The news now turns to way too early projections about how young men without contracts will perform among the best players in the world.
You'll forgive me for buying into this. If I am right about either Rookie of the Year winner, I’ll be unbearably smug. So, prepare yourselves come next January.
Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates
Let’s start with the obvious homer pick: Jarvis Jones. I’ve made no secret that I’ve been a huge fan of Jones before and after the draft. In my opinion, he was the best defensive player in this class, and will have the best career of any pass rusher. He is a seek-and-destroy OLB who is going to have Steelers fans forgetting we aren’t watching James Harrison on the field when he strip-sacks Joe Flacco on Thanksgiving night. Tangent, I’m very excited to spend Turkey Day watching the Steelers crush Baltimore.
I expect Jason Worilds to win the starting spot, since we all know how tough it is for a rookie to start in a LeBeau defense, however I expect Jones to see a lot of playing time, especially in pass rush situations. The Steelers love to go in 2-5 fronts, and Jones will be used a lot as a situational rusher, leading to 6-8 sacks this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if he forced 2 or more fumbles on those sacks as well.
Jones would be a strong contender on another team, but he won’t see the field enough to win the award. Expect multiple pro-bowls in his future, but this is one award he won’t receive.
Jonathan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
This might be a surprise candidate, since Banks isn’t one of the premier defensive backs taken in the draft, and Tampa Bay’s secondary was torched last year, but this is a new season, and Tampa Bay has a new secondary. Last year’s first round pick, Mark Barron, is joined by newcomers Jonathan Banks, pro-bowl safety Dashon Goldson from SF, and all-world corner Darrelle Revis from NYJ. Banks, who I expect to earn a starting spot, will be the most targeted member of this secondary, which will allow him the biggest chance to shine. Banks is a big, physical corner who operates the atoll off of Revis Island and excels in press coverage. He will compete with Eric Wright for the starting job, but I believe Wright would make the better Nickel DB for Tampa, and Banks will win out. Banks will use his size to intercept passes, and since he will be targeted more than Revis, will have a high number of tackles and passes defended.
Banks will be a very solid corner, but because of the talent around him, his overall success with be overshadowed. He might have the statistics to win, but likely won’t be seen as the reason for Tampa’s improved pass defense.
Dion Jordan (OLB, Miami Dolphins); Ziggy Ansah (DE, Detroit Lions); Barkevious Mingo (OLB, Cleveland Browns)
I’m lumping the three project pass-rushers together because I think they will all have similar results this year: meh. The potential is there for each of them, but I don’t see any of them taking the league by storm. Sure, Jordan has the potential to lead the class in sacks, Ansah could be nasty if the Lions can have their first-round DT’s play up to potential, and Mingo can ride the bench (I’m still scratching my head about that pick). But I don’t have any faith that they will put it together this year, if ever. Obviously, I believe Jones should have been the player the Dolphins traded up to get, but thankfully other NFL clubs make stupid decisions every April and allow teams like Baltimore and Pittsburgh to look brilliant simply by waiting for players to fall to them.
Flashy statistics matter as much as anything in awards voting, and Vaccaro not only plays a position where he will be expected to intercept footballs, but will be expected to start immediately. Unlike many of the premiere pass-rushers drafted early who need time to develop (Ansah, Mingo, Jordan), or players who might make impacts, but likely will be overshadowed by their position or those starting ahead of them (Jarvis Jones, Sharrif Floyd, Star Lotulelei), Vaccaro will make an impact from Day 1.
It helps Vaccaro that he will play a schedule that should allow him to take advantage of young, or simply bad, quarterbacks. The Saints play Arizona in week three, a team with Carson Palmer at the helm. Palmer has become an interception machine and tends to leave balls floating over the middle. They play Miami in week 4, and if Tannehill and Wallace haven’t found a rhythm yet, there are likely to be some forced deep throws that Vaccaro should be able to just sit himself underneath. They play three games in a row that Vaccaro should be able to rack up statistics: Buffalo (EJ Manuel will still be learning, and if Kolb is in, all the better for the Saints), NY Jets (either Sanchez or a rookie should be easy pickin’s, pun intended), and Dallas (you never know what you’ll get with Romo, but I’ll take the 50% odds he has a 3 interception game).
The NFC South has some good quarterbacks, but these are passing teams, not ground-and-pound offenses. Vaccaro will have his chances, and I expect him to lead rookies in interceptions and ride the flashy statistics to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates
Le’Veon Bell, RB; Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsbugh Steelers
Unlike Jarvis Jones, who I believe belongs on a shortlist of DROY candidates, neither of these players will come close in the offensive category. I am not down on Bell (who I think should win the starting job in pre-season), and I love Wheaton as an eventual starter next season, but neither will have outstanding years.
