We have made it through the first eight weeks of the 2020 season and it’s time to hand out some trophies (not literally of course, since we have to wait until the year is over). I already did this when I predicted the entire season about a week before we kicked things off and a lot of the candidates I mentioned back then, you will here again, but at the same time, some guys have kind of come out of nowhere. For some of these categories, three names were enough, while for a few others I mentioned two more notables. So who have been my MVP, Defensive Player and Coach of the Year, among others, for the first half of the season? Plus, at the bottom I added my All-Pro teams at this point.
Also make sure to check out my detailed recap of NFL week eight.
Most Valuable Player:
I think three candidates have kind of separated themselves from the rest of the pack in this MVP discussion and the guy I have at the top has been there all season long, because no other player has been more valuable to his team and their success.
1. Russell Wilson
I have always said Wilson is one of the premiere quarterbacks in the NFL and that the only thing holding him back from quite putting up the same numbers other MVP candidates have produced is his own coaching staff and the conservative he plays in. Well, this year Brian Schottenheimer & company have finally listened to Seahawks fans screaming to “let Russ cook” and he has been smoking hot. Russ is top three in completion percentage (71.5%) and yards per attempt (8.4) and yards per game (307.3), leads NFL with a passer rating of 120.8 and 26 touchdown passes, which makes up for more than one TD every 10th attempt – also an NFL-best mark. And the crazy part is that his team has needed him to be that explosive, since Seattle’s defense has given up an average of 460.9 yards per game – easily the most of any team in the league. The Seahawks themselves are scoring an NFL-best 34.3 points per game and their season-low(!) 27 points came in a matchup, where he led one of his two game-winning drives on the season (versus Minnesota). He is also the only quarterback with multiple starts to not have lost a fumble all season long. The only blemish on Wilson’s resume and the Hawks lone loss came at Arizona in a Sunday Night game, where their quarterback threw three of his six interceptions on the year and that was his only performance that he had a passer rating below 100 in. However in that game, he lit up the Cardinals with the deep ball and made some incredible plays throughout the night. And if you break down the three picks he threw, two of them came by defenders who had to cover a ton of ground and no quarterback would have anticipated them to even be a factor, while on that third one D.K. slowed down for a back-shoulder throw The Seahawks put 35 points on the Patriots, 31 against the Dolphins number-one scoring defense and just now 37 against San Francisco – and it could easily been more if the came wasn’t completely out of hand in the fourth quarter.
2. Patrick Mahomes
I know Mahomes has five TD passes less than Russ despite having played one more game, but he also only has one interception on the year – and that one came when he pushed it downfield on a 4th & long towards the end of the Chiefs’ only loss on the season. He is also behind only Wilson in quarterback rating (115.0) and first in QBR (86.8), with the latter thanks to what he has done taking off when nothing is there, which he has really gotten great at once he sees 2-man or other favorable situations. Of the 34 times he has taken off, nine have resulted in first downs and he finished in the end-zone twice. Of course this is still about Mahomes and Kansas City trashing opposing teams with all those weapons in the passing game. With defenses playing a lot more soft coverage against the Chiefs, Mahomes has taken advantage underneath with those short completions, while still finding ways to allow his receivers to uncover on secondary routes and getting the ball to them from all different angles. So his intended air yards may not be overly impressive, because of all the screens and stuff they draw up, and he might “only” be sixth in yards per attempt, but Pat is still tied for first with 31 passes of 20+ yards. He absolutely picked apart the Ravens defense in that huge Monday Night showdown, which tried every coverage and blitz package imaginable and the quarterback had an answer for all of them, completing some throws nobody in the league could make. The Chiefs’ season-low in points (23) came at the Chargers, when he certainly didn’t start out great, but still found a way to lead a comeback and win in overtime. And even in their only loss of the season against the Raiders, it was the opposing offense converting a sneak on fourth down, that denied Mahomes a chance to finish their late push.
