In advance of Week 17, I'm filing my awards ballot for the 2018 NFL season. As I do every year here on ESPN.com, I filed a similar ballot after Week 4 and then again after Week 9, so we can all see just how much the league has progressed over the past three months. Remember when Calvin Ridley was a viable Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate?
I reserve the right to change my mind if someone has a particularly impressive or horrific performance in Week 17, but in most cases, I feel confident about these choices independent of what happens this Sunday. In making my selections, I've tried to emulate how the voters usually think about these official awards, but I've also used my own observations and analysis to inform my choices. In some cases, candidates who might be serious competitors for an award don't hold much interest for me. I've tried to explain why that's the case where necessary. Let's begin by honoring the stars of the sidelines:
Coach of the Year
Third: Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers. The two-pointer to win over the Chiefs in Week 15 was the final piece of baggage Lynn had to shed in turning around the Chargers' culture. Everything we thought about the old Chargers -- they lose to bad teams, they blow seemingly unassailable leads with bad decisions, Philip Rivers melts down once a month, the kicking game is something close to Charlie Brown LARPing -- seems to be gone. Heck, Michael Badgley is 15-of-16 on field goals since taking over for Caleb Sturgis. This is a different team now, and Lynn deserves a lot of credit for turning things around after starting 0-4 last season. The Chargers have gone 20-7 since.
Second: Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints. I know we take Payton for granted given that the Saints have been competitive for most of the past decade, but New Orleans has won 13 of its past 14 games and will enter the postseason with the league's best record. The Saints are first in point differential (by 43 points!) and stand as the league's most dominant team by ESPN's Football Power Index.
While maybe you could have claimed in years past that the Saints' success was about riding Drew Brees, Payton's defense held opposing offenses to an average of 12.3 points per game over a six-game stretch from Weeks 10-15, while Brees and the offense struggled for consistency. We're used to the Saints being good, but this is in the pantheon of truly great Saints teams alongside the Super Bowl winners of 2009 and the 2011 team that fell to the 49ers in a legendary postseason battle.
First: Nagy. It's hard to overstate what Nagy has done in his first season at the helm with Mitchell Trubisky & Co. in Chicago. The former Chiefs offensive coordinator was only a playcaller for a few weeks in Kansas City, but he has been brilliant in creating easy throws for his young quarterback while getting the most out of players such as Tarik Cohen and Taylor Gabriel. The Chicago offense still isn't great -- it heads into Week 17 ranking 22nd in DVOA -- but all this defense needed was a competent offense on the other side of the ball to win 10 games, and the Bears could make it to 12 if they beat the Vikings on Sunday.
This is a moment in which I wish there were also a Coordinator of the Year award, because I think you could split things between these top two in either direction. Want to name Nagy as Coach of the Year and Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen as Coordinator of the Year? I'm for it. Swap it and push Payton up to No. 1 as Coach of the Year and give Chicago's Vic Fangio the nod as top coordinator? That would work, too.
Comeback Player of the Year
Third: Andre Hal, S, Houston Texans. While the 26-year-old Hal doesn't have the high profile of a player like Adrian Peterson, who finishes in fourth here, it's downright incredible that the Texans defensive back was being treated for Hodgkin lymphoma in September and is playing 31 defensive snaps per game in December. With all due respect to players making their way back from muscular injuries and broken bones, we all should be awed by Hal taking meaningful snaps for what is about to be a playoff team just months after cancer treatment.
Second: Watt. I'm going to be mentioning Watt more later in this column, so I have to save some of my info on him for other awards. Let me say this: When Watt failed to knock down Nick Foles in Sunday's loss to the Eagles, it was the first time he went all game without taking down an opposing quarterback since Week 2. He has recorded at least one tackle for loss in 13 of the past 14 games and is tied for the league lead with six forced fumbles. Guys just don't do this after essentially two years in the wilderness.
First: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts. It's worth remembering that this time last year, Luck was returning from more than a month in the Netherlands, undergoing treatment for a shoulder injury with no timetable for return. Every member of the Colts organization had to be terrified that they weren't going to see the Luck who carried middling teams to the playoffs ever again.
