There’s just one week remaining in the 2021 season, meaning we have a pretty good idea of who will take home awards at the annual NFL honors ceremony:
- It’s a two-man race for MVP
- Did Ja’Marr Chase overtake Mac Jones for OROY?
- Will anyone catch T.J. Watt for DPOY?
Picking The NFL Awards
The NFL awards aren’t announced until just before the Super Bowl, but this weekend marks the final chance for players to make their case on the field for voters.
At this point, things have been whittled down to the point that we have a fairly good idea of who will win each award. But some races are remarkably close for this time of year, close enough to be swayed by what happens in Week 18.
We don’t have a ballot here at NFLTR Review. But if we did, here’s who we would pick for each award:
Most Valuable Player: Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
Buccaneers QB Tom Brady has a really compelling case, especially if you look at some of the counting stats like yards and touchdowns. Brady leads the NFL in passing yardage and is on the verge of his second ever season with more than 5,000 yards. His 40 touchdown passes also lead the league and Brady is near the top in nearly all major passing stats.
This Tampa Bay team has also been riddled with injuries, especially on defense and especially late in the season. Brady has played a huge role in helping the Bucs overcome those with five game-winning drives and Tampa Bay is tied for the second-best record in the NFL at 12-4. You don’t have to work hard to sell the value of Brady, but consider that he’s relied upon more than any quarterback in football with 682 passing attempts so far. The next closest QB is Patrick Mahomes at 614 attempts.
I nearly talked myself into changing my mind on Brady just now. That said, Rodgers has been the most efficient quarterback in football and the Packers have been the best team in the NFL in a year where parity has reigned supreme. They haven’t had the toughest schedule, but they do have wins against the Cardinals, Rams and Bengals.
More importantly, Green Bay has been missing a number of its best players for all or most of the season. Rodgers hasn’t had LT David Bakhtiari all year and the Packers’ next-best offensive lineman, Elgton Jenkins, played just eight games before a torn ACL. The defense has been missing Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander for most of the season. Regardless, Rodgers and the Packers have hummed along without missing a beat since a weird Week 1 loss to the Saints.
Rodgers also tops Brady, as well as every other quarterback, in a number of key metrics. He leads the NFL in adjusted net yards per attempt, touchdown percentage and interception percentage. In EPA+CPOE composite (expected points added and completion percentage over expected), Rodgers is clearly head and shoulders over the competition.
It’s not the end-all, be-all of metrics, but it does illustrate what other stats seem to show as well. There are plenty of quarterbacks playing well, but there’s a gap between Rodgers and the rest of the pack.
Offensive Player of the Year: Rams WR Cooper Kupp
There’s another compelling case to be made for Colts RB Jonathan Taylor, as he forced himself briefly into the MVP conversation at varying points this season. He’s scored 20 total touchdowns and has more than 1,700 yards rushing, far away the top figure in the NFL. He’s having a truly phenomenal year and is a major reason for Indianapolis’ turnaround over the course of the season.
But he’s not on the verge of breaking NFL records like Kupp is, even if it is with the benefit of a 17-games schedule.
- With 11 more receptions, Kupp would equal Saints WR Michael Thomas’ record of 149 catches in a season.
- Another 136 yards would break former Lions great Calvin Johnson’s record for receiving yards.
- And if he can hold off Bengals first-round WR Ja’Marr Chase for the lead in touchdowns — Kupp has 15, Chase has 13 — he would become the first receiver to earn the Triple Crown and lead the league in all three categories since Steve Smith did it for the Panthers in 2005.
He’s already got more touchdowns than both Thomas and Johnson had in their respective years and both won OPOY.
Defensive Player of the Year: Steelers OLB T.J. Watt
It feels like Watt has been in the conversation for this award for a couple of seasons now. This might finally be the year he takes it home, though. Browns DE Myles Garrett has battled an injury and has lost momentum, with just two sacks in his past six games. Cowboys first-round LB Micah Parsons has been incredible, but it’s hard to look past 21.5 sacks from Watt, one away from tying the NFL record.
