We’ve done this before — a few times, actually. But now that the 2018 NFL regular season has come to a close, our NFL staff gathered one last time to give their picks for MVP, offensive player of the year, and all the other major end-of-season awards. Here’s who they’ve got:
Patrick Mahomes II, Chiefs
Robert Mays: As I wrote last week, I’m going with Mahomes, even though it’s a ridiculously tight race. Recording 50 touchdown passes in a season is the type of thing we’ll always remember.
Kevin Clark: Mahomes does everything — he’s the leading candidate for this award via traditional statistics, advanced statistics, and the eye test. This is the pick.
Danny Kelly: Mahomes was plunked down into an innovative hybrid spread offense under Andy Reid and is surrounded by plenty of talent in Kansas City, but the way he executes that scheme with extreme efficiency — from the impossible escapes that keep plays alive, to the sidearm lasers he fires over the middle of the field, to the no-look passes that fake defenders out of their shoes — illustrates why the second-year passer is so irreplaceable. No one elevates the players around him more than Mahomes, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s making only $3.7 million against the cap.
Riley McAtee: Drew Brees is so close here, and it is painful to think about how much of his career he’s spent as the bridesmaid and not the bride. The Saints passer rightfully deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest ever, and maybe he’ll get a second Super Bowl ring next month to add to his legacy. But this season belonged to Mahomes. With 5,000 yards, 50 touchdowns, and countless oh my god, ohmygod, OH MY GOD–type passes, Mahomes turned the Chiefs into a juggernaut.
Danny Heifetz: Mahomes aced the numbers test and broke the eye test. If you don’t have Mahomes as MVP, you better have Andy Reid as Coach of the Year.
Offensive Player of the Year
Drew Brees, Saints
Mays: It’s a tough break for Brees, who could have won the MVP in pretty much any other season, but his year should be recognized in some way.
Patrick Mahomes II, Chiefs
Clark: No one was better at generating offense this season. There’s no reason to split the MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards.
Kelly: Using stats alone, Mahomes is the easy choice here. But it’s not just that he’s thrown for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns this season — it’s the way he’s done it, consistently making throws that no other quarterback can while proving to be matchup-proof.
McAtee: I’m giving this to Brees only because I didn’t pick him for MVP.
Saquon Barkley, Giants
Heifetz: No, I did not pick Todd Gurley. The Rams were the no. 1 run-blocking team in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards. The Giants ranked 29th. Despite this, Barkley finished fifth in the league in rushing yards per game, only 7.7 behind Gurley, and both earned 5.8 yards per touch. Put Barkley and Gurley on each other’s teams and Barkley outdoes Gurley’s numbers for the Rams while Gurley essentially becomes a better version of Chris Carson. (Yes, I’m a Giants fan.)
Defensive Player of the Year
Aaron Donald, Rams
Mays: Donald had one of the greatest seasons by a pass rusher in NFL history.
Clark: Getting 20 sacks from an interior lineman position shouldn’t be possible. Then again, nothing Donald does should be possible.
Kelly: This one’s easy. Donald is the single most unblockable defender in football: He led the NFL with 20.5 sacks — all from the interior — and lapped the field with 106 total pressures, per PFF, 11 more than the next closest defender and the most any player has recorded since J.J. Watt notched 119 in 2014.
McAtee: Donald leads the league in sacks, which is still mind-blowing considering he plays on the interior of his defensive line. He’s done more than enough to take this award home for the second consecutive year. The Rams should pay him again.
Heifetz: Simply looking at Donald’s sack and pressure totals doesn’t do his numbers justice. Through 16 weeks, he had 100 quarterback pressures. Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox (87) was the only other player with more than 75. Entering Week 17, the distance between Donald’s 19.5 sacks and second-place Chris Jones (15.5) was equal to the gap between Jones and 16th-ranked Jason Pierre-Paul (11.5). With respect to Khalil Mack, Donald is still far and away the best defensive player in the league, and a vote for anybody else just means that greatness bores you.
Coach of the Year
Frank Reich, Colts
Mays: Reich’s performance as both the Colts’ head coach and play-caller earns him this award. Indianapolis was a year ahead of schedule, and Reich’s work is a key reason.
Clark: This award is usually reserved for the coach of the highest-seeded playoff team that doesn’t seem to belong — so Matt Nagy is probably going to get it. But Reich made the playoffs with a much worse roster. He fixed Andrew Luck when, just a few months ago, Luck didn’t look like he was capable of carrying a team. He integrated a great draft class into huge roles, and the Colts have a real chance of pulling some playoff upsets.
Kelly: Reich has led the Colts and Luck back from the brink. He designed an offensive scheme that protected Luck from the type and frequency of hits that had derailed the former top pick’s career, and he somehow manufactured explosive plays and a run game despite the team’s distinct lack of star power at the offensive skill positions.
Matt Nagy, Bears
McAtee: The Vikings were supposed to win the NFC North. Or maybe the Packers were. Even the Lions were given an outside shot. But the Bears definitely weren’t supposed to take it — oddsmakers set their preseason win total at 6.5, the lowest in the division. Now they have the third seed in the conference and look like one of the scariest teams in football.
