Current Frontrunners for 2015 NFL Awards

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IOctober 12, 2015

Current Frontrunners for 2015 NFL Awards

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    Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

    And the NFL’s “Oscar” goes to…

    It’s very early in the league’s 96th season but it’s never too soon to recognize excellence. So we are taking a look at who we feel are the current “leaders in the clubhouse” when it comes to the NFL’s postseason honors (courtesy of the voting panel of the Associated Press).

    Please keep this in mind: The key word here is front-runner. No one is handing out awards after just five weeks of play. This is simply a gauge of where we may stand at the moment in each category. Along with the leaders, we won’t be afraid to mention some of the other candidates who have gotten off to impressive starts in 2015.

    Hey, it’s just one man’s opinion so feel free to chime in with your own. But remember there’s a long way to go when it comes to actually handing out the hardware.

Offensive Player of the Year: QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots

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    Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

    Four games into 2015, the New England Patriots have that look to them.

    We all know that look. They have had it six times the previous 14 years.

    Regardless of circumstances and controversies, Bill Belichick’s club just goes out and does its job. That was evident on Sunday in Dallas as the defending Super Bowl champions rolled the undermanned Cowboys, 30-6.

    Despite being sacked five times, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 275 yards and a pair of scores and ran for another touchdown. He’s been nothing short of spectacular during the team’s 4-0 start, completing 72.5 percent of his passes for 1,387 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

    There are already murmurs in Foxborough and other places that the Patriots may be getting ready to roll off another 16-0 regular season, but that’s a discussion for another time.

    Players the likes of Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte are all off to terrific starts this year. But Brady’s consistency and overall production is impossible to ignore.

Defensive Player of the Year: CB Josh Norman, Carolina Panthers

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    Rob Foldy/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers entered Week 5 with the league’s 10th-ranked defense in terms of yards allowed.

    They also entered this past weekend with a 4-0 record and with a week off, that mark remains intact.

    When you think of the Carolina Panthers, you think middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, and with good reason. He’s led the team in tackles in each of his first four seasons.

    Other names that come to mind are outside linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson. But the guy to keep an eye on these days is cornerback Josh Norman, who has done more than his share when it comes to keeping his team undefeated.

    The fourth-year pro, a fifth-round pick from Coastal Carolina in 2012, is tied for third on his team with 19 tackles. He’s also totaled four interceptions, which have been returned for a total of 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Norman picked off a pass in the end zone in Week 3 vs. the New Orleans Saints that preserved a 27-22 win. He’s also knocked down eight passes, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.

    All told, Norman has five of the Panthers’ 11 takeaways this season and with Kuechly out the last few weeks, he and Thomas have been the leaders of the defense.

    We have also seen impressive performances this season from New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis, St. Louis Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald and New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins to date. But who has done more for his team on this side of the ball than Norman to date?

Offensive Rookie of the Year: RB Todd Gurley, St. Louis Rams

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    If you would have asked who was the leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors two weeks ago names like Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota and Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper would have been many people’s first choices.

    But there seems to be a new front-runner…literally.

    Over the past two weeks, the St. Louis Rams have managed to split games with the Arizona Cardinals (win) and the Green Bay Packers (loss). But in those contests, Rams running back Todd Gurley has stood out in a big way and the 10th overall pick in this spring’s draft may be just getting warmed up.

    For the season, the former University of Georgia star has totaled 55 carries for 314 yards, averaging a very healthy 5.7 yards per attempt. But in his last two games, Gurley has rushed for 305 yards on 49 carries (6.2 yards per carry) and he’s ripped off a 50-plus yard run in each of those contests.

    We’re not sure where the 2-3 Rams are headed this season. But if Gurley continues his recent play, he’ll be adding some NFL honors to his trophy case.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: DE Leonard Williams, New York Jets

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Think of the irony.

    Back in 2013, the New York Jets made defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson the second of two first-round picks, and he would go onto capture NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. In 2014, the former University of Missouri standout earned Pro Bowl honors.

    This season, we haven’t seen Richardson to date due to a four-game suspension, but he’s expected to return this week when the Jets host the Washington Redskins. In his place has been 2015 sixth overall pick Leonard Williams, who Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan gleefully grabbed on the night of April 30 in Chicago. He’s responded with four starts, 18 tackles and one-half sack (three tackles for losses) and the Jets are off to a 3-1 start.

