Bleacher Report's Expert Consensus NFL Honors Awards
On Sunday, the 2020 NFL season will come to a close with Super Bowl LV. The night before, the league will be handing out some individual hardware.
Over the past few months, stories of determination and perseverance emerged as examples of the best professional football has to offer.
Washington Football Team head coach Ron Rivera overcame cancer, organizational dysfunction and a quarterback carousel to win an NFC East title and make the postseason, yet he received only one vote from Bleacher Report's cadre of analysts for NFL Coach of the Year.
That's the type of season it's been.
B/R's Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski, Gary Davenport, Kalyn Kahler and Master Tesfatsion cast their votes for the best from the 2020 campaign, starting with a surprising Coach of the Year through a return to greatness for this season's MVP.
And the winners are...
Coach of the Year
Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns (3 votes)
What the Cleveland Browns accomplished in 2020 was nothing short of phenomenal. Their 11 wins were their most since 1994, and they made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.
Those two facts alone were enough to place first-year head coach Kevin Stefanaski in the Coach of the Year conversation. But the changes in Cleveland go much deeper.
Since returning to the NFL in 1999, dysfunction beset the franchise due to multiple internal power struggles, an ownership change and poor hires. Last season, Freddie Kitchens became a one-and-done head coach after leading what looked like a Super Bowl-caliber roster on paper to a disappointing 6-10 record.
Stefanski finally changed the organization's mindset.
"Kevin has done a really nice job of calming the ship there," a source familiar with the organization told Bleacher Report's Kalyn Kahler. "It is a professional [organization], like, there isn't chaos every day. There was chaos every day."
Three seasons ago, the Browns became the second team in NFL history to go 0-16. Now, they're one of the league's ascending franchises.
"Right or wrong, Stefanski puts himself in the line of fire no matter what," Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio told Kahler. "He is the first one to point to himself and say he didn't call good enough plays even if we know as a team that we didn't execute well enough or there were chances for us to win. There is a leadership component, like, Hey, this man is taking responsibility."
Others receiving votes: Bruce Arians, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1 vote); Ron Rivera, Washington Football Team (1 vote)
Offensive Player of the Year
RB Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans (4 votes)
Derrick Henry is the real-life equivalent of Thanos from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Every Tennessee Titans opponent knows they have to stop Henry, and none ever do. The two-time league-leading rusher became the eighth player ever to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, and his 2,027-yard effort ranks fifth all-time behind only Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Jamal Lewis and Barry Sanders, respectively.
"He's definitely showing that he is that next best thing," Peterson said in December, per ESPN's Turron Davenport. "When you're Derrick Henry, teams are coming in and they are focused on stopping you. That right there makes it even more impressive."
According to Pro Football Focus, Henry gained 823 yards after contact when facing eight or more men in the defensive box. No other running back exceeded 473 yards. He also led the NFL with 378 carries, 16 runs of 20 or more yards, 17 rushing touchdowns and 98 first downs gained.
Henry had 409 total touches between the regular season and playoffs last year, but that didn't slow him down. Instead, the first-team All-Pro improved upon every major rushing statistic this season, and he did so behind a depleted interior front.
Right tackle Jack Conklin left in free agency after Henry's 2019 breakout performance, while Taylor Lewan missed 12 games (including the postseason) after suffering a torn ACL.
In other words, Henry is inevitable.
Others receiving votes: TE Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs (1 vote)
Defensive Player of the Year
DT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams (3 votes)
Greatness fatigue is real. Just ask Michael Jordan or LeBron James.
But that didn't stop us from naming Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald our 2020 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
At this point in his career, everyone Donald to show up, dominate and leave the field as the best non-quarterback in the league. Over the last four seasons, including the most recent, he posted Pro Football Focus' four highest-graded seasons of any defender since 2006.
"When you look at the way that that affects and influences the game, I mean, he's the biggest freak that he still shows up on the stat sheet," Rams head coach Sean McVay told reporters in December.
This past year, Donald tied for second overall and finished first among interior defenders with 13.5 sacks. He consistently pressures opposing quarterbacks despite garnering constant attention from multiple blockers. According to ESPN's Seth Walder, the two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year easily surpassed any other interior defender in both pass-rush win rate and double-team rate.
"He's close to perfect," Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said about Donald. "He's got everything you're looking for."
Others may get DPOY votes because of Donald's continued excellence—Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt did among B/R's ballots—but the Rams lineman remains the most game-changing defensive talent in the league.
