The 2017 NFL season is in the books, so it’s time to award postseason honors to the players and coaches who make the game worth watching. Unlike major publications (Associated Press, Sporting News, PFWA, etc.), I include postseason performance in my evaluations. Generally, unless a player is absolutely disastrous, I only weigh the playoffs heavily if it is favorable to a player.
The legendary Dr. Z used to set a 75% rule for receiving award recognition, meaning that a player had to appear in at least 12 games in a 16-game season. I tend to follow that rule (loosely) for winners, but I will almost always side with a little bit of great over a lot of good. Evaluations are based off of stats,1 film study,2 and context.3
I decided to name the awards in a way that highlights the legendary players and coaches who built the foundation of the game we love. Maybe it’s cheesy, but I’m a father of a small child; cheesy is my life.
Automatic Award for Most Valuable Player4
Tom Brady, New England Patriots QB
The most successful quarterback of all time, Brady has evolved and morphed over the years depending on what style best suited the personnel that surrounded him. This wasn’t his best season. It may not even be in his top five best seasons. However, in a down year for field generals, Brady performed well enough to earn the MVP award.
Statistically, he was at or near the top in most important categories. He ranked first in DYAR and New Total Adjusted Yards over average. Brady ranked second in DVOA, and he was third in Total QBR (with over a hundred more plays than the two above him). He led the league’s most efficient offense and all but carried his team in the early part of the season.
On tape, Brady was accurate to all areas of the field and wasn’t afraid to press the issue on deep passes. He processes the field quickly, and his anticipation and mastery of his offense allows him to thrive despite his (slowly) deteriorating physical attributes.
World Award for Most Outstanding Player5
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams DT
Donald is the best player in the league, and he has been since J.J. Watt saw his career hampered by injuries. He ransacks opposing offenses, knifing through the line to stop runs dead in their tracks or put the kibosh on passing plays. His snap quickness is reminiscent of a young Alan Page, and his understanding of what offenses are trying to do compares to that of the great Bryant Young.
Statistically, Donald’s 39 sacks through four years are second only to Bill Pickel‘s 42.5 among defensive tackles. He generates interior pressure at an alarming rate, posting 91 QB pressures, including 11.5 sacks.6 He takes over games and affects gameplans like few defenders before him. Look no further than the disappointing playoff loss to the Falcons, where Donald took over the game and nearly dragged the Rams to victory.
Sweetness Award for Offensive Player of the Year7
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams RB
In my opinion, whatever that’s worth, Gurley wasn’t necessarily the best offensive player in the league this year. However, he was the most productive and played in every game his team needed him to. Moreover, he was perhaps the lone bright spot on offense during their playoff loss to Atlanta. A true three down back who has the power to run inside and the quicks to run outside, he also provides tremendous value in the pass game as a receiver and blocker.
Godzilla Award for Defensive Player of the Year8
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams DT
I named him the best player in the league already, so of course he’s getting DPOY honors. I will very rarely name a defender the most outstanding player in the league and not also name him DPOY.9
Freak Award for Offensive Rookie of the Year10
Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs RB
This was an incredibly tight race between Hunt and Alvin Kamara. On a play-by-play basis, no one was as dynamic as the Saints sensation, but he only had 201 touches on offense.11 When it comes to running backs, I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I want a guy who can carry a substantial rushing load and contribute to the passing game as a receiver and blocker. Hunt was able to sustain a heavy workload on the ground, leading the league in rushing,12 while hauling in 53 passes for 455 yards.
Night Train Award for Defensive Rookie of the Year13
Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills CB
Fellow rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore got all the press coverage and postseason honors, and he was certainly deserving of those. However, Lattimore played on a defense that ranked sixth in adjusted sack rate and ninth in sacks, while White’s squad ranked 28th and 29th, respectively, in those areas. White excelled in both zone and man coverage and showed natural ball skills, and while his tackling wasn’t quite on par with the elite tackling corners in Baltimore, he proved to be one of the game’s surest tacklers at the position.
Comet Award for Comeback Player of the Year14
Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots TE
With the way he gets hurt and comes back as dominant as ever, Gronk could win this award every other season. After missing half of the 2016 campaign, he returned reasonably healthy and took back his crown as the king of tight ends. He is an elite blocker, in the mold of Mark Bavaro, with big play receiving ability reminiscent of the legendary John Mackey.15 No non-quarterback in the league impacts his offense’s performance to the extent that Gronk does.
Genius Award for Coach of the Year16
Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles
Pederson helped transform Carson Wentz from a promising but raw small-school rookie to a second-year phenom and MVP candidate. When he lost his uber-tackle Jason Peters, he refrained from moving Lane Johnson to the left and rolled with the green Halapoulivaati Vaitai. When the Eagles lost Wentz to injury, Pederson helped guide journeyman Nick Foles to an impressive playoff run and Super Bowl MVP selection. When Philly traded Jordan Matthews to the Bills, Pederson moved struggling wideout Nelson Agholor into the slot with much success.
Pederson wasn’t perfect, but he never coached scared, and it was clear he implemented the input from his analytics department in order to maximize his team’s chances of winning. His fourth down aggressiveness was a thing of beauty, particularly the high stakes trick pass to Foles on the game’s biggest stage. On his way to, or on, that stage, Pederson’s squads were triumphant over those of McVay, Zimmer, and Belichick.
