NFLTR Review: Who’s The MVP?

     

Happy Friday once again as we have another issue of NFLTR Review we hope you’ll enjoy! This week we look at: 

  • Who are the frontrunners for MVP, ROY, etc as we dive into the second half of the season?
  • Dissecting the disappointing fantasy impact of the 2020 RB class
  • Why the Panthers aren’t getting the most out of D.J. Moore

Early Award Frontrunners

The entire NFL is now firmly in the second half of their schedules, as every team has played at least nine games. With that in mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at the award landscape to see who the favorites are for the NFL’s top individual honors and who some dark horse candidates could be as we come down the stretch. 

Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Smith, Ben Roethlisberger

Now that Smith will start for the Washington Football Team for presumably most of the rest of the season, this award is all but locked up. Smith was the favorite even before the season started because of the incredible journey it took for him to even walk again, let alone play football. Regaining a starting job and setting a new career-high in passing yards (390 against the Lions last week) is just icing on the cake. 

Roethlisberger has a legitimate case for the award as well, coming back from what sounds like a unique elbow injury to lead Pittsburgh to the NFL’s best record. But judging by what I’ve seen from most sportswriters who form the voting pool, Smith is the heavy favorite.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert 

Right now it’s a two-man race between Burrow and Herbert for offensive rookie of the year. Both have been putting up strong numbers but Herbert especially stands out with a torrid pace of 2,333 yards, 19 touchdowns and just six interceptions. In fact, Herbert is having one of the best seasons by a rookie quarterback of all time. 

Name ANY/A* QBR Yards Total TDs INTs Comp % Games
Justin Herbert 7.41 69 2,333 22 6 66.8 8
Joe Burrow 5.64 59 2,485 15 5 65.4 9
Dak Prescott 7.86 78.8 3,667 29 4 67.8 16
Robert Griffin 7.47 69.4 3,200 27 5 65.6 15
Dan Marino 7.39 NA 2,210 22 6 58.4 11
Deshaun Watson 7.19 83.6 1,699 21 8 61.8 7
Matt Ryan 7.01 68.5 3,440 17 11 61.1 16
Russell Wilson 7.01 72.7 3,118 30 10 64.1 16
Ben Roethlisberger 6.93 NA 2,621 18 11 66.4 14
Cam Newton 6.24 58.1 4,051 35 17 60 16
Andrew Luck 5.66 65.6 4,374 28 18 54.1 16

*Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt, formula here, basically rewards TDs, penalizes INTs

Herbert beats Burrow in most statistical categories, but Burrow has the edge in wins as Herbert’s brilliance has not offset the Charger’s tendency toward the spectacular collapse. Still, if the season ended today the award would have to go to Herbert for what he’s done so far. 

But there’s a long way to go still and there’s even room for another challenger. There are a number of brilliant rookie receivers, including Justin Jefferson of the Vikings and Chase Claypool of the Steelers. It’ll be a quarterback award this year, however, and if anyone can catch the Herbert/Burrow/duo, it’s Tua Tagovailoa in Miami. The training wheels were on for Tagovailoa’s first start. But they’ve come off in a major way the past two weeks in a thrilling duel against the Cardinals and a win against Herbert and the Chargers this past week. If he continues to be productive and Miami makes the playoffs, Tagovailoa will have a compelling case for the award. 

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chase Young, Antoine Winfield, Jeremy Chinn, Julian Blackmon

This race is still tight as no one player has set themselves head and shoulders above the competition. Young leads all rookies in sacks with 3.5 and is Pro Football Focus’ top-graded rookie. He looks like he’s going to be a major problem for NFC East offensive linemen for years to come. 

Winfield and Blackmon look like two heady, play-making safeties who locked up starting jobs on some of the best defensive units in the league in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis, respectively. Blackmon has two picks, six pass defenses and hasn’t given up a touchdown pass yet this season. Winfield’s been more versatile, however, with one pick, four pass defenses, a forced fumble and two sacks. And Chinn leads all rookies with 70 tackles to go with a pick and five pass defenses. His versatility as both a safety and linebacker has been invaluable for the Panthers. 

Whoever avoids the rookie wall and takes another step in the back half of the season will walk away with the hardware at the end of the year, as right now a strong case can be made for any of these four. Someone like Ravens LB Patrick Queen could also have a hot second half of the year and put themselves in the conversation. This one is wide open. 

Defensive Player of the Year: T.J. Watt, Myles Garrett, Aaron Donald

These are arguably the three most dominant defensive players in the game right now. All three are within half a sack of each other, with Garrett leading the bunch and the whole league with 9.5 and both Watt and Donald a tick behind him with nine. And all three have compelling cases. 

Not only does Garrett lead the NFL in sacks, but he also has four forced fumbles and has recovered two of his own, making him an incredibly disruptive player coming off the edge in Cleveland. Watt’s the best defensive player on the best defense in the league. A fearsome pass rusher, he also mixes it up in coverage and has a pick plus three pass knockdowns. As for Donald, there aren’t many more superlatives to write about one of the best interior pass rushers the NFL has ever seen. There might not be anyone capable of blocking him for more than a handful of plays a game. The biggest thing working against him might be voter fatigue given he’s already won DPOY twice in 2017 and 2018. 

Even though Garrett leads the NFL in sacks, this feels like a two-man race currently between Watt and Donald due to the fact both of their defensive units overall are stronger than the Browns. Watt was our guess for the award back in the preseason and that’s who we’re sticking with here. 

Offensive Player of the Year: Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Kyler Murray

Because of the way MVP voting usually shakes out, there’s a lot of overlap between it and the OPOY. In fact, the two awards have been won by the same player 11 times in the past 20 years. When they’re not, it’s usually because of some outstanding feat by another offensive player, like Saints WR Michael Thomas who won the award last year after breaking the NFL’s reception record. 

With that in mind, there are just a couple of candidates who could do enough to set themselves apart from the other MVP candidates to win this award. Kamara could become the fourth player ever with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving after Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey accomplished the feat last year. But he would need to pick up the rushing pace, as he has 486 yards in nine games so far. It’s also worth mentioning that Kamara has just two career 100-yard rushing games. 

Cook is leading the entire league in rushing and he’ll get touted as a potential MVP candidate in some corners if he helps push the Vikings to the playoffs following a 1-5 start. I’m skeptical of just about any running back’s claims to that award in the modern NFL, but Cook really has been phenomenal for Minnesota. Since coming back from a short absence with a groin injury, Cook has 82 carries for 465 yards and six total touchdowns in the past three games. That’s an absurd pace to maintain but if he does, it’ll make for a special season worthy of recognition. 

Then there’s Murray, who butted his way into the MVP conversation with his brilliant Hail Mary on Sunday only to suffer a setback against the Seahawks last night. He might not find enough team success in Arizona this year to win MVP honors but he’s been incendiary as an offensive threat this year in a way we haven’t quite seen at the NFL level. 

Cam Newton and Lamar Jackson have won MVP awards as dual-threat quarterbacks, but Murray is tracking to be a more prolific passer than either while being equally effective as a runner. He’s on pace to throw for over 4,500 yards and 34 touchdowns while also adding over 600 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground so far. If he keeps up this level of play, or close to it, he’ll be both the first player ever to pass for 4,500 yards and rush for 1,000 in a season and break Newton’s record for QB rushing touchdowns of 14 he set as a rookie. 

If Murray can accomplish that feat, he would be well-deserving of the individual award for offensive player of the year. 

MVP: Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers

Given how important the quarterback position is, it’s no shock quarterbacks dominate the most valuable discussion unless there’s a truly rare season by a player at another position — and even then a quarterback still typically wins, especially in the modern NFL. Usually there are three key factors that play into which particular quarterback wins the award. 

  1. Team success. Good quarterbacks on bad teams don’t win MVP awards. 
  2. Supporting cast. Quarterbacks who do more with less are rewarded, as they’re theoretically more valuable to their team’s success. 
  3. Sheer dominance. Whoever’s making the game of football look far too easy has a leg up on winning the award. 

We can knock out over half the league with the first point. When you look at the second, it works against players like Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger who are on loaded teams with no real weaknesses. Finally, the third category separates the true contenders for MVP from players who are just having really good seasons. Guys like Murray and Bills QB Josh Allen fall into the later bucket for now, while Mahomes and Wilson are in the former. 

Wilson was seen as the easy favorite for the first several weeks of the season, but his slump the past few weeks cost him. Seattle gave him the keys to the offense coming into 2020 and he was sensational, averaging nearly four touchdowns a game the first five weeks of the season. Turnovers have been a problem since the bye but Wilson got things back on track in a key divisional win against the Cardinals Thursday night. Through 10 games, Wilson sits at 30 touchdown passes to 10 interceptions with over a 70 percent completion percentage and the potential to crack 5,000 yards passing. 

