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Dark-Horse Candidates for 2021 NFL Awards

Which outside candidates could still find their way to one of the NFL's biggest awards?

Award season is almost upon us. The evaluation period that is the 2021 season is quickly coming to an end, with five more regular-season games remaining before the start of the playoffs. In one recent conversation with an NFL insider, the person wondered if we’re giving organizations too many chances to accept and normalize mediocrity now. It’s an interesting point—almost half of the NFL makes the playoffs. And with a 17th regular-season game, a lot of coaches and players battling the prospects of an offseason release or firing have some garbage time to put on a performance that skews the sample size to that point and buys them more runway, even though their opponent could be less than optimal at that point.

End-of-season awards should help us cut through the clutter but often end up just being a mere acknowledgement of fantasy football-focused statistics. For example, Trevon Diggs in Dallas is first in interceptions and has a completion percentage allowed of 54%. He’s also top 10 in receptions allowed, is targeted more than almost any cornerback in the NFL, will likely end up allowing more than 1,000 receiving yards and a handful of touchdowns. You may remember one extreme example of his boom-or-bust abilities on a given play. He is among the five leaders for Defensive Player of the Year from most sportsbooks, sitting most commonly third behind Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt.

So that’s why we’re here, to provide a bit of an awards primer and introduce some candidates who may not be the obvious, mainstream choice but could be more universally suited for an award. Who are you, dear internet poll voter and angry Pro Bowl ballot stuffer, not considering?

cooper-kupp

MVP

Obvious choice (right now): Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Please consider: Cooper Kupp, wide receiver, Los Angeles Rams

Tom Brady’s MVP candidacy feels like a bit of a runaway train at this point, and a soft acknowledgement that we were all wrong to doubt him a year ago and slept on the Buccaneers through a majority of the 2020 regular season, unable to see what Brady could see. He’s also leading the league in passing yards and touchdowns at the age of 44, and could realistically best his TD total (40) from a year ago. If you take Brady away from the Buccaneers, they are a wayward Arena Football League team. No argument from me here. But if you were able to pick someone else, perhaps a non quarterback, I have made the case for Jonathan Taylor before. I will make the case for Cooper Kupp now. Watching Kupp on every snap is like watching the robot tutorial of a video game, where each move has already been pre-programmed to spatial perfection. A few weeks ago when the Rams were playing the Packers and Matthew Stafford got on the board with that 79-yard Van Jefferson touchdown, Kupp drew the safety, which allowed Jefferson to break through the top of the defense with an advantageous one-on-one matchup. 

But with his back turned to Stafford, he's also unable to know whether he’s going to be thrown the ball, affecting a second defender or allowing Odell Beckham space to get a ball if Stafford doesn't feel like acting on the deep shot. We could describe hundreds of these kinds of plays. If you removed Kupp from the Rams, they would deflate offensively and while you can make that argument about most above-replacement level quarterbacks, the same seems to be true of Kupp regardless of whether his QB is replacement level, or is an MVP candidate.

OPOY

Obvious choice: Jonathan Taylor, running back, Indianapolis Colts; Cooper Kupp, wide receiver, Los Angeles Rams

Please consider: George Kittle, tight end, San Francisco 49ers

I normally try to sneak an offensive lineman in this space, but Kittle’s performances, both as a blocker and a receiver, have changed the course of the season for the 49ers. Kittle is Pro Football Focus’s top-rated blocking tight end among tight ends who share a significant amount of both run blocking and receiving responsibilities. His return from injury directly coincided with the 49ers’ best three rushing performances of the season. If you need any reminders of his efficacy, watch the 49ers’ punishing opening drive against the Rams from a few weeks ago. Kittle starts the drive with a picture-perfect wash out block, he helps double-team Aaron Donald, he catches balls and he acts as a decoy who, just by virtue of being George Kittle, freezes two defenders on one side of the field and prevents them from moving play-side. There is a reason the gap between tight end pay and wide receiver pay was bridged significantly with Kittle’s contract. There are few players more singularly important to the scheme. If I were Kyle Shanahan, I would be taking swings in the draft every year to try and find a suitable replacement or backup.

Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver/running back, Atlanta Falcons

While you may dismiss Patterson as a volume player on a going-nowhere Falcons team, it is noteworthy that he is directly responsible for more than 20% of the Falcons’ first downs. I think as coaches become more open-minded to the idea of (somewhat) positionless football, which we have already seen mainstreamed by the success of players like Christian McCaffrey, Le’Veon Bell and Alvin Kamara, the Offensive Player of the Year award will take on a decidedly different feel. This could be especially true the more we’re able to quantify and understand blocking through metrics. Patterson is an able pass protector. While he is not perfect—one particular rep against the Saints reminded me of someone hanging on to an inner tube being dragged behind a motorboat—and my window into his pass protecting might be anecdotal at best, even the most mediocre successes there continue to diversify the offense. If Patterson is standing beside Matt Ryan in the shotgun and there is not an immediate assumption that he will flare out into the flat or take the ball up the middle, it forces coordinators to reconsider their deployment of personnel. This season, he has made tough runs, caught long “Go” balls and everything in between.

DPOY

Obvious choice : Myles Garrett defensive end, Cleveland Browns; T.J. Watt, outside linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers; Trevon Diggs, cornerback, Dallas Cowboys

Please consider: Antoine Winfield Jr., safety, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Winfield was a bit of a late entry for me but after finally, mercifully figuring out how to navigate the hell that is NFL Game Pass this year, it was a treat to watch the breadth of his work and how his presence in center field helps direct the ball to where defensive coordinator Todd Bowles would prefer it to go. Statistically, Winfield has cut his average yards per target and opposing quarterback rating in half this season, while maintaining his competitively high tackle numbers. It shows some serious instinct that a player often starting 15-17 yards off the ball when he’s playing deep center is still allowing only about 10 yards a completion when directly targeted. On a lot of routes he’s changing direction more than the average cornerback. The ease at which he uses his body positioning to take away certain completions while maintaining eyes on another part of the field is impressive and isn’t going to show up on a box score.

De’Vondre Campbell, linebacker, Green Bay Packers

Campbell is so impressive and may be the best free agent acquisition of the year by a country mile. Watch the first drive against Seattle for a tidy encapsulation of his ultimate value. He reads run on the opening play, sits right in the “A” gap and shoves his way into the backfield to help create a dogpile. Then, on the next two plays, he floats expertly in coverage to take away a pair of receivers early in Russell Wilson’s progression. His completeness as a linebacker is coming at an incredible time for the schematically-transitioning Packers. Campbell has posted career lows in yards per target allowed, completion percentage allowed, receiving touchdowns allowed and opposing quarterback passer rating, which has dropped 30 points from his previous career mark.

Cam Heyward, defensive end, Pittsburgh Steelers

On Heyward, I would love if there was a metric we could someday use that equates a player’s effort with the tiredness it causes the opposing offensive line. While a lot of players could do the technically correct things on every play but often don’t, Heyward is like an instructional video, in addition to a stout run stopper and an aggressive rusher. On almost every pass, he’s in the lane with his hand raised. He’s stunting across the line, forcing protection changes and probing soft spots. In his age 32 season and with T.J. Watt behind him, Heyward is not going to replicate his sack numbers, which probably keeps him out of the running. But his ability to facilitate should merit consideration on its own.

Micah Parsons, linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

Micah Parsons can do this move while pass rushing that, thanks to hellish game pass film, actually looks like an optical illusion. He has the ability to stand in one place then be a few feet to his right or left on the exact same horizontal plane a split second later. It has to be absolute torture for offensive tackles to battle with this combination of lateral and straightforward quickness. Parsons’s all-around skills have transformed the Cowboys’ defense, along with some sensible adjustments made by new coordinator Dan Quinn. Parsons has 10 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, 25 quarterback hits and 72 tackles. He has a vice grip on defensive rookie of the year, but the first-year player out of Penn State should be in serious consideration for the main event as well.

creed-humphrey

OROY

Obvious choice: Mac Jones, quarterback, New England Patriots; Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver, Cincinnati Bengals

Please consider: Creed Humphrey, center, Kansas City Chiefs

One play that really cemented Humphrey as a top player this year: Chiefs vs. Washington. On its opening touchdown drive, Kansas City faced a critical fourth-and-1 against then one of the best defensive lines in the NFL (Chase Young was still healthy). Humphrey gets complete forward momentum off the ball and wrestles former first-round pick Daron Payne to the left, creating a five-foot hole for the running back to skip through. No help. No double team. No problem. Humphrey, a second-round pick, has allowed fewer than 10 pressures all season to complement his run blocking game.