The Colts aren't really seeing the old Luck, to be honest; they're seeing a slightly better version of the quarterback from 2014. Luck is narrowly posting the best passer rating of his career, and while he's not throwing the ball downfield as frequently, Frank Reich has a guy who completed 59.2 percent of his passes before the shoulder injury hitting on 67.2 percent of his throws this season. Most importantly, during Indy's 8-1 stretch to Sunday's play-in game against the Titans, Luck has been knocked down only 32 times. That would have taken a month in the old days. Thankfully, the next time Luck goes to Europe, it's going to be on vacation.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
After Week 4: Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts
After Week 9: Leonard
Before I say anything, this is an awesome crop of young defensive talent. Derwin James and Denzel Ward are going to the Pro Bowl, but you could have sent five rookies from this class to Orlando without stretching. There's no way to do a top three here without getting several fan bases angry. First, there's a second tier of promising linebackers in guys such as Leighton Vander Esch, Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmunds who would be viable winners most years and simply miss out because of the talent at their own position, let alone at scarcer and more valuable spots in the lineup.
Then, in going through the four top candidates left, the guy I actually ended up cutting from the list is the Pro Bowler. Ward has been excellent as a rookie cornerback for the Browns, but he has missed two games, sat out all but seven snaps against the Chiefs and probably will be out in Week 17 after suffering his second concussion of the season. Ward probably will miss what amounts to a quarter of the season through injuries, and while he has been impactful when healthy, that narrow margin is enough to push him off the ballot for me.
I find it close to impossible to choose between the three players I have left. You could rank them in any order from 3 to 1, and I'd find it hard to argue against placing them in any order or permutation.
Third: Bradley Chubb, LB, Denver Broncos. Chubb has been phenomenal. He has five more sacks than any other rookie and four tackles for loss against the run. The NC State product has one of the most physically dominant plays of the season on tape, in which he pushes D.J. Humphries backward with one arm before accelerating to sack Josh Rosen. He's an absolute monster.
At the same time, if I'm poking holes in any of these three finalists' résumés, it's easiest to find the weak spots with Chubb. He's approaching Week 17 with 12 sacks but just 20 knockdowns, so he hasn't been quite as impactful as your typical 12-sack rusher. Chubb has spent his rookie season playing across from Von Miller, which means he avoids regular double-teams. Those 12 sacks have come on 13 plays (by virtue of two half-sacks), and on those snaps, I would characterize five of the takedowns as coverage sacks, with a sixth coming on a play in which the 49ers tried to pull their playside guard to block Chubb on the blind side, which should be considered an act of aggression by Kyle Shanahan against Nick Mullens. If you're voting for Chubb, you're voting for that sack total, and I think the sack total slightly mischaracterizes his impact this season.
Second: Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers. Even I'm mad at myself for putting James second. What else could James do to win Defensive Rookie of the Year? He leads all safeties with 15.5 disrupted dropbacks, including three interceptions and 3.5 sacks. The Florida State product has given former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley a supercharged Kam Chancellor. The Legion of Boom member didn't have the pure speed to hold up in coverage against receiving threats, which is why teams like the Patriots would turn to their tight ends and target Chancellor in coverage when they needed to move the ball. James is a 4.47 40 guy at 215 pounds.
I don't have a criticism of James. The only thing separating him from the top spot is the talent around him in Los Angeles. He has Pro Bowl talent creating pressure along the defensive line in Joey Bosa (when healthy) and Melvin Ingram, plus top-tier cornerback Casey Hayward in the secondary. I don't know that you can say the same thing for the No. 1 pick ...
First: Leonard. I don't think Leonard will win the real award, but I can't justify putting anyone else first. How many defensive players on the Colts can you even name? Leonard is the beating heart of Matt Eberflus' defense, which might be the biggest surprise on that side of the ball in football at 12th in defensive DVOA. The only argument I can make against Leonard is that the second-round pick missed a game with an ankle injury, with the Colts subsequently allowing 38 points to the Patriots.
The Indy linebacker leads the NFL with a staggering 155 tackles, 23 more than any other player. There can be some home cooking in tackle statistics, but if you look at strictly solo tackles, Leonard is at 107 and no other player in the league has topped 100. It would be one thing if Leonard were mopping up 10 yards downfield, but he has 12 tackles for loss, which is tied for second among non-edge rushing linebackers.
