This was an unusual season in the National Football League. Nobody ran away with a single individual award, as virtually every single race has two, three or even four legitimate candidates. No team established themselves as the clearcut favorite to win the Super Bowl, even with New England and Dallas running away with home-field advantage in their respective conferences.
Below are my picks for each of the awards across the league this season, as well as a projection for how this season’s playoffs will shape up.
Most Valuable Player: Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons.
This year’s version of Carson Palmer, Matt Ryan took the leap from good to elite quarterback, completing one of the best seasons in NFL history by a signal caller. He posted a triple-digit passer rating in 12 games and didn’t turn in a single dud performance. He led the NFL in arguably the two most important passing statistics, yards per attempt (9.3) and passer rating (117.1) and he tossed 38 touchdowns against just 7 interceptions. And as a team, the Falcons scored 540 points, seventh-most by a team in NFL history.
Apologies to: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers; Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots.
Aaron Rodgers’ argument for MVP focuses on his typically-dominant statistics (40 touchdowns and 104.2 passer rating) but he had too many underachieving games at the beginning of the season, which ultimately led to the Packers’ 4-6 start. Tom Brady posted the best touchdown-to-interception ratio the game has ever seen, even besting the legendary Nick Foles 2013 campaign, but 12 games of Brady doesn’t surpass 16 of Ryan.
Offensive Player: David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals.
I don’t really understand the difference between the Most Valuable Player and the Offensive Player of the Year, but since it is an official NFL award, I’ll acknowledge it. Since the unwritten rule is that the MVP doesn’t also win the OPOY, I’ll give the OPOY to Cardinals running back David Johnson, who emerged as the league’s best running back following a dominant end to the 2015 season. In 2016, Johnson topped the league in total yards (2118) and touchdowns (20), while catching more passes (80) than receivers like DeAndre Hopkins (78) and Allen Robinson.
Apologies to: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys; Le’Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers.
Ezekiel Elliott entered the league with unbelievable expectations, even as a rookie, and he surpassed every one of them, rushing for 1631 yards and scoring 15 touchdowns. Despite a four-game suspension to start the season, Le’Veon Bell averaged 157 total yards per game and scored 11 touchdowns.
Defensive Player: Landon Collins, S, New York Giants.
Good luck picking a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in a season where no player turned in anything resembling a record-setting season. (Where have you gone, JJ Watt?) My vote goes to do-it-all safety Landon Collins, who recorded 125 tackles, five interceptions, four sacks, 13 passes defensed and a touchdown.
Apologies to: Vic Beasley, LB, Atlanta Falcons; Khalil Mack, LB, Oakland Raiders.
Vic Beasley’s breakout sophomore campaign included 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles for a Falcons’ defense that finally found the pass-rusher they’ve been seeking since the departure of John Abraham following the 2012 season. Khalil Mack’s sack numbers dropped from 15 in 2015 to 11 in 2016, but the former top-five pick added five forced fumbles and an impressive interception touchdown.
Offensive Rookie: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys.
Elliott’s two worst games of the season were the first two games of his career: 51 yards and a touchdown, and 83 yards and a touchdown. Quite simply, the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft couldn’t be stopped, as he turned in a rookie season that drew comparisons to Eric Dickerson in 1983.
Apologies to: Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys; Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears; Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs; Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints.
This was quite an impressive season for offensive rookies. Dak Prescott turned in arguably the best season by a rookie quarterback in history, scoring 29 total touchdowns against just a quartet of interceptions. Jordan Howard rushed for 1313 yards at a clip of 5.2 yards per carry. Imagine him behind Dallas’s offensive line. Oh, and then there’s Tyreek Hill, Andy Reid’s new DeSean Jackson whose 12 touchdowns averaged 49 yards per score. And finally, second-round pick Michael Thomas emerged as Drew Brees’ go-to receiver, securing 92 balls for 1137 yards and nine touchdowns.
Defensive Rookie: Joey Bosa, DE, San Diego Chargers.
You couldn’t have scripted a worse start to the season for the number three overall pick in the draft. After an ugly holdout that lasted until late August, Bosa missed the first four games of the season with a hamstring injury. And then Bosa set foot on the field. All he’s done in 12 games is record 41 tackles and 10.5 sacks, including a sack in each of his final five games of the season. It’s rare to see a 3-4 defensive end accumulating double-digit sacks, and it’s not unrealistic to think Bosa could challenge for the NFL’s sack title in 2017.
Apologies to: Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars; Keanu Neal, S, Atlanta Falcons.
