After the first quarter of the season, we put together a power ranking of all 32 NFL teams. So once again, it felt appropriate to revisit my predictions for all the major awards and give you my top three names for each of them, as we’ve finished up the first half of the year now. Some of those I still look in very much the same way, while the rookies and coaches particularly are quite different than I expected
With the NFL adding a 17th game last season and therefore an 18th week, now the mid-way point has moved to past week nine. That means some of the players listed here have already played in each of those weeks, while others have only had the chance to participate in eight contests. Due to that, I will use per-game stats more frequently than totals, in order to allow us to make easier comparisons between names.
Here’s who I’d give each award if the season ended today:
Most Valuable Player:
Starting things off with the most prestigious honor at the end of the season, we understand that this is a quarterback award. I’ve said before that we should simply split this into most valuable quarterback and non-quarterback on the offensive side, if this is how we handle it anyway – and you’ll soon see my solution for that. To be honest, these truly are the three biggest difference-makers in the NFL right now, when it comes to deciding the outcome of games. While there is one dominant team in the NFC, these three are actually all from the American Conference, as I believe they are the most decisive factors in the success of their squads.
1. Patrick Mahomes
When I put together the original draft of this list last week, Mahomes was still at number two and that’s also where I had him in my ranking of all 32 starting quarterbacks. However, with the way he led the Chiefs back to an overtime victory over the Titans, where he made some completely absurd plays, combined with Josh Allen making a couple of really costly mistakes, that led to the Bills losing at the Jets, that just flipped those two names. Despite a couple of other guys having played a ninth game already, Mahomes now leads the NFL in passing yards (2605) and touchdowns (21). More importantly, he is number two in EPA per play (+0.314) and QBR (75.4), with a tremendous combination of clean football and the ever-looming threat that he may completely break the structure of the opposing defense, even if they do basically everything right. I said this last week already – Patrick is the most creative player we’ve ever seen at the quarterback position, and that was on display yet against on Sunday night, constantly extending plays and allowing his receivers to separate on secondary routes. He’s become so good at just dropping back and finding windows to exploit in zone coverage, as teams have almost completely stopped blitzing him, especially after we saw him put up a nearly perfect game with five TDs week one, when Arizona tried to challenge him. Yet, if he does get chances to attack isolated matchups or catches somebody with his eyes in the backfield, he can quickly make them pay. Plus, while he’s doing it less now, when his team needs it most, he will convert a third-and-long himself despite his 4.8 speed. Some of the plays Mahomes makes you wouldn’t advise most guys in the league to even attempt, and yet he blows our minds with them on a weekly basis.
2. Josh Allen
Like I already mentioned, Allen was my QB1 and front-runner for the MVP award a week ago, but unfortunately these last two weeks all of a sudden the old Josh showed up, with a couple of head-scratching interceptions each. It’s not really the fact that he’s aggressive down the field, because I’ll gladly watch him let it fly and give those receivers chances, in combination with how patient he’s be proven to be, happily getting his checkdown when presented with it. Rather it has been those ill-advised, late throws, which we saw from him early in his career. With all that being said, through the first six weeks he had been absolutely spectacular, as right now he leads the league in total yards (300 passing and 49 rushing per game) and touchdowns (23) responsible for. The stress this guy puts on your defense every single snap, to either take a shot down the field, kill you with paper-cuts if you try to take away the big chunks, create an extra play on the scramble drill or become a freight-train as he decides to run it himself, is almost unfair. He currently leads the team in rushing, on 6.3 yards per attempt, being able to beat defenses around the corner on naked bootlegs and rip off large chunks, but then also run through a linebacker, when he needs a couple of extra yards to the sticks. He has delivered knock-out punches, but also led a couple of game-winning drives against the Ravens and Chiefs, with some alien-like plays. And that nearly included another one this past Sunday, where he launched the ball 70 yards after escaping the pocket and it would have hit Gabe Davis right between the numbers, if not for Sauce Gardner disrupting the catch-point/interfering with him (depending on your interpretation). I’m still very happy with my nine-to-one ticket for him to win this award, especially considering half of the games still in front of him will be against a bottom-ten scoring defenses.
