The late-afternoon Sunday games in Week 9 marked the official halfway point of the NFL season, making it the perfect time to take an updated look at who deserves to win nods in several of the key categories handed out after the year is up. I do this on a quarterly basis, as you may have seen earlier this year when I filed a quarter-season award ballot after Week 4.
In the case of the official awards, I'm not attempting to identify the player I think deserves to win the award. Instead, I'm using the general history of how the electorate has voted to get a better sense of who might be favored at this point of the season. Voters love players who haven't previously been in serious award consideration and players who succeed just before the voting window closes, so I'll be keeping that in mind as I file my selections. I'll mention who I picked in Week 4, who holds a lead right now, and who is likeliest to grab an award onstage come the end of the season.
In addition, I'll be adding totally fake awards to the mix in an attempt to shine a light on some of the more interesting or deserved cases of the first half of the NFL season. In those cases, since there aren't any other voters, I'll be voting the way I want to:
Defensive Rookie of the Year
While we're dealing with a remarkable set of impressive rookie talent on offense, this defensive class has more subtly impacted the league in 2017. The best rookie defenders have lined up in the secondary, which is traditionally a spot in which rookies struggle to adapt to the speed and physicality of the professional game. The relative lack of counting stats outside of interceptions has also made it difficult for rookie cornerbacks and safeties to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, as I mentioned during the quarter-season awards.
Take White, who struggled against the Jets on Thursday night but has otherwise continued to play at a shockingly high level for a rookie cornerback. White had an interception and a fumble recovery for a touchdown during the first four weeks of the season. He's still tied for the league lead in passes defensed (12), but the Bills cornerback has no picks and a lone fumble recovery to his name over the past five weeks, which has kept his profile low. It's an unfair standard to hold him to.
There are other rookie defensive backs who deserve attention. Marshon Lattimore has been one of the leading lights in a stunning season from the Saints' defense, although he has missed time. Shaquill Griffin has held his own as the newest member of the Legion of Boom. Corner Rasul Douglas has shored up the obvious weak point of Philadelphia's roster heading into the season. The safety duo of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye has been the most exciting element of a surprising Jets defense, although I suspect they might cannibalize each other's votes in the award race.
Rookie pass-rushers usually win this award, but none of the edge rushers have broken out from the pack as of yet. Carl Lawson leads all freshmen with 4.5 sacks and 10 knockdowns, but he's narrowly ahead of T.J. Watt, who plays on a higher-profile (and more successful) Steelers team. Watt has four sacks and six knockdowns in seven games. Solomon Thomas, toiling in the trenches for a winless 49ers team, backs up his two sacks with eight quarterback hits and six tackles for loss against the run, although he's out with a knee injury.
The wild card here is No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, who has been an absolute force for the Browns during his fleeting moments of health. Garrett has played only 105 snaps in three games while missing time with a high ankle sprain and a concussion, but he has racked up four sacks and seven knockdowns. Watt, for comparison, has similar numbers over 335 snaps.
Current winner: White
I don't think any rookie defender has done enough to wrest away the award from White for now. Over the long run, though, I think it'll be too tough for him to hold on. Who will pick up the hardware?
Watt hasn't been as productive on a cumulative basis as Lawson, nor has he been as impressive on a per-snap basis as Garrett. I'm not sure that matters to the electorate as much as playing well on an every-down basis for one of the league's most successful teams, though, and the Steelers are in great shape to finish as one of the best teams in the league. Watt's playing time continues to rise as the season goes along, and it would be foolish to pretend his famous last name won't cause some less-dedicated voters to look his way.
Assistant coach/coordinator of the year
We honor the NFL's Coach of the Year, of course, but it also seems unfair that we don't credit coordinators with a trophy of their own. As coverage of the league has grown, we're more aware of coordinators and even positional coaches than ever before. Atlanta's Dan Quinn came up short in the Coach of the Year race last year, but as a defense-minded coach who was in charge of what was a relatively mediocre defense, wouldn't it have been more appropriate to pay attention to thriving offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan?
For a league that supposedly doesn't have a lot of good teams, there are plenty of coordinators who are doing great work. Keith Butler has developed a defense made almost entirely of draft picks into a unit that has kept the Steelers afloat when their offense struggled. Leslie Frazier has turned a middling Bills defense under Rex Ryan into an effective bunch. And Dennis Allen has managed to do the unthinkable, turning New Orleans into a better-than-average defense for the first time since the Bountygate days.
There also are worthy names on offense, although it's difficult to separate the impact of coordinators such as Kansas City's Matt Nagy, Philadelphia's Frank Reich and Los Angeles's Matt LaFleur from their offense-minded head coaches. With that in mind, I found the best case for a defensive coach who has built a dominant unit in Florida:
Current winner: Todd Wash, Jacksonville Jaguars
Wash came over with Gus Bradley from Seattle and was the defensive coordinator in 2016, and Doug Marrone kept him in the role after Marrone's status as permanent head coach was confirmed in January. The Jaguars were quietly effective last year, jumping from 26th to 12th in DVOA, but their improvements were masked by a poor record and terrible field position inherited from an offense that was rendered useless by turnovers.
In 2017, though, the offense has been competent enough for the defense to shine. As a former defensive line coach, Wash must be thrilled to coach the league's most impressive defensive line. Calais Campbell has played like an All-Pro in his first season away from the Cardinals, and Wash has managed to develop young talents such as Yannick Ngakoue, Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey into stars at multiple levels of the defense. Wash has benefited from the defense staying remarkably healthy -- the Jags' top 13 defenders have yet to miss a single game this season -- but even the most optimistic Jacksonville fans couldn't have seen this dominant of a unit arriving so quickly.
Coach of the Year
Pick after Week 4: Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
Reid's candidacy has faded; it's always tough for a veteran coach with years of success to win the award, and while the Chiefs are comfortably ensconced atop the AFC West, they've lost three of their past four games. The same is true of Bill Belichick and Mike Tomlin, each of whom is perennially excellent. There are sexier candidates, and the sexy candidate often wins this award.
At the midway point, this is a two-coach race between the Eagles' Doug Pederson and the Rams' Sean McVay, who coach the two most surprising teams in the NFC. I can see cases for both. Pederson is in charge of the consensus best team in football, and while the Eagles were grossly underrated heading into the season thanks to a 1-8 record in one-score games last season, even the most optimistic Philadelphia fans didn't see an 8-1 record waiting for them at the bye.
McVay has built a team from the dregs of mediocrity, and he is getting the most out of players such as Jared Goff, Todd Gurley and Tavon Austin, who were uninspiring during their time under Jeff Fisher. McVay's degree of difficulty is certainly higher than that of Pederson. Given the choice between the two, though, I'd rather vote for the guy at the top of the charts.
Current winner: Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles
Projected winner: Pederson
I also think Pederson will be the Coach of the Year at the end of the season. Philadelphia's schedule gets tougher after the bye -- four of their next five games are on the road, including trips to play the Cowboys, Rams and Seahawks -- but the Eagles are projected to win 12.4 games by the Football Power Index, which would be a five-win improvement on their mark from a year ago.
Free-agent signing of the year
It's not an award, of course, but every front office in the league will have a discussion at some point during the year about which team came away with the best signing in free agency. There will always be more mistakes in March than success stories, and it's easy to wonder what the Browns saw in Kenny Britt or why the 49ers paid Kyle Juszczyk millions more than any other fullback, but there are certainly a few teams that are happy with their big-ticket items from this spring.
On a smaller scale, the Bills have to be thrilled with kicker Stephen Hauschka, while the Colts got solid production out of John Simon before he went out with a stinger. More expensive players such as Denver guard Ronald Leary and Jags cornerback A.J. Bouye are in line to make the Pro Bowl, but there are two grizzled veterans on either side of the line of scrimmage competing here for me.
Bouye's teammate in Jacksonville, Calais Campbell, is a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. (More on that in a minute.) The former Cardinals star leads the league with 11 sacks and has tossed in 19 quarterback knockdowns. In the opposite corner, 35-year-old Andrew Whitworth has finally solidified the left tackle spot for the Rams, protecting Goff and making things easier for the rest of the players around him. Los Angeles has an effective offensive line for the first time since Orlando Pace was on the roster, and Whitworth is a big reason why.
I'll go with Whitworth, just because his contract is far smaller. Campbell was basically paid superstar money, as his four-year, $60 million deal has $30 million guaranteed over two years, while Whitworth's contract maxes out under $34 million over three seasons, with just $15 million guaranteed at signing.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
While Hunt continues to lead the league in yards from scrimmage with 1,131, the huge gains have unsurprisingly disappeared after Hunt racked up four plays of 50 yards or more during the first quarter of the season. Injuries along Hunt's offensive line haven't helped matters, as the starting five the Chiefs ran out to start the season had at least one player missing between Week 3 and Week 8. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif restored the line by returning to play the Cowboys on Sunday, although Hunt was able to muster only 61 yards from scrimmage.
Hunt isn't alone, of course. Leonard Fournette has been the focal point of the Jaguars' offense, even if he wasn't in focus for their team photo. Alvin Kamara looks like Drew Brees' favorite weapon at times in New Orleans. Evan Engram (Giants) is having one of the most productive seasons for a rookie tight end in recent memory. Vikings center Pat Elflein has solidified a line that has been a disaster on the interior for years. Forgive me, though, for being sentimental:
Sure, we know Watson isn't going to win this award, given that he's out for the season. He also has missed 1.5 games, having sat during the first half of Week 1 before missing Sunday's loss to the Colts with a torn ACL. All you need to do is watch Tom Savage under center to realize just how significantly Watson transformed the Houston offense. Watson led the league in Total QBR and was off to one of the best starts of any rookie quarterback in recent memory before his injury. He deserves the hardware.
Projected winner: Hunt
Barring a sudden turn of form from Mitchell Trubisky or a white-hot second half from Fournette or Christian McCaffrey, Hunt is the prohibitive favorite to come away with the nod. He's a locked-in and integral member of one of the league's most successful offenses. Injury is more likely to keep Hunt from the award than any other player.
Play of the year
This is a specific play as opposed to a strategic concept; if I were choosing the latter, I'd have to go with the power shovel read concept the Chiefs introduced in the opener and a half-dozen teams stole near the goal line in the weeks to come. I'm looking for a play that was both aesthetically fun and meaningful within its particular game, so I'm ruling out Marshall Newhouse's brief sprint to glory on Sunday night against the Dolphins.
While there are dozens of plays deserving of mention, I'm going to pick one that I think told us a lot about the season to come:
Current winner: Kareem Hunt's 78-yard touchdown catch against the Patriots
It was one thing in the season opener when Alex Smith hit a streaking Tyreek Hill for a 75-yard touchdown in the third quarter. It was an aberration, the product of a brilliantly fast wide receiver left very open by a rare lapse in coverage from what was supposed to be one of the league's best secondaries. The touchdown gave the Chiefs a 21-17 lead, but they were unsurprisingly down 27-21 by the time the fourth quarter began against a Patriots team with aspirations of going 16-0.
Then, everything changed. Smith took another shot downfield on a brilliantly designed route combination to get his rookie halfback free against a suddenly overmatched Patriots defense. Reid ran out an option look with a shovel pass on the previous play and followed it by bringing Hill across on a jet sweep look. The confusion gave Smith plenty of time to throw and valuable seconds for Hunt's route to develop. Smith hit his running back in stride, and 78 yards later, the Chiefs had a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Reid revealed an offense that has dazzled with its complex simplicity, the Patriots showed that they had major defensive concerns, and 16-0 quickly turned into 0-1.
