Even before the first week of the NFL season—when it was confirmed that none of quarterbacks taken in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft (Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater) would start immediately—the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award was presumed destined for one of the highly touted rookie receivers entering the league.
After all, there were nine receivers drafted before the Tennessee Titans made Bishop Sankey the first running back taken with the 54th overall pick late in the second round.
No. 4, Sammy Watkins, Buffalo Bills
No. 7, Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 12, Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
No. 20, Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints
No. 28, Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina Panthers
No. 39, Marquise Lee, Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 42, Jordan Matthews, Philadelphia Eagles
No. 45, Paul Richardson, Seattle Seahawks
No. 53, Devante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Evans and Benjamin emerged quickly as the two most productive rookies in the season’s early going. Beckham Jr., on the other hand, burst onto the scene in Week 7 with the greatest catch by a New York Giant since David Tyree won Super Bowl XLII with his helmet, and he’s been dominant ever since. To date, those three remain your Offensive RotY favorites, with Beckham Jr. the clear frontrunner, and rightfully so. Beckham Jr. (972 yards, nine touchdowns), Benjamin (952 yards, nine touchdowns), and Evans (948 yards, 11 touchdowns) rank 14th, 19th, and 20th in the NFL in yards receiving (respectively), while Evans is one of only eight receivers in the league with at least 10 touchdowns.
But after his mid-season emergence, Cincinnati’s Jeremy Hill now belongs in the conversation, and he deserves more consideration than he’s currently getting. After picking up the AFC Offensive Player of the Week award for his 148-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Bengals 30-0 crashing of Johnny Manziel’s party in Cleveland on Sunday afternoon, there should be little denying that the Bengals 22-year-old starlet is just as worthy as any of the rookie receivers.
Hill, who was the second running back taken in the draft at No. 55, has had far and away the best season of any rookie back, leading all of them with eight touchdowns and commanding margins in both yards and yards-per-carry.
While he currently trails Beckham Jr., Evans, and Benjamin in terms of a rushing-vs-receiving yardage comparison, Hill ranks 11th overall in the league in rushing yards, higher than any of the three receivers rank in their respective category. The extent to which passing has overtaken rushing for NFL offenses also shouldn’t be understated in the comparison. Twenty-four receivers—including Beckham Jr., Benjamin, and Evans—are projected by ESPN to surpass 1,000 receiving yards by the end of Week 16. In contrast, just 12 running backs are on pace to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark, with Hill being the final back expected to make the cut with a projected 1,002 yards on the season.
There are also two other factors that could sway the decision slightly towards Hill: he plays on a relevant team, and his value/importance to his team down the stretch of the season has been paramount.
Plain and simple, the Giants, Buccaneers, and Panthers are all very bad teams. Yes, the Panthers are still alive in the playoff hunt, but that’s only because the NFC South is a disgrace to the NFL, which will hopefully revise its playoff structure and seeding sometime in the very near future. While the collective mediocrity of the teams Beckham Jr., Evans, and Benjamin play for doesn’t negate their individual achievements, there is no denying that team performance factors into individual wins; Carolina, New York, and Tampa Bay have lost in spite of stellar performances from their rookie receivers, while the Bengals won several games and stayed afloat during a treacherous stretch as a result of standout performances from Hill.
Hill’s emergence came when Cincinnati needed it most. Prior to the Bengals Week 9 matchup with the Jaguars, Hill had just 48 carries and the Bengals had notched just one win in their previous four games. With incumbent starter Giovani Bernard sidelined with a host of injuries, perennial Pro Bowl receiver A.J. still hobbled, and Andy Dalton in the midst of a slump, the Bengals needed a steadying performance from Hill in his first start. They got it to the tune of 154 yards and two touchdowns. Bernard would eventually miss three weeks before returning, and in that time Hill compiled 361 yards (120.3 yards per game) on 59 carries (6.1 yards per carry).
Hill and Bernard split time in the three games that followed, before Hill was finally granted the full starter job he likely should’ve retained all along. He responded with 148 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries as the Bengals rushing attack overwhelmed Cleveland. In the five games that he’s been designated a starter this season, Hill amassed 571 yards and five touchdowns, which leads one to wonder just what his numbers might look like if he’d been given a more significant role in the first seven weeks of the season. Perhaps there’d be no conversation as to who was the NFL’s best rookie.
But as it stands, is Jeremy Hill the NFL Offensive Rookie of the year? It’s admittedly unlikely, because Beckham Jr. has been remarkable for the past seven weeks, hauling in at least 90 yards receiving in seven straight games, including five 100-yard performances. Beckham Jr. deserves to win—972 receiving yards in 10 games is unheard of for a rookie, and it puts him fourth in the NFL in yards per games (97.2). But Hill belongs firmly in the conversation for runner-up (a race that should be between Hill and Dallas Cowboys guard Zach Martin), and he’s certainly within striking distance if he can string together two more game-changing performances against the Broncos and Steelers. At any rate, there’s no arguing the Bengals got the steal of the 2014 NFL Draft in Hill at 55th overall. No one expected this argument 16 weeks ago.