Leonard also has stuffed the scoresheet beyond tackles. At seven sacks, he has more takedowns than any rookie besides Chubb. Leonard has knocked away six passes, picked up an interception and forced four fumbles. I don't love these sort of arbitrary endpoint comparisons, but if you look through history for players with 150 or more tackles, five or more sacks and four or more forced fumbles in a season since 1990, you get Leonard and Broderick Thomas in 1991. Here's hoping Leonard shines on the national stage against the Titans on Sunday night.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
There's a smaller pool of options here, especially as previous threats such as Ridley, D.J. Moore and Kerryon Johnson have either gotten injured or faded into the undercard. I think there's a pretty clear top three. Ordering those three might not be so easy.
Third: Phillip Lindsay, RB, Denver Broncos. Before suffering a season-ending wrist injury on Monday, the undrafted rookie delivered a stunning season. His workload pales in comparison to Barkley's, but Lindsay averaged more yards per carry and posted a better success rate than Barkley, all while playing behind a similarly middling offensive line.
The list of NFL rookies with 150 carries or more who averaged more yards per carry than Lindsay's 5.40 mark is pretty impressive: Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Franco Harris, Clinton Portis and DeMarco Murray all had long pro careers. As a pair of 5-foot-8 dynamos, I like the MJD comparison most. Lindsay doesn't have MJD's thickness, but he already has proved to be a handful near the goal line while simultaneously retaining the speed to break big runs. Lindsay looks like the best back the Broncos have had since Willis McGahee.
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Second: Barkley. What a complicated player to unpack. I don't need to tell you what Barkley is capable of with the football in his hands, so let's not bother. In terms of Barkley's impact on the Giants, was he a great player in 2018?
I think you can make a case for both sides. He has an outside shot at finishing the year with 2,000 yards from scrimmage, which is impressive for a team with an offense that hasn't exactly been flowing this season. He's fifth in the league with 73 first downs and has seven gains of 50 yards or more, four more than any other back in the league. His efficiency numbers generally aren't great, but the Giants rely on Barkley to serve as the entirety of their offense for stretches at a time. A hardly atypical series for the Giants would include a run with Barkley on first down, a screen to Barkley on second down and a checkdown from Eli Manning to Barkley to keep the pass rush away on third down. It would be close to impossible for anyone to average 4.9 yards per carry in this offense the way that Barkley has this season.
At the same time, Barkley's efficiency numbers are awful. He ranks 37th in the league in success rate as a runner out of 45 qualifying backs. Much of what he gains can be empty calories; 60.4 percent of his carries have yielded negative plays by ESPN's model, the 10th-most in football. If we define garbage time as possessions that start with no more than a 5 percent chance of ending in a victory by win expectancy, Barkley's 288 yards from scrimmage in garbage time is third behind Jalen Richard and Joe Mixon. I don't doubt that Barkley makes the offense better, of course, but in 80 pass attempts, Manning has posted a superior completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating and Total QBR with Barkley on the sideline as opposed to lining up alongside the former Penn State star.
It's extremely difficult to make a boom-and-bust model work on an annual basis. The closest comparison in terms of escapability for Barkley is Barry Sanders, who was similarly regarded as an all-or-nothing back during his pro career, but the numbers don't quite hold up. Sanders' Lions teams ranked in the top five in rushing DVOA five times during his 10-year career and fell as low as 20th only once, during Sanders' final season. With Barkley taking 74 percent of the Giants' carries, Big Blue ranks 21st in rushing DVOA. I don't question Barkley's talent, and he rates ahead of Lindsay on volume and his work as a receiver, but Barkley hasn't been consistent enough to justify the top spot here.
First: Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns. I wrote at length about Mayfield during the rookie quarterback progress report a couple of weeks ago. In short, he has been head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, and that's before Mayfield alternately torched the Bengals and antagonized their sideline last Sunday. Mayfield's numbers are excellent -- the first overall pick now ranks fifth in the league in passer rating from Week 7 onward -- but he's quickly approaching folk-hero status in Cleveland. The added bonus for playing quarterback pushes Mayfield atop the ballot for me.
