3 Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates not named Ezekiel Elliott

Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott is the consensus front-runner for OROY, but these three players could challenge him for the award.

| 4 months ago
(Jon Durr/Getty Images)

(Jon Durr/Getty Images)

3 Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates not named Ezekiel Elliott


Heading into the 2016 season, Dallas Cowboys rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott seems to be the consensus favorite for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award, and rightly so. As colleague Sam Monson wrote shortly after the draft, Elliott to Dallas was a dream scenario for both parties — the most complete back in the class landing behind the best offensive line in the league (at least for the past two seasons).

It’s worth noting, however, that a few other rookies have legitimate shots at the award, as well. Here we’ll discuss three players who — because of skill-set and surrounding situations — have a chance to challenge the former Buckeye rusher.

1. Hunter Henry, TE, San Diego Chargers (Round 2, pick No. 35)

A former Arkansas Razorback, Henry entered the draft as the class’ top tight end prospect. In 2015, he earned the highest receiving grade of any FBS TE, a bump up from his fourth-place rank in 2014.

As colleague Mike Renner noted in PFF’s scouting report on Henry, the former Razorback completed the entire 2015 season without a drop, and only had two the season prior. Volume wasn’t an issue, either, as Henry hauled in each of his 51 catchable targets, good for sixth-most in the FBS.

What favors Henry’s chances for the ORoY honor more so than his hands is the situation he enters in San Diego. This offseason, former Chargers TE Ladarius Green hit the free-agent market, ultimately signing with the Steelers. That leaves Antonio Gates — still the team’s top TE target in 2015 at age 35 — as the only incumbent at the position.

What’s more, Malcom Floyd — Philip Rivers’ second-most targeted wide receiver in 2015 — retired at the end of the 2015 season.

Simply put, Henry will have the opportunity to make an immediate impact in 2016. Last season, Rivers threw to his WRs the fourth-least (percentage-wise) of any QB (behind Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota, Philadelphia’s Sam Bradford and New England’s Tom Brady). Conversely, he targeted his TEs 23.6 percent of the time (12-highest). Although the Chargers did add former Browns WR Travis Benjamin this offseason — PFF’s 66th-highest-graded receiver last year — San Diego’s offense will provide both TEs with plenty of chances to make plays. In 2015, Gates and Green lined up in the slot more frequently than any other pair of NFL TEs, and the Chargers utilized two-TE sets on 26.8 percent of their offensive snaps.

With limited receiving options, look for Rivers to continue to utilize his bigger targets — including the best receiving TE in college last year — through the air.

2. Kenneth Dixon, RB, Baltimore Ravens (Round 4, pick No. 134)

Another rookie benefiting from his surroundings, Dixon’s arrival in Baltimore comes at a key time for the Ravens. Last season, the backfield featured the league’s 36th- and 62nd-ranked running backs (in terms of overall grade). With Justin Forsett and Javorius Allen still the top returning options, Dixon could get a chance to prove himself immediately.

The former Louisiana Tech rusher entered the draft as the No. 47 overall prospect on PFF’s draft board — a steal for Baltimore at pick No. 134 — after owning the top college receiving grade among all RBs in the class.

Like Elliott in Dallas, Dixon will line up behind a solid offensive line — Baltimore was the eighth-highest-graded run-blocking team last season, and finished 13th overall in our season-end rankings.

Dixon’s greatest skill is his ability to make would-be tacklers miss. Last year, he forced more missed tackles on receptions (16) than any other RB in the class, and owned the second-best elusive rating (behind only Giants rookie Paul Perkins), which is PFF’s measure of how good a runner is at generating yards independent of his blocking.

What’s more, the Ravens play in a division that wasn’t particularly stout against the run last season — the Bengals, Steelers and Browns finished 2015 ranked 13th, 24th and 31st in run defense, respectively.

If Dixon is given opportunities early and often, especially on passes out of the backfield and possibly even the slot from QB Joe Flacco, expect the former Bulldog to be a surprise rookie standout in 2016.

3. Corey Coleman, WR, Cleveland Browns (Round 1, pick No. 15)

The only first-rounder on this list, Coleman heads to a Cleveland offense that earned the third-worst receiving grade in the league last season. Coleman was the No. 9 overall prospect and No. 1 wide receiver on our draft board, so he was a relative steal with the 15th overall pick.

If the Browns’ receiver situation was dire in 2015, things only got worse in terms of returning targets this offseason. As previously mentioned, Travis Benjamin will be running routes for San Diego QB Philip Rivers in 2016, and Cleveland recently cut Brian Hartline (No. 59 WR in PFF grades last season). That pair accounted for 58.0 percent of the Browns’ WR targets in 2015.

While the team’s most-targeted player last season — TE Gary Barnidge — is still on the roster, new head coach Hue Jackson is likely to immediately lean on Coleman. The former Baylor star earned the ninth-best overall grade among FBS WRs last season, but was in the top five before QB Seth Russell suffered a season-ending injury in just the Bears’ seventh game.

Coleman’s greatest strength is his ability to get separation from coverage both before and after the catch using his quickness and speed, and that translated to his stat line. At 3.97, his average yards per route run mark trailed only Washington Redskins rookie Josh Doctson in the 2016 draft class.

Realistically, much of Coleman’s success will revolve around the re-initiation of Robert Griffin III as a starting QB. The former Redskin will have a stable of young receivers at his ready (Rashard Higgins, Ricardo Louis  and Jordan Payton could each see significant targets as rookies, too), and will try to recreate the production we saw in 2012. During the height of Griffin’s NFL career thus far (his rookie season), Griffin ran play-action fakes on 40 percent of his dropbacks that year—the highest rate PFF has recorded in the past four seasons. In 2015, Baylor QB Seth Russell ran play-action fakes on 54.2 percent of his dropbacks, with Coleman on the receiving end of many of those targets. What’s more, under Jackson as the Bengals offensive coordinator, Andy Dalton ran play-action fakes the ninth-most of any NFL QB last season.

| General Editor

Chase is a General Editor at PFF, focusing on the site’s NFL content strategy. His work has been featured in ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider, and The Cincinnati Enquirer.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Seems a bit strange that the first player drafted isn’t even being considered. Goff falls into a pretty good situation where he could have an impact.

