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Who Should Win the NFL’s Biggest Awards This Season?

There’s still one week left on the regular-season schedule, but the cases for MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, and more have already been made. Who should be rewarded with hardware this year?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Season-long awards are important to me. I know there are some people who think arguing over who deserves the MVP and who’ll end up winning Defensive Player of the Year is a silly waste of time, but decades from now, when other generations are trying to determine who the defining players of certain eras were, awards act as the historical record: They tell us who mattered and why. Because of that, I spend an inordinate amount of time each year going back and forth on the deserving candidates. This season was especially torturous, with so many worthwhile players, coaches, and executives lining each category. But there can be only one winner, so without further ado, let’s break down my awards ballot for the 2018 NFL season.

MVP: Patrick Mahomes II, QB, Chiefs

In the half-dozen seasons that I’ve been covering the league, I can’t remember a tighter race for the NFL’s top award. Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes II have been the rightful MVP favorites for most of the season, and they’ve gone back and forth at different points in the year. Mahomes got out to an early lead as his offense scorched the league and New Orleans swooned against inferior opponents. But after a few recent stumbles by Kansas City and some crucial drives orchestrated by Brees, things are neck-and-neck heading into the final week of the season. So let’s parse this out a bit.

Mahomes’s numbers this season are basically what you’d get if a lazy 12-year-old turned the Madden difficulty level down. He’s thrown 48 touchdown passes this year, with multiple scores in 13 of the Chiefs’ 15 games. With the no. 1 seed in the AFC hanging in the balance this week, the Chiefs still have plenty to play for, which means that Mahomes will likely become just the third player in NFL history (Peyton Manning and Tom Brady being the others) to throw 50 touchdown passes in a season. It would be tough to imagine a historic season like that not being rewarded with a runaway win in the MVP voting, though Brees has kept things close based on a few stunning performances—and in the process, he’s shown how close this debate is on the margins.

Most of the stats—advanced and otherwise—favor Mahomes. He leads the league in touchdown passes, net adjusted yards per attempt (8.8), and points added. And he hasn’t wracked up those numbers by being a boringly efficient passing robot, either. Some of the superhuman feats Mahomes pulled off this year will be the lasting images of the 2018 season. He’s injected fun into the NFL, more so than any player in recent memory, and that should count for something. Still, there’s an argument to be made that despite Mahomes’s ridiculous production, Brees has been more important to the Saints’ considerable success this year than Mahomes has been to the Chiefs’ success.

Take a look at both supporting casts. Brees has had plenty of help in New Orleans over the course of his 13-year career, and the combination of Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara would be a welcome sight for any passer in the league. But the offense that Andy Reid has constructed in Kansas City is a perfectly orchestrated instrument of destruction. Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are unlike any other pass catchers in the league at their respective positions, and even Kansas City’s secondary receiving options (Chris Conley, Sammy Watkins, and Demetrius Harris) are high-level athletes that make the Chiefs skill-position group one of the more explosive in NFL history. Kansas City’s running backs have also been incredibly efficient in the passing game over the past month (after Kareem Hunt was released). Among RBs with 24 or fewer targets this season, Spencer Ware ranks second in Football Outsiders’ defense-adjusted yards above replacement. Damien Williams ranks third. The Chiefs’ consistent production in the screen game isn’t the result of stockpiling the league’s best pass-catching backs; it’s happened because of an expertly designed system—one that gives Mahomes an easy outlet or two in virtually every game. Brees may get to play with Thomas and Kamara every week, but he’s also thrown touchdown passes to the likes of Dan Arnold, Keith Kirkwood, and Austin Carr.

Unlike the Chiefs, New Orleans won’t be playing for anything this weekend because the Saints secured home-field advantage on Sunday with their exhilarating 31-28 win over the Steelers. In that game, Brees recorded his sixth fourth-quarter comeback and seventh game-winning drive of the season. Mahomes backers might say those figures should favor the Kansas City QB, as the Chiefs didn’t have to come back six different times because their offense played so well over the first three quarters. But in this case, Brees’s performances in high-leverage moments should carry some value.