I believe Bell will be the starter, since even though he is similar to Dwyer and Redman, I believe he is better than them. He may not be great, and I am certainly not as confident in him as some MSU fans on this blog (though I’m not as down on him as others) but Bell is a more physically gifted player than anyone currently on the roster, and his excessive college carries won’t wear him down year one. I expect Bell to put up between 600-800 yards rushing this year, and add another 200 or so receiving yards. He might even cross into double digit touchdowns if he becomes a true-3 down and short yardage runner that everyone of his supporters proclaims him to be. If he were to put up 1000+ yards rushing, 300+ yards receiving and 10+ touchdowns, he would be the dark horse to win this award, I just don’t see it happening.
Wheaton won’t be hurt because of anything he fails to do, he just won’t be given the chance to win this award. He will beat out Burress and Cotchery for the third string spot and play the slot. He might even have the second best year of any WR on the team (I think AB is in line for a great season). But don’t expect too much. Emmanuel Sanders is still playing for a contract, and as the last of the Young Money crew to not be paid, I expect big things from him this year before he scurries off to New England in the off season.
Wheaton was a second-round caliber player, who has the speed and route-running abilities to be a success in this league. He will be a main cog of the Cash Back crew, especially in 2014 and beyond, but he won’t win any awards this year. Still expect a solid year from him, and by the end of the season don’t be surprised to see him targeted more and more by Big Ben as they become more comfortable with each other.
Neither player will be given the chance to really excel statistically as needed. Both have to compete at their positions with veterans, and Bell lacks the game-breaking ability to put together 80 yard highlight-reel runs that win awards such as this.
Austin seems to be the popular pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He was the first offensive skill-position player to come off the board; this is a weak class of running backs; and, he should start week 1 without any real competition on the roster for WR1.
Austin has a former number 1 overall pick throwing to him, and he should be the focal point of the offense. What isn’t to like about putting him as the odds-on favorite for OROY honors? Austin should lead his class in catches, yards, and touchdowns if you believe the experts, and without a premier QB in the class who is guaranteed a starting job (a la last season’s QB class), going with a wide receiver sounds like a sure thing.
Austin will be a very good WR in the NFL. He has the speed, route-running abilities, and hands of a potential pro-bowler. However, Sam Bradford is not an elite QB. The Rams don’t have a strong running game, and Austin is the only good receiver on the roster. There aren’t enough weapons on the Rams’ roster for teams to forget to game plan for Austin. He will contribute this year, but he will have a much better career than rookie season.
EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
The Bills surprised many when they traded back in the first round and made EJ Manuel the first QB taken. Manuel certainly has the size and potential to be a good NFL quarterback, and the Bills made sure to get some weapons when they drafted a personal favorite of mine, Robert Woods to work across from Stevie Johnson as starters at wide receiver. Add in undrafted stud Da’Rick Rogers (who went undrafted for character issues, not athletic ability) and the Bills have accumulated quite the receiving corps to go along with their already stacked backfield. CJ Spiller is a beast, and Fred Jackson may be aging, but is no slouch either. The Bills have an underrated offense heading into 2013, and Manuel should be able to beat Kevin Kolb for starting duties this season.
I expect Manuel to be the starter and be propped up by the rushing attack the Bills have, however he won’t put up the stats necessary to beat my predicted winner. The Bills will struggle again to remain in playoff contention past the midway point of the season, and although Manuel may become a good starting quarterback, he won’t do enough this year to justify the award.
Bernard projects to be a compliment ‘back to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but I think he will quickly move into the premier role in the backfield. Bernard is the better receiver out of the backfield, and has the explosive abilities to break off long runs. Bernard is going to keep Dick LeBeau up late at night adding a new dimension on top of Tyler Eifert to the Bengals’ offense. With dual tight ends over the middle, and the deep receiving threat of AJ Green, Bernard will frequently find himself the open check-down and his speed and elusive running style will allow him to pick up 10 -15 yards in a hurry on what should be a 3 yard check down.
I expect Bernard to get most of his stats coming out of the backfield as a receiver or on outside rushes, but he will pick up yards in chunks and finish the season with the most touchdowns of any rookie running back.
The two things that could hurt Bernard are the division he plays in, and the fact that there might be too many cooks in the kitchen on that high-powered offense to rack up stats. The first concern might actually not be as big of an issue as in the past. Last year the AFC North truly only had one dominant defense for most of the year, and this year Baltimore will go through a learning curve with new players, and Pittsburgh has undergone a lot of changes as well. The Browns are the Browns, so I won’t delve into why Bernard can still put up stats against them. As far as the number of weapons on Cincinnati’s offense affecting Bernard’s stats, I actually think this might be what he has going in his favor. As I noted above, Bernard will be the uncovered check down while teams focus on the receivers and tight ends. The fact that there are so many play makers to spread a defense is exactly what will make Bernard so successful.