Mailbag: Who Are the Favorites to Win NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year

Mailbag: Who Are the Favorites to Win NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year

Predicting three rookies on both ends of the ball who’ll make a big impact this year.

Want some answers to draft questions with a little Aaron Rodgers sprinkled in? That’s exactly what you’re about to get …

From Jay (@RedskinsCult): Who are your candidates for ROY (offense & defense)?

Jay, this is always a fun exercise for me, because it’s not just how good a player each guy is—it also relates to the situation they’re being dropped into. With that in mind, I’ll give you my top three on offense, and my top three on defense.

Offense

1) Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jaguars: He’s going to be throwing to D.J. Chark, he’s got a loaded backfield behind him, and he has two coordinators (Darrell Bevell and Brian Schottenheimer) who led offenses with rookie quarterbacks (Russell Wilson and Mark Sanchez) that made the playoffs, and won when they got there. On top of that, he’ll get all the reps from the start. I think Lawrence will hit the ground running, in a place where even getting to 6–11 would mean a five-win improvement.

2) Zach Wilson, QB, Jets: He’ll probably have an electric highlight real (which probably shouldn’t be a factor, but always is), and he’s got a much-improved crew around him. The reality is, Wilson’s coming in to be the Week 1 starter, and that clear path to playing time is one that the three quarterbacks taken behind him won’t have.

3) Najee Harris, RB, Steelers: This is a little bit of a curveball, but it’s founded on the indisputable fact that backs translate to the league faster than receivers like Ja’Marr Chase or tight ends like Kyle Pitts do (and linemen never win the award). Bottom line, I think Harris is more likely to have a 1,500-yard rushing season than Chase or Pitts is to have, say, a 1,200-yard receiving season. And a lot of times, these awards come down to how much opportunity each rookie is given.

Defense

1) Patrick Surtain II, CB, Broncos: A combination of things went into this. One, Vic Fangio’s aggressive scheme should bring big-play chances. Two, the signings of Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby mean Surtain should get some favorable matchups. Three, edge rushers Bradley Chubb and Von Miller are playing for contracts, and the better they play, the easier Surtain’s job will be. Add that to Surtain’s own readiness, and I think he’s a safe bet to be an impact player in Year 1.

2) Micah Parsons, LB, Cowboys: Dan Quinn’s scheme is constituted on simplicity and playing fast. As such, he’s always been able to get rookies in a spot to produce. Deion Jones was a really good example as the middle linebacker of a Super Bowl team in Atlanta in 2016, and Parsons can do what Jones did as an off-ball ’backer—but with more versatility to blitz and cover. So my guess is Parsons will be a playmaker right away for Dallas.

3) Trevon Moehrig, S, Raiders: I was tempted to put Dolphins pass-rusher Jaelan Phillips here, but Moehrig brings so much to the table. He’s one of those sorts of prospects who may not be great at any one thing, but is really good at pretty much everything you’d want a safety to do. Which is a path to playing a lot of snaps as a rookie.

From Mayor (@TheMayorMatt): Breer, who will be the best of the young QBs in the AFC East?

Mayor, I love this question because, after the Patriots took Mac Jones, it really hit me how young the division suddenly has become at the position. All four teams now have a first-round pick on a rookie contract at quarterback (that’ll likely change soon for Buffalo). Here are the birthdates for those four …

• Bills QB Josh Allen: 5/21/96
• Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa: 3/2/98
• Patriots QB Mac Jones: 9/5/98
• Jets QB Zach Wilson: 8/3/99

Now, my answer? That’s easy. It’s Josh Allen. He was an MVP candidate last year, and he has a ton of stability around him now, with Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane there for the long haul, and a cadre of qualified offensive assistants ready to take the reins if coordinator Brian Daboll lands a head coaching job in the next year or two. In the here and now, I just think it’d be hard to answer this question with anyone but Allen.

And therein lies an important point: Environment matters for each of these guys. The good news for Tagovailoa, Jones and Wilson is that, by the looks of it, they’re not going to have to endure the sort of organizational upheaval that sent guys previously in their spots (like Sam Darnold and Ryan Tannehill) into a tailspin. Bill Belichick’s not going anywhere. Neither is Brian Flores, and Robert Saleh should get some time to prove himself, too.

From Patrick Sullivan (@psullivan4): The Dolphins are developing a strong roster and culture but I’ve never been a Tua fan, even at Bama. Certainly, it can take multiple years to develop as a QB but what’s the consensus around the league about Tua? Are more teams optimistic or pessimistic?

Fair question, Patrick. It’s interesting because I think Tagovailoa’s success was held up as a reason not to draft Jones for some teams—and those teams pointed to how average Tagovailoa looked without Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle at receiver, plus an offensive line stocked with bigger, stronger athletes than everyone else had. And I can recall in January how people from those teams felt strongly that the Dolphins should look at taking a quarterback with the third pick.

