We have now officially reached the mid-way point of this NFL season, with 136 of 272 games in the books. There’s been plenty of surprises, when it comes to certain players and teams, some groups have been buried by injuries, while others have risen above those, usual suspects have faced adversity, while a few new teams are trying to prove themselves as contenders. We’ve had several great primetime games and shootouts between exciting teams, and then of course week nine kind of flipped everything on its head, when we had two double-digit underdogs pull off upsets and there were quite a few other head-scratching results.
So now, as I like to do every year, I think is a good time to reflect a little bit and talk about who I think would win all the major NFL awards, if the season ended today. Once again, just like I did when I put together my season predictions before we kicked things off, I will list and discuss my top three candidates for each category, to go with mentioning two or three other players, that deserve consideration. This is not a prediction of what I believe this will look like at the end of the year, but rather my personal opinion, based on numbers and all the tape I watched.
Let’s get into it:
Most Valuable Player:
1. Kyler Murray
I feel like the MVP race has never been as wide open as this year, since I’ve really started following the NFL. The huge gap between playoff contenders and bottom-feeders certainly is a big factor in that, with their quarterbacks playing a major role in their team’s success. So naturally the star of the show for the group with the league’s best record in the 8-1 Cardinals demands the most respect. Coming off a divisional win over the 49ers without Kyler Murray, DeAndre Hopkins and other key figures tells you how good this team is at his base, but that should make us question San Francisco more so than take away from what Kyler has done this year.
He’s top-five among quarterbacks in basically all the typical statistics for the position – yards per attempt, passer rating, total touchdowns and others, but what is the most impressive number to me is his NFL-best 84 percent rate of on-target throws according to Pro-Football-Reference, despite being tied with Tom Brady for the most completions of 25 yards or more (24). And I haven’t even mentioned the threat he presents with his legs, where he has converted on several key third-and-long situations, shaking defenders out of their boots, but also having a sturdier build this season.
He doesn’t run it nearly as much as he did in 2020, but when he needs to, he can still make defenses pay, indicated by the fact he has converted almost exactly a quarter of his carries into first downs (12 of 49), which ranks just outside the top 20 league-wide. And what he’s really improved at is his ability to use the threat he presents in that are to his advantage, moving around and opening up throwing windows routinely. You see it time and time again, where the defense sends up, he finds a lane and actively attacks the line of scrimmage, only to force opponents to move and void areas, for him to fire lasers into.
2. Lamar Jackson
I’m a little confused about how this is still possible, but there are plenty of Lamar haters remaining out there. And while I try to not engage too much with those people, because their criticism is rarely based on facts or doesn’t nearly comprehend some of the challenges the Ravens have faced in the past, trying to develop an effective passing attack around him, hearing those same people say the Ravens “could easily be 2-6 instead of 6-2” kind of makes the point for me. Baltimore has had as much bad injury luck as any other team in the NFL, with their entire running back depth chart knocked out for the year, their left tackle lost after just one game really and so on. However, somehow that electric number eight has made all those issues disappear to some degree, when you look at the results and where this team stands – half a game behind the number-one seeded Titans, who have yet to go on their bye week.
I can bring up all the different milestones he has already achieved as a runner, where he’s now passed Michael Vick for first with 12 games of 100+ yard rushing yards for a quarterback, while needing 70(!) less contests to do so, and how he’s on pace to lead the league in yards per carry for a third straight year, but for the “not bad for a running back” crew out there, let’s focus on the growth he has shown as a passer. He’s basically a full yard ahead of the competition in intended and completed air yards per attempt (taking Zach Wilson’s feast-or-famine stat-line out of the equation) and three of his seven interceptions so far where clearly not on him – one off a flat-out drop, a receiver not stopping off his route and an edge-defenders not being cut by back just this past Sunday.
You go to the tape and you see him work through his progressions with calm feet, having a less-than-impressive group of skill-position players around him I would say, and for the people saying he can’t get it done when the Ravens have to throw it – three of his NFL-leading four fourth-quarter comebacks have come in games, where they were down by double-digits.
3. Matt Stafford
And finally, another name where this feels like a bad moment to praise, coming off his worst game of the season, is Matt Stafford. His numbers certainly took a bump from that one touchdown-verus-two interceptions performance against Tennessee, when he was pressured a season-high 13 times and was fooled by a great deceptive effort by Kevin Byard for a pick-six, but they are still very impressive.
