We’ve officially hit the midpoint of the 2016 season and with that, it’s time to reevaluate the potential and always prestigious award winners. This year has brought about a lot of surprises and young faces into the fold such as any player on the Raiders or Cowboys, so the evaluation here takes everything into account.
While players like Tom Brady are inherently the best players on their team, judging will take into account the overall roster around a player as well as other relevant statistics. To be clear, this is an evaluation of who deserves each honor at the halfway point, not necessarily who will come out on top in the end. These players are the favorites right now. I’ll also remember who I picked in the preseason for full disclosure on how correct- or wrong- I was.
On that note, let’s roll out the eight week carpet:
Most Valuable Player: Derek Carr, QB, Raiders
Preseason nominees: Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger
Going into the year, it would have been easy to figure another strong season from any of this trio. Wilson was coming off of his best pro passing season. You had to think Rodgers would come out of the current hole he’s been in recent years. And with the tremendous receiving talent and offensive line in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger was poised to lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl.
That hasn’t happened though, and it’s allowed Carr to step into the gap. None of his quarterback counterparts are necessarily playing awfully, there’s just a detractor to each. From Roethlisberger’s injury, to Wilson’s offensive line in Seattle, to Rodgers only recently heating up in Green Bay. You could poke holes in each of their resumes.
You can’t find fault in what Carr has done in leading the Raiders to a tie for first place in the AFC West. This is a team firmly locked in a dead heat with the defending champion Broncos in a battle for the second seed because of Carr. Carr currently holds the league’s fifth best passer rating, is fifth in yards, fourth in touchdowns at 17, and of all his counterparts at the top- has just three interceptions on the year.
On a team wide scale, Oakland has the league’s third best offense yardage-wise and is sixth in scoring at 26.9 points per game. Carr is a magical orchestra conductor of a team that’s rising with staying power.
I was skeptical of putting Carr over guys like Matt Ryan- who leads the NFL in most relevant passing statistics- or Tom Brady, who has had the best October by far of any quarterback. But in Brady’s case, one could make the argument that New England is still a good football team with Jimmy Garoppolo under center. And in Atlanta, Ryan’s resurgence has as much to do with his studded backfield and loaded receiving core more than anything. For Carr, the only detractor was that he didn’t have a signature game yet. A game that would separate him from the pack and put him on the map.
When you throw for 513 yards- the season high to this point- and four touchdowns on the road in Tampa, you’ve staked your claim. Carr has not only made the Raiders a Super Bowl contender (yeah, I said it), he should also be the MVP favorite right now.
Defensive Player of the Year: Von Miller, LB, Broncos
Preseason Nominees: Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, JJ Watt
At this point, it’s kind of hard to argue with anyone but Miller. Has any individual player had a better past year than the Denver superstar? From Super Bowl MVP to being on track for his first Defensive Player of the Year honor, Miller’s just now being properly validated.
In fairness, I had thought Mack- who was coming off of a transcendent second year- in both as a run defender and pass rusher, was on track to lead the Raiders defense towards something special. He’s still one of the league’s premier superstars and isn’t necessarily underperforming, he’s just not playing at the special level many expected him to. Whether that’s being the only true matchup problem on Oakland’s defense or something else, I don’t know.
With the Texans’ Watt, a severe back injury that his him out for the year, he’s disqualified. Who knows as to what level of play he’ll even return to next season.
And for the Rams’ Donald, well, Donald is the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL. No one creates has as many pressures or impact plays as he does from his position. He’s the NFL’s most fierce force in the middle.
But, Miller has the most hurries and quarterback hits of any player in the league, is second in sacks with 8.5, and is the lynchpin of a Denver defense that’s only fallen off a little as compared to last year’s level. Consider that the Broncos didn’t have stalwart fellow pass rusher DeMarcus Ware until this past Sunday, and yet they still possess the league’s second best defense in DVOA efficiency.
That onus is all on Miller and puts him on track to yet again hoist individual honors.
Offensive Player of the Year: Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
Preseason Nominees: Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr.
I apologize to Brown and Beckham Jr., but Jones is simply on another planet right now.
It took almost five complete games for Beckham to score a touchdown for the Giants, and up until recently, he hadn’t been himself. One 229 yard game is a marvel, but doesn’t excuse inconsistency. For Brown, I thought he could potentially break the single season receiving record, and yet, a combination of Roethlisberger’s absence as well as a general dip in production has tempered those expectations.
Now, for Jones, there’s no hyperbole needed. There isn’t one receiver in the league right now with his combination of speed and inhuman physical frame. Part of the Falcons’ offensive success has always lied with being able to just design any big play for Jones and immediately strike gold. It’s paid dividends in the form of games such as a historic 300 yard day against the Panthers and has generally made him the most unstoppable offensive weapon when targeted.
