Bleacher Report's 2018 Expert Consensus NFL Preseason Awards
The next game is for real.
With the conclusion of Thursday's fourth preseason game that no one on earth cares about, the 2018 exhibition season is over. The Sept. 6 season opener between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles is coming fast.
It's important no to read too much into the preseason; the Cleveland Browns won all four preseason games in 2017 and then posted a winless season. But that doesn't mean we can't take anything from the past month of (sort of) NFL action.
We saw a couple of second-year pros who appear on the verge of breaking out, rookie quarterbacks who might be more ready to start than we thought and a first-year class at running back that has underwhelmed to this point.
Oh…and a new rule that inspires more headaches than cheap tequila.
With the preseason now in the rearview mirror, the NFL writers here at Bleacher Report have congregated to highlight the best and worst of the 2018 exhibition slate.
From the MVP to the biggest flop and all parts in between, here are the Bleacher Report Expert Consensus NFL Preseason Awards.
Before we start handing out massive (imaginary) trophies, here's a rundown of the writers at Bleacher Report who participated in this article.
Gary Davenport, NFL analyst
Tyler Dunne, NFL features lead writer
Mike Freeman, NFL national lead writer
Brad Gagnon, NFL analyst
Matt Miller, NFL draft lead writer
Dan Pompei, NFL national lead writer
Brent Sobleski, NFL analyst
Mike Tanier, NFL national lead writer
Coach of the Preseason
Ron Rivera, Carolina Panthers (three votes)
Coaching can be a difficult thing to judge in the preseason. It's the only time of year in the NFL when wins aren't necessarily the most important thing.
Given that, Carolina's record in the preseason (they peeled off three straight wins to start the exhibition calendar) isn't the reason that Ron Rivera of the Carolina Panthers is the Coach of the Preseason winner.
It's more a matter of how the Panthers secured those wins.
Cam Newton and Carolina's first-team offense looked pretty sharp in the preseason, including last week's dress rehearsal against the defending AFC champs. That's a fairly impressive feat given the questions Carolina has at receiver and on an injury-ravaged offensive line.
The team's stats in the preseason notwithstanding, it's a pretty safe bet the Panthers will play solid defense this season. In getting the offense firing early, Rivera IS setting the stage for a strong start to the year for the Panthers in the league's most loaded division.
It's almost like the guy has won Coach of the Year multiple times or something.
Others receiving votes: Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears (two votes); Bill Belichick, New England Patriots (one vote); John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens (one vote); Sean Payton, New Orleans Saints (one vote)
Offensive Player of the Preseason
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers (seven votes)
Generally speaking, the lists of preseason statistical league leaders are a who's who of "who?" It only gets worse in the last week, when most of the players on the field are more likely to be working at Costco than the in the NFL by October.
However, there's at least one glaring exception to that rule in 2018.
The Carolina Panthers pledged to get second-year tailback Christian McCaffrey more involved in the run game this season. Apparently, Ron Rivera wasn't blowing smoke.
And the early returns have been highly encouraging.
Through three games, McCaffrey ranked fourth in the league with 151 yards on the ground. As Bleacher Report NFL analyst Brad Gagnon pointed out, that yardage total wasn't the only part of McCaffrey's preseason that was impressive.
"Generally against first-team defenses in Carolina's first three preseason games, McCaffrey's 7.2 yards-per-attempt average led all running backs who registered more than 12 rushes during to that stretch," he wrote. "He also scored twice while chipping in with eight receptions for 73 yards. What more can you ask for?"
McCaffrey also posted one of the biggest highlight plays of the preseason, taking his first carry of the game against the Miami Dolphins to the house for a 71-yard score.
Any time you get this panel to agree almost unanimously, you must have done something right.
Others receiving votes: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs (one vote)
Defensive Player of the Preseason
Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns (five votes)
The Cleveland Browns have not had a ton of success with their first-round picks over the past decade. That's even being kind; Cleveland's first-rounders have (for the most part) been a steaming pile of "oops."
However, the Browns' first pick in last year's draft is looking more and more like the real deal.
When Myles Garrett recorded a sack on his first play in the NFL as a rookie, it was a preview of what the former Texas A&M star was capable of (seven sacks in 11 games).
Entering Year 2 of his career, Garrett's is looking even better. After Garrett's two-sack performance in Cleveland's dress rehearsal against the Philadelphia Eagles, B/R NFL analyst Brent Sobleski sees a breakout campaign on the horizon.
"Watch out," Sobleski said, "because Myles Garrett is starting to figure it out, and offensive tackles should be worried. The Browns used the 2017 No. 1 overall pick on the defensive end with limitless natural ability. Unfortunately, the Browns and NFL fans didn't get to see Garrett operate at full force last season. He's now healthy, and offensive tackles didn't slow him down during the preseason. His effort against the Philadelphia Eagles' Halapoulivaati Vaitai was the exhibition season's most dominant performance."
