Week 9 of the 2016 season wrapped up Monday night with Seattle’s win over the Bills, which means 51% of the games on the NFL schedule are now in the books.
Those games have answered a lot of our questions and raised even more. Dallas and Oakland look like Super Bowl contenders, while Carolina and Arizona have been massively disappointing. Minnesota and Pittsburgh look like juggernauts one week and doormats the next. The Cowboys and Eagles have found their quarterback for the next decade, while the Texans and Redskins still have no idea if they made the right choice at signal caller. The Patriots are…well, still the Patriots.
There’s still a lot of football to be played before we can draw any real conclusions about what we’ve seen this year, but let’s use the halfway marker to examine what we have seen so far and pick out some frontrunners for the NFL’s end of season awards. Bear in mind that this is an assessment of who I think will win the awards (not necessarily should), so we’ll stick to the patterns that award voters usually follow—i.e., leaning away from players who have already won the same award and positions (like offensive line) that rarely move the needle in awards voting.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jimmy Graham, TE, Seattle
This award looks like it will be a two-horse race between a presumed draft bust and a presumed trade bust, and I could go either way. Melvin Gordon has had a stunning breakout this year after a disastrous rookie campaign in which he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry and somehow carried the ball 184 times without scoring a touchdown. He has been one of the few consistent weapons on a San Diego offense that has been ravaged by injuries throughout the season, and at times he has looked like one of the three or four best running backs in football. He also seems to have worked past the fumbling issues that plagued him last season, putting the ball on the ground on just 1.0% of his carries as opposed to 3.2% in 2015.
Despite all that, though, I think that Jimmy Graham will nudge past him in the end. After coming to Seattle in a shocking trade before the start of the 2015 season, Graham never really got fully involved in the Seahawks’ offense in his first year. He missed time with injuries and didn’t make much noise when he did get on the field, finishing with just 48 receptions after never dipping below 85 in the previous four seasons. Well, the old Graham appears to be back in 2016, as he is on pace to tally 76 grabs and almost 1,100 yards through the air. He looks much more comfortable in Seattle’s offense and has re-established himself as a go-to third down target (he also contributed one of the most entertaining moments of the season on Monday night when he hurdled Buffalo’s Stephon Gilmore to pick up a first down). As good as Gordon has been, Graham enjoys the higher visibility of playing for a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and that could be the deciding variable for who comes away this award.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Jason Garrett, Dallas
This is an award where familiarity bias comes into play in a big way—otherwise, Bill Belichick would already have won this award so many times that the trophy would now be a silver bust of his weathered, perpetually scowling face. Belichick is head and shoulders above any other coach in the league (and he proved it again at the beginning of this year, going 3-1 with two untested starting quarterbacks during Tom Brady’s absence), but awards voting tends to lean towards fresh narratives, so he is unlikely to take this award home.
With Belichick out, there are a few candidates who could take the award—Mike Zimmer has shocked everyone by making the Vikings contenders without Teddy Bridgewater or Adrian Peterson, Jack Del Rio is making Oakland relevant again, and Gary Kubiak has kept the Broncos in the championship hunt despite a tumultuous quarterback situation, a slew of defensive injuries, and the hospitalization of both his defensive coordinator and himself at various points in the season. But with respect to all of them, no one has matched the work that Garrett has done in Dallas this season. Last year, an injury to Tony Romo permanently derailed the Cowboys’ season; this year, the Cowboys have shrugged off another injury to their venerable starter and gone 7-1 with a rookie running back and a rookie 4th-round pick at quarterback. We’ll get to Dak Prescott in a minute, but just as impressive is what Garrett has done with the Cowboys defense. A unit that carried extremely low expectations into the season is allowing just 17.5 points per game, tied for fourth in the NFL. After Romo’s injury, Dallas looked like a team with tons of questions and very few answers. Nine games later, they look like a legitimate Super Bowl contender. If they continue to pull away in the NFC East, Garrett could have some hardware to show for it at season’s end.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
And from Dallas, we move over to…Dallas, where Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have taken over the race for Rookie of the Year. Carson Wentz looked like a contender early, but he has gone through some growing pains recently for a Philly team that has veered between stretches of dominance and sloppiness. Meanwhile, Dallas’ rookie duo seems to improve with every week. Remember when Elliott posted just 134 yards on 41 carries through his first two games? It seems like a distant memory now, as Elliott has spent the time since carving through opposing defenses to the tune of 5.6 yards per carry since Week 3. While it still seems questionable that Dallas used the number four pick on a running back despite their myriad defensive needs, Elliott has been undeniably brilliant and he has played a huge role in Dallas’ surge to the top of the NFC.
However, the face of that surge has been Prescott. The unheralded 4th-round pick has arrived in the NFL with a bang, winning seven of his eight starts and tallying twelve touchdowns against just two interceptions. Prescott has been a model of efficiency—his 8.8 AY/A (Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt) is third in the NFL this season behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan, two guys you may have heard of. Early in the season, the Cowboys protected Prescott with a conservative game plan, but they have allowed him a longer leash over time and he has continued to perform at a high level.
