Bleacher Report's Midseason NFL Awards

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystNovember 3, 2015

Bleacher Report's Midseason NFL Awards

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    We're eight weeks into the 2015 NFL season. The calendar has turned to November, and daylight saving time has come and gone.

    To this point in the 2015 campaign, some things have proceeded just as we thought they would.  The New England Patriots are very good. So are the Green Bay Packers. The Jacksonville Jaguars are very not.

    However, there have been surprises as well. The St. Louis Rams and the Oakland Raiders, two teams that haven't enjoyed much success in recent seasons, have been competitive. The Baltimore Ravens, perennial playoff contenders, have not.

    Of course, teams can't succeed unless individuals do, and there has been no shortage of big individual performances this year.

    Before the season began, the National Lead Writers and NFL Analysts here at Bleacher Report gathered to offer their takes on who would win the league's individual honors in 2015.

    Now that we're halfway home, let's revisit those picks and see who the gang at Bleacher Report has tabbed for hardware now.

Coach of the Year

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Winner: Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons (five votes)

    Yes, the Atlanta Falcons are 0-2 in the NFC South after a Week 8 loss in overtime to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    However, those same Atlanta Falcons are 6-0 against the rest of the NFL.

    After watching a steady regression by the Falcons culminate in last year's 6-10 mess of a football team, Mike Smith was shown the door in Atlanta. The team then hired Quinn, the no-nonsense former defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks, as his replacement.

    The style of football Quinn preaches was a departure for the team. Run the ball. Play defense. And as NFL.com's Brian Billick reports, Quinn's old-school philosophy, especially on defense, has been "inspired":

    This is a team that finished dead last in rushing yards per game in 2013 and only had a running back post a 100-yard game once last season. Under Quinn -- and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan -- the O-line's actually pushing people off the ball.

    Even still, the offense isn't really what Dan Quinn was hired to fix; it's the solid play of Atlanta's defense that earns him a spot on this list. What Quinn has done to remake the shambles of a lineup that Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli tried to pass off as a defense last year -- a group that got Mike Smith fired -- has been brilliant and inspired. Perhaps I should have owner Arthur Blank on this list for having the good sense to give Quinn final say on the 53-man roster.

    Sure, after starting 5-0, the Falcons have lost two of three, knocking some of the shine off their start. If you want to nitpick, you can make the argument that the team isn't as good as its record.

    However, given the talent he's working with, doesn't that make Quinn's coaching job all the more impressive?

    Others receiving votes: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots (one vote); Mike McCarthy, Green Bay Packers (one vote); Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers (one vote)

    Preseason winner: Dan Quinn, Atlanta Falcons (one votes) 

    Hey! We got one!

Offensive Player of the Year

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Winner: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (six votes)

    Life is hard for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

    At 38 years of age, Brady is much closer to the end of his playing days than the beginning. He entered the season under the dark clouds cast by his (overturned) four-game suspension for Deflategate.

    Then there's the matter of balancing a checkbook filled with millions upon millions of dollars, figuring out a Christmas gift for his supermodel wife and polishing all those Super Bowl rings.

    I don't know how he gets out of bed in the morning.

    However, Brady has not only gotten out of bed in 2015; he's also managed to have one of the best half-seasons of his 16-year career: 2,410 yards, 20 touchdowns, a single interception and a passer rating of over 115.

    Actually, that's in not quite half a season. The Patriots have already had their bye.

    You know a player is at the top of his game when even division rivals are ponying up the props. And that's exactly what former Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly did when speaking to Jeff DiVeronica of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle about the Golden Boy:

    After throwing out a few names, Kelly expressed how great he thinks Patriots star Brady and head coach Bill Belichick are, saying they’re both friends. As for the question (the greatest quarterback of all time): “Right now, unfortunately for the Buffalo Bills it’s Tom Brady. I wish he’d retire soon,” Kelly said before joking, “if he plays 10 more years I may have to break his leg.”

    The way Brady's playing in 2015, that broken leg is probably the only thing that could slow him or the Patriots down.

    Others receiving votes: Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons (two votes)

    Preseason winner: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (three votes)

Defensive Player of the Year

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Winner: Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers (three votes)

    This one's all but certainly the biggest left fielder on this list.

    That isn't to say Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman wasn't a decent player a season ago. The fourth-year pro ranked a respectable 30th at his position in 2014, per Pro Football Focus.

    Still, there's quite a bit of distance between being good and being the best defensive player in the National Football League.

