Bleacher Report's 2015 NFL Awards
As difficult as it may be to believe, we've nearly reached the end of the line—both for 2015 and another regular season in the National Football League.
And what a season it's been. The Carolina Panthers became only the third team in NFL history to start a season 14-0 before falling in Atlanta on Sunday. The Kansas City Chiefs became only the second NFL team to start a campaign 1-5 and make the playoffs.
In addition to those team efforts, there were sterling individual showings as well. Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones enters the season's final weekend with an outside shot at breaking both the single-season record for catches and Calvin Johnson's recently set yardage record.
It's the individual accolades which we'll focus upon here. We've tallied the votes and rolled out the red carpet, as the National Lead Writers and NFL Analysts here at Bleacher Report have gathered to hand out some imaginary hardware in the form of the 2015 Bleacher Report NFL Awards.
The envelope, please.
Coach of the Year
Winner: Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers (5 votes)
When the NFL's best head coaches are mentioned in conversation, the first name off everyone's lips is New England's Bill Belichick.
Four Super Bowl rings as a head coach will do that for a fellow.
Bruce Arians of the Arizona Cardinals doesn't have a ring as a head coach yet, but he does have a pair of Coach of the Year awards since 2012. With two different teams, no less.
With the Cardinals 13-2 and potentially the league's best team, Arians is generating plenty of Coach of the Year buzz this season as well, but he told ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss there's only one coach in the league he wouldn't vote for.
“I wouldn’t vote for myself,” he said.
Arians did mention Kansas City's Andy Reid, who has the Chiefs in the playoffs despite a disastrous start to the season.
“Andy would be real close,” Arians said. “Being 1-5 and then doing what they’re doing, it’s amazing.”
However, just as with our voters, Reid finished runner-up on Arians' imaginary ballot to Carolina's Ron Rivera, whose Panthers followed up last year's four-game winning streak to close the year by peeling off 14 consecutive victories to open this season.
Is 18 regular-season wins in a row a lot? It seems like a lot.
As Weinfuss points out, if Rivera does indeed take home the award, it will set up a back-and-forth between he and Arians that is unparalleled in NFL history:
Should Rivera win it, the past four awards will have gone to Arians in 2012, Rivera in 2013, Arians in 2014 and Rivera in 2015. Two coaches haven’t dominated a four-year stretch like that before. The closest thing was Chuck Knox and Joe Gibbs each winning two awards in a five-year span from 1980 to 1984.
It isn't likely to be the last time this pair is locked in a showdown this season.
Only the next time, it will be for the Halas Trophy and the right to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 50.
Others receiving votes: Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs (3 votes)
Midseason winner: Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons (5 votes)
Preseason winner: Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons (3 votes)
Offensive Player of the Year
Winner: Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks (3 votes)
At the 2015 NFL season's midway point, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was nowhere near the conversation for Offensive Player of the Year.
Playing behind an offensive line that was, well, offensive, Wilson was making more headlines for the beating he was taking each week than the plays he was making. After a Week 10 loss at home to the Cardinals, the 4-5 Seahawks looked to be in danger of missing the postseason altogether.
And then, as Chris Chase of USA Today wrote, Wilson proceeded to put the Seahawks on his back and go on one of the most torrid streaks in the history of the National Football League:
Five straight games, with at least three touchdowns and a rating over 120. Or five straight games with a completion percentage at 70% or above and 245 yards. It’s near perfection from all angles. These seemed like unbelievable achievements so, with the help of pro-football-reference’s Player Streak finder, we decided to find out just how much.
To start, we looked at how many players had four-game streaks of 3 TDs/120+ rating. Only one quarterback did. Russell Wilson, and his streak is at five. ...
In short, it’d be fair to call Russell Wilson’s November and December part of the best five-game stretch in NFL history.
Yes, that streak came to a halt in a Week 16 loss to the St. Louis Rams in which Wilson took another pounding. Yes, some will say that a five-game stretch does not make a season. The vote was hardly a landslide.
And that was enough for him to get the nod as Bleacher Report's 2015 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Others receiving votes: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (2 votes), Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (1 vote), Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants (1 vote), Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons (1 vote)
Midseason winner: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (6 votes)
Preseason winner: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (3 oopsies)
Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams (4 votes)
We're in the midst of something truly special in the National Football League.
Led by Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, we've seen a number of generational talents enter the league on defense in recent years. The only problem is, it's hard to call them generational when they enter the league in bunches.
Just last year there was Oakland Raiders edge-rusher Khalil Mack. After spending his rookie season as an outside linebacker, Mack made the switch to defensive end in 2015.
Rough transition? If by rough you mean he entered the season's final week leading the NFL in sacks, then yeah. A real bear it was.
Then there's St. Louis defensive tackle Aaron Donald. All he's done in his two NFL seasons is emerge as a disruptive force in the middle and the best 3-technique in the league.
As ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner reported, teammate Chris Long went one further, calling Donald the NFL's best defensive player period:
I think the case can be made that he’s the best defensive football player in the NFL. There’s going to be some people who are going to tell you otherwise but you watch the film, it’s not just about the stats, it’s about destroying like every play, seven out of 10 plays, he’s doing something to just mess the whole thing up. And he’s just on a constant basis making people look silly.
I could go on for a while on why I think that. But I don’t think it’s that unreasonable to put him in that conversation. I know it’s kind of off limits right now to say anybody is better than J.J., but I think he’s in that conversation.
Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis agrees:
He’s disruptive nearly every play. Everyone wants to look at just his stats a lot of times, but if you watch the tape, there’s so many QB hits that he’s a part of on plays that are out routes and screens, and if he doesn’t make a [tackle for loss], he’s making the running back avoid what he wants to do and double back and somebody else is getting it. So I think so. If I had a vote, which obviously I don’t, but if I did, he would have my vote.
The folks at Pro Football Focus are on board as well. Donald isn't just the highest-rated tackle this year. He's the highest-rated player at any position.
And he's on pace to become their highest-rated player at any position ever.
Others receiving votes: Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders (2 votes), J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (1 vote), Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals (1 vote)
Midseason winner: Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers (3 votes)
Preseason winner: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (4 votes)
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Winner: Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams (8 votes)
We have our first unanimous vote.
Back in April, when the St. Louis Rams selected running back Todd Gurley with the 10th overall pick, more than a few draftniks snickered. "No one takes a running back that early anymore," they sneered.
Well, the only ones laughing now are the Rams—because as a rookie, Gurley more than justified his lofty draft slot.
And both those players started for their respective teams out of the gate. Gurley didn't get his first bite at the apple until Week 3.
Of running backs with more than 200 carries, only Martin has averaged more yards per tote than Gurley's 4.84 yards per carry.
Granted, not everyone has been impressed with Gurley. After facing him last week, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett told reporters Gurley was "average":
He’s average to me, personally. He got a couple of big runs on miscommunication and misalignment, but I mean, I’ve seen better running backs in the NFL. It wasn’t Marshall Faulk to me, or Marshawn Lynch. He’s just a rookie … I had to tell him that, too: ‘You are just a rookie. You haven’t done anything.’
Of course, that critique came after Gurley's Rams stunned Bennett's Seahawks in Seattle—a game in which Gurley scored the deciding touchdown.
So that assessment might want to be taken with a grain of salt.
In the eyes of our voters, there's no question Gurley is the OROY.
Which begs another question: With all of these award-winning players, why are the Rams still so average?
Midseason winner: Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams (8 votes)
Preseason winner: Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4 votes)
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Winner: Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs (8 votes)
There may not be a position in which the jump from college to the pros is more difficult than at cornerback. It isn't at all strange to see first-round picks struggle mightily as rookies. Some elite collegiate cover men just can't cut it at the next level.
Looking at you, Justin Gilbert. Looking right...at...you.
Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs was apparently not informed of this at the rookie symposium, because he picked up right where he left off at the University of Washington.
Actually, given that Peters was kicked off the team back in 2014, he has been better as a pro than he was in Seattle.
Among NFL corners, the number of players with more interceptions than Peters stands at zero. He's snared eight interceptions during his rookie campaign and returned two for touchdowns.
Given Peters' dismissal from the Huskies, there was the usual grumbling about "character issues" prior to last year's draft. However, as Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith told Dave Skretta of the Associated Press, it's turned out the opposite is the case:
He's had a great year, there's no question. I don't know how many turnovers he's generated, but they're huge. He battles all the time, and his attitude seems to have spread throughout the team. It's very rare for a young guy to have such a great attitude.
There's a reason why so many cornerbacks are taken in the first round each year. In today's pass-wacky NFL, you just can't have too many quality corners.
And the Chiefs didn't just get a quality cover man in Peters.
They may just have found a ball-hawking star.
