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Ranking the top 2019 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates

This isn’t a stacked group compared to recent years, but one player has stood above the others.

A collage of rookies AJ Brown (Titans WR), Kyler Murray (Cardinals QB), and Josh Jacobs (Raiders RB)
Raiders running back Josh Jacobs is the 2019 NFL Rookie of the Year frontrunner.

It hasn’t been a banner year for game-breaking rookies. The 2019 crop of offensive players hasn’t produced a star like Baker Mayfield or Saquon Barkley the year before. No one is hurtling toward a spot on All-Pro teams like Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, or Todd Gurley in the recent past.

One player has risen above the fray to stand as the top choice for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, however. Raiders tailback Josh Jacobs has been vital to his franchise’s rebuild, giving Derek Carr a 1,000-yard rusher to take pressure off his passing game. While he’s a safe bet to take home the award — DraftKings currently lists him as a -400 favorite — there’s still a chance his spot gets usurped in the final two weeks of the season.

Who could make a final, furious push to challenge Jacobs’ status as rookie of the year favorite? There are a few contenders to the Raider’s presumed throne. Let’s talk about them.

(If you’re wondering who’s up for Defensive Rookie of the Year, we’ve got the rankings right here.)

5. Terry McLaurin, Washington

This spot could belong to DK Metcalf, Miles Sanders, or Devin Singletary in a pinch, but let’s give McLaurin his due for shining in the midst of a bad situation. Washington’s continued streak of dysfunction remained unchallenged in 2019, leaving the former Ohio State wideout to catch passes from three different quarterbacks: Case Keenum, Colt McCoy, and rookie Dwayne Haskins.

McLaurin leads all rookie wideouts and tight ends in receiving yards per game and has been targeted more than any other first-year player but Metcalf. A big part of that is thanks to Washington’s awful roster — because come on, who else is there to throw to? — but it also highlights the rookie’s strength. Opponents have adjusted to McLaurin’s rise as the team’s top receiving option, and he’s still found a way to gash defenses.

In Week 15, he caught all five of the passes thrown his way for 130 yards and a touchdown against Philadelphia’s foundering secondary. He also became the only rookie receiver in franchise history with three 100+ yard games where he also found the end zone. He finished his season with 919 receiving yards in 14 games — second-most among all rookies this fall.

Key stat: Washington’s quarterbacks have a combined 83.0 passer rating this fall. When they’re targeting McLaurin, that number spikes to 115.8. No wonder he’s getting so many looks.

t-3. Gardner Minshew, Jaguars

Oh cool, another bad situation! Minshew upped his rookie QB credentials by snapping Jacksonville’s five-game losing streak and ruining Oakland’s farewell to the Raiders in one fell swoop. He seemed to enjoy crushing the Bay Area’s collective heart as well.

The 2019 sixth-round pick outplayed Nick Foles to regain his starting job and has been the man behind center for all six of the Jags’ wins this season. And though he hasn’t maintained the early-season breakout that once put him atop our offensive rookie rankings, he’s been good enough to inspire at least *some* confidence in Jacksonville’s eternally cursed quarterback situation going forward.

More importantly, he’s calmed the turnover woes that haunted him early in the season. He turned the ball over 11 times in his first nine games, but cut drastically into that rate since regaining his starting role (two interceptions, zero fumbles lost in his final five games). Even if Minshew Mania may have died down as the season wore on, the mustachioed signal caller has proven he can be an above-average option.

Key stat: Minshew’s 91.2 passer rating is tops among rookie QBs, as are his 7.3 adjusted yards per pass.

t-3 (but actually No. 1!). Kyler Murray, Cardinals

The reigning No. 1 overall pick has had his share of struggles behind an overwhelmed offensive line that’s allowed him to be sacked on nearly nine percent of his dropbacks. Still, Murray has improved significantly as the season progressed.

Though he’s been roughly league average as a passer, he hasn’t been tasked with doing much downfield in Kliff Kingsbury’s spread offense. Murray has averaged just 6.8 yards per target through the air, a mark that ranks between Minshew and Case Keenum toward the bottom of this year’s list of starting QBs. That’s a departure from his more freewheeling Oklahoma days, but it’s also an indictment against his receiving corps — after Christian Kirk and a 36-year-old Larry Fitzgerald, there aren’t any other reliable downfield threats in the lineup.

