2017 NFL Preview: B/R Experts' Dark-Horse Award Watch
In August 2016, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott was a promising, though still raw, fourth-round pick. An injury to Tony Romo catapulted him up the depth chart, but that didn't change this reality: mid-round quarterbacks are supposed to struggle and learn some tough lessons.
The thought of Prescott as Offensive Rookie of the Year was laughable. Of course, he and the 13-3 Cowboys shocked us all.
For annual award candidates, it's worth thinking beyond perennial Pro Bowlers and considering young players primed to make a leap and veterans in position to thrive. Our B/R staff—myself, Gary Davenport, Doug Farrar, Mike Freeman, Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski and Mike Tanier—did just that with these dark-horse picks.
From several Tennessee Titans to a second-round wideout in Buffalo, this is a diverse group.
Most Valuable Player
Winner: Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (four votes)
Mariota's main obstacle in 2017 isn't a charging pass-rusher. It's not a swarming defensive back or his vision and accuracy. It's staying off injured reserve.
He has had the unfortunate luck of ending each of his first two seasons early. If he can stay healthy, the pieces are in place. As Mike Tanier noted, there's plenty of reason to believe Mariota could even rise above sleeper status:
"Take a talented, fully healthy (according to camp reports from Paul Kuharsky) and rapidly developing young quarterback. Add one of the best offensive lines and most unique schemes in the NFL, plus the league's best one-two punch at running back to create both play-action and favorable down-and-distance opportunities. Rebuild the receiving corps with both veterans (Eric Decker) and rookies (Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor). Blend in a schedule full of AFC Southlandia opponents with a knack for self-sabotage.
"Mariota is poised for a playoff run and a season as both a high-percentage passer and dangerous rusher. The kind of year MVP voters always look to when they decide they are tired of just voting for Tom Brady."
In two seasons, Mariota has completed 61.6 percent of his throws while averaging 7.6 yards per attempt. Accuracy wasn't an issue. He was ahead of many passers who only leaned on their athleticism and mobility.
He struggled at times with decision-making and sustaining and finishing drives. He improved in both areas in 2016, with his touchdown passes rising from 19 to 26. Mariota also started three more games in 2016 than he did in 2015 and attempted 81 more passes, yet he still threw fewer interceptions.
That upward trajectory should continue now with Mariota surrounded by a youth-filled supporting cast. The Titans could become appointment television quickly. That is why Mariota became our leading dark-horse MVP candidate, with the Vikings' Sam Bradford also receiving a vote for a similar reason: an improved offense around him after the addition of dynamic rookie running back Dalvin Cook.
Others receiving votes: Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (one vote), Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (one vote), Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston (one vote)
Coach of the Year
Winner: Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey (four votes)
Head coaches don't yell for fun Sunday sideline theater. Their impact starts long before kickoff with game-planning and scheming. It continues with key in-game decisions.
However, the best surprise preseason Coach of the Year candidates are the ones in position to be on autopilot. That brings us to the Tennessee Titans' Mike Mularkey.
The 55-year-old is entering the second full season of his third NFL head coaching job. Many coaches don't get a shot at the highest position twice, but now Mularkey has been gifted life once again. And it's not tough to envision the Titans seriously contending for the division.
"Mularkey will ride a vastly improved team on both sides of the ball, especially on offense," Mike Freeman noted. "Mariota will take that cliched next step. Mostly, Mularkey's Titans will take advantage of a horrid division."
The Titans had a bulldozing offensive line in 2016 (136.7 rushing yards per game; third). They also had a pass rush that recorded 40 sacks (tied for sixth) and a quarterback who finished among the top 10 in passing touchdowns, even without the receiving talent now assembled around him.
After all the aforementioned roster improvements—including the additions of defensive backs Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien—Mularkey should be able to sit back and watch the fireworks.
Others receiving votes: Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson (one vote), Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer (one vote), Los Angeles Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn (one vote)
Offensive Player of the Year
Winner: Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (three votes)
We all wondered which version of Kirk Cousins would show up last season.
Would it be the quarterback who locked into his first read far too often and had four multiple-interception games during just the first half of 2015? Or would it be the passer who posted four games with three-plus touchdown passes in the second half of that same season?
We saw only the Pro Bowl version of Cousins in 2016. The 28-year-old completed 67 percent of his passes and averaged 8.1 yards per throw while regularly sending accurate heaves deep.
More of the same should be coming in 2017, a season when contract-year motivation is somehow still lingering.
As Brad Gagnon noted, the departures among the Redskins' receiving corps shouldn't have much of an impact: "Yes, he lost top receivers DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon in the offseason. But I'm expecting big things from monster-sized Terrelle Pryor and up-and-comers Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder. Cousins is one of the best deep throwers in the NFL, and he should have plenty of chances to hit home runs in 2017."