Mahomes continues to do incredible things on a weekly basis to the point that we’re all starting to take him for granted a little bit. In his worst game of the season, he still passed for 340 yards and two touchdowns, and his least productive game of the year was because Kansas City rested him pretty much at halftime. He has 25 touchdown passes to just one interception and could legitimately make a run at his second 50-touchdown, 5,000-yard passing season, which would be just the fourth all-time. There’s a strong argument not to overthink things and just give the MVP award to the player most would agree is the best in the league right now. 

Mahomes and Wilson look like the prohibitive favorites the rest of the way. But there’s a potential dark horse challenger who could make some noise, and that’s Rodgers. He’s right up there with the other two in terms of production, with 26 touchdown passes, only three interceptions and 2,578 yards passing. He barely edges out Mahomes for the top slot in ESPN’s QBR metric as well. And he’s doing all of this with an arguably inferior supporting cast, as outside of WR Davante Adams Green Bay doesn’t have a lot of big-name receiving talent, and Adams has missed two games. 

There’s still a lot of season left to play. Last year, Jackson didn’t cement his candidacy until an 8-0 finish to the season that gave the Ravens the No. 1 seed. Mahomes, Wilson and Rodgers all look to be in the middle of special seasons. Whoever can maintain their elite level of play the longest, or even turn it up a notch, will be the one who wins the MVP award. 

This Week In Football

  • Add the coaching cycle to the list of things that could look different in the NFL this year because of the pandemic. The Texans are apparently deliberating keeping Romeo Crennel on for an extra year if they can’t get a good sense of candidates. Crennel is already the NFL’s oldest coach and the sense was he stepped down as defensive coordinator this past offseason to start transitioning out of having a huge football role. This would be a move in the opposite direction. 
  • 49ers GM John Lynch addressed what he called “the elephant in the room” regarding QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s future in San Francisco. Reading between the lines, it’s clear the 49ers will evaluate their options this offseason and see if an upgrade presents itself, potentially in the draft. But it’s worth noting the team does appear to believe in Garoppolo. 
  • It’s also worth noting that Garoppolo has a no-trade clause in his contract, restricting San Francisco’s options even further. This doesn’t mean the 49ers can’t trade Garoppolo, it just means they need to get his approval on a deal and that adds an extra obstacle to a complicated process of finding a suitor, getting proper value and bringing in a replacement. 
  • Packers LT David Bakhtiari signed a four-year, $105.5 million extension that amounts to $23 million a year in new money, good enough to reset the market for offensive tackles. It’s a big win for Bakhtiari and getting a quality player like that locked up is good for Green Bay as well. It gives the Packers more flexibility than they would have had on the franchise tag. 
  • It’s been a bad week for quarterback injuries and none are bigger than Saints QB Drew Brees. A battered Brees ended up with five fractured ribs and a collapsed lung after Sunday’s game against the 49ers. He’s out a minimum of two games and possibly more. New Orleans will now get a sneak peak at their potential future with Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill running the show behind center. 
  • Other signal callers who went down include Jets QB Sam Darnold, still out with his sprained AC shoulder joint, and Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater with a sprained MCL. Broncos QB Drew Lock (strained oblique) and Lions QB Matthew Stafford (torn thumb ligament) also sustained injuries but it appears both could tough it out and play this week. 
  • Rams stalwart LT Andrew Whitworth went down and he’s probably one of the two or three players Los Angeles could least afford to lose. The silver lining is Whitworth avoided tearing his ACL and could be back for the playoffs. This also provides a look at the Rams potential replacement plan for the 37-year-old future Hall of Famer. 
  • The Giants locked up K Graham Gano to a three-year, $14 million extension, which is a nice coup for Gano after a rough couple of years. Injuries marred his final two years in Carolina and eventually led to his release coming into this year. There are only 32 starting kicker jobs and intense competition with younger and cheaper options entering the league every year, so there were no guarantees for Gano. But he earned a future in New York. 
  • The saga of Takk McKinley continues, as the defensive end was waived again after failing a physical with the Bengals. After being behind Cincinnati in the waiver priority order, the 49ers finally got their guy and claimed McKinley his second time through, giving them another former first-round pick to take a look at on their defensive line. 
  • The Dolphins waived RB Jordan Howard and he is returning to the Eagles, signing on to the practice squad. Howard is a terrific example of just how tenuous the running back position is in the modern NFL. He ran for 3,370 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first three seasons with Chicago. But he was pigeonholed as a two-down back and traded away for peanuts. He played the same role with the Eagles and became essentially a goal-line back this year with the Dolphins despite signing a decent contract as a free agent as Miami turned to more complete options. Now he’s on a practice squad and his career is on the brink even though he just turned 26. 
  • In a saga that has more twists and turns than even the most complex Law and Order episode, former Giants first-round CB Deandre Baker had all four armed robbery charges against him dropped after a lawyer for three of the alleged victims was charged with extortion. Baker might not be completely innocent but the whole cast of characters in this story is shady, and it means the legal system doesn’t have any punishment in store for him, for now. The NFL could be another story. 
  • But that’s the Chiefs’ problem now, as they took a chance on Baker with a spot on their practice squad. Baker was terrible on the field as a rookie in 2019 and the stories about him behind the scenes from the Giants organization made it clear his lack of preparation played a big part in that. Kansas City isn’t risking much, though, by seeing if the past year has scared Baker straight. 

Fantasy Football Corner

2020’s rookie class was as hyped as any in years. And for good reason. 

Draft experts waxed on and on about how strong this crop of rookie receivers was and so far they’ve delivered. Five receivers — Chase Claypool, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Jefferson, Tee Higgins and Brandon Aiyuk — are in the top-36 scorers at the position, making them weekly starters. Others like Jerry Jeudy, Laviska Shenault, Darnell Mooney and Gabriel Davis have shown flashes of production. Burrow and Herbert have also juiced the class with their production from the quarterback position. 

But when you look at the rookie running back class, there are a lot of high expectations going unfulfilled right now. 

Name Yahoo Preseason ADP* Current Rank^
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 7 12
Jonathan Taylor 19 19
Cam Akers 25 82
D’Andre Swift 27 14
J.K. Dobbins 31 42
Zack Moss 36 45
Antonio Gibson 39 11
Ke’Shawn Vaughn 42 98

*ADP data from Fantasy Pros, ^half-PPR scoring.

Running backs matter a ton for fantasy football. After the Chiefs took Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round, a bunch of fantasy football managers followed suit. Colts second-round RB Jonathan Taylor rose steadily in drafts over the summer as the team raved more and more about him. Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins got a lot of buzz after the Rams and Ravens, two rushing-oriented offenses, used second-round picks on them. And third-round rookies like Washington’s Antonio Gibson, Buffalo’s Zack Moss and Tampa Bay’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn were popular sleeper picks. 

Instead, the best rookie back this year has been Jaguars undrafted free agent James Robinson, a super sleeper hardly anyone knew about until Jacksonville cut Leonard Fournette because training camp practices were closed. The rookie out of Illinois State ranks fourth among all backs in scoring right now. While a number of the other rookie backs currently rank in the top 24, only Gibson and Lions second-rounder D’Andre Swift are currently outperforming their ADPs. 

If you drafted Gibson, especially in the double-digit rounds, you’re probably pretty happy with what you’ve gotten so far. Swift was quite a bit more expensive, going on average in the seventh round, and his breakout game this past weekend pushed him up from 20th at the position. But he’s at least trending up. He took the lion’s share — pardon the pun — of the snaps this past week as Detroit had been in a three-way committee before. 

If you spent a first or second-round pick on Edwards-Helaire, you’ve likely grown more and more concerned as the season has gone along. Despite well-documented issues converting goal line runs, Edwards-Helaire’s volume was steady with no fewer than 10 carries in a game. But the rookie hasn’t hit that benchmark since Kansas City added Le’Veon Bell a month ago. He’s gone from a locked-in RB1 to a hopeful flex. The potent Chiefs offense makes it hard to take him out of the lineup but it’s time to temper expectations the rest of the way. 

Taylor looked poised to be a league-winning pick after the Colts lost Marlon Mack in the first game of the season. The coaching staff raved after him week after week in camp, the biggest knock on him coming into 2020 was workload and Mack’s injury appeared to answer those questions. But instead, Taylor has looked like a rookie and the backfield has devolved into a three-way split between him, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Colts HC Frank Reich appears determined to go with the hot hand, which last Thursday was Hines, and that makes this backfield impossible to predict going forward. 

