PFF’s 2015 Rookie of the Year

Analyst Nathan Jahnke reveals PFF's selection for Rookie of the Year, as well as four runners-up for the honor.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

PFF’s 2015 Rookie of the Year

One of the NFL’s most popular honors, Rookie of the Year takes into account a player’s full contribution, including offense, defense, and special teams. PFF also take into account the learning curve for the position, and how well rookie players typically perform in that role.

Below you’ll find PFF’s Rookie of the Year selection for the 2015 NFL season, as well as four runners-up who kept the race tight.


Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While Tampa Bay, as a team, didn’t have a season to remember, Jameis Winston made the Buccaneers look pretty smart by drafting him first overall. After a slow Week 1 start, Winston was a top 10 quarterback from Week 2 and on.

While some young quarterbacks in recent years have played conservatively and relied on the talent around them, Winston was asked to do much more with lesser talent. His average depth of target of 10.3 was the fifth-highest among quarterbacks this year behind MVP candidates Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, and Ben Roethlisberger. He accomplished a 4,000-yard season despite a below-average offensive line in pass blocking efficiency. On paper, he has a strong receiving core around him, but Austin Seferian-Jenkins missed over half the season, and Vincent Jackson missed six games. The Buccaneers lacked consistency from their third and fourth wide receiver spots.

Where Winston was most impressive was his big-time throws. He had 39, which tied him for sixth-best alongside Tom Brady. If he can take away some of the negatives, the former FSU standout could be a Pro Bowler by his second season. When you consider how many outright busts there have been at quarterback over the past three years, and how long it’s taken for others to develop, the fact that Winston was this good this early is incredibly impressive.

First runner-up

Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo Bills

Although another rookie cornerback attracted more media attention, Ronald Darby was the most consistent first-year CB this season. His 87.1 PFF grade places him fourth-best among cornerbacks, while is 13 passes defended were tied for fifth-most. He allowed a low 54.3 percent catch rate and 11.6 yards per catch, which are both below the league average for cornerbacks. His 11.9 tackling efficiency was also good for the top 20 at the position. Teams tried to take advantage of him by targeting him 105 times, which was fifth-most, but they rarely were able to beat him. His 660 yards allowed were the fewest among the 10 most-targeted cornerbacks.

Some might prefer Marcus Peters here because he had more positive plays than Darby, including more interceptions and passes defended. Peters led all cornerbacks in positively-graded coverage plays, but Darby wasn’t far behind at sixth-best. However, cornerback is more of a position meant to prevent big plays, as opposed to making big ones. Peters had the second-most negatively-graded plays in coverage, just behind Brandon Browner, while Darby wasn’t even in the top 15.

Regardless of who you prefer, both of these players are especially impressive when you consider the typical play of rookie cornerbacks. We’ve seen rookie CBs be successful in recent years, but typically just in part-time roles. Ronald Darby was able to become a day one starter—and keep the job—despite other good cornerbacks on the roster, and never allowed a 100-yard game.

Second runner-up

Leonard Williams, DT, New York Jets

When the Jets drafted Williams, we weren’t sure how much playing time he would get with the other talented defensive linemen on the roster. The Jets found a way to get him on the field, though, which led to 827 snaps by Williams—over 150 more than any other rookie interior defender. We often see rookie defensive linemen who can contribute as a pass rusher or a run defender, but is a liability in the other area. Williams was the rare player who could contribute in both facets immediately.

Against the run, Williams’ 26 run stops were the sixth-most for 3-4 defensive ends. His PFF run defense rating of 90.4 ended up being eighth-best for all 3-4 defensive linemen or 4-3 defensive tackles. As a pass rusher, he had 50 total pressures, seventh-best for 3-4 defensive ends. He had 23 combined sacks and hits, which was just behind J.J. Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson at the position. While we see rookie defensive linemen making impacts every year, Williams was able to be one of the better linemen in the league in 2015, making him a clear top-three rookie on the year.