3. Lamar Jackson
Don’t look now, but the Ravens are 6-3 at the bye week and don’t face another team with a record of .500 or better until week 18 at Cincinnati. So there’s a good chance Lamar actually wins this award for the second time in his career, based on the team’s success. With that being said, don’t let Baltimore’s dominant Monday Night win at New Orleans fool you into thinking they have been a juggernaut of a team so far this season. This was the first time since week one at the Joe Flacco-led Jets, in which their defense has held the opposition to less than 20 points and all three of their losses happened on lead-changing scores allowed by their defense. Now granted, one of those was set up by an ill-advised pick thrown by Lamar, after corralling a loose snap, but he also set up Justin Tucker for a game-winning kick, to get the early advantage in the AFC North over the Bengals and all three of their losses have come against six-win teams. More importantly, he has been as crucial to his offense as any QB in the league. Not only has Jackson accounted for 42 percent of the Ravens rushing attack, with nearly twice as many yards as the next-closest guy on the team (635), but he has also been responsible for 65 percent of their first downs and 72 percent of their touchdowns (18 of 25) as a team. That’s despite his number one receiver playing just 200 snaps this season, their top two running backs coming into the year and working their way back from injuries playing less than 150 combined, and Devin Duvernay leading the WR corp with just over 300 yards so far. We can gush about Lamar’s ability to shrug off a defender in the backfield, break the ankles of another guy in the hole and then run away from defensive backs, but he’s also been one of the best pure passers in the NFL. What he can do in terms of scanning the field, manipulating guys with his eyes or shoulders, changing up his deliver and then on top of that, making the rush look foolish setting up a second play, is truly special.
Honorable mentions: Jalen Hurts, Saquon Barkley & Tyreek Hill
(Non-Quarterback) Offensive Player of the Year:
Just like I did when I predicted the entire 2022 NFL season, I decided to use this award to talk about the best offensive players in the league who aren’t quarterbacks, since those sweep the MVP honors almost exclusively anyway. So these are the most valuable running backs, wide receivers and tight-ends this year so far, in perspective to their individual production and the impact on their offenses as a whole. Unfortunately, we may never be able to include offensive linemen in this discussion, because it’s just so hard to compare, due to a lack of measurable components and the fact we’d need to purely rely on the tape.
1. Tyreek Hill
When the Chiefs decided to trade Tyreek Hill to Miami this offseason – who was looking for and ultimately received a massive extension – the big discussion was if Patrick Mahomes needed him more to keep Kansas City’s offense as explosive or if Hill needed a quarterback of that caliber to produce at such a level. And even though Pat and company are arguably looking as good as ever, the Cheetah has been an even bigger game-breaker, whilst making Tua Tagovailoa looking like a fringe MVP candidate to some. He already sits at 76 catches for 1104 yards – Justin Jefferson is the next-closest guy in the league with 867. Only taking teams into account that have also played nine games, Hill is only 37 yards away from the Bears’ team total through the air so far and has outgained eight WR rooms around the league by himself. Right now, he’s on pace to shatter the NFL’s receiving record for a season and he’d be right on the money to tie, if the season was still only 16 games long. Obviously his acceleration and top-end speed can punish any type of one-on-one coverage or squatting safety on any given play, but with his twitchiness and short-area burst, he’s also the toughest guy to get a hand with the ball in his mitts, and as of last week, he had the highest receiving grade on contested targets, according to PFF (94.4). Some of the grabs he’s made working back on underthrown balls and plucking it off the heads of defenders are things you rarely even see from 6’4” guys (whilst Hill is 5’10”). Beyond his actual production individually, the space he creates purely with his presence on the field is unbelievable. Whether it’s how he expands the distance between second and third level, stressing on seam or post routes, or how deep he pushes the coverage to create cushions underneath as the wheel element on one of their RPO staples, with those post-wheel combinations, there are windows to attack on basically every single snap for Miami. The gravity he holds and how he affects spacing is unparalleled.
2. Saquon Barkley
I actually have Saquon winning a different award. So please refer to that, for my analysis on his bounce-back season.
3. Travis Kelce
Due to a rather unforeseen draft order in my fantasy league, I ended up picking Kelce at the top of the third round in my main league. Considering the tight-end landscape and how much this guy stands above the rest, I have felt blessed every day since then. Only five players at the position are in triple-digit half-PPR points and Kelce stands 46 points clear from number two. Getting back to real football, Kelce is still top-seven among all players in catches (57) and receiving yards (659), along with being tied for the league-high seven touchdowns through the air. No other tight-end is even in the top-20 as far as aerial yardage is concerned. He has delivered ten plays of 20+ yards (tied for seventh), but more importantly – only Tyreek Hill has picked up more first downs than Kelce (43 versus 47), and he’s done so on 23 fewer targets. He is such a savvy route-runner and can create separation from any defender in this league, whether they flex him out wide and he beats a corner or a defender who can play with leverage on bracket-coverage, yet he still somehow finds a way to create a passing window late. Running any type of spot-drop shell is calling for death even more so, because of how smart he is at finding voids and attacking rules for defenders. The chemistry between Mahomes and Kelce is impeccable, which makes them borderline indefensible on third downs. There were questions about what this KC offense may look like following the departure of Tyreek Hill, and we’ve seen them spread the ball around to a bunch of guys – which the QB certainly deserves credit for – but in high-leverage moments and when they stall for stretches, this is the guy who gets them going every time it seems like. Kelce is already probably part of the Mount Rushmore for the position and he’s on pace for career-highs across the board.