    As Bleacher Report NFL Columnist Dan Pompei recently wrote, the best defensive player in the NFL is exactly what Norman aspires to be:

    Now he says he wants to be the defensive player of the year. It appears to be an attainable goal, considering Pro Football Focus determined he had the best passer rating against in the NFL through six games at 23.4. He had not given up a reception longer than 23 yards, and he had allowed only one touchdown in 39 passes thrown his way. This is a carryover from 2014. Last season, Norman had a 53.2 passer rating against, sixth-best in the league.

    His agent, Michael George, is confident Norman will command even more attention if his contract expires in the offseason. The Panthers tried to lock him up before the season began, with an offer of $7 million per year, according to the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person.

    Norman's balking at that offer appears to have been very shrewd indeed.

    This season, only Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals (who plays as much safety as cornerback) has a higher grade than Norman among corners at PFF. Norman, 27, has four interceptions on the season, two of which have been returned for scores. Fewer than half the passes thrown in Norman's direction have been completed.

    And that's against the opposing team's top pass-catcher, including the likes of Mike Evans and DeAndre Hopkins.

    If Norman keeps this up and wins DPOY, $7 million a season isn't going to scratch the surface of the windfall he will be set to receive this offseason.

    Others receiving votes: Charles Woodson, SS, Oakland Raiders (two votes); Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams (one vote); J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (one vote); Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals (one vote)

    Preseason winner: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans (four votes)

Offensive Rookie of the Year

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    Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

    Winner: Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams (eight votes)

    You know a player is having a good season when he's a unanimous pick of our panel for an award.

    When that player didn't even touch the football until Week 3, it's another story altogether.

    In that first game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley gained nine yards on six carries.

    Since then, his numbers have, um, improved.

    He had 146 yards on 19 carries against the Arizona Cardinals, 159 yards on 30 totes against the Green Bay Packers, 19 carries for 128 yards and two touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns, and 133 yards and a touchdown on 20 totes against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 8.

    Coincidentally, the Rams are a 3-1 football team over that span.

    OK, so it isn't a coincidence at all.

    As Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com reported, Gurley also made some history against the 49ers:

    With two carries for 12 yards to open the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Gurley became the most prolific rusher over his first four starts since the AFL/NFL merger, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

    Other than that, though, the former Georgia standout hasn't done muchother than blow past Oakland wide receiver Amari Cooper (who hasn't exactly been dog food) like he blows past defenders.

    Preseason winner: Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (four votes)

Defensive Rookie of the Year

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Winner: Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo Bills (seven votes)

    Buffalo Bills cornerback Ronald Darby wasn't the first player at his position selected in the 2015 NFL draft—or the second or the third or the fourth.

    However, Darby has easily been the best rookie cornerback in the NFL over the first half of the 2015 season.

    In fact, as ESPN.com's Mike Rodak wrote, Darby has been one of the NFL's best cover men period:

    There are few rookies playing as well as Darby, who Pro Football Focus ranks as their third-best cornerback in the NFL. He hasn't been perfect -- he has four penalties, tied for fourth-most on the team -- but for a second-round pick who flew under the radar in the pre-draft process, he's been as productive as anyone could have hoped. Darby has 16 passes defensed, most in the NFL. He's played in 88 percent of defensive snaps and it's hard to imagine the Bills turning away from him when last season's starter, Leodis McKelvin, returns from the non-football injury list as soon as next week. The NFL named him as the defensive rookie of the month in September.

    Darby's stellar first half also didn't escape the attention of ESPN draft (and hairstyle) expert Mel Kiper, who ranked him as this year's top defensive newcomer to date:

    He's been the best player in the Bills' secondary and has officially reached doesn't-come-off-the-field status. He's doing a great job in coverage, and has active hands. He has nine passes broken up already, good for third in the NFL. Darby is the early leader for biggest steal in the draft.

    It's far from a rarity for young cornerbacks to struggle mightily as they acclimate to the NFL.

    Apparently, Darby didn't get that memo at rookie orientation.

    Others receiving votes: Leonard Williams, DE, New York Jets (one vote)

    Preseason winner: Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs (three votes)

Rookie of the Year

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    Billy Hurst/Associated Press

    Winner: Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams (eight votes)

    More Gurley love.

    It's hard not to be impressed by what the youngster has done since entering the Rams lineup. Gurley is averaging over six yards per carry, an obscene number for the NFL.

    And as Yahoo Sports' Frank Schwab pointed out, Gurley isn't just banging away at opponents on the ground; he's absolutely gashing them:

    Gurley has had a huge run in each of his starts. He had a 48-yarder against Cleveland, a 52-yarder against Arizona, a 55-yarder against Green Bay and on Sunday he had a 71-yarder against San Francisco. This is the NFL. It’s almost impossible to regularly break big runs. Consider that coming into Sunday’s games, not counting Gurley, two running backs had multiple 40-yard runs this year. Adrian Peterson had three. Chris Johnson had two. Nobody else had more than one. And remember, Gurley missed the beginning of this season because he’s coming off an ACL injury.