That should improve as his wideouts level up. The more intriguing piece of his game, however, may be his running presence. Murray carved up the Browns for 58 yards in a 38-24 upset win in Week 15 and gave the 49ers headaches in both of their meetings.

He also ran for 40 yards (and threw for only 118) in an upset win over the Seahawks in Week 16. While he’s not infallible on the ground — he had four games with fewer than 20 yard rushing — he’s shown off the chops to devastate defenses outside the pocket. His performances over the last half of the season would put him on pace for a 550-yard, four-touchdown season.

Those aren’t Lamar Jackson numbers (nothing is), but it’s a good start from a player who has made a hopeless situation in Arizona a little more palatable. And it was good enough to convince voters he was the league’s top offensive rookie.

Murray finished his season with a 66 percent completion rate and a 2-2 record over his final four games, vaulting him to the top of the pecking order — especially with former top candidate Josh Jacobs hurt to finish out the year. More impressively, he did so behind an offensive line that allowed him to be sacked more than any other QB in the NFL this fall.

Key stat: 19:8. That’s the ratio of total touchdowns to turnovers Murray’s had since Week 5. That’s not stellar, but it’s an encouraging sign for an Arizona team that got just 11 touchdowns and 19 interceptions and lost fumbles from Josh Rosen in 2018.

2. A.J. Brown, Titans

Brown may be the league’s most exciting young deep threat; the Tennessee rookie has had four different games in which he’s averaged more than 30 yards per catch.

The 226-pound wideout is equal parts fast and tough to bring down. Brown was useful to start the season, but his pro career didn’t really take off until he was paired with a resurgent Ryan Tannehill.

Here’s how his game changed when head coach Mike Vrabel made the decision to bench Marcus Mariota and roll with Tannehill instead.

Brown with Mariota at quarterback (six games): 3.8 targets, 2.3 catches, and 45.5 yards per game, 11.9 yards per target, 2 TDs

Brown with Tannehill at quarterback (10 regular season games): 6.1 targets, 3.8 catches, and 77.8 yards per game, 12.8 yards per target, 6 TDs

With Tannehill, Brown’s been the full season equivalent of a 1,200-yard, 10-touchdown receiver. The veteran quarterback has a 126.6 rating when targeting his rookie safety net. Those are WR1 numbers for a franchise that’s been looking for a true top wideout since the days of Derrick Mason.

Key stat: No player in the league is averaging more yards-after-catch than the former Ole Miss star. He has tacked only nearly nine full yards, per SIS, after hauling in the ball. Unsurprisingly, nearly 75 percent of his completions have resulted in first downs.

1. Josh Jacobs, Raiders

Jacobs missed three games this season due to injury and still finished with 1,150 rushing yards. The next-closest rookie was Bears running back David Montgomery at 889 (in 16 games). That’s a pretty big gap — but it wasn’t enough to earn him OROY honors.

The former Alabama star vaulted past DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard to the top of Oakland’s rotation, taking up nearly two-thirds of the team’s carries in the process. He averaged 7.5 yards per carry on runs outside the tackle box and has broken more tackles than all but two other running backs (Chris Carson and Derrick Henry).

There are still drawbacks to his game. He’s failed to add much value as a receiver. Jacobs has averaged fewer than two catches per game, almost all of which have come in screen situations — his average target depth is a full yard behind the line of scrimmage. He’s never had more than 30 receiving yards in a game and his 6.1 yards per target is more than two yards less than Eagles rookie running back Miles Sanders.

He hasn’t needed to be a linebacker-killing wheel route machine, because the Raiders have two other backs who can catch passes. What Oakland needed him to be is a high-usage grinder, and Jacobs filled that role with aplomb. Ultimately, a tough throwback runner wasn’t enough to unseat a franchise quarterback when it came to rookie of the year votes. He’ll have to settle for second place instead.

Key stat: 3.0. Jacobs has been a beast in traffic — his 3.0 yards after contact are more than Dalvin Cook or Alvin Kamara in 2019. The first man on the scene rarely brings him down.