Doctson is the only member of that trio who comes with some uncertainty. An Achilles injury during his rookie season in 2016 limited the first-round pick to just two games. But prior to that, Doctson shined as a deep threat for TCU, notching 78 receptions for 1,326 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015.
He should be able to ascend fast, and so will Crowder in a larger role after his 847 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2016 while serving as the third receiving option, or often fourth behind tight end Jordan Reed.
Toss in Pryor and his 1,000-plus-yard season during his first year as a wide receiver, and Cousins is in position to light the fuse on a loaded Redskins offense.
That was enough to earn him the dark-horse Offensive Player of the Year nod from our voters. Often the MVP also takes home OPOY at the NFL's annual awards ceremony, but frequently enough there's a separation between the two. That's reflected here in our voting.
Others receiving votes: Winston (one vote), Bradford (one vote), Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (one vote), Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon (one vote)
Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey (three votes)
Prior to the 2016 draft, there was some question about the best position fit and usage for Jalen Ramsey. He had the size and hard-hitting instincts to be a safety and could also slide in nicely as a press corner.
He has the tools to become a hybrid multidimensional defender who can both thump and swat. For now, he's been deployed primarily as an outside cornerback. Following some brief adjustments as a rookie, Ramsey showed he can seal off half the field against the opposition's top receiver.
He has the size (6'2", 208 lbs) to match up against the fast-moving tanks that populate wide receiver depth charts. Ramsey showed he knows how to use that bulk too, recording 14 passes defensed as a rookie and two interceptions. He developed rapidly and shined toward the end of his first season, posting a passer rating in coverage of 45.8 over Jacksonville's final six games, per Pro Football Focus.
"When I analyzed Ramsey's college tape, I saw a true game-changer at outside corner, slot corner and safety," Doug Farrar noted. "In time, he could be the next Charles Woodson—a transformative defensive player at multiple positions.
"For the 2017 season, I think he'll have to be content with being one of the best outside cornerbacks in the league. As his experience matches his athleticism, Ramsey will be able to consistently shut down the best receivers in the game."
With A.J. Bouye now alongside Ramsey, the Jaguars have one of the best young cornerback duos in the NFL.
Others receiving votes: Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa (two votes), Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes (one vote), Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry (one vote)
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Winner: Buffalo Bills wide receiver Zay Jones (four votes)
Zay Jones has dark-horse Offensive Rookie of the Year potential because of both his natural talent and how much that talent will be in demand.
The 22-year-old set a single-season NCAA record in 2016 with 158 receptions and snatched 399 receptions over his four years at East Carolina. He also finished his senior year with 1,746 receiving yards, the second-best total in the nation.
He has soft hands that can be trusted immediately, a fact cemented by his drop rate of just 3.7 percent in 2016, per PFF. The average drop rate among FBS receivers was 8.3 percent.
"He's ready to play a major role, and the Bills' depth chart should give him that shot," Gagnon said. "He's already been putting on a show at training camp, and a report from WKBW Buffalo's Joe Buscaglia indicates he's in line to win the No. 2 receiver job behind fragile Sammy Watkins."
Jones will see a high volume of targets right away as a rookie, even if Watkins stays healthy (he's missed 11 games over the past two years). The Bills are so thin beyond their top two receivers that Jones will have the opportunity to explode if quarterback Tyrod Taylor's accuracy cooperates.
The next two receivers on the depth chart are Andre Holmes and Corey Brown. The two have logged a combined nine NFL seasons, and neither has recorded a year with even 700-plus receiving yards.
Others receiving votes: Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross (one vote), Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard, Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack (one vote)
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Winner: Cleveland Browns safety Jabrill Peppers (three votes)
We'll give Jabrill Peppers a position title, mostly because it's easier when players fit into a box. But he'll likely end up being a hybrid defender, and unlike Ramsey, Peppers may not have to grow into that role.
He might start as a dual-threat defender right away, allowing defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to be creative. He has the speed to read and react quickly as an early-down run defender at linebacker and penetrate into the backfield. Peppers ran the 40-yard dash in 4.46 seconds, and that same burst is also showcased when he's asked to cover ground as a safety.
"Peppers can excel in multiple roles," Brent Sobleski wrote. "He'll be a strong safety in title yet serve as the defense's primary force player.
"He'll cover the slot. Williams can use him as a secret weapon in the blitz schemes, too. Due to the variety of ways he can be used coupled with his natural tools, Peppers has a chance to provide a greater impact within the Browns defense than No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett."
