Saints dominate NFC South awards after history-making season

Head coach Sean Payton and Drew Brees masterminded an offense that scored 504 points -- 31.5 per game -- in the regular season. AP Photo/Bill Feig

The New Orleans Saints stormed to the NFC South title and tied for the best record in the NFL thanks to their usual explosive offense, led by quarterback Drew Brees and coach Sean Payton, and a defense that steadily improved throughout the season. They were rewarded for their dominance in the division awards handed out by ESPN reporters Mike Triplett (Saints), Vaughn McClure (Atlanta Falcons), Jenna Laine (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and David Newton (Carolina Panthers).

Offensive MVP -- Saints quarterback Drew Brees: Brees has a chance to finally win his first regular-season MVP award in 18 years -- though he might wind up as the runner-up for the fourth time, thanks to Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes' breakout season. Regardless, Brees is the easy choice for the NFC South's top honor after having maybe his best season at age 39 while leading the Saints to a 13-3 record.

He shattered his own NFL record for completion percentage in a season (74.4 percent) while setting personal bests with a 115.7 passer rating and just five interceptions. He threw for 3,992 yards and 32 touchdowns. And, oh by the way, he became the NFL’s all-time passing yardage leader along the way, eclipsing Peyton Manning and finishing the campaign with 74,437 career passing yards.

Brees' passing yards were actually his fewest in 13 years with the Saints, who have been relying more on their run game and defense in recent years. But Payton praised Brees for being "magnificent in big games."

"If you take all the GOATs from every arena, the GOATs of music, the GOATs of basketball, the GOATs of baseball, all the GOATs ... he's the GOAT of GOATs," Saints linebacker Demario Davis said this year. "That's Drew Brees."

Defensive MVP -- Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan: Jordan has established himself as one of the NFL's best defensive ends -- and definitely one of the most versatile.

The 6-foot-4, 287-pounder had 12 sacks and 21 quarterback hits this season, giving him 25 sacks over the past two years. But he also is a standout run defender, as he was tied for sixth in the league with 18 tackles for loss. And he routinely ranks among the top defensive linemen in batted passes and pass breakups; he had three of each this season.

Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen called Jordan the "best all-around defensive end in the NFL."

As Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said, "You're not gonna find a better defensive end in the league than he is. He's 6-4, 285 to 290, runs like a linebacker, rushes as good as anybody in this league and plays hard every time he's out there."

Jordan had something of a "breakthrough" year in 2017, when he was named a first-team All-Pro for the first time, then he started appearing high on those top-100 player lists in the offseason. He spent this year proving everybody right by doubling down with another dominant season.

"Until the fire goes out, I'll be trying to play the best I can for as long as I can," Jordan said. "For me it's like, 'If I'm playing at my best last year, can I be better?' And I'm trying to push that."

Coach of the Year -- Saints' Sean Payton: This is the easiest choice on the list, considering the Saints won 13 games and every other NFC South team was below .500. But Payton didn't just win the award by default.

For one thing, he has overseen a pretty remarkable rebuild of the Saints' roster and coaching staff. (They have only six players and three assistant coaches who have been with the team for more than four years.) And this is actually the first time in his 13 years in New Orleans that the Saints have won back-to-back NFC South titles.

For another thing, Payton has been as innovative as ever as a game planner and playcaller -- including his use of quarterback Taysom Hill in a new read-option role and his creative use of running backs Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram II on the field at the same time.

"Absolutely," Brees said of Payton having been as creative as ever. "I feel like we're always trying to stay at the forefront of innovation and creativity. We certainly steal our fair share of ideas, but I like to think that there's people out there stealing our stuff too. I know they are, because I see it on Sundays when I turn on the film."

Rookie of the Year -- Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley: Coming out of the preseason, there was a major buzz around the team about what type of offensive threat Ridley could be for the Falcons after being selected in the first round of the draft. Well, he didn't disappoint, setting a franchise rookie record with 10 touchdown receptions. Ridley scored six times in his first four games, which was a first in NFL history.

Ridley registered a pair of 75-yard touchdowns, and he finished the season with 821 yards on 64 catches, third on the team in yards behind Julio Jones' league-leading 1,677 receiving yards (113 catches) and Mohamed Sanu's 838 yards (66 catches).

More than anything else, Ridley showed tremendous drive, staying after practice daily to work on his hands -- particularly after a few costly drops.

He'll only get better with more seasoning, and he should continue to benefit from the defensive attention that Jones attracts.