Five NFL offensive rookie of the year candidates

For years, NFL running backs were heavy favorites to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Although the game has changed considerably, there is no doubt they still figure heavily into the mix when considering the early favorites to win the OROY award.

Yet we need to consider others for multiple reasons.  For starters, passing records are broken just about every year. More and more college wide receivers have come into the league prepared to produce immediately than in the past—even if quarterbacks are still often ill-equipped to handle the pro game as rookies.

The five leading candidates have to be adjusted to how the game is played and the increased value of a good quarterback. As we’ve seen in recent years, a bad team or a bad quarterback isn’t a good thing for a running back anymore. Teams haven’t been able to compensate by running the ball as they have in the past.

Plus, a list of rookie running backs just isn’t that much fun.

Jameis Winston

As a quarterback, Jameis Winston will have to be good to win the award. As we’ve seen in the past, rave reviews alone won’t cut it. Winston will have to put up the numbers and yes, get his team in the win column. The same goes for Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, but Winston has a lot more going for him.

For starters, Winston played in a pro-style offense in college. Whereas Mariota will still be making the adjustment, Winston will already be comfortable. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference between a solid rookie season and a good one.

Winston also has two excellent receivers with him in Tampa Bay. Mike Evans proved as a rookie he was destined for stardom and Vincent Jackson is still a very good veteran. If the Buccaneers can get anything from their running game, Winston’s natural talent should take him a long way.

Amari Cooper

Despite the influx of good rookie wide receivers and a historic 2014 class, Amari Cooper is the only receiver to make this short list. A big part of the reason is that Cooper is probably the only rookie wide receiver who will instantly become the team’s No. 1 wide receiver.

Nearly all the past winners that were wide receivers were their team’s No. 1 option. Odell Beckham Jr., Anquan Boldin and Randy Moss are prime examples. Percy Harvin was the exception, but he was also an amazing return man and came out of a weak offensive class.

All the other rookie wide receivers are either clearly No. 2 options or not even starting at this point. Receivers that don’t get ample opportunities early typically still need some seasoning before they are ready to be major contributors. That’s also why many wide receivers in the past haven’t won the award.

The incredibly polished Cooper also has a solid young quarterback that has already shown the propensity of forcing the ball to him. Michael Crabtree and Rod Streater are big enough threats that opposing defenses won’t be able to roll too much coverage to Cooper, who should also produce a fair amount of his yards after the catch.

Ameer Abdullah

There are a fair amount of rookie running backs that have earned starting jobs this season. Technically speaking, Ameer Abdullah isn’t one of them. That doesn’t mean the Lions aren’t going to find a lot of ways to get him the ball.

Joique Bell is currently listed as the starter. He’s a solid player, but doesn’t have near the dynamic playmaking ability of Abdullah and he’s coming off a knee and an Achilles injury. Bell has averaged a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry over the last two seasons, which isn’t going to fend off Abdullah for long.

Abdullah has been a preseason star for the Lions, so he’s already showing the team that they made a wise selection at 54th overall. Abdullah’s performance and draft position will get him opportunities to produce in an offense with plenty of firepower.

Unless Caldwell makes the mistake of leaving Abdullah to rot away on the bench in favor the veteran Bell, you can expect big noise from the rookie. The only thing that can hold Abdullah back at this point would be opportunity and an offense that throws a disproportionately large number of passes.

Tevin Coleman

Aside from the 2012 season which was by far quarterback Matt Ryan’s best season, the Atlanta Falcons have always been better when they have a good ground game. In 2012, Julio Jones, Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez stayed healthy for the entire year.

Other than that one season, the Falcons haven’t been to the playoffs in any other year in which they didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher. When Michael Turner fell short in 2009, they went 9-7 and missed the postseason.

Enter rookie third-round pick Tevin Coleman, who will start Week 1. Coleman was drafted in the third-round of a deep running back class despite the team having used a fourth-round pick on Devonta Freeman in 2014 in a thin running back class.

The fact that the Falcons drafted a mid-round running back for the second year in a row foreshadowed Coleman winning the job. Freeman’s hamstring injury opened the door for Coleman to start before the competition really got off the ground. Freeman spent his rookie year behind veteran Steven Jackson and averaged just 3.8 yards per carry on 65 attempts, so he didn’t really earn a bigger role.

New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is a also a proponent of the zone-blocking scheme that has produced dozens of 1,000-yard rushers over the years and works best when a scheme-fit can be added right away. Shanahan once guided sixth-round pick Alfred Morris through a preseason competition a season in which he compiled 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. Shanahan also has shown a propensity to run the ball a lot in recent years.

It’s possible that Freeman could steal enough carries from Coleman to make a rookie of the year nod impossible. Last season, Shanahan used Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell and Ben Tate and all three had more than 100 carries. That’s highly unusual, but is reflective of the kind of the kind of timeshare that is possible if the offensive line and Coleman don’t get off to a fast start.

Still, don’t rule out Coleman getting the bulk of the carries. If Coleman runs away with the job early on, there’s a chance he could run away with the OROY award as well.

Melvin Gordon

The San Diego Chargers went all-in when they traded up to draft Melvin Gordon in the first round. They desperately needed to beef up their running game to protect quarterback Philip Rivers, which is why Gordon was an early favorite for offensive rookie of the year.

But Gordon’s struggles during training camp and the preseason has opened the door on third downs for Danny Woodhead and for Branden Oliver to steal more carries than previously anticipated. A timeshare means fewer opportunities for Gordon to put up the kind of huge numbers that would be necessary to win the rookie of the year award.

Still, Gordon is going to be heavily involved in the offense. If he starts making the adjustment to the pro game, he could see his share of carries grow by the week. He may never be able to keep Woodhead off the field in passing situations, but so long as he holds off Oliver, he should still get enough opportunities to figure into the mix for rookie of the year.

Unlike some of his fellow rookie-of-the- year candidates, Gordon’s workload is going to be fairly predictable early on. We know with relative certainty that Gordon is going to get the bulk of the carries in a run-heavy offense with a good quarterback. Coleman and Abdullah could split carries or be looking at a few touches per game early on, but Gordon is still going to be the workhorse in San Diego.

The only other rookie running back with as clear a path to carries as Gordon is T.J. Yeldon of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Yeldon was close to making the list, but didn’t because he is on a bad team with a young quarterback in Blake Bortles that needs to mature and an offensive coordinator in Greg Olson that often abandoned the run early last season with the Raiders.

Don’t sleep on Gordon making a quick adjustment and becoming a quick favorite for rookie of the year by midseason. Few rookies have the kind of opportunity and supporting cast that Gordon will have in San Diego.

About Christopher Hansen

My path into sports media started with the founding of while working concurrently in the financial sector. I covered the AFC West and the NFL as a lead writer for Bleacher Report for three years and have been featured on CNN and other major outlets. I received my journalism degree from Abilene Christian University and I'm a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. I enjoy spending time with my awesome family, home projects, craft beer, the outdoors and technology.