Now that each team has played at least half its games in the 2016 NFL regular season, we’ve got ourselves an excuse to look at who might take home the major year-end awards if they were handed out today. Note that these are not projections of who will win these awards at the end of the season, but who is most deserving through nine weeks of play.
Most Valuable Player: Matt Ryan, QB Atlanta Falcons
The AP Most Valuable Player award has gone to a running back or quarterback in every year since 1987. In all but seven of those years, a quarterback won the award.1 In eight of the last nine seasons, including the last three, a quarterback won the award. And by nearly all measures, Ryan is on pace to outproduce those last three winners: Peyton Manning in 2013, Aaron Rodgers in 2014, and Cam Newton last year.
|Average of above||362||558||64.9||4,565||43||8||8.3|
|2016||M. Ryan (prorated)||388||556||69.6||5,298||41||7||9.3|
Ryan’s high completion percentage and low interception total are even more impressive considering how far he’s throwing the ball downfield: His average completion has come 7.83 yards downfield, the farthest in the league according to the NFL’s Game Statistics & Information System.
Ryan’s remarkable 9.30 adjusted net yards per attempt average would rank third all time if it holds up, and while Tom Brady (10.68) is currently ahead of him, Ryan has thrown 179 more passes than Brady has this year. As good as Brady’s been, four games can’t compare to nine, especially when those nine have been this good. Ryan has the 8th-highest passer rating through nine weeks of any quarterback since 1960,2, and six of the seven quarterbacks ahead of him on that list wound up winning the AP MVP that season.3
Offensive Player of the Year: David Johnson, RB Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals running back leads the league with 1,112 yards from scrimmage through eight games. He’s averaging over 80 yards rushing and 50 yards receiving per game, which has only been accomplished by four other players in NFL history. But what’s most impressive has been his consistency: Johnson has gained at least 100 yards from scrimmage in every game this year, making him just the 12th player since 1960 to do that in each of his team’s first eight games. Every other player this year has at least three team games in which they failed to gain 100 total yards.4 He’s also averaging 4.5 yards per run and 11.6 yards per reception while scoring eight touchdowns, showing that Johnson’s season hasn’t been fueled only by a heavy workload.
Defensive Player of the Year: Von Miller, OL Denver Broncos
With J.J. Watt injured, this award is — theoretically, at least — up for grabs. But Miller has left no doubt as to the identity of the league’s top defender, picking up where he left off in last year’s Super Bowl. Miller leads the NFL in sacks, with 9.5, and is the driving force behind the most dominant pass defense in the NFL. As a team, the Broncos bring pressure on a league-high 38 percent of QB dropbacks — only two other teams are above 30 percent. Miller is also underrated against the run, and combined with Denver’s No. 2 ranking in defensive DVOA through eight weeks, this all make him an easy choice.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Dak Prescott, QB Dallas Cowboys
Prescott and his backfield teammate, Ezekiel Elliott, have been the best two rookies this season by a large margin. Elliott not only leads the NFL in rushing with 891 yards, he also has the third-most rushing yards of any rookie through eight games since 1960. Elliott has exceeded the lofty expectations associated with the fourth overall pick, and yet….
The AP began issuing this award in 1967, and until 2003, just one quarterback had won the award.5 But six of the last 12 winners have been quarterbacks.
That reflects both the growing importance of the quarterback position, and fact that young quarterbacks are playing earlier and better than ever. And, arguably, no rookie quarterback has been more impressive in his first eight games than Prescott. He’s averaging 8.75 adjusted yards per attempt, the highest rate of any rookie passer through eight games since at least 1960; his 7-1 record is also the best of any true rookie.6 And forget rookies: He currently ranks second in the NFL in Total QBR. Prescott has been every bit as good at his position as Elliott has, so the tiebreaker goes to the quarterback for excelling at the more valuable position.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jatavis Brown, LB San Diego Chargers
Brown leads all rookies in solo tackles with 42, and that’s despite missing yesterday’s game with a knee injury. He’s recorded six tackles for loss, tied for second most among rookies. He’s one of just three rookies with multiple forced fumbles, one of seven rookies with at least four pass breakups, and one of seven rookies with three or more sacks. An inside linebacker, Brown shows up with the top rookie defensive backs in some categories and top rookie defensive linemen in others, all while providing solid run support. Without Brown, the Chargers defense allowed five touchdowns against Tennessee, furthering Brown’s argument for defensive rookie of the first two months.
Comeback Player of the Year: Tie: DeMarco Murray, RB Tennessee Titans, and Melvin Gordon, RB San Diego Chargers
A year ago, DeMarco Murray had just had one of the largest dropoffs in running back history, rushing for just 46.8 yards per game a year after averaging 115.3 yards per game in 2014. Most had written off Murray when he signed with Tennessee after battling hamstring injuries and Chip Kelly’s system during his one year in Philadelphia.
Melvin Gordon’s 2015 may have been even worse. He was labeled a bust after his rookie season, when he failed to score a touchdown and averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. His season ended with him on injured reserve, and he had microfracture surgery in January.
And yet, along with Johnson and Elliott, these have been two of the best four running backs in the NFL. Both Murray and Gordon rank in the top three in rushing yards, rushing first downs, rushing yards after contact, and total touchdowns. Neither player had high expectations entering this season, making their comeback seasons even more impressive.
Coach of the Year: Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders
The New England Patriots are, by a good measure, the best team in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys are 7-1, and have far exceeded expectations after Tony Romo went down in the preseason. Bill Belichick has masterfully guided his team, per usual, and the Patriots seem well-positioned to make another Super Bowl run. Jason Garrett has used his offensive prowess to coax historically great seasons out of a pair of rookies.
And yet, the Oakland Raiders are 7-2. Jack Del Rio, owner of a perfectly average 82-82 career record, probably isn’t the coaching equal of Garrett, to say nothing of a comparison to Belichick. But for one half-season, Del Rio has had the magic touch this year, hitting the right button in Week 1 and not letting up since. Oakland has a 1533 Elo rating, the highest for the team in over five years. The Raiders may not yet be great or their success sustainable — the team has outscored opponents by just 22 points so far this year — but through nine weeks, Oakland’s success has been one of the main stories of the season. And while assigning the head coach credit for surprising seasons is an inexact and frustrating habit, the Raiders’ progress under Del Rio — an improvement from 3-13 to 7-9 last season, and the hot start this season — is undeniable.