There’s a conversation to be had about Rams DT Aaron Donald, just like there is every single year. Donald remains one of the most dominant one-man wrecking crews in the sport. He’s been superb in 2021. Watt has just been a little bit better.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase
Chase has been locked in a back and forth battle all season for this award with Patriots first-round QB Mac Jones. And for a while it looked like Jones had pushed ahead. After a 201-yard outburst against the Ravens in Week 7, Chase went quiet — relatively speaking. He didn’t have more than 77 yards for seven weeks and had fewer than six receptions all but one of those weeks.
Meanwhile, Jones piloted the Patriots to a seven-game winning streak. But in the final game of that streak he infamously had just three pass attempts in a wind-swept win against the Bills. The next starts were losses and the door was reopened for Chase. He banged it down with his second 200-yard game of the season, going for 266 and three scores in a win against the Chiefs.
I understand why this award has been biased to quarterbacks in the past given their importance. Jones has been really solid for a rookie. Chase has been exceptional for an NFL receiver, period. You could make a similar argument for Chargers LT Rashawn Slater and Chiefs C Creed Humphrey even. But Chase is already one of the best receivers in the NFL. This award should be his to lose.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Cowboys LB Micah Parsons
There really aren’t any other serious contenders for this. Parsons should win unanimously. He has a staggering 20 tackles for loss as a hybrid off-ball linebacker and edge rusher, plus a pass rush win rate that leads the entire NFL.
Coach of the Year: Packers HC Matt LaFleur
There are a ton of deserving candidates for this award this year. There was a lot of great coaching around the league (which was made clear by all the bad coaching we saw as well.)
In New England, Patriots HC Bill Belichick proved he hasn’t lost his mojo. The team picked up steam as the season moved along and are back to being one of the most physical, well-coached teams in the NFL. You have to be on your P’s and Q’s to beat New England, as they won’t beat themselves.
The Titans have dealt with a ton of injuries on both sides of the ball, yet they continue to defy expectations every single week. They’re a tough, physical outfit no matter who is playing and that’s a mirror image of their head coach, Mike Vrabel.
And after a 1-4 start to the season, Colts HC Frank Reich has the team all the way back to 9-7 and in the driver’s seat for a playoff berth if they can beat the miserable Jaguars on Sunday.
Out of all of these terrific coaches, though, LaFleur deserves to be recognized. Some of it is overdue, as LaFleur has Green Bay at 13-3 for the third consecutive year. It’s one of the fastest starts to a coaching career in NFL history. Having Rodgers helps obviously, but it’s not all that. Former HC Mike McCarthy had just one winning season in the three years before LaFleur took over. LaFleur deserves a lot of credit for maximizing Rodgers and adjusting to all the injuries that have hit the team this year.
Comeback Player of the Year: Bengals QB Joe Burrow
For the first half of the year, Cowboys QB Dak Prescott looked like a lock for this award and a potential contender for MVP. But as Prescott has faded as the season has gone along, Burrow has picked up steam. In his last eight games, Prescott’s yards per attempt have fallen to 6.7 after being around 8.0 in his first seven.
Conversely, Burrow has thrown for nearly 1,500 yards in the past four games alone, with 11 touchdowns, no interceptions, over 10 yards per attempt and a completion percentage over 75 percent.
This Week In Football
- Two of the biggest stories of the offseason are going to be the feelings of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson. So with a week to go still in the regular season, here’s where things stand. Things have been rather rosy in Green Bay, with the NFL’s best record and potentially the MVP. So it’s not a big surprise there’s no rocking of the boat by the parties involved. In fact, the “No. 1 priority” for the Packers this offseason is reportedly to bring Rodgers back. Rodgers has sure sounded like a guy who wants to be back in recent weeks, so we’ll see how things develop in the next couple of months.
