Andy Benoit’s film study reveals the best players at each position
QB Tom Brady, Patriots
The argument that he hasn’t played in enough games is a fair one, but here’s why I’ve included him: the games he has played have all been nearly perfect 10s. And we were quick to credit the Patriots’ culture when citing the three wins when Brady was suspended. The 17-year veteran has (obviously) been integral to creating that culture. Lastly, it has not been a top year for quarterbacks. Even the guys with big numbers on winning teams—Matt Ryan and Derek Carr—have been very good and rising, but they’re not as great as their numbers suggest.
RB Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
The offensive line deserves a lot of credit. But Elliott has also quickly developed the necessary patience for letting blocks develop, and his mix of body control and acceleration is arguably the best in football. He’s also improving swiftly in the passing game.
WR Julio Jones, Falcons
There’s no better in-breaking route runner. That’s critical in Atlanta’s masterfully constructed base personnel, play-action-driven scheme.
WR Amari Cooper, Raiders
He can afford to be the most patient route runner in football because his body control and quickness are off the charts. This also makes him viable on every type of route you can imagine (and Raiders offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has imagined a lot).
Slot WR Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
You always have to factor in his contributions as a run-blocker.
TE Travis Kelce, Chiefs
There might not be a better-designed offense in the NFL than Kansas City’s, particularly when it comes to multi-tight end sets. The versatile fourth-year pro is the fulcrum in many of those designs. He’s also a rapidly improving playside run-blocker.
TE Jimmy Graham, Seahawks
He’s reemerging as the type of versatile receiving weapon we saw in New Orleans.
LT David Bakhtiari, Packers
Doesn’t have a naturally strong anchor, so handling bull rushes has sometimes been an issue. But most of the time he’s been an agile, rock-solid pass protector at a key spot on what’s been the NFL’s best pass-blocking front five.
LG Laremy Tunsil, Dolphins
Has some of the most natural feet you’ll ever see, which comes in handy not just in pass protection (where he’s been superb) but also in an outside zone rushing attack like Miami’s.
C Travis Frederick, Cowboys
No one is better at snapping the ball and immediately crossing a nose tackle’s face to pin him back inside. That’s the key to Dallas’s zone ground game. He’s also part of an O-line that’s been almost flawless in pass protection.
RG Zack Martin, Cowboys
There might not be a better on-the-move run-blocker in the league right now.
RT Bryan Bulaga, Packers
It’s astounding how many teams are vulnerable at this position. Not the Packers.
Edge: Von Miller, Broncos
No pass rusher dips and bends with more velocity and litheness. He’s also had dominant stretches as a force defender against the run.
Edge: Khalil Mack, Raiders
Several edge defenders have had great seasons: Ryan Kerrigan, Nick Perry, Lorenzo Alexander, Brian Orakpo, Whitney Mercilus. And yes, Mack, who by his standards ran a tad hot and cold over the first few weeks. But his hot is usually white, not red. And a lot of times when he’s “cold,” he’s still impacting games by getting special treatment in the offense’s blocking structures.
Interior DE: Jadeveon Clowney, Texans
He’s found his NFL niche operating out of a three-point stance, which naturally negates his tendency to play too tall and, more importantly, accentuates his strong, explosive burst, which is what originally created all the hype that he’s now living up to.
Interior DE: Jurrell Casey, Titans
Tennessee’s entire defense is built on front-seven versatility, both in presnap looks and postsnap movement (think twists, stunts and zone blitz droppers). Casey is unequivocally the most valuable piece here.
DT: Mike Daniels, Packers
Possesses good initial movement skills plus the gradual strength to wear opponents down over the course of a play.
DT: Fletcher Cox, Eagles
His flourishment in Jim Schwartz’s gap-penetrating scheme hasn’t come at the expense of his considerable raw power.
Stack LB: Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Let’s just say he hasn’t been Carolina’s problem this season.