The Rams and Ravens also came into the season with projected three-way committees. But many GMs drafted Akers with the thought he’d prove to be the superior option by the end of the season, taking over most of the workload vacated by Todd Gurley. Instead, Akers has been hurt and both Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown have shown more staying power than people anticipated. 

As for Dobbins, he was seen more as a lottery ticket given how established both Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards were in the Ravens’ record-setting offense in 2019. While Dobbins has flashed tons of talent in limited touches and took advantage of an injury to Ingram with a 113-yard rushing performance against the Steelers a couple weeks ago, Ingram returned this past week to send the backfield back into a three-way split. Dobbins might be a ticket that doesn’t cash out in 2020. 

Other popular sleepers ahead of drafts this year included Moss and Vaughn. Neither have panned out so far. Both have dealt with injuries and Vaughn has been buried on Tampa Bay’s depth chart despite hopes he’d fill the James White-style passing back role for Tom Brady. Moss is back and pushing Devin Singletary for the lead back role in Buffalo, but the Bills rushing game as a whole has struggled. 

There’s still the home stretch of the fantasy regular season and the playoff stretch, so there’s a lot of time for perceptions to change. Weeks 14-16 are when fantasy legends are made. But there’s a lesson to be pulled from this class of rookie backs so far. Several have been productive and the future is bright. The expectations placed on this group entering the season were too heavy, though, and it’s something I will definitely be keeping in mind next year when the 2021 class is being fluffed up. 

It’s easy to get sucked into rookie hype. It’s harder for the hype to carry over to reality. 

Check This Out

  • LSU became the latest school to make headlines for horrifically mishandling accusations of rape, domestic violence and other sex crimes, especially involving football players. USA Today investigates how the school covered for not only RB Derrius Guice, but others including current Browns rookies Grant Delpit and Jacob Phillips
  • Our first podcast recommendation in this space is a doozy, as the Athletic’s Robert Mays has a football nerd’s bonanza with some of the smartest X’s and O’s experts on the Internet breaking down the Ravens offensive struggles, the Cardinals dynamic offense, Miami’s surging defense and more. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick hits and random thoughts…

Don’t look now but the Dolphins are about to be 9-3 with their next three games coming against the Broncos, Jets and Bengals. That sets up a four-game gauntlet to end the season — Chiefs, Patriots, Raiders, Bills — where Miami could either be exposed as pretenders or crowned as AFC East champions in a best-case scenario…

The entire AFC playoff picture is loaded right now. Nine teams are 6-3 or better and there are only seven playoff berths. The 6-3 Browns and Titans are on the outside looking in at the moment with nothing but tiebreakers between them and the Ravens, Dolphins, Raiders and Colts. Even the 4-5 Patriots could still make some noise down the stretch…

As a dedicated watcher of Panthers football, I believe that for all of the team’s offensive success, WR D.J. Moore is being misused. Moore is the team’s best run-after-catch player and is in fact one of the best in the league at this aspect of the game. He bounces off defenders like a running back. Yet his average depth of target is the highest on the team, ahead of both Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel

Sure, Moore is capable of beating his man down the field

But I’d love to see him used more in the area he’s best at, like this

I was looking at one of my fantasy football matchups this weekend when I saw my Washington RB J.D. McKissic had 11 targets by the two-minute warning in the first half. My first thought was classic Alex Smith, stepping right back into his role as Captain Checkdown…

Then I watched a lot more of the game and came away with a different impression. The Washington Football Team might have something in Smith. Scott Turner’s offense is built around a lot of quick passing to get the ball in the hands of playmakers. It’s the quarterback’s job to play point guard and Smith does that well. He set a career-high in passing yards in his first start and third game back from one of the most devastating injuries in league history…

The caveat is this performance came against the Lions “defense.” However, you’d think Smith will improve as he knocks more of the rust off. At the very least, he looks like a potentially legitimate bridge quarterback. This is thinking way far off, but maybe you feel better if you’re Washington about passing on a quarterback if you can’t get one of the top two and you look to solidify the rest of the team. Maybe LT Penei Sewell or WR Ja’Marr Chase…?

I won’t make any claims of being an NFL scout in this column. I try to watch a good number of skill-position players for my dynasty fantasy football leagues but I weigh the opinions of others who are smarter than me a lot heavier. That said, Seahawks WR D.K. Metcalf really was an easy evaluation…

I saw Metcalf do something similar to this the first play of a game against Alabama and knew he’d be a successful pro. Big, fast and scary. Sometimes it’s that simple…

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