Both of these guys absolutely deserve this award, but I think Elliott’s stock will be hurt by the fact that he plays behind the best run-blocking line in football, while Prescott has the added bonus of an out-of-nowhere narrative. Prescott wins another close race.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Joey Bosa, DE, San Diego Chargers
Bosa certainly got off to a rocky start in San Diego, with a contract holdout that dragged past the offseason and well into training camp, followed by a hamstring injury that postponed his NFL debut for four weeks. But since finally getting on the field, Bosa has been a godsend for a San Diego pass rush that sorely needed some punch. Bosa exploded out of the gate with ten knockdowns in his first four games, and his 4.0 sacks are just one shy of the team leader, Melvin Ingram, who has played in nearly twice as many games. After starting out the season 1-4, the Chargers have won three of their past four games, and an uptick in the pass rush has been a big reason why. Four games is a small sample, and we may see some regression in sack rate from Bosa, but if he finishes the season at or near his current level of play then he should be a DROY finalist.
The other obvious candidate is Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey, and you could put together a convincing argument that Ramsey has done far more for his team. While Bosa lost four weeks to injury and has been used mostly as a situational rusher in San Diego’s defense, Ramsey has been a defensive mainstay almost from week one, starting in the slot before quickly moving outside to supplant veteran Davon House. But while Ramsey has been a more consistent contributor, he lacks the flashy play or eye-grabbing counting stats that Bosa has delivered, and those are two things that move the needle significantly with awards voters.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders
If we’re being honest, having an Offensive Player of the Year award at all is a little redundant, since the MVP award has gone to an offensive player every year since 1986—and if an offensive player was named MVP then it stands to reason he was also probably the best offensive player in the league that year. This award has basically devolved into a silver medal for the MVP award, so I will give to the guy I have second on my (imaginary) MVP ballot.
After thirteen years without a playoff berth, Oakland finds themselves in pole position in the AFC West with seven games to go, and they just picked up a huge primetime victory against their archrivals in Denver (marking back to back wins for Oakland against Denver after the Broncos had prevailed in their last eight meetings, usually by comical margins). This has been a bounce-back year for Oakland across the board, and it starts with their young signal caller. Derek Carr has improved across the board in his third season—his completion rate has jumped from 61.1% up to 66.1%, his interception rate has gone from just below average (2.3%) to about as good it gets (0.8%), and he is posting a career-best AY/A of 7.7 (he has also been helped by an improved offensive line—his 3.0% sack rate would stand as the lowest of his career). Carr is a big-armed gunslinger who has developed into one the most entertaining quarterbacks in football, and he seems to have Oakland on the fast track to contention for the first time in over a decade. Now if he can bring Oakland’s fans one more title before Mark Davis jumps ship for Vegas…
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Is there really any competition here? Miller delivered a stretch of flat-out otherworldly play during Denver’s postseason run last year, and, frankly, he hasn’t really let up. Miller holds the league lead in sacks with 9.5, and he has picked up at least half a sack in eight of Denver’s nine games this season. Beyond his counting stats, Miller just brings a level of intensity and all-around ability to the field that few defenders in the league can match (particularly with J.J. Watt sidelined). His outside-to-inside spin move reduces offensive tackles to jelly, and he has continued to get better at timing snap counts and getting in quarterbacks’ heads. His speed rushes are reminiscent of a heat-seeking missile, and when he gets the jump on the snap count, all an offensive tackle can do is pray. While Denver’s overall performance on defense has slipped a little from their dominant heights a season ago, Miller remains every bit the hyperkinetic terror he was. And remember that he has spent most of this year without his partner in crime DeMarcus Ware, who missed five weeks with an arm injury and has been on a limited snap count in the two games since his return. More playing time for Ware will lead to fewer double and triple teams for Miller, and more opportunities to wreak havoc in the backfield. If Miller keeps up this level of play for the rest of the season, he should be a shoo-in for this spot.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
First thing’s first: yes, I spurned Tom Brady for both MVP and OPOY. Yes, Brady has been brilliant since his return to the lineup. But there are a couple of factors working against Brady in awards voting this year. First, he missed four games due to suspension, which gives him a hefty disadvantage when comparing his counting stats to the competition. Second, Brady—like his coach—will suffer from the scourge of familiarity bias. He’s got a few of these things to his name already, and with a field that offers some interesting candidates this year outside of the usual suspects, I think he would need a season that is statistically special even by his standards (like Peyton Manning in 2013) to clinch an MVP this year—which seems exceedingly unlikely given that he will only play twelve games. I will concede that Brady is playing at an MVP level, but I don’t think he will get the award.
While Brady has probably been the best quarterback in football this year, Matt Ryan is right behind him. While Ryan has always been statistically prolific, he is playing the best and most efficient football of his career right now, and he has a team in the thick of contention to show for it. Right now, Matty Ice sits at first in the league in passing yards and touchdowns, second in both QBR and traditional passer rating, and third in completion percentage, and his AY/A of 10.4 is 2.7 yards higher than his previous career best. He hasn’t exactly faced a cupcake schedule either, having already gone up against the league’s two best passing defenses in Denver and Seattle. The Falcons’ high-flying offense has put them on the inside track to win the NFC South in spite of a middling defensive effort, and that has been driven in large part by Ryan’s play at quarterback. If he can maintain this level of play for the balance of the season, look for Ryan to pick up his first MVP award when the dust settles. Whether he can do something about the Falcons’ empty trophy cabinet, though…