He is second to only Russell Wilson in adjusted yards per attempt (9.2), behind only Tom Brady with his 23 touchdown passes, number one in passing yards (2771), QBR (69.8) and percentage of passes resulting in first downs, among players with 50+ attempts (42.7%). However, the one number that stands above the rest is his EPA (expected points added) per play, where he is far and away atop the list at 0.311 – only seven other guys even cross the 0.2 mark and that number for Stafford is more than twice as high as the league-average, as well 0.48 higher than the guy right behind him (Tom Brady). For some context – the EPA leader has been named MVP at the end of each of the last three years. And I get that the concept of an analytic like that, which measures the efficiency of a player and how it impacts the points scored on a play-to-play basis is a little abstract for casual fans, but it matches what you see on tape.
So maybe the impact he has had on play-calling is a bigger indicator for how much he contributes to L.A.’s success is easier to grasp – Jared Goff easily led the league with play-action action passes (172), while Stafford is dead-average (15th) among quarterbacks this year. And while you may disagree fundamentally with that, the fact the Rams are scoring 5.7 points more per game speaks for itself. Stafford also leads the with ten passes of 40+ yards, while Goff only had six in twice as many games last season, and he’s doing it despite the Rams having just one run of 20+ yards. I personally put some money on him to win the award at +700.
Honorable mentions: Tom Brady & Aaron Rodgers
Offensive Player of the Year:
1. Cooper Kupp
The easy choice here would be to put the runner-up from the MVP race as sort of a consolation price, and that’s what the AP voters opt to do a lot of times, it’s sort of a chance to name the offensive non-quarterback MVP as well. If Derrick Henry was still healthy, he would obviously be right up there among the favorites for the award, since he still leads the league in rushing, for a team that now is the number one seed in the AFC, and that’s why his accomplishments deserve to be mentioned, but I want to focus on the players that are still healthy. Instead I want to talk about the most productive receiver at the mid-way point.
Cooper Kupp is off to a phenomenal start, as he has already passed the 1000-yard mark and until this past week he was right on pace to tie Calvin Johnson’s regular season receiving yardage record, albeit it based on a 17-game schedule – now he’d finish 39 yards short of it, projecting his numbers forward. The next-closest receiver (Deebo Samuel) is currently 137 yards behind Kupp and the Rams standout also leads the league in touchdowns through the air (10). Outside of one “bad” showing against the Cardinals with 64 yards, he has never recorded less than 92 receiving yards. And despite being targeted a league-high 103 times already, Matt Stafford’s passer rating of 123.4 when throwing him the ball is behind only two pass-catchers with 50+ targets – 6’4” D.K. Metcalf and 6’6” Mike Evans, who see a lot of work in the red-zone.
He has picked up the most first downs, has the most air yards and the second-most yards after the catch among all NFL players. Tracking his usage this season has been fun – he can play X, Z, slot and they even put him in the backfield a few times, to create matchup problems for the defense – and Stafford has been looking for him a ton.
2. Lamar Jackson
See write-up above.
3. Kyler Murray
See write-up above.
Honorable mentions: Davante Adams & Derrick Henry
Defensive Player of the Year:
1. Myles Garrett
To be honest, I’ll be kind of mad if Garrett wins the award this year, considering I had some money on him to do it last year, in part because of the “revenge” narrative and how hard he clearly worked on his game after the Mason Rudolph-meets-helmet incident, and he seemed like the favorite until having to miss a couple of games with COVID and never looking the same after that. He’s on an even better pace this season I would say however.
Now mid-way through his fifth year in the NFL – and having improved every single step of the way I would say – he currently leads the league with 12 sacks, is tied for first (with Harold Landry) with 36 total pressures and tackles for loss with 12 (along with Nick Bosa and Haason Reddick). He’s been consistently dominant, which also reflects on the stat sheet, since he’s only had one game, where he didn’t record at least half a sack, which weirdly came against the Texans – a matchup in which he’d be expected to feast usually. Other than that, Garrett has really exposed offensive lines, who haven’t had a clear plan for him and asked sub-par blockers to handle him, which was on display especially when he ran through the face of Minnesota’s Rashod Hill time and time again earlier this season, and Pittsburgh rookie tackle Dan Moore Jr., who earned a PFF rating of 0.0 against the Browns superstar, who was their Defensive Year of the Week simultaneously, in week eight.
