By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
Given the unprecedented depth of the 2022 NFL Draft, no one should be surprised if this year’s Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year break from the recent trend and wind up being players who were selected outside the first round.
That would certainly be a departure from last year, when the Offensive Rookie of the Year — Cincinnati wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase — was the fifth overall selection of the 2021 draft, and the Defensive Rookie of the Year — Dallas linebacker Micah Parsons — was nabbed just a few picks later at 12th overall. Players selected in the first round, in fact, earned top rookie honors in the two years prior to that as well.
But one need not look too far in the rearview mirror to remember the Saints landing a Rookie of the Year and future Pro Bowler in Alvin Kamara in the third round of the 2017 draft. The year before, the Cowboys found another immediate superstar in Dak Prescott, selected eighth among quarterbacks and 135th overall, who has since earned Rookie of the Year and Pro Bowl honors. The same is true on the other side of the ball, where the Indianapolis Colts found a Defensive Rookie of the Year in linebacker Darius Leonard via the second round of the 2018 draft.
An extraordinary class of pro-ready pass-rushers suggests that this year’s top defensive rookie will once again be a player selected in the first round. The opposite, however, could be true on the offensive side. Over the past 10 years, eight of the Offensive Rookies of the Year were quarterbacks (four) or running backs (four). In April, Kenny Pickett was the only QB or running back selected in the first round.
As such, while my favorite top rookie candidates this year are, in fact, first-round picks, you might consider laying a few dollars on an underdog, especially given that the extra year granted by the NCAA provided teams with an exponentially deeper crop of talent. (Check out FOX Bet for the latest odds to win Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year.)
The following are my five favorites for each award, with honors and prospects listed in alphabetical order.
TOP DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES
Nakobe Dean, LB, Philadelphia Eagles
Medical questions pushed the reigning Butkus Award winner all the way down to No. 83 overall, but that won’t slow voters from recognizing Dean’s instincts and speed to the flanks. Linebackers have to put up eye-popping numbers to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year accolades, but while his draft-day slip had to be infuriating, Dean landed in a great spot in Philadelphia. The club plays in an NFC East division loaded with talented running backs, setting him up for gaudy statistics on a team with legitimate playoff aspirations.
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Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Detroit Lions
The most pro-ready player in this draft class, Hutchinson would have made this list on talent alone, but there are two other factors that would-be bettors should take into consideration. For one, the Lions are desperate for help with their pass rush, and Hutchinson will deservedly earn plenty of credit when Detroit takes a big jump in sacks this season. Secondly, the NFC North is hardly a who’s who of dominant offensive tackles, giving Hutchinson that much more of an opportunity to pad his statistics.
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FOX Sports’ Bucky Brooks scouts Aidan Hutchinson, the highly touted edge rusher from the Michigan Wolverines who was picked No. 2 overall by the Detroit Lions in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Derek Stingley Jr., CB, Houston Texans
The fact that Stingley and his fellow lockdown cornerback, Sauce Gardner, were both selected among the first four picks — marking the first time in league history that two cornerbacks were picked that high — shows that clubs recognize that the position is more important than ever. That probably isn’t surprising, given the staggering money quarterbacks and receivers are now making.
Although they play different positions, Stingley reminds me a lot of Parsons a year ago; both players’ raw talent and desire to be great were questioned leading up to the draft. The tape, however, suggests that Stingley will immediately be a difference-maker, just as Parsons was last season. I predicted that Parsons was the “slam dunk” favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors a year ago, and I believe Stingley has that kind of potential as well.
I feel even more confident in proclaiming that Stingley will one day be viewed among the NFL’s elite ball hawks, competing for the interception title year in and year out. He is a strong bet to lead all rookies in interceptions this season, but Houston’s opponents might not need to throw the ball too much in 2022, which would limit Stingley’s opportunity to post truly eye-popping numbers.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, EDGE, New York Giants
Because of the Oregon product’s talent, the talent around him on the Giants’ defensive front and the massive media market ready to pounce when he more than lives up to the No. 5 overall selection of the 2022 draft, Thibodeaux earns the pole position in this year’s early ranking of Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates.
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Like the aforementioned Parsons and Stingley, the criticism of Thibodeaux was largely levied by those who spend more time critiquing box scores than watching game tape. Thibodeaux’s length, power, burst and closing speed will quickly make him a legitimate weapon for the Giants. And given that the club already boasts two studs up front in Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, the rookie should be able to capitalize on one-on-one blocking.
Travon Walker, EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars
The No. 1 overall selection deserves all the attention he has received. Like many of the others on this list, Walker’s individual talent is enough to generate more production in the NFL than he ever had at Georgia. As a rookie, he is likely to see plenty of one-on-one blocking with opponents understandably focused on star DE Josh Allen, an established difference-maker.
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Travon Walker was the first of five Georgia defensive players to go in the first round, which set a record in the modern era of the NFL Draft. Shannon Sharpe discusses whether the Jaguars selected the best Bulldogs defender.
Jacksonville appears likely to take a significant step forward this season, and an improved defense should play a big role in that. Unless the Jaguars go from back-to-back owners of the No. 1 overall draft pick to a legitimate playoff contender, however, Walker’s ceiling is probably capped as an award candidate, rather than a true favorite. That said, both on tape and in the draft, Walker showed the type of closing ability to seal the deal. His talent is undeniable.