    All the flak the Rams caught for taking a running back in the top 10 (an injured one, no less) seems, uh, well, let's just say that at 4-3, St. Louis seems to have weathered it rather well.

    In fact, Schwab doesn't think Gurley is just the best rookie in the National Football League. He believes the youngster is the best running back period:

    Who else would you pick? Devonta Freeman has been excellent for the Atlanta Falcons, but you wouldn't take him over Gurley. Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson is still playing at a high level, with three 100-yard games (and a 98-yard game) and a 4.5-yard average. Le’Veon Bell would have been a great pick, but now he has a knee injury.

    It sounds crazy after just four starts, but Gurley should already be considered the NFL’s best running back.

    With a matchup looming against Peterson and the Vikings in Week 9, Gurley won't have to wait long to prove Schwab right.

    Preseason winner: Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (four votes)

Comeback Player of the Year

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    Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

    Winner: Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (five votes)

    From penthouse to outhouse to penthouse again.

    Such is the saga of Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin.

    As a rookie in 2012, Martin appeared to be on the fast track to superstardom with over 1,900 total yards, 4.6 yards per carry and 12 total touchdowns. The sky was the limit.

    Then the sky fell.

    Over the past two seasons, a hobbled Martin failed to gain even four yards per carry or top 500 yards on the ground. In those two seasons combined, Martin found the end zone three times.

    However, in 2015, the Muscle Hamster is once again healthy and running hard. Through eight weeks, Martin ranks fourth in the NFL with 612 rushing yards. Just like he did as a rookie, Martin is averaging a robust 4.6 yards a pop.

    And as college friend Jarrell Root (who gave Martin his nickname at Boise State) told ESPN.com's Andrew Astleford, Martin still hates being called the Muscle Hamster:

    I don't think you can ever take back something like that. Imagine if "The Fridge" didn't like being called "The Fridge." It doesn't matter. He's still going to be called "The Fridge," because no matter how you try to do it, if you have an interesting, interesting name, it's too rare. The damage is already done.

    He hated it. He was like, "OK, man, why can't I be like a pit bull or anything cool like that?" And I'm like, "Dude, you're short. Hamsters are cool. There's nothing wrong with hamsters. Why do you hate hamsters?" You don't choose a nickname. If your buddies give you a nickname and it sucks and you don't like it, it just sticks with you. He really disliked it. But we just kept it rolling. We didn't understand how big it was until there was a giant hamster wearing a [No.] 22 [jersey] at our games. No joke.

    Martin recently asked to be called "Dougernaut" instead.

    Sorry. Like the man said, you don't get to pick your nickname.

    Others receiving votes: Eric Berry, SS, Kansas City Chiefs (two votes); Chris Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals (one vote)

    Preseason winner: NaVorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco 49ers (five votes)

Fantasy Player of the Year

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    Winner: Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons (seven votes)

    Through half of the 2015 NFL season, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman has more than justified the faith of fantasy owners who invested first-round picks in the second-year pro—or at least he would have if anyone on Earth outside maybe his mother had invested a first-round pick in him.

    In fact, according to the average draft position data at My Fantasy League, Freeman was a 10th-round pick in drafts this summer, the 38th running back off draft boards.

    He's outperformed that draft slot just a tad.

    Since taking over the lead running back job due to an injury to rookie Tevin Coleman in Week 3, Freeman has topped 100 total yards in six straight games. He's scored 10 total touchdowns on the season.

    Not only is Freeman the top-scoring fantasy running back in all scoring systems to this point in the season, but he's also the top-scoring ball-carrier by a staggering margin.

    And according to Keith Black of numberFire, there's no reason to think the edge of a cliff is coming for fantasy football's biggest surprise in 2015:

    Freeman has an amazing schedule moving forward. Owners really could not ask for much more. It's possible that Coleman snags a few carries here and there, but with the pace Freeman is on and the defenses he gets to feast upon, there's no reason to doubt Freeman is an elite fantasy running back moving forward, barring something catastrophic.

    If that's the case, when we revisit this category in a couple of months, the winner likely will not have changed.

    Others receiving votes: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (one vote)

    Preseason winner: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (four votes)

Breakout Player of the Year

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    Andrew Weber/Getty Images

    Winner: Gary Barnidge, TE, Cleveland Browns (five votes)

    To say that Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge is a late bloomer is something of an understatement.

    Prior to the 2015 season, the 30-year-old's career high in catches for a season was 13. His yardage high was 242. Barnidge had three touchdown catches in six NFL seasons.

