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Baker Mayfield vs. Saquon Barkley: Who's NFL's offensive rookie of year?

ESPN Illustration

Baker Mayfield and Saquon Barkley were the top two picks in last year’s NFL draft. They also were perhaps the best two players from the 2018 draft during their rookie seasons.

Mayfield stepped in and immediately helped a perennial loser win some games. Barkley simply made a run at being the game’s best running back. Not bad, but only one of them can win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award, which will be handed out on Saturday.

Here's a look at the cases for each:

Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

What he did: Barkley stepped into an unenviable situation when the Giants passed on a quarterback in last year’s draft. That left some skeptical of the pick, especially when the Giants stumbled out of the gate. But it didn’t take Barkley long to win over any doubters of him as a player. He reached 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first six games on his way to leading the NFL with 2,028 yards. Not enough? The numbers were silly. He set a rookie record with 91 receptions and smashed just about every Giants rookie record with 1,307 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns and 15 total touchdowns. All in all, he was a walking human highlight reel. Whether it be leaping over a defender, flying like Superman over the goal line, having defenders bounce off his tree trunks for legs or simply making them look silly with "Madden"-like cuts, Barkley did it all. He didn’t lead the Giants to a boatload more wins like Mayfield did with the Browns, but Barkley was the better player -- arguably the best player at his position this season. A lot is expected immediately for a running back selected No. 2 overall. Believe it or not, Barkley exceeded expectations this season.

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Saquon: If you ask my peers, I'm Rookie of the Year

Saquon Barkley notes the long list of impressive rookie campaigns in 2018, but says he'd choose himself for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Signature moment: Barkley dropped a third-down pass early in a December game against the Washington Redskins. He went over to his offensive line on the sideline afterward and vowed to atone for the mistake. Did he ever. Not long after that, he broke off a 78-yard touchdown run. Barkley finished that afternoon with 170 yards rushing (on 14 carries!) and 197 total yards. During a game in which the Giants didn’t have star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. available because of injury, they built a 40-0 lead leaning on Barkley. It showed that the rookie was more than ready to be the centerpiece of an offense.

Standout stat: Barkley had six runs of 50 or more yards this season. That was twice as many as any other player. Four went for touchdowns. The Giants had three 50-plus-yard TDs over the previous 10 seasons.

Quotable: "He was a big difference-maker for us this year. A special talent, a special leader, special kid. Possibly, probably one of the greatest ever. So I was proud of him, happy for him, and he deserves it." -- Giants TE Evan Engram

Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns

What he did: In the aggregate, Mayfield energized a team and a city. In the day-to-day operations, he did everything expected of the draft’s first overall pick -- and more. The stats for Mayfield are evident: an NFL rookie-record 27 touchdown passes (in 13 starts); 13 games in a row with a touchdown pass, tying him with Brian Sipe and Frank Ryan for fifth in Browns history and one behind Bill Nelsen’s streak of 14 in a row; and the team record for passing yards and touchdown passes by a rookie. With the help of interim coach Gregg Williams and now head coach Freddie Kitchens, Mayfield led a team that started 2-6-1 to five wins in its last seven games. Mayfield not only had perhaps the finest season in NFL history for a rookie quarterback, he settled a position that for the Browns had been unsettled for years. For the first time since the 2008 draft, when veteran Derek Anderson was coming off a strong season -- and before that since the 2000 draft, when Tim Couch was coming off his rookie season -- the Browns have certainty at quarterback. A year that started with a mock parade to commemorate a winless season ended with optimism and high hopes. And that was largely because of the young quarterback.

Signature moment: There were many, but Mayfield’s first game stands out because it ended a winless streak that dated back to Christmas Eve of the 2016 season. In the third game of the season and on a Thursday night against the Jets, Mayfield took over for Tyrod Taylor (concussion) just before halftime and turned a 14-0 deficit into a 21-17 win. The energy Mayfield provided was evident from his first series, as he completed his first two throws. He guided the Browns to 69- and 75-yard touchdown drives in the third and fourth quarters, and he caught a two-point conversion from receiver Jarvis Landry. Mayfield completed 17 of 23 passes for 201 yards in about half a game of relief. More important, he energized a team and city as he took firm hold of the starting job for the rest of the season -- and presumably many more to come.

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Mayfield on leadership role: Instill 'chip on your shoulder' mentality

Browns QB Baker Mayfield breaks down what his offseason looks like and his expectations for 2019, saying his role as a leader has evolved into instilling a "chip-on-your-shoulder" mentality to his team.

Standout stat: 7.5 -- the improvement in terms of games won for the Browns from 2017 (without Mayfield) to 2018, from 0-16 to 7-8-1. That marks the greatest single-season improvement in the team’s history. And it matters because a quarterback’s impact is best measured in terms of wins and losses.

Quotable: "Nobody has ever given him anything. That's why I like him. I like those guys that fight and claw for everything they get, and that's what he is. I don't think he's ever going to be settled. It is not something you have to pound into him that, 'Hey, you're not there yet.' Hell, he knows that, but he's wanting to get there. When he gets to that level, he is going to try to get to the next level -- and that is what you want in your quarterback, and that is what you want in your team. That is what you want in every position, but especially your quarterback, because that goes over and flows over into the rest of the locker room." -- Kitchens