We’re a quarter of the way through the NFL season, so it’s awards time. If you think it is too early to start handing out hardware, don’t worry. These are virtual awards, so technically they’re software. Also, checking in on various trophy races after a month of play can be surprisingly informative. Through the first four weeks of last season, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was the runaway favorite for the Associated Press’s Most Valuable Player, Giants running back Saquon Barkley was the obvious early Offensive Rookie of the Year, and Bears defensive end Khalil Mack was the clear favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. Mahomes and Barkley won their awards, while Mack came in second, and the eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year, Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, led all players in tackles after four weeks. Let’s run through this year’s group and see who deserves what after the first month of play.
Most Valuable Player: Patrick Mahomes, Quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs
It is not news that Mahomes leads the league in every important passing category, so let’s discuss his place in history. He has 1,510 passing yards through four weeks, putting him on pace for the first 6,000-yard campaign in NFL history. Not only would that shatter Peyton Manning’s record of 5,477 yards from 2013, it would also surpass the NCAA record that B.J. Symons set at Texas Tech, Mahomes’s alma mater, with 5,833 yards in 2003. A 6,000-passing-yard season is stupefyingly rare at any level of football, and it would be mind-boggling if Mahomes were to do it at the highest level.
What is truly exceptional is that Mahomes is doing this with quality, not quantity. He’s seventh in pass attempts (39.0) per game, but ranks first in yards per pass attempt (9.7) and yards per pass attempt when adjusted for touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks (10.6). That latter stat, called adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), is the best all-encompassing quarterback statistic we have. A brief glance at the ANY/A all-time single-season leaderboard shows the stat matches the eye test. If Mahomes maintains his pace all year, he would have the highest ANY/A mark of all time.
Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt, Single-Season Leaders
- Patrick Mahomes, 2019 (four games): 10.6
- Peyton Manning, 2004: 9.8
- Aaron Rodgers, 2011: 9.4
- Nick Foles, 2013: 9.2
- Matt Ryan, 2016: 9.0
- Dan Marino, 1984: 8.9
- Patrick Mahomes, 2018: 8.9
- Tom Brady, 2007: 8.9
- Peyton Manning, 2013: 8.9
- Tom Brady, 2016: 8.8
Even when adjusted for touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks, Mahomes’s average pass this year gains a first down. At that rate, we may need a stronger award than the MVP.
Most Valuable Unit: New England Patriots Secondary
This award, first thought up by ESPN columnist Bill Barnwell, would be a far more interesting debate than MVP. This year New England’s secondary may be the runaway winner. The Patriots defense has given up the fewest:
- First downs/game
- Adjusted net yards/pass attempt
- Completion percentage
Meanwhile, the Pats defense has the most
- Passes defended
- Sacks (tied with Carolina)
That does not include quarterback hits, where the Patriots rank second. New England’s secondary has produced so many coverage sacks and pressures on zero blitzes that the Pats are at the top of the league in pass pressure despite letting their best pass rusher last season, Trey Flowers, leave in free agency for Detroit. New England has a 91.3 pass coverage grade from Pro Football Focus this year, the highest in the league. Pats cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty are two of PFF’s six highest-graded cornerbacks this year; no. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore was PFF’s top-graded cornerback last year; safety Devin McCourty (Jason’s twin brother) is the no. 2 graded safety in 2019; and linebacker Jamie Collins is the no. 2 graded linebacker. New England has given up one touchdown in their last five games going back to the Super Bowl, and their performance is possible because of their obscene secondary. Of course, the Pats have done this against the Steelers (who shut Ben Roethlisberger down for the season a week later), the Miami Dolphins (more on them below), the New York Jets (who were on the road with a third-string quarterback), and the Buffalo Bills (who could have won if not for three interceptions by Josh Allen, two of which were incomprehensible decisions). Next up, the Pats get two rookies in Washington’s Dwayne Haskins and New York’s Daniel Jones, so they may not slow down anytime soon.
Most Improved (Q Score): Gardner Minshew II, Quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars
Earlier this season Minshew was more meme than man. Legendary stories leaked from his college days (doing rubber band stretches while wearing nothing but sunglasses, shoving vanilla Crown Royal down his pants on his first night out with college teammates, trying and failing to break his hand with a hammer to gain a medical redshirt and extra year of college eligibility). But one-off human memes come and go all the time. Look no further than Ryan Fitzpatrick’s brief resurgence as a sex icon in the first few weeks of 2018 before receding to the Pick-sixpatrick we all know and love.
But Minshew’s play keeps getting better. He’s tied with Tom Brady for 10th-most touchdowns (seven) and just one interception despite entering midgame as a sixth-round rookie in Week 1. Through four weeks, Minshew has the no. 1 grade on 10-plus yard throws at 93.8 and his passer rating of 141.0 ranks second only to Kyle Allen. Nick Foles isn’t set to return until at least November, so Minshew has plenty of time to lead the Jaguars to the playoffs. If he does, he’ll be the most famous sixth-round quarterback since, well, Tom Brady.
