2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year picture: Top 11 candidates, with a surprising No. 1

There weren't many who saw Alvin Kamara's Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign coming in 2017, especially after a mostly overlooked career at Tennessee and a situation with the Saints that initially saw him firmly behind Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson

Once he started stacking big plays in 2017, though, he became a focal point of New Orleans' offense and was the runaway for the preeminent award for offensive players in their debut season. 

Will there be another under-the-radar winner this season? Let's rank the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates in 2018. My top pick will probably surprise you. 

11. Rashaad Penny, RB, Seahawks

Penny is likely to be the Seahawks' feature back from Day One. After an illustrious career at San Diego State, in which he averaged 7.07 yards per rush on 199 carries before his 2,000-yard masterpiece in 2017, he could be in line to make a sizable impact on Seattle's ground game. The main issue with Penny's Rookie of the Year chances resides in the Seahawks' porous offensive line. Even with fifth-rounder Jamarco Jones -- who has a franchise left tackle skill set -- it's unlikely that Pete Carroll's team will suddenly begin to maul defensive lines in the run game. Penny does have 4.46 speed at 5-11 and 220 pounds, and once his legs get churning, he can be difficult to bring to the turf. 

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10. Mike Gesicki, TE, Dolphins

A tight end has never won Offensive Rookie of the Year since the inception of the award in 1967, so history isn't on Gesicki's side. But his strengths and the opportunity he'll have in Miami this season make him a fine candidate to be the first at his position to win the OROY. His collegiate film was loaded with outstanding high-point grabs and snags in traffic. At the combine he proved to be a magnificent athlete with 4.54 speed, a 41.5-inch vertical, and 10-foot-9 broad jump. Gesicki should instantly be the Dolphins' starting tight end, and after Kenny Stills, the club's most threatening vertical option. The Penn State alum would probably need to approach 10 touchdowns to earn legitimate consideration for Rookie of the Year, but I don't think it's totally out of the question for him to score close to double-digit touchdowns, as no one on Miami's current pass-catching contingent is an established touchdown monster. 

9. D.J. Moore, WR, Panthers

The Panthers lost 181 targets and 105 receptions from their 2017 squad. They picked the twitchy Moore in the first round. Norv Turner's offense is predicated on consistent deep shots, and although I don't know if he plays to his timed speed, the former Maryland star ran 4.42 at the combine in March. Cam Newton will likely keep Greg Olsen as his primary target in the intermediate range, but believe it or not, Carolina missed Ted Ginn in 2017. Moore is better in space than Ginn yet may not be the super-scary downfield threat immediately. However, he's in line for a fair amount of targets in a vertical-based system as a rookie. The main concerns I have with Moore's Offensive Rookie of the Year candidacy are based around his likely standing in the receiving pecking order and the likelihood of Carolina continuing to run the football frequently. 

8. Royce Freeman, RB, Broncos 

Freeman is in a timeshare with Devontae Booker, so there should be plenty of opportunity for the former Oregon standout to make an impact on the Broncos' offense in 2017. In college, Freeman was a bowling ball of a runner with subtle elusiveness that helped him maximize yardage on inside runs. He toted the rock 947 times during his career for the Ducks and averaged a hefty 5.9 yards per carry. Freeman understands how to read blocks and quickly cut off them. In Denver, he'll find himself in a zone-based running scheme, which should highlight his vision and cutback ability. The Broncos' offensive line isn't loaded with people-movers, but even with major quarterback problems a season ago, as a team Denver averaged a respectable 4.1 yards per carry. Freeman is in line to step into C.J. Anderson's role right away. Also, the Broncos have a super-deep receiver group headlined by rookies Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton and the electric Carlos Henderson -- who was injured for most of 2017 -- behind Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders

7. Tre'Quan Smith, WR, Saints

Michael Thomas has averaged 135 targets and 98 receptions in his first two NFL seasons, and don't be shocked if those numbers jump to 150 and 100 in 2017. Luckily for Smith, Drew Brees has averaged 629 attempts per season over his last five years, and the Saints are likely to be without Mark Ingram early in the season due to a suspension. Hello, golden opportunity. Smith's statistics at Central Florida improved each season and culminated with a 59-grab, 1,171-yard, 13-touchdown 2017. His 19.8 yards per catch last season indicate Smith can stretch the field, and he ran 4.49 at the combine at nearly 6-2 and 203 pounds. Ginn, though he's displayed minimal-if-any signs of slowing down, will be 34 when the regular season starts. Smith very well could sneak into his downfield role by October and hit a variety of big plays -- and long touchdowns -- during his rookie season. 