Sean McVay, Rams
Heifetz: McVay gets the nod over Andy Reid (though it’s close) because of how dominant the Rams looked for most of the year, and because McVay hid Jared Goff’s flaws as well as any coach in football this season (in fact, he made us forget Goff has flaws). There’s certainly an argument for Reid here — again, Reid must be the choice if Mahomes is not the MVP — but praise for McVay has become so ubiquitous it’s easy to take what he did this year for granted. Don’t succumb to recency bias.
Comeback Player of the Year
Andrew Luck, Colts
Mays: The NFL is better when Andrew Luck is a star, and he certainly was this season. Luck has the Colts set up to be one of the league’s premier franchises for years to come.
Clark: J.J. Watt would win this in any other year, but Luck’s comeback has been incredible. He missed all of 2017, and the stories that emerged from that year made it sound like he might never get back to being himself again. Even into this year — when the Colts started 1-5 — he looked like he needed another season to get back to his former level. He had a comeback not just from an injury but also from a crappy start to the season. A double comeback!
Kelly: As training camp kicked off, there was major doubt Luck would even play this season as he rehabbed from a shoulder injury that kept him out all of 2017. Even when he did play early in the season, the veteran quarterback seemed unable to throw the ball farther than about 10 yards downfield. But Luck has shed all the doubts around his shoulder and emerged as a better passer than ever.
McAtee: This has arguably been Luck’s best season ever, with career highs in QBR, completion percentage, and passer rating. He’s taken the fewest sacks in a full season of his career, too. Wondrous things can happen when you protect your franchise quarterback. I’m sure that’s a lesson the Colts won’t forget anytime soon.
Heifetz: Luck went from a career-threatening shoulder injury to throwing the second-most passes in the NFL in 2018. It’s a great story.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Baker Mayfield, Browns
Mays: Mayfield single-handedly transformed how an entire football-watching community views the Browns. There’s no better case than that.
Clark: Mayfield set the rookie touchdown mark, and that’s impressive not just because he played in only 14 games. He played in only 14 games, and he was coached by Hue Jackson for all of rookie minicamps, OTAs, training camp, and half the season. That’s what puts him over the top.
Kelly: Saquon Barkley was certainly an option here after he posted incredible numbers for the Giants, both as a runner and as a pass catcher. But Mayfield’s unmatched impact on the Browns offense makes him the easy choice. Mayfield elevated the play of everyone around him, and quickly emerged as a surefire franchise pillar the team can build around.
Saquon Barkley, Giants
McAtee: This is the toughest pick for me, as it’s a razor-thin battle between Barkley and Mayfield. Most people point toward Mayfield’s play in the second half of the season and his impact on the Browns as reasons he should win, but that feels a bit unfair to me: It’s a full-season award, and Mayfield plays quarterback, so of course he has a bigger impact. For the entire season, Mayfield has been roughly league average in all the metrics I prefer: ANY/A, QBR, DVOA, and Pro Football Focus grade. He’s shown a ton of promise, and Browns fans should be ecstatic to have him, but let’s not gloss over his bumps.
Barkley, meanwhile, has been one of the best running backs in football, with 2,028 scrimmage yards and 15 total touchdowns, averaging 5.0 yards per carry despite playing on a mediocre Giants offense. An average quarterback is far more valuable to his team than a top-five running back (believe me, I know), but this award doesn’t have the word “valuable” in it. So I’m going to ignore their positional values and go with the player who has been more impressive to me — and that’s Barkley.
Nick Mullens, 49ers
Heifetz: He was sneakily the best rookie quarterback of 2018. What is this award for if we can’t honor an undrafted free agent who came in off the practice squad and outperformed expectations more than any other rookie?
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Darius Leonard, Colts
Mays: The second-round pick was the Colts defense for stretches this season. Indianapolis GM Chris Ballard hit a 500-foot home run with his second draft class.
Clark: Leonard is Pro Football Focus’s sixth-ranked linebacker. The Colts overachieved this year due in large part to hitting on their draft picks, and Leonard has been the key.
Kelly: Leonard just barely beats out the Chargers’ Derwin James. Like Mayfield, the rookie linebacker’s overall impact on the Colts defense was enough to give him the edge. Leonard was everywhere for Indy, recording an NFL-best 163 tackles while posting 7.0 sacks on the year. Those numbers were the most among all off-ball linebackers and enough to make him one of just three players since 2000 to record 130-plus tackles and seven-plus sacks in a season (joining perennial All-Pro Lavonte David and former Cardinal Daryl Washington). Leonard also added in four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, eight quarterback hits, eight pass breakups, and two interceptions. He. Was. Everywhere.
McAtee: Leonard leads the NFL in tackles by a large margin and is second among rookies in sacks despite not being a full-time pass rusher. Derwin James and Denver’s Bradley Chubb have been great, but Leonard has anchored the Colts defense, carrying a load that no other defensive rookie has had to shoulder.
Leighton Vander Esch, Cowboys
Heifetz: This was surprisingly the hardest category for me. I have no qualms with picking Leonard, James, or Chubb here, but I’m giving the edge to Vader Esch for three reasons:
1. He is an actual Idahoan myth.
2. The Cowboys won the NFC East because of their defense, and Vander Esch was perhaps the biggest reason for that unit’s turnaround.
3. Dallas fans complained for years that their defense stank without Sean Lee, and it took three games of Vander Esch before Cowboys fans ghosted Lee completely.