We have reached the halfway mark of the 2018 NFL season and we have seen a ton of different action. There have had positive surprises, such as the emergences of guys like James Conner and some of the game’s biggest stars returning from injury, disappointing teams like the Raiders and Giants as well as those up-and-down rides we have watched in Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Browns. With that being said, there have been some players, coaches and teams that have really stood out so far and it’s time to point out the most apparent ones, by telling you who I think should win the major NFL awards if the season ended today.
A couple of weeks into the NFL season, I did an in-depth analysis on the Chiefs young signal-caller and pointed out why I was wrong on him coming into the draft one-and-a-half years ago. While I knew he had all the arm talent and athleticism you want to see, it’s been Mahomes’ intelligence and ability to process information quickly that has left me speechless. Through the first eight games of this season he is leading the league in passing yards, touchdowns (26) and he is second in both 20+ yard and 40+ yard completions. He has thrown for at least 300 yards in every single week since the season-opener, when his team put up 38 points anyway and he tossed four TDs. To be a gunslinger like him and having turned the ball over just six times is unbelievable. He diagnoses coverages pre-snap and then adjusts mid-play so well that you don’t ever feel like he’s a first-year starter. Mahomes is under full control in this Chiefs offense and other than the New England game I haven’t felt like he was ever really fooled and he came back in the second half to almost pull it off in an epic 43-40 battle. There are playmakers all over the field for Kansas City and not only does Andy Reid find a way to get them all involved, they also have the right guy to get the ball to them. At this moment Mahomes is the most dangerous quarterback in the game. He can beat defenses from within the pocket, but even more so when he extends plays. There is never a moment where you should feel safe that he won’t go over the top, but at the same time he understands when the ball needs to go underneath. The Chiefs defense is second to last in total yards allowed and they are still outscoring the opposition by more than 10 a game because of what the quarterback does.
Also considered: Todd Gurley, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers
Defensive Player of the Year:
I believe there are a few really deserving candidates for this award, but I just don’t know how you can go against the reigning award winner. Aaron Donald leads the league with ten sacks for a negative 87 yards, which is 28 more than the next-closest, meaning he beats the guy in front of him clean and takes the quarterback down at the top of his dropback for the most part instead of one of his teammates moving the QB off the spot and the Rams’ D-tackle cleaning up. Donald is also tops in tackles for loss with 12 as well as total pressures with 54 and once again has Pro Football Focus’ highest grade of any player in football. What is scary about all of this is the fact he is only getting started. Through the first three weeks he didn’t record a single sack and just one quarterback hit. He has done all that damage over the next five matchups and he has been a thorn in the eyes of every signal-caller he has faced. When he is in one-on-one situations with a blocker, whether that is in the run or pass game, he exposes that guy and makes the offense pay every single time. He can win with power, quickness and arm technique to make that opponent whiff and either get into the quarterback’s face or go backdoor against running plays. When O-lines slide his way, he singles up his teammates, like Ndamokung Suh who they like to rush off the opposing edge. My favorite play of him came on a zone-play to his side, where he stood up the blocker and forced the running back to cut inside, but then pulled himself back into that gap, punched the ball out and recovered it immediately. He does superhuman stuff in his highlight package, but what you see in terms of him influencing the game on a consistent basis in the All-22 is even better.
Also considered: J.J. Watt, Khalil Mack, D.J. Swearinger
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
I would like to give you a different answer here than the first-round pick of a 1-7 team, but Saquon simply has been too amazing as an individual player and displayed why I had him as my number one overall prospect in the draft. Through the first eight games of the year, he is just three receiving yards short of being on pace for a 1000 / 1000 season, meaning he might become the third player ever to reach the thousand yard mark through the air and on the ground. This feat is even more impressive when you consider the circumstances he is in. A couple of weeks ago I had Eli Manning ranked as the worst starter in the entire league and their offense has been stagnant in most of their games, because of the inability and seemingly unwillingness to push the ball down the field for large portions of the games. Without that threat of the vertical passing game combined with the sub-par performance of the Giants offensive line, Saquon rarely has gotten through the line with any sort of daylight. He has been bottled up for large portions of their games or even met in the backfield before exploding for big plays. He is now tied for first among all NFL players with seven runs of 20+ yards and three of 40+ yards. In the passing game he is also tied for fourth with 48 catches because Eli checks it down to him constantly and for the most part he has had to completely stop for the ball and then redirect to make something out of nothing. With that being said, his jump-cuts to even skip gaps and avoid defenders that have him dead to rights by leveraging technically correctly is unique, he consistently makes the first defender miss in the open field and when he has a full head of steam, he is incredibly tough to bring down, especially because nobody can square him up in that situation.
