Making The Case For Top Offensive, Defensive Rookies of the Year

Photo: Photos courtesy of USA TODAY Sports

By Jack McKessy

The NFL Honors are coming. This Saturday’s presentation will be the 10th annual iteration of the NFL’s awards show. This year, some of the most prestigious awards are near-locks—Aaron Rodgers will almost certainly win his third MVP award, and there’s no chance Alex Smith isn’t Comeback Player of the Year. 

Other awards leave more room for debate. There were some impressive showings from rookies on both sides of the ball, so it’s hard to definitively pick a winner for Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year. Instead, I’ll just make the case for the top three candidates on each side and let you take your pick.

Offensive Rookie of the Year (OROY)

Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

It didn’t take long for the Chargers to get Justin Herbert reps in an NFL game. After the Chargers’ team doctor accidentally punctured Week 1 starter Tyrod Taylor’s lung, Herbert was called on for his first start against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2. He never looked back.

In 15 starts, Herbert cracked the league’s top 10 in passing touchdowns on the year with 31—an NFL rookie record. He was just 38 yards away from breaking Andrew Luck’s rookie record, and Luck started all 16 games. Herbert’s 4,336 passing yards were still good enough for sixth in the league and more than Aaron Rodgers. With eight games—more than half of his starts—with 300-plus passing yards, he had more such games than the two previous years’ standout rookie quarterbacks—Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray—combined.

Not only was he effective at gaining yards and completing passes, but he also excelled in accuracy. Herbert’s completion percentage of 66.6% was good enough for 15th in the league, outmatching both Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady. If we take out his inexplicably bad performance against New England, his completion percentage shoots up to 68.3%, eighth in the NFL.

Despite his impressive year, Herbert was not named to this year’s Pro Bowl. He did, however, win this year’s fan-voted Pepsi Zero Sugar NFL Rookie of the Year. 

Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

With a Stefon Diggs-shaped hole in Minnesota’s offense, Justin Jefferson proved to be exactly what the Vikings needed. After not starting in the Vikings’ first two games of 2020, Jefferson immediately broke out in his Week 3 start against Tennessee. He recorded seven receptions for 175 yards and a touchdown.  By Week 6, he had put the league on notice with three 100-plus yard games and three touchdowns in four starts.

By the end of the season, Jefferson was already quarterback Kirk Cousins’ favorite target. Even when he wasn’t getting targeted or catching the ball, he was making an impact. The offensive threat Jefferson posed was perfect for taking attention away from Adam Thielen, another of Cousins’ favorite targets, who snagged the third-most receiving touchdowns (13) in the NFL in 2020.

Jefferson finished the 2020 season with 1,400 receiving yards, a rookie record. It was good enough for the fourth-most in the league—more than Green Bay’s Davante Adams and just seven yards behind Arizona’s DeAndre Hopkins. That stellar offensive output gets even more impressive with this context: it’s the most yards a Vikings receiver not named Randy Moss has ever had in a single season.

Unlike Herbert, Jefferson was named to the 2021 Pro Bowl roster. He was one of two rookies—the other being Washington’s Chase Young—named to the Pro Bowl this year.

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

Like the other two OROY candidates, Jonathan Taylor wasn’t thrust into a starting role immediately. But after Marlon Mack tore his Achilles in the Colts’ opener, Taylor stepped in and stepped up.

He immediately was put to work, taking on a heavy load in the run game in his first start Week 2 against Minnesota. Taylor finished the matchup with 26 carries—his second-most for all of 2020—for 101 yards and a touchdown. His status as a workhorse diminished for a bit after that. Taylor recorded fewer than 15 rushes and 65 yards in all but one start by Week 10, and he didn’t start in the Colts’ Week 11 matchup against Green Bay.

Ironically, that week spurred Taylor’s return to form for the rest of the season. He put up 90 yards on 22 touches and never recorded fewer than 70 yards in a game for the remainder of the year. Highlighting Taylor’s end-of-season resurgence were his performances in Weeks 14 and 17. He could not be stopped by the Raiders’ and Jaguars’ defenses, recording 150 yards on 20 touches in Las Vegas and 253 yards on 30 carries in the rematch with Jacksonville. Taylor also scored two touchdowns in each of those two games.

For his stat line on the year, Taylor finished with 11 rushing touchdowns and 1169 yards on the ground, seventh and third highest in the NFL, respectively. Despite his midseason dip in production, Taylor’s late-season surge and his ability to create yards after contact makes him a stellar candidate for OROY.

Defensive Rookie of the Year (DROY)

Chase Young, DE, Washington Football Team

Chase Young’s pure athleticism and football IQ, especially as a rookie, is what really makes him stand out above the rest. His stats might not stand out more than the others—his 7.5 sacks are just half of the 15 from league leader T.J. Watt—but it shouldn’t count him out from Rookie of the Year consideration. He’s able to affect the game just by being on the field in many instances.

Take the clip below for example. It’s from Washington’s Week 6 matchup against the Giants, meaning this is Young’s sixth career game. 

He’s already getting triple-teamed off the snap because teams are that worried about him making a play. By Week 12, he was already getting double-teamed as often as some of the league’s best pass rushers. Could explain that relatively low sack number, yeah?

To further this point about Young’s impact on the field beyond stats, there are a couple of plays you may have seen already that emphasize it. First, his hit on Joe Burrow that saved a touchdown AND forced a fumble.

Not only was the hit impressive, but it also came on a play that would have likely tied the game. Instead, Washington went on to win, 20-9. Second, his fumble recovery touchdown against San Francisco. In a situation where he very easily could have fallen on the ball for his first career fumble recovery, Young instead scooped the ball and ran 47 yards to the house. 

It was a play that gave Washington the lead for the first time, and they won that day, 23-15. After the Football Team had been struggling on offense all day, he gave them the spark they needed on defense. It turned out to be the difference in a one-score game.

Jeremy Chinn, S, Carolina Panthers

Unlike Young, Jeremy Chinn’s case is more stats-based. He led all rookies with 117 combined tackles and led the league in fumble return touchdowns with two. What makes that stat even more impressive is the context. Chinn’s two fumble return touchdowns were both in the same game, making him the first Panthers defender in history to score two in a single game.

It gets better. Those two fumble recovery touchdowns happened on back-to-back plays. That’s right, scoop-and-score touchdown, kickoff, scoop-and-score touchdown.

Those two plays brought Chinn from fringe contender for DROY to the top of the list. In one game, on back-to-back plays, he became the league leader in fumble recovery touchdowns and held that spot through the end of the season. Chinn also led his team in combined tackles this year, and he finished in the top 25 players in the league in that statistic. His immediate impact on his team and the league-wide impression he created gives Chinn a good argument for DROY.

Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Unlike this year’s other top candidates, Antoine Winfield Jr. played in and started every game this year. Young and Chinn each missed one game due to injury, but Winfield stayed healthy all year. His 94 tackles cracked the top 50 of all players in the league and were good enough for third on his team.

Winfield has the same number of interceptions (1) and forced fumbles (2) as Chinn, but he has one more pass defensed (6) on the season, giving him the slightest of edges in pure pass coverage stats. Looking at more advanced metrics, Chinn has the better numbers for air yards on completions while Winfield’s been better at limiting yards after the catch. Chinn has also more than twice as many missed tackles as Winfield.

While Chinn holds a slight edge over Winfield because of his high tackle numbers and two fumble recovery touchdowns, the latter does have better numbers in some aspects of his pass defense. His ability to stay healthy doesn’t hurt his case, either.