Hickey: Which former B1G players could continue the NFL Rookie of the Year streak?
If there are still bar bets in this age of Google, here’s a sure winner: How many consecutive years has a Big Ten player been named NFL Rookie of the Year?
We’re at 7 straight. And potentially counting.
Every season since 2016, a Big Ten alum has been named the NFL Offensive or Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Given the nature of the conference, it’s no surprise that defensive players have won with greater frequency.
But last year, former Ohio State receiver Garrett Wilson flipped the script by beating out former Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III for Offensive Rookie of the Year. (Wilson’s New York Jets teammate, cornerback Sauce Gardner, snapped a streak of 3 straight B1G winners on defense.)
With a record-tying 9 B1G players drafted in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, there’s a pretty good chance the ROY streak will continue next season.
But who are the most likely candidates?
Of the many possibilities, we’ve narrowed it down to 3 players on each side of the ball.
QB CJ Stroud, Houston Texans
If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball. And if you’re talented enough to be the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft, you’re talented enough to win Rookie of the Year.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is the most recent quarterback to pull off the feat, doing so in 2019.
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The flip side of getting picked 2nd is that it assures that you’ll be getting your start on a team that’s hurting. And the Texans certainly fit that description. Some of the pieces surrounding Stroud on Houston’s offense are arguably a step backwards from what he was working with at Ohio State.
But if he’s able to do something with that offense, he will have earned the prize.
WR Jaxon Smith-Njibga, Seattle Seahawks
Stroud’s former Ohio State teammate lands in a situation far more conducive to immediate success.
Seattle has 3 viable threats that opposing offenses need to pay attention to — outside receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and Walker in the backfield. Veteran quarterback Geno Smith is coming off a career-revitalizing year, and the addition of Smith-Njigba can help prevent that from being a fluke.
Smith-Njigba could become the second straight Buckeye receiver to be named Rookie of the Year. And with Marvin Harrison Jr. coming out next year, that number may grow.
WR Jayden Reed, Green Bay Packers
Reed qualifies as a dark-horse pick — maybe even an extreme one. Nobody outside of Green Bay knows whether new Packers quarterback Jordan Love is any good.
But Green Bay’s receiving corps is borderline horrendous. There’s a reason Aaron Rodgers wanted out. And Reed could be seeing opportunities aplenty as Love looks for a go-to target.
The former Michigan State star rose up draft boards from a potential Day 3 pick all the way to the second round. He may not stop rising once the games begin.
CB Devon Witherspoon, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have a chance to be the Jets of 2023.
In just about any context, no NFL team ever wants to be the Jets of anything. But with New York producing both of 2022’s Rookies of the Year, we’ve hit a rare exception to the rule.
Witherspoon, the first corner selected in 2023, could follow in Sauce Gardner’s footsteps just as Smith-Njigba could follow in Garrett Wilson’s. NFC West quarterbacks Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford can be interception-prone at times, and Witherspoon is good enough to take advantage.
LB Jack Campbell, Detroit Lions
Luke Kuechly is the most recent inside linebacker to win Rookie of the Year. That was in 2012, so this is an uphill battle. But very few people expected Campbell to be a first-round pick, so clearly Detroit envisions him as an exceptional fit for coach Matt Campbell’s system.
Linebackers win Rookie of the Year by being tackling machines, and that’s what Jack Campbell was at Iowa. He recorded 143 tackles in 2021 and 128 tackles in 2022.
Edge rushers and cornerbacks tend to record sexier stats than linebackers, but Campbell is exactly the type of guy capable of grabbing attention by doing everything else on the field.
S Ji’Ayir Brown, San Francisco 49ers
Mark Carrier is the last safety to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, doing so for the 1990 Chicago Bears. It will take something absolutely extraordinary from a late-third round draft pick to overcome that much negative history.
But it wouldn’t be shocking if Brown impresses as a rookie. There’s a reason the Niners traded up to take him with their first pick in the 2023 Draft.
Part of the reason to be high on Brown is who he’s playing with.
Talanoa Hufanga is coming off his first All-Pro season, and is developing into one of the most instinctive safeties to play since Troy Polamalu. Teams want to avoid Hufanga at all costs, and that could create opportunities for the ball-hawking Brown.
Brown is behind Hufanga and veteran Tashaun Gipson on San Francisco’s depth chart, and he’ll probably have more impact later in his career. Just don’t be surprised if he makes his presence felt sooner.