Speed is the foundation for everything Peppers does, and it can be utilized in multiple ways. For now, though, there might be some experimenting at first as the Browns' coaching staff figures out the best way to maximize the 21-year-old's athletic gifts.
That could lead to a quick rise. Or he could go through some understandable inconsistencies while trying to navigate his first season. But if everything lines up, there's a Defensive Rookie of the Year-caliber player waiting to come out.
Others receiving votes: Oakland Raiders safety Obi Melifonwu (one vote), Indianapolis Colts safety Malik Hooker (one vote), Dallas Cowboys defensive end Taco Charlton, Miami Dolphins linebacker Raekwon McMillan (one vote)
Fantasy Player of the Year
Winner: Detroit Lions running back Ameer Abdullah (two votes)
Abdullah played only two games in 2016, his second season. He missed so much time because of a dreaded Lisfranc tear, an injury that can take a long time to heal.
But he's healthy now, and running backs coach David Walker recently confirmed to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press that Abdullah is the team's starter. Your fake football team could be set to benefit from those who run away from Abdullah and start involuntarily shivering at the mere thought of risk.
"Success in fantasy football is all about finding value with draft picks, so to me the Player of the Year isn't necessarily the guy who scores the most fantasy points," Gary Davenport noted. "It's the one who affords the most value."
There's plenty of hidden value in Abdullah, a running back the Lions have said will get a steady workload. He's currently a late fourth-round pick based on the average draft positions at Fantasy Football Calculator and the 26th running back coming off the board.
Remember, you're not getting an unknown in Abdullah. The 24-year-old finished with 780 yards from scrimmage as a rookie while playing in only 32.9 percent of the offensive snaps.
He has the skill to boost a Lions rushing offense that averaged only 3.7 yards per carry in 2016 (27th). He could give your fantasy team a swift kick in the rear, too.
Others receiving votes: Winston (one vote), New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas (one vote), Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell (one vote), New England Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks (one vote), Gurley (one vote)
Breakout Player of the Year
Winner: New England Patriots running back Mike Gillislee (five votes)
Gillislee hasn't been given an opportunity to be anything more than a change-of-pace back and a complementary threat. But he's always capitalized on his light workload and in 2016 averaged 5.7 yards on his 101 carries in a backup role for the Buffalo Bills.
He also scored eight touchdowns with that minimal use, and his goal-line effectiveness is why the 26-year-old should get most of the red-zone carries now for the Patriots.
Mike Reiss of ESPN.com made that prediction earlier in the offseason, calling Gillislee the most likely replacement for LeGarrette Blount, who departed as a free agent. Then he made the easy decision to double down when Gillislee received the first goal-line carry of training camp.
The Patriots lean heavily on their goal-line back and have averaged a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns per season over the past six years, per Rotoworld. Gillislee's hold on the job shows how much faith head coach Bill Belichick has in him.
Belichick will utilize his stable of running backs in different roles, as he always does. But Gillislee's power-running style will likely also earn him the first shot at early downs.
Others receiving votes: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant (one vote), Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (one vote)
Most Improved Player of the Year
Winner: Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley (two votes)
Gurley presents us with some difficult questions.
Was his 2016 nosedive his fault due to a lack of decisiveness? Or was a horrible run-blocking offensive line to blame?
Gurley danced in the backfield too often, which led to a drop-off in every statistical category. He went from lighting the league on fire as a rookie while averaging 4.8 yards per carry to a cloud of dust and only 3.2 yards in 2016. His overall rushing yardage plummeted too, going from 1,106 to 885 (on more carries).
A running back known for his power also wasn't able to fight through contact. Gurley averaged 2.87 yards after contract in 2015, per PFF, but then 2.18 in 2016.
The amount of contact he faced, and how quickly it came, didn't help. Gurley ran behind a leaky offensive line that's now been upgraded with the addition of tackle Andrew Whitworth.
"Whitworth should help stabilize the offensive line in 2017," Davenport said. "And with any luck, quarterback Jared Goff will at least offer a few glimpses of the talent that spurred the Rams to take him No. 1 overall in 2016. If those things happen, it'll mean more room to rumble for Gurley, who should have a chip on his shoulder after last season's face-plant."
There's little doubting Gurley's natural ability after his Offensive Rookie of the Year season in 2015 and his collegiate career at Georgia when he averaged 6.4 yards per carry. But consistency has eluded him at the NFL level; now the pieces are in place for a bounce-back year.
Others receiving votes: Bradford (one vote), Crowell (one vote), Oakland Raiders safety Karl Joseph (one vote), Seattle Seahawks tackle Luke Joeckel (one vote), Arizona Cardinals defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (one vote)