3. Aaron Rodgers
When you look at Rodgers’ most impressive statistic for his career it is his ridiculous touchdown-to-interception ratio of 4.47, which is a full point better than the next-closest guy (Russell Wilson) and twice as good as anybody that hasn’t played in the 2010’s. Well, right now he has the second-best rate for this season, behind only Patrick Mahomes at 20-2, and those two picks came in his only bad game at Tampa Bay. I’m not going to sugercoat this in any way – after going up 10-0 and once that pass-rush from the Bucs was unleashed, he could not get anything going. With that being said, he has been phenomenal in the six other contests, having throw less than 3 TDs in only of them and his lowest QB rating being at 107.6, with both of those thing coming against Detroit in week two, when the Packers just didn’t need him to crazy and still put up 42 points, as Aaron Jones got loose on multiple occasions. And Rodgers had not fumbled until that very last play we saw from him, as he was stripped from behind while trying to launch a Hail Mary at the end of the Vikings game. By the way, he was incredible in that loss as well, as the only two times the offense was stopped, Equanimeous St. Brown had consecutive passes go off his hands and then the refs for no apparent reason picked up the flag on a blatant pass interference against Robert Tonyan inside the red-zone. Rodgers leads the league with seven completions of 40+ yards and right now Drew Lock is the only starter in the league with a higher mark in yards beyond the sticks (0.9) – which when you look at the rest of the numbers isn’t always an endorsement for the second-year QB, as Lock has three more INTs on 100 less attempts. And outside of Davante Adams – who has missed some time – Rodgers hasn’t really been able to rely on any of his receivers, as they are tied for the most passes dropped at 18, even though the other two QBs with that number have played one more game than Green Bay.
Notables: Josh Allen & Tom Brady
Offensive Player of the Year:
Of course, you could name the same three candidates from the MVP section here, but I tried to mix things up a little and give you three other names worthy of the award. And that includes only one quarterback.
1. Alvin Kamara
I know that this award is often given to quarterbacks as well and it looks odd that Kamara is 16th in the league in rushing (431 yards), but he is averaging five yards per carry and he is also second to only DeAndre Hopkins among all players with 55 catches for an additional 556 yards through the air – so just over 10 yards per grab. Right now he is on pace for 2256 scrimmage yards on right around 20 touches a week, while he would also easily break the NFL record for receiving yards for a running back (1271 over 1191 from Charley Taylor in 1966). And he leads the league not only in scrimmage yards but also percentage of his offense’s yardage (36.5%), while being tied for first with 12 plays of 20+ yards on the season. While he has caught a couple of key wheel routes and can win as a downfield receiver, so far 94.5(!) percent of his receiving yards have come after the catch, constantly bailing out his quarterback by making something happen after checkdowns and ripping off big gains in the screen game. I mean against the Packers he caught 13 of 14 targets for 139 yards and he was the only reason they were in that game in the first place. The explosiveness, the contact balance and the ability get six or seven yards when there should be only three is unmatched. Kamara has scored reached the end-zone seven times and his only fumble, he recovered himself again. He is by far the best player on this Saints offense and the team overall and in the absence of Michael Thomas, he has been asked to shoulder the load for them. Since his lowest output in the season-opener, Kamara has not been held under 119 scrimmage yards in any other week.
2. Kyler Murray
While Murray is only 16th among current starters in passing yards per game, only Russell Wilson and by about half a yard Justin Herbert have put up more combined passing and rushing yards at 326.3 a week. Right now, only Joe Burrow and Matt Ryan have been responsible for more combined first downs and touchdowns, and those two have played a full matchup more than the Cardinals and both just won their second games of the season, while Kyler is doing it in service of a 5-2 team, which outside of his own production has averaged less than 100 rushing yards on a weekly basis. As a runner, he leads all NFL players (with double-digit carries) in yards per attempt at 6.7 and 35 of his 65 carries led to first downs or touchdowns (seven TDs). I would not call Arizona’s passing game overly explosive, as Kyler is barely in the top 20 in yards per attempt (7.3), 20+ yard throws (21) and average yards to the sticks (-0.9), but a lot of that has to do with what Kliff Kingsbury wants to do with his Air Raid-based offense, while his QB is tied for second with six throws of 40+ yards and already has an 80-yarder on his resume. Plus, with that guy at the helm, they have the potential to get as hot as pretty much any team out there. Kyler had one really bad game against the Lions, in which Detroit used a lot of different coverages that had them all over the Cardinals route patterns, but #1 has been outstanding the rest of the year and I don’t come away from a lot of games thinking that a lot of his production was served up by the play-calling. I said a couple of weeks that Deshaun Watson is the most elusive quarterback in the league, but nobody is quicker at evading defenders and keeping himself upright. We all love Russell Wilson and his ability to extend plays, but just compare these numbers – Russ has been pressured 79 times and he’s been hit or sacked on 50 of those, Kyler on the other has been pressured 44 times (significantly less due to more of a horizontal passing attack), but he’s only been sacked nine times and taken five more hits (14 total). And Kyler already outdueled Russ on Sunday Night of week seven.