    In eight games in 2015, Barnidge has reeled in 40 catches for 567 yards and six scores. He had a pair of touchdowns in Week 8 alone.

    Barnidge has also displayed more than a little aptitude at making highlight-reel catches. While Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine told reporters that's been a surprise, he insisted that Barnidge's solid play has not:

    I don't know if I can say that we expected him to have the production that he's had, but Gary's a good football player, and we've known that for a long time. When teams want to concentrate their efforts defensively other places and they want to open up the middle of the field, Gary Barnidge is a master at doing his job.

    He gets open. He catches the ball. He can run after the catch. Certainly, I don't think any of us knew his ability to make the circus catch, but he understands defensive football very well, understands how teams are trying to play him, leverage, recognizing coverages. He's a combination -- he's a good athlete, good ball skills, but he's got, I think, very high football acumen. I think (tight ends coach) Brian Angelichio does an outstanding job not just with Gary but with the rest of that room preparing them each week.

    Pettine may not have been surprised (sure he wasn't), but the only thing that's been more surprising than Barnidge's production this year has been the fact that he shows no signs of slowing down.

    Others receiving votes: Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders (two votes); Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers (one vote)

    Preseason winner: Sam Bradford, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (three votes)

Most Improved Player of the Year

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    George Gojkovich/Getty Images

    Winner: Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (five votes)

    When it came to so-called "franchise" quarterbacks, Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals was something of a punching bag entering the 2015 season.

    Yes, Dalton was good enough to win regular-season games, lead the Bengals to a playoff spot in each of his first four NFL seasons and earn a fat contract extension.

    But turn up the pressure in the postseason or in prime time, and Dalton shriveled—four playoff trips, four one-and-dones.

    It will be much later in the season before Dalton will have the chance to shake that stigma for good, but the Red Rifle has improved significantly in Year 5.

    In leading the Bengals to a perfect 7-0 mark so far this year, Dalton has upped his game across the board. His 66.2 completion percentage is a career high. So is his 284.6 passing yards per game. His passer rating of 107.6 ranks fourth among NFL starters and is nearly 20 points higher than his previous best.

    And as running back Jeremy Hill told ESPN.com's Coley Harvey, in overcoming a shaky game to lead the Bengals to win No. 7 a week ago, Dalton showed that his wilting act might be a thing of the past:

    According to the running back, even after his second fourth-quarter interception, Dalton remained upbeat and poised inside the huddle. Similar statements have been made about Dalton by others during other points this season when wins looked in doubt and Cincinnati needed late-game rallies.

    What was it that Hill saw?

    "Just grit, resiliency, persistence, leadership. He did all those things," Hill said. "Just being vocal and not backing down, and continuing to go out there and keep pounding. That's the Andy we've seen all year, and we continue to expect to see that from him."

    The true test won't come until January, but for now, the new and improved Dalton appears to be on a collision course with putting an end to a long playoff-win drought in the Queen City.

    Others receiving votes: Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons (two votes); Dion Lewis, RB, New England Patriots (one vote)

Most Valuable Player

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Winner: Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (six votes)

    Hey, don't look at me, Pats haters. I voted for Cam Newton, who has led the Carolina Panthers to an undefeated record despite a receiving corps that includes tight end Greg Olsen and a whole lotta "Who?"

    Still, good luck making a valid case for why Tommy Terrific isn't a worthy candidate to win his third MVP award this season.

    Brady's first trophy came in 2007, when the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to post a perfect 16-0 regular season.

    Yeah, yeah, yeahthe 1972 Dolphins. The season wasn't as long then.

    However, Brady insisted to WEEI Radio (via Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com) that running the table again is not something he or the Patriots think about:

    That would be the furthest thing from anybody's mind. I [couldn't] really care less about those type of things. When you reflect back, you think, "Wow, that was a great year." But when you're in the middle of it, you can't do anything about a game in December. We've got one mission, it's this week. It sounds like a cliche but it's not, because it works, and it's what our team's about. We're short-term focused.

    It's hard to win. It's really hard to win. It's easy to take it for granted, because we have a good record and we've played well for a period of time. But I don't think we as players ever take it for granted, because I've been around long enough to realize how hard it is to get the ball in the end zone, to put together drives. It's no easy task. You've got to keep working at it.

    Uh-huh. Suuuuure.

    Just like in 2007, when Spygate hung over the team, I'm sure that the kerfuffle over Deflategate hasn't at all motivated Brady or the Patriots. I'm sure that Brady has in no way even considered how sweet it would be to stick it to the world by once again putting up a doughnut in the loss column.

    Of course, winning MVP in a season that was supposed to begin with a four-game suspension would be quite the one-finger salute all its own.

    Others receiving votes: Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (two votes)

    Preseason winner: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (four votes...oops)

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