Early Front-Runners for Every Major NFL Award

Alex KayContributor IOctober 13, 2021

Early Front-Runners for Every Major NFL Award

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    Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

    After five weeks of action, the NFL awards picture is starting to materialize. While much can and will change over the next three months, a handful of candidates have already jumped out to early leads in their respective categories.

    The MVP race is down to a handful of elite quarterbacks, Rookie of the Year is likely going to be a two-man battle the rest of the way and one coach already sticks out as the year's best.

    Based on performances through the first five weeks of the season, here is a look at the top candidates to take home each major NFL honor.

Most Valuable Player: QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills

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    Other Candidates: QB Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals; QB Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers; QB Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

    For the second successive year, Josh Allen has the Bills offense firing on all cylinders early in the season. After starting last term with a 4-1 record and 16 total touchdowns, the fourth-year QB again has his team sitting at 4-1 and has been responsible for 15 scores.

    While the 25-year-old fell off a bit down the stretch and lost out on the MVP award to a red-hot Aaron Rodgers in 2020, he looks in control of the race this time around.

    Buffalo has become the team to beat thanks to Allen. The team played a rather soft schedule over the first month of the campaign, but the quarterback and the Bills silenced doubters with a dominant 38-20 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday night.

    Allen even had the NFL's version of a "Heisman moment" during that game. Facing 3rd-and-4 in the fourth quarter with Kansas City still in striking distance, the quarterback scrambled to his left and hurdled over cornerback L'Jarius Sneed to move the chains.

    The Wyoming product's hurdle was the top highlight in a contest where he completed only 15 passes but still racked up 315 yards and a trio of touchdowns without taking a sack or committing a turnover.

    Arguments could be made for Murray, Prescott and Herbert to be crowned MVP, but none has been as impactful for their teams as Allen. If he can keep it up for 12 more games, he'll be celebrating his first MVP award.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: QB Mac Jones, New England Patriots

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    Other Candidates: WR Ja'Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals; OT Rashawn Slater, Los Angeles Chargers

    Mac Jones is off to a sterling start to his professional career. He has completed 71.1 percent of his passes—making him the fifth-most accurate quarterback in football—for 1,243 yards and five touchdowns.

    While 23-year-old hasn't been perfect—he's thrown five interceptions, taken 11 sacks and fumbled twice—he's shown plenty of poise and confidence under center. The Patriots 2-3, but two of those losses came by less than three points.

    Jones' most impressive performance came in a losing effort. In a hyped primetime duel against Tom Brady and the defending-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jones managed to keep New England in the game for four full quarters. He completed 31-of-40 passes for 275 yards and two scores before the Pats lost on a missed field goal in the waning moments.

    If the Alabama product can continue developing on his current trajectory, the Rookie of the Year award won't be the only hardware he takes home during his career.

    Chase seems like the only one who can catch Jones in the OROY race. After a concerning preseason and training camp full of drops, the Bengals wideout has shown why he was the first receiver selected this year.

    The 21-year-old has built upon the chemistry he established with quarterback Joe Burrow during their time together at LSU. The battery has connected 23 times for 456 yards and five scores, tying him for the second-most receiving touchdowns in the league.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: LB Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys

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    Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

    Other Candidates: CB Asante Samuel Jr., Los Angeles Chargers; LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Cleveland Browns

    The battle for Defensive Rookie of the Year will be one of the most exciting to watch down the stretch.

    There are a handful of viable candidates, but Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons has a slight edge over the field after five weeks.

    The 22-year-old has been as good as advertised after Dallas took him with the No. 12 pick. He stands out in a loaded Cowboys linebacking corps and has racked up 25 tackles—three for a loss—10 QB hits, 2.5 sacks and two pass deflections in five games.

    Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has deployed Parsons in a variety of ways. He's been a disruptive rusher on the edge, a solid defender in coverage and can shut down the run at the point of attack.

    PFF has graded the Penn State product at 72.8, a respectable mark for a first-year linebacker being asked to do so many different things.

    While Dallas hasn't elevated into an elite defensive unit quite yet, the team is only allowing 23.4 points per game, down significantly from last year's 29.6. With Parsons only getting better with more experience, the Cowboys should continue to improve on that side of the ball as the year goes on.

    If he doesn't win this award, it'll likely go to Owusu-Koramoah or Samuel—a pair of second-round steals.

    JOK hasn't seen as many snaps—169 compared to Parsons' 258—but he's earned an impeccable 85.3 PFF grade on them. Samuel has been a revelation for the Chargers, playing 84 percent of the defensive snaps while securing two interceptions, defending five passes and allowing a meager 66.1 QB rating when targeted.

Offensive Player of the Year: RB Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Other Candidates: WR Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers; RB Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

    Derrick Henry's run as one of this generation's most dominant offensive weapons has continued into the 2021 campaign.

    The Titans running back is on pace to have his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season after piling up an NFL-best 640 yards on 142 totes. He is more than 100 yards ahead of the next-closest rusher and nearly 200 yards ahead of the league's No. 3 rushing leader.

    After scoring 45 rushing touchdowns between 2018 and 2020, Henry is finding paydirt at an even higher rate than usual. He's now scored seven times in five games—two more than anyone else—and is a threat to become the first 20-touchdown rusher since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.

    While the bruising 6'3", 247-pound star has become known as one of the NFL's most punishing backs, he's added a new edge to his game in Year 6 by evolving as a pass-catcher.