Midseason winner: Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo Bills (7 votes)
Preseason winner: Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs (3 votes)
Rookie of the Year
Winner: Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams (7 votes)
When the 2015 NFL season ends, the St. Louis Rams, as has been the case for many years now, will clean out their lockers and head home.
The team missed the playoffs—again.
However, Todd Gurley will be packing his bags and heading west. Way west.
Along with Aaron Donald and punter Johnny "Tough Guy" Hekker, Gurley will be headed to Honolulu for the Pro Bowl.
It's quite the achievement for a youngster whose 2014 season ended with a torn ACL, and an achievement that drew accolades from head coach Jeff Fisher (via Nate Latsch of Scout):
I asked Todd what he was doing a year ago yesterday and he was three weeks post-op and did he ever think at that point, a year ago yesterday, that he would have been voted to the Pro Bowl. I think that speaks volumes of him. His teammates are also to be recognized for that. The offensive linemen and then of course our training staff to get him back and put him in that position. This will be the first of many for him, so I’m really happy for him.
Of course, on the prestige scale, a Pro Bowl nod is nothing compared to being named Bleacher Report's 2015 Rookie of the Year.
What? Stop looking at me like that.
It's my story. I'll tell it any way I want.
Others receiving votes: Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs (1 vote)
Midseason winner: Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams (8 votes)
Preseason winner: Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4 votes)
Comeback Player of the Year
Winner: Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs (5 votes)
At this point a year ago, Eric Berry was nowhere near a football field. In fact, football was the furthest thing from Berry's mind.
He was too busy trying to stay alive.
However, Kansas City head coach Andy Reid told ESPN.com's Adam Teicher he wasn't the least bit surprised when Berry was named to the Pro Bowl just 13 months after being diagnosed with cancer.
That was the sixth-year veteran's plan all along:
The reason you imagined it was he was telling you he was going to. He was so driven that way that you kind of had the feeling he was going to get there, as crazy as it sounds. But when you look back on it now that it’s real, what a great story. True toughness and grit to be able to do that.
Mind you, it wasn't exactly that simple. After all, as Berry himself told Teicher back in July, this was a process that involved trying to remain a world-class athlete while undergoing chemotherapy:
When you add chemo into something like this, that's a whole different monster because it literally feels like you're dying. You can't go around people. You get sick easily. There are certain foods you can't eat. It just zaps you for a good amount of time. When you look at it, you're not really battling chemo. You're battling yourself the whole time. It's really a battle [of] me vs. me. You can't look too far ahead.
I just wanted to take it step by step and day by day and see where it took me. My whole thing was that it's going to be what it's going to be. I'm going to control what I can control and the two things I could control were my attitude and my effort. I just tried to wake up every day and just build off whatever I did the day before.
That Berry was able to return to the playing field at all is remarkable in and of itself.
That he was able to not only return, but play at an elite level—he ranks fourth among all NFL safeties in 2015, per Pro Football Focus, ahead of players like Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks—is simply amazing.
Others receiving votes: Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2 votes), Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals (1 vote)
Midseason winner: Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5 votes)
Preseason winner: NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco 49ers (5 votes)
Fantasy Player of the Year
Winner: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (5 votes)
After watching his per-game fantasy production drop in each of his first four NFL seasons, quarterback Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers was barely drafted as a starter in 12-team leagues. Ten quarterbacks were chosen before Newton came off the board in the eighth round, according to the average draft position data at My Fantasy League.
In NFL.com default fantasy scoring, Newton finished the fantasy season as the No. 1 quarterback by over a full fantasy point per game better than runner-up Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, according to FFToday.com. (If you play your championship game in Week 17, seek professional help immediately.)
He bested Brady.
Bested Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts.
Bested Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers.
Newton bested them all.
In fantasy football, success is all about value, selecting players whose production far exceeds their cost on draft day.
In that regard, Newton delivered big time.
In my dozen or so fantasy leagues, I drafted the former No. 1 overall pick in the NFL draft only once.
That team "Dabbed" its way to a second consecutive league title.
Others receiving votes: Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2 votes), Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons (1 vote)
Midseason winner: Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons (7 votes)
Preseason winner: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (4 votes)
Breakout Player of the Year
Winner: Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers (5 votes)
Josh Norman was the 15th cornerback selected in the 2012 NFL draft. A fifth-round draft pick.
By the end of last season, Norman had emerged as a decent sub-package player for the Carolina Panthers, a player the team thought enough of to offer a contract extension that would pay him $7 million a season.
That's hardly Richard Sherman money, but it ain't dog food either.