When I took my first crack at this (and when we had a similar debate on Wednesday night’s Ringer NFL Show), I went with Brees. But that’s why sleeping on it can help. This may be Brees’s final chance to win MVP, so it’s difficult not to pick him when given the chance. But MVP awards should be a reflection of the season as a whole. When I look back at 2018, what I’ll remember most is Mahomes’s arrival and all the joy that came with it.

Honorable mention: Brees, Philip Rivers, and Russell Wilson

Offensive Player of the Year: Drew Brees, QB, Saints

If the MVP award is going to Mahomes, Brees should get the consolation prize. In virtually any other season, he would have easily won the top award.

Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

The shine has come off the apple a bit for the Rams as a whole, but Donald’s season was still the best among defensive players this year. Heading into Week 17, he’s recorded 19.5 sacks this season—as a defensive tackle. That’s already the highest total for an interior defender since sacks became an official stat in 1982, and the Rams still have another meaningful game left. Only 10 different players have ever finished with 20 sacks in a season, and all of them have been edge rushers. Given how disruptive Donald’s been this year, he’ll likely hit that mark on Sunday against the Niners—but it doesn’t have to stop there. There’s still an outside chance that he can match Michael Strahan’s single-season mark of 22.5 sacks. Again, Donald is a defensive tackle. The idea that we’re even discussing him breaking the sack record is almost impossible to fathom.

Donald’s case doesn’t really require digging past the box score, but let’s do it anyway. His 62 pressures are the most in the league, at any position. He’s disrupted 100 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus, 13 more than any other player. Then there’s the sheer dominance that Donald exhibits at least a few times in every game. His sacks and tackles for loss aren’t coming on flukey plays or being recorded an inch or two behind the line of scrimmage. Donald’s entire season has been a highlight reel of blowing past guards in an instant and tossing QBs and running backs to the ground yards deep in the backfield. All too often, it looks like he’s playing a different sport entirely.

Former DPOY winners Khalil Mack and J.J. Watt have both had excellent seasons in their own right, but aside from Donald, the player with the best case this year has to be Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner. He’s been a terror, holding down the middle of a Seattle defense that’s crumbled around the edges due to injury. Wagner’s ability in coverage makes him arguably the most valuable off-ball linebacker in football, and I’m sure Seahawks fans would shudder to think about what their defense would look like without him. Wagner is certainly deserving, but there’s just no denying how impactful Donald has been all season.

Honorable mention: Bobby Wagner, J.J. Watt, and Khalil Mack

Coach of the Year: Frank Reich, Colts

The 2018 season was supposed to be Year 2 in the Colts’ long rebuilding process. Instead, Indianapolis has a play-in game on Sunday to earn the no. 6 seed in the AFC. Much of the credit for this turnaround goes to Andrew Luck (who’s healthy and playing as well as he ever has) and general manager Chris Ballard, who had a towering home run of an offseason. But Reich’s role in the team’s success can’t be ignored.

In his first year with the Colts, Reich has constructed an offense that currently ranks 10th in the league in DVOA, 11th in yards per drive, and sixth in points per drive. He may have the luxury of coaching Luck, but aside from his star quarterback, the Colts offense isn’t exactly chock full of talent or experience. They’re starting a pair of rookie offensive linemen, and the pass-catching corps features T.Y. Hilton, a former Lions cast-off at tight end, and a bunch of receivers that would struggle to crack nearly any other starting lineup in the league.

Reich’s performance as both the maestro of the Colts’ most important unit and the head coach is what gives him the edge over some of the year’s other deserving candidates. Pete Carroll has done one hell of a job keeping Seattle’s defense afloat, but the Seahawks’ shockingly effective offense is the reason that team looks so dangerous heading into the playoffs. Matt Nagy has piloted the Bears to a division championship in his first season, but Chicago’s defense has been the driving force behind that run. Andy Reid has also been masterful in guiding the Chiefs, but it helps when the Terminator is under center and playing with a stellar supporting cast. No head coach has done more with less on the side of the ball he helps oversee than Reich.

