And the Awards Go to...

Monday December 21st, 2015

It’s that time of year. In a few weeks the NFL regular season will conclude and writers will submit their votes for all the awards. I’m not part of the voting process, but I’m glad to be part of the campaigning process. Here’s how I’d rank this year’s top candidates based on their film.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
Let’s not overthink this. Several guy are in legitimate competition for DPOY, but it should be a competition for second place. Not only do Watt’s numbers once again border on surreal, but offenses have paid more attention to him than ever. Without Watt, the Texans would not be in contention for the AFC South. If he doesn’t win, it’ll be because voters are reluctant to award it the same guy for the third time in four years.

2. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams
Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was right in comparing the second-year star to Watt. Donald’s quickness—off the snap, on second effort and in redirect moves—is as startling as anyone’s. He also plays with A-plus intensity.

• WATCHING FILM WITH… AARON DONALD: The Rams star on how he dominates in the trenches

3. Josh Norman, CB, Panthers
It’s a little tough putting a corner from a zone-centric scheme so high (zone is less demanding than man-to-man), but Norman has been flawless week in and week out. Carolina’s secondary has a better feel for zone spacing and shared coverage assignments than any other in the league. Norman has been the most important piece.

4. Luke Kuechly, LB, Panthers
He would be higher on this list except he missed three-and-a-half games early in the year (concussion). Kuechly has the sharpest play recognition you’ll see, pre-and post-snap.

5. Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals
Stylistically, the purest No. 1 corner in football. Has drawn marquee solo assignments against the likes of Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown, Steve Smith and A.J. Green. He came away the unofficial winner each time. Without Peterson’s press-man prowess, the Cardinals would not be as diverse and aggressive with their foundational pressure concepts.

6. Chris Harris, CB, Broncos
The best player on what’s easily the best defense in the AFC. Ability to slide inside in nickel leaves Denver with no exploitable weakness on passing downs.

7. Thomas Davis, LB, Panthers
He’s as explosive as ever. That, plus a high football IQ has brought crucial versatility to a Panthers defense that’s outstanding with selective schematic wrinkles.

8. Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Cardinals
A dynamic Swiss Army Knife. Lack of size has rarely been an issue when he matches up to tight ends one-on-one or attacks ball-carriers in space. Some of his flash plays have been products of bad offense (the interceptions against San Francisco, for example), but you also must take into account the impact plays he has that don’t show up on paper. These are most evident when he blitzes off the edge.

• WATCHING FILM WITH… TYRANN MATHIEU: The Cardinals star explains—among other things—how a receiver’s head nod (or lack thereof) leads to an interception, covering Jimmy Graham, and why, when it comes to receivers, ‘most of them are divas’

9. Kawann Short, DT, Panthers
Hard to put four players from the same defense on this list, but Short has jumped off the screen too many times to ignore. He blends initial quickness and raw strength.

10. Clay Matthews, LB, Packers
The Packers rank fifth in points allowed because they’re so versatile in personnel and scheme. Matthews headlines that. Plus, his early-down work as a base inside linebacker has converted a longstanding weakness into a strength for this defense.

Alex Brandon/AP

Offensive Player of the Year (non-Quarterbacks)

1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
As good as he’s ever been save for maybe the second half of 2012 when he wasn’t human. Peterson has carried an offense that’s very mediocre up front, fairly limited at quarterback and inconsistent on the perimeter.

2. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
Maybe he deserves to drop given Atlanta’s freefall, but it’s hard to reconcile that with his film. Jones leads the NFL in catches and yards despite attracting far and away the highest number of dedicated double-teams this season.

3. Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
The only weapon in New England whom defenses must specifically game plan against. That hasn’t stopped him from producing. You also must consider his contributions as a blocker.

4. Odell Beckham, WR, Giants
Another “only weapon defenses must game plan against” guy. At times it feels like no game plan could possibly work; he even came through late after an ugly game on Sunday.

5. Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers
Very similar to Beckham in terms of style and impact. Brown has the advantage (but for the purposes of statistics, disadvantage) of playing in a better system with more talent around him.

