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Offensive Rookie of the Year: Is it Saquon Barkley or Baker Mayfield?

The Giants and Browns will finish their 2018 season this Sunday with no playoff hopes ahead of them. But both teams and their fanbases will be looking forward to the NFL Honors the day before the Super Bowl to see if their highly-touted rookie will win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

Giants RB Saquon Barkley and Browns QB Baker Mayfield are the frontrunners to win the award, and the latest Vegas odds has Mayfield as the slight favorite to beat out Barkley. Let’s break down each candidate to see who should be walking up to the stage to accept the award in the end:

The Barkley Argument

The Browns could have easily chose Barkley first overall with their lack of a run game, but they decided Mayfield was the better option. Giants GM Dave Gettleman, though, didn’t hesitate when Barkley fell in his lap, and he has been producing as advertised.

Barkley needs 114 yards from scrimmage in his final game to reach 2,000 total (1,198 rushing, 688 receiving) on the season, and he has a very good chance to make that happen against the Cowboys. Also, when he records two receptions (not if), Barkley will surpass Reggie Bush for the most receptions by a rookie running back in NFL history. If he gets five receptions, he’ll surpass Odell Beckham Jr. for the most receptions by a rookie in Giants history.

That’s just one of the franchise and league records Barkley has broken, or is primed to break this season. And he’s doing it with breathtaking jukes, speed and hurdles that immediately make the highlight reel.

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“He has 12 games of 100-plus scrimmage yards,” Good Morning Football’s Nate Burleson said during a debate about Barkley and Mayfield. “That’s as many as Edgerrin James, who was a phenomenal rookie as we all know. That’s as many as David Johnson and Christian McCaffrey combined.”

James actually won the Rookie of the Year in 1999 after a season that saw 1,553 yards on the ground, and 586 yards through the air with 17 total touchdowns. Barkley won’t reach that production, but if he reaches that 2,000-yard mark, he would join James and Eric Dickerson has the only rookie running backs to achieve that goal in NFL history. Even Barry Sanders — the generational running back Barkley is constantly compared to — didn’t produce a 2,000-yard season in his rookie year.

“I don’t care if he’s the No. 2 pick,” Barkley’s teammate WR Russell Shepard told ESPN’s Jordan Raanan. “There have been backs picked in the top 5 in the last 20 years and there aren’t too many, if any, who are doing what he is doing. He has Barry-like ability to make people miss and to get north and south. This isn’t normal.”

Video: Baker or Saquon for Offensive Rookie of the Year?

The Mayfield Argument

There is loads of pressure that comes with being the first overall pick in any professional sport. You can triple that when it comes to being drafted to the Browns as a quarterback first overall.

Mayfield didn’t initially start with Cleveland, as Tyrod Taylor got the first three of the season. But since coming in for the injured Taylor in Week 3, Mayfield has solidified his position as the team’s franchise quarterback — something Browns fans couldn’t fathom after years of failed draft picks.

Looking at the numbers, Mayfield leads all rookie quarterbacks with 3,349 yards, a 24-11 touchdown to interception ratio, and 64.6 completion percentage. Only 15 other rookie quarterbacks have thrown for more than 20 touchdowns, and that’s come in just 13 games (12 starts).

Mayfield has done all of this by showcasing his ability to extend the play both in and outside the pocket. His arm strength and leadership qualities have also been on full display. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story for Mayfield’s rookie season thus far.

“Look at what the Browns have been in the last decade,” Peter Schrager said countering Burleson during the GMFB segment. “The Browns have been a punchline, a joke, a team you don’t want to watch and they always have the 11th CBS broadcast crew doing their game at 1 o’clock something that you’re not even watching on [NFL Network’s] Redzone. The Browns are now appointment viewing and it is because of their quarterback.”

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Mayfield has led a lowly franchise with an 0-16 record last season to a .500 team that now has hope for the future. That, with the stats to back it up, is one heck of a resume for a rookie season.

“Baker Mayfield has thrown not only that team on his back, not only that franchise on his back, but that city on his back,” Schrager continued. “LeBron [James] leaves and already we have a guy who can fill the void.”

So who will it be?

It’s going to be a tough voting process, there’s no doubt about it. If it could be done, both players deserve to split the award. But, in the end, I see the Rookie of the Year going to Barkley by a very slight margin. 

Here’s why: What Barkley is doing from a production standpoint is extremely rare. He is breaking records left and right, just like his superstar teammate Beckham did in his ROY season in 2014. To even be mentioned, let alone in the company of players like James and Dickerson shouldn’t go unnoticed. 

Now, that isn’t to knock what Mayfield has done for himself, the Browns, and the city of Cleveland as a whole. But when looking at Mayfield’s status in the league this season, he is averaging 257.6 yards per game through the air, which ranks 19th. His completion percentage is 23rd among qualified quarterbacks, and his quarterback rating ranks 18th. 

Barkley, on the other hand, is third in the league in rushing yards, and fifth in touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards per carry (tied 11th). He is also 13th in the NFL in receptions, while blowing out all rookies in that category. Barkley’s numbers are not just better than any rookie, but better than most veterans this season as well.

Mayfield has brought about a new era for the Browns, and the playoffs no longer seem out of reach for the franchise. But Barkley has also become the face of the Giants, and if New York is smart, they will build around him for years to come.

Barkley’s production, though, has been one of the best at his position in league history, and what sets him apart as the Rookie of the Year this season.

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