NFL

Ten dark horse NFL Offensive Player of the Year candidates

Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota
Rachel Wold
Written by Rachel Wold

Each year, one player who has performed well beyond expectations earns NFL Offensive Player of the Year honors. It is easy right now to think guys like Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady have a better chance of earning the honor than an average Joe. That’s like betting on the 2:1 odds horse and winning. How boring is that?

After all, there was not much going on previously to suggest at this time last year that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan would win the Offensive Player of the Year, right?

It is a lot more fun to bet on the long shot, like that 35:1 odds horse. This brings us to ponder some dark horse NFL players who could rise to the occasion and win this award. More often than not, the Offensive Player of the Year award goes to a quarterback. We have some dark horse quarterbacks covered.

But we will also spotlight some other skill positions that might just surprise.

Here are our 10 candidates for 2017.

Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

Prescott came out of nowhere last season and was crowned AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. The 135th overall pick from the 2016 NFL Draft took the football world by storm when he led the Cowboys to a 13-3 first place finish in the NFC.

Who is to say that Prescott won’t continue to build on his brilliant success? The former Mississippi State quarterback completed 67.8 percent of his passes in 2016 and scored 29 combined touchdowns. He threw only four interceptions in 459 attempted passes. Just to compare, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers tossed 21 picks in 578 attempts.

In all, Prescott finished his rookie season earning a 104.9 quarterback rating. The only other starting quarterbacks to garner higher ratings were the two who played in Super Bowl 51.

We will leave that as food for thought in pleading the case for Prescott to one-up every quarterback in the league in 2017.

Jordy Nelson, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers

Most of the noise when it comes to wide receivers in the league surrounds Antonio Brown and Julio Jones. Nelson is a receiver that easily becomes overshadowed by those NFL superstars.

It’s worth pointing out that Nelson catches passes from one of the most elite and error-free quarterbacks in the league. Last year, Aaron Rodgers targeted Nelson a career-high 152 times.  This proved that the chemistry between Nelson and Rodgers was never lost after the Pro Bowl receiver missed his entire 2015 campaign with an ACL injury. In 2014 Nelson drew 151 targets from Rodgers.

So how did Nelson’s stats in 2016 stack up against other receivers? Nelson finished fifth in receptions (97), sixth in yards (1,257) right behind Brown, and first in touchdowns (14).

Obviously, it would be a tough task to top the production of all the league’s wideouts. But, Nelson plays on a team that is always a contender, and he catches passes from a future Hall of Fame quarterback. There is not really much more to add to this story.

David Johnson, running back, Arizona Cardinals

Johnson is budding young talent who went absolutely off the charts in production during his sophomore season.

In 2016, Johnson exploded on the scene and averaged 23.3 total touches per game. As a result, he piled up 1,239 rushing yards, 879 receiving yards and 20 total touchdowns. He also led all running backs with 80 receptions last year. Will he slow down in 2017?

Heck, no.  So, some might suggest that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell will outperform Johnson next year. Bell averaged 28 combined touches per game and likely would have surpassed Johnson’s catches had he not missed four games. Bell tallied 75 receptions in 12 games.

But, injuries and off-field behavior are a concern when it comes to Bell. This is why we give Johnson the edge in 2017.

Rob Gronkowski, tight end, New England Patriots

If there ever was a tight end who could earn Offensive Player of the Year, it is of course Gronk. Let’s assume that Gronkowski stays healthy all year round. If this is the case, the dude is a complete animal on offense. We already have him penned in as a top 10 Comeback Player of the Year candidate for 2017.

Plus, quarterback Tom Brady is playing out of his mind these days. But let’s get back to Gronk. Prior to last year’s injury season, Gronkowski racked up a total of 154 catches for 2,300 yards and 23 touchdowns between 2014-15.

The Patriots are playing stronger than ever these days. Another Super Bowl is easily within reach. If Gronkowski rebounds to his high level of play, he could surprise and be crowned the league’s best offensive player this upcoming season.

Marcus Mariota, quarterback, Tennessee Titans

All signs point towards the Titans offense catapulting into the next level in 2017. This means Mariota could wind up in the land of elite quarterbacks this year.

The third-year quarterback made improvements across the board in 2016, passing for 3,426 yards, 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions in 15 games. Mariota also added 349 rushing yards and two rushing scores to his stat line.

This upcoming season brings new cast members Eric Decker and rookie Corey Davis to bolster Mariota’s passing game. Decker is slated to play in the slot and scored the third-most touchdowns (seven) from that spot in 2015.

Davis is coming off a 19-touchdown season at Western Michigan. Taking into consideration the rest of the talent Mariota has on offense, he could certainly make a legitimate case for winning Offensive Player of the Year.

