We are more than halfway through the NFL season. Official league awards won’t be given out until the night before the Super Bowl, but we’ve waited long enough for important announcements over the last week. So let’s hand out some midseason hardware. First, let’s cover the ground rules.
- We are considering performances from Week 1 through Week 9, not projecting how players will perform in the second half of the season.
- All of these selections are correct.
With those two points established, let’s get to the awards.
MVP: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Runners-up: Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers
Wilson struggled in Sunday’s loss to the Bills, but one game should not overshadow what he has done this season. His 28 touchdown passes lead the league and are the third most ever through eight games, behind only Tom Brady in 2007 and Peyton Manning in 2013. He is on pace to finish with 56 passing touchdowns, which would break Manning’s single-season record of 55. Relatedly, Seattle leads the NFL in points per game. The Seahawks have scored at least 30 points in seven of their first eight games (they scored 27 points in the other), and their average of 34.3 points per game represents the ninth-best mark through eight games since the merger in 1970.
Much of that success stems from how efficient Wilson has been in the red zone. The Seahawks are converting 86 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns; the highest mark across a full season in the last 20 years is 78 percent from the 2003 Chiefs. Wilson has dragged Seattle to a 6-2 record and first place in the NFL’s most competitive division.
The Seahawks need Wilson to be this good because their defense is an abomination. Seattle has allowed 362 passing yards per game this season, which is not only the worst mark in the NFL, but the worst mark in league history through eight games. In Week 9, the Bills racked up 420 total yards against the Seahawks while recording 27 first downs. Back in the Legion of Boom days, Wilson’s job was to not screw up the game for Seattle’s legendary defense. Now, his job is to clean up the defense’s mess.
While many contenders have some other recourse to win games, the Seahawks do not: Either Wilson wins a shoot-out, or Seattle loses. Wilson has turned Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf into football’s finest receiving duo. This is without getting much help from Seattle’s running game: Starting running back Chris Carson, backup Carlos Hyde, and third-stringer Travis Homer have all gone down with injuries, leaving Wilson as the team’s Plan A through Z.
Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers also have strong MVP cases. Mahomes ranks second in touchdown passes, and has warped defenses so thoroughly that even Kansas City’s prolific running performances are a testament to how opponents focus on him. Rodgers is third in touchdown passes and ranks higher than Wilson in passer rating, ESPN’s total quarterback rating, and adjusted net yards per attempt. Rodgers has shown that he remains an elite quarterback after the Packers traded up to pick Jordan Love in the first round of this year’s draft, and, like Wilson, he isn’t getting much help from his defense.
By any measure, Wilson, Mahomes, and Rodgers are the three best quarterbacks in the sport right now, but separating greatness at this level requires nitpicking. The Seahawks ask more of Wilson than any other team asks of its quarterback. He has delivered emphatically.
Offensive Player of the Year: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Runners-up: Dalvin Cook, Davante Adams
No team relies on a skill-position player more than the Saints rely on Kamara. He has the distinction of being the team’s leading running back and leading receiver, due primarily to last season’s Offensive Player of the Year, Michael Thomas, going on injured reserve in Week 1. Thomas returned in Week 9 against the Buccaneers, but Kamara still has 30 more catches and 200 more receiving yards than anyone else on the Saints. He has more catches than all but four receivers in the league, has more receiving yards than top wideouts like Adam Thielen and Mike Evans, and more broken tackles on receiving plays than everyone in the sport, according to Pro Football Reference. Kamara is averaging 2.6 receiving yards per route run, which ranks third among players with at least 40 routes this season behind only Julio Jones and Davante Adams. Considering that Kamara is a running back, he has no business being so high on that list—his mark would be the third highest on record for a running back since Pro Football Focus began keeping track of the statistic in 2006.
Kamara is excelling in the ground game too. His average of 4.9 yards per attempt ranks seventh among running backs, and he notched his fifth rushing touchdown in Sunday’s blowout win over the Buccaneers. Combine the rushing and receiving totals, and his contributions are ridiculous. Kamara leads all players in yards from scrimmage (1,036).
The Saints’ offensive philosophy so far has been “get the ball to Kamara in space.” It’s working.