Five dark horses worthy of consideration: Nik Bonitto, EDGE, Denver Broncos; Arnold Ebiketie, EDGE, Atlanta Falcons; George Karlaftis, EDGE, Kansas City Chiefs; Boye Mafe, EDGE, Seattle Seahawks; Sam Williams, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys
TOP OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR CANDIDATES
Treylon Burks, WR, Tennessee Titans
Burks is physically similar to his predecessor, A.J. Brown, whose production in three years with the Titans all but forced the club to trade him rather than pay the lavish sum dedicated to the club’s superstar running back, Derrick Henry. At a rock-solid 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, Burks is simply too big and strong for most cornerbacks to handle one-on-one. But because of Tennessee’s dominant running game, Burks might have a chance to earn Rookie of the Year accolades before any defensive coordinator considers sending extra defenders his way.
It remains to be seen if Burks — or fellow Tennessee newbie Robert Woods, for that matter — can produce big enough numbers to generate buzz for individual awards. But if the two receivers help the Titans return as the top seed in the AFC again in 2022, recognition will certainly be warranted.
Drake London, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Receivers have earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors only twice in the past 10 seasons and just four times since Randy Moss took home the hardware for the Minnesota Vikings back in 1998. But NFL teams are placing a new priority on elite receivers, and London is in position to have immediate success with the Falcons.
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The 6-foot-4, 219-pound receiver has drawn comparisons to Tampa Bay Buccaneers superstar Mike Evans due to their similar frames and remarkable ability to win jump-ball situations. London should have the opportunity to score plenty of touchdowns, and scoring is the name of the game when it comes to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. Like Evans, London is not only big and athletic but also incredibly competitive and more than capable of producing highlight-reel plays.
That might be necessary if he is to generate league-wide buzz for a team most expect to finish outside the playoff chase in 2022.
Chris Olave, WR, New Orleans Saints
The addition of veteran Jarvis Landry lessens the need for Olave to be an immediate difference-maker for the Saints, but I’m not sure that signing the former Cleveland Browns Pro Bowler threatens the rookie’s projection as much as that of incumbent star Michael Thomas. Landry and Thomas are both exceptional route-runners with glue-like hands — the kind of receivers Drew Brees would have preferred.
The Saints, of course, are now led by Jameis Winston, whose best attributes are his aggression and accuracy on the deep ball. Attacking vertically is where Olave excels. I loved this fit from the moment the Saints acquired a second pick in the first round, and before the draft, I projected that the club would select both Olave and left tackle Trevor Penning.
Whether Olave wins Offensive Rookie of the Year might have more to do with Winston staying healthy (and the Saints making a deep playoff run), but I feel confident that he is going to be one of the NFL’s most effective deep threats immediately, with the kind of touchdown and highlight-reel production to earn the award.
Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Handicapping Offensive Rookie of the Year honors used to be pretty easy. The award followed the lead of the Heisman Trophy and often was reserved for the year’s flashiest quarterback. That was the case for the two years prior to Chase taking home the hardware in 2021, with Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert winning.
Not surprisingly, last year’s top quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, was the top choice a year ago. Frankly, though, I would be surprised if Pickett were to win the award this year, though he might be the only rookie QB with a decent chance of starting Week 1 of the 2022 season. Pickett will need to beat fellow Steelers QBs Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph before anyone should think about his competing for Rookie of the Year accolades.
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Mac Jones deservedly received a great deal of credit a year ago for replacing a legendary quarterback and helping New England return to the playoffs. Pickett would get similar praise in Pittsburgh if he were able to duplicate that success following Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement. I just think it is much more likely that a player at a different position takes the hardware in 2022.
Kenneth Walker III, RB, Seattle Seahawks
With all due respect to Breece Hall — the back selected by the Jets five picks ahead of Walker — if New York is to compete for the playoffs in 2022, second-year quarterback Zach Wilson and his newest receiver, Garrett Wilson, will almost assuredly generate most of the buzz. But it is the lack of a Wilson in Seattle that could give Walker the opportunity to be a top rookie.
The club is seeking to replace not only the most prolific quarterback in franchise history but also the steady running of Chris Carson, whom Pete Carroll hinted might not be available this season due to a neck injury. With journeyman QBs Geno Smith and Drew Lock battling to take over for Russell Wilson, the likeliest scenario for any kind of success for the Seahawks will be a return to the run-heavy offense that Carroll & Co. built the team on years ago.
Walker, winner of the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best collegiate running back last season, offers exceptional vision, balance and breakaway speed. He could be used as a complement to Rashaad Penny, but given Penny’s durability issues, Walker is in a sneaky position to be a true bell-cow for the Seahawks as a rookie. If that is the case, 1,000-plus rushing yards and 10-plus touchdowns are quite possible, which would make Walker a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year honors even if the club struggles in the win column.
Five dark horses worthy of consideration: Tyler Allgeier, RB, Atlanta Falcons; David Bell, WR, Cleveland Browns; Skyy Moore, WR, Kansas City Chiefs; Dameon Pierce, RB, Houston Texans; Christian Watson, WR, Green Bay Packers
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism