One of the most hyped college prospects of the past decade, Barkley made the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine his personal showcase en route to the draft’s No. 2 slot with the Giants. A 5-foot-8 dynamo starring in the Broncos‘ backyard at the University of Colorado, Lindsay didn’t receive an invite to the combine, much less the draft.
Despite that dramatic difference in pedigree, Lindsay is giving Barkley a serious run for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors as the season reaches its final quarter. The reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week has been on a tear of late, becoming the only player this decade to average at least 7.0 yards per carry in three consecutive games. At his current pace, he will finish with 1,250 rushing yards, the most by an undrafted rookie in league history, per NFL Research.
One thing Lindsay and Barkley do have in common? They are the only players this season to rush for at least 900 yards without fumbling.
The two dynamic running backs aren’t the only rookies worthy of praise. Let’s unpack the 2018 All-Rookie Team on offense:
Hope. When Mayfield came out of the bullpen to lead his downtrodden franchise to a magical comeback versus the Jets in Week 3, even hardened Browns fans saw their black hearts turn red for a precious moment. One of the reasons we cling to sports fandom is the boundless optimism provided by an especially promising young talent with the potential to change lives — and even skylines. Cleveland has been stuck with Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel, just as Green Bay and Indianapolis suffered through strings of subpar signal-callers before Brett Favre and Peyton Manning provided the rising tide that lifted all boats.
After taking a few rookie lumps under the now-deposed tandem of Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, Mayfield has hit his stride with former running backs coach Freddie Kitchens playing mad scientist over the past month. The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Month leads first-year quarterbacks in each major passing category this season. Since Kitchens took over play-calling duties early last month, Mayfield has completed 71.8 percent of his passes at 8.92 yards per attempt for a sterling passer rating of 111.8 — numbers that rival those of darkhorse MVP candidates Jared Goff and Philip Rivers this season.
Numbers, highlight clips, versatility, workload, in-season improvement — Barkley has it all. He’s on pace to join Eric Dickerson and Edgerrin James as the only rookies ever to amass at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage. His 12 trips to paydirt represent 44.4 percent of the team’s offensive touchdowns this season. Where Barkley really shines, though, is through the eye test. How can one back inspire so many varied comparisons? The Barry Sanders shuck-and-jive to break free behind the line of scrimmage. The Walter Payton broken-tackle rampage through a hoard of defenders. The Marshall Faulk-like mismatch, lined up out wide or in the slot to take advantage of linebackers and safeties in coverage. The explosive jump-cuts of Adrian Peterson, the power of Marshawn Lynch, the leaping ability of Billy Sims. … We could go on for hours.
I fell head-over-heels for the Broncos‘ rookie class in August, due primarily to Lindsay’s eye-opening initial burst, explosive agility and unexpected physicality. If it wasn’t evident by the third preseason game that he was much more than just an undrafted scat back, Lindsay served notice with 102 yards and a touchdown in the season-opening victory over Seattle. Doing Hall of Famer Terrell Davis proud, the latest Broncos star is averaging 6.08 yards on 154 carries, the third-highest single-season figure since the 1970 merger. As venerable beat writer Mike Klis put it this week, Lindsay might just be “inch-for-inch, pound-for-pound and dollar-for-dollar the best player in the NFL this season.”
Ridley has made a few mistakes with drops and fumbles, but there’s no denying his run-after-catch skills, deep-ball tracking and red-zone presence. He’s been a bright spot for a Falcons offense that ranks seventh in Football Outsiders‘ Drive Success Rate despite debilitating injuries at running back and on the offensive line. Beyond the uniform number (12), Moore shows rare elusiveness that calls to mind former Vikings star Percy Harvin. He has joined forces with fellow runner-receiver hybrids Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel to transform Norv Turner into one of the league’s most creative play-callers, dialing up trick plays in his sleep.
In a season of disappointment, the Jets believe their fourth-round pick is getting better each week. Utilized primarily on bubble screens at the University of Miami, he’s shown signs that he’s going to develop into a complete tight end with Gang Green. He found the end zone in three consecutive games at midseason, offering a glimpse of potential red-zone magic with Sam Darnold.
A solid starter from Day 1, McGlinchey has keyed a consistent 49ers ground attack that ranks seventh in the league despite major injuries at quarterback and running back. The dramatic transformation from blocking dummies to bodyguards across Indianapolis’ offensive line coincided with Smith’s promotion to the starting lineup in October. This has been one of the league’s most reliable units ever since.
Nelson has improved throughout the season, becoming the first guard in NFL history to capture Offensive Rookie of the Month honors back in October. Coaches and teammates credit the draft’s No. 6 overall pick for instilling an infectiously punishing playing style that has turned the perennially overmatched Colts offensive line into a fortress for Andrew Luck. A rose among thorns, Hernandez has held his own on a beleaguered blocking unit that has begun to open holes for Saquon Barkley in the second half of the season.
The 2017 Rimington Award winner has allowed only one sack after missing a chunk of the season due to a foot injury. Desperate for a center to take command of their slipshod offensive line, the Bengals passed on the opportunity to draft Lamar Jackson, who might just lead the division-rival Ravens to the playoffs in his first season.
Sanders is among the leaders in field-goal conversion rate, having connected on 16 of 17 tries (94.1 percent). He also ranks first in touchback percentage. The Dolphins made the right decision to move on from Cody Parkey, who is now kicking for the Bears.
The sixth-round draft pick has pulled off a convincing Tyreek Hill impersonation on kickoffs, averaging 27.9 yards per return. Jets veteran Andre Roberts (665) is the only player with more kickoff-return yards than Smith’s 642 this season.
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.