Third runner-up

Tyler Lockett, WR/KR/PR, Seattle Seahawks

While plenty of receivers came into the season with a lot of hype, Tyler Lockett was one of the few to exceed expectations. He wasn’t the most targeted receiver of the group, but when he was thrown at, the Seahawks had an NFL passer rating of 130.4, which was the second-most for any receiver this year. He stood out from Amari Cooper because he had far fewer drops (three versus 18), and his special teams contribution helped him stand out from Stefon Diggs. He was named the PFF All-Pro second team punt returner, and the AP All-Pro first team returner. He had the third-most kick return yards and fourth-most punt return yards, the only player top five in both.

Fourth runner-up

Todd Gurley, HB, St. Louis Rams

While Todd Gurley didn’t play a complete season, and we’ve seen plenty of rookie running backs succeed in the past, what Gurley did in 2015 was impressive in its own right. He was the fourth-most elusive back this year, with an elusive rating of 53.9. He made 42 players miss tackles on his carries, which was fifth-most in the league. (That was with everyone higher on the list having more carries than him.) He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, despite running behind the seventh-worst run blocking offensive line in the league. For now, we can say he was one of the best rookie runners this year; but behind a better offensive line and a full season of work, we should see some pretty impressive numbers from Gurley in the future.


For more PFF awards, visit the following pages:

All 2015 PFF Awards

Dwight Stephenson Award (Given to the best player in the NFL)

Most Valuable Player

Defensive Player of the Year

Offensive Player of the Year

Most Improved Player of the Year

Comeback Player of the Year

Breakout Player of the Year

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

  • Zev

    “His average depth of target of 10.3 was the fifth-highest among quarterbacks this year behind MVP candidates Carson Palmer, Cam Newton, and Ben Roethlisberger.” That’s three people…

    • Tim Edell

      Thats because the 4th guy wasn’t an MVP candidate.

    • Brian


  • Torey P.

    No Amari Cooper, WOW!

    • PFFSamMonson

      18 drops! League-leading total and a real problem for him this year.

      • Torey P.

        So 70+ catches, 1,000+ rec yards, 6 tds, and average 14 yards per catch isn’t enough to be mentioned in the article? On top of that Macus Peters isn’t on here and he only had 8 picks with two returned for touchdowns

        • PFFSamMonson

          Was also the most targeted CB of the PFF era, gave up the 3rd most yards this year, a league-leading 8 touchdowns and had a lot of plays late in the year where missed throws saved him on plays where he was beat.

          • Jay Mitchell

            I mean seriously, some people should take off the face paint before they type

          • Joshie

            And the only one of these candidates playing in the post season…forgot to mention that one champ….

          • PFFSamMonson

            No, just not relevant.

          • The Mysteries of Bob

            Lol, the #playoffz crowd is only less embarrassing than the #ringz crowd.

            Marucs Peters, ROY if the season had six weeks rather than 16.

          • obamaScares

            Marcus Mariota ROY if the season just looked at the first game.

          • Darnell

            Lockett is in the playoffs.

          • Jimbo
        • Popegawd

          Kinda gets overshadowed by last years rookies with Mike Evans, ODB, and Benjamin putting up similar or better numbers than cooper so what cooper did doesn’t stand out like the others pointed out.

          • Torey P.

            So every rookie receiver that comes into the league has to surpass or equal the stats of the ones in the rookie class prior? Impact is impact and numbers are numbers, there is no doubt Amari did have a lot of drops this year but his impact was felt ask Derek Carr. His presence alone helped Crabtree, and Seth Roberts as he takes so much attention from the defense

      • W Van Landingham III

        As a Bucs fan I find it impossible to believe anyone dropped more passes than Mike Evans.

        • JD

          No doubt. How many times did they have to punt because Evans couldn’t hold onto the ball. Glad they drafted Winston, hoping Evans has a better year next year, and still not sure how I feel about Lovie getting fired. Yes I’m a BUCS fan too.

          • David Bradley B.