Garrett’s impact is also felt among his teammates, as Jadeveon Clowney is finally having a bounce-back season, ranking inside the top 20 with – incidentally – 20 pressures, thanks to rarely reaching extra attention. Garrett has yet to force a fumble, but him setting the edge is a big factor in Cleveland having the second-best run defense in yards per carry (3.5) and with the way defensive coordinator Joe Woods moves him around on passing downs, he forces opponents to adjust their protection schemes and compromise in other areas constantly.
2. Trevon Diggs
The fact this guy hasn’t been on the highlight reel these last two weeks – other than on the wrong end of it on a couple plays against Denver most recently – has kind of made his name disappear on social media and stuff, but Trevon Diggs could see have a season for the ages in terms of statistical accomplishments. The second-year Cowboys corner, who I had listed as one of my biggest breakout candidates for 2021, is still two clear of the next-closest player with seven interceptions on the year, of which he took one to the house against the Eagles and Patriots respectively, to kind of seal the Monday Night win against their division-rivals early on and then give his team a spark up in New England, before they ultimately won in overtime, along with also being tied for first with 12 more passes broken up.
And while he’s been responsible for 377 receiving yards (20th-most in the league) and it’s tough to equate the value of a takeaway in comparison to the yardage surrendered, I would think that is still easily a positive ratio, and by far the worst play he’s been charged with – a 75-yard touchdown to Kendrick Bourne, right after his pick-six against the Patriots – I would clearly argue the safety capped over the top was responsible to make that play and Diggs correctly played trail technique, to avoid friendly fire, as the teammates could have otherwise had a collision and see Bourne draw a flag or run away from them anyway. Diggs’s completion percentage surrendered of 51.0% is the tenth-lowest among defenders, who have been targeted 30+ times this season.
So while we’ve seen teams target him in one-on-one coverage on the backside at times, his speed to stay in phase on vertical routes, confidently turns his head around to find the ball and play the catch-point with the mind-set of a wide receiver still should make quarterbacks hesitant to actively throw at him, if they don’t have a clear advantage due to a alignment or specific route patterns, because he can make them pay and flip the momentum in a hurry.
3. T.J. Watt
There’s a strong argument to be made here for Watt to be number two on the list, because his per-game numbers are right on par or even better than Myles Garrett’s, but the historical pace Trevon Diggs is on I thought deserved recognition and this just is a really strong top-three. You can certainly argue T.J. should have taken home the award last season already, when he led the league by 1.5 sacks (15 total), by six tackles for loss (23 total) and blew away the competition 61 total pressures (16 more than any other player), as great as Aaron Donald might have been.
Now moving ahead to 2021, Watt is currently only half a sack behind Myles Garrett’s 12 and tied for fifth with 27 total pressures, despite having played two fewer games than the guys ahead of him (seven). His 11 TFLs might be even more impressive, since he’s only one behind a trio at the top, if you consider the discrepancy in chances he’s had. Watt has also added three forced fumbles and four passes batted down at the line to this stat sheet. The Denver matchup was the only one, where he was held “sack-less” and he still pressured Teddy Bridgewater four times that day, contributing to a Steelers win.
His team currently sits at 5-3, having won four straight, in large part to their defense, since their quarterback has been one of dynamic “play-makers” in the league (bottom-four in both intended air yards and yards to the sticks) and their run-game is still bottom-five in total yardage and per-attempt-based. You can look at different instances, where Watt was the key to securing those Ws, like when he completely took over the Seattle game, with a couple of sacks and a game-winning tomahawk chop from behind on their quarterback Geno Smith, when it looked he was about to hit a crease up the middle for a first down. This guy is a game-wrecker and he’s been doing it without his former partner in crime Bud Dupree rushing off the opposite edge, until this year.
Honorable mentions: Demario Davis & Harold Landry
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Ja’Marr Chase
Before, I get into statistics or details about Chase’s game, let me first say that I can’t believe I let myself get taken off track by preseason drops and training camp reports to some degree when it comes to this player and me not quite having him in my top three for this award before the season kicked off. He was my number three overall prospect and top pass-catcher, ahead of even Falcons emerging superstar tight-end Kyle Pitts, who was second on most people’s big boards.