    We have seen some promising rookie performances on defense, like from defensive ends Vic Beasley (Atlanta Falcons) and Frank Clark (Seattle Seahawks) to Buffalo Bills cornerback Ronald Darby. But Williams has helped make a very good Jets defensive unit even better and one that could be the league’s best by season’s end.

Comeback Player of the Year: QB Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

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    Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

    There are so many worthy players who qualify for this honor for various reasons.

    The fact that Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry is back on the field after battling and defeating Hodgkin lymphoma is not only amazing but inspirational.

    Players like linebackers Sean Lee (Dallas Cowboys) and NaVorro Bowman (San Francisco 49ers), tight end Tyler Eifert (Cincinnati Bengals) and running back Danny Woodhead (San Diego Chargers) have done well to bounce back from basically lost seasons (Eifert and Woodhead were lost in Week 1 of 2014).

    But when you combine overcoming adversity with excellence of play you have to look at Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer, who was limited to only six games last season due to a series of injuries, including a torn ACL suffered in Week 10 vs. the St. Louis Rams.

    In the Cardinals’ 4-1 start, the veteran signal-caller has hit on 64.9 percent of his throws for 1,316 yards and 13 scores with just three interceptions. He’s thrown for at least two touchdowns in four of his five outings and totaled 300-plus passing yards in three contests.

    It’s been quite a start for a player who has taken his lumps throughout his career.

Assistant Coach of the Year: DC Wade Phillips, Denver Broncos

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    John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

    A year ago the Associated Press gave out the first-ever NFL Assistant Coach of the Year award. That honor went to then-Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who helped guide that team to the playoffs.

    Now consider the primary reason the Denver Broncos sport a 5-0 record at the moment. While quarterback Peyton Manning and the offense continue their quest to find a consistent rhythm, Phillips’ unit continues to bail out the team and even take scoring points into their own hands.

    Only two teams have allowed fewer yards per game (302.6) and no team has totaled more sacks (22) than these Broncos. Denver has totaled 14 takeaways and returned three of those opponent miscues for touchdowns. And Gary Kubiak’s team remains undefeated with a quarterback who has been sacked 12 times and has thrown more interceptions (seven) than touchdown passes (six) to date.

    It’s been quite a start for Phillips and his defense. It will be interesting to see where the Broncos are headed with this unit.

Coach of the Year: Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons

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    Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

    You could see the change in the Atlanta Falcons this preseason when it came to the physicality of the team on both sides of the football.

    That mentality has carried over into the regular season, as new head coach Dan Quinn has led the club to a 5-0 start, the franchise’s best since 2012 when the club finished 13-3 and was the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

    Consider the Falcons were 6-10 one year ago and a combined 10-22 dating back to 2013. Also keep in mind this was a team that won five of its six games last season over their woeful neighbors in the NFC South, meaning Atlanta was a mere 1-9 vs. the rest of the NFL.

    This season, Quinn and his improved club have made late comebacks their staple and all five of their victories have come outside of their own division, including a four-game sweep of the NFC East. They’ve scored 103 points in the first three quarters and a combined 59 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.

    The team has gotten big contributions from quarterback Matt Ryan, second-year running back Devonta Freeman and wide receiver Julio Jones, as well as just enough timely plays from the defense. But mostly it’s been the influence of Quinn, who has changed the mindset of this club in a very short time.

Most Valuable Player: QB Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    It’s not a name we’ve seen associated with league MVP honors in recent years. That’s been reserved for the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Adrian Peterson.

    But five games and five wins into this season, you can’t help but be impressed with the performance of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, whose team is 5-0 for the first time since 1988, which happens to be the last time the franchise reached the Super Bowl.

    Dalton’s numbers for the season are impressive enough without the late-game heroics. The fifth-year quarterback has connected on 67.5 percent of his passes for 1,518 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s run for 55 yards and a pair of scores and has only committed three turnovers (two interceptions, one lost fumble) in five games.

    “'For us to come back against a really, really good team is huge,” said Dalton to Joe Ray of the Associated Press. The Bengals quarterback led his club to 20 unanswered points against the Seahawks. This season Cincinnati has scored at least 24 points in each of their five games.

    Yes, it will still take a playoff win for many to give Dalton his due and that makes sense. But so far this season, he and the team are on course to put themselves in that position for a fifth straight year.

    Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro Football Reference and ESPN.com.