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Runners-up: T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, DeForest Buckner
Derrick Rose won the NBA MVP award in 2010-11 because voters got bored of LeBron James’s dominance. Picking someone other than Donald for this award would be a similar mistake. He’s tied for the league lead in sacks with Cleveland’s Myles Garrett. As an interior defensive lineman, Donald’s pressure statistics are as good as or better than those of every edge rusher in the NFL. Pressuring a quarterback from the middle of the line is much more disruptive than pressuring from the edge, and Donald is doing that better than anyone since peak J.J. Watt. Don’t take his greatness for granted.
Coach of the Year: Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins
Runner-up: Mike Tomlin
If coaching is about making the whole greater than the sum of the parts, no coach is doing a better job than Brian Flores. How many Dolphins players can you name? Go ahead, take your time.
If the season ended today, Miami would finish as the newly created no. 7 seed in the AFC playoffs. At 5-3, the Dolphins are a far cry from the laughingstock they were at this time last year. The front office gave Flores a workable roster by spending in free agency, and now he is using a modified version of the Patriots defensive scheme that he ran while working under Bill Belichick for 15 years. Unlike most Belichick disciples, Flores is getting the system to work outside of New England.
Entering Week 9, Miami was giving up just 18.6 points per game and allowing opponents to score on a quarter of their drives, both tops in the NFL. On Sunday, it came up big when it needed to in a win against Kyler Murray and the Cardinals. The Dolphins are also disciplined: They’re one of the 10 fewest-penalized teams in the NFL, tied for the third-most takeaways (14), and have the second-highest-ranked special teams, per Football Outsiders.
It takes a special coach to make a quarterback switch while his team is on a two-game winning streak, as Flores did by going from veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to rookie Tua Tagovailoa after Week 6. That appears to have been the right move. Since last November, the Dolphins—the Dolphins—are 10-7. Flores seems to be changing this team’s culture one week at a time.
There is an argument to be made here for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who has led Pittsburgh to the first 8-0 mark in franchise history. By already reaching eight wins, Tomlin has ensured that his streak of not finishing with a losing record as a head coach extends to 14 years. But Steelers fans who have watched this team all year—and who sweated out a near-loss in Dallas on Sunday—know that this team isn’t playing its best despite its undefeated record. The team that’s truly outperforming its talent is Miami. After 15 years of Belichick’s coaching tree failing to grow, Flores seems like the first branch to blossom—and he’s doing so in the AFC East, where his Dolphins may make the playoffs instead of Belichick’s Patriots.
Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Smith, Washington Football Team
Runners-up: Teddy Bridgewater, Ben Roethlisberger, Rob Gronkowski
In an interview with the Washington Football Team website earlier this year, Smith explained why he was trying to return from the gruesome leg injury that nearly killed him in 2018. “I know if I can go out there and play quarterback, I can do anything else in life,” Smith said. “I don’t think I could look my kids in the eye and talk to them about giving it their all and pushing through things. … Was I going to talk about it, or be about it?”
After 17 surgeries and four hospital stints over nine months, and nearly two years between NFL appearances, Smith has returned to the field this season. He hasn’t played particularly well, passing for 362 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions over two relief appearances for Washington. But who cares about his stats? If Smith doesn’t get the Comeback Player of the Year award, why does this award even exist?
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
Runners-up: Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson
Herbert has looked unflappable since his Week 2 debut, when he was forced into the lineup minutes before kickoff against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs because a Chargers team doctor had punctured quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s lung. Herbert pushed Kansas City to overtime, and he hasn’t looked back since. He has 17 passing touchdowns and just five interceptions, which is appropriate, because he looks somewhere between 5 and 17 years old. But he has the poise of someone old enough to legally rent a car.
While the Chargers are just 1-6 with the rookie in the lineup (with all six losses coming by seven points or fewer), it is clear that Herbert is part of the solution, not the problem, for Los Angeles. He throws jump balls and rips tight passes just like Philip Rivers used to, but he also has mobility that Rivers never possessed. Most impressively, Herbert has turned what could have been a boring Chargers team into one of the most consistently entertaining groups in the NFL.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chase Young, Washington Football Team
Runner-up: Julian Blackmon
This choice is more of a process-of-elimination pick than anything else. The 2020 draft class lacks many instant-impact defensive contributors. The best of the bunch has been Young, the no. 2 pick who has dealt with a groin injury since late September. While he has hardly been a world-beater, Young leads all rookies in sacks and hurries, plus is the highest-graded rookie defender, according to PFF. He has also been effective against the run game.