Jalen Ramsey entered the NFL with incredible expectations after he was the highest-drafted defensive back since Patrick Peterson in 2011. And like Peterson, Ramsey delivered from day one. He finished his rookie season with two interceptions and 14 passes defensed, while rating as Pro Football Focus’s highest-ranked cornerback for the final five games of the season. Keanu Neal has already drawn comparisons to Kam Chancellor for a rookie season that included 105 tackles and five forced fumbles.
Breakout Offensive Player: Terrelle Pryor, WR, Cleveland Browns.
Terrelle Pryor’s story is absolutely incredible. An insanely talented athlete who failed at quarterback, Pryor converted to wide receiver and latched on with the league’s worst team. All he did in his first full season at the position was catch 77 passes for 1007 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll be a highly-coveted free agent, although the guess here is that he remains in Cleveland.
Apologies to: Melvin Gordon, RB, San Diego Chargers; Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers.
There are a couple of obvious similarities between Gordon and Adams, as each scored 12 touchdowns while accumulating 997 yards in 2016. Gordon rebounded from a disastrous rookie season and offseason microfracture surgery, while Adams bounced back from a season where he was arguably the league’s most unproductive starting wide receiver.
Breakout Defensive Player: Lorenzo Alexander, LB, Buffalo Bills.
How does something like Lorenzo Alexander happen? He entered 2016 as a 33-year-old career special teamer who had made three starts over the previous five seasons. He ended the year with 12.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Apologies to: Dee Ford, LB, Kansas City Chiefs; Vic Beasley, LB, Atlanta Falcons.
Practically invisible as a first-round pick over his first two seasons, Dee Ford broke out in 2016, collecting 10 sacks and 38 tackles on one of the league’s stingiest defenses. Beasley, the sixth overall pick in 2015, took a much more expected leap, as he led the league with 15.5 sacks and will be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year.
Comeback Player: Jimmy Graham, TE, Seattle Seahawks.
Jimmy Graham’s comeback surprised almost everybody, as the 6’7 tight end rebounded from a torn patellar tendon in his right knee suffered last November to play in all 16 games in 2016. He reclaimed his status as one of the league’s top tight ends, catching 65 passes for 923 yards and six scores.
Apologies to: Victor Cruz, WR, New York Giants; Dennis Pitta, TE, Baltimore Ravens.
Victor Cruz’s career was finished. Everybody knew it. Everybody except for Victor Cruz. It took the former All-Pro receiver almost two full seasons to return from a torn patellar tendon early in the 2014 season. He’ll never again be a top 10 or even top 30 receiver, but simply playing in 15 games and catching 39 passes for 586 yards is impressive considering what he went through. Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta suffered two hip dislocations and missed almost two full seasons, but returned to catch 86 passes as Joe Flacco’s go-to offensive weapon. Just like Cruz, most thought his career was finished one year ago at this point.
Special Teams Player: Justin Tucker, K, Baltimore Ravens.
Justin Tucker just completed what should go down as the greatest single-season by a kicker in NFL history. He attempted 10 field goals longer than 50 yards and made them all. He made all 14 kicks in the 40s. He connected on 38 of 39 field goals, hit every extra point and finished the season with his second All-Pro selection.
Apologies to: Tyreek Hill, PR/KR, Kansas City Chiefs; Johnny Hekker, P, Los Angeles Rams.
Tyreek Hill is this year’s Dante Hall or Devin Hester. He’s incredibly explosive and dynamic with the ball in his hands, a threat to score every time he returns a punt or kick. He returned two punts and a kick for a touchdown in the final six games and enters the postseason as this writer’s pick to win Super Bowl MVP award. Rams punter Johnny Hekker became the first punter in league history to land 50 punts inside the 20-yard line in a single season, while recording just a single touchback.
Free Agent Stud: Janoris Jenkins, CB, New York Giants.
A poor man’s Asante Samuel with the St. Louis Rams, Janoris Jenkins signed a five-year deal worth $62.8 million with the Giants and then turned into a legitimate shutdown cornerback. He collected the second most All-Pro votes among cornerbacks while helping the Giants finish with the league’s second-ranked scoring defense.
Apologies to: Alex Mack, C, Atlanta Falcons; Kelechi Osemele, G, Oakland Raiders.
Matt Ryan stole the show for the Falcons’ near-record setting offense, but it was players like center Alex Mack who played a major role in the success of dynamic running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. In Oakland, Osemele signed the largest free-agent deal by a guard in history and earned every penny, as the Raiders finished 12-4 to qualify for their first postseason berth since 2002.
Free Agent Dud: Brock Osweiler, QB, Houston Texans.
