award each of the last two years (Alvin Kamara two seasons ago, and Saquon Barkley last year). This generally supports the theory that running back is a position you can plug someone into immediately out of college, and they can be successful. But unlike with some other awards like MVP, we cannot exclude anyone solely on the basis of position with one exception: tight end. I do not think a tight end has a reasonable chance to win the award in any season, because their opportunity to accumulate stats will most likely be limited. Sorry, Iowa fans.
2. In that same time frame, the average draft pick of the winner of the award was 35, and the median was 11. This means that, to no one’s surprise, the winner of the award was generally picked very high in the draft. This makes sense, since not only are those players, on average, more talented, but also the team picking them probably has a need at that particular position, and hence they drafted a player highly to help fill it. That means opportunity. There are exceptions (Mike Anderson was drafted 189th, then won in 2000, and Dak Prescott famously was drafted 135th and then won once Tony Romo was injured in 2016). But we should absolutely be giving preferential treatment to high draft choices.
3. The average season of the winner of the award was much better than I anticipated. Award-winners played for teams that averaged 9.21 regular-season wins. This was a little jarring for me because I assumed even if a bad player had an amazing season he would win, but generally that has not been the case. We still associate this award with some level of success in a lot of cases. In 13 of the 19 seasons, the winner played for a team that was over .500. Saquon Barkley last year played for the 5-11 Giants, so again, this isn’t some hard-and-fast rule we can apply, but success seems to be SOME kind of factor.
4. Going along with that, quarterbacks who win the award have also had some success. Here are the regular-season wins for the quarterbacks who won: 15, 8, 11, 7, 6, 10, 13. This is most likely because the play of the quarterback and the success of the team are so closely linked, and it would be difficult to have a high-performing quarterback on a team with a bad record. That wouldn’t make a lot of sense. The defense would have to be the worst in the league, I guess. But it would also be interesting (spinning forward to this year) that if Kyler Murray (currently the overwhelming favorite) won the award, he may have to at least get the Cardinals to 6-7 wins (which would put them over their win total in the market by the way, therefore exceeding expectations). Does a 4-12 Kyler Murray win the award? There is no precedent for it, which doesn’t mean it can’t happen, it just means…there is no precedent for it.
5. Trying to predict what the records will be at the end of the season is a difficult task, though. All we can go in is the information we have now, which includes the win totals in the market. And those are, frankly, all over the map. The average win-total for the winner is 7, but we’ve seen players from all different types of teams win, in terms of those teams’ win totals before the season. It is not a predictor. At all.
6. The last rule involves the most important attribute, which we will discuss in more detail shortly: opportunity. And it applies specifically to quarterbacks. Of the 6 quarterback winners in the last 19 years (since 2000), the minimum number of starts made was 13, and 4 of the 6 started 15 or 16 regular-season games. What this means, if you are interested in a non-Kyler Murray quarterback, is the clock is ticking, quickly, on them getting in the game. If they miss even the first couple of games of the season, their chances of winning drop rapidly. Ben Roethlisberger won the award starting just 13 games, but he also led a team to a 15-1 record and had like 6 fourth-quarter comebacks, so it’s understandable that he won.
Now, those rules don’t give as specific a set of parameters as some of the other markets, but they still give us some idea what we are looking for, and now we take those concepts and compare them to the market. In past articles, I gave you reasons why I don’t like other players, and then my candidates. Well there are far too many rookies to tell you why I don’t like so many of them, so we are going to stick only to the bets I think are valuable. What I would say, though, is that I am not interested in any non-Kyler quarterback because of lack of opportunity at the moment. Daniel Jones is being held back intentionally by management, Drew Lock may not even be the back-up, and Case Keenum is the Week 1 starter for Washington. There isn’t opportunity anywhere. Kyler meets all the criteria (because of course he does) but his price is also insanely prohibitive given that Arizona should have a woeful season. Here are some non-Kyler players who I think have a shot to win, and are valuable at their current prices:
David Montgomery, RB, Bears (+1500): To me, the best bet on the board. He has taken money, and rightfully so. This price was closer to 30/1 before the preseason began. When Chicago traded Jordan Howard before this season, it left a void of production and a large amount of available opportunity. While Tarik Cohen has the talent to be on the field, especially in passing-down situations, Montgomery seems very likely to get carries from game 1 in an offense that, at times, was dynamic and explosive last season. Montgomery was a star at Iowa State in college, known for breaking tackles and getting yards after contact. Running backs who win the award do NOT have to start games right away, and don’t even have to play in all 16. There is time for Montgomery to gradually assume a larger role in the offense, and take off.
Josh Jacobs, RB, Raiders (+650): I would like him more if the price wasn’t so low. But when we talk about opportunity, this is the running back position that has the most in the NFL. This team brings back almost none of their carries from last season. Doug Martin and Isaiah Crowell were both, at different times, signed to provide some insurance, and both are now out with injury. There is almost zero competition for any first-down and second-down work which leaves Jacobs the beneficiary. He has some pass-catching ability which could help him eventually gain three-down-back status, but for now, it seems like Jalen Richard could spell him on 3rd down. Still, so much opportunity, and he’s obviously talented, having had success at Alabama.
Marquise Brown, WR, and Justice Hill, RB, Ravens (+2500 and +4700): You want to talk about opportunity? My god. The Ravens current WR depth chart is possibly the worst in the league. Maybe the team just won’t throw a lot this year, and instead utilize Lamar Jackson’s speed and a stable of running backs. But if Jackson does target a receiver, it’s either Willie Snead in the slot, or Brown. Brown missed almost all of training camp, and just played in his first preseason game in Week 3, but was effective. And again, he doesn’t have to be elite in Week 1, he just has to be elite eventually, in the first quarter or so of the season. There is a giant vacuum waiting for any talented receiver to occupy it, and maybe Brown is that guy. As for Hill, the price is much longer, but the Ravens may be running the ball a lot more this season anyway. Mark Ingram is in the backfield, but he was also in the backfield when Alvin Kamara won the award two years ago. Again, Hill doesn’t have to start, he just has to end up getting a lot of touches. Based on his very impressive preseason work, I think that is possible, and again, the price is much longer so I don’t mind taking more risk.
That “longer price so can assume more risk” is also a mantra I’d apply to Vikings RB Alexander Mattison (+4500), who I would call an “honorable mention” candidate for me. There may be opportunity available, but I also can’t bet everyone.