2018 NFL Season Preview: 5 candidates for this season’s best rookie

giants-saquon-barkley-rushes-against-cleveland

New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) rushes past Cleveland Browns' Damarious Randall (23) and Larry Ogunjobi (65) during the first half of a pre-season game against the Cleveland Browns Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, in East Rutherford, N.J. (Adam Hunger/AP)

There is no shortage of top-notch candidates for NFL rookie of the year honours in 2018.

Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of April’s draft, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility all of them will see significant time on the field this season. Arguably the draft’s top talent, running back Saquon Barkley, appears to be set to play a key role for the New York Giants. Plus, there are as many as a dozen first-round defensive players who could be lining up as starters in Week 1.

So which of these talented first-years are most likely to be the NFL’s best rookie in 2018? Rather than break it down by offence and defence, our panel has picked the player who they think will be the league’s top rookie, regardless of position.

Today’s panel includes Donnovan Bennett, Mike Johnston, Steven Loung, Geoff Lowe and Emily Sadler.

Bennett: Sam Darnold, Quarterback, New York Jets

The biggest key for a rookie to succeed is sponsorship. The coaching staff and front office have to be committed to giving that rookie an opportunity right away.

That’s what the New York Jets are doing with Sam Darnold.

Instead of bringing him along slowly, they are giving Darnold the keys to the car immediately. Nobody would have complained if Darnold sat behind Josh McCown and/or Teddy Bridgewater to start the season. But Darnold did enough early in the pre-season to earn the trust to start right away. In Week 1 of the pre-season, Darnold was 13-of-18 for 96 yards and a TD. In Week 2, he was 8-of-11 for 62 yards. The Jets then started Darnold for their third pre-season game and sat him out entirely during their fourth, both indications he is on the top of the depth chart.

Darnold’s status is why New York was comfortable enough to trade Bridgewater to the New Orleans Saints. Darnold has looked comfortable in the pocket and the ball comes out of his hand quickly. The 2018 rookie QB class has impressed, but only one rookie QB is poised to start Week 1 as a starter and that’s Sam Darnold.

Johnston: Quenton Nelson, Guard, Indianapolis Colts

Offensive linemen don’t win rookie of the year awards in the NFL and that’s not going to change this year…even though Colts left guard Quenton Nelson will be the league’s “best rookie” in 2018.

The sixth-overall pick and top offensive lineman off the board in 2018 pulls and seals off lanes like a 10-year vet even though he has yet to make his regular-season debut. His pass protection needs some fleshing out but he is an elite run blocker. He was an All-American at Notre Dame and has perennial Pro Bowler potential in the NFL.

Nelson’s acquisition isn’t merely a short-term gain for a struggling Colts team either. This could prove to be among the most important moves in Colts history if he does in fact live up to his potential. That’s because the Colts traded down three spots to get the pick they used to select Nelson. The Jets took Sam Darnold at No. 3 but also gave Indy two 2018 second-rounders plus another in 2019.

Loung: Josh Rosen, Quarterback, Arizona Cardinals

Josh Rosen is different from most football players, and that has led to him receiving an unfair reputation because he isn’t just concerned with football.

Rosen has always been more self-aware of the kind of celebrity he is and he’s been more outspoken than your run-of-the-mill top collegiate prospect.

As a result, he went from being a potential No. 1 overall pick to a No. 10 despite a sterling resume that includes UCLA’s top single-season passing record just last season when he threw for 3,756 yards. However, thanks to factors off the football field, Rosen’s stock dropped in the lead-up to the draft.

His own UCLA coach Jim Mora criticized Rosen for being a “millennial,” saying “he needs to be challenged intellectually so he doesn’t get bored” as if that’s an inherently bad thing for anyone.

But what was nine other teams’ loss was the Cardinals’ gain, according to Rosen himself, and in the 21-year-old Arizona has a key piece for a future that could be coming sooner than many would expect.

At the moment, Sam Bradford is pegged as the Cardinals starting quarterback, but that could change despite the $15 million guaranteed he’s owed. As we saw with the Philadelphia Eagles and Carson Wentz in 2016, if a talented rookie is hot on Bradford’s heels, the kid’s probably going to get in sooner than later.

He’s already preparing as a No. 1 with the Cardinals and has shown flashes of real ability in the pre-season. Rosen is definitely coming for that starting spot at some point this year, it’s just a matter of how early it’ll be to see if he can get into that rookie-of-the-year conversation.

Lowe: Bradley Chubb, Defensive End, Denver Broncos

With so many offensive rookies in the spotlight this season, the best defensive player taken in the draft will likely be overlooked early on. But it won’t take long for the league to take notice of Bradley Chubb.

The 22-year-old had a monstrous college career at N.C. State, racking up 20 total sacks in his final two seasons, and will start Week 1 lining up opposite arguably the NFL’s best pass rusher in Von Miller. And we all remember what happened the last time the Broncos had two elite-level pass rushers…

Denver took a gamble not getting in on the quarterback action at the draft, but the payoff will likely be a pass-rushing tandem that will be unrivalled in the league for years to come.

Sadler: Saquon Barkley, Running Back, New York Giants

Be honest: How many times have you watched this Saquon Barkley run from Week 1 of the pre-season? (…um, how many times is too many times?)

Yes, it was pre-season. But the confidence, command and straight-up skill shown by the rookie running back in his first-ever NFL carry was enough to show why the Giants were right to embrace their win-now window and draft him No. 2 overall back in April. Yes, the expectations are sky-high – this is New York we’re talking about – but Barkley is rushing into an ideal situation for success as the missing piece of the Giants’ puzzle on an offence that boasts a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. in the prime of his career and a capable Eli Manning wringing every last drop out of his.

Why stop at rookie of the year? The league’s rushing title has been claimed by first-year RBs in each of the past two years (Ezekiel Elliott in 2016, Kareem Hunt last season) and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Barkley make it three straight.

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