His sophomore season at LSU was one for the ages, considering he was the productive and dangerous weapon for arguably the greatest offense in college football history, which featured the current record holder for receiving yards by a rookie in the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson. He has transitioned flawlessly to the next level, as he has currently third in the entire league with 835 yards through the air, behind only Cooper Kupp and Deebo Samuel. If you take the two Raiders receivers out of the equation, which neither has caught at least 25 passes on the year, Chase leads the rest of the NFL with 19.0 yards per grab, he’s tied for fourth with seven touchdowns and tied for second with 14 catches of 20+ yards.
It all starts with Chase’s incredible burst off the line, to force DBs to play on their heels. We’ve seen him be able to run by guys down the sideline or get a step on them towards the post, but it’s about what he can do off that, getting opponents turned the wrong way and creating that separation, which we’ve seen on full display against All-Pro corners like Baltimore’s Marlon Humphrey for example, plus when the ball is in his hands, he can kick it into another gear and run through arm tackles. Add to that his incredibly strong hands to hold onto the ball through contact or beat guys right there at the point of the catch and you get somebody who’s playing like a top five receiver in the entire league from year one.
2. Kyle Pitts
Before we get into this name, let’s just set the table here a little bit for what people can expect from rookie tight-ends. Over the last three years, the leaders in that category were Mark Andrews with 552 yards in 2018, then Noah Fant with 562 and finally Cole Kmet with just 243 last season. Right now, Kyle Pitts is behind only Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews among all tight-ends with 546 receiving yards on the year, and that is with his bye week already in the books. That means if he catches one more pass for 17 yards, he’s already outproduced all them. But hat this kid is doing is much more historically significant than compared to the recent names.
Pitts is currently on track to become just the second player at the position to crack the 1000-yard mark in NFL history, after Mike Ditka did so 60(!) years ago now, and Pitts would actually break the Bears legend’s record based on a 16-game season. And going back to today’s NFL, the only tight-end to average more than 15.2 yards per catch is the Browns’ David Njoku, who hasn’t caught 30 passes yet, and that is largely affected by a 71-yard touchdown he had. Pitts has turned exactly two thirds of his receptions (24 of 36) into first downs (tied with Kelce for third at the position) and he’s tied for seventh among all players with 11 grabs of 20+ yards (first for TEs).
And as much as I talked about his accomplishments in comparison to his peers, the Falcons have figured out that this is a special weapon, rather than somebody who should limit to just playing in-line. Arthur Smith is putting him at pretty much every eligible receiver spot, often times truly as the X in trips formations, where his one-on-one matchup as the single receiver creates major issues for the defense. His size makes him a problem on slant-routes, when he crosses the face of corners, but he can of course also make big-time catches on throws into crowded windows downfield.
3. Mac Jones
Playing quarterback in the NFL as a rookie isn’t easy. We always want to get those young guys out there and as long as your starter doesn’t give you a legitimate shot at making noise in the playoffs, I’m in favor of doing so, as long as they are ready to protect themselves to some degree. Mac Jones was never as flashy as the top four guys drafted and I had him behind those guys myself, considering the difference in pure physical talent, but you can’t deny what he has put on the field. He ranks ninth with a completion percentage of 68.0%, he is tied for seventh with 31 completions of 20+ yards and the most impressive one to me – only Dak Prescott and Patrick Mahomes have converted a higher percentage of third-and-seven or less than Jones’ 61.4%. And really, all his numbers look a lot better if you take his one-touchdown and three-interceptions performance against the Saints, who just made Tom Brady look pretty mediocre himself.
And I get it – wins are not a real quarterback statistic, but don’t let the fact that the Patriots are sitting at 5-and-4 right now go unnoticed, considering the five other quarterbacks to have started a game this season are a combined 5-and-23, even if the Texans’ Davis Mills going 0-for-6 certainly doesn’t help the cause. So while you may say New England was the best landing spot from a franchise structure and especially coaching standpoint, the difference between Jones and the rest of the bunch has been remarkable. Plus, while I would say he has had the best protection in front of him, outside of maybe Trey Lance in his one start, you could argue he has the weakest group if pass-catchers, when you consider Jakobi Meyers is his number one receiver.