- Meanwhile in Seattle, there’s not quite been rocking of the boat, but the seas are choppy and there’s a storm on the horizon. Everyone can read the signs about things not being right between Wilson and HC Pete Carroll, and the prevailing thought around the league is that the two are finishing their final season together. That much is obvious given Wilson’s agitation from this past offseason and Seattle’s losing record this year. What’s not clear is how exactly things will play out. Stay tuned…
- I was getting flashbacks to 2019 with all the Antonio Brown drama this week, as the wideout’s Tampa Bay career ended in predictably explosive fashion. There’s really a lot more to the situation than I want to cover in this space, but the quick version is Brown became discontented with the Bucs. If you believe him — and I don’t know why you’d be inclined to take everything he says at face value given his history — his ankle injury and the team’s mismanagement of it is what led to the sideline confrontation and subsequent blowup that caused him to be released. The team believes if Brown’s ankle really was bad enough to keep him out, he’d have told a trainer during the game, and his real issue is with not getting enough targets to hit incentives the team declined to guarantee this week. No one comes out of this looking good; Brown for self-destructing again in incredible fashion and the Buccaneers for standing by Brown after the fake vaccine card situation and having it promptly blow up in their face.
- There was an interesting development in Cleveland regarding the potential quarterback carousel this offseason. With Browns QB Baker Mayfield’s struggles, the obvious question was whether the team would give him another season to prove himself in a contract year or whether they would make a move this offseason to replace him. An interesting layer was added on Thursday, though, when it was reported that Mayfield himself wasn’t so sure about his situation in Cleveland, with specific gripes about HC Kevin Stefanski’s system and play-calling, and if those weren’t reassured, Mayfield could request a trade out of town. Basically, the former No. 1 overall pick is taking a similar tack as Rodgers, Wilson and Watson have in the past 12 months. He just doesn’t have anywhere near the resume.
- We’re just a few days from the coaching cycle kicking into full gear. Here’s where things stand across the league:
- The Jaguars are the only team taking advantage of the extended window to conduct head coach interviews. But even with Urban Meyer gone, the team is still running into problems. Jacksonville’s decision to retain GM Trent Baalke, which we should have mentioned last week, is causing trepidation among the candidates set to interview. Baalke is most well-known for feuding with 49ers HC Jim Harbaugh and blowing up what was a pretty successful San Francisco team for a few years for the sake of winning a power struggle. That has other candidates understandably worried about signing on with the Jaguars.
- Speaking of Harbaugh, his name has come up in the NFL coaching rumors, and it appears there could be mutual interest as opposed to this same time last year when he was on thin ice at Michigan. He has links as a coach and a player to the Raiders and Bears, both of whom are expected to have vacancies as of right now.
- The Bears will fire HC Matt Nagy sometime after the game on Sunday. The team has been engaged in preparations for a coaching search and should begin following Week 18.
- Staying in the NFC North, the Vikings are another team to monitor for a coaching change. Current HC Mike Zimmer entered the season needing a playoff berth for job security, but Minnesota was eliminated this past week. Nothing final has been decided but there’s a chance Zimmer is axed on Monday.
- Those who pay attention to this kind of thing have also noted the Broncos have laid the groundwork for a coaching search should they decide to fire HC Vic Fangio. That one is also up in the air, but it’s easy to connect the dots to new GM George Paton wanting to hire his own coach after three straight losing seasons from Fangio.
- The Panthers still appear to be sticking with HC Matt Rhule despite the continued losses and the clear lack of faith by the fanbase. It’s hard to see the progress in Carolina, though. The Texans also look likely to retain HC David Culley for at least one more season.
- It hasn’t been a good few weeks for pending free agent receivers. While catching a touchdown in a loss to the Cardinals, Cowboys WR Michael Gallup tore his ACL. He’s in the final year of his deal and this casts a pall over his potential market. Perhaps a team views him as a long-term investment and is willing to treat 2022 as a rehab year. The standard 9-12 month recovery for a torn ACL means it’s hard to count on Gallup for any kind of production next season.
