One of the most enjoyable parts of my job covering the NFL is having a vote for the Associated Press All-Pro team and the league’s individual awards—which I’ve held at least since the late 1990s. The AP announced its All-Pro team last week, and will announce the award winners the night before the Super Bowl at the NFL Honors ceremony.
Below is my ballot, with some explanation of my thinking on any particular position or award I found to be a difficult decision. The AP asks that we vote for a right and left offensive tackle, rather than the two best tackles overall, and the same goes at right and left guard and the strong and free safety positions. And though the game isn’t played much like the All-Pro team looks these days, I have selected two running backs and one fullback as the ballot currently exists, knowing that change is likely to decrease that crowded backfield in the near future.
TE (1) – Rob Gronkowski, New England
I gave strong consideration to Cleveland’s Joe Thomas at left tackle, but I felt like Whitworth, the other left tackle in Ohio, had the more consistent and effective season. At right tackle, it was a struggle to find anyone who played at an elite level in 2015. But Schwartz got the nod over New Orleans’ Zach Strief because of his overall steadiness at the position.
C (1) – Ryan Kalil, Carolina
QB (1) – Cam Newton, Carolina
FBs (1) – Mike Tolbert, Carolina
Yes, it's a part-time position in the NFL, but nobody plays it better than Tolbert does even as the game’s changes have decreased the importance of the role.
Place Kicker (1) – Stephen Gostkowski, New England
Tyler Lockett made an impact in several ways as a rookie in Seattle, but in terms of strictly a kick returner, Harris was the best, most dangerous play-maker I saw this season.
I put the play-making Mack at defensive end rather than outside linebacker, but he was actually voted to the All-Pro team at both positions, a first in that respect. No matter where you lined him up, he was an edge rusher extraordinaire.
By putting Mack at defensive end, I was able to make room for the underrated Davis, who was superb this season, and helped keep the Panthers defense dominant even when inside linebacker Luke Kuechly missed some early season games due to a concussion.
ILB (2) – Luke Kuechly, Carolina; NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco
Bowman didn’t have the big-play impact of others, but I wanted to give a nod to his comeback season and being a steady, tackling-machine presence in the 49ers defense.
CB (2) – Josh Norman, Carolina; Chris Harris, Denver
Hated to leave the Cardinals’ Patrick Peterson out of my top two, because he was very deserving. But I felt like Denver’s superb defense was under-represented and thought Harris had a strong body of work this year.
So many quality choices, but Mathieu was an elite player no matter where he lined up before being lost for the season in December. Every time I watched Jones he was making impact plays.
Punter (1) – Johnny Hekker, St. Louis
Most Valuable Player – Cam Newton, QB, Carolina
Most Valuable is always a challenging definition, but Newton made for an easy choice this season, doing so much himself and also turning his fellow Panthers skill-position players into play-making weapons.
Coach of the Year – Ron Rivera, Carolina
Andy Reid, Mike Zimmer and Bruce Arians were strong candidates, but Rivera put together an almost perfect season, pulling every string at the right time.
Assistant Coach of the Year – Mike Shula, OC, Carolina
I thought Carolina was lost offensively when receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down with a season-ending knee injury in August. I thought wrong. Kudos to Shula’s play-calling and how he game-planned to make the best possible use of his roster.
Comeback Player of the Year – Eric Berry, S, Kansas City
No award gave me more of a struggle, with Doug Martin’s huge bounce-back season, Derrick Johnson’s return to form, Carson Palmer’s comeback and Navorro Bowman’s re-emergence all strong enough to win this honor in their own right. But Berry beating lymphoma and then putting together a special season for the playoff-qualifying Chiefs became the choice that could not be ignored.
Defensive Rookie of the Year – Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City
Went with the play-making Peters as my DROY at midseason, and he only solidified that selection in the season’s second half, tying for the league lead in interceptions with eight.
Offensive Rookie of the Year – Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay
He beat out the likes of Rams running back Todd Gurley, Oakland receiver Amari Cooper and Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota based on a season in which he improved the more he played, taking good care of the football in the process.
Defensive Player of the Year – J.J. Watt, DL, Houston
Just go ahead and name the award in his honor at this point. If Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack and Josh Norman had a strong candidacy at some point during the season, Watt made the argument moot by year’s end.
Offensive Player of the Year – Cam Newton, QB, Carolina
I don’t always like the idea of doubling up with the same player at both MVP and OPOY, but Newton was the game’s preeminent offensive force this season.