Justin Jefferson secures the ball prior to being tackled against the Saints

Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates

  • Awards
  • James Robinson
  • Justin Herbert
  • Justin Jefferson
  • NFL
  • NFL Awards
  • NFL Honors
  • Offensive Rookie of the Year
  • OROY
  • Rookie of the Year
  • Tristan Wirfs
By Mitchell Wolfe January 5, 2021 0 Comment
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As the regular season draws to a close and the NFL season moves into the playoffs, it is time to start discussing awards. The NFL names an Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year at the end of every season. This article lists five candidates who are most deserving of the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Note: All statistics are from Pro Football Reference.

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Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

15 games, 15 starts, 396 completions, 595 attempts (66.6% completion, 15th), 4336 yards (6th overall, 1st among rookies), 31 TDs (5.2% TD, 14th highest), 10 INTs (1.7%, 13th lowest), 7.2 Y/A, 7.3 AY/A, 10.8 YPC, 289.1 YPG (4th), 98.3 passer rating(12th), 69.7 QBR (13th), 6.47 NY/A, 6.66 ANY/A (15th overall), 5.1% Sack. 55 rushes, 234 yards, 5 TDs, 8 fumbles. 2nd highest number of Bad Throws (103) and 11th in Bad Throw % (18.6%), 4th in On-Target Throws (419) but 23rd in On-Target Throw % (75.6%). 7th-highest pressure % (27.1%). PFF Grades: 80.1 Overall (16th among QBs, led rookie QBs, 8th among all rookies).

Justin Herbert was one of the most pleasant surprises among this year’s rookie class. After being the third QB selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, many expected Herbert to ride the bench behind veteran journeyman Tyrod Taylor. However, Herbert made his first start in Week 2 after a bizarre incident involving Taylor, the team doctor, and a chest injection. Even more shockingly, Herbert nearly knocked off the defending Super Bowl champs in overtime. Since then, he has performed extremely well. Despite the Chargers encountering their typical late-game demons, Herbert led the Chargers to four straight victories to end their season.

Had Joe Burrow stayed healthy, he most likely would have given Herbert a run for his money for Offensive Rookie of the Year. In the pre-draft process, pundits and analysts seemed divided on Herbert. Many were enamored with his arm talent and athleticism. But others questioned his mental make-up, both on and off the field. There were some concerns about his decision-making ability to make full-field reads. Furthermore, there were rumors about his maturity and/or attitude, as many thought him to be too quiet and not enough of a leader. Nevertheless, Herbert exceeded expectations in his debut season and is a strong candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

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James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

14 games, 14 starts, 240 rushes, 1070 yards (8 games over 70 yards), 7 TDs, 4.5 yards/attempt, 76.4 YPG. 60 targets, 49 catches, 344 yards, 7.0 yards/catch, 3 TDs, 81.7% catch rate, 3 fumbles. 455 Yards Before Contact (1.9 per attempt, 12th lowest), 615 Yards After Contact (2.6 per attempt, 7th highest); -0.9 Yards Before Catch/Reception, 7.9 Yards After Catch/Reception, 2 drops, 107.2 Passer Rating when Targeted. 4th in Rushing Attempts, 3rd in Rushing Yards (6th in YPG), t-8th in Rushing TDs (t-8th in Scrimmage TDs), 9th in Yards from Scrimmage. PFF Grades: 72.9 Overall  (78.5 Rushing, 64.1 Receiving), 28th among RBs, 5th among rookie RBs, 4th-highest Rush grade among rookie RBs.

Following a draft where eleven running backs were drafted in the first three rounds, a running back winning Offensive Rookie of the Year would have been an easy prediction to make. But I do not think any analyst or pundit could have predicted the ascendancy of James Robinson. An undrafted free agent from Illinois State, Robinson performed well enough in training camp that the Jaguars cut former top-5 selection Leonard Fournette. Robinson rewarded that faith with a 1000 rushing yard season, finishing top-10 in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. Had he played in the Jaguars’ final two games, he would have most likely held his lead among rookies in rushing attempts, yards, and scrimmage yards. Robinson was one of the few bright spots on the 1-15 Jaguars.

Robinson’s splits between yards before and after contact are among his most impressive stats. He averaged 1.9 yards before contact, which was the 12th lowest in the NFL. But he averaged 2.6 yards after contact, which was the 7th highest in the league. This indicates Robinson was very effective at maintaining his balance through contact and creating yards on his own. Despite being billed as a two-down, run-between-the-tackles back, Robinson also displayed effectiveness in the passing game. Unfortunately, playing for such a bad team ultimately hurts Robinson’s campaign for Offensive Rookie of the Year. But he remains an integral part of any success the Jaguars hope to have in the future.

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Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

15 games, 13 starts, 232 rushes, 1169 yards (7 games over 70 yards), 11 TDs, 5.0 yards/attempt, 77.9 YPG. 39 targets, 36 catches, 299 yards, 8.3 yards/catch, 1 TD, 92.3% catch rate, 1 fumble. 771 Yards Before Contact (3.3 per attempt), 398 Yards After Contact (1.7 per attempt); -1.9 Yards Before Catch/Reception, 10.2 Yards After Catch/Reception, 0 drops, 107.2 Passer Rating when Targeted. 8th in Rushing Attempts (2nd among rookies), 3rd in Rushing Yards (1st among rookies, 5th in YPG), t-4th in Rushing TDs (t-6th in Scrimmage TDs), 6th in Yards from Scrimmage. PFF Grades: 83.9 Overall (84.1 Rushing, 73.3 Receiving), 6th among RBs, 1st among rookie RBs, 2nd-highest Rushing grade among rookie RBs.