3. Derrick Henry
King Henry is once again holding the crown for the league’s rushing leader at this moment. His 775 rushing yards are 123 more than any other player in the league, and while that is in correlation with handling the most carries of all RBs, he still averaging 4.8 yards per attempt, despite being asked to grind away games for the Titans. Right around 30 percent of his touches has resulted in a first down or touchdown (43 total first downs and eight TDs) and about 58 percent of his total yardage has come after contact. Nobody wants to tackle King Henry, because he can plow through 300-pounder defensive linemen at the point of attack and throw DBs around like ragdolls, when he gets around the edge (looking at you, Josh Norman), but at the same time, once he gets rolling, he is as fast as any player on the field, which we saw already when he ripped of an NFL-long 94-yarder against the Texans a couple of weeks ago. The difference between Henry and some of the other franchise backs is that he doesn’t contribute a whole lot in the passing game outside of a few screens (10 catches for 81 yards), but nobody takes on a bigger load than this guy and he really sets the table for everything the Titans do, with the heavy play-action and bootlegs. Usually this guy really starts rolling over the second half of the season, but he has been dominant right from the start this year. When you look at the three games Henry didn’t put 112+ yards on the ground, in two of them the opposing defense totally sold out against the run and Ryan Tannehill completed 75 percent of his passes with seven TDs and no picks, while the team scored 33 and 42 points respectively, and the other one came against the Steelers’ dominant defensive front. On the other hand, he also has the most scrimmage yards in a game all season, when he destroyed the Texans for 264 yards and took over that one overtime drive, to win it.
Notables: The three MVP candidates
Defensive Player of the Year:
I think there is pretty clear top three in this one as well and I can honestly see an argument for each one of them to be the pick, but I have stuck my selection (and bet) of a guy I believed would come back even hungrier in 2020.
1. Myles Garrett
This was my preseason pick for Defensive Player of the Year and similar to Russell Wilson’s MVP campaign, I have been riding this all season long. Myles Garrett is tied for a league-high nine sacks and only two players have hit the opposing quarterback more overall than him. The only two games he didn’t record a sack (the season-opener at Baltimore and this past week against the Raiders), the opposing team ran the ball on 56 and 65 percent respectively and somehow all those sacks he has put up have come in big moments – a strip on Joe Burrow to set up the offense at the Bengals 1-yard line after they were just stopped on fourth down in an eight-point game, another against Washington after the Browns finally extended the lead to more than one score, stripping Dak Prescott when the game was tied at 14 and set off a 27-0 run, setting the offense up in field goal range for their first points in the rematch with Cincinnati and while it won’t be found on the stats sheet, he also directly forced a safety on a throw-away by Philip Rivers to make it a two-score game against the Colts. The only other player that has forced four fumbles just like Myles is Ravens DB Marlon Humphrey, who has become a Peanut Punch specialist – and Garrett has also recovered a couple of those himself, with both of them directly setting up touchdown for the offense from short distance. Plus, he is excellent run-defender, who can yank blockers to the side and makes tackles around the line scrimmage, with only one miss on the season. Myles has grown so much with his technique as a pass-rusher, while obviously having that incredible combination of length and athleticism, but also might have gotten “looser” in his movement and how he can torque his body different ways. And the Browns are now using him as a mismatch against guards on passing downs quite a bit.
2. Aaron Donald
Just like he has been the last five years or so, Aaron Donald is right up there with the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year and I would not be surprised at all if he won his third trophy at the end of the season. Donald is tied with Myles Garrett for the league-lead in sacks at nine and he is top five in total pressures (22) and QB hits (13), despite offensive lines sliding his way constantly. We have literally seen this man get triple-teamed and lift All-Pro offensive linemen off their feet, but only T.J. Watt has a higher pass-rush win percentage according to Pro Football Focus (25%). This guy is the only player with a four-sack performance this season and not only does he obviously contribute in a major way himself, but because of the way he gives his teammates one-on-one’s consistently, his Rams only have three other teams in front of them in terms of sacks as unit (26), despite not having a lot of names that you would recognize, outside a questionable former first-rounder in Leonard Floyd. And I just mentioned the only two players with more forced fumbles than Donald (Garrett and Humphrey), who has three himself. He has also recorded seven tackles for loss and only missed one of his 26 tackling attempts. The crazy part with his game is that for all the numbers you can actually see, there’s about twice as many plays he makes that don’t show up anywhere in the records. The only reason I don’t have him at number one is that he has four games without a full sack and that Garrett has been a little more consistent at coming up with those real game-changing plays. Still, AD is clearly right up there.