Others receiving votes: OLB T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers (2 votes)
Offensive Rookie of the Year
QB Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers (5 votes)
The 2020 NFL rookie class impressed despite adverse conditions. But Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert changed the entire complexion of his franchise, which gave him an edge as this year's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Two impressive rookie records fell courtesy of the 2020 class, starting with Herbert breaking Baker Mayfield's passing touchdown record of 27. The sixth overall pick finished with 31 touchdown tosses in 15 games.
Herbert's personal quarterback coach, John Beck, said it best when he told ESPN's Shelley Smith: "We knew he was good. We didn't know he was this good."
Many who watch and cover the league share Beck's sentiment. At Oregon, Hebert displayed all of the physical traits and some of the less quantifiable ones he'd need to succeed in the NFL, but he was inconsistent despite an expansive skill set.
Once the rookie entered the Chargers lineup, he played with a level of confidence and assertiveness befitting a veteran. Herbert completed at least 62.5 percent of his passes in 12 of his 15 starts and threw two or more touchdowns in 10 contests.
"He's got a skill set that is elite," incoming offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi told reporters. "It appears there's nothing he can't do. He's got an incredibly strong arm, good accuracy, he's very athletic, and it sounds like he's a real smart guy that's a good leader. So he checks all the boxes, and the sky is the limit with a player like that."
In a normal year, Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson would have garnered at least one vote after breaking the league's rookie receiving record. But it's hard to compete with a record-breaking franchise quarterback in the making.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
DE Chase Young, Washington Football Team (5 votes)
Unlike its offensive counterpart, the Defensive Rookie of the Year award had far less competition despite another sweep across Bleacher Report's voting.
Washington Football Team defensive end Chase Young was easily the best defensive rookie this year, as Pro Football Focus noted. His 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and 11 tackles for loss or no gain led all rookies.
Young fits the prototypical standards for top-shelf edge-rushers. He's 6'5" and 264 pounds with explosive pass-rushing ability and the power to hold up at the point of attack. His natural skill set matched recent No. 1 overall picks Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett.
Washington couldn't have landed a better fit. Young immediately entered the lineup as the most gifted player on an already talented defense. On top of his obvious on-field prowess, he helped in changing the culture for an organization that experienced massive turnover and change during the offseason.
"It's crazy unusual for a rookie to have the type of leadership that Chase has. Genuine leadership," quarterback Alex Smith said, per the Washington Post's Sam Fortier. "... I think Chase is so comfortable in his own skin and being who he is. I think guys respect that, but it's rare to have a guy that young (21) step in and really affect his teammates as positively as he has."
With Young in the lineup, Washington now has an identity. It starts with the heralded edge-rusher and a talented defensive front.
Comeback Player of the Year
QB Alex Smith, Washington Football Team (4 votes)
The fact that Alex Smith can walk normally is mind-bending considering the horrific leg injury he suffered during the 2018 campaign, let alone ever seeing him again on a football field.
In arguably the best moment of the 2020 season, Smith took the field in a Week 5 contest against the Los Angeles Rams without a dry eye in the stadium or those watching on social media. Five weeks later, he took over as Washington's starting quarterback until the end of the regular season.
No one outside of the Smith household ever expected him to play again, yet the 36-year-old completed 68.7 percent of his passes during the final six regular-season games games as Washington secured an NFC East division title.
"I had so much fun this year, to be back in the locker room and on the field to play a game I love and to lose yourself in it is one of the great feelings in the world," Smith told reporters. "My wife has been through a lot, my family has been through a lot, but that's for another time and place."
Smith could have faded away from the limelight and lived a comfortable life with his wife and children. Instead, he became an inspiration by overcoming a near-death experience.
"There's an intangible that some guys have and possess and Alex has it," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Can it be replaced? You'll have to find a guy that has that same type of intangible, and those guys are special. They only come around once in a while. Alex has that kind of intangible."
Others receiving votes: QB Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (1 vote)
Fantasy Player of the Year
QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills (2 votes)
As the game evolves, the perception of quarterbacks in fantasy football must as well.
Athletic signal-callers become bigger threats with each passing year. Two quarterbacks—the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen and Arizona Cardinals' Kyler Murray—finished among the top three overall scorers in both standard and points-per-reception leagues.
Allen's growth as a passer and situational running opportunities made him a fantasy standout. As CBS Sports' Chris Towers noted: "Allen still took on a significant role near the goal line, scoring seven rushing touchdowns from inside the 10-yard line while matching [Zack] Moss for the team lead with 15 such attempts."
