Breaking down the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates

Adrian PetersonAdrian Peterson certainly made it easy on voters last year. After rushing for 1,341 yards, 12 touchdowns and a 5.6-yard per carry average, Peterson was an easy choice for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

So who is this year’s Adrian Peterson? Despite popular belief, the OROY doesn’t have to lead his team to the playoffs, as Peterson proved last year. He just has to stand out from the rest of the pack – easy, right?

Below is a look at the OROY candidates for the 2008 NFL Season. I’ve ranked the top 10 candidates based on their chances along with reasons why (and why they won’t) win the award.

1. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan earned the starting quarterback job after a solid preseason, including completing 15 of 21 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons’ 17-3 win over Tennessee. Forget the huge contract and the fact that Atlanta wants to erase the thought of Michael Vick – Ryan can play. He looked comfortable, poised and completely in control running the Falcons’ offense and has enough weapons in Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood and Roddy White to be effective. As long as the offensive line gives him protection like it did this preseason, Ryan might be the best bet to win OROY honors. It also doesn’t hurt that he plays the quarterback position and will likely receive a ton of media attention.

2. Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers
Stewart has run very well so far in preseason. He rushed 10 times for 100 yards in the Panthers’ third exhibition game and even had a fantastic 50-yard touchdown run that highlighted both his power and breakaway speed. Defenses contained Carolina’s ground attack last year, but that was largely due to ineffective quarterback play. Teams knew that the Panthers were going to try and run the football and often played with eight men in the box. But now that QB Jake Delhomme is healthy again, the Panthers’ offense should be more balanced and thus defenses will have to respect both the run and the pass. He’ll split time with DeAngelo Williams, but Stewart is going to get plenty of opportunities to make plays this season. Not only that, but he looks like a solid overall player.

3. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
The Bears parted with twinkle-toes Cedric Benson this offseason after multiple off-field incidents. The team drafted Forte in the second round and after Benson was released, and the rookie immediately became the starter. Forte has good size, runs hard between the tackles and shows some decent burst when he gets into the open field. But Chicago’s line has to hold up. Center Olin Kreutz, right guard Roberto Garza and right tackle John St. Clair are all decent run blockers, but there are major question marks on the left side of the line. Even so, Forte is going to have plenty of opportunities to make plays this season, especially if backup Kevin Jones can’t stay healthy.

Darren McFadden4. Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders
McFadden has loads of playmaking ability, but it seems that people are getting too caught up with his potential and not looking at the facts. The Raiders don’t have a great offensive line and Justin Fargas is still expected to get most of the carries in the run game. McFadden will get his opportunities to make plays (especially in the passing game), but despite many considering him the favorite to win OROY, it looks like there will be a ceiling on his production this year. Still, there is a lot to like about McFadden’s potential.

5. Kevin Smith, RB, Detroit Lions
Tatum Bell has been a massive dud since arriving in Detroit last year as part of the Dre’ Bly trade, so Smith will get the starting nod this season in the Lions’ backfield. The rookie has shown potential in preseason, but the offensive line is brutal so Smith might not see a ton of running room. Still, he flashed incredible potential and with nobody behind him to steal carries, Smith is going to be the focus of the Lions’ offense this season.

6. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
It didn’t help Mendenhall that he fumbled twice in the Steelers’ last preseason game, but he’s still expected to see plenty of carries this season as a rookie. He’ll split time with Willie Parker and will probably be used in short yardage situations and around the goal line. Pittsburgh’s line isn’t what it used to be, so expecting Mendenhall to put up huge numbers is probably unrealistic. But if Parker suffers a setback, the rookie will become the Steelers’ main back and thus his opportunities will skyrocket.

Chris Johnson7. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
If the preseason was any indication, the Titans are going to find ways to use the explosive running back. Johnson has looked good running between the tackles (not usually his forte) in preseason and flashed the type of game-breaking speed that made him a first round pick. The Titans have a crowded backfield, but expect Johnson to get opportunities to make plays this year, especially in the passing game. He’s likely to split carries with LenDale White, which doesn’t hurt his chances because White often likes to fix himself a bed in Jeff Fisher’s doghouse.

8. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens
With Willis McGahee still unable to jog after having a “clean out” procedure done to his knee this offseason, Rice is the current starting running back for the Ravens. Rice isn’t the biggest guy in the league at 5’8” and 205 pounds, but that didn’t slow him down in college. Despite his size, he’s proven he can run between the tackles and has often demonstrated explosiveness when he reaches open field. Once McGahee returns, Rice will be bumped to No. 2 so his chances of winning OROY are slim. But if he proves himself while McGahee is out, the Ravens will no doubt find a role for him in their offense.

9. DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Anyone who watched the Eagles’ third preseason game against the Patriots saw what Jackson can bring to the field. The rookie was Philly’s leading receiving with four catches for 67 yards, but he did most of his damage on special teams, returning a punt 76 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the second quarter. With the Eagles starving for playmakers at receiver, Jackson could wind up being the sleeper for OROY, even though he’s currently not listed as a starter. Another thing to note is that Donovan McNabb likes to spread the ball around and Brian Westbrook is still going to get a ton of passes out of the backfield.

10. Felix Jones, RB, Dallas Cowboys
One would assume that Jones will step into the role once held by Julius Jones and complement Marion Barber in the Cowboys’ offense. But the rookie doesn’t appear to have a significant role in the offense yet. He’s expected to return kicks, so he might not see a ton of opportunities in Dallas’s backfield, at least not initially. Eventually he’ll probably see a 60-40 split in carries with Barber, but as of right now Jones looks like one of the long shots to win OROY.

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