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The NFL’s Awards Favorites

Who’s poised to hoist some hardware in 2016?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL offseason features a lot of moving parts: 32 rosters of 53 bodies, a seven-round draft, and a massive free-agent pool make for plenty of change before a given season kicks off. In an effort to get you ready for the 2016 campaign, The Ringer will spend each Friday through September 2 doing its part to remind you how the dust settled — who landed where, what will be expected of them, and what’s different than it was last year. Today, we’re looking at the players and coaches primed to take home some hardware — as well as the guys who make for intriguing gambling values.

Most Valuable Player

The pick: Russell Wilson, QB, Seahawks (Odds: 8–1)

You might have forgotten after last season, but Aaron Rodgers is a fire-breathing dragon. With the return of a healthy Jordy Nelson and a stabilized offensive line, there’s a reason he’s the odds-on favorite (9–2) to win his third MVP. But picking Rodgers is just … boring, even if a win would put him in rarefied air with Johnny Unitas, Peyton Manning, Jim Brown, and Brett Favre as the only players who’ve won more than two.

For me, picking the MVP came down to choosing between Super Bowl–winning QBs who developed into two of the league’s most dangerous passers after hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. The transition for Ben Roethlisberger happened slowly; on the heels of spending a good chunk of his career as a play-extending magician, it’s only in the past few seasons — as he hit his mid-30s — that Roethlisberger has become one of the league’s more brutally efficient pocket passers. No quarterback in the NFL is more aggressive, and that’s a product of how well he’s mastered coordinator Todd Haley’s offense. Since the merger, only two QBs have averaged more passing yards per game than Roethlisberger (328.2) did last year. Both of them — Drew Brees in 2011 and Manning in 2013 — broke the then-single-season record for yards.

It’s very possible that a full 16 games of Roethlisberger and a similar sort of offensive firestorm from the Steelers can lead to 12 or more wins and net their quarterback the MVP, but there’s always the chance that a missed game here or there is enough to keep that from happening. In my mind, that’s what makes Wilson a slightly safer bet. Wilson underwent a similar evolution to Roethlisberger’s last year, and the result was the best half-season an NFL quarterback has ever had.

Even though there’s no chance that Wilson and the Seahawks offense can replicate their touchdown onslaught from last winter, I think the new normal for Wilson is closer to what we saw during the second half of last season than anything that came before. In Seattle’s more wide-open attack, Wilson has become the perfect point guard — a master decision-maker who facilitates for everyone around him while still possessing the athletic ability to do the jaw-dropping shit we’ve watched for years. This version of Wilson is like combining current Russell Westbrook and peak Steve Nash. If that seems unfair, that’s because it is.

Favorite value: Carson Palmer, QB, Cardinals (Odds: 14–1)

There’s always a chance that what we saw from Palmer during last season’s NFC championship game was the start of the slow descent into Matt Schaub Land. But for most of last fall, Palmer was nipping at Cam Newton’s heels in the MVP race. Across the board, this version of the Cardinals is more talented than the roster that went 13–3 in 2015. If Palmer plays like he did last year, 14–1 is a great price for the guy who might be leading the best team in football.

Coach of the Year

The pick: Jack Del Rio, Raiders (Odds: 15–1)

When seemingly everyone agrees that a once-downtrodden team is prepped to finally make the jump, it usually means it’s time to run the other way. But I believe in the Raiders. The pieces — including Derek Carr and Amari Cooper, who should benefit from another year of development, and new steamrolling guard Kelechi Osemele — are all in place for Oakland’s offense to make strides, and the team’s offseason spending spree on defense should pair nicely with Khalil Mack, who is a cyborg.

Those groups are coalescing right at a time when the AFC West seems ripe for the taking. The Broncos are trotting out Trevor Siemian at quarterback and leaning on a defense that seems unlikely to match its ferocious level from last fall. The Chiefs, meanwhile, will be without their most important player, edge rusher Justin Houston, for at least the first six games of the season.

If the Raiders can scrape together 10 wins and steal the division or a wild-card spot, the argument for Del Rio will be easy. In two seasons, he will have taken a franchise that won a combined 11 games in the three years prior to his arrival and led it to its first playoff berth in 14 years. Along with general manager Reggie McKenzie, Del Rio will be seen as the man who revived a marquee franchise during perhaps the most trying time in its history. Coaches win this award every year for less.

Favorite value: Dirk Koetter, Bucs (Odds: 60–1)

More often than not, the COY oversees a team that experiences a significant spike in wins (Sean Payton in 2006, Mike Smith in ’08, Jim Harbaugh in ’11, and Bruce Arians in ’12). Aside from Oakland (and the Cowboys, but they barely count), I don’t see any team more likely to go from sub-.500 to double-digit victories in 2016 than Tampa Bay. Only five coaches have worse odds for this award than Koetter, and almost all of them have tenuous job security; that just doesn’t make sense.

Comeback Player of the Year

The pick: Andrew Luck, QB, Colts (Odds: 7–1)

Among the players eligible for this award, I think both Green Bay’s Nelson and Arizona’s Tyrann Mathieu could end up having better seasons than Luck. But the Colts quarterback fits the mold for players who have won in the past.

Coming off his ACL tear in 2009, Tom Brady won following — by his standards — a pretty ho-hum season: 4,398 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions for a Patriots team that went 10–6. Peyton Manning easily could have taken it home during his debut season in Denver, but that also happens to be the year that Adrian Peterson proved he was an actual mutant by rushing for nearly 2,100 yards and dragging the Vikings to the playoffs on a freshly reconstructed left knee.

High-profile guys can often win Comeback Player of the Year by simply returning to our lives. Unless the Colts’ season takes a brutally dark turn, Luck has the inside track.