And the fact that Justin Fields and Mac Jones were there at No. 6 added more intrigue to the whole question. Miami GM Chris Grier has done a fantastic job with his teardown/retool over the last 28 months, and the franchise is positioned incredibly well going forward. But there’s very little question that this series of decisions—taking Tagovailoa over Justin Herbert last year, then doubling down by trading out of a shot to draft Trey Lance and passing on Fields and Jones after the trade(s)—will be defining for the current regime.

All this said, there was a lot I liked about Tagovailoa coming out of Alabama. He played the game fast and instinctively, was deadly accurate and accentuated the strengths of the aforementioned freaks around him. I thought the Drew Brees comps were valid. But I need to see the style we saw Tagovailoa play with at Bama again—and, to be fair, if Brees is the comp, it’s worth noting that it took Brees a while to hit his stride as a pro.

From TheRealDevonTe (@AyeethatsChapo): How will this Aaron Rodgers situation end when it’s all said and done?

Devon, it’s really hard to say. But I do think there’s an operative number here that’s important for everyone to file away: $240 million. That’s how much money Rodgers has made as a football player and, for now, it’s his leverage. If he walks away now, he will be able to live very comfortably, and that’s without even considering the eight-figure offer he’d almost certainly get to go into broadcasting.

Do I think Rodgers will retire? I do not. But I don’t think he’s any less likely to do it than Brett Favre was in 2008, when Favre used a retirement to illustrate how sideways his relationship with the Packers had gotten over similar issues (heir apparent drafted, coaching upheaval, desire for more urgency in team-building, etc.). So I don’t think it’d be any more weird if Rodgers “retired” than it was when Favre “retired” in 2008.

What I do know is the Packers in general, and GM Brian Gutekunst in particular, have their feet planted firmly in the ground on this one, as of right now. They’re willing to do, and have offered, an extension. They’ve summarily turned away trade offers. And my belief is that they don’t think Jordan Love is ready to take the wheel for a roster they see as being in a championship window now.

Putting that together, I think we’re barreling toward helicopter coverage of the opening of Packers training camp, after Rodgers stays away from OTAs and the veteran minicamp in June. With where Rodgers’s resolve is now, and who he is personally, my guess is he won’t be there—and I have no idea what would happen after that. But the good news is the Packers do still have time on their side here. This does not need to be resolved by tomorrow morning.

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From Robert “The Rock” Saleh (@TylerIanKirk): Was the Jets’ philosophy always offense/playmakers for the first four rounds, or did the board happen to fall that way?

Saleh! I think the philosophy reflected some self-awareness for how things went so terribly wrong with Sam Darnold. Talking to people in the organization over the last couple of months, it felt almost like there was an acknowledgment there that Darnold didn’t really have a chance. You can assign blame however you want, but Darnold and Adam Gase really weren’t a good fit for each other. And the personnel around Darnold wouldn’t have been the right fit for anyone.

Given all that, the reaction we saw from the Jets in the draft was promising, almost a statement that they don’t won’t let happen to Zach Wilson what happed to Darnold. They traded up for Alijah Vera-Tucker, who (along with Mekhi Becton) gives the team a second foundational piece on the offensive line. They drafted a fast, crafty slot receiver in Elijah Moore at the top of the second, and Moore should be able to create easy completions for Wilson. And in the fourth, they stopped the slide of a versatile, pass-catching back in Michael Carter.

So to me, all of this doesn’t so much give us a window into GM Joe Douglas’s philosophy in roster construction—he’s always going to do it through the lines of scrimmage—as it is an all-out effort to give the quarterback the right sort of group around him, adding last year’s draft class (Becton, Denzel Mims) and this year’s free-agent work (Corey Davis). Which is smart, and should position Wilson for success and the franchise to get a much clearer view of who he is as a quarterback than they were ever able to get on Darnold.

From Chadwick (@Chadwick32097): Was Urban Meyer absolutely going to take the best player he felt would score touchdowns next year at No. 25? He joked about his conversation about trading up for Kyle Pitts and talked about missing out on Kadarius Toney before selecting Travis Etienne.

Chadwick, this is one thing I learned about Meyer after he was head coach at my alma mater for eight years—he looks at offensive skill positions with blurred lines. And really the blurrier the better. He doesn’t want the defense to know where his skill players are going to line up when his quarterback breaks the huddle, and he doesn’t want the defense to know where they’ll end up, either.

That’s why Percy Harvin was the ideal Meyer player, and it was why he loved Curtis Samuel when Samuel was a Buckeye. Similarly, both Toney and Etienne can blur the lines. Toney was a high school quarterback, and Florida handed him the ball a lot—he actually had more carries than catches in 2019. And Etienne’s dangerous enough in the passing game to where the NFL comp I got for him, over and over again, was Alvin Kamara.

If you want to go to Pitts, well, you’d almost have a super-charged version of Aaron Hernandez, whom Meyer and Dan Mullen moved all over the place at Florida.