6. Kerryon Johnson, RB, Lions

The only problem I envision with Johnson's Rookie of the Year candidacy is based on LeGarrette Blount likely vulturing some touchdowns. Johnson is a powerful back with deceptive shiftiness in tight spaces. He averaged a solid 4.9 yards per carry as the unquestioned feature back in the SEC over the past two seasons at Auburn and scored 29 rushing touchdowns. Beyond his own abilities, I absolutely love what Detroit has built up front. Ricky Wagner and Taylor Decker are punishing tackles. Graham Glasgow turned in a sound 2017, and 2018 draft picks Frank Ragnow and Tyrell Crosby really get after it in the run game. I fully expect the Lions to boast one of the best offensive lines in football this season, which will obviously boost Johnson's chances to thrive immediately. 

5. Derrius Guice, RB, Redskins

Guice may appear to be similar to his powerful, loose-hipped teammate Samaje Perine, however, his cutting ability is more dynamic and he's faster down the field, as made evident by his 4.49 speed compared to his backfield counterpart's 4.65 at the combine a year ago. Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff demolish defensive linemen in the run game, as does right tackle Morgan Moses. After years with the reputation as an extremely conservative passer, Alex Smith flourished on deep passes in 2017. While he doesn't have the speedy pass-catching talent in the nation's capitol as he had in Kansas City a season ago, Smith has done more than enough to make defenses respect Washington's aerial game, which should somewhat limit the stacked boxes Guice sees as a rookie.

4. Anthony Miller, WR, Bears

Gone are pass-catchers who combined to make 124 receptions on 216 targets on the 2017 iteration of the Bears, and as a team, Chicago attempted just 473 passes last season, the lowest figure in football. That's likely to change in Year Two of the Mitchell Trubisky era. The rookie averaged 27.5 attempts in his 12 starts. The NFL average of passes per game per team a year ago was 34.2. So, even with Allen Robinson in the mix, and after accounting for grabs from depth players, there should be ample opportunity for Miller to make a big enough impact in Chicago's offense to garner Rookie of the Year consideration. Robinson will see the opposition's No. 1 cornerback often, and even if Taylor Gabriel eats into Miller's slot time, there are no guarantees Kevin White returns to the player he was at West Virginia, and Miller is more than capable on the outside. The former Memphis star doesn't have a noticeably clear path to, say, 100 targets as a rookie, but he plays bigger than his size and is primed to create some game-changing plays after the catch. 

3. Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants

Barkley is the most naturally talented runner from the 2018 draft -- slightly ahead of Guice -- and his explosiveness is also unmatched with 4.40 speed at 233 pounds. Will Hernandez was a shrewd addition by the Giants' front office in Round 2, and he'll create a powerful left side next to Nate Solder, but there's reason for pause before penciling in Barkley for the Offensive Rookie of the Year right now. The right side of New York's line -- and the center position -- is average on its best day and an enormous liability at its worst. Fortunately for Barkley, the presence of Odell Beckham Jr. and a well-rounded pass-catcher group behind him led by Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram should keep defenses honest. If used similarly to how the Rams deployed Todd Gurley in 2017 -- lower-than-normal carries but higher-than-normal targets -- Barkley will see more open space and accumulate loads of yards from scrimmage. 

2. Ronald Jones, RB, Buccaneers

Jones is another rookie runner who finds himself in a No. 1 role. Also, the Buccaneers have quietly built a strong run-blocking offense line. Bringing in center Ryan Jensen was one of the most underrated moves during the free-agency period. Jones is a slasher who has a rare top gear and runs extremely hard between the tackles despite his smaller frame. With Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate out wide, the opposition will likely zero in on Tampa Bay's passing game, which should take defenders out of the box for the former USC star. As a team, the Buccaneers scored just eight rushing touchdowns in 2017. That's a figure likely to increase this upcoming season. 

1. Michael Gallup, WR, Cowboys

Never mind that Gallup went in the third round. He was a first-round caliber prospect. Good size. Elite collegiate production. Impressive downfield speed. Refined high-pointing ability. Serious yards-after-the-catch skills. His teammate Allen Hurns does have a 1,000-yard season on his pro resume -- but it came all the way back in 2015, which by NFL time-continuum standards equates to essentially being a decade ago. Teams will likely send their top corner to cover Hurns initially, and boxes will be loaded to slow down Ezekiel Elliott, which will leave Gallup in many advantageous situations. The Cowboys lost a whopping 272 targets and 169 receptions from a season ago. Dallas' third-round pick is multi-faceted and finds himself in an ideal situation to produce at a steady clip as a rookie. 

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