Defensive Player of the Year
Let's start by narrowing our scope. No defensive back has played well enough to merit significant consideration here. Xavien Howard and Kyle Fuller have gaudy interception numbers, but each has been beaten for multiple scores this season. (Interceptions are also far more consistently a product of quarterback play than defensive back production, as you can see from looking at year-to-year interception rates.) None of the tackling machines at inside linebacker have stuck out enough to make it into the discussion, either.
With that out of the way, we're looking for edge rushers, which makes this a little easier to break down. I'm keeping the Chiefs' duo of Dee Ford and Chris Jones off the list, in part because Kansas City's run defense has been atrocious, along with the idea that the Chiefs have faced 599 pass attempts this season, second in the NFL behind the Browns. The Browns' Myles Garrett also falls just short.
Third: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans. I sneak Watt on just ahead of Von Miller, although the two future Hall of Famers could swap if Miller delivers a big Week 17 for the Broncos. They're basically in a dead heat: Watt has 14.5 sacks on 24 knockdowns with six forced fumbles, while Miller has racked up 14.5 sacks on 25 knockdowns with four forced fumbles. Watt has seven tackles for loss against the run to Miller's four, which helps point the arrow narrowly toward the Texans star.
Second: Mack. On a snap-by-healthy-snap basis, I don't know if any edge rusher has been more impactful than the former Raiders star. Mack announced his candidacy in the first half of Week 1, when he absolutely terrorized the Packers in prime time, and he has generally wreaked havoc ever since. Mack has 12.5 sacks and six forced fumbles, including a stretch of four consecutive games with a forced fumble to start the campaign.
The only reason I have Mack second is the one midseason stretch in which he wasn't terrifying. An ankle injury suffered against the Dolphins in Week 6 essentially neutralized the Buffalo product for a month. Mack played two games against the Dolphins and Patriots but didn't look anything like his usual self, failing to record a sack or hit as the Bears allowed 31 points to Miami and 38 more to New England. He then missed the next two games before returning to the fold with a two-sack appearance against the Lions in Week 10. The Bears were thoughtful in letting Mack heal while sitting out games against the lowly Bills and Jets before bringing him back, but the missing month keeps Mack in second place for me.
First: Donald. While Donald's MVP candidacy fell by the wayside after a pair of quiet games in Weeks 14 and 15, he's still comfortably the best pass-rusher in football. His 19.5 sacks are four more than any other defender in the league, and his 38 knockdowns are seven ahead of second-placed Fletcher Cox. Kawann Short is the only defensive tackle in the league with more tackles for loss against the run, but I don't see a reason to overthink this. This is the easiest pick on my ballot.
Offensive Player of the Year
Looking at recent history, I like to use this award to honor either the best non-quarterback or the second-best quarterback in the league, even though the logical thing would be for the MVP to also win Offensive Player of the Year.
For a running back or a receiver to win this award, they have to clearly separate from the pack at their position. I don't think there's really a player who has done that this year. Ezekiel Elliott has assumed a massive workload and topped 2,000 yards from scrimmage with a game to go, but he has scored only six touchdowns. Gurley looked to be an MVP candidate heading into the Nov. 19 showdown with the Chiefs, but he hasn't looked the same since tweaking his ankle early in that contest. A knee injury will likely cost him the final two weeks of the season and prevent him from racking up the cumulative totals to stand out as the best back in the league. Christian McCaffrey and Barkley will struggle to receive serious consideration by virtue of playing on sub-.500 teams.
Likewise, if you asked 10 people who the best wideout in football was in 2018, you might get five different answers. Adam Thielen got off to a blazing-hot start with eight 100-plus yard games, but the Vikings star has averaged just 58.6 receiving yards per contest and scored three touchdowns over the ensuing seven contests. Julio Jones' touchdown regression to the mean finally came, but it came during the second half of a lost season for the Falcons. He leads all receivers by more than 100 yards, but it would take something close to a record campaign for Jones to get OPOY support on a 6-9 Falcons team. Thomas voters would likely lean toward Brees or even Alvin Kamara instead, while Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce supporters would push their votes toward Patrick Mahomes.
