By DJ Harding
For the 21st year of their 22-year tenure as the official soft drink of the NFL, Pepsi is awarding a Pepsi Zero Sugar Rookie of the Year after giving weekly honors throughout the year. The winner will be announced during Super Bowl week in Arizona and presented with a special designed Pepsi Zero Sugar themed trophy. The six nominees were chosen from the weekly ballots for the rookie of the week, which fans voted on. Now, a little about the 6 finalists.
Sauce Gardner, Cornerback New York Jets
Sauce Gardner was the number 4th pick and went to the New York Jets. The former University of Cincinnati Cornerback led the NFL in passes defended with 20, which is most by a rookie since 2015. Gardner also became the first player since 2000 to record a pass defended in their first seven career games. Sauce was one of two players this season with 75 tackles and 15 passes defended and only one of four to record a pass defense in 12 or more games this season.
Aidan Hutchinson, Defensive Lineman Detroit Lions.
The Michigan Lineman was chosen by Detroit with the number two overall pick and led all rookies in sacks with nine and a half sacks. Hutchinson also had three interceptions, making him the first rookie since 1982 when sacks began being officially recorded to have at least nine sacks and three interceptions. Aiden also had two fumble recoveries making one of four people to have at least nine sacks, three interceptions, and two fumble recoveries joining Hall of Famer Richard Dent (1990), Joey Porter (2002), and Otis Wilson (1990)
Chris Olave, Wide Receiver New Orleans Saints
Chris Olave was drafted by New Orleans with the number 11th pick and became the third saints rookie to ever record 1,000 yards in a season joining Marques Colston (2006) and Micheal Thomas (2016). The former Ohio State receiver had 69.5 receiving yards per game leading all rookies, Olave was also second in yards (1,042) and receptions(72). Olave also led all rookies with 12 games of 50 or more yards this season, only trailing Micheal Clayton (14 games in 2004) and Terry Glenn (13 games in 1996).
Garrett Wilson, Receiver New York Jets
Garett Wilson is from Ohio State and teammates with fellow nominee Chris Olave. Wilson was drafted one spot before Olave at 10th overall. Wilson set rookie franchise records with 1,103 receiving yards and 83 receptions, which also led all rookies this season. He also had the most games with at least 75 receiving yards among rookies with 8, also one of two rookies with 2 or more receiving touchdowns in more than one game.
Kenneth Walker, Running Back Seattle Seahawks
Kenneth Walker was picked by Seattle at 41st overall. The Michigan State alumni led all rookies in Scrimmage Yards (1,215), Rushing Yards (1,050), and Rushing Touchdowns (9). Walker became the second Seattle rookie to gain 1,000 rushing yards in a season, joining Curt Warner (1,449 in 1983). Kenneth also had 5 100 yard rushing games the most since Saquon Barkley in 2018 when he had 6.
Tariq Woolen, Cornerback Seattle Seahawks
Tariq Woolen was the latest draft pick out of all the nominees drafted in the 5th round coming out of UTSA. Woolen was tied for the league lead in interceptions, with 6, including one returned for a touchdown. Tariq was tied for second in fumble recoveries with three and tied for fourth in passes defended with 16. In weeks 3-6, he became the third rookie since 2000 to have 4 consecutive games with an interception joining Jarius Byrd (2009) and Joe Hden (2010). In those last 2 weeks 5 and 6, he became the first rookie with back to back games with an interception and a fumble recovery. Woolen also became the first rookie since 2016 when Marcus Peters did it to have at least 6 interceptions and three fumble recoveries in a season.
Overall, the Jets and Seahawks both have one defensive rookie and one offensive rookie on the ballot. Also, 5 of the 6 rookies, Chris Olave being the odd man out, are up for the NFL Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year awards at the NFL Honors.