Awards Watch: Predicting the Winners for Major Awards at the Three Quarters Mark

Gregory Bull – Associated Press

All 32 NFL teams have completed 75% of their regular season schedule. Let’s take a look at the ongoing races for the league’s most prestigious accolades now that the dust is settling.

Head Coach of the Year

Matt Nagy (Chicago Bears)

In the offseason, Matt Nagy was hired by the Bears, the first head coaching stint of his career. With four games left to be played this year, the Bears have already racked up more wins than they had in any of the past 4 seasons. Their 8-4 win-loss record puts them at #1 in the NFC North. If the Bears are able to maintain their lead, it would be the first time they won the division since 2010. They’ve already scored more points this year than they did in any of the past four seasons. The Bears’ defense, led by All-Pro candidates Eddie Jackson, Akiem Hicks, and Khalil Mack, has been the best unit in the league. Chicago has been freed from a drought of mediocrity. Typically, coaches who accomplish this are the ones who win the award. Barring an implosion, it’s Nagy’s award to lose.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Derwin James (Los Angeles Chargers)

This is tough. Darius Leonard and Derwin James have both been enjoying exceptional rookie seasons. Leonard is leading the league in tackles, but James has been playing at a different level. He is actively redefining the safety position. Cardinals’ quarterback Josh Rosen said it best: “He’s a linebacker and a corner in one player.” His 14 passes defended is the most in the league for a safety, and according to Pro Football Focus, James’ pass-rush productivity grade of 21.1 is the second best in the NFL among players with at least 25 rushes. The versatility that this first round pick brings to the table is exactly what the Chargers needed. If you are not convinced, just look at the Chargers’ DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) against tight ends this season compared to 2017. Note that lower numbers are better.

His impact is clear. He hasn’t just been the best defensive rookie in football. Derwin James has been one of the best defensive players in football.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Saquon Barkley (New York Giants)

Going into the 2018 NFL Draft, Barkley was the most hyped running back since Adrian Peterson. The Giants were crucified for picking him with the second overall pick while they still needed a quarterback for the future. No running back had been picked that high since Reggie Bush in 2006. It seemed impossible for him to meet the lofty expectations, but Barkley has so far managed to do just that. The Penn State alum has been transcendental behind an offensive line ranked 25th in the league by Pro Football Focus. PFF has also given Barkley the third highest grade for a running back this season. A mediocre quarterback and offensive line is a recipe for disaster for any running back — except Saquon Barkley. Let’s compare Barkley and the NFL’s leading rusher, Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams.

Todd Gurley is enjoying a historic season and will without a doubt be a First-team All-Pro. Saquon Barkley has been just as efficient with an exponentially worse supporting cast … and he’s a rookie. The hype was warranted.

Defensive Player of the Year

Aaron Donald (Los Angeles Rams)

Is there any question? If The Baseball Writers’ Association of America named their award the “Best Player” instead of the “Most Valuable Player” back in 1931, Aaron Donald would win that as well. Unfortunately, the NFL followed the MLB’s example so it’s nearly impossible for a non-quarterback to win the award in this passing era. Donald is on pace for 22.0 sacks, which would crush the record for the most in a season by a defensive tackle (18.0) and is just half a sack away from the overall record held by Michael Strahan. For perspective, let’s compare Aaron Donald’s stats through 12 games with his stats last season when he won his first Defensive Player of the Year award.

There is a legitimate argument to be made that Aaron Donald is having the greatest season ever by a defensive player. He will go down in history as one of the greatest defensive players to ever play the game. This award is just one more achievement in a long career that will end in Canton.

Offensive Player of the Year

Patrick Mahomes (Kansas City Chiefs)

Most Valuable Player

Drew Brees (New Orleans Saints)

This is tough. I predict that voters will give the Offensive Player of the Year award to the loser of the MVP race between Brees and Mahomes, but Todd Gurley is also an excellent candidate. I do believe that Brees is having a better season. However, because Mahomes is on pace for 5,600 passing yards and 54 touchdowns, it’s hard to let him leave the NFL Honors in February empty-handed, so the Offensive Player of the Year award is my version of a consolation prize.

Both quarterbacks are enjoying historically great seasons. Mahomes’ volume is unprecedented, as he is on pace to break the single-season record for passing yards. Brees’ strength is his efficiency, exemplified by his current pace to shatter the records for completion percentage and passer rating. One player is playing in his first season as a starter while the other is nearing the end of their career. After Brees began to form a lead in the race, his poor performance against the Cowboys closed the gap. Ultimately, Brees’ greater value to the Saints is the difference maker.

For most of the year, Mahomes has been able to throw to receiving threats like Kareem Hunt, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill. On the other hand, the Saints don’t have as many elite passing targets outside of Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. There’s a reason Brees throws it into tight windows on 17.0% of his passes compared to Mahomes’ 10.5%. The route running ability of Brees’ receivers is lacking compared to those of the Chiefs.

For further evidence, we can look at NFL’s Next Gen Stats. It determines the probability for a completion on every pass attempt. Then, it is able to calculate the expected completion percentage for a quarterback.

Mahomes has certainly been historically great. If he finishes the season with 5,500 passing yards and 55 touchdowns, voters will most likely favor him. However, Drew Brees is simply attempting tougher throws and has still been more efficient. He has my vote.