Jones has been meticulous in his recognition of defenses and carved them up with a bunch of paper-cuts, but then has also hit on more big throws down the field than people think. Plus, while he’s not a dynamic runner, if you leave the space in front of him wide open, he will take advantage of it, indicated by 11 of his 19 carries resulting in first downs. He’s just been playing winning football and managed games extremely well, being able to step on the gas, but also realize when to not force the issue.
Honorable mentions: Najee Harris & DeVonta Smith
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Micah Parsons
This was the easiest choice of the entire list and the betting markets reflect that, where Micah Parsons is currently -120 to be named Defensive Rookie of the year and three guys closest to him are all +1000 – I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen such a discrepancy for any win an award at the mid-point of a season. The storylines was all set up for him – the Cowboys defense was coming off a horrific 2020 season, now picking an uber-talented Penn State linebacker 12th overall, despite having two former top-35 selections at the position already, who have played a high level in the past, looking to turn this thing around. Parsons was my LB1 heading into the draft in April and I thought his potential was sky-high, but I wasn’t quite sure how quickly it would translate for him, because he had only played off the ball for two years in college, after converting as one of the highest-graded defensive end recruits in the country, and there was some talk about teams evaluating him as an edge player and so.
Well, whether they’ve stacked him over the guard, put him around the line as a creeper or played him as a true D-end, going back to his high school days, he has been an impact-player at every single spot and in any given role. Right now, Parsons is first in several key categories for rookies – 10 tackles for loss (also fifth-most in the entire league), total pressures (18) and quarterback hits (14), while being second to only the Chiefs’ Nick Bolton with 38 solo tackles and only half a sack behind the Giants’ Azeez Ojulari with five. He is missing just over ten percent of his tackling attempts (10.3%), but putting that into some historical significance, the first linebackers drafted of the last three years – Roquan Smith, Devin White and Isaiah Simmons – were all between the 8.5 and 11.7% range and their impact on those units weren’t felt nearly as much – while also being drafted slightly ahead of Parsons.
What I was worried about this rookie was his play in coverage, because he was utilized so much as a pressure player on passing downs in college and that’s still where he can contribute best, but he’s been responsible for a passer rating below 90 and held receivers to just 6.2 yards per target against him, which are actually slightly better numbers than what I consider the best coverage LB in the 49ers’ Fred Warner.
2. Asante Samuel Jr.
Just like I had him in my pre-season award predictions, this young man finds himself at number two in this race. The son of former Eagles and Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samul (Sr.), the highly-recruited Junior already stood out with his ability to break on the ball and take it away from the offense, while never backing down from anybody despite his 5’10”, 180-pound frame. When he was selected in the second round in late April I said he was a perfect fit for Brandon Staley’s two-high safety based defense as their field-side corner and that’s why I had high hopes for him right away. At this mid-way point, he is one of only three rookies, along with the Saints’ Paulson Adebo and the Broncos’ Caden Sterns with multiple interceptions (all at two), while also only trailing another Denver defensive back on the outside in Patrick Surtain II with his five pass break-ups.
When you look at the numbers, there’s two negative things that really stand out – he’s missed six tackles on 29 attempts and he’s been responsible for three touchdowns. However, while the tackling has to improve, even though I’ve never thought competitive toughness was an issue for Samuel (quite the opposite actually), all three of those TDs were questionable to charge him with – at Baltimore, he ended up as the closest defender against Mark Andrews on a crossing route, where he had a curl in front of him and really never had a chance to challenge the throw from the backside, for some reason he was charged for another one versus the Browns, where the safety actually tried to be deceptive with rolling down late into the flats and Samuel had to carry a receiver in cover-three, and the only one you can somewhat hold him accountable for against the Raiders, he had outside leverage against Hunter Renfrow from a bunch set, who ultimately beat him towards the middle on the fourth break of his route, where the slot defender panicked late and vacated his area in sort of a match-zone near the goal-line I would call it – that one’s actually hilarious to watch.
So really, I would say he’s given up like half a touchdown, the longest completion against him was worth 26 yards (only one of 20+ as far as I can tell) and while he’s had two long pass interference calls against him, worth a combined 80 yards, other than that he hasn’t been flagged once this season. That’s pretty darn impressive, considering how tough it is for rookies out near the sideline.
