When Deshaun Watson became the Texans' No. 12 overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, he immediately became the front-runner to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
While the Associated Press honor went to one Cowboy, quarterback Dak Prescott, last season, another, running back Ezekiel Elliott, was named Sporting News' top rookie. Watson can keep one or both awards in the Lone Star State this year.
That, of course, is based on a projection of him winning the starting job in Houston over Tom Savage. When he does, Watson will be front and center of the reigning AFC South champions.
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Watson, much like Prescott, can be expected to improve at all the little things in a short window before his first NFL game. Fresh off leading Clemson to a national championship, he'll fit right into the mindset of a returning playoff team contending for a conference title.
With a true go-to receiver (DeAndre Hopkins), depth in the running game and J.J. Watt returning to anchor the defense, there will be limited pressure on Watson to try to carry the team. Although Houston can't immediately give Watson an elite line the way Dallas could for Prescott, Watson can still play off a good overall supporting cast.
Houston went 9-7 (again) with shaky QB play, mainly from Brock Osweiler, for most of last season. If Watson is a steadying force in helping the Texans win an improving division for a third straight year, with a better record, the credentials for rookie of the year would be in place.
Since 2001, quarterbacks have dominated AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, winning seven of the 16 awards. Otherwise, it's been six running backs and three wide receivers. Tight ends and offensive linemen are used to being shut out of the process because they're not quite "offenisve skill" enough.
Behind Watson — with Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky and Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes set to sit in 2017 — the top three running backs drafted in 2017 are among his four biggest challengers.
Here they are.
— Leonard Fournette, RB, Jaguars
Fournette is arguably the most explosive pure runner to enter the league since Adrian Peterson. With the backfield mess of Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon, he'll get every chance to be the workhorse as the team leans on a power rushing attack with new football operations chief Tom Coughlin.
Fournette might struggle a bit if second-round tackle Cam Robinson has only limited effects on the team's run-blocking woes, and if QB Blake Bortles isn't more efficient to provide true balance to the offense. It will probably take something like a reasonable 1,200 yards rushing and double-digit TDs for Fournette to contend. It will take Jacksonville vying for at least a wild card for him to win.
— Dalvin Cook, RB, Vikings
Since 2004, only one rookie not drafted in the first round — Chargers third-round wide receiver Keenan Allen in 2013 — has won offensive rookie of the year. Cook, landing in a favorable spot with Minnesota, has a good chance to buck the trend. He had the three-down talent to go in Round 1, and the Vikings aggressively traded up to get him early in Round 2.
As Cook steps into a chance to replace Peterson as the Vikings' long-term feature back, the wild card to his candidacy is the health of free-agent addition Latavius Murray. Regardless of how Murray comes back from his ankle surgery, he is headed to a more limited power-back role behind Cook. The Vikings also need much better run blocking to facilitate Cook's production. He might be too good to keep off the field, allowing him to bolster his value as a receiver on third downs.
— Corey Davis, WR, Titans
Some thought Davis would last on the board a little longer, but Tennessee, which desperately needed a complete No. 1 receiver for Marcus Mariota, didn't waste time and picked him with its higher of two first-round picks. The Titans ranked 25th in passing yards last season, with tight end Delanie Walker and wide receiver Rishard Matthews tying for a team-high 65 receptions. Although that duo combined for 16 touchdowns, neither hit 1,000 receiving yards.
So there's a big production void for Davis as the league's No. 3 rushing team tries to open up more with Mariota and become a little more balanced. Breaking 1,000 yards with eight or so scores would be similar to Allen's rookie numbers, but Davis would likely need to do much more to trump Watson and the top backs. If healthy, he can't be ruled out from doing so.
— Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers
This one's tricky. There's no doubt McCaffrey is an exceptionally fast player who can inject Carolina with the dynamic versatility it's been missing in its running, receiving and return games. But in relation to holdover veteran back Jonathan Stewart and fellow Panthers rookie Curtis Samuel, McCaffrey's usage in those areas right away is uncertain.
For McCaffrey to get in the offensive rookie of the year mix, he'll need 15-20 touches per game rather than 5-10. The four rookies above him have more defined roles. With McCaffrey, it's more wait and see, but we could look up and see undeniable rookie numbers by season's end.