3. T.J. Watt
And then this guy is as complete an edge defender as we have in the league. Watt can set the edge at the point of attack, he can chase ball-carriers down from behind as the unblocked man at the line and this past Sunday against Baltimore, we saw him take both guys at times on those read-option plays. Of his 25 tackles on the season, 12 have resulted in lost yardage, which is tied with teammate Vince Williams for a league-high. As a pass-rusher, Watt is “only” tied for fourth with 6.5 sacks, but his 21 hits on opposing QBs is four more than any other player in the league and the 27 total pressure are three more than the next-closest guy as well, while PFF has him tagged with the highest pass-rush win rate in correlation with that (27%). And he headlines the most destructive pass-rush in the league, as the Steelers defense leads the league with 30 sacks and easily has the highest pressure percentage of any unit out there at a whopping 35.0 percent. Watt has also batted down three passes and picked one off. He can do your classic flat drops or carry guys out of the backfield at times, but he can also stand up and move around the line to blitz from different angles or act as a spy at times. He surprisingly has yet to force a fumble this season, but I can remember right now on the very first play he was on the field against the Titans, a good 20 quarterbacks would have lost the ball in that moment with Watt swiping at it, and since he led the league in that category last season, I have no doubt he will rack up a few of those FFs still.
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
This award has two quarterbacks battling it out at the top right now, with one young star receivers and a couple of running backs – one picked in the first round and the other going undrafted – who are also in the running.
1. Justin Herbert
I get that coaches always try to protect their young quarterbacks and want to give them time to learn from the sidelines, but I hope everybody gets that Herbert and Tyrod Taylor aren’t even close to each other. And I have always liked Tyrod as a bridge-starter or game-manager type, but this rookie QB has taken this offense to a completely different level. When you just look at the schedule, you see that the two QBs have the same amount of wins on the season (only one for Herbert against the Jaguars), but in the season-opener the Chargers only put up 16 points against the Bengals, who have given up 28.2 per week from that point on, and L.A. has scored 27.2 points a game since then. It is not Herbert’s fault that his defense has let him down in the second half of games and allowed big comebacks. He took Patrick Mahomes & company to overtime, had his team up 24-7 against the Bucs before a fumble a minute until halftime started turning things around, he outplayed Drew Brees at the Superdome and was inches away in overtime from pulling off a game-tying or -winning drives and before the Bolts defense allowed an epic collapse last Sunday, they were dominating the Broncos 24-3 midway through the third quarter. The way Herbert has opened up the offense with the deep ball is incredible, with two 70+ TDs on the resume already, and he makes the whole field available, after they were very limited before. Among current starters, Herbert is third in passing yards per game (303.3) and second in combined touchdowns per game (3.0), while also being top ten in completion percentage, yards per attempt, quarterback rating and QBR. He is on pace to throw for 4550 yards and 38 touchdowns to go with about 350 rushing yards and five more TDs on the ground, over the course of a 15-game season. Those numbers would shatter all rookie records.
2. Joe Burrow
No other team has thrown the ball more than the Bengals (330 pass attempts) and their quarterback leads the league with 221 completions on the season (67% completion percentage). With 11 touchdowns compared to five interceptions, that ratio doesn’t look overly impressive, but he has set up a lot of short rushing TDs, while Cincinnati barely cracks 100 rushing yards per game as a team and only one other squad averages less yards per carry (3.7). Until this past weekend, Burrow was tied with Carson Wentz for the most-sacked quarterbacks in the league, but thanks to a non-existent pass-rush for the Titans, in large part due to the spread-based passing attack the Bengals bring to the table, a clean week has the Bengals QB at “only” 28 sacks so far. However, he has been under the fire all season long, being tied for third with 79 total pressures, despite only eight quarterbacks spending less time in the pocket. And Burrow has yet to complete less than 60 percent of his passes in any game. I know the Bengals were blown out in that one Ravens game, but do we realize that was their only loss by more than one score? They tied the Eagles in a game where Burrow was sacked eight times and hit every other snap, they scored 30+ in their two matchups with the Browns, they were up 21-0 against the Colts in the second quarter and just this past Sunday they beat the recently 5-1 Titans by double-digits. And I would argue their rookie quarterback is by far the biggest reason for it. They are already guaranteed a better record this year than last season, as we are halfway through the season – and they are getting better every week. This guy is the future in Cincinnati. Now they just need to protect him and get that defense going.