Jonathan Taylor was one of the previously mentioned eleven running backs selected in the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft. After three incredibly productive years at Wisconsin, Taylor declared early for the draft and the Colts selected him 41st overall. Many were surprised by this selection, as the Colts already had multiple productive running backs in Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins. However, expectations for Taylor remained very high, as he would be running behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.

But after Marlon Mack suffered an Achilles injury after only 11 plays in Week 1, Taylor’s role increased. He played well for a few weeks, before three consecutive weeks with less than 30 rushing yards. However, he bounced back in Week 11, starting a tear of excellent games. In the Colts’ last six games, Taylor never recorded less than 74 rushing yards and scored at least one touchdown in the final five games. He finished his rookie regular season with a bang, rushing for 253 yards on 30 carries with two touchdowns. Taylor finished third in rushing yards and first among rookies and his PFF grades were also excellent. With his late-season explosion, Taylor has a solid chance to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

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Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

16 games, 14 starts (starter after week 2). 125 targets, 88 catches, 1400 receiving yards (7 100+ yard games), 15.9 yards/catch, 7 TDs, 5.5 catches/game, 87.5 yards/game, 70.4% catch rate, 11.2 yards/target. 10.7 yards before catch/reception, 5.2 yards after catch/reception, 11.4 average depth of target, 2 drops (1.6 drop %), 4 interceptions when targeted, 112.7 passer rating when targeted. 18th in the targets (1st among rookies), 16th in catches (1st among rookies), 4th in the NFL in yards (1st among rookies), 9th in the NFL in yards/receptions (1st among rookies), t-9th most receiving TDs (2nd among rookies), 4th in yards/target in NFL (1st among rookies), 6th in yards per game (1st among rookies), 24th in passer rating when targeted among WRs (2nd among rookies). PFF Grades: 90.4 Overall (2nd among WRs, 1st among all rookies; 17th among all players)., 90.5 Receiving. 

In what was considered the greatest wide receiver class in many years, Justin Jefferson emerged as the best in his class during the 2020 season. Jefferson was the fifth receiver selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, behind Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Jalen Reagor. He lasted that long because teams were worried about his lack of consistent career production. Additionally, he primarily played in the slot during his breakout 2019 season. Therefore, teams were concerned about his ability to defeat press coverage and win on the outside.

Jefferson quickly assuaged these fears, exploding onto the scene in Week 3 versus the Tennessee Titans. He recorded 7 catches, 175 yards, and a touchdown, although the Vikings lost 31-30. Jefferson leads rookie receivers in nearly every category. Arguably the most impressive measure, Jefferson generated a 113.0 passer rating when targeted, good enough for 25th in the NFL among wide receivers.

Jefferson has also recorded stellar Pro Football Focus grades. His overall grade of 90.4 ranks second among all WRs (trailing only DaVante Adams). Naturally, he leads all rookie WRs as well, and also the highest-graded rookie among all positions. Furthermore, Jefferson also has the 16th-highest grade among all NFL players. According to PFF, Jefferson is one of the twenty best players in the NFL, regardless of position or experience. Even if you don’t believe in PFF grades, it is clear that Jefferson is an incredible talent that excelled this year. He has crafted an extremely strong case for the Offensive Player of the Year award.

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Tristan Wirfs, OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

16 games, 16 starts, 100% of the snaps (1073). 1 holding, 2 false starts. PFF Grades: 82.2 overall, 81.0 pass blocking, 75.8 run blocking, 1 sack allowed.

The Offensive Rookie of the Year award is typically based on statistics. Naturally, offensive linemen rarely win this award. Quenton Nelson, considered a generational talent, has made three consecutive Pro Bowls and named first-team All-Pro twice. But Nelson never even sniffed the award.  Nevertheless, Tristan Wirfs has been one of the NFL’s best rookies this year. Wirfs played 100% of the Buccaneers’ offensive snaps this year, clocking in with 1073. He only allowed one sack and committed only three penalties (one holding, two false starts).

Based on his PFF grades, he has been among the NFL’s best offensive linemen. Wirfs graded out as the 11th-highest-rated offensive tackle this year, and rated 16th in Pass Blocking and 19th in Run Blocking. He was also second among rookies in Overall and Pass Blocking, and first in Run Blocking. While it is next to impossible for an offensive lineman to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, Wirfs deserves recognition for his consistency and stellar performance throughout the season.

Honorable Mentions: Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington Football Team; Chase Claypool, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers; Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers; Mekhi Becton, OT, New York Jets; Michael Onwenu, OL, New England Patriots

Prediction for Offensive Rookie of the Year

Similar to MVP, Offensive Rookie of the Year typically goes to the best rookie quarterback. In this class, Justin Herbert would appear to be the clear-cut winner. However, there have been multiple skill players that were among the best at their position, regardless of age or experience. Among these, Justin Jefferson deserves the award above all others.

Jefferson’s performance this season was among the best at his position, for rookies and veterans alike. Furthermore, first-year players, especially wide receivers, typically hit a wall at some point in the season. Defensive coaches and players get enough tape on them and devise strategies to take them away. But Jefferson encountered no such wall. He performed consistently well the entire season. For that reason, Justin Jefferson deserves to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award for 2020.

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I cover and write about the NFL, the NFL Draft, and the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Brawl Network. I am originally from Hershey, PA and was raised a Pittsburgh sports fan. I went to Boston College for undergrad and am currently finishing a Master's degree in Sports Business at Temple University, concentrating in Sport Analytics.

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