Brock Osweiler will likely go down as one of the worst free-agent signings in NFL history. He signed a four-year, $72 million deal from the Texans and was benched before the end of his first season. He’ll ironically make the start for Houston in their playoff game against Oakland, but his brutal season suggests that the Texans could look in a different direction at quarterback in 2017, even though Osweiler’s contract locks him in for at least one more season.
Apologies to: Coby Fleener, TE, New Orleans Saints; Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, New York Jets.
The Saints gave Coby Fleener a five-year, $36 million deal. He gave them 50 catches for 631 yards and three touchdowns, somewhat decent numbers, but not even close to what is the norm for a tight end in Drew Brees’ offense. The Jets played hardball with Ryan Fitzpatrick, finally bringing him back on a one-year deal. Fitzpatrick quickly showed that his 2015 season was an aberration, as he won 3 of 11 starts and tossed 17 interceptions before he was benched.
Rookie Dud: Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams.
Jared Goff wasn’t Ryan Leaf as a rookie. He wasn’t JaMarcus Russell. And he will get at least one, probably two, more seasons to show that he can play in the NFL. That’s good, because right now, Goff is the worst starting QB in the NFL and it’s not even close. He went 0-7 as a starter and his 47 ANY/A+ (adjusted net yards per pass attempt adjusted to the league) is the worst ever by a quarterback to throw for 200 passes.
Apologies to: Myles Jack, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars; Laquon Treadwell, WR, Minnesota Vikings.
Remember the Myles Jack hype when the Jaguars selected him early in the second round? Yeah, that dissolved pretty quickly. Jack struggled to get on the field during the 2016 season, finishing with just 16 solo tackles and half a sack. Treadwell played in nine games and caught a single pass for 15 yards in a disastrous rookie season for a Vikings offense that desperately needed offensive playmakers.
Fantasy Football Stud: LeGarrette Blount, RB, New England Patriots.
299 carries. 1161 yards. And 18 touchdowns. Did anyone, even LeGarrette Blount himself, think the 30-year-old Patriots running back would finish as the eighth-ranked fantasy player in 2016? Blount scored a touchdown in 13 of his 16 games for the league’s best team.
Apologies to: Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons; Taylor Gabriel, WR, Atlanta Falcons.
In 2015, Matt Ryan tossed 21 touchdowns against 16 interceptions and finished as the 18th-ranked fantasy quarterback. In 2016, he threw for 38 scores, just seven picks and finished as the 2nd-ranked fantasy quarterback. His surprising weapon on offense was receiver Taylor Gabriel, who scored seven touchdowns in the season’s final two months.
Fantasy Football Dud: Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams.
Todd Gurley is the only running back in NFL history to start all 16 games, carry at least 10 times in every game and never eclipse 4.2 yards per carry in a game. He finished his dismal sophomore season as a pedestrian RB2 in fantasy, scoring just six touchdowns for the NFL’s most unwatchable offense.
Apologies to: Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars; DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans.
Blake Bortles’s shocking regression obviously played a large role in Allen Robinson’s disappointing season. In 2015, Robinson posted an 80-1400-14 statline. Those numbers dipped to 73-883-6 in 2016, making him the 28th-ranked fantasy receiver a year after finishing second. DeAndre Hopkins was also plagued by quarterback problems in Houston, as he scored just four touchdowns on 78 catches and finished 37th among fantasy receivers.
Coach: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots.
Just rename this award the Bill Belichick award because he’s the greatest coach in NFL history and should realistically win this award every season. In 2016, he led the Patriots to a 14-2 season despite Tom Brady missing the season’s first four games and Rob Gronkowski missing eight games. He turned journeyman LeGarrette Blount into one of the league’s most productive running backs. He traded away his top two defensive players, Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, and still finished with the league’s top scoring defense. And his Patriots enter the postseason as the heavy favorites to win the Super Bowl for the fifth time in the last 16 seasons.
Apologies to: Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys; Adam Gase, Miami Dolphins.
Give Jason Garrett a lot of credit for rookie fourth-round pick Dak Prescott’s success. Many teams would have fallen apart after losing their starting quarterback in the preseason, but Garrett held the Cowboys together for a 13-3 finish and the NFC’s top overall record. In Miami, Adam Gase took an average Dolphins squad from a 1-4 start to a 10-6 finish and a playoff spot despite losing starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the season’s 13th game.
Coordinator: Kyle Shanahan, OC, Atlanta Falcons.
Now the league’s hottest head coach candidate, Kyle Shanahan orchestrated the NFL’s most dynamic offense in 2016. Atlanta scored 540 points, the seventh-most ever in a season, with Matt Ryan emerging as an MVP candidate after eight good but not great seasons as a starting quarterback.