Honorable mentions: Justin Jefferson, Nick Chubb & Derrick Henry
Defensive Player of the Year:
While the MVP and to some degree also Offensive Player of the Year are tilted towards quarterbacks, voters for the defensive side of the ball are typically enamored with those guys putting up big numbers in the sacks and interceptions department. It’s getting rarer that we see true off-ball linebackers take home the honors – with Luke Kuechly being the only one since 2005 to do so – because their impact on the game has been somewhat mitigated, while the advanced coverage numbers allow more perspective for fans, but simply can’t measure how well responsibilities/assignments are fulfilled by secondary players (as in “closest defender being charged with receptions”). Therefore, pass-rushing edge defenders have moved into the spotlight and with how many teams rely on their front-four and simulated pressures to put heat on quarterbacks, they’ve been the stars of this season.
1. Nick Bosa
Right now, in terms of being able to attack the weaknesses of blockers, overwhelm guys physically and take advantage of any technical imperfections, I believe Nick Bosa is the apex predator in the NFL. He’s currently fifth league-wide with 36 pressures, but if you average that number out, by taking in consideration that he’s missed a good one-and-a-half games and the 49ers have already have had their bye week, he moves up to second, behind only the Browns’ Myles Garrett. Bosa also leads the league in actual QB hits (20) and he’s tied for second in sacks (8.5). I feel like his explosion off the ball has become even more terrorizing since he’s entered the league, if tackles mistime when they shoot their punch or don’t hit the right landing spots, he can defeat their hands cleanly with one swipe, and most devastating – if they get a little too tall or shift their way to their heels, he will take them to the quarterback along with himself. While his eight tackles for loss rank him one spot outside the top-ten in that statistic – and he would rise to third, if you calculate his per-game numbers – he has also been a menace in run defense. Whether it’s creating chaos crashing into a pulling linemen at the point of attack, squeezing or running things down from the backside, or simply funneling things back inside, by setting the edge, he has been a big factor in the 49ers ranking number one in the NFL, allowing just 3.4 yards per rush. In PFF’s metrics, Bosa is the only edge defender with pass-rush and run-defense grades of over 80 (with Chris Jones and Quinnen Williams being the two IDLs who meet those parameters). He’s been a dominant player for a defense, that without taking the Chiefs game into account – when Kansas City didn’t even attempt to block him, in favor of making him the read-man and throwing screens behind him – has given up just 14.7 points a game the rest of the way (which would be number one in the league).
2. Micah Parsons
The case for Micah to be right at the front of this race is fairly simple – he finished second last season in terms of votes for Defensive Player of the Year as a rookie and I’d argue he’s significantly better in year two. Right now, he ranks behind only the Browns’ Myles Garrett, with 39 pressures on the season, despite spending the highest percentage of snaps in coverage than any other player in the top ten. According to ESPN’s pass-rush win rate, he beats his blocker in 2.5 seconds or less on 32% of his rushes, which places him at number one in the entire league. His speed off the edge is second to none that we have in football today, being able to consistently attack half the man and win the corner, along with being able to hit some quick inside counters and incorporate some stutter steps, to read pass sets and punish any overcommitments. His ability create force through his acceleration is already a major problem for blocker, and his hand-placement actually has some room for improvements over the rest of the season. When he isn’t actually attacking the quarterback, we’ve see Parsons with some teach-tape reps in coverage against running backs and tight-ends, such as against the Eagles’ Dallas Goedert on a couple of occasions. The biggest star on the Cowboys is also tied for sixth with nine tackles for loss, while the two guys right in front of him with ten have played one additional game. Even when blockers just try to seal him on the backside, his quickness to jump inside of those guys can create issues, while having the blazing pursuit speed to run down even wide receivers, when they’re involved in the run/screen game. With some absurd chase-down tackles, such as against the Lions – which directly set up a turnover – a couple of fumbles forced and one alertly returned for a touchdown against the Bears, he’s arguably the biggest play-maker we have on the defensive side of the ball today. And he’s doing it for the number one defense in DVOA (-18.6%).