Norman passed on the deal, confident entering his contract year that his best football was yet to come.
That gamble is set to pay off in a huge way.
Through 16 weeks of the 2015 season, Norman is a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the 14-1 Panthers. In the over 1,000 snaps Norman has played (often shadowing the opposing team's top receiver), he has allowed the third-lowest passer rating against in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
However, despite his breakout season, Norman told Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei back in October that there's still a lot of work to be done:
Nothing was ever given to me. I've always had to work for whatever I had. I'm not going to slack off now or think I'm better than anyone else. I still don't feel I've made it, to be honest with you. I'm going to keep working as hard as I can to reach the talent level I've been given, that God has given to me. Because if we can't work for it, what's the point of having it? You can't get gratification for it. That's why right now I feel gratification for everything I put into it.
That statement may have been true then, but come next spring, something will have been given to Norman.
No, not a Christmas card from Odell Beckham. Guessing not.
A shiny new contract that pays a fair bit more than $7 million a season.
Others receiving votes: Allen Robinson, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars (2 votes), Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders (1 vote)
Midseason winner: Gary Barnidge, TE, Cleveland Browns (5 votes)
Preseason winner: Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (3 votes)
Most Improved Player of the Year
Winner: Gary Barnidge, TE, Cleveland Browns (3 votes)
Over his first seven NFL seasons, Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge reeled in 44 passes for 603 yards and three scores as a reserve for the Browns and Carolina Panthers.
Well, this season has been something of a different story.
In yet another miserable season on the shores of Lake Erie, Barnidge has emerged as the unlikeliest of stars for the hapless Browns.
Seventy-one receptions. Three times as many touchdowns in Year 8 than in Years 1-7 combined. And with 23 yards in the team's finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Barnidge will hit the 1,000-yard mark.
Despite the breakout season, the 30-year-old was passed over as a Pro Bowl starter, but Barnidge told Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com that he isn't losing sleep over the snub:
Our position's got a lot of great guys. It's tough to choose just four. There's other guys that missed it too. (Redskins') Jordan Reed, (Titans') Delanie Walker, they've had great seasons. (Cowboys') Jason Witten. ...
I appreciate the fact that I was an alternate, but honestly that stuff doesn't matter. We haven't gotten the wins we wanted this year. That probably played a factor into it. That means nothing. I am not about individual awards, I'm about the team. That's the most important thing to me. We just have to get more wins.
At least Barnidge will now have a huge, glistening, shiny imaginary trophy to place upon his mantle.
Others receiving votes: Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (2 votes), Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (1 vote), Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins (1 vote), Latavius Murray, RB, Oakland Raiders (1 vote)
Midseason winner: Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (5 votes)
Preseason winner: Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4 votes)
Most Valuable Player
Winner: Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers (8 votes)
What? Like this is some kind of surprise.
Hardly, given the season Newton is having for the team with the NFL's best record. A career-high 33 scoring strikes. A career-best passer rating of 97.0. Another 626 yards and eight scores on the ground. And a career-low 10 interceptions.
Per Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, Newton's case to be named the NFL's most valuable player is a strong one:
Newton is a lethal amalgamation of Steve Young (MVP, 1992 and 1994) and Steve McNair (co-MVP, 2003), leading the NFL in total touchdowns (41) while combining for more than 4,000 passing and rushing yards. Whereas Young and McNair were afforded multiple years of development behind veteran quarterbacks, Newton was thrown into the crucible, tossing go routes and slants to Steve Smith en route to one of the best rookie quarterback seasons in NFL history.
A half-decade later, Newton gets his offense into the right plays, reads defenses, exhausts his progressions and boasts the unique size and athletic ability to take advantage of over-aggressive pass rushes. He's the ultimate pick-your-poison weapon, capable of burning defenses with his arm on game-breaking downfield strikes or converting short-yardage situations with his legs.
Although Newton is blessed with a stout offensive line, a Pro Bowl running back and a Pro Bowl tight end, it's also true that he has elevated his surrounding talent while becoming just the fourth quarterback ever to win 17 consecutive starts.
I absolutely do. I think he's played phenomenal. I think the thing I've been most impressed with is his ability to throw the football. Obviously, he's a guy who can make a lot of plays doing a lot of different things. So yeah, I think he's absolutely deserving of the MVP.
Given the unanimous vote, it looks like the panel here at Bleacher Report thinks Newton is deserving as well.
Midseason winner: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (6 votes)
Preseason winner: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (4 votes)