3. Azeez Ojulari
There’s certainly a bit of a drop-off from one to two and then the rest of the field, but that should not take away what this former Georgia edge defender has done so far in the big apple. Azeez Ojulari was my EDGE3 and 20th overall prospect, because I loved his ability to defeat the hands of blockers and corner his rushes towards the quarterback, while playing the run a lot tougher than most sub-250 pound outside backers, routinely banging into pulling guards and creating chaos in the backfield. However, NFL evaluators dropped him down the board to some degree due to lacking some size and being called sort of a one-trick pony in the pass-rush department, which led to him dropping to the middle of the second round.
Now nine games into his pro career, he ranks first among rookies and tied for 19th league-wide with 5.5 sacks on the year, while only Micah Parsons and the Ravens’ Odafe Oweh have more than his 13 total pressures and being second – once again to Parsons – with six tackles for loss. And when you compare his numbers to the rest of his team, they become even more impressive, considering the load he’s been asked to shoulder, as he’s tied with Leonard Williams for the most sacks, only two behind him in the pressure department, while also being tied for first with Austin Johnson in TFLs. And that’s all despite not having been on the field for at least two thirds of the snaps until these last three weeks.
Big Blue has a lot of big bodies up front, who can cover up running lanes and push the pocket, but Ojulari gives them a real speed-ball off the edge. You see him in a lot more wide alignments, where he stresses tackles with his burst off the snap and then times up his well-known stab-to-chop maneuver to clear the blocker’s hips, while being able to circle back around if he’s too far upfield. What I think he’s improved at is reading the drop of the quarterback and adjusting if he steps up, as well as freeing himself of the tackle’s reach if he finds himself in a statement, to go with flashing a few times by back-dooring his blocker on the front-side of wide zone runs for negative plays.
Honorable mentions: Patrick Surtain II, Gregory Rosseau & Odafe Oweh
Comeback Player of the Year:
1. Dak Prescott
Well, I had to go here. Dak was the overwhelming favorite to win this award before the season started and when I put out my predictions, I mentioned that I wouldn’t focus on him or the other quarterback I’ll talk about here in a second, but as long as the Cowboys made the playoffs, I thought this was an obvious choice, especially with how everything went down last year, seeing him break his foot in horrifying fashion and all the emotions when we was carted off the field. This is far from a feel-good story however, because if you take this most recent game against the Broncos out of the equation, when he was clearly not himself with the bad calf I would say – not that he didn’t make some bad decisions as well – you could argue he has played as well as any other quarterback in the league.
Dallas runs one of the most balanced offenses out there, but Dak is still fifth in passing yards (292.1) and second in passing touchdowns per game (2.57). He currently ranks third in yards to the sticks, throwing the ball 0.3 yards beyond the marker, and as I mentioned quickly in the Rookie of the Year write-up for Mac Jones, he’s second to only Patrick Mahomes, converting 63.4 percent of third-and-seven or less situations. Football Outsiders also has him number one among quarterbacks in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).
You put on the tape and you see the Cowboys do a bunch of different stuff under Kellen Moore. Dak orchestrates the quick game when they spread the defense out, he can strike off heavy play-action when they go 12 personnel, he moves safeties off the spot and drills balls into windows, before the ancillary coverage can disrupt the catch point. He can spread it around, with eight players having 90+ yards receiving, which is why they are one of only three times to score at least 30 points per game, and if they have to put it on him, like they did at New England, he can get the job done, with two game-winning drives to his resume.
2. Deebo Samuel
I don’t think anybody outside of San Francisco realizes, that this guy is second in the league right now in total receiving yards with 882. He’s largely an extension or incorporated piece of their run game, with plenty of glance routes off RPOs, jet sweeps and some screens, because once the ball is in his hands, he turns into a running back. He leads the NFL with 463 yards after the catch, he’s tied for first among wide receivers with seven broken tackles and there are only two other players in the top 50 in receiving have gained more yards AFTER than before the catch – and one of them is Cordarelle Patterson, who is listed as a running back and does a lot of his damage out of the backfield.