So when you hear Meyer talk about finding someone who can put the ball in the end zone, that’s what it is—finding versatile playmakers who can be a threat to score in a bunch of different ways. In fact, he even had a position for it (both Harvin and Samuel played the “H” position for Meyer) in the college game. It should be fun to see how all this gets adapted to what Bevell and Schottenheimer are building on offense.

From Just getting by… (@cbf1177): How does Trey Lance compare to Tim Tebow? They seem pretty similar in terms of size, athleticism and accuracy.

Just getting by, you’re not getting by with that here. Lance has a lot of rawness to his game, but it’s not like Tebow—who needed to be completely rebuilt as a passer. This is more like Josh Allen coming out of Wyoming, where you have a young passer with undeniable arm talent who needs to tighten a bunch of things mechanically.

As was the case with Allen, it’s no sure thing he’ll get there. One of the issues teams had with Lance was accuracy. Another was a simple lack of work. He averaged about 18 attempts per game and threw it just 10 times in the national title game, while running it 30, at the end of the 2019 season. And because North Dakota State is such a wagon—the gap between NDSU and who it plays is larger than the gap between Alabama and its competition—Lance has even less experience playing from behind or in long-yardage situations where he has to load the team on his back.

That’s not Lance’s fault, of course. You can only play in the situations presented, and through the favorable circumstances, he rung up favorable results: a 28-to-0 TD-to-INT ratio, 16–0 record and national title in 2019 (with one somewhat shakier win in 2020). It’s just that you don’t see absolutely everything you’d like to on his résumé, so you have to have faith you’ll be able to get more out of him than he’s shown. Obviously, Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch feel pretty good that they can make that happen.

From R.B. (@Sports_Fi3nd): Which teams do you think were the top NFL draft winner and loser from this past weekend?

R.B., let’s wrap up here with three winners and three losers for you …

Winners

Falcons QB Matt Ryan: The Falcons gave him a generational talent to work with at tight end and a new lease on life by passing on Justin Fields and Mac Jones. And going forward, Ryan’s got a GM in house now who was part of the Saints’ rebuild-on-the-fly around an aging quarterback, Drew Brees in that case, so there’s a template for that GM, Terry Fontenot, and head coach Arthur Smith to work off of.

The Panthers: I don’t know what they’ll be as pros, but through every step of the draft, the players new Carolina GM Scott Fitterer and coach Matt Rhule took—from Jaycee Horn to Terrace Marshall Jr. to Brady Christensen, Tommy Tremble and Chuba Hubbard—seemed like a good value for where they had been projected. And I love how Fitterer made up for picks lost in the Sam Darnold deal, effectively replacing the sixth-rounder this year, and the fourth next year via a flurry of trades.

Alabama coach Nick Saban: He had a half dozen first-rounders, tying Miami’s record class of 2004. And that makes a staggering 21 first-round picks—basically an entire starting lineup—over the last five years. Saban, at this point, is probably the greatest college coach of all-time. And at that level, this sort of success only builds on itself. So if he wants to keep doing it into his 70s, Saban can probably just keep running up the score on everyone.

Losers

Patriots QB Cam Newton and Bears QB Andy Dalton: We’re leaving Jimmy Garoppolo off this list. Why? I actually think he’s in a better spot than people realize. He has two years left on his contract, and now he’ll get to play for his football future in a loaded offense for maybe the best tactician in the sport. This is actually a really great opportunity to compete for a title, and revive his value league-wide (which would be a win/win, because then San Francisco could get something good for him in 2022). The cases of Newton and Dalton are a little different. Yes, both can really help themselves. But I think, for separate reasons, the leash will be shorter in New England and Chicago. And a benching would be devastating for the future of either guy.

The Raiders: I might be wrong. But I don’t believe anyone else was lining up to take Alex Leatherwood close to where the Raiders were picking, which harkens to other Jon Gruden–era picks like 2018 third-rounder Brandon Parker, 2019 first-rounder Clelin Ferrell and 2020 first-rounder Damon Arnette. And while I don’t think the Raiders’ roster is in as rough shape as some people think it is, it seems obvious that they could do a better job playing the board on draft weekend (and I say that acknowledging their second-round pick, Moehrig, was an outstanding value).

The medically-flagged prospects: Caleb Farley was one example. Trey Smith and Dylan Moses were two more who paid an even heavier price. And there are scores of others. Fact is, if you came into this year’s draft hurt, or with some sort of injury history, there were far fewer opportunities to ease the concerns of team doctors, thanks to the lack of 30 visits and the limit of 150 players allowed to attend the medical combine in Indy. So many saw their stock plummet because of that dynamic. Which really just kind of sucks.

More NFL Coverage:

• Breer: Inside the Biggest Stories on Draft Night
• Orr: Is Urban Meyer ready for Trevor Lawrence?
• Orr: Drafting Trey Lance will define Kyle Shanahan’s legacy
• Vrentas: The Patriots’ post-Brady era begins now

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