I think the best wideout in football at the moment is DeAndre Hopkins, but has he been so much better than everyone else to overcome the massive gap between a receiver and a quarterback? I'm going with all quarterbacks here, so I'll fold the OPOY discussion in there.
Most Valuable Player
We know Mahomes and Brees are in the discussion. It's probably easier to start eliminating passers from the pile and work our way down to a third candidate, right? Ben Baldwin went through the MVP candidates in a similar way for The Athletic, and while I have different feelings, I think eliminating quarterbacks in relative order of difficulty should lead us to the ideal top three.
Let's get rid of everyone who isn't the quarterback of a playoff team or who missed multiple games with an injury, which removes the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz from the equation.
Ben Roethlisberger might end up missing the postseason after the Steelers collapsed in November, and while the defense has been the biggest culprit, Roethlisberger deserves plenty of the blame. He has struggled mightily on deep throws for a full month now, including two long misses in one game against the Broncos. Over the past five weeks, Roethlisberger has had 11 deep passes with an expected completion percentage of 50 percent or more, per the NFL's Next Gen Stats. While the numbers would have expected Roethlisberger to rack up 6.6 completions on those throws, he has five completions and two interceptions. With four close losses over that time frame, one more big completion might very well have made the difference.
Jared Goff was an MVP candidate after throwing five touchdown passes in a brilliant performance against the Vikings on national television, but Goff has been ordinary since Week 4. Over the past 11 games, Goff has posted a passer rating of 90.2 and a Total QBR of 56.4, which sandwiches him between Nick Mullens and Eli Manning over that same time frame. Maybe Cooper Kupp should be an MVP candidate.
Tom Brady won MVP last season and has fallen off over the second half of the season, neither of which bodes well. The voters shy away from back-to-back winners and don't reward players who declined from the previous year, even if that new level of play is totally fine. By era-adjusted stats, Brady's 11 interceptions are driving his worst interception rate since 2004.
This is the cutoff where I think everyone at least could receive reasonable MVP consideration. My next person off is Russell Wilson, and it's strictly because of volume. Wilson has thrown only 406 passes this season, the fewest by a considerable margin of any quarterback to make 15 starts. Deshaun Watson is the second-most infrequent passer in that group, and he's at 470 attempts. The average quarterback in that group has thrown 531 passes so far, which is an extra 30 percent on top of Wilson's total. If Wilson were making up for that with significant run volume, it would be worth considering, but he is on pace to finish with 69 carries this season, down from an average of 101.2 rush attempts across Wilson's five healthy campaigns as a pro. Wilson also has fumbled 10 times and taken sacks on 10 percent of his dropbacks. While he has been an efficient passer and managed to score on more than 8 percent of his pass attempts, he would need to be the most efficient passer in the league to make up for the lack of volume. The Seahawks have been effective with their plan of running the football, but they average 6.9 yards per dropback and 4.8 yards per carry. All those missing pass attempts are producing less effective offensive snaps.
Deshaun Watson has shouldered more of the load than Wilson, and the second-year quarterback has cut his interception rate in half from his 2017 mark of 3.9 percent, but he lacks Wilson's gaudy touchdown total (34) and has taken sacks at an even higher rate (10.6 percent). Watson has led five fourth-quarter comebacks, but those comebacks have come against the Colts, Bills, Broncos, Washington and Jets, a group that isn't exactly going to excite the electorate. And after three consecutive 300-yard games early in the season, Watson failed to post a single 300-yarder over a nine-week span before getting to 339 in last week's loss to the Eagles. Yardage totals aren't everything, but the Texans are 21st in offensive DVOA this season. Watson's offense carried the team during that white-hot stretch in 2017, but the Texans have ridden their defense to the playoffs this season.
Andrew Luck is the last cut, despite his volume as a passer and steady success over the course of this campaign, Jaguars game aside. Remember the efficiency vs. volume debate I mentioned with Wilson a moment ago? Luck has thrown 604 passes and averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. Philip Rivers has thrown only 484 passes, nearly 20 percent less than Luck's total, but he's averaging 8.5 yards per attempt, the third-highest mark in the league behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mahomes. When you factor in interceptions and sacks with adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), Rivers is fourth in the league and Luck is 14th.