6. Andrew Whitworth, LT, Bengals
Rock-steady in all phases. Consider him on this list as the representative for a Bengals offense that has been very good in all phases.

7. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals
He brings two vital elements to Arizona’s dominant offense: an inside threat in spread and empty backfield formations (especially in the red zone) and add-in-blocking as a motion-down receiver in the run game.

• FITZGERALD FROM 1 TO 1,000: The future Hall of Famer reflects on his first reception, and how many more he thinks he has left

8. Greg Olsen, TE, Panthers
His ability to beat corners when split out wide has given dimension to a vertically oriented passing attack that’s bereft of quality wide receivers.

9. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Hopkins is not in the class of elite wide receivers when it comes to raw talent; other guys are quicker, faster and more dynamic. But every week he makes a handful of contested catches for a Texans offense that has no other notable weapons to threaten with. He has drawn more and more help coverage as this season has progressed, opening up the rest of Houston’s offense.

10. Richie Incognito, LG, Bills
The movable piece in Buffalo’s gap-scheme rushing attack. And, aside from a poor Week 14 showing at Philly, a borderline impermeable pass protector.

Julie Jacobson/AP

MVP

1. Cam Newton, QB, Panthers
He has blossomed into an outstanding pocket passer who has a full grasp on his team’s highly impressive scheme, evident both before and after the snap. Newton will always miss with a few fastballs here and there, but those misses have dropped dramatically and are easily offset by the throws he makes that many quarterbacks could not even attempt. What really sets Newton apart is his contribution to Carolina’s ground game. His ability to keep the ball makes run defenders hesitant. Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula has crafted a multidimensional, option-based attack to capitalize on this.

• SHOULD WE BELIEVE IN CAM NEWTON? As his game evolves, Superman is validating himself as a talent like no other

2. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
For all the usual reasons, including the old standby: Look at the players he’s winning with!

3. Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals
No QB better fits his team’s system. Palmer still has the arm strength to attack the deep-intermediate levels, and his understanding of how routes relate to coverages is off the charts. That’s why he’s been the best downfield passer in football this year.

• A QUARTERBACK AND HIS GAME PLAN: For a two-part series, Peter King spent a week shadowing Carson Palmer to see how an NFL QB devours an enormous game plan, and how that game plan works on gameday

4. Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks
Mike Pettine was spot-on in his assessment of Wilson… if you discount Wilson’s last five games, during which he has suddenly emerged as a lethal pocket passer. Five games is not a large enough sample to rewrite a player’s scouting report, but factor in Wilson’s raw playmaking before that and the ups and downs of the cast around him this year and those five (incredible) games are enough to push him into the conversation.

5. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
The NFL’s most improved quarterback over the last five years is having maybe his best season yet.

• ROETHLISBERGER IS THE NFL’S MOST GIFTED QUARTERBACK: So why isn’t anyone talking about him?

Nick Wass/AP

Defensive Rookie of the Year

1. Marcus Peters, CB, Chiefs
It’s a toss-up between Peters and Ronald Darby. Both have been outstanding as physical matchup defenders at left corner. The edge goes to Peters because Kansas City’s defense has been so much better than Buffalo’s down the stretch.

2. Ronald Darby, CB, Bills
If you feel passionate that he should be No. 1, you won’t get a loud rebuttal here. He’s had a fantastic year.

3. Byron Jones, S, CB, NB, LB, Cowboys
His position title tells the story.

4. Eric Kendricks, LB, Vikings
He supplanted veteran Chad Greenway in Minnesota’s nickel package, where his speed has contributed positively to Mike Zimmer’s foundational double-A-gap pressures. He has also been stellar versus the run.

5. Delvin Breaux, CB, Saints
Don’t blame New Orleans’s problems on him—he’s arguably the most impressive pure man coverage artist among all rookies this season. A few unlucky slips (literally, he slipped and fell to give up two long touchdowns against the Colts) have put false negatives on his stat sheet.