If Garrett can stay healthy, 12-plus sacks and DPOY contention aren't out of the question.
Others receiving votes: Cap Capi, DE, Arizona Cardinals (one vote); Kamalei Correa, LB, Tennessee Titans (one vote); Carl Lawson, EDGE, Cincinnati Bengals (one vote)
Offensive Rookie of the Preseason
Sam Darnold, QB, New York Jets (three votes)
The quarterback position gets it all in the NFL. The most money. The most glory. The most shiny doodads.
It's no different here. Six of the eight votes in this category went to members of this year's much-ballyhooed class under center. The only exception was Oakland Raiders tailback Chris Warren, who piled up a league-leading 250 yards on the ground over the first three exhibition games.
Whether via Baker Mayfield in Cleveland, Josh Allen in Buffalo, Josh Rosen in Arizona or Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, the class of 2018 has given fans hope that the future of the quarterback position is bright.
However, it's Darnold who appears most likely to be his team's Week 1 starter. Three writers here at Bleacher Report, including NFL national lead writer Mike Tanier, singled out Sam Darnold as the preseason's most impressive offensive rookie.
"Darnold had his ups and downs," Tanier wrote, "as any rookie quarterback will. But he left zero doubt that he's the future of the Jets organization. That's what value is all about for a rookie in the preseason: not generating numbers, but demonstrating what you are capable of now, and how great your potential is."
The Jets having a viable quarterback might be the seventh sign of the impending apocalypse.
You may want to get you affairs in order. You know, just in case.
Others receiving votes: Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens (two votes); Chris Warren, RB, Oakland Raiders (two votes); Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns (one vote)
Defensive Rookie of the Preseason
Shaquem Griffin, LB, Seattle Seahawks (four votes)
At the rate things are going, the Disney movie about Shaquem Griffin's life will be in production by the end of his rookie year—if it isn't already.
It's a tale made for Hollywood. After having his hand amputated at age four due to a birth defect, Griffin went on to star with his twin brother Shaquill at Central Florida. Then, after blowing the roof off the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine with arguably the best performance by a linebacker ever in testing, Griffin was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks—the same team his brother plays for.
The story doesn't end there. Griffin has so impressed the Seahawks coaches in training camp and the preseason (17 total tackles through three games) that if veteran K.J. Wright can't go for in Week 1 after a knee scope, Griffin could begin his NFL career as a starter.
Per ESPN 710 AM Seattle, Griffin said he'll be ready if called upon.
"[My goal is] just to be a part of the team and be the best teammate I can be. If my name is called and they need me, I'm ready to go and I'm gonna be available, and I'm going to give everything I got," Griffin said. "That's my main focus right now; knowing they've got a guy who's going to give everything."
At this point, it would take a special kind of fool to bet against him.
Others receiving votes: Josh Jackson, CB, Green Bay Packers (three votes); Harold Landry, LB, Tennessee Titans (one vote)
Breakout Player of the Preseason
Cap Capi, DE, Arizona Cardinals (three votes)
Cap Capi of the Arizona Cardinals has gotten around. Since being signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent in 2015, Capi has had stints with the Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons, Cardinals, New York Giants, and Buffalo Bills.
He appeared in four games each for the Giants and Bills last year, and he even notched his first (and only) career sack last December against the Miami Dolphins.
Capi's now on his second stint in Arizona, and if the preseason's any indication, he may have finally found a place to settle down. In three games this preseason, Capi leads the NFL with four sacks. He racked up three in the opener against the Los Angeles Chargers and then added another in last week's prime-time dress rehearsal against the Dallas Cowboys.
Most of Capi's damage has been done against reserves, and his run defense remains erratic. There's a reason Capi's bounced all over the league.
But per NFL national lead writer Dan Pompei, Capi has opened some eyes with this outburst.
"After being cut eight times by six teams over four years, Capi has found his groove as a pass-rusher in the preseason," he said.
Even if he doesn't stick in the desert (again), Capi's likely on the final-cut radars of more than a few teams.
Others receiving votes: Trent Brown, OT, New England Patriots (two votes); Jake Kumerow, WR, Green Bay Packers (one vote); Hassan Ridgeway, DT, Indianapolis Colts; Shelton Gibson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles (one vote)
Biggest Flop of the Preseason
The Rookie Running Backs (three votes)
In each of the last two seasons, a first-year tailback has led the NFL in rushing—Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 and Kareem Hunt a year ago.
We've seen little to indicate that will happen for a third straight season.
