With the 2022 draft class underwhelming at the quarterback position, the race for Offensive Rookie of the Year can be considered wide open.
Like most NFL awards, the award has become one dominated by players who impact the passing game in the modern era. Since 2008, seven quarterbacks have won Offensive Rookie of the Year. The other six years have seen three wide receivers and three running backs take home the prize.
Two of those running backs, Alvin Kamara and Saquon Barkley, can substantially influence the passing game. Eddie Lacy, the former Green Bay Packers tailback who won in 2013, is the anomaly here.
So, who is the mix to win this year? To answer that question, we need to look at the criteria that play a decisive role in determining the winner.
These criteria are, of course, unofficial, but are gleaned from looking at the previous winners.
Establishing the criteria
Along with affecting the passing game, it is a given that a player needs to have a prominent role in the offense and be productive to win the award. Additionally, it is best if the player is on a team that contends or at least ascends during the season.
If they are not, then the production or overall influence on the team’s offense needs to be extremely high. An example is Kyler Murray winning the award in 2019.
Having established the criteria, let’s look at the rookies who figure to contend to win the award.
There is always the chance that a late-round pick or undrafted free agent could emerge as a breakout rookie. For the sake of this exercise, though, let’s stick to players picked in the first three rounds.
We will remove Detroit Lions’ first-round pick Jameson Williams from contention amid doubts over when he will make his debut as he recovers from a torn ACL. Tight ends have also been left out, as no tight end has won the award in its history. That is partly reflective of the time it often takes tight ends to adapt to the pros.
Even without Williams’ presence, the list of highly drafted rookies with a chance to impact the passing game in year one is a long one.
Drake London – Falcons, Garrett Wilson – Jets, Chris Olave – Saints, Jahan Dotson – Commanders, Kenny Pickett – Steelers, Treylon Burks – Titans, Breece Hall – Jets, Christian Watson – Packers, Wan’Dale Robinson – Giants, John Metchie III – Texans, Tyquan Thornton – Patriots, George Pickens – Steelers, Skyy Moore – Chiefs, Alec Pierce – Colts, James Cook – Bills, Velus Jones – Bears, Jalen Tolbert – Cowboys, David Bell – Browns, Danny Gray – 49ers
One player kept off this initial list is Seattle Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker III. There’s a strong chance he will play a featured role in the Seattle running game in year one. Still, he caught only 19 passes in college and the Seahawks’ history and other options in the passing game suggest he shouldn’t expect many targets.
By contrast, Breece Hall, the New York Jets’ second-round running back, caught 82 passes in college and averaged nine yards per reception. Look for him to serve as a safety net in the passing game for Zach Wilson. Similarly, James Cook, who averaged 10.9 yards per catch on 67 receptions at Georgia, could have an impact in that area for the Buffalo Bills.
Desmond Ridder and Matt Corral could start as rookies having been selected in third round. A likelier scenario, though, is that Kenny Pickett is the sole rookie quarterback to start Week 1.
No rookie is guaranteed playing time, though, and it is a more select group who look set to play a prominent role and be productive in their first year.
Drake London – Falcons, Garrett Wilson – Jets, Chris Olave – Saints, Jahan Dotson – Commanders, Kenny Pickett – Steelers, Treylon Burks – Titans, Breece Hall – Jets, Christian Watson – Packers, John Metchie III – Texans, Alec Pierce – Colts, Jalen Tolbert – Cowboys
Moore’s limited opportunity
The headline omission here is Skyy Moore, whom the Kansas City Chiefs selected in the second round. He will obviously see snaps on one of the premier offenses in the NFL. However, even with Tyreek Hill’s trade to the Miami Dolphins, it is simply a case of Patrick Mahomes having too many mouths to feed.
Indeed, the Chiefs now have Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Juju Smith-Schuster on the roster, while Travis Kelce is likely to be the number one target. Mecole Hardman could also take on more responsibility in the post-Hill era. Kansas City has too much depth for Moore to be considered.
That is also the case in Pittsburgh, where George Pickens will be competing for targets with Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and Pat Freiermuth. The same can be said for Danny Gray with the San Francisco 49ers. He will be an intriguing speed option, but Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle will take the lion’s share of targets.