3. Myles Garrett
I’ve pointed out multiple statistics for these first two names, and for both, the term “behind only the Browns’ Myles Garrett” came up – so let’s talk about the man in question. According to PFF, Garrett right now leads in the NFL pass-rushing grade (93.7), total pressures (41) and pass-rush win percentage (27.4%) – he’s second according to ESPN’s metrics (30%). I’ve chosen this guy as a front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year the previous two years, so of course when I decide to not list him in my full-season predictions, largely due to the uncertainty about the Browns’ quarterback situation and how many chances he may get to produce as a pass-rusher, he’s on pace for the best (statistical) season of his career. He has “only” recorded 7.5 sacks, but he has also only played in seven games so far. When he’s been out there, he’s absolutely terrorized any tackle he’s gone up against, and most teams have adjusted their protections to provide help for if he wanted to work inside. Opposing offenses have been able to give him some extra attention with those half-line slides and chips, due to not really having anybody along the D-line with him that would really scare you in those one-on-one matchups. Jacob Phillips is currently the only other Browns player with at least two full sacks. However, Garrett has become so much more flexible and balanced to torque his body and step past the man, as he links his arms and lower half together, along with the sheer power to take blockers for a ride, to force QBs to move off the spot even with offensive coordinators circling him on the whiteboard. In the run game, he has been one of the few bright spots, as Cleveland ranks in the bottom-ten in total yards and yards per carry allowed on the ground. He has done his part, stunning tight-ends at the point of attack and even shutting down option plays against Lamar and the Ravens by himself at times. He does have eight TFLs to his name, which once again came in just seven contests.
Honorable mentions: Matthew Judon, Jeffery Simmons & Za’Darius Smith
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
This is another award that has heavily leaned towards quarterbacks in recent years when it’s been fairly close with other positions. We had Justin Herbert blowing away Justin Jefferson despite equally setting new rookie records for wide receivers, Kyler Murray winning it over Josh Jacobs despite a 1300-yard season in 13 games by the Raiders RB and Ezekiel Elliott not even at least being named Co-OROY along with his own quarterback, when you can certainly argue who was the driving force behind that Cowboys team. So (thankfully), with Kenny Pickett struggling as the lone rookie QB with extended action at this point, I’m happy to be able to talk about these other guys. Running backs in particular have really shined so far.
1. Dameon Pierce
The Texans are 1-6-1 on the season, with just one of their losses coming by fewer than seven points. They’re probably in the market for a new quarterback and coaching staff. So this really is a lost season for them and there are very few bright spots. With that being said, their rookie running back has just been awesome to watch. Back during the preseason, when I put together my video on the “fantasy diamonds for 2022”, I told everyone to draft Pierce and stay quiet about it. Well, ya’ll couldn’t just do that and now I don’t have him on almost any of my teams, because of the way he sky-rocketed up boards. To me there was never a question that he’d be the best and most complete back for Houston and he’s handled 74.3% of touches for that backfield. He’s turned those into 678 rushing yards, which ranks sixth in the NFL right now, and if you go to yards per game (84.8), he actually moves up that one spot to make it into the top-five. He’s so good at incorporating those micro-movements, to set up blockers and not allow defenders to square him in the hole, to where now guys can’t bring him down without gaining multiple extra yards. The Texans use a lot of duo and GT power runs, where his ability to change up his footwork on the fly and work in sudden bursts, keeps those second-level defenders from being able to mirror and get straight wraps on him. And then of course, he might just be the angriest ball-carrier in the game right now, just refusing to go down, stiff-arming guys to the ground or straight-up trucking whoever is in his path. Not counting his untouched 75-yard TD versus the Chargers – where he did make the safety miss a good ten yards in – an absurd 83.4% of his ground production has come after contact. His involvement in the pass game has also seen an uptick since early in the season, mostly a check-down option (20 catches for 98 yards), but he’s produced some teaching tape on pass pro reps, where he’s stone-walling linebackers in the gap.
2. Kenneth Walker III
Unlike the Texans rookie runner, who has been the unquestioned workhorse in that backfield ever since week two, my RB2 from the 2022 draft had to wait his turn a little. Walker did flash weeks two to five, working his way back from a hernia procedure, and he did finally break loose for a 69-yard touchdown against the Saints, once Rashaad Penny went down with what turned out to be a season-ending ankle injury. However, over the past four weeks as a starter, he has been the most productive back in all of football. He’s averaged 106 yards on the ground (on 22 carries per) and scored six touchdowns over that stretch, along with 34 receiving yards. Ever since he’s been handed the reigns, it has been clear what a special ball-carrier he is. After a breakout season as a transfer to Michigan State, when he won then Doak Walker award for the top running back in the nation, Walker ended up being drafted second at his position shortly after Breece Hall – who was on pace to be a major factor in this race as well, until suffering a season-ending injury. KW3’s ability to string together moves and make defenders miss has been his calling card in college and he’s carried that over smoothly to the pro level. According to PFF, he’s already seventh in the entire league with 31 missed tackles forced, despite not having touched the ball more than eight times until week six and being tied for 18th in total touches. This guy has some crazy wiggle, to make defenders look like they’re stuck in quicksand, he can plant and navigate around blocks, as guys try to cheat their assignments, and has been deadly cutting back across the grain, after forcing the entire defense to flow with him. He does a great job of minimizing the surface area opponents can hit and pull himself through wraps, plus then of course he has true home-run speed, indicated by an NFL season-high 22.09 mph on his game-sealing touchdown run against the Chargers a couple of weeks ago.