No. 2 overall pick Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants has barely seen the field due to a bad hammy. Fellow first-rounder Rashaad Penny of the Seattle Seahawks has been sidelined after finger surgery. Ditto for Sony Michel of the Patriots, thanks to a balky knee. Derrius Guice's rookie season is over after an ACL tear. And Ronald Jones of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has just been bad.
According to NFL analyst Gary Davenport, it's too early to make any long-term judgments about the class of 2018 in the backfield. But it can't be denied that the early returns haven't been good.
"Assuming Barkley's hamstring injury doesn't linger," Davenport said, "there's no reason to think he won't still be the star so many expect him to be. And if the Denver Broncos have any sense, Royce Freeman will start for the team in Week 1. But it's been a forgettable preseason for the majority of this year's rookies at running back, and a worrisome one for the teams that spent high picks on them. That faint sound you hear is fantasy football owners sobbing over what might have been."
Others receiving votes: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins (two votes); Ronald Jones, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (one vote); Roger Goodell (one vote); Buffalo Bills QB battle (one vote)
Biggest Head-Scratcher of the Preseason
The New Helmet Rule (five votes)
There were two bits of brilliance that garnered votes from our writers as the biggest head-scratcher of the preseason.
The first, as Davenport wrote, was Hue Jackson's decision to put starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor back in the team's third preseason game after he took a spill and landed awkwardly on his wrist against the Eagles.
"I don't care if Taylor wanted to go back in the game or not," he said. "Hue Jackson spending an entire offseason talking up Taylor as his starter only to needlessly risk his health in a game that doesn't count is possibly the most Cleveland decision of his entire miserable tenure with the team. This is why Browns fans can't have nice things."
But there was no way even Hue Jackson could outdumb the confusing farce of the NFL's new rules regarding initiating contact with the helmet.
"We've gone from asking 'Is that a catch?' to 'Is that a legal tackle?'" Bleacher Report NFL national lead writer Matt Miller said. "The NFL seems determined to make the game harder to watch while attempting to make it safer and leaving fans even more confused about what is and isn't legal."
Increased player safety and fewer head injuries are both laudable goals worth working toward. But the first two weeks of the preseason featured umpteen calls made on plays that looked like routine tackles.
The number of those calls dropped precipitously in the dress-rehearsal games, but if they spike again in games that count, players and fans won't be shy about voicing their displeasure.
Others receiving votes: Hue Jackson putting Tyrod Taylor back on the field after his injury (three votes)
Best Play of the Preseason
Mahomes to Hill (six votes)
The Kansas City Chiefs have as much skill-position talent as any team in the league. They have the reigning rushing king in Kareem Hunt, possibly the NFL's best tight end in Travis Kelce and a pair of vertical threats at wide receiver in Sammy Watkins and Tyreek Hill.
The big question facing the Chiefs this year was whether or not second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes II would be able to take full advantage of them.
Kansas City's second exhibition game offered a glimpse of what could be if the answer is yes.
Just before halftime against the Atlanta Falcons, Mahomes dropped back, uncorked a long laser and found a streaking Hill for a 69-yard score.
"With one flick of the wrist, Mahomes showed everyone why the Chiefs gambled on letting Alex Smith go," Bleacher Report NFL lead features writer Tyler Dunne said. "Smith wins divisions. Mahomes, while a risk, has the arm that could eventually win a Super Bowl."
One play doesn't set Mahomes up to throw for 5,000 yards, nor does it mean that the Chiefs are going to lead the league in scoring.
But given the speed at his disposal, those over-the-top throws are going to be there for the young QB. If he starts hitting them consistently, look out.
Others receiving votes: Christian McCaffrey's 71-yard run vs. Miami (one vote); John Ross' 57-yard score against the Bills (one vote)
Preseason Most Valuable Player
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers (three votes)
Five players garnered at least one vote from our panel as the preseason MVP. For NFL national lead writer Mike Freeman, it was the No. 1 pick in this year's draft and quarterback Baker Mayfield of the Browns.
"He showed an advanced understanding of the game few people expected," Freeman said. "He made plays with passes and well-timed runs. Anything positive with Browns is worth celebrating."
There looks to be room for more than a little optimism in Cleveland this year. Myles Garrett was one of two players to receive multiple votes in this category. However, Garrett came up just short—to the fellow second-year player who was already named the preseason's top offensive player.
After catching 80 passes as a rookie, McCaffrey was clearly a dangerous receiver out of the backfield. But he managed just 3.7 yards a carry last year, so there were concerns as to how effective he could be picking up yardage between the tackles.
McCaffrey looks like a different back this year. He's much more decisive picking his hole and then exploding through it. His long scamper for a score against Miami started as a run up the gut.
If McCaffrey can be half as good in traffic as he is in space, he's going to have a monster year.
Others receiving votes: Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns (two votes); Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns (one vote), Chris Warren, RB, Oakland Raiders (one vote); Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (one vote)