He does lead the league with ten drops (three more than the next-closest player), but he also makes a bunch of tough catches, where the hit is right there and shows no breath of fear. And while a lot of production comes on YAC opportunities, he is still tied for third with 13 grabs for 20+ yards, where he shows the juice on deep in-breaking routes to cross the field and run away from defenders. However, the one number I think is most impressive about what Deebo has done is that he has accounted for just over 30 percent of San Francisco’s offensive yardage total. The only player to surpass that is Derrick Henry for the Titans – and he has touched the ball 188(!) times more than him.
Considering how he was in and out of the lineup last year, after a really good rookie season, and how many people expected the “other” 49ers receiver Brandon Aiyuk to break out in a major way, I think he matches the profile of the skill-position players to finish near the top among vote-getters. He probably won’t be up there at the end of the year, but with what he has done, he’s absolutely earned my respect.
3. Carson Wentz
This is probably a name that excites a lot fewer people than the first two, but give the man credit! After an MVP-level season in 2017, Carson Wentz had a lackluster follow-up campaign, before bouncing back and carrying a banged up Eagles team to a Wildcard berth in ’19. However, last season he was a crazy turnover-machine in Philadelphia, when he was tied for a league-high 15 interceptions and was tied for first with ten total fumbles, despite appearing in only 12 games. So far this season, he has completely turned things around in that department.
Wentz is tied for the third-best touchdown-to-interception in the league, right on par with Aaron Rodgers at 17-to-3. And he is behind only Kirk Cousins with 1 percent of his passes resulting in a pick, while being top-ten in touchdown percentage (5.7%), and his five fumbles on the season were barely above-average league-wide. For the people believing he’s playing behind a great offensive line, don’t let the fact only six other quarterbacks have been pressured at a higher rate go unnoticed, and while their two second-round picks from a year ago (Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor) have been the stars of the show offensively, veteran T.Y. Hilton is actually four yards shy of being one of eight players on this unit with 100+ receiving yards. Outside of a couple of two or three bad moments, Wentz has been running the show effectively, while delivering on the move off play-action, putting the ball in stride on vertical shots and avoiding pressure, which he’s been under on just over a quarter of his dropbacks.
And I know the five losses on Indy’s record don’t look great, but just look at who they were to – a Russell Wilson-led Seahawks team in weak one, where he and Tyler Lockett carved up the Colts secondary, a three-point defeat to the 7-2 Rams, a furious comeback loss to the 6-2 Ravens and twice to the 7-2 Titans, with the latter coming in overtime. They’ve had a tough first-half stretch and things aren’t going to get a whole lot easier, due to some pretty unlucky draws, but the fact this team even has a chance to fight their way into a Wildcard spot has a lot to do with their new quarterback, because their defense is dead-average, allowing 23.7 points per game.
Honorable mentions: Joe Burrow & Austin Ekeler
Coach of the Year:
1. John Harbaugh
Awards like this are often without much thought behind them, but rather about honoring the coaches of the teams with the best record, which often times is the right choice anyway, but to me it’s more about the obstacles these head-men had to overcome, the way they get their squad to be ready on a weekly basis and how they’ve affected their success. From an injury-perspective, no other team has had to deal with more “bad breaks” than Baltimore, as they lead the NFL with 29 players that are or have been on injured reserve, which includes their entire three-headed backfield heading into the season, a Pro Bowl corner in Marcus Peters, All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley and two inside linebackers. A key contributor to their run-blocking in Nick Boyle is only just coming back, first-round receiver Rashod Bateman got his first regular season action two weeks ago and now they just put starting safety DeShon Elliott on IR as well. And yet, they are just half a game behind Tennessee for the AFC’s top seed, sitting at 6-2.
As I already discussed, Lamar Jackson going supernova has been a large factor in sustaining offensive success, when they haven’t been able to gash defenses in the run game, even though they’re now back to being first in the league with 161.6 rushing yards per game, but I give John Harbaugh a lot of credit here as well for complementing offensive coordinator with one of the best wide receiver coaches in Tee Martin, who has helped develop this Ravens dropback pass-game. Defensively, Wink Martindale still wants to bring pressure and play in-your-face man-coverage, but we’ve seen Baltimore adapt for certain matchups and test the patience of quarterbacks with soft zone shells as well. Special teams were an issue last week again Minnesota, when they allowed a fourth-down conversion on a punt fake and a 98-yard kick return touchdown, but they lead the league with 16.7 yards per punt return and Harbaugh’s willingness to leave the offense on the field on fourth downs when the analytics say it’s the right choice have paid off once again, going 7-of-11 in those situations.