3. Chris Olave
Let’s throw a receiver in here, as one guy stands above the rest of this rookie class. The only name even close to Olave’s 618 receiving yards (on 43 catches) is his former Ohio State teammate Garrett Wilson on the Jets (521) – no other rookie has even cracked 400. That places the Saints standout ninth league-wide, sandwiched between two potential Hall of Fame receivers in Davante Adams and Mike Evans. And he’s done so on 249 routes run, which ranks 32nd in the NFL. Ever since Michael Thomas fooled us into thinking he was finally back from injury over the first couple of weeks, this guy has been the unquestioned number one target in the pass game, with nearly double the yardage of the next-closest guy, which is running back Alvin Kamara (319). And while he has delivered some big plays down the field, he has been a consistent chain-mover for New Orleans, as 28 of his 43 receptions have resulted in first downs and several of them have come in got-to-have-it situations. He has only reached the end-zone twice, but that is more due to how heavily the Saints have featured Taysom Hill at the goal-line and other than Mike Thomas’ third TDs when he was still in there, the WR corp for this team has accounted for only five scores. I thought Olave was the most pro-ready receiver coming into the draft this past April, looking at his combination of being able to manipulate defenders at the break point, the feel for zone-coverage and how consistently he frames the ball when it arrives there. He’s so good at threating vertically off the ball, snapping off routes and working back down the ladder on curls, hooks and comebacks. I’ve been very impressed with his ability to get to the edges of defenders in press-alignment, he’s always been really smooth with changing up speeds and not losing it as he bends routes and he makes difficult grabs look easy, especially at the sideline. Olave isn’t a YAC specialist, but he displays tremendous awareness for ancillary coverage defenders and for how to secure catches, while only having dropped two passes on the year.
Honorable mentions: Garrett Wilson & Breece Hall
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
Similar to the Defensive Player of the Year award, voting for the rookie version is also heavily swayed towards defensive linemen, because their impact can be measured much more easily than guys in the back-seven. However, while the three most recent winners have all played on the edge, we’ve also had three interior D-linemen and linebackers each receive the honors during the 2010’s. This year we’ve seen some tremendous young corners make their mark on the league and account for two thirds of this list of mine.
1. Sauce Gardner
The transition from college to the NFL is challenging no matter which position we play, but quarterback and cornerback may be the most difficult ones in that regard. So considering any great play by young quarterbacks is typically highlighted, while it’s very easy to find a couple of bad reps, where corners get beat, you rarely see guys at that spot truly stand out at a young age. In fact, the only two cornerbacks to win DROY since Charles Woodson in 1998 are Marcus Peters, thanks to leading the league in interceptions and pass-deflections, and Marshon Lattimore, who had one of the great coverage seasons we’ve seen. You can easily put Sauce in that conversation with those guys and he has been absolutely worth the fourth overall pick. Right now, he’s tied for the lead-league in passes broken up (12), he’s intercepted two passes and hasn’t given up a touchdown since week two, which was purely charged on him due to being the closest defender. On that one, the Jets were playing cover-three and he probably had to stay out there for a threat in the flats to turn upfield and trust the post safety to get over the post from a reduced split. Even with that, Gardner has allowed fewer than 30 yards and a passer rating below 67 in all but two of his games. He’s been outstanding in a zone-coverage heavy New York defense on early downs, where his presence has made it very tough to attack windows between him and nearby teammates, thanks to his ability to squeeze receivers and decipher route patterns. And then when they get to third down, they can put him on the opposing team’s top wideout and legitimately trust him to hold his own in man-coverage, where he can crowd guys off the line and disrupt the catch point late with his freaky length. Right now, Sauce had the highest coverage grade among all cornerbacks, according to PFF (86.1). And he’s been an active contributor in run support, condensing the edge and being a secure tackler, missing only three of his 47 total attempts.