It is tough to envision James Cook instantly being the featured back over Devin Singletary and Zack Moss in Buffalo. Though the Bears lack offensive talent, there are enough veterans in Velus Jones’ way to stop him from emerging in a significant way.
The ultra-fast Tyquan Thornton appears an awkward fit with Mac Jones and the New England Patriots’ offense and Wan’Dale Robinson looks primed to be a slot-gadget receiver for the New York Giants. David Bell could quickly become a productive ‘power slot’ for the Cleveland Browns, though that is unlikely to be a role from which he can deliver Rookie of the Year numbers.
There are several members of the remaining group who may quickly become important factors for contending or ascending teams.
Garrett Wilson – Jets, Chris Olave – Saints, Kenny Pickett – Steelers, Treylon Burks – Titans, Breece Hall – Jets, Christian Watson – Packers, Alec Pierce – Colts, Jalen Tolbert – Cowboys
The final group consists of eight players. Looking first at the players removed, and the standout is clearly Drake London. He and Kyle Pitts may quickly form one of the most physically imposing and productive receiving duos in the NFL. Yet, playing on a Falcons team that has little path to a successful season, London would need elite production in year one to be in the mix for the award.
Jahan Dotson has also been omitted. Dotson is set for a starting receiver role and could benefit from playing across from Terry McLaurin. McLaurin will garner the most attention from opposing defenses but should still see most of the targets.
Though it is not out of the question the Washington Commanders contend for the playoffs, they are hamstrung by being in the same division as two superior teams in the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, and by their dubious decision to trade for quarterback Carson Wentz.
Third in the NFC East is the most realistic projection for the Commanders. With McLaurin’s target share, it is tough to foresee enough going in Dotson’s favor for him to win Rookie of the Year.
John Metchie III has a chance to quickly impress for the Houston Texans but will struggle for relevance after landing with a rebuilding team.
Pickett the favorite
Of the final eight, Pickett is the clear frontrunner. If he wins the starting job, proves talk of him being the most pro-ready quarterback in the class correct and the Steelers make the playoffs, the award should be his.
His primary challenge should come from three receivers on teams who like Pittsburgh have the talent to be in the postseason mix.
Chris Olave and Treylon Burks will each have strong cases should they vindicate the bets made on their upside by the New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans respectively, with the latter’s ceiling raised significantly by his upside as a potential weapon in the run game.
It is unclear how much faith the Green Bay Packers will have in Christian Watson as a rookie despite picking him early in the second round. Given Aaron Rodgers’ ability to elevate those around him, Watson is in an excellent situation to contend if he is afforded a chance to immediately build a rapport with the MVP.
Jets rookies in the mix
Rapport with Zach Wilson will be critical to Garrett Wilson’s hopes. The 10th overall pick heads into the league amid expectations that his ability to separate can help produce a year-two leap for his namesake. Such a scenario coming to pass would be a major boon for the former Buckeye’s Rookie of the Year prospects.
Similarly, Breece Hall could receive individual acclaim if the Jets ascend in 2022. Hall rushed for 3,044 yards and 41 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Iowa State. Such gaudy production is unlikely in the NFL, but his talent and possible passing-game influence make him a clear candidate to emulate Kamara and Barkley.
The wild cards of the group are Alec Pierce and Jalen Tolbert. Pierce has a clear path to starting at wide receiver in year one for the Indianapolis Colts. He offers a downfield threat that gives him the chance to be a compelling candidate if Matt Ryan helps him harness it in a season that ends in the playoffs.
While CeeDee Lamb is the obvious number one receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, Tolbert could take advantage if Michael Gallup is not ready to return to start the season. Indeed, Jeff Howe of The Athletic recently reported Tolbert has a chance to make the biggest instant impact of all the Cowboys’ rookies.
It is still questionable whether Tolbert will have enough opportunities to contend for the award. He is a long shot but if early reports on his potential come to fruition, he will have a strong argument for consideration as a productive receiver for one of the league’s prestige franchises.