Also considered: Kerryon Johnson, Calvin Ridley, Philip Lindsay
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
This was a tough one to pick, because there are at least three incredibly worthy candidates. All of them might make the Pro Bowl this year and probably several times going forward. With that being said, my choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year is Colts linebacker Darius Leonard. As Matt Eberflus took over the duties of DC in Indianapolis and changed to a 4-3 front, he needed that sideline-to-sideline linebacker and that guy arrived when the front office selected this young man out of South Carolina State. I liked Leonard a lot coming into the draft, but even I was surprised to see the Colts select the small-school standout early in the second round. Right now this looks more like a steal than a reach. Leonard leads the entire league with 88 tackles, with nine of those going for a loss. He also has recorded four sacks, forced three fumbles and recovered another two. He is a see ball – get ball type player and when his eyes tell him something he is gone. The rookie LB beats people to the spot and positions himself the right way. He is not afraid of taking on blockers, doesn’t miss any tackles and goes after the ball when he has a chance to. He uses the tomahawk chop when he comes in from behind and just last Sunday sealed their victory over the Raider by punching the ball out of Doug Martin’s hands. Leonard is an absolute screen killer, who shoots through offensive linemen and if he doesn’t make the play himself, he occupies blockers to set up his teammates to clean up. In coverage he can get depth to pass on seam routes as well as showing the pursuit and closing speed to shut down any possibility to create yardage after the catch on shallow crossers or swing routes. This dude is special. He makes an impact all over the field.
Also considered: Derwin James, Denzel Ward, Jessie Bates, Da’Ron Payne, Donte Jackson
Coach of the Year:
Once again, there were some guys who absolutely deserved to be in the conversation for this award, including two veteran coaches whose teams have just one loss themselves, but when you call the shots for the only undefeated squad in the NFL, you get the nod. Sean McVay won this trophy last year already as a rookie coach, but this season with all the additions they have made in the offseason, this team has to be the Super Bowl favorite right now. Of course you can’t accomplish all of this without an excellent staff around him, as McVay has outstanding veteran defensive and special teams coordinators in Wade Phillips and John Fassel, but let’s focus more on the head coach and his work with the offense here. Right now the Rams are third in the league in points per game, but to me this is the most well-rounded unit with the best all-around playcalling in the NFL. By far their lowest-scoring game came at Denver where they were held to 23 and when you consider that Todd Gurley could have walked into the end-zone last Sunday versus the Packers, but decided to go down in bounds instead, they have reached the 30-point mark in all but that one game. While Andy Reid’s offense might be the most confusing for defenses with all those different formations and motions and Sean Payton might have a better screen and deep shot game, McVay’s offense is the most balanced and consistent one to me. The way he strings plays together and runs a multitude of different plays out of the same looks is incredible. They are top five in total points, yards, 20+ yard plays and least amount of turnovers, but with all those fireworks you see you forget that they also are the league’s number one rushing offense.
Also considered: Andy Reid, Sean Payton, Ron Rivera
Comeback Player of the Year:
When I did my season predictions before the opening game, I said that there would be multiple candidates with huge names, but none would be more apparent than a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who had played just eight games over the last two years. J.J. Watt is back. The Texans defensive lineman started the year a little slow for his standards, but when you consider what he has gone through to get back to his usual self since first going under the knife it is all the more fulfilling to see one of the game’s biggest stars return to form. Despite limited numbers in the first two games of the season, Watt is now tied for second in sacks with eight and first with four fumbles forced. He is also top five in quarterback hits and tackles for loss. With that being said, his impact goes far beyond numbers. All you have to do is compare games. First watch the season-opener versus New England, when he wasn’t even up to speed but Belichick has never allowed Watt to wreck the game and always has given him extra attention. The few times he did face single-blocking he was in Brady’s face. Then you look at the Giants game when he Big Blue decided they would leave Watt one-on-one with former undrafted free agent Chad Wheeler and Houston’s defensive end made that guy look like he wasn’t even an NFL player. So what do I mean when I see J.J. is back? The quickness off the line is back, as he can go backdoor against running plays and create negative yardage as well as beat tackles off the snap and get the edge immediately as a pass-rusher. His power is back to ride offensive linemen back into the quarterback’s lap. And the motor is back to keep working and make an impact when other guys would already think about the next play.
Also considered: Andrew Luck, Adrian Peterson, Odell Beckham Jr.