2. Tariq Woolen
Talk about impressive rookie cornerbacks – There was never any doubt that Woolen was a ridiculous athlete. Looking at his spider chart by Mockdraftable, it would basically be a perfect circle if not for average hand size. This guy is 6’4” with offensive tackle arm length at 33 ½ inches, yet he ran a 4.26 and had a 42-inch vertical jump at the combine. I thought he was a top-50 lock, but somehow he slipped all the way to the fifth round – just like another pretty good corner they had in Seattle for years in Richard Sherman. A fixture in the lineup from week one, Woolen leads all rookies with four interceptions – one of which returned to the house in highly impressive fashion – and he’s broken up eight additional passes. For a specimen with the wingspan of a pterodactyl, you’d expect this guy to be a classic press-man corner – and he has some high-level reps on tape, where he’s guiding receivers throughout the route with continuous contact – but he’s actually been a massive piece in Seattle’s off-zone heavy scheme. He has the speed to carry routes down the sideline or post in cover-three, with the confidence to turn his head and locate the ball, as well as fall off his responsibility and disrupt the catch point on routes around him. However, what is so impressive about a guy his size is the way I’ve seen him drive and even undercut routes from quarters, where he can wrap around guys with those long and rake the ball loose on curls and digs. After his highest passer rating allowed through the first six week was 60.4, he’s just had statistically his three worst games as a pro, allowing his only two touchdowns. Yet, on the first one he had to go underneath a pick on a mesh concept, that he couldn’t quite stop short and the second came this past Sunday, when a savvy veteran TE in Zach Ertz got a V-release slant for a six-yard score. Something I loved about his tape at UTSA and that has carried over to the NFL – This guy doesn’t shy away from sticking his face in the fan and replacing teammates with actual run fits, while having missed just one of his 32 tackling attempts so far.
3. Aidan Hutchinson
Looking back at preseason odds for this award, Hutchinson was the overwhelming favorite. Considering he was arguably the most pro-ready pass-rusher, looking at the success he had his final year at Michigan, number one overall pick Travon Walker still being fairly raw technically and the third edge defender of the top-five in Kayvon Thibodeaux expected to miss a few weeks with a preseason injury, combined with the underwhelming history of cornerbacks winning this award – as two guys at that spot were the only other defensive players selected across the first 12 picks – it felt like Hutch had a really clear path. That’s on top of playing for the home-town Lions, who desperately a star on that side of the ball. Considering Detroit is giving up an NFL-high 29.3 points per game and that number has actually decreased significantly, thanks to the Packers anemic red-zone offense from this past Sunday, not a lot of attention is heading their way. Still, Hutchinson has had a more than solid debut campaign for a team that has unfortunately continued to lose a lot of close games and rarely been in positive game-script situations, where their D-line would be able to just tee off. Hutch leads all rookies with 4.5 sacks and nine additional QB hits, whilst being tied for number one (with the Chiefs’ George Karlaftis) in total pressures (24). Comparing his pressure count to the rest of the Lions, the next-closest guy has only eleven. He’s needed to be the alpha for that group, and while he hasn’t been as consistently dominant as people hoped he might be, he’s had tremendous flashes, such as that three-sack half he had back in week two against Washington. The rest of his production doesn’t do him justice, as he’s regularly been held on rush downs, and his three TFLs don’t reflect the way he’s thrown off run plays, by making ball-carriers stop their feet and try to find a different opening. Oh, and he also made one of the most alert plays I’ve seen this past Sunday, recognizing the Packers left tackle releasing as a tackle-eligible and coming up with his first interception on a designed throwback.
Honorable mentions: Devin Lloyd, Jack Jones & Jaquan Brisker
Comeback Player of the Year:
I’ve grown not a big fan of this award, because the requirements or parameters are all over the place. I think the truest form of this should be players coming off injuries, followed by guys, who had a down period, due to the situation they were in or maybe because they were banged up, and now they’ve returned to a similar form. I don’t think someone like Geno Smith fits the criteria, because he was never more than a fringe starter and is now playing at a top-ten level for the quarterback position. That certainly should lead to praise coming his way, which is what I did in my “Ranking all 32 NFL quarterbacks” piece last week, but not in the sense of this award.