Favorite value: Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers (Odds: 20–1)

The ingredients are there for Benjamin to be the long shot capable of making a push. He got 145 targets as a rookie, netting more than 1,000 receiving yards with nine touchdowns despite some inconsistent play. If he’s able to build on those numbers and the Panthers once again emerge as one of the best teams in the NFL, he deserves better odds than guys like Robert Griffin III, Jamaal Charles, and Dez Bryant.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

The pick: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys (Odds: minus-140)

What is there to talk about here? The Cowboys are putting a top-five draft pick behind the best offensive line in the league. Sometimes, it really is that simple. Tony Romo’s injury is a major blow for Dallas, but it isn’t close to enough to derail Elliott’s rookie campaign. Darren McFadden finished last season with almost 1,100 rushing yards, and Kellen Moore started two games. Even at minus-140, Elliott’s odds are too low.

Favorite value: Derrick Henry, RB, Titans (Odds: 14–1)

The past two seasons have been the healthiest of DeMarco Murray’s career; if the veteran gets dinged up at all in 2016, Henry should get plenty of touches in coach Mike Mularkey’s Jurassic-era offense. A lot would have to go right for Henry (and wrong for everyone else) for him to win this award, but it’s easier to make a case for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner than it is for Jared Goff, Corey Coleman, Sterling Shepard, or Josh Doctson — all of whom currently have better odds.

Offensive Player of the Year

The pick: Julio Jones, WR, Falcons (Odds: NA)

I’ve always been fascinated by the particulars of who wins this award and why. From what I can gather, there are two categories of winners:

1. The MVP, which makes sense. If J.J. Watt can’t win MVP, it is the Offensive Player of Year.

2. Non-MVPs who have reached a monumental statistical achievement. Think Brees throwing for 5,000-plus yards in 2008 or breaking the single-season yardage mark in ’11. Or Chris Johnson rushing for 2,000-plus yards in ’09. Calvin Johnson’s record-breaking 1,964 receiving yards probably should have gotten him the award in 2012, but again — that was the year of Peterson.

It doesn’t help that the deck was stacked against Megatron. No receiver has won this award since 1993, when Jerry Rice did. But if any pass catcher can hit the 2,000-yard plateau and finally reclaim football’s ultimate consolation prize, it’s Julio Jones.

I know, I know: Antonio Brown. Listen, I love Antonio as much as the next guy, but if we’re looking for the ideal circumstances to allow a receiver to get to 2K, Jones is the better option. Jones got 10 more targets than Brown last year (203 to 193), and in Julio’s case, there’s no real reason to think that number should drop off in 2016. The Falcons defense is likely to remain in the bottom half of the league, and I don’t see Mohamed Sanu eating into Jones’s workload. The hope for 2,000 lies in Atlanta, and I think this might be the year we get there.

Best value: NA. I couldn’t find odds for the OPOY award anywhere. If you can, let me know. Because I don’t usually venture to places that shady, and I’m in the market for a new exotic-animals guy.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

The pick: Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Buccaneers (Odds: NA)

Stats help with this one — just ask Marcus Peters. The University of Washington product was spectacular for the Chiefs as a rookie, in ways both good and bad, and his league-leading eight interceptions ultimately got him the hardware. Hargreaves picked off two passes in his first preseason start with the Bucs, and from the reports that have come out of Tampa Bay, it wasn’t out of character. Hargreaves’s blend of style and opportunity makes him an early favorite in my mind.

Favorite value: Brandon Williams, CB, Cardinals (Odds: NA)

There’s probably a reason I can’t find the odds for this anywhere — and that reason is if you’re betting on this, well, I have a hotline number for you.

If you do manage to find someone who will take your action, Williams can probably be had at a ridiculous payoff. The rookie cornerback hasn’t taken full control of the Arizona starting spot opposite Patrick Peterson, but if he does, he should get plenty of opportunities to snag some interceptions. According to Football Outsiders, the Cards’ opponents threw to no. 1 receivers on a league-low 19.5 percent of passes.

Defensive Player of the Year

The pick: Aaron Donald, DT, Rams (Odds: 10–1)

Seventeen years have passed since a defensive tackle (Warren Sapp) won DPOY, but it’s been just as long since we’ve seen one remotely like Donald. It isn’t hard to make the case that he was the best defensive player in the league last year: According to Pro Football Focus, Donald finished the 2015 season with a ridiculous 37 combined hits and hurries — 14 more than any other defensive tackle.

When you subtract his 11 sacks, that means there were 26 plays last season in which Donald took down the quarterback without sacking him. Saying a pass rusher who finished with double-digit sacks was unlucky seems crazy, but in Donald’s case, it’s actually true. Hits and hurries are typically a good indicator of when a player might see his sack total skyrocket, which means Donald having a historically great pass-rushing season is well within the realm of possibility. Considering he’s already one of the NFL’s top five run defenders, a 14- or 15-sack campaign should be enough to win this.

Favorite value: Jamie Collins, LB, Patriots (Odds: 100–1)

Imagine this scenario: It’s the AFC divisional round, and on a key third down in the first quarter, Collins tears through the A gap and proceeds to drop Roethlisberger in the backfield. After lingering on Collins for a second, the broadcast cuts to a graphic detailing his stats for the year. Collins was only the fourth player since the merger to record four forced fumbles, four interceptions, four sacks, and a touchdown in a single season, notes Al Michaels. And Cris, he’s been a big reason this Patriots defense has turned into one of the league’s best.

Totally reasonable, right? There’s just way too much working in Collins’s favor for him to be 100–1 to win DPOY — the same odds as Jadeveon Clowney. Collins is 26 and entering a contract year, and he was the best defender on a unit that finished 12th in DVOA in 2015. I’ll take those odds on a guy who does everything he can.