Mid-Season Awards Ballot

It doesn’t feel like it, but some teams are already half way through the season. To celebrate, let’s hand out some mid-season honors.

MVP: Tom Brady, QB, Patriots

Coming into Week 8, I had Philip Rivers at the top of my ballot, with Matthew Stafford and David Johnson sat just behind him. That decision was, in part, due to Tom Brady missing the first month of the season. But it was also because Rivers was carrying a Chargers team to the presuppose of wins, only for the rest of the team to find mind boggling ways to throw them away.

Week 8 changed that. Rivers looked extremely ordinary in a loss to the Broncos, and Brady looked just as good as ever on his way to shredding the Bills.

In fact, this great four game run by Brady is second only to the first four games of the 2007 season, per The Read Optional’s ROPE ratings, the one in which he shattered NFL records.

Atlanta’s offense is a collective effort and that clouds things. Matt Ryan has been fantastic this season, but I don’t believe he is really playing that much better than he did a year ago, just everyone around him has improved (and he’s stopped turning the damned ball over in the red zone).

The Falcons have two terrific running backs and an offensive line that is bullying people up front. That rushing attack has lead to the Falcons running more play-action passes than any other team in the league — 29% of their offense. And even with that high volume, they’re extremely successful — 2nd in the league in effectiveness. All of that means that Matt Ryan isn’t running a high-volume of “pure dropbacks” and shouldering the burden of the offense like some other quarterbacks. That’s not a knock on Ryan, teams should build the offense around everyone’s skill-sets, but I do think it’s a demerit to an MVP candidacy.

For me, Julio Jones has been more valuable to Atlanta’s success. The Falcons run game has been highly effective because defenses are often forced to keep two safeties deep, wary of the threat of Jones. And in 50–50 situations there hasn’t been a more dominant receiver this year.

You could also make compelling cases for David Johnson, Rivers, or Stafford. But there just aren’t many top quality contenders through eight weeks. So I’ll give the mid-season award to the guy who’s playing best at the game’s most valuable position. That’s Brady.

Offensive Player of the Year: David Johnson, RB, Cardinals

Johnson has become a superstar. He has been the only constant on a Cardinals offense that has lost its way this season.

Their Week 8 loss to the Panthers was a mess. Once again Carson Palmer was under constant — sacked eight times — and he made poor decisions. There was little help for Johnson up front either, as he finished with 10 carries for 24 yards. But like always, Johnson found a way to impact the game, catching 7 passes for a team high 84-yards.

Johnson’s prowess as a receiver is well documented — he started at the position in college. Yet it’s as a runner where he has continued to improve; becoming more patient and direct. Adding those to his physical traits have made him one of the most difficult offensive weapons in the league to stop. He leads the league in average scrimmage yards per game, and has accounted for more than one-third of the Cardinals offense.

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

A year ago you could make the case that Donald was the most disruptive and best defensive player in the league. Unfortunately for Donald, a guy called JJ Watt was still playing at a ludicrously high level. With Watt now on IR, the award is Donald’s to lose.

No interior player in the league can compete with Donald’s get-off and hand-usage. And few offensive linemen have come close to slowing him down.

This year the Rams have become more creative with how they use Donald. We’ve seen him kicked outside to rush as an end, and they’ve taken advantage of his rare quickness for an interior player on stunts and twists.

The field for DOPTY nominees is a crowded one, but with few elite contenders. Khalil Mack is beginning to dominate after a slowish start, Harrison Smith has been as important as any single player to his defense, Von Miller remains incredible, and Brandon Graham has been as impressive as any pass-rusher. But barring an explosion in production from someone above Donald should claim his first award.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott

Elliott is on his way to a rushing title, which will come with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award too.

The fourth overall pick has been everything Dallas was expecting. He is a physical runner between the tackles, creates yards after contact, helps in the passing game, and is explosive once he gets to the second-level.

Obviously, this award has a big assist from the Cowboys offensive line. Elliott is a rare talent, but he is consistently going untouched to the second-level.

Look at some of these holes from the Cowboys game vs. the 49ers:

Yeah, the Niners blew some run fits, but those are absurd lanes at the NFL level.