Honorable mention: Nagy, Caroll, and Reid

Executive of the Year: Ryan Pace, Bears

I mentioned Ballard above, and he could easily win this award as well. Ballard’s 2018 draft included Quenton Nelson in the first round, plus Darius Leonard and another starter (Braden Smith) in the second. He was also the one who hired Reich when the team’s plan to bring on Josh McDaniels fell through. And I haven’t even mentioned that he managed to pick up an extra 2019 second-rounder by trading the no. 3 overall pick to the Jets this past spring. Ballard has done a phenomenal job in his second season with the Colts, and he’s set them up to be one of the best teams in football for years to come.

In 2018, though, Pace went above and beyond. Every single member of the Bears’ free-agent haul—namely Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Trey Burton—has had an impact this season. Pace had his own stellar draft class, one that included Roquan Smith in the first round, and both guard James Daniels and wide receiver Anthony Miller in the second. Pace also picked up defensive line contributor Bilal Nichols in the fifth round, one of the more underrated finds of the entire draft. To go along with his draft haul, Pace hired Nagy this offseason, and maybe more importantly, helped convince defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to stay aboard despite the regime change. Then there’s the trade for Khalil Mack, a bold move that transformed Chicago’s defense from a solid unit into the best group in the league.

In the past few years, other GMs with quarterbacks on rookie contracts have made the mistake of waiting to see whether that QB was worth the type of all-in gamble that Pace made this offseason. But in being as aggressive as he was, Pace gave the Bears a chance to maximize the window that Mitchell Trubisky’s deal provides.

Honorable mention: Ballard

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Baker Mayfield, QB, Browns

In the middle of the season, it felt like a foregone conclusion that Saquon Barkley would win this award. But there’s just no denying what Mayfield has done over the second half of the year. Over Mayfield’s past six games, he’s completed 71.5 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns, four interceptions, a 115.2 passer rating, and an average of 8.8 yards per attempt. He hasn’t just been the best rookie QB in the NFL over that stretch—he’s been one of the best QBs in the NFL, full stop. This spring, the Browns took a chance on Mayfield, hoping that he’d eventually become the type of player that could alter the fabric of the franchise. But no one ever expected it to happen this fast. In just one season, Mayfield has transformed the Browns from a leaguewide punch line into must-watch TV. Barkley has been thrilling, but Mayfield’s accomplishments this season give him the edge.

Honorable mention: Barkley, Quenton Nelson

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Darius Leonard, LB, Colts

I can’t remember a more loaded field for this award. Over the past 24 hours, I’ve probably gone back and forth three different times on who should win. Leighton Vander Esch has been vital to the Cowboys’ run to an NFC East title this year. Sean Lee’s injuries in previous seasons have spelled doom for the Dallas defense, but this year it hasn’t missed a beat, and Vander Esch’s presence in the middle is the reason. Chargers safety Derwin James has done a bit of everything for L.A.’s defense in his first year. He’s filled roles all over the field, from center field to the line of scrimmage, depending on the opponent and situation. James currently has 3.5 sacks and three interceptions, along with more than a dozen passes defensed and four tackles for loss. He’s already one of the more versatile defensive players in the entire league.

But even taking all of that into account, I still have to give the edge to Leonard. Vander Esch plays next to Jaylon Smith, with plenty of other elite talent surrounding him. James was almost a luxury pick in this year’s draft, considering how stacked the Chargers secondary already was. Leonard has been the Colts’ entire defense for stretches in 2018, and he’s the most important player on one of the most surprising units in football. He’s tallied seven sacks in just 41 pass-rush snaps, collected 12 tackles for loss, and been adept in coverage all season. Both the Cowboys and Chargers would likely survive without their standout rookies. But it’s hard to imagine where the Colts would be without theirs.

Honorable mention: Vander Esch, James, Bradley Chubb