            JD, I am OK with the Bucs moving on from Smith. Justification for me was based on the collapse in Washington, lack of discipline on the field and the teams attitude about winning. When Jameis called out the players at the end of the season for not having a winning mentality I knew Smith would not survive. I like Lovie and I wish that he did a better job of coaching this team. Now if they bring in Coughlin, I think there will be a shock to the system for a lot of the players.

        • McGeorge

          18 drops is god awful but you should have watched the Eagles. Everyone dropped them. They spread the drops around. With a normal drop rate, I could see the Eagles winning 1-3 more games.

  • rader91

    Marcus peters or amari cooper? woowwww

  • soldierpj

    Marcus Peters???

  • W Van Landingham III

    Congrats to Winston on having a very good season. As a Bucs fan I watched him all year, every play, and his value to the team goes way beyond the stats – you can just watch him and know he’s special. The QB he reminds me most of so far, form a gun slinging mindset and a fire mindset, that would be Favre. QBs now throw a lot less INTs, mainly because they’re afraid to make tight throws (and with the way the rules favor the offense now the WRs are rarely covered as well) but Jameis will make those high risk throws – and generally he gets away with it, just as a young Favre did. Obviously he’s still very young in his career and I’m only talking about what Winston could become one day, but growing up a Bucs fan and seeing Favre from his very playing time in GB, Winston mostly closely reminds me of him – with a bit of Big Ben in there, mainly because of the awkward way both move when not in the pocket.

    • TrillyMadison

      My biggest nightmare for months revolved around Tampa taking Mariota first overall. Mariota is fine, but Winston is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. (I’m a Bucs fan, btw.)

    • Jeff Dommel

      I said that same thing when he came out. I prayed we picked him, I’m a Seminoles fan and I knew he was special from the gate. He’s gonna help this team bring home the Lombardy . Go Buccs

  • rob roy

    “Winston was most impressive was his big-time throws, he had 39″. What constitutes a “big-time” throw?

    • shaunhan murray

      A big time throw is a very tough throw that isnt stupid to try like a 30 yard bullet over a corner to a moving receiver

      • y0gabagaba

        Winsoton has one of the highest completion ratio for throws over 20 yards in the NFL.

        • shaunhan murray


  • Will Henry

    Could have thrown Karlos Williams in that list also.

  • MediaSplat

    Noles 1 & 2. The best place for High School kids to go if they want to make it in the NFL.

  • Kason Edell

    Sam, please respond to this.

  • Wolf1237

    Ronald Darby over Marcus Peters is by far the worst sports opinion I’ve heard all this year. Peters will be a top 5 corner within the next 3 years, his footwork and man coverage skills are already ten folds better than Darby.

    • Business12

      Did you read the article, or just the names? “Peters had the second-most negatively-graded plays in coverage, just behind Brandon Browner, while Darby wasn’t even in the top 15″

      • bigtrip

        Yet amazingly, the KC defense just pitched a shutout in a road playoff game, finished the year as the #3 scoring defense in the league, and only gave up an average of 13.5 ppg after the 4th game of the season. I don’t see how that could be possible with a Brandon Browner type as a starting corner.

        • McGeorge

          It’s hard to give up points when the opposing side is turning the ball over 5 times. Peters had an interception and a pass defense, which is great, but I question whether that was all him, or the poor decision making of Brian Hoyer.
          I’ve seen games where Mark Sanchez threw 4 or 5 picks. While the DBs were in position, it was the QB handing them the stats.

  • KAO

    Please Bring Back Premium Stats…..

  • Albert Holston

    It’s downright wrong that they didn’t choose marcus Mariota way to go PFF you failed again!

  • 3Rensho

    The one thing that PFF fails OVER and OVER again to recognize is this fact: Ronald Darby plays the nickel/slot (#2 at best)…whilst Marcus Peters goes against the BEST on every team. That, in and of itself, makes a whole world of difference. So of course, Peters is going to get burned for more yards, yet he still makes bigger plays and impact on the Chiefs. I guarantee you if Darby was playing either the 1 or 2, he wouldn’t be as GREAT as Peters. #PFFFail

    • BuffaloBills

      Darby was the Bills #2 corner. He did not play nickel or slot