The NFL’s Week 15 Overreaction Index: Offensive Rookie of the Year Version

As the season winds down everyone’s favorite part of the NFL year is upon us.

No, not the playoffs. Award debate season.

That’s right, soon enough everyone’s Twitter timeline will be filled with rage and fury as we argue over awards. What makes a player valuable? Who really had the biggest comeback? What head coach did the best job? What general manager?

And of course, Rookie of the Year awards.

Given that the league has a pair of Rookie of the Year awards, one for offense and one for defense, we are going to handicap each award in this week’s Overreaction Index. Here are the likely – and perhaps in a few cases unlikely – candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year. You can view the parallel piece on Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates here.

Michael Onwenu, OL, New England Patriots

As New England struggles to find an offensive identity - and a consistent passing game - one of their bright spots have been rookie offensive lineman Michael Onwenu. They have used him at a variety of spots this season, but have seemed to find a home for him at the right tackle spot despite his time as a guard at Michigan. Through Week 14, Onwenu has seen extensive snaps at a few different positions. He has payed at left guard (112 snaps), right guard (101), tight end in jumbo packages (14) but it is his work at right tackle (536) that truly stands out. He has allowed three sacks on the season, but his 13 allowed pressures are fourth-lowest among qualified offensive tackles in the league. That puts him behind just Andrew Whitworth, David Bakhtiari and Garett Bolles. Impressive company for a rookie. His footwork needs some refinement if he is going to stay on the edge, but his combination of strength and hand technique has enabled him to solidify an offensive line that was in flux for some of the season. Given how he helped solidify the New England offensive line, Michael Onwenu is your Offensive Rookie of the Year. Verdict: Big overreaction. Ownenu is clearly one of the most impressive rookies this season, offensive or defensive, but we know how this award words. A rookie offensive lineman probably does not have the best odds of winning this honor. However, you can bet Bill Belichick is damn glad the Patriots found him in the sixth round. Something about New England and sixth round picks out of Michigan...

James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

(Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports)

There have been few bright spots in Jacksonville this season - aside from the fact the tank seems to be on to the cheers of Jaguars fans - but one of them is certainly rookie running back James Robinson. An undrafted rookie running back out of Illinois State, Robinson has been a core component of the Jacksonville offense this season and is on the verge of finishing one of the best seasons ever for an undrafted offensive player. Entering play on Week 15, Robinson has 224 carries on the season for 1,035 yards and seven touchdowns. He has also caught 46 passes for 326 yards and a pair of touchdowns. While Jacksonville was on the losing end of a 31-10 score to the Tennessee Titans, Robinson emerged from that game with a record for undrafted rookies. His 1,361 yards from scrimmage are the most from any undrafted rookie. He is also just the fourth undrafted rookie to run for 1,000 yards in a season. James Robinson is the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Verdict: Medium overreaction. Robinson is truly one of the few bright spots in Jacksonville right now, and his standout rookie campaign is impressive. He is a complete running back with great burst, vision and change-of-direction skills. The Jaguars seem to have found their focus back for the future when they signed him after last year's draft. However, despite his great play there are other deserving candidates.

Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Cleveland Browns

(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)

The Cleveland Browns are in playoff contention, and rookie left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. is a big reason why. He has stepped into that LT spot and performed extremely well for the Browns, giving up just four sacks through 13 games in the NFL. Wills has allowed just 17 pressures this season, putting him above other standout tackles such as Ryan Ramczyk, Tristan Wirfs and Mike Remmers. After giving up three sacks through his first five games in the NFL, he has allowed just one since then, in a win over the Philadelphia Eagles back in Week 11. Since then, he has kept Baker Mayfield clean in the pocket, and in addition to not allowing a sack since Week 11 he has allowed just one quarterback hit. He did allow three pressures in last week's lost to the Baltimore Ravens, but that stands out as an isolated incident. For what he has meant to the Cleveland Browns offense this year, Jedrick Wills Jr. is your Offensive Rookie of the Year. Verdict: Big overreaction. Wills has been incredible as a rookie this year for the Browns, stepping into the left tackle spot and handling it well, but there is a case to be made that another offensive tackle has been better as a rookie this season, which will hurt his chances. Plus, he is an offensive tackle. As we will see in a little bit, that does not bode well for winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

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Prior to his season getting cut short due to injury, rookie quarterback Joe Burrow seemed on track to be securing this award. Playing behind a porous offensive line, Burrow was impressive given what he was asked to do. Zac Taylor had the rookie playing out of a lot of empty formations, putting every snap, every drive, every game in his hands. When he went down, Burrow had completed 65.3% of his passes on the year for 2,688 yards and 13 touchdowns, against just five interceptions. Despite the injury, Burrow is your Offensive Rookie of the Year. Verdict: Big overreaction. The fact that Burrow's season was cut short likely ends any notion of him winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. He was playing quite well, but the hits eventually took their toll...something many were fearful of given how Taylor was using the rookie. Hopefully Burrow makes a full recovery and we can see him back in action for Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season.