- There were a couple of notable extensions this week as teams think ahead to next season. The Patriots handed S Adrian Phillips a three-year, $12.75 million extension, which is great value for how much Phillips produces in their defensive system. Washington also locked up LT Charles Leno to a three-year, $37.5 million deal. The Football Team (though not for much longer) was the beneficiary when the Bears cut bait on a four-year, $37 million deal to save money, and Leno has bounced back with his highest-ever PFF graded season. His APY of $12.5 million a year is 16th among left tackles currently, which is solid for an above average starter at an important position.
Nickels & Dimes
Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…
It's pretty incredible that Brett Favre is second on the Packers in passing TDs, so I looked up who is second on every other team and how far behind Favre they are. pic.twitter.com/ddGCQXPO71
— Mitch Goldich 🐙 (@mitchgoldich) December 25, 2021
A fascinating peek into a bunch of franchises’ histories here. Since this was posted, Brady has tied for second in Bucs history…
— Kevin Patra (@kpatra) December 30, 2021
Arizona got a win to stem the bleeding this week but this is a worrisome trend…
A fascinating tidbit about franchise tags in 2022. The tag does not distinguish between off-ball linebackers and edge rushers, which means for years any time a tag has been used on an outside linebacker, they file a grievance to be treated more like defensive ends. But for the first time in what I have to imagine is ever, the linebacker tag is projected to be higher than the defensive end tag in 2022. Good news for someone like Titans OLB Harold Landry…
Speaking of salary differences, the top of the right tackle market has moved considerably in recent years. But across the board, there’s still a major difference in how teams prioritize the left side versus the right. So the point of the story is that Orlando Brown Jr. seems justified in forcing his way to a spot where he could play on the left side…
Meanwhile, in a universe not too far from our own, here are the current NFL standings if every single one-score game had the opposite result. pic.twitter.com/C3D5G0cbWt
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) January 5, 2022
Over time, one-score games in the NFL tend to gravitate toward being 50-50. Dramatic differences from that tend to indicate a team that’s particularly lucky or unlucky — and a regression to the mean the following year. That’s good news for the Bills. Bad news for the Steelers…
Before the coaching and GM cycle gets too crazy, this is a good read from the Ringer’s Kevin Clark on why there’s so much turnover each year and why it’s probably not going away soon…
Sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded we don’t really know how things are going to play out. Case in point, the table in this article from the Athletic’s Mike Sando on how free agent receiver signings panned out this year. The two best were Patriots WR Kendrick Bourne and Cardinals WR A.J. Green, both of which were widely panned as overpays when they happened…
Updated edge chart!
Double team rate when pass rushing at edge (x) by pass rush win rate at edge (y).
T.J. Watt may be the sack leader but Myles Garrett is No. 1 in PRWR at edge.
(ESPN metrics w/ NFL Next Gen Stats data) pic.twitter.com/w3HBfjR4FF
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) January 5, 2022
This is one of the best charts ESPN’s analytics crew does. Very clearly shows who the biggest difference makers are…
Holy cow Micah Parsons…
Here’s the chart I really wanted to get to: putting Donald on the same plot as the elite edge rushers.
To do so I’ll throw out position: this is top 50 PRWR players regardless of where they lined up.
Double-team rate when pass rushing (x) by pass rush win rate (y). pic.twitter.com/JN8x7h3FqL
— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) January 5, 2022
Adding in all defensive linemen. Holy cow Aaron Donald…
I’ll admit, I have a great appreciation for Steve Smith as a lifelong Panthers fan. But I’m still perplexed at how he failed to get a nomination as a finalist and longtime Texans WR Andre Johnson did. Their numbers are close but Smith feels like he has a slight edge…
|Stats||Andre Johnson||Steve Smith|
*From Pro Football Reference
Add in Smith’s success in the playoffs, his 2005 Triple Crown and how he helped redefine the position for shorter wideouts, and I just have a hard time seeing how the voters broke an admittedly close case with Johnson against him…