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Offensive Rookie of the Year

1. Jameis Winston, QB, Bucs
Mariota has been the more impressive of the two by a slight margin, but in terms of impacting his team’s win/loss record, Winston has the edge. Turnovers haven’t been the problem many expected even though he’s playing in an old-school vertical passing game and handling significant responsibilities at the line of scrimmage.

2. Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders
Even if he didn’t have a big game on Sunday, the few poor showings he’s had in recent weeks aren’t enough to negate that he’s already a top 10 NFL wide receiver.

3. Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
He has also had some recent poor outings, not necessarily to his fault, but still. And remember, he missed the first month of the season. Despite all this, he cracked the 1,000-yard rushing mark in Week 14. As smooth and firm of a runner as the game has right now.

4. Marcus Mariota, QB, Titans
Has had a very fine season operating as an every-down pocket passer—something no one expected.

5. Ali Marpet, G, Bucs
He missed three games due to injury but has shown athleticism and improvement all the other weeks. The Bucs’ system asks a lot of its guards, both run and pass.

Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Comeback Player of the Year

1. Derrick Johnson, LB, Chiefs
This is the toughest award to figure because it’s so open to interpretation. Are we talking players who are coming back strictly from injury? (That’s what I’m doing, which is why Adrian Peterson and Richie Incognito aren’t on this list.) Do we take into account the severity of the injury? (That’s not necessarily something I’m doing, otherwise Eric Berry would top this list.) For these purposes here, Comeback Player pertains to the player who missed significant time last season due to injury and has had the best season in return. Johnson, at 33, has recaptured his lethal speed and agility coming off a torn Achilles. He’s gotten markedly better as the year has progressed, and so has his Chiefs defense.

2. Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals
He has been so good no one even talks about him tearing his ACL late last year.

3. Doug Martin, RB, Bucs
Fully healthy for the first time since his 2012 rookie year and looking even better than he did then.

4. Sean Lee, LB, Cowboys
The Luke Kuechly of the Cowboys, just with slightly fewer coverage obligations.

5. Tracy Porter, CB, Bears
The Bears’ defense has been much better than expected in large part because they rank third in passing yards allowed. Porter has been the most stable piece of an otherwise reshuffling unit.

Mike McCarn/AP

Coach of the Year

1. Ron Rivera, Panthers
For this award, I’m taking into consideration the work done by the head coach and his assistants. Rivera’s coordinators, Mike Shula on offense and Sean McDermott on defense, have been two of the absolute best schemers in football this season. Shula has helped develop Cam Newton and has built a downfield passing attack despite a mediocre O-line and less than mediocre receiving corps. McDermott has done sensational work with pressure packages that don’t come often but do always come, it seems, at just the right time. As for Rivera, his even-keeled temperament and game management are well-suited for an undefeated team that boasts a few personalities.

2. Bill Belichick, Patriots
He has only won the award three times (which is still second all time behind Don Shula, who had four) because voters tend to give it to the coach of the team that most surpassed expectations. If you want to go by those standards, Belichick qualifies anyway. The Patriots have fought through a litany of injuries on offense, and on defense they’ve continued to thrive in man coverage with a secondary that few thought could compete.

3. Marvin Lewis, Bengals
There’s something to be said for continuity. Defensively, the Bengals have had more of that than any other team when it comes to personnel development and building a schematic identity. Offensively, Hue Jackson has been a headache for opposing chess masters, using a wide array of formations and pre-snap shifts to set up his balanced, well-crafted system.

4. Bruce Arians, Cardinals
Arians is another coach with a dominant system. He buttresses it with shrewd play-calling. First-year defensive coordinator James Bettcher has, for the most part, also succeeded.

5. Mike Zimmer, Vikings
His defense looks much better in Year Two than it did in Year One, and Year One wasn’t a bad showing. Very revealing is how well the Vikings played in (albeit) a losing effort at Arizona two weeks ago. They had a chance to win despite missing their best defensive lineman, linebacker and defensive back and playing on the road on a short week against one of the NFC’s top teams. Backups stepping in and performing well is a sign of good day-to-day coaching.

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