1. Saquon Barkley
I already listed Saquon as the number two choice for Offensive Player of the Year and now it’s time to discuss him in more detail. Right now, the Giants running back is third in total scrimmage yards, behind only Tyreek Hill and Derrick Henry, who if you take the difference of six more touches into account, they are basically completely even, averaging 5.1 yards per. You can certainly argue Henry belongs in the OPOY and CPOY conversation, but 22.5% of his production came two weeks ago against the horrid Texans run defense and the comeback story itself is much more prevalent with Saquon. I did a whole video on his re-ascent from college phenom at Penn State to NFL superstar, through two injury-riddled seasons, where he’s missed 18 combined games, and then rising from the ashes again this year. I think his vision between the tackles is as good as it’s ever been, his pacing and jump-cuts make it almost impossible to really box him in, his burst through an openings is eye-opening and then he doesn’t show any hesitation to lower his pads, along with the speed to rip off big chunks. What has been so impressive about Barkley this season is the fact the Giants rely on him as their only skill-position for defenses to circle throughout their week of preparation. The leading receiver for New York right now is Darius Slayton with 232 yards – nobody else even cracks 200. And the two other backs on the roster have less than 100 yards on the ground. They use him in the wildcat, they hit him on designed crossing routes as a slot receiver, they almost over-feed him at times on swings and screens that opponents are prepared for. Yet, mostly it’s just multi-tight-end sets and running him on wide zone, duo, toss plays, etc. where opponents are keyed in on stopping him, and he still produces at this high a level.
2. Za’Darius Smith
You rarely see defensive players win this award for whatever reason, with Eric Berry overcoming cancer being the only one to do so since 2008. Probably it’s fantasy players not getting behind them as they do with guys who put big numbers, or because they don’t handle the ball, they’re not as relevant to general fans, but for the AP voters, that’s not an excuse. After injuring his back in the ’21 season-opener, Smith had surgery that kept him out for the rest of the year, and as we heard from the horse’s mouth, the Packers handled him as if he was off the team from that point on already. So signing with the division-rival Vikings and having a monster game in their week one matchup must have been really sweet for “Z”. However, that’s far from where things have stopped, as he’s been a game-wrecker and legitimately a part of the Defensive Player of the Yar conversation. Only the Patriots’ Matt Judon has recorded more than Smith’s 8.5 sacks, he’s tied for the league-lead with 13 tackles for loss and he’s top five in QB hits per game (15 in eight weeks). This past Sunday at Washington was actually his first matchup without a sack or TFL all season – and he still made a significant impact, getting three hits on Taylor Heinicke and batting down two of his passes. He also became the only player this year with multiple games of 9+ pressures. His impact on this entire Vikings defense might be even more noteworthy, as they’re allowing five points less than in 2021. He’s their chess piece in the front-seven, lining up anywhere from the nose all the way out to a nine-technique on passing downs, along with using him as an off-ball blitzer to create havoc at times. There have been so many plays, where he blows up a blocker in the hole and finds a way to funnel the ball to one of his teammates, that don’t end up on his stat sheet.
3. Christian McCaffrey
This may be somewhat of a projection here, as I expect CMac to return to legit superstar form in San Francisco. Yet, this is also a sign of what type of player he truly is, now under a great coach in Kyle Shanahan, that understands how to deploy him accordingly. I mean, in his one start (and full week of preparation with the 49ers), he literally did something we’ve never seen before in the NFL – accounting for 30+ yards and a touchdown rushing, receiving and passing the ball. Despite the fact he spent his first six games on the dead-last ranked offense in EPA per play and DVOA for the Panthers and he saw limited action in his debut with Niners, after getting traded in the middle of the week, through eight games, he’s still somehow sixth among players in scrimmage yards (881) on 5.7 yards per and has accounted for six touchdowns. I would not be shocked in any way if he ended up moving to that number one spot by the time the season ended. CMac can certainly stretch plays out and then explode through the hole in a zone-based run system, that so many people associate with the Shahan tree. Yet, as we witness San Francisco transition to more gap schemes, you can really see what made him so special at Stanford, getting tight behind pulling linemen and then accelerating once he’s dictated second-level defenders where to go. In the pass game, he can bail out offenses by catching check-downs short of the sticks and making a couple of defenders miss to keep the offense moving and win down the field in isolated matchups. However, something that we also saw most recently against the Rams is his great football IQ, on his receiving TD, as he realize that he should turn a simple flare out upfield, with the defense caught napping and Jimmy Garoppolo trusted him to get to that spot for a leaping grab. Seeing him be able to shine is awesome, after he was limited to just ten games with nagging injuries over the previous two seasons.
Coach of the Year:
This is another category without clear parameters as to what categorizes the best coach of the year. Theoretically, I would say the guys who make the most of the talent they have at hand – and that’s how I interpreted it – is the way they should be judged, but mostly the head-men of the teams with the greatest records receive these honors. Of course that’s a main indicator for how well you coach a football team, but I think the expectations coming into the year, based on the roster available, and the way you’re able to overcome injuries and other adversity should carry more weight. I believe there are more worthy candidates for this award than we’ve seen in a long time.