I include this here just to make a point. While I don’t think the conversation will stray beyond Jones and Chase, we need to do a better job of absorbing offensive linemen into legacy awards like this. Look at our expectations vs. reality when we saw the Chiefs were entrusting a rickety offensive line that cost them a Super Bowl last year to a rookie center.

DROY

Obvious choice: Micah Parsons, linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

Please consider: Jevon Holland, safety, Miami Dolphins

Xavien Howard recently compared Holland to Eric Berry, which is something a tenured member of the defensive backfield wouldn’t do lightly. The second-round pick has played almost 100% of Miami’s defensive snaps since Week 5, allowing a modest 61.5% completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks. He’s also been quite active as a pass rusher. When I watch Holland, I wonder what it must be like to catch a pass over the middle with my back turned to a player like that. When Holland is sitting back as Miami’s deep safety, he uses his long-ish frame to close on receivers so quickly, which can result in a pick as it did against Cam Newton a few weeks ago. But sometimes he can just emerge into a play and deliver a tone-setting hit (like this one).

Comeback

Obvious choice: Dak Prescott, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

Please consider: Tyron Smith, left tackle, Dallas Cowboys

A little more offensive line love here, but let’s do a little thought experiment. What if, say, Josh Allen missed 2022 to have neck surgery and returned to be one of the three or four most elite quarterbacks in the NFL? Not giving him the award would be ridiculous. Just because an offensive lineman is forced to play through more pain and injury on a regular basis doesn’t mean it’s any easier for them to keep doing it. Smith has only allowed one sack this year, making the return of Prescott from a horrific ankle break that much smoother. We start to take a lot of our stalwart tackles for granted after a few solid seasons. Last year, the Cowboys fell apart without Prescott, but they also fell apart without Smith. One of those players, however, is not on any oddsmaking service’s potential comeback candidates list. 

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Coach

Obvious choice: Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals

Please consider: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots

Bill Belichick has the Patriots as the No. 1 seed in the AFC with nine wins a full season after losing the greatest player in NFL history. This is simply a remarkable bit of coaching, and while Belichick antagonists may say that he has been somewhat fortunate that some of his decisions haven’t backfired against him (most recently, the decision to throw just three passes and bend defensively almost to the point of breaking against the Bills), he was also a few centimeters from a potential overtime trip against the Buccaneers and one bad quarterbacking decision away from a win over the Cowboys (his Pythagorean Win/Loss is 10.3). While it’s easy to get caught up in interpreting everything Belichick does as a masterstroke of genius, which is something I know I am guilty of from time to time, look at the other talented minds who have inherited rookie quarterbacks this year. Look at how far ahead Mac Jones is despite being somewhat universally viewed as the least able to acclimate immediately to the professional game due to his lack of athleticism or eye-popping arm (and when I say eye-popping, I mean, he didn’t put on some kind of performative show at his pro day, and huck a football 80 yards while Drake is blaring in the background).

Zac Taylor, Cincinnati Bengals

I think when—not if—the Bengals’ rushing game catches up to their passing game, this team could shift from good to great. Taylor took a team that is not markedly different than the one he coached a year ago, minus, of course, the presence of Ja’Marr Chase and a slightly upgraded offensive line. The result has been a scheme that co-pilots a top 10-caliber season from Joe Burrow just months after we were discussing his general hesitance to stand in the pocket due to his recent devastating knee injury. Cincinnati is packed full of good blocking wide receivers, which Taylor has smartly utilized to get Burrow into games with short-range completions that get his athletes room to run. After initially being hesitant of the Burrow-Taylor partnership, it seems it’s time to think differently. The Bengals are likely to play some extra games this year, giving us an additional opportunity to appreciate their growth.

Mike Vrabel, Tennesse Titans

I think any time you set an NFL record for most players used in a single season and still remain in a power position for the No. 1 seed in your conference and do not have the services of Derrick Henry or A.J. Brown (Julio Jones is coming off injured reserve), you deserve a coach of the year award. While all coaches claim to be great motivators and leaders of men, there are few who can cultivate a winning mindset when faced with extreme adversity on the injury front. Players are realistic and understand their chances when catastrophic situations occur, but Vrabel has done a fine job of flipping the script, continually coaching one of the most difficult-to-play opponents in the NFL. His staff is also incredibly deep, and the Mike Vrabel Tree, something we may not have thought we’d be discussing a few years ago, will begin to sprout more branches.

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