2021 NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year Award Picks: Can Anyone Catch Ja'Marr Chase?

NFL analyst and expert Ben Gretch has his latest update for the 2021 NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards. He has two clear favorites through the first six weeks.
Ben Gretch
Sun, October 24, 8:35 PM EDT

2021 NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year Award Picks: Can Anyone Catch Ja'Marr Chase?

Last week we took a look at the MVP market to discuss some in-season bets, and today we’re going to talk both Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year. In my preseason awards piece, I talked about the recent trends surrounding what types of players tend to win these awards and settled on this being a good year to bet on a quarterback on offense and perhaps go contrarian with a DB on the defensive side since there were no elite pass rushers drafted in the top 10.

Unfortunately, my DB pick, Jaycee Horn, tore his Achilles’ after a nice start to the season that included an interception in his second career game. Likewise, my quarterback pick, Justin Fields, has been struggling in a situation where let’s just say his head coach seems destined to be replaced after the season.

So it’s a good time to recalibrate. Here are my current favorites in both the OROY and DROY markets. 

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Ja’Marr Chase (+300) - DraftKings

Click Here For OROY Odds

We have a clear favorite on the offensive side now, with Ja’Marr Chase exploding out of the gate to the tune of 92.2 receiving yards per game and five touchdowns in six contests. As I noted this preseason, Odell Beckham was the last WR to win this award in 2014, and he’s the only WR to do so in the past decade.

But Chase was a phenomenal prospect and has realized some fantastic early production. Historically, rookie wide receivers tend to be more productive later in their rookie seasons than early, so Chase getting off to a hot start is an incredibly positive sign. And not only do rookie wide receivers tend to perform better as seasons progress, but we should also be pretty optimistic Cincinnati’s offense will create a better situation for Chase. So far this season, the Bengals have been pretty run-heavy, while Joe Burrow gets all the way back from his devastating knee injury. But over the past few weeks, they’ve started to trend back closer to league average in an important offensive metric, Pass Rate Over Expected (PROE), and there’s reason to believe they should stick there or perhaps even move slightly above average, which is where they fell in 2020 with Burrow at quarterback, before his injury.

Even if they stick around league average, that would mean more passing volume overall than what we’ve seen so far. And even if Chase were to not keep up this pace, the production he already has in the bank goes a long way. For example, if Chase were to see his per-game yardage and touchdown numbers cut exactly in half for the 11 remaining games — meaning if he averages just 46.1 yards and 0.42 touchdowns per game the rest of the way — he’d finish with a line of 1,060 receiving yards and 9.6 touchdowns. That may not be enough to win the award, but it’s notably better than the current paces for the other high-profile rookie pass-catchers. And while it may not seem likely he can keep up his current rate of big plays, his actual pace, if that were to happen, would be a season with more than 1,500 yards and more than 14 scores.

The other side of this bet is the crop of five first-round rookie quarterbacks have not performed well, to say the least, and it’s hard to identify where the optimism would be. Mac Jones is the second favorite behind Chase and has played well, but the Patriots have leaned more toward the run recently, and Jones doesn’t offer any mobility, so he’s likely to finish the season with mediocre passing numbers, nothing on the rushing side, and for a team that doesn’t look like a good bet to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, Fields has struggled under Matt Nagy, Trevor Lawrence is off to a quiet start under Urban Meyer for a one-win Jaguars team, Zach Wilson is really struggling on a one-win Jets team, and Trey Lance is headed back to the bench this week as Jimmy Garoppolo returns from a calf injury. Lawrence and Fields would be my favorite bets there to close the season with an impressive second half, but given the cushion, Chase has already built himself as the clear early-season favorite. It’s hard to imagine the quarterbacks doing enough to overtake him.

The other bets that look reasonable to me are skill position players. Najee Harris at +800 is solid given his involvement in Pittsburgh’s offense and how much more frequently we’ve seen the OROY award go-to running backs, likely due to the touch volume they can amass. DeVonta Smith (+2000), Jaylen Waddle (+2000), and Kyle Pitts (+2500) are all big pieces of their offenses, as well, and make some sense as long-shots. But while each of them has the routes involvement and potential target volume to make noise, none has shown anywhere near the efficiency Chase has yet in terms of racking up the stats. As I noted above, each of them would need to be substantially better going forward, as well as see Chase cool off to catch Chase statistically. I do expect several rookies to play better later into the season. Still, I also expect Chase to continue to succeed, given he was truly the cream of the crop in this class and likely the best WR prospect since Amari Cooper from a metrics-based perspective. Barring injury, I expect his odds to only shorten from here on out and for him to ultimately take down the award. 

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Micah Parsons (+300) - DraftKings

Click Here For DROY Odds

As it turns out, I’m with the favorites on both sides of the ball. On the defensive side, the preseason favorite, Micah Parsons, has totaled 2.5 sacks, and his odds have only shortened. But Parsons’ advanced metrics also look fantastic — per PFF, his 14 quarterback hurries are two more than any other rookie, and his five quarterback hits are tied with Odafe Oweh (+800) atop the class.

Perhaps most notably, among the 24 rookies with at least 30 pass-rush snaps, only Parsons has a pass rush grade over 70 by PFF’s grading scale, and Parsons is himself way up there at 90.2. That’s right up there among the very best pass rushers in the NFL, rookie or otherwise.

Parsons hasn’t graded well in coverage or the other elements of his game, but that’s not really necessary. As I highlighted in my preseason writeup, elite pass rushers tend to be the favorites for this award, as there just aren’t many notable defensive statistics, and sacks and QB hits and hurries are among the most valued by voters. Of course, Parsons will need to continue to excel, but he should log plenty of pass rush opportunities as well because Dallas’s offense looks strong and will likely put opposing offenses in a lot of obvious pass situations late in games over the rest of the season.

Another note from my preseason article — 13 of the past 14 winners has been top-20 overall selections in that year’s draft. Parsons’ biggest competition among rookie pass rushers who are performing well, Oweh and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (+700), were both selected outside the top 30 picks. I don’t think that note has a major impact if one of Oweh or Owusu-Koramoah winds up totaling several more sacks than Parsons, but I do think Parsons’ relatively higher profile might give him the edge in a close race. All in all, you have a pass rusher that’s currently leading in several key statistics, grades like clearly the best bet to continue to rush the quarterback at a high level, was a high-profile pick for a high-profile team, and isn’t such an overwhelming favorite that there’s no value left in backing him. 

Ben Gretch
@YardsPerGretch
Ben knows his football. A fantasy football expert who was most recently seen at CBS Sports, he'll be helping bettors find value ahead in the NFL with OddsChecker.
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