Tristan Wirfs, OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers acquired Tom Brady as a free agent back in March, one task became critical to their success in 2020. They needed to protect him. Tasked with protecting one edge has been rookie tackle Tristan Wirfs. He has started every game at right tackle for Tampa Bay, and so far this season he has allowed one sack of Brady, which came on a Thursday night game back in Week 5 against Khalil Mack. Entering play on Week 15, Wirfs has allowed just 19 pressures on the season, an impressive number for any right tackle. Among tackles who have played 80% of their team's snaps, Wirfs' 19 pressures allowed is one of the best marks in the league. Sure, playing in front of Brady makes it easy, given how quickly the veteran QB gets the ball out, but in the Bruce Arians offense that features a lot of downfield throws, you need tackles that can hold up on those designs. Wirfs has done that and more. Verdict: Medium overreaction. Purely in terms of what he means to his team, Wirfs might be the Offensive Rookie of the Year. Protecting Brady is a huge task for the Buccaneers and he has stepped in admirably from day one, and allowing just one sack through the first 14 games of his career is an impressive accomplishment. Yet if you back through previous winners of this award, how many offensive tackles will you find? Zero. Wirfs will get votes, and he should. But it is unlikely that he will win.

Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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Justin Jefferson is a prime example of putting a rookie into a perfect situation. Many pegged Jefferson as simply a slot receiver coming out of LSU, given how Joe Brady used him last season in the passing game, but that was a short-sighted way of viewing him. Back in the 2018-19 season, Jefferson displayed that he could be an effective receiver on the outside when tasked with beating press coverage. Rather than harping on his pre-draft evaluation however, it is better to focus on where he landed. In Minnesota, where the Vikings utilize a lot of 12 offensive personnel. That means Jefferson gets to operate out of a more reduced split at times, giving him that two-way go he often saw last year when aligned in the slot. The result? He has put up incredible numbers for the Vikings. To date, Jefferson has caught 65 passes for 1,078 yards and seven touchdowns, and has averaged 16.6 yards per route. Jefferson is now just the second Minnesota rookie to ever record 1,000 yards in a season, joining elite company in Randy Moss. Moss had 69 catches for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns in 1998, and Jefferson should eclipse those reception and yardage numbers by the end of the season. These are all impressive numbers for a wide receiver, let alone a rookie. Justin Jefferson is your Rookie of the Year. Verdict: No overreaction, at least not from me. Jefferson would get my vote for Rookie of the Year. The rookie stepped into an offense and tried to fill the shoes of Stefon Diggs, and did so in a big way. In Minnesota's offense Gary Kubiak finds a variety of ways to get him involved, both in the play-action game and the vertical game. He has put up impressive numbers that are great for a veteran, let alone a rookie. As such, he's a strong candidate. But he is not a quarterback.

Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

It is rare that NFL defensive coordinators have to scheme against a rookie quarterback because the young passer can take away thinks that you like to do defensively. Yet that is what Justin Herbert has done this season. Justin Herbert has also been a revelation this season. Coming out of Oregon, he faced questions about his scheme fit, given what he was asked to do in college conceptually. But offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton deserve a ton of credit for what Herbert has done so far. The Los Angeles Chargers have put Herbert in a spread-based system that features layered route concepts and a lot of downfield throws. This allows Herbert to rely on his combination of arm talent and ability to read and throw against leverage that he flashed at Oregon, and that is probably a pre-requisite for rookie quarterbacks. But Herbert also deserves credit for how he has also developed and refined his game. Ask anyone who studied him or who coached against him at Oregon, and they are likely very surprised with how Herbert has handled pressure in the pocket this season. That was a weakness of his game at Oregon, but something he has definitely improved upon as a rookie quarterback. That is very rare. In the wake of Thursday night's victory over the Las Vegas Raiders, Herbert now has completed 66.5% of his passes for 3,781 yards and 27 touchdowns, against just ten interceptions. Those 27 passing scores tied the rookie record, set a few years ago by Baker Mayfield. With two games left on the schedule, it is almost a lock that Herbert breaks that record. When he was named the NFL Rookie of the Month in November, it was noted that Herbert became the first rookie to throw ten or more passing touchdowns in the month since Peyton Manning back in 1998, and his 294.6 passing yards per game in the month of November ranked second in NFL history during that month among rookies with at least 50 passing attempts. Justin Herbert is your Offensive Rookie of the Year. Verdict: Minimal overreaction. This is graded as a minimal overreaction simply because my vote would go elsewhere, but that should not diminish what Herbert has accomplished this season. He, along with Josh Allen, is going to change how the quarterback position is evaluated and graded going forward, which is no small feat in itself. But Herbert stands out as that rare rookie who has taken a huge leap forward from his time in college to his rookie season, reminiscent of what Dak Prescott did a few years ago with the Dallas Cowboys. If I were to put a bet down, I would bet on Herbert.