Jones is second in the NFL in receiving yards and has created the most 20 plus yard passing plays at 16. The Falcons have themselves a nuclear launchcode they can unleash any time they want. Barring unforeseen circumstances, Jones should be rewarded for his efforts.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Joey Bosa, DE, Chargers
Preseason Nominees: Joey Bosa, Myles Jack, Vernon Hargreaves III
Ah, one of the picks I nailed.
I wrote about Bosa’s freak play last week but I should reiterate it. There is no one else worthy of this award. He’s played in only four games, yet Bosa has a higher pass rush rate than that of Miller. He’s so far ahead of the curve compared to other candidates.
Four sacks, 20-plus quarterback pressures, and a hand in improving a top 10 San Diego rushing defense sets you apart. A rookie should not be transforming the fate of a previously one win team that was left for dead this much.
Guys like the Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey or the Bears’ Leonard Floyd are possibly in the conversation, but that’s it. Bosa is already a generational talent playing like a veteran superstar. Bosa is the one candidate of any on this list, that seems like a lock barring a torrential downpour from another young player. If we awarded a general rookie award, he would take it home too.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliot, RB, Cowboys
Preseason Nominees: Ezekiel Elliot, Derrick Henry, Josh Doctson
Both rookie races are basic locks at this point.
Elliot leads the league in rushing yards, has broken the most 20-plus yard runs, and is somehow still averaging a sterling five yards a carry. Critics can point to the wall of his offensive line, but that would be unfair to Elliot’s skill level. He’s also broken the most tackles after contact at 18 according to Pro Football Focus and possesses an innate vision to take advantage of every opportunity his front gives him.
Together, with fellow rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys look like the best team in the NFC as a legitimate Super Bowl contender. That it comes on the heel’s of Elliot’s consistency and the best offensive line in football should be no surprise.
One could make the argument that save for left tackle Tyron Smith, Elliot is the Cowboys’ most important and already best player. He’s been that good. Henry on the other hand has been relegated to a number two role to DeMarco Murray in Tennessee while Doctson hasn’t exactly emerged in the Washington offense as a pass target.
Other guys such as Bears running back Jordan Howard could come into play in the second half, as Howard- who has many less attempts- is capable of matching Elliot through the end of the season. Carson Wentz of the Eagles had a case earlier in the year but has dropped off statistically as of late. This is a one-horse race with the Cowboys opening the hole for Elliot.
Comeback Player of the Year: Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Preseason nominees: Andrew Luck, Jordy Nelson, Tyrann Mathieu
Bell is the best all around running back in football. He may not be the best pure runner, but no one can attest to his electric level of production either as a receiver or ball carrier. His return from suspension after Week 3 is what vaults the Steelers back into a deep January run. It’s not like Pittsburgh is in bad hands with DeAngelo Williams, but Bell offers a new dimension.
After missing half of 2015 due to a torn MCL as well as PCL, Bell has picked up right where he left in scorching opposing defenses. He’s had at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his four games as both the primary option in the running and passing game. In a throwback to the old days of Matt Forte and Marshall Faulk, there is not a more versatile weapon than Bell for offensive coordinators to use.
Nelson is having a fine season for the Packers with 31 receptions, six touchdowns, and 415 yards, but it’s hardly anywhere close to the bona fide star he was pre-ACL tear. He’s clearly lost a step and is still playing with his way through to knock off rust. Luck on the other hand, has been torn asunder by a mediocre Indianapolis supporting cast. And Matthieu, just hasn’t been the ballhawk playmaker he was prior to an ACL tear last year. Attrition may have caught up to him.
Picking Bell as the man to run away with this award is simply based on the merit that he’s returned to his previous high level of play pre-injury.
Coach of the Year: Jack Del Rio
Preseason nominees: Jack Del Rio, Dirk Koetter, John Harbaugh
I’ve been the conductor of the Raiders hype train since August and it’s paid off.
Disregard Koetter and Harbuagh because, well, they’re leading two supremely disappointing Tampa Bay and Baltimore teams.
Del Rio is at the helm of a team poised to not only make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, but make some real noise there too. Oakland doesn’t have the look of a one-and-done team and is playing with supreme confidence. His quarterback, Carr, as mentioned, has blossomed into an MVP candidate. The offense is a finely tuned machine. This is all with a defense that’s still 28th in DVOA defensive efficiency, but can improve.
Del Rio lead a decent Jaguars team with Byron Leftwich and David Garrard at quarterback that made the playoffs on occasion years ago, but this feels different. The Raiders have the look of a long term contender and he’s been the one to usher them in.
The only man who can challenge Del Rio for this award right now is Dan Quinn in Atlanta. The Falcons are also laying waste to every defense with their prolific offense and 5-3 Atlanta is in the thick of the NFC. But the Raiders have the story of breaking a playoff drought which will be enough to push Del Rio through.
Robert Zeglinski is a managing editor of No Coast Bias, the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times, and is a staff writer for Second City Hockey and Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.
(Photo and statistics: NFL, Pro Football Focus, Getty, USA Today)