In other words, Allen served as Buffalo's quarterback and top running back. He finished with 4,544 passing yards and a team-leading eight rushing touchdowns (Moss ranked second on the team with eight).
Consistency eluded Allen over his first two seasons. But this year, he either threw for at least 300 yards or ran for a score in 11 of 16 regular-season contests. He became a near-lock to produce on at a high level no matter the matchup.
Week-by-week performance often serves as the difference between a winning fantasy team and one that fails to make the postseason because of high-variance contributors. This year, Allen blossomed into a weekly points machine.
Others receiving votes: RB Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints (1 vote); QB Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals (1 vote); RB James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars (1 vote)
Breakout Player of the Year
DE Trey Hendrickson, New Orleans Saints (2 votes)
Whenever a defender's name comes up in the same conversation as Aaron Donald, he's doing something right. In Trey Hendrickson's case, the New Orleans Saints defensive end tied for second leaguewide alongside Donald with 13.5 sacks.
Hendrickson was a solid rotational player during his first three seasons, but he exploded with a career-best performance in a contract year.
The 26-year-old always had this type of potential. Coming into the league in 2017, the Florida Atlantic product was the most productive pass-rusher in his draft class, according to Pro Football Focus.
Increased opportunities with an expanded snap count allowed Hendrickson to display his full repertoire.
"Man, he's really done a great job for us," head coach Sean Payton told reporters in November. "He's a tremendous worker. He's a smart player. One of his great traits is his energy and effort. ... He's strong."
Getting to the quarterback is critical in today's pass-first league. While other players around the league also deserve recognition for their improved play, Hendrickson's ability to harass opposing signal-callers gave him the edge.
He's now about to enter free agency as one of the most intriguing options in what should prove to be an interesting market.
Others receiving votes: QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills (1 vote); CB Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers (1 vote); LB Devin White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1 vote)
Most Improved Player
QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills (3 votes)
Until the 2020 campaign, there were questions about whether Josh Allen was the Buffalo Bills' long-term answer under center.
He answered those resoundingly this season while forcing his way into the MVP race.
Allen finished last among qualified passers with a 58.8 completion percentage in 2019, but he jumped to 69.2 this season. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the first-time Pro Bowler is only the fourth quarterback in the last 20 years to raise his completion percentage by 10 or more percentage points in the span of one season.
The difference came down to putting in work during the offseason. Allen and his personal quarterback coach, Jordan Palmer, worked on marrying his footwork to his throwing motion, according to Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News:
"Being able to add my hips and make that as consistent as possible and try to slow everything else down up top and use my hand as the leverage for the speed and the accuracy has changed a lot of things. The accuracy has gone up, but it's actually added some mph to my throwing power, too. It's been a pretty cool process. ... It was like a wake-up call."
Over his three NFL seasons, Allen has increased his overall accuracy by 16.4 percentage points, and he went from throwing 10 touchdowns as a rookie to 37 this season.
No one is joking about Allen's standing as a franchise quarterback anymore.
Others receiving votes: OT Garett Bolles, Denver Broncos (2 votes)
Most Valuable Player
QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (4 votes)
Aaron Rodgers' demise was greatly exaggerated.
After three straight seasons of not throwing for more than 26 touchdowns and an offseason in which the Green Bay Packers selected his potential successor, Jordan Love, in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft, Rodgers returned to a level of greatness not seen since the 2016 campaign.
The all-time great led the NFL with a 70.7 completion percentage, 48 touchdowns, a 84.3 QBR and a 121.5 quarterback rating.
"I think that he is arguably the best player that I've ever seen or been around," Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst told reporters. "The chances he gives us week in and week out are significant, so he's going to be part of our future and we look forward to all the runs we're going to try to make here over the next few years."
Rodgers threw the most touchdown passes (42) from a clean pocket, threw more touchdowns (22) off of play action than any other quarterback and took only four sacks when blitzed a total of 185 times, according to Pro Football Focus.
The 16-year veteran excelled across the board despite not having a true second wide receiver beyond Davante Adams and playing behind an offensive line that was constantly shuffled because of injuries.
Although Green Bay fell one game short of a Super Bowl appearance, Rodgers was the driving force behind the team's success in 2020.
"We're not in this position without him," head coach Matt LaFleur said. I couldn't be happier with just not only his performance but how he led our football team, all the little things he does within that locker room to ensure that everybody is locked in, focused and ready to go."
Others receiving votes: QB Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (1 vote)