    Henry has caught 14 of his 15 targets for 125 yards this season, already surpassing his receiving yardage from last year. If he can stay healthy and continue to be used in this manner, he will shatter his personal best mark of 206 yards on 18 receptions set in 2019.

    If Henry somehow doesn't take home the OPOY hardware, Packers receiver Davante Adams or Browns back Nick Chubb likely will.

    Adams has been Green Bay's only reliable wideout, leading the league in receptions (42), targets (61) and receiving yards (579). Chubb is carrying Cleveland's offense right now, averaging a whopping 5.8 yards a carry.

    Despite those strong numbers, both would need to step their game up and have Henry fall off significantly to have any chance of claiming this award.

Defensive Player of the Year: Edge Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns

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    Other Candidates: CB Trevon Diggs, Dallas Cowboys; DT Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

    After being selected No. 1, earning a first-team All-Pro nod and making two Pro Bowls, one of the few individual accolades Myles Garrett has yet to claim is the Defensive Player of the Year award.

    That could change in 2021.

    The 25-year-old has been near-unstoppable, getting into the backfield at will to take down the quarterback or blow up the run. He's accumulated a league-leading seven sacks, including a franchise-record 4.5-sack performance in Week 3.

    Even after recording just 1.5 sacks across the past two games, Garrett is still on pace to set the league's single-season sack record and should far surpass the 12 he recorded during his All-Pro campaign in 2020.

    When the Texas A&M product isn't notching sacks, he's still making a tremendous impact. Pro Football Reference has credited him with seven hurries and eight QB knockdowns on 23 total pressures while PFF has graded him out at a 90.1, outperforming his previous high of 89.5 last year.

    Garrett has been a tackle machine and is already up to 21—eight of which have been for a loss. If he continues at this rate, he will obliterate his single-season bests of 48 tackles, 12 TFLs and 13.5 sacks.

    One of the more intriguing challengers to his run at the DPOY award is Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs. The second-year defensive back already has an eye-popping six interceptions, doubling the next closest players in that category. The Alabama product has only allowed a 46.2 percent completion rate and quarterbacks targeting him have an abysmal 28.4 rating.

    Don't count out Aaron Donald in a race for an award that could one day be named after him. The Rams star has been as dominant as ever, earning a 91.2 PFF grade through five games.

    The reigning and three-time DPOY hasn't stuffed the stat sheet like Garrett, but he has recorded 24 tackles—five for a loss—three sacks, two pass defenses and one forced fumble while consistently dominating offensive linemen.

Comeback Player: QB Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Other Candidates: QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals; QB Sam Darnold, Carolina Panthers

    There are some strong candidates for the Comeback Player of the Year honor—an award that quarterbacks often win following an injury-plagued season or change in teams—but one stands above the rest.

    Dak Prescott has his Cowboys in firm control of the NFC East and looking like a legit contender. Dallas has jumped out to a 4-1 start, with their only loss coming by two points in the season-opener against the Buccaneers.

    The 28-year-old missed most of last season with an ankle injury and the team limped to a 6-10 record, missing the playoffs after going without him for 11 games. His return has been the impetus for a change in the franchise's fortunes.

    This season, Prescott is completing 73.9 percent of his passes—the NFL's second-best completion rate—for 1,368 yards and 13 touchdowns against three interceptions. In his lowest QB-rated game of 2021, he still completed 23 of 27 passes for 237 yards and an interception in a win over the Chargers.

    Burrow is the biggest threat to overtake Prescott in this race. The Bengals quarterback has bounced back in a big way after missing the final six games of his rookie year with a torn ACL. He has completed 71.7 percent of his passes for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns against six interceptions.

    Darnold was the early front-runner for this award but has since cooled off. The Panthers quarterback scored 10 total touchdowns during the first month of the season but had an ugly three-interception performance in a loss to the Eagles last week.

    The former Jets signal-caller was also outdueled by Prescott and the Cowboys in Week 4, costing his team with a pair of turnovers in a 36-28 loss.

Coach of the Year: Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona Cardinals

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    Other Candidates: Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers; Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams

    Kliff Kingsbury has the lead in the Coach of the Year race after guiding his Cardinals to the league's only perfect 5-0 start.

    While Arizona isn't likely to become the first team to finish the regular season with an unblemished record since the Patriots did it back in 2007, the squad is still on pace to have a fantastic year.

    After narrowly missing out last year, Kingsbury's Cardinals are poised to make their first playoff appearance since the head coach took the reins in 2019 and first trip overall since the 2015 campaign.

    Arizona is executing Kingsbury's air raid offense to perfection. The team ranks No. 6 in the league in yards (413.2) and No. 3 in points (33.4) per game.

    Quarterback Kyler Murray has made a leap as a passer in Year 3, leading the NFL in completion percentage (75.2 percent) while amassing 1,512 passing yards and 10 touchdowns to emerge as an MVP candidate.

    No team is getting more out of its receiving corps, with the talented foursome of DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, A.J. Green and rookie Rondale Moore each having at least 16 catches, 260 yards and a score to their name.

    While Kingsbury's offense has gotten much of the attention, the defense has sneakily improved into one of the NFL's better units. After giving up 22.9 points on average last year, Arizona has improved that to 19.0 points per game, a mark that ranks No. 6 in the NFL.

    If Kingsbury doesn't earn Coach of the Year, it's most likely because Staley usurped him. The first-year Chargers head coach has turned his team into a force in the AFC West. The Bolts are now 4-1—their only loss coming by three points against Dallas—with wins over 2020 playoff teams in Washington, Cleveland and Kansas City.


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