3. Justin Jefferson
I know that Odell Beckham Jr. was the only wide receiver to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year in the last ten years and I wouldn’t put anybody on the same level as that historic season, but since then this is the most impressive start we have seen for a rookie receiver. Through seven games, Jefferson has caught 31 of his 40 targets for 563 yards and three touchdowns. That puts him 12th among all receivers in yards per game, while having recorded a league-high 14.1 yards per target and 22 of his 31 grabs has resulted in a fresh set of downs. After a rather slow start, with five catches for 70 yards through the first two weeks, Jefferson came onto the scene with 71-yarder against the Titans and now already has three games of 100+ receiving yards, while only having played 74 percent of the snaps on the season. Jefferson has only dropped one pass and not fumbled once, while Kirk Cousins when targeting the rookie receiver, has a passer rating of over 100 despite having thrown four picks and I wouldn’t put a single one of those on the receiver definitely, as on a couple of them there was a linebacker dropping underneath a deep crosser that Cousins stared down the whole way, a badly underthrown pass into a tight window and on another one he and the rookie wideout clearly weren’t on the same page in terms of the route he was supposed to run. Through eight weeks, Jefferson is Pro Football Focus has the second-highest grade among all NFL receivers. I have always been a fan of Adam Thielen and he is Cousins’ favorite target, but to determine who opposing teams believe is more dangerous, all I have to do is watch the Packers put Jaire Alexander on the first-year man for almost the whole game last week.
Notables: James Robinson & Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
For the defensive side of the ball, this rookie selection was a little tougher, because there are a few guys that have filled the stat sheet across the board, but you don’t have those typical front-runners with a lot of sacks or interceptions, which usually take home the honors.
1. Antoine Winfield Jr.
When I look at who I believe is the best pro player among all defensive rookies already, I would say this is the name that comes to mind. Tampa Bay’s defensive scheme isn’t simple. They ran a lot of different coverages, they can blitz anybody and there are a lot of rules that you have to understand as a member of that unit. Winfield has come in and looked him he belonged from the first time he touched the field. The rookie safety has played 515 of 522 snaps on defense and he shows up quite a bit in the box score. He has recorded 31 solo tackles and only two misses all season long, showing off what a dependable tackler he is in space. He has intercepted a passe and broken up four more, plus he has forced fumble. And call it P.I. or not, he denied a two-point conversion to potentially tie the game this past Monday Night against the Giants. To go with that, he has asked to blitz 29 times in Todd Bowles’ pressure-heavy scheme, resulting in two sacks and three extra hits on the quarterbacks. What made me a big fan of Winfield coming out of Minnesota was the versatility he presents and the fact he played so much bigger than his size would indicate. The Bucs coaching staff has utilized a lot around the line of scrimmage a lot and I love how he drives on routes in quarters coverage. He gas been “credited” with giving up just over 200 yards and two touchdowns, to go with a passer rating of 114.4 in coverage, but I think about half of that production came on two plays in the Chargers game, once with him ending up as the closest defender on a deep bomb, when the other safety should have actually opened up and then on a scramble drill play, where Keenan Allen uncovered late against him.
2. Patrick Queen
Baltimore has a rich tradition of middle linebackers, but not so much when it comes to LSU players, with Ozzie Newsome as an Alabama alumn not having drafted a single Tigers player in over 20 years as the Ravens GM. This year, with Eric DeCosta calling the shots, they wanted to bring in a dynamic player to put in the middle of their defense and when Patrick Queen surprisingly was still on the board when they were making their first-round pick this past April, it didn’t matter which college he came from. Queen was immediately put in the starting lineup and he has been filling up the stat sheet from the start. In seven games, he has recorded 48 combined tackles, four of them for loss, two sacks to go with five more QB hits, two fumbles forced and recovered, including a long scoop-and-score. His speed at the second level to string guys out to the sideline or get to the quarterback on delayed blitzes has been a big reason this defense has gone to a higher level in 2020. Of course, he is still a first-year player and not perfect. Queen has already missed 11 tackles and there have been some moments where the rookie seemed a little confused. Two that come to mind right away – the Chiefs running that double-swing fake before throwing the TE screen over the middle, where they had Queen’s head spinning and then last week against the Steelers, where I’m pretty sure he should have covered tight-end Eric Ebron in man, but thought he had the back and that allowed Ebron to easily score on a shallow crosser from 18 yards out. He is learning and we have already seen moments, where he just sees it and goes, shutting down plays before they can even get going, while he obviously has a knack for the ball.