And it hasn’t just been that one game, against an admittedly poor rushing defense. They’ve been crushing good teams at the point of attack. Even against the Packers, who had the league’s top run defense at the time, Elliott rushed for 157-yards at 5.6 yards per carry.

Early in the year Elliott lacked patience. He was outrunning his blocks and looking for the homerun ball on every play. As the year has progressed, he has become more patient. Now, he rarely makes the wrong decision. Behind that line it’s just become an unfair fight.

Elliott’s big performance on Sunday Night Football kept him on pace to break the all-time rookie rushing record, claim the rushing crown and become the Offensive Rookie of the Year. The only real challenge will come from either Dak Prescott or Carson Wentz.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Joey Bosa

Bosa has been as impressive as any edge-rusher in the league, not just rookies.

Like Brady, he also missed the first month of the season — hey, maybe there’s something to skipping September? — but he has been close to unstoppable ever since he stepped into the San Diego lineup.

Through the first four games of his career, Bosa has more individual pressures than any rookie in NFL history. And he hasn’t just beaten up on bad competitions. He took on Jake Matthews 1-on-1 in Week 7, put clown suits on the entire Raiders’ offensive line in his debut, and has been a nightmare for the Broncos in two games.

A big amount of credit should go to the Chargers’ coaching staff. When the team took Bosa at #3 overall it was fair to wonder about the fit. After all, Bosa played in a four-man front at Ohio State and he would be transitioning to a three-man front in San Diego. And that’s where good coaches make good coaching decisions. The Chargers drafted Bosa to be Bosa, and they haven’t forced him to be anything else. He still plays the same way as he did in college: as a one-gap-and-go disrupter off the edge, with a couple of snaps as an interior penetrator in sub-packages, almost all from a four-point pass rushing stance. The only difference is that there’s guys around him playing different techniques.

Putting him in familiar roles (something that should be obvious) has bred devastating results. Along a front that features Melvin Ingram, Corey Liuget, and Brandon Mebane, Bosa has been the best of them all.

Unlike some pass-rushers, he doesn’t beat linemen with overwhelming athleticism, though he does have a good first step. He wins with a man understanding of leverage, using his strength, and rarely, if ever, losing the hand fight.

On this sack of Matt Ryan in Week 7, he worked over Pro Bowl caliber tackle Jake Matthews, beating him with power and technique.

Bosa wins the hand fight, getting inside Matthews pads and not conceding his own breast-plate. He then drives Matthews back, beating him for strength, collapsing the pocket, and sacking Matt Ryan.

None of this should really be a shock. Bosa was drafted with the third overall pick to be an impact player right away. Yet even the Chargers must be delighted with how seamlessly he has transitioned from destroying linemen at the college level to destroying them in the NFL.

Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick / Mike Zimmer

Realistically, Belichick should win this award every year. I’m firmly a believer that the best coach should get the award, not the “oh he coaches a team that’s doing better than we predicted” guy. Nor do I agree with voter fatigue, Michael Jordan never stopped being great, but voters got tired of giving him an award? That makes no sense.

Anyway, there are voters who won’t vote for Belichick, though this year is more difficult to ignore than most. Without Tom Brady the Patriots rolled to a 3–1 record. With Brady they wrapped up the AFC East in Week 8 and once again look like the best team in the league.

If it’s not Belichick, I don’t think you can look beyond Mike Zimmer.

Animal shenanigans aside, Zimmer has done an exceptional job slowly building this Minnesota team into one that can still compete for a division title without its starting quarterback and Hall of Fame running back.

The whole organization is built behind Zimmer’s athletic and versatile defense. One that’s also decided to takeover scoring duties from the offense.

None of this happened overnight. The Vikings drafted and developed a core group of young players who have developed into studs. All of them have now played with each other for a number of years within the same system. Zimmer’s scheme takes time for secondary players to learn, and relies on relentless pressure and quality disguises from the front. After flashing a year ago, they’ve now found consistency; jumping from 14th in defensive DVOA to second.

Zimmer’s team was very impressive a year ago — they really should have beaten Seattle in the playoffs. Yet even if they don’t go as far this year, it may be an even superior coaching job from Zimmer and his crew. Despite their loses on offense, they sit atop the NFC North with a 5–1 record prior to Monday Night Football.

If not Belichick, Zimmer is fully deserving.