Stack LB: K.J. Wright, Seahawks
There might not be a sounder all-around ’backer in football. Wright is very good in man coverage up on the line of scrimmage, picking up (and at times carrying) receivers in zone coverage, defending the run inside and outside and, as of late, blitzing.
CB Desmond Trufant, Falcons
One of the select few corners who can play both man and zone coverage outside or inside. Has done so successfully while shadowing star receivers who range in size and style from Doug Baldwin (slot) to Amari Cooper to Kelvin Benjamin. Much more of a playmaker this season, too.
CB Malcolm Butler, Patriots
In a man-to-man centric scheme, he’s the stopper designated for the opposing team’s quickest receiver. Has excellent physicality and understanding of passing angles.
Slot CB Chris Harris, Broncos
Outstanding hip pocket man-to-man defender. Hasn’t been quite as the same as in recent years (bigger receivers have posed problems at times), and it would have been nice to recognize Los Angeles’s versatile, hard-hitting slot man Lamarcus Joyner here. But Joyner plays in a zone scheme, while Harris is integral to Denver’s man-to-man foundation. Man coverage always presents more flexibility for a defensive play-caller.
S Earl Thomas, Seahawks
He’s been much more than just a centerfielder in 2016 (though he remains the NFL’s smartest and rangiest there). He’s a critical component in the increased snaps of man coverage that Seattle is playing on crucial third downs, both as a pure matchup guy and as a robber over the middle.
S Harrison Smith, Vikings
The MVP of what’s been one of the NFL’s best defenses. He’s a rangy read-and-reactor out of two-shell coverages (Minnesota’s foundation), a rock-solid tackler (including in space) and a shrewd presnap disguise artist (including on blitzes).
1. Tom Brady
2. Julio Jones
3. Andrew Luck
The Colts have struggled, but they’d be all but eliminated if not for him.
4. Von Miller
We think offense when talking about clutch performers. But you could argue no player has made more late fourth quarter impact plays than this guy.
5. Desmond Trufant
Coach of the Year*
* This award should be thought of as a staff award, with the head coach being the representative.
1. Bill Belichick
Besides rewriting the offense when Brady was out, his defense (which is led by coordinator Matt Patricia) remains, from a fundamentals standpoint, the soundest in football.
2. Dan Quinn
Has mixed and matched personnel on defense to concoct an improving bevy of packages. More notable has been the job done by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. There isn’t a harder team to face with two backs or two tight ends on the field.
3. Andy Reid
All things being equal, from purely a schematic standpoint, his offense is the NFL’s best constructed.
4. Jason Garrett
No matter how well your offensive line plays, you don’t win seven of your first eight games with a rookie quarterback and running back if those guys aren’t being coached well. And consider that this defense has overachieved thanks to two things: the gap-exchange concepts taught by coordinator Rod Marinelli up front (think stunts, twists and D-line slants) and the success that corners Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr have had after flip-flopping positions.
5. Mike Zimmer
Offensive line injuries might ultimately sink this team, but injuries at quarterback and running back could have easily sunk it long ago.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
RB Ezekiel Elliott
Defensive Rookie of the Year
DE Joey Bosa, Chargers
Guys with his lateral agility and burst come around maybe once every five years.
Comeback Player of the Year
Has been better about protecting himself but hasn't sacrificed the play-extending abilities that make him great.
Most Improved Player*
* It’s not an actual NFL award, but it should be.
1. DB A.J. Bouye, Texans
He’s been stingy in matchup coverages, both at safety and, more recently, outside corner.
2. OLB Nick Perry, Packers
A fierce edge-setter against the run; on film he’s looked as noisy rushing the passer as his six sacks suggest.
3. DL Kerry Hyder, Lions
Most natural as a nickel defensive tackle, but has also been superb against the run and pass as a base down defensive end.
4. TE Jack Doyle, Colts
A sound, thorough lead-blocker who also has the ability to catch balls away from his body.
5. DT Grady Jarrett, Falcons
Flashes with initial quickness and strength every week.
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