3. Jeremy Chinn
One of the small-school prospects I loved in this most recent draft was this 6’3”, 220-pound safety from Southern Illinois, who put up ridiculous numbers at the scouting combine and showed incredible potential on film. So far, he has put up 38 solo tackles – most by any rookie in the league, has intercepted one pass and broken up another five. Chinn has been all over the field, with his ability to cover ground and erase angles for the ball-carrier. One of the two or three negatives I had about him and why I had him around the top 50 and not even higher was the ability to process information post-snap, to not just have his talent take him to the ball, but also the anticipation and identification of certain keys to react quickly. I believe Matt Rhule, defensive coordinator Phil Snow and that entire staff has done an outstanding job of simplifying Chinn’s assignments and just letting him around and make plays. Once he sees something happening in front of him, he can get there as fast as pretty much any player in the league and the Panthers have allowed that talent to flourish. The biggest issue for him are the ten missed tackles so far, but he’ll clean that up as well. Through eight weeks, Chinn has played 96 percent of the defensive snaps and been a fixture on the punt team as well, where he had a huge first-down run against the Falcons in last week’s Thursday Night game on a fake. As he gets more comfortable in the system, I expect him to become a bigger part of the pass-rush, because his closing speed as a blitzer is just absurd.
Notables: Jaylon Johnson & Julian Blackmon
Comeback Player of the Year:
As I say every year when making my preseason picks, this is the most vague award of the list, because there are so many different ways you can look at it – players who were hurt for most/all of last season, guys who had a few off-years and then those who were out of the league altogether.
1. Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger is completing 67.9 percent of his passes and while he is only 25th in passing yards per game (232.6), a lot of that has to do with being part of a 7-0 team with the best defense in the league and trying to run down the clock late in games a lot of times. Big Ben has been really steady for Pittsburgh, not having completed less than 63 percent of his passes yet for a total of 15 touchdowns compared to only four interceptions, with five games that didn’t include any turnovers from him. Of those four picks, one came on a wobbling 50-50 pass, where Juju immediately called for pass interference, one came in the end-zone on the final play before halftime and another was batted up by a defensive lineman right into the hands of a linebacker. The Steelers are tied for third with converting 49.5 percent of their third downs and even though their run game is about average, they control the clock primarily with the short passing game, where their quarterback gets everybody involved. And when his team has needed him most Big Ben has come through, with two go-ahead touchdown drives in fourth quarters and taking over on crucial drives, with no-huddle attacks and almost exclusively going in the shotgun to spread it around. In the battle of unbeatens at Tennessee, the Steelers were up 24-7 at halftime, with Roethlisberger converting all four third downs with nine or more yards to go. This past Sunday in Baltimore in a huge AFC North clash with the Ravens, the Steelers offense could not get anything done for the first half plus, with Lamar Jackson gifting his opponents 14 points directly off turnovers, but when Pittsburgh needed to a couple of touchdowns to go ahead, their quarterback came through, as they threw the ball on 15 of those 18 plays and the three runs resulted in -1 yard (+ a touchdown). To do this after a season-ending elbow injury on his throwing arm last year is impressive.