It's enough for me to keep Luck on the outskirts of the race. We're left with Rivers, Mahomes and Brees. Let's take a look at their stats:
It's pretty easy to eliminate Rivers, if only because Brees has been a more effective version of the same passer. Neither quarterback has played a particularly brutal schedule, although Brees has faced the third-easiest schedule in the league, while Rivers comes in at 10th easiest. (Mahomes is in as the eighth toughest.) I don't see any argument for moving Rivers up past three, so he'll settle there.
All that leaves us, unsurprisingly, with Brees vs. Mahomes. When I chose Brees in Week 9, I pointed out that Mahomes' huge advantage in touchdowns was reasonably overcome by other elements of Brees' game. Those differences aren't quite as significant for Brees after a winter slump. They've each thrown four interceptions over the past seven games. Brees is likely to set the completion percentage record by the end of the season, but it will be by 2.4 points as opposed to the 3.9 percent mark of midseason. Mahomes' supporting cast isn't as impressive with Kareem Hunt out of football and Sammy Watkins mostly unavailable.
If you're looking for anecdotal heroics, Brees wins out. He has led six fourth-quarter comeback victories this season, the most in football. The list includes victories over the Ravens and Steelers, along with a win over the Rams after Los Angeles tied things up at 35-35 in the fourth quarter. Mahomes has just two such wins, and prime-time losses to the Rams, Patriots and Chargers might hurt his chances. I wouldn't take those issues seriously myself -- remember that Mahomes actually led the Chiefs back into fourth-quarter comeback leads against the Patriots and Rams, only for his defense to subsequently blow the lead.
The thing I keep coming back to in a very tight race is what happened during Brees' three-game slide after Thanksgiving. He posted a passer rating of just 77.0 over that three-game run, averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt with more interceptions (three) than passing touchdowns (two). Brees didn't get a ton of help from his receivers, with Tommylee Lewis famously fumbling the ball into the end zone for a touchback against the Panthers. The Saints went 2-1 in that stretch, and that was mostly by the grace of their defense.
There is no such three-game stretch and no bailout defense for Mahomes, whose worst three-game run came in October and included a passer rating of 87.1. He also has toned down the giveaways; after throwing an interception in five consecutive games, Mahomes has gone without an interception in four of his past six contests. He has posted only one passer rating under 100 over the past 10 games, and it was against the Ravens, who have one of the best pass defenses in the league.
The case for Brees is naiveté. Mahomes is in his first season as a starter at this level. He's working with a mad genius in Andy Reid, who will (fairly or unfairly) get more credit for Mahomes' success than Payton will for Brees'. Mahomes has 11 interceptions and nine fumbles this season. Brees, who has five of each, has half the turnover rate. Brees has thrown shorter passes in the absence of Terron Armstead, but he remains accurate. When you remove screen passes from both players' stats, Mahomes is completing 62.5 percent of his passes while averaging 8.33 yards per attempt. Brees is averaging an identical amount, but while completing 72.2 percent of his throws.
I find the other side of this argument more compelling. Mahomes has been as productive as Brees and done it while assuming about 13 percent more passing volume. (That difference could rise even further if the Saints sit Brees for Teddy Bridgewater for some or all of their meaningless Week 17 game on Sunday.) A stat like ANY/A incorporates interceptions, weights them appropriately and still leaves Mahomes narrowly ahead. He also has added more production as a runner than Brees, although the latter remains a threat on his patented pop-up sneak.
By the end of Sunday, Mahomes is probably going to finish his first season as a starter with 5,000 passing yards and 50 touchdowns. The only guy to do that was Peyton Manning in 2013, and he took home 49 of the 50 MVP votes. I don't think Mahomes will win in a landslide, but I think Brees' three-week dip was enough to put the Chiefs star in the driver's seat. Unless Mahomes absolutely craters in Week 17, he's my pick to win MVP. In what might be his final season, Brees will settle for second and the Offensive Player of the Year nod.