Apologies to: Dave Toub, ST, Kansas City Chiefs; Steve Spagnuolo, DC, New York Giants.
It’s only a matter of time before Dave Toub becomes a head coach. His special teams units regularly rank among the game’s best, and the Tyreek Hill factor helped the Chiefs become the league’s best return team in 2016. In New York, Spagnuolo helped the Giants’ defense improve from the 30th-ranked scoring unit in 2015 to 2nd-best in 2016.
NFL Playoff Predictions:
Oakland 19, Houston 16: It’s hard to take either team seriously, but in a game that features arguably the worst pair of starting quarterbacks to ever step on a football field, I’m picking the unknown of Connor Cook to edge out the completely ineffective Brock Osweiler.
Pittsburgh 24, Miami 17: For the first time ever, the Steelers have Roethlisberger, Bell and Brown all playing in a postseason game. Gase’s Dolphins have overachieved all season, and they did dominate the Steelers in their midseason matchup, but it’s hard to see Matt Moore winning on the road in Pittsburgh.
Seattle 20, Detroit 13: This isn’t the same Seahawks team as their past years. They can’t run the ball like they did with Marshawn Lynch and the loss of Earl Thomas can’t be understated. But Matt Stafford’s playoff inexperience, struggles on the road and lingering finger injury give Seattle the advantage in what should be a relatively low-scoring contest.
Green Bay 24, NY Giants 16: The 2007 and 2011 Giants are not relevant to this year’s Giants. I understand the temptation to pick Eli Manning to embark on another historic postseason run, but he’s also not just not a good quarterback anymore. The Giants haven’t scored more than 20 points in five straight games. Aaron Rodgers is the hottest player in football right now. It’s hard to see him losing at home.
New England 33, Oakland 13: How could Oakland possibly win this game? They have no chance. New England is 10-1 in divisional games in the Brady-Belichick era. They’ll be 11-1 after this blowout win that will be over by halftime.
Kansas City 27, Pittsburgh 24: This is the game that could be one of the best in the entire postseason. Andy Reid and Mike Tomlin each have impressive postseason resumes, but combined, they’ve won just two playoff games since 2011. This could be a sneaky shootout, and I’ll take a Chiefs team that just knows how to win over a Steelers team that underachieves far too often despite their talented offensive trio. Tyreek Hill could be the X-factor in this game.
Atlanta 31, Seattle 13: Here’s my pick for the surprising divisional round blowout. Atlanta is clicking on all cylinders right now. Quite simply, Seattle just won’t be able to score enough to keep up with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Dallas 28, Green Bay 23: A rematch of the 2014 divisional round playoff game has a different outcome. It’s tough to know what to expect from rookie quarterbacks in the postseason, but Dak Prescott has enough help on offense that Dallas can win even if he doesn’t light up the Green Bay defense. Aaron Rodgers’ storybook second half of the season ends in a sixth straight season without a Super Bowl appearance.
Kansas City 23, New England 20: Boom. Here’s your upset. Andy Reid finally defeats Bill Belichick in their third postseason matchup in a game where once again Tyreek Hill is the X-factor. New England, despite all of their postseason success in the Belichick-Brady era, has underachieved too many times after entering the postseason as the heavy favorite to reach the Super Bowl. No Rob Gronkowski is huge in a game where the Chiefs have the defensive backs and especially the pass-rush to make Tom Brady uncomfortable in the pocket.
Dallas 38, Atlanta 28: This game has shootout written all over it. Neither outcome would surprise me, but I have to lean to the home team in a game that could easily top 60 or even 70 points scored. Dallas has too many weapons on offense for Atlanta to stop, and they have the offensive line to contain an explosive pass-rusher like Vic Beasley. This has three rushing touchdowns by Ezekiel Elliott written all over it, as Dallas’ new set of triplets heads to the Super Bowl for the franchise’s first time in more than two decades.
Kansas City 27, Dallas 23: Finally. After 18 seasons as one of NFL’s best head coaches, Andy Reid captures the elusive Super Bowl championship that he has come so close to time after time. Doing it against the Dallas Cowboys would be extra satisfying for Reid. It would also generate mixed emotions for Eagles fans that I almost can’t describe until it actually happens. In the end, I am picking Tyreek Hill to once again be the X-factor in this game. He’s unstoppable at this point, whether it’s as a runner, receiver or return man. The Chiefs play quietly consistent football. They don’t turn the ball over. They collect sacks and takeaways. And in the end, it’s going to be enough for Alex Smith and Andy Reid to edge out Jason Garrett and Dallas’s triplets in what will likely be a typically wild Super Bowl finish.