2. Jason Verrett
For this one we have to go all the way back to like 2015 and even before that. Jason Verrett was a first-team All-American selection in 2013 and then a first-round pick for the Chargers coming out of TCU. After showing a ton of potential in an injury-riddled rookie campaign, he became a Pro Bowler in his second season with three interceptions and 12 more passes deflected, including a pick-six. The next two years, he only played a combined five games with consecutive ACL injuries and then missed all of 2018 with a torn Achilles. His bad injury luck would follow him to San Francisco however, as he would go on IR with an ankle injury shortly after signing with the 49ers last year. Now, finally in 2020 he is back on the field and balling out. Verrett had a big interception in the end-zone against the Rams a couple of weeks ago and three PBUs the rest of the season, having started the last six games. However, it is the more advanced stats about what the veteran corner has done in coverage that are really impressive. On 25 targets, he has given up just 123 yards and no touchdowns. Plus, he is a highly dependable tackler, having only missed one attempt all season and holding opposing receivers to just 32 yards after the catch. The 49ers had major issues with their corners for large stretches of the season, as Richard Sherman has been on IR since week one and the with Emmanuel Moseley also missing some time, those other guys on the boundary have gotten roasted in some of their matchups. Not with Verrett. He has easily been a top ten player at his position so far and I don’t know how you can take him out of the starting lineup, once they have Sherm and Moseley back together.
3. Aldon Smith
I thought long and hard about putting Rob Gronkowski here, because after Gronk look like his feet were stuck in mud early on, he and Tom Brady are not operating at a really high level again, and it almost seems like the big tight-end got his confidence back. However, I decided to go with somebody who was not one but five(!) years out of the league and as we all know, this award is a lot about the stories of these players. When Aldon Smith was drafted in 2011, it was immediately between him and Von Miller as the best young edge rusher in the league, and Smith out-produced the Broncos All-Pro with 14 and 19.5 sacks in his first two years, before he entered a rehabilitation center midway through 2013 season, when he has on path for another one of those years. The two following seasons, he looked like a shell of himself in San Francisco and then Oakland, as his mind clearly wasn’t right, with several off-the-field issues leading two suspensions that cost him the 2016 and ’17 seasons. Now, all the way in 2020, he is back with the Dallas Cowboys and especially early on he looked like a dominant player on the edge. Smith is now at five sacks on the season, with three of those coming against the Seahawks, as he was the only defensive player that kept his team in the game, with additional hits on the quarterbacks. To go with that, he has made some nice tackles in the run game, fighting off blocks and getting hands on the ball-carrier. He has cooled off a little bit these last few weeks, but the lack of production is more a product of how bad the Cowboys defense has been as a whole and long much they’ve been on the field. If he was on a team right now, that allowed him to rush in obvious passing situation, he could potentially be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
Notables: Rob Gronkowski & Alex Smith
Coach of the Year:
Usually this award goes to one of the coaches of the teams with the best records in either conference and while there is an obvious candidate at the top that fits that description, I went with two other names who I believe have done an excellent job getting their teams ready to play.
1. Mike Tomlin
This one was pretty easy. Tomlin is leading the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL, as the Steelers are outscoring the opposition by an average of ten points. The first four wins of the season weren’t overly impressive because of the teams they faced, but when you look at the last three weeks – they shellacked the then 4-1 Browns, they were up 24-7 at halftime against the recently 5-0 Titans, before taking their foot off the gas a little bit in the second half, and just this past Sunday, they beat their arch-rivals in Baltimore, as the Ravens’ only loss up to that point had come against the Chiefs. Tomlin might not be one of those guys who is heavily involved in the play-calling, but he is a great motivator and his teams always show toughness and want to intimidate the opposition, plus as a former defensive coordinator, that unit has been the best in the entire league. Pittsburgh’s defense is top five in yards and points allowed, yards per play and takeaways, to go with an NFL-best 52 tackles for loss and 30 sacks, while pressuring opponents on a ridiculous 35 percent of dropbacks. However, they play great complementary football, as their offense is also fourth in time of possession and tied for third with Kansas City with a completion percentage of 49.5 percent. This past Sunday they were down by more than one score for the first time all year and the Ravens were objectively the better team, but the Steelers still found a way to get it done, as they scored 21 points in the second half and stopped consecutive potential go-ahead touchdowns by Baltimore. They already had their bye week pretty much cancelled on short notice by the Covid outbreak in Tennessee, but their head man has kept them focused. And looking at their schedule, I would actually be surprised if they weren’t still undefeated three weeks from now.
