Winning an NFL rookie of the year award is a prestigious honor, and the success of last season's recipients, the Giants' Saquon Barkley (offense) and Colts' Darius Leonard (defense), should portend a promising future for their respective franchises … well, in Indianapolis anyway.
Nice as the individual recognition is, ROY hardware is often geared toward highly drafted players on bad teams who immediately benefit from featured roles and scads of playing time. However their less-prominent peers may have better shots at winding up as the missing variable of a championship equation.
Sony Michel, not Tom Brady, was the engine of New England's offense during last season's playoffs and scored the decisive (and only) touchdown of Super Bowl LIII.
Devin Bush (Michigan) stands with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after he was selected as the number ten overall pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft in Downtown Nashville. (Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel, Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
The previous year, on the heels of a strong NFC Championship Game performance, it was the Eagles' Derek Barnett who basically put a bow on Super Bowl LII when he recovered Brady's fumble in the final minutes.
Braggadocious Browns rookie Greedy Williams already thinks he'll help put Cleveland over the top in 2019 — "I know one thing, that the Browns are going to the Super Bowl this year," the corner said after getting picked in Round 2. (Maybe, but I'll need some convincing Greedy was the cherry missing from that sundae.)
So which rookies seem best positioned to be the final pieces of a title puzzle in 2019? Here are nine strong candidates:
Vikings OL Garrett Bradbury: An intelligent and athletic former tight end, he'll probably take over at center on Minnesota's offensive line and should have a positive cascading effect on a unit that struggled in 2018. Bradbury's ability to move and take on linebackers when delivering secondary blocks should make him an ideal fit for the zone schemes new assistant Gary Kubiak favors.
Steelers ILB Devin Bush: If you subscribe to the theory that Pittsburgh has been held back by its defense more than the histrionics of Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell or Ben Roethlisberger in recent years, then it's worth wondering if Bush could be the savior. The D's regrettable decline began with LB Ryan Shazier's spinal injury Dec. 4, 2017. Despite ranking sixth in total defense in 2018, the Steelers were abysmal in December, a stretch that knocked them out of the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Bush's passion and athleticism could make all the difference for a proud franchise that seems sufficiently reloaded on offense and may benefit from addition by subtraction on that side of the ball as well as some overall skepticism at a time when the Browns have been elevated to divisional darlings.
Colts WR Parris Campbell: When you own 4.31 40 speed, big chunks of yards are sure to follow. Indianapolis only had four passing plays that went beyond 50 yards in 2018, three going to T.Y. Hilton, and ranked near the bottom of the league with 7.1 yards per pass attempt. Campbell is more a Percy Harvin type than your standard deep threat, but he's here to hit home runs — and draw the kind of defensive attention that will create similar opportunities for his new teammates.
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Patriots WR N'Keal Harry: Big (6-2, 228), strong and fast (4.53 40 at combine), he may not be a tight end, but Harry could be the guy who effectively spells retired Rob Gronkowski when Brady needs a first down on a back shoulder throw to the boundary or a target who can body up a corner or safety in the end zone.
Saints OL Erik McCoy: Whether he remains at center or begins his NFL career at guard, New Orleans is counting on McCoy — he cost the WhoDats next year's second-rounder — to give QB Drew Brees plenty of room to operate within the pocket while maintaining throwing lanes that can be hard for a 6-foot passer to exploit. If McCoy does start in the pivot, he'll have the unenviable challenge of trying to succeed cagey and capable Max Unger, who was retired after 10 seasons.
Bears RB David Montgomery: Though 2018 NFL coach of the year Matt Nagy received deserved recognition for turning Chicago into NFC North champions, his pedestrian offense wasn't really what fueled the success. Given the abilities of last year's starting back, Jordan Howard, and third-down specialist Tarik Cohen, there was a certain level of predictability given Howard isn't a great receiver and Cohen's not going to be sent between the tackles very often. Though Cohen will obviously remain an important component (Howard was traded to Philadelphia in March), Montgomery's varied skill set should keep defenses guessing a little more on first and second down … and maybe even the occasional third down.
Eagles RB Miles Sanders: Philadelphia ranked 28th in rushing last season. Their top ground gainer, Josh Adams, had a meager 511 yards. Collectively, Philly managed just 91 yards while running the ball in its two playoff games. Coming off a 1,274-yard junior season after replacing Barkley in Happy Valley, Sanders could make a world of difference to his new offense.
Chargers DT Jerry Tillery: As great an edge rushing duo as the Bolts have with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, they didn't manage a single takedown of Brady in last season's divisional round playoff defeat. If this club wants to get over the Super Bowl hump — and that may very well mean taking out the Patriots — it needs to be more stout inside while generating more pressure up the gut, the kind that really bothers an immobile, quick-release passer like TB12. Tillery can solve many of these issues, especially since he figures to see a lot of one-on-one blocking from guards who can't match his athleticism.
Patriots OLB/DE Chase Winovich: New England just lost its top pass rusher, Trey Flowers, who led the team in sacks each of the past three seasons (though he never had more than 7½). Over that same period, not a single other Patriot had as many as six sacks in any season. Though it may not be fair to ask Winovich to fill the vacuum, his non-stop motor gives him a chance. Over the last three seasons at Michigan, he racked up 18½ sacks and an astounding 43 tackles for loss. He and DL Michael Bennett could be the primary play-makers for this front seven.
Follow Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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