Comeback Player of the Year
Seattle's all-world safety continued to play at a high level before suffering a hamstring injury that kept him out of the Seahawks' upset loss at home to Washington on Sunday. Fellow future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski has served as stiff competition; Gronk has stayed healthy and produced a line that would yield 1,018 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns over a full season. Those aren't otherworldly numbers from a player who averaged 1,252 yards and 14 touchdowns per 16 games between 2011 and 2015, but I suspect the Patriots are more interested in what Gronk could do in the postseason.
I suspect Justin Houston could figure into the running if his knee stays healthy, but given that young players such as Todd Gurley and DeAndre Hopkins were returning from contextually bad seasons and not injuries, the voters will look toward guys like Thomas and Gronkowski for this award. Unless Thomas fails to recover from his hamstring injury, his conspicuous presence in the Seattle defense should be enough to hold onto this award.
Current winner: Thomas
Projected winner: Thomas
Most disappointing player
The NFL isn't exactly about to hand out negative awards, so we'll have to fill in the gap here. And it's difficult to narrow down disappointment, because some disappointments don't fit this award. It's disappointing David Johnson and Andrew Luck are injured, but it would be unfair to pick them for this nod. Likewise, I can't just pick the entire Browns and 49ers teams to win this award en masse. To find an award winner here, we need a player who has been mostly healthy and held lofty expectations heading into the season, only to come up well short.
I'm tempted to name Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who has probably been the least-valuable free-agent signing of the offseason, given the contract he received from New England, but Gilmore has been out since Week 5 with a concussion. There's a chance Gilmore might not even be starting at corner once he comes back, given how effective Johnson Bademosi has been in the absence of the former Bills star. Instead, I'm looking toward the offense ...
Some might argue reigning league MVP Matt Ryan has been more disappointing, but the problems with Atlanta's offense seem to loom deeper than the quarterback. (Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian deserves some of the blame, but it's hard to blame Ryan or Sarkisian for Julio Jones dropping a 39-yard touchdown on fourth down midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday.)
Winston's lack of development as a third-year starter has been far more troubling. This was supposed to be a breakout season for the Bucs after Tampa signed DeSean Jackson before using a first-round pick on O.J. Howard. Instead, while Winston's raw numbers are at or slightly above their averages from a year ago, his overall performance has slipped significantly. Winston has generated only a 39.4 QBR, down more than 20 points from his 59.5 mark from a year ago. He has missed open receivers on a weekly basis. Winston's shoulder knocked him out of Sunday's loss to the Saints, but he was struggling before spraining his shoulder earlier this season. In what is quickly becoming a lost season for the 2-6 Buccaneers, Winston seems as far removed from Tampa's 2016 campaign as anyone else on the roster.
Defensive Player of the Year
I don't exactly regret choosing Lawrence, who continues to rank among the top pass-rushers in football. Halfway through his breakout season, he already has done a season's worth of work from the edge. The 25-year-old Cowboys star has 10.5 sacks and 17 knockdowns through eight games, both of which would represent career bests even if he took the rest of the year off.
Given how difficult it is for defensive backs to win this award, the trophy mostly belongs to front-seven players and pass-rushers specifically. It will take an exceptional season for somebody to win from inside linebacker or as a defensive back. I don't see an obvious defensive back who would muster DPOY consideration, but inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and Bobby Wagner are playing well enough to raise eyebrows.
The only problem is that no edge rusher has been able to pull away from the pack. How do you pick Calais Campbell, with 11 sacks and 19 quarterback hits, ahead of Lawrence's 10.5 sacks and 17 knockdowns? What about Everson Griffen, who has 10 sacks and 17 hits? Until somebody stands out, I don't see any reason to change my selection.
Current winner: Lawrence
Projected winner: Lawrence
Offensive Player of the Year and MVP
As always, I'll discuss these two awards together, because the player pool for consideration is basically identical. No defensive players have stood out enough to enter the discussion, so we don't have to worry about them in the MVP hunt.