2. Kliff Kingsbury
The arrow is clearly pointing up for this Cardinals team. Just two years ago, they went 3-13 and “earned” the number one overall pick in the 2019 draft because of it. While I didn’t completely agree with it at that point – which was more about the two elite players at the top of the board for me that they passed up – they decided to move on from a top ten pick from a year prior and selected Kyler Murray. In Kyler’s rookie season, they went 5-11-1 and this year they have already matched that win total through seven games. A lot of that has to do with their dynamic young quarterback, who I have as one of my favorites for Offensive Player of the Year, but when you hand out these awards, it always goes to the entire coaching staff and these guys have done a really good job. We all recognize that the offense has the potential to get as hot as any team’s in this stratosphere outside of Kansas City, with Kyler being a dynamic dual-threat, DeAndre Hopkins playing like one of the three best receivers in football and contributions from a bunch of lesser-known commodities – that has a lot to do with Kingsbury’s Air Raid-based spread system, which he has shown the willingness to adapt at times, implementing more pro-style run schemes and running the third-most 12 personnel in the league (30%). However, the big story to me has been the defense, as they have gone from bottom-five in points allowed per game to top ten this year and after giving up at least 23 points in all but two of their 16 games last season, opponents have crossed that mark just twice through the first seven games. And they didn’t change a whole lot about their personnel, but rather Vance Joseph just has his guys coached up to run a more complex system, that gives opponents plenty of different looks.
3. Brian Flores
And then there’s the guy in Miami, who after having the fans chanting “Tank for Tua” at this point a year ago, now has his troops at 4-3 with an overhauled roster, that is now built around the lines on either side of the ball and is really coming together these last few weeks. Nobody paid any attention to this group when they lost their first two games of the season, but since then, they have outscored opponents by an average of 14.2 points, with their only loss over those five games coming by one possession to the 6-1 Seahawks, in a game where they settled for six field goals. They beat the 49ers and Rams by a combined 37 points and they barely did anything on offense this past game against L.A. I don’t know if any people realize this, but right now the Dolphins have the number one scoring defense (130 points through seven games), thanks in large part to the brilliant job their coaching staff has done at game-planning, which I put a video out on my Twitter and Instagram, if you are interested to see what they did against the Rams. While a lot of this can be put on the opposing quarterbacks, Brian Flores & company have outclassed two of the brightest offensive minds in the sport in those two matchups – Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. And while you can somewhat see why they have been so successful defensively when you look at their lineup, with Xavien Howard and those guys that have come over from New England, Miami is also just one spot outside of the top ten in points per game as a team, at 26.9 points. And who are the stars on that side of the ball? Devante Parker? Myles Gaskin? Give Chain Gailey some credit for the combination of a downhill run game and a horizontal passing attack, which has allowed them to move the ball. And the man who ties it all together is Flores.
Notables: Andy Reid & Matt Rhule
Play of the Year:
1. D.K. Metcalf chase-down tackle on Budda Baker after the INT
One of the greatest hustle plays you will ever see and it started a meme fest on the internet.
2. Derrick Henry 94-yard touchdown run vs. Texans
The combination of speed and power is freakish for this dude. He tore Houston a new one.
3. Odell Beckham Jr. going 60 yards on the reverse vs. Cowboys
Of couese bad effort and angles by the Dallas defense, but this looked like Giants Odell.
Since this is not about building a team or anything like that, I just went to the most used personnel sets for either side of the ball – 11 personnel and nickel defense – and filled up those spots with who I believe have been the best players at those positions. So there is differentiating between left and right tackle, 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 were put together as “EDGE” and there are just any two stand-up linebackers inserted.
LT David Bakhtiari
LG Quenton Nelson
C Corey Linsley
RG Wyatt Teller
RT Duane Brown
Second team: Laremy Tunsil, Michael Onwenu, Jason Kelce, Gabe Jackson & Ryan Ramczyk
WR DeAndre Hopkins
WR D.K. Metcalf
WR Davante Adams
TE Travis Kelce
Second team: Calvin Ridley, Stefon Diggs, Justin Jefferson & George Kittle
QB Russell Wilson
RB Alvin Kamara
Second team: Patrick Mahomes & Derrick Henry
DE Myles Garrett
DT Aaron Donald
DT Chris Jones
DE T.J. Watt
Second team: Khalil Mack, Jeffery Simmons, Cam Heyward & Calais Campbell
LB Fred Warner
LB Lavonte David
Second team: Darius Leonard & K.J. Wright
CB Kyle Fuller
CB Jaire Alexander
NB Marlon Humphrey
Second team: James Bradberry, Jalen Ramsey & Jason Verrett
FS Minkah Fitzpatrick
SS Budda Baker
Second team: Jessie Bates & Antoine Winfield