Defensive Player of the Year/Most Improved Player: Shaquil Barrett, Pass Rusher, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Barrett signed with Tampa Bay for a one-year deal worth $4 million this offseason after the Denver Broncos decided not to retain him. Four games into 2019, Barrett has more sacks (nine) than Denver (five). Barrett leads all players in sacks, tackles for loss (seven), quarterback hits (10), and turnovers created from pressure (four); he is tied for third in forced fumbles (three), has the fourth-highest grade for defenders on Pro Football Focus, and is fourth in quarterback pressures (25). He’s the first player since sacks became an official stat in 1982 to have eight sacks and an interception in the first four games of a season. This is someone who had 14 sacks in his previous four seasons. He’s been a one-man wrecking crew each of the past two weeks, including a game-sealing strip sack of Jared Goff on Sunday.
Barrett also had four sacks and two forced fumbles against the Giants, which is fitting. Giants defensive end Michael Strahan holds the all-time single-season sack record at 22.5, and Barrett is on pace for 36. He won’t get near 36, but he needs 14 in his next 12 games to beat Strahan’s mark. Even if he falls short, coming even remotely close could earn him Defensive Player of the Year and a fat contract in free agency. Maybe Denver might even call him to come back.
Bueller? Bueller? Aaron Donald, Defensive Tackle, Los Angeles Rams
The flip side of Barrett’s emergence has been the disappearance of Donald, the reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, something accomplished by only him, J.J. Watt, and Lawrence Taylor. Donald has been limited to just one sack (tied for 74th), three quarterback hits (tied for 57th), and four tackles for loss (tied for 10th) after leading the league in all of those categories in 2018. Donald hasn’t lost his powers Space Jam–style, but he has been smothered by double-teams from offensive lines that no longer have to worry about defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh (who returned the game-sealing fumble for a Tampa Bay touchdown against the Rams on Sunday). While Donald is occupying two (or three) blockers in the middle of the line, Clay Matthews, Dante Fowler Jr., and Michael Brockers are tasked with cleaning up on the outside. The results have been mixed: Los Angeles is one of six teams with 15 or fewer quarterback hits.
A slow start isn’t a cause for concern for Donald, who had two sacks through the first four weeks last year and then finished with 20.5, the most ever for an interior lineman. But last year Donald was eased in after a holdout, while this year might be a crash back to reality for someone who plays a position that is usually known for crucial but unrecognized dirty work. Still, it’s unwise to bet against him.
“When plays present themselves, I can’t miss ’em. I got to make ’em,” Donald told the Los Angeles Times. “So it’s good to have one, but I’ve got to get myself going. I’m trying to produce a little bit more.”
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Up for Grabs
This race is just beginning. There have been no standout rookie running backs this year, and Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray has been poised but not exceptional through his first month. Now he must contend with New York’s Daniel Jones, who has played two spectacular games but will face Minnesota and New England in the next two weeks. Washington is also tossing its rookie passer, Dwayne Haskins, into the mix, so there is plenty of time left in this race. This award has gone to a quarterback or running back 21 of the past 25 seasons, but the other four have gone to receivers, and we could see that this year. Ravens receiver Marquise Brown and Washington receiver Terry McLaurin are off to uncommonly great starts for rookie pass catchers, and if either takes off they could end the QB-RB duopoly. More likely, however, Murray and Jones will tussle for it all year.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Nick Bosa, Defensive End, San Francisco 49ers
The no. 2 pick in this year’s draft has just one sack and four quarterback hits, but he could bump both of those numbers way up soon. Bosa leads all defenders in pressure rate, per Pro Football Focus. The 49ers were on a bye in Week 4, but if we look only at the first three weeks of the season Bosa’s 17 pass pressures were tied for ninth with Barrett and Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, and his 11 quarterback hurries were tied with Donald for 12th. If Bosa’s sacks begin to match the pressure he is creating, he could be the obvious pick for DROY in 2019.
Most Depressing Team of the Century: Miami Dolphins
A lot has been said about how bad Miami is this year, but it’s worth putting it in historical context. Through four weeks, the Dolphins have …
- Been outscored by 137 points, more than any other team in NFL history
- Allowed more points (163) than every team except Washington in 1954
- Allowed more touchdowns than every team except Washington in 1954 and the Giants in 1948
- Been given the most points against the spread (62) since the data began being tracked in 1978
- Gone 0-4 against those record-breaking spreads
- Given up the third most first downs (110)
- The fourth most opposing yardage (472 yards per game)
- The third-largest yardage margin (247 more yards per game for their opponents)
- The best opposing passer rating
The Dolphins rank at or near the bottom in most of the important all-time categories. As Around the NFL’s Chris Wesseling pointed out, that includes a dozen expansion teams, yet this season’s Dolphins aren’t significantly better than any of those franchises were in their early days. The expansion Colts gave up more yards in 1950 and the 1967 Falcons (in their second year of existence) and 1999 Browns were outgained by more yards, but otherwise the Dolphins are a sub-expansion-level team. If their process doesn’t work, it might be worth contracting them.