Next, let's eliminate the non-quarterbacks from the picture. In Week 4, I included Hunt in the discussion at the expense of Alex Smith and Todd Gurley at the expense of Jared Goff, but I think both quarterbacks have mostly continued to play well enough to justify MVP consideration. Running backs need record-setting performances to receive an MVP nod, and while Gurley and Hunt have each been fantastic, neither is setting records. While both Gurley and Hunt are on pace to top 2,000 yards from scrimmage, neither comes close to the 2,509-yard mark set by Chris Johnson in 2009, and Johnson didn't receive a single MVP vote despite running for 2,000 yards that season.
Antonio Brown could figure on the fringes of the Offensive Player of the Year race, thanks to the fact that he leads the league by more than 130 receiving yards despite spending Week 9 on bye. Brown is on pace to deliver 114 receptions, 1,670 receiving yards and six touchdowns, though, and that wouldn't come close to his career season from 2015. The league is spreading the ball around more frequently than it did in 2015, so even if Brown is outpacing the competition, his case will suffer from an inability to top its former self.
Then, we're left with quarterbacks. Let's look at our big four in alphabetical order by the numbers. Stats don't mean everything in the MVP race, but quarterbacks who produce the most impressive numbers usually also win league MVP:
Dak Prescott's case is difficult to make, even if he has been a supremely underrated part of the Cowboys' offense this season. His counting numbers are way below those of Smith and Wentz having played one fewer game, which will obviously balance out later in the season. His yards per attempt, though, remains pretty ordinary. QBR addresses his impact as a runner, given that Prescott is tied for second among quarterbacks with 16 runs for first downs, but that just ties Prescott with Wentz in the category behind a whopping 28 from Cam Newton. I wouldn't rule out a Prescott case, especially if Ezekiel Elliott eventually gets suspended, but who knows if that's ever going to happen this season?
Take Prescott out for now, and we're looking at three people for two spots. Smith has the best raw numbers and the worst stats by advanced numbers, which usually doesn't hurt MVP chances. Smith has the gaudy touchdown-to-interception ratio and a completion percentage approaching 70 percent. He also would be a new candidate for consideration, which plays well with the voters, who get tired of nominating the same quarterbacks to win awards year after year.
And yet, Smith's numbers are declining some. He has still been excellent, but he posted a 124.9 passer rating through the first quarter of the season and a 106.7 passer rating over the ensuing five weeks, which is good for fourth in football over the latter stretch. The Chiefs probably would need to be a No. 1 seed for Smith to build a case, and right now, Kansas City has a 14.2 percent chance of being the top seed in the AFC. Given that we have years of information telling us Smith is an above-average quarterback and nine weeks of Alex Smith as a superstar, it's more difficult to trust the latter. It's easier to see voters believing that this is a hot stretch from him and just the new normal for a second-year player like Wentz.
So, Smith is out. Now we're left with two great quarterbacks. Brady's passing numbers are slightly better than those of Wentz, and he has a more memorable win in driving the Patriots to beat the Texans at home in Week 3, but Wentz makes up for it elsewhere. For one, he has been an extremely efficient runner whereas Brady is limited mostly to sneaks. Wentz has 16 rushing first downs and 211 rushing yards to five first downs and 28 yards for Brady.
Even given how the Eagles upgraded Wentz's receiving corps this offseason, most people would argue that the Patriots have a better receiving corps than Philly, and that's without Julian Edelman in the fold. Zach Ertz has been more productive than Gronk this season, but Gronk has a well-deserved rep as the guy at tight end. No wideout on the Eagles is as talented as Brandin Cooks. Wentz has a better offensive line, but the knee injury suffered by Jason Peters could even the playing field.
I think this comes down to the soft factors. Voters generally prefer to reward breakout players as opposed to consistently wonderful veteran superstars, if only because they take the vets and their level of performance for granted. (This is why we never consider Drew Brees as an MVP candidate.) They also want to reward players on the best teams, and while the Patriots are still likely to end up in the thick of everything come late January, Brady's Pats are 6-2, while Wentz's Eagles are a league-best 8-1. If Wentz can keep up with Brady over the remainder of the season and the Eagles keep winning games comfortably, Wentz has to be the favorite to win his first MVP award.