I know it’s a coaching cliché, but the Ravens have really stayed the course with that next-man up mentality, they are tough and they’ve shown a lot of growth as a team, with three separate comebacks by double-digits, indicated by winning by just over a field goal on average (3.3 points), as they are top-four in both red-zone offense and defense, but being right there in the race for the AFC’s top seed.
2. Kliff Kingsbury
Alright, this was the obvious one and it had to be here on the list, even if some people still question Kliff Kingsbury. Like I mentioned, being on the team that has won the most at the end of the year often determines the winner of this award, but storylines and expectations coming into the season are a big factor as well – here the two sides of it come together. The Cardinals had a win-and-get-in opportunity against their division rivals in the Rams in week 17 last year, but despite facing L.A.’s backup quarterback John Wolford, they lost by double-digits, in large part because their starter in Kyler Murray was lost on the first series of the day himself. They did add former veteran Pro Bowlers like J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and James Conner, but they also lost their leader rusher and sack-man from a year ago in the offseason.
Now in Kingsbury’s third season in the desert, Arizona owns the league’s best record at 8-1, already having defeated three teams that now are right behind them with 7-2 records in the Titans, Rams and Packers. However, their most impressive victory might have come this past Sunday at San Francisco, when they were without my pick for league MVP in Kyler Murray, their top receiver DeAndre Hopkins, leading rusher Chase Edmonds and still a valuable contributor on defense in J.J. Watt. Yet, they still beat their division rivals by two touchdowns and once they got up by that much, it was only closer than that for about two minutes of game-action. The Cardinals are currently second points scored per game (30.8) and third in points surrendered (17.3). Only one other team is in the single-digits as both those categories go – the Bills.
As far as the offense goes specifically, where Kingsbury is calling the shots, Kyler off course is a human get-out-of-jail-for-free card, but I’ve seen improvement in their play-design, stretching defenses horizontally and vertically more s and often times creating chances for his play-makers to be in one-on-one tackling situations, like having all four receivers go towards one side of the field and flaring out the back the other way, like that conversion on third-and-18 by James Conner this past Sunday. This is still a lot about the players, but their head coach has done a good job of incorporation veterans into a young core of players and managing all those personalities.
3. Mike Vrabel
If we take a step back and think about where we ranked the Titans coming into the year, I think the addition of Julio Jones, alongside A.J. Brown, with Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill in the backfield, put them in front of the AFC South, even for the biggest Carson Wentz believers, with him going to Indy. Still, I had them as team number 12 in my pre-season power rankings, in large part due to some of the depth issues and questions about their defensive, particularly on the back-end. And to be fair, early on it looked like those concerns were spot on, as they got blown out at the home in the season-opener by Arizona – at which point we didn’t look at those guys as serious contenders – then needed a double-digit comeback at Seattle, before taking advantage of a banged up Colts team to move to 2-1. When they handed the Jets their first win of the season in overtime a week later however, the feeling around them was at an all-time yet.
Yet, after their eyebrow-raising .500 start over the first month of the season, they have now won five straight, including the then-number one seeded Bills, hammering the Chiefs 27-3 at Arrowhead, completing the series-sweep over the Colts thanks to a comeback that led to OT and most impressively – this past Sunday Night, a 12-point victory over what I had recently declared the best team in football in the Rams, despite having just Derrick Henry to injured reserve. The Titans are tied for fifth with 24 total players that have been on IR at some point, but as of this moment, the AFC would run through Tennessee.
The offense has been less efficient without Arthur Smith’s feel for the game and appropriate play-calling, but somehow they have still scored the fourth-most points in the league (255) and it’s been their defense that has seen a dramatic turnaround. They are playing with so much more energy up front, running delayed stunts and having everybody keep working to put heat on opposing quarterbacks, with four straight weeks of 3+ sacks against some of the best at avoiding those. And they’ve done a great job of not letting an inexperienced secondary hurt them, as they’ve molded them into understand how to pass on receivers in zone coverage and having guys jump on certain keys. Mike Vrabel’s attitude and ability to teach have been huge in that progression.
Honorable mentions: Matt LaFleur & Sean Payton