Marshawn Lynch, running back, Oakland Raiders

Yes. We are going to venture down this path and suggest that Lynch could earn this honor. The 31-year-old running back came out of retirement and is earning nothing but rave reviews so far from the Oakland brass.

Plus, just check out this intense beach workout showing Lynch wearing boots.

From the looks of that video, the five-time Pro Bowl running kept in fabulous shape during his one year off.

Prior to Lynch’s final injury-year with the Seattle Seahawks, he put up a tremendous four-year run. Between 2011-14, Lynch averaged 1,789.7 total yards and 14 total scores per season.

If Beast Mode can mirror this success with his new team, he would absolutely be a contender for Player of the Year. Taking into account Derek Carr’s growth as a quarterback, Lynch is primed to explode.

Kirk Cousins, quarterback, Washington Redskins

A quarterback more folks need to get on board with is Cousins. He finished third in passing yards (4,917) with just 27 less than Matt Ryan in 2016.

Those who played fantasy football last year and drafted Cousins owned the fifth-highest producing quarterback in the game. Yet, current mock drafts show Cousins slipping down to late rounds.

It is a prime example of how severely underrated Cousins is. During his past two seasons as a starter for Washington, Cousins has completed an average of 68.4 percent of his passes for a total of 9,083 yards and 54 touchdowns. He also rushed in nine touchdowns along the way.

Why the Redskins have yet to lock Cousins up under a long-term contract is mind-baffling. Perhaps they will feel inclined if Cousins somehow pulls off Offensive Player of the Year honors.

Odell Beckham Jr., wide receiver, New York Giants

We mentioned some of the league’s finest receivers when we covered dark horse candidate Jordy Nelson. OBJ probably has a better shot at outperforming his fellow receivers, but for obvious reasons, he is not a slam dunk.

First of all, Beckham is always one fiery tantrum away from landing on suspension. This would throw a monkey wrench into his numbers. On the positive side, Beckham garnered a career-high 169 targets and 101 receptions in 2016. It also marked OBJ’s first 16-game season.

His 101 catches resulting in 1,367 yards ranked him third-highest in yards among receivers last year. Only Indianapolis Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and Julio Jones had more yards. As for touchdowns, Beckham’s 10 trailed behind Nelson’s 14 and the 12 each that Davante Adams, Antonio Brown and Mike Evans scored.

Clearly, Beckham has his work cut out in 2017 to top the charts. But if there was ever a receiver with more passion to be the best, it is Beckham.

Jay Ajayi, running back, Miami Dolphins

This third-year running back probably makes for the darkest horse on this list. But, that’s what this story is all about. Ajayi hit the ground running and came alive in his second season.

The former Boise State project tallied 1,272 rushing yards and eight touchdowns throughout 15 games. He did this at a robust pace of 4.9 yards per carry, we might add. As a result, Ajayi finished fourth overall in rushing yards.

The fact that Ajayi had three games in 2016 when he rushed for over 200 yards is also quite noteworthy.

As for Ajayi’s team as a whole, the Dolphins are on an upward trend. They finished 10-6 in the AFC East and played in the postseason for the first time since 2008.

Should Ajayi stand out again, and any of his top fellow running backs take a step back, he might just finish as the No. 1 back in the NFL.

Derek Carr, quarterback, Oakland Raiders

Derek Carr

To close things out, we will cover one of the brightest, young quarterback talents in the league. The Raiders recently made Carr the richest NFL player. What better way to celebrate this would be for Carr to earn Offensive Player of the Year honors?

First of all, he would need to outperform several veteran elites. Five-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady headlines a list of tough quarterback competition that includes Rodgers and New Orleans Saints future Hall of Famer, Drew Brees. If Carr can indeed get the upper hand on his veteran peers, he would next have to shine more brightly than his younger quarterback competition.

Clearly, it would take a lot for Carr to rise to the top. Fortunately though, Carr’s numbers have been on the climb since his 2014 rookie campaign. An unfortunate broken leg prevented Carr from playing in the Raiders first postseason appearance since 2002. Carr was only 11 years old back then.

Now he is playing at a level that could definitely put him into consideration for the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year award.

About the author

Rachel Wold

Rachel Wold

Rachel is a football lover of both the NFL and Fantasy and creator of Fantasyfootballchick.com. When she is not vacationing in Miami or Vegas, she is an NFL writer at Sportsnaut and a fantasy contributor at eDraft.com. Rachel's articles are also featured on Yardbarker, MSN and Fox Sports.

Follow Rachel on Twitter @liveocgirl and chat with her anytime!