There is perhaps no better indicator of the recent success of young quarterbacks than the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. From 1971 to 2003, not a single quarterback won the award; from 2003 to today, 6 quarterbacks have won it, including 3 of the last 4. As rookie quarterbacks have risen to prominence, the targets they throw to have become less valued, at least in terms of winning Rookie of the Year. Percy Harvin and Anquan Boldin are the only two receivers to win the award in the last fifteen years, and only the third and fourth since 1985. That being said, it seems like a bit of an unusual year for offensive rookies, as the fact that there is no rookie quarterback penciled in as a starter leaves the field wide open, and actually makes a wide receiver (Sammy Watkins) the favorite at this point. It’s actually a pretty similar situation to last year, where the lack of any real standout resulted in the award going to a second-round running back (Eddie Lacy), I foresee the same thing happening in 2014.
Best bet: Bishop Sankey (8/1)
Bishop Sankey should be the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. He enters the year as the starting running back for the Tennessee Titans, and is in line for at least a decent amount of carries as the focal point of what should be a run-heavy offense. The one real concern about Sankey’s candidacy is the possibility that Ken Whisenhunt opts for more of a backfield-by-committee approach than giving any one back a significant amount of carries. But the personnel Tennessee has in the backfield doesn’t really lend itself to this strategy. Behind Sankey they have Shonn Greene, who really should only be used in goal-line and short yardage situations at this point in his career (you could argue he should have only been used for that at any point in his career), and Dexter McCluster, who while being an intriguing and dynamic pass-catching threat out of the backfield, isn’t someone your going to hand the ball off to ten or fifteen times a game. Sankey seems like a pretty good bet to get most first and second down carries, and in what should be a down year for offensive rookies (at least at the skill positions: running back, quarterback, and receiver, that always win the award), simply putting up average production with any kind of substantial workload could be enough to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. Consider that two of the three players that have better odds than Sankey, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel, probably won’t begin the season as starters, and might not see significant playing time until their teams are well out of contention, and 8 to 1 odds on Sankey starts to look pretty attractive.
The Wideouts: Mike Evans (9/1) and Brandin Cooks (8/1)
I know I just got done telling you how rare it is for a wide receiver to win this award, but the lack of any surefire rookie starters at quarterback or even running back after Sankey leads me to believe this just might be one of those years.
Mike Evans and Sammy Watkins are in similar situations as rookies, and I expect roughly similar production out of them, the only difference is with Mike Evans you get 9 to 1 odds, while a bet of equal value on Watkins would only return you half as much money, as he is currently listed at 9 to 2. Both are on mediocre offenses with mediocre quarterbacks, in EJ Manuel and Josh McCown. Watkins, however, will be relied upon as a true number 1 target, while Evans gets the advantage of working opposite Vincent Jackson, and will therefore likely get the other teams number 2 corner most of the time. With Doug Martin and an improving running game, I just feel a lot better about the Bucs offense in general than I do about Buffalo’s; I think there are a lot more yards to be had for Tampa than for the Bills, especially because the three teams in their division (New Orleans, Atlanta, and Carolina) all feature pretty weak secondaries. It is not insignificant that Evans will be playing his home games in Florida and three of his away games in a dome (New Orleans, Atlanta, and Detroit), while Watkins plays his home games in snowy Buffalo. If you bet on Watkins over Evans, you’re betting on the completely untested EJ Manuel to Sammy Watkins connection being very successful very quickly, and I don’t feel good about that happening.
Of course, there is another intriguing rookie receiver with good odds to win Rookie of the Year: Brandin Cooks. Cooks is in almost the polar opposite situation from his rookie counterparts Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans. While the latter two will be expected to be key cogs in jump starting stagnant offenses, Cooks steps into one already humming at full speed. If the idea of relying on a rookie to be a key part of your offense makes you nervous, Cooks is a much more palatable bet than either Watkins or Evans. You don’t have any questions about his quarterback, or about his offenses ability to put up points, or even the concern that his offense will be run-heavy once they get a lead. The Saints are going to throw a lot, and rack up a lot of yards doing it, Drew Brees hasn’t finished lower than second in passing yards in a season since 2010, when he came in third.
The only question is whether Cooks will get enough looks to be a significant part of it. If he simply steps into the Robert Meachem roll as the third receiver and “speed threat” he almost certainly won’t put up impressive enough numbers, and that is my main deterrent in wagering on him. The Saints, with Sean Payton and Drew Brees, have such a well oiled system on offense, it seems much more likely to me that they plug Cooks into an existing roll than create a whole new position for him. The fact that the Saints are pretty deep at wide receiver with Colston, Meachem, and Stills already on the roster doesn’t help either. Nevertheless, with an injury or two Cooks could be the second or third option on one of the best offenses in league history, and that gives him some value.
The Long Shot: Carlos Hyde (RB, San Francisco)/ The Field
I couldn’t even find odds on Carlos Hyde at most sports books, but he makes for a really intriguing wager, if you can find odds on him, or if you just want to take the field. Going into training camp, it seemed like the 49ers would have an embarrassment of riches at running back. With Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, Lamichael James, Marcus Lattimore, and Carlos Hyde, it seemed likely that they would have to cut a very good player, and would have a difficult time just finding carries for everyone. That has all changed over the past few weeks, Kendall Hunter is out for the season with a leg injury, and LaMichael James’ availability for the season opener is in question after an arm injury. Marcus Lattimore has not progressed back from the horrific knee injury suffered in college as quickly as the 49ers had expected, and it seems that they are coming to terms with the possibility he’ll never be the same player again. That leaves the 31 year old Frank Gore as the only other back on the roster in front of Hyde. Gore has proven remarkably durable, but 31 is ancient for a running back today, even if he stays healthy all season, he won’t be able to take the physical pounding of carrying 25 times a game like he used to when he was in his 20s.
All this leaves Hyde in a similar place to Brandin Cooks, being an injury or two from getting a ton of play in one of the best offenses in the NFL for their position, wide receiver for New Orleans and running back for San Francisco. It’s not at all likely, but it seems much more possible now than even two weeks ago that Hyde will be a significant part of the San Francisco running game. If everything remains the same health-wise with the 49ers’ backs I could see Hyde getting 8-10 carries a game, and I’d rather take a flier on that on what has to be very favorable odds (like 200 to 1, if you can find them), then take 6 to 1 odds on Brian Hoyer’s backup.