    • Phyein

      Well high drafted QBS are always a given, so the article should probably have been titled “…not named Ezekiel Elliott, Goff, Wentz, or Lynch”

      Though when you put it this way, the chances of any but these 4 seem pretty low no matter how underrated these guys are, unless all 3 qbs bomb which seems unlikely.

    • Daniel

      You might want to lay off the booze if you think the Rams offense is a good situation for a QB..

  • Blake Williams

    My bet is on Devontae Booker
    We know Gary Kubiak can get the most out of his run game. Booker is in a prime situation with no clear starter at QB and last years starters at RB only averaging ~50 yards a game (give or take).

    Kubiak turned Foster into a pro-bowler, Booker is a similar thoroughbred who should start out of camp.

    1200yds
    10 TDs
    4.8 yards per carry

    • T. Kothe

      Your yards/game stat on Anderson is a significant oversimplification. It doesn’t take into consideration that he was hurt for the first month or more of the season, nor that he got less than 10 carries in 6 out of 15 games that he played in and never got 20+ carries in any game in 2015. If you look at just 10+ carry games, he goes up to ~60 yards/game. And if you throw out 10+ carry games from the first 5 weeks of the season whn he was playing hurt, it’s more like ~80 yards/game.

      In fact, from week 7 on Anderson posted a 5.88 yards/carry average with only a single game below 4 yards per carry. And did so behind an o-line that lost both starting tackles by Week 3 of the season and battled injuries to both starting guards in the mid and late season.

      All that to say- there’s a reason the Broncos matched the Dolphins offer to Anderson. He is significantly better than you’re giving him credit for. Booker has great potential too, but is far from a lock to start and is at best a dark horse OROY candidate.

      • Blake Williams

        Anderson has a lot to prove, and lets face it, you could average 4 yards per carry with Kubiak calling plays. Anderson is not a marquee back but they matched the offer because you can’t replace an entire backfield going into the off-season and with both QBs gone they need a vet who can do the little things (pass protect, keep possession).

        That being said, I watched Booker extensively and I don’t think theres a huge drop off between him and Elliot or Henry. He’s a prime-time, full workload back.

        • T. Kothe

          You’re pretty blind to facts that don’t jive with your opinion, it seems. The fact that the Broncos were willing to match an $18 million dollar contract tell us a couple of things 1) they think Anderson is a marquee back, or they’d be letting someone else pay him like one. Elway has a value on every player and flat-out will not pay more for them than he thinks they’re worth. And 2) they obviously want him for more than just familiarity and continuity in the backfield. After all, they could have just stuck with picking Hillman back up for one year and $1 million if that was all they wanted.

          Booker definitely has that potential, yes. But as the many unbiased observers out there are consistently noting, he’s a 3-down-back in waiting. He’s not getting starter reps until injury or departure move Anderson out of his way. All Anderson actually has to prove at this point is that he can stay healthy. His rushing talent is unquestionable and his receiving and pass blocking skills are both quite good.

          • Blake Williams

            Whoops! My bad for getting into an online back and forth with the president of CJ Anderson fan club. You’re also blind to the FACT that Kubiak can squeeze water out of a rock at the RB position and he’s proven this several times in his career.

            Anderson is good, potential to get better and needs to prove he can actually stay healthy for a full season. We both know this offense will be leaning heavily on the run game, so that gives Anderson a bigger responsibility.

            My money goes on the younger backs in this NFL.

          • T. Kothe

            Not at all. I’ll be quite as happy for Booker to succeed as for Anderson, and I prefer Anderson only slightly between the two. I just tend to speak up and point out when someone is pushing one player over another one via terrible reasoning or simple bias, which has been the case with you.

            Nor am I blind to the impact Kubes has on RBs. But that rather poorly crafted jibe (When did I ever question Kubes? Of the two of us, you’re the only one who’s been actively putting a player down despite Kubes’s coaching abilities.) doesn’t carry much weight regarding CJ when he has rushed very well under both Kubes and John Fox.

    • HTTRer

      I see your reasoning, but the numbers are a bit off.
      700 yrds
      6 TDs

    • HTTRer

      Williams and Kothe, you guys can cool down. Jeez, it’s amazing how aggressive people gat on here.

  • Jason

    Sterling Shepard

  • HTTRer

    So they’re basically guaranteeing that Elliot is going to win offensive rookie of the year. Can you say Jared Goff?

    • crosseyedlemon

      If Gurley has another good season rushing that will help Goff considerably as defenses won’t be able to just tee off on him. Rams have a defense capable of keeping most games close and that should help too.

      • Hello I’m DEV

        they wasnt able to “tee off” on Foles last yr…how’d that work..Fisher is the worst coach in the NFL 6 winning seasons in 25 yrs. if Goff gets it..its cus he’s a qb and nobody else did squat..BTW Elliot has to share the ball with a 1000 yd back named Alfred Morris, whom got guaranteed money..and McFadden…i dont think he’ll get the carries it will take to win ROY this season..

        • Daniel

          The Cowboys are on a short window with Romo’s age. When you draft a guy at 4 overall he’s not gonna be playing behind a guy who averaged 3.7 YPC last season and can’t play in the pass game… If anyone is taking a lot of work from Zeke it’s McFadden.