1. Brian Daboll
Based on my characterization of the award, I went with Daboll here, over the coach of another NFC East team, which is still undefeated at this point. Considering I had the Giants going 5-12 on the season, already having six wins (compared to only two losses) in their pocket, as they’re now coming off their bye week, qualifies them as overachievers. Looking at all the horrible contracts brought on board by the Dave Gettleman regime, followed up by a pretty eventless offseason for a questionable roster and then cutting a Pro Bowl cornerback during the offseason, had this team finished 2022 with six wins, I believe the expectations for ownership would at least not have been undercut. Observing their offensive skill-position group, they have Saquon in his resurgent season and really nobody else – Kenny Golladay has been an abomination and basically unplayable, Sterling Shephard tore his ACL back in week three and they recently traded ’21 first-round pick Kadarius Toney to the Chiefs. Yet, they continue to come up with unique designs and personnel combinations to create issues for defenses and put up enough points. While defensively, they’ve allowed Wink Martindale to bring the heat in certain moments, whilst having his backfield well-prepared on what’s coming, and overall they play such fundamentally sound team D. Somehow this team is 6-2, despite ranking 21st in overall DVOA. They stick around in games and are mentally tougher than their opponents when it comes to the fourth quarter, indicated by five game-winning drives led by Daniel Jones already – two more than any other QB in the league. The G-Men are early in their development compared to where they should be in this re-tooling phase and Daboll deserves a ton of credit for how they’ve turned things around. Because the NFC East is 24-9 combined and has three teams with at least six wins, the division is probably out of reach, but the Giants are likely headed for a Wildcard berth, when most people had them probably picking in the top-five next April.
2. Nick Sirianni
Getting back to my point about the whole “what do you have at your disposal” point, people who really studied Philly’s roster and all the moves they made this offseason, being 8-0 maybe wasn’t the expectation, but they were set up for a very good season. In my original 272-game schedule that I had filled out to determine playoff seedings, I had the Eagles winning 12 games and finishing as the NFC’s number one seed. However, I kind of chickened out and took one win off their record, pushing them down to third – which is still much better than their three-to-one division odds (at the time I bet this) even would indicate. Therefore, I “only” have Sirianni at number two here, but he still deserves a lot of credit, for steering this ship through the first half of the season, without having lost a game yet. Jalen Hurts has put up MVP numbers in an offense perfectly suited to his skill-set, that doesn’t put a ton stress on him on a play-by-play basis, with the RPO game as their foundation and wrinkles to dress those concepts up differently. The defense has gone from being a bland two- and three-deep coverage base, to now throwing all kinds of stuff at the wall, where they run basically anything on the back-end, whilst having put the guys they added to the front-seven in scene accordingly. They’re now top-four in offensive and defensive DVOA, while having ascended to the top spot for the whole team (32.7%). The Eagles understand their personnel – which is excellent – they understand when to be aggressive, they add little extras to their weekly gameplans and Sirianni has aligned this team’s mentality with the Philadelphia fanbase it feels like. Looking at the rest of the schedule, they don’t face another team with a record of at least .500 for another month, and without another true powerhouse in the NFC yet, they might stroll towards the number one seed in the conference.
3. Robert Saleh
Let’s now get to “the other” New York team. There was a little bit more faith in the Jets coming into the year, having a highly talented second-year quarterback and a bunch of young talent brought in via the draft the last couple of years by a generally highly-regarded GM in Joe Douglas. Robert Saleh now in the midst of his second season with Gang Green, finally has the pieces defensively that he originally envisioned. That unit has gone from the very bottom of the league according to multiple statistical categories a year ago to now seventh in DVOA as a group and tied for third with just 4.8 yards allowed per play, despite a challenging schedule. That includes holding two of the most explosive offenses from their own division in the Dolphins and Bills to only 17 points respectively. They can wreak havoc with their front-four which is constantly running games, they have heat-seaking missiles on the second level and their secondary is really good at passing off targets in zone coverage, while being able to challenge opponents with man on crucial downs. They’ve been so good on that side of the ball, that they haven’t needed their young QB to be the hero – quite the opposite actually, where he’s cost them with some mistakes. But on that side of the ball, Mike LaFleur has found ways to design some cool run plays, using a lot more pin-and-pulls and counters than we typically see from that offensive tree. They’ve been able to find success on the ground, despite five different combinations on the starting O-line, and when they’ve gotten to the fourth quarter they’ve reigned in their young signal-caller, to where he doesn’t make any of those big mistakes and actually has a passer rating of 104.2 over those final 15 minutes (fifth-best in the league). As a team, their point differential of +58 in fourth quarters is 25 higher than the next-closest squad (Vikings with 33).
Honorable mentions: Kevin O’Connell & Pete Carroll