Slinger Award for Best Quarterback17
Tom Brady, New England Patriots
He’s the MVP, so it only follows that he takes the quarterback award too. It’s exceedingly rare for me to name a QB the MVP and not give him the position award.18
Just Jim Award for Best Running Back19
Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Only once have I named a modern-era running back OPOY and not also given him the positional award (1996).20 This isn’t the year for it to happen the second time.
Motley Award for Best Fullback21
James Develin, New England Patriots
Develin sees a lot of playing time for a fullback, and his versatility allows him to stay on the field when many pure blocking specialists have to make way for superior receivers. Most of his value doesn’t show up in the box score, but his ability to do a little bit of everything helps the Patriots exploit defenses with their fine-tuned no huddle attack.
Bambi Award for Best Wide Receiver22
Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Maybe it’s his diminutive stature, but Brown somehow still hasn’t gotten his due as the game’s best receiver, despite one of the greatest half-decade runs the position has ever seen. He has a great release from the line, and he has the moves to create significant separation even when his release isn’t perfect. He wins on routes, he makes contested catches that you wouldn’t expect from a receiver his size, and he’s dangerous after the catch. His blocking won’t remind anyone of his predecessor in the Steel City, but he’s already the best pure receiver the team has ever rostered.
Gonzo Award for Best Tight End23
Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Gronk is the best tight end in history. Maybe he doesn’t have the longevity for you to call him the greatest (although longevity at TE is more of a recent development in the position’s history), but his all around play is the best the game has seen.
Guardian Award for Best Tackle24
David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers
Bakhtiari didn’t play a full season, but the ones he played were spectacular. He was the best pass blocker in the league, which is saying something given the often oblivious quarterback play behind him and the stagnant playcalling from the sidelines. His run blocking won’t remind anyone of Jackie Slater, but it was good enough.
Hog Award for Best Guard25
David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers
DeCastro didn’t show up for the playoffs, but he was arguably the best offensive lineman in football for the bulk of the season. He’s a mauler in the run game, rarely losing a fight to an opposing lineman or backer. He’s a solid second level blocker, rarely whiffing on smaller and faster defenders. However, it’s his work in pass pro that got him the award. He gave up just half a sack this year and helped Ben Roethlisberger maintain the second best sack rate of his career.26
Iron Award for Best Center27
Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles
It was a tight race, but Kelce’s triumphant play in the postseason earns him the top spot. He was an adequate pass protector, but he really shined as a technician in the run game. He used great leverage to win battles at the line of scrimmage, and he deftly combined aggression and patience to successfully block downfield against linebackers and safeties. This year’s version of Kelce may have been the best run blocking center since Tom Nalen.
Minister of Defense Award for Best Defensive End28
Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars
Positional designations are fluid. Guys like Campbell (a sink end who plays inside often), Mike Daniels (a 3-4 end who is basically a tackle), and Demarcus Lawrence (a 4-3 speed rusher) occupy the same position on paper, but they’re not really similar players. Rather than parse things out to an insanely granular level, I just do whatever I want because I can.
I went with Campbell, whose arrival in Jacksonville helped turn the young squad into the best pass defense in the league. He was utterly dominant in the beginning of the year, picking up 11 of his 14.5 sacks in the first eight games. He wasn’t the run-stuffing marvel he was in Arizona, but he was still stout and more than made up for it pressuring quarterbacks.
Mean Award for Best Defensive Tackle29
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
This wasn’t particularly close.
Dobre Shunka Award for Best Outside Linebacker30
Von Miller, Denver Broncos
Generally, the outside linebackers who get all the attention are the ones who look more like defensive ends than middle linebackers. It’s the reason Lance Briggs probably won’t sniff the Hall of Fame and Thomas Davis didn’t make the Pro Bowl until his team went 15-1. It’s a hard line to straddle, trying to choose between Derrick Thomas and Derrick Brooks, but I have chosen to lump all OLBs together and see what happens.
This year, it’s Miller edging Tampa standout Lavonte David. He’s the best pure speed rusher in ages, and his ability to get blockers off balance with quickness and trickery reminds me of watching a young Allen Iverson break ankles on the court. He has proven capable in coverage, but dropping him into coverage is like using a Ferrari as a snowplow – sure, it’ll work, but that’s not what it’s made for. He’s also a terror against the run, as immediate pressure is almost always useful.
Enforcer Award for Best Inside Linebacker31
Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
I tend to think about Wagner and fellow 2012 draftee Luke Kuechly together. They both hit the ground running (although the latter got more immediate recognition), and they’ve been duking it out for the title of world’s best middle linebacker since 2014. With Kuechly’s unfortunate injury concerns, the crown has rested comfortably atop Wagner’s head for the last two seasons. The Seattle star is a special talent, snuffing out runs, rushing the passer, and covering backs and tight ends proficiently. The Seahawks secondary earned the moniker Legion of Boom, but the pass defense doesn’t come close to the historic levels it reached without Wagner and K.J. Wright.
Prime Time Award for Best Cornerback32
Casey Hayward, Los Angeles Chargers
This was an incredibly close race, and the level of cornerback play in the NFL right now is delight for fans of defense (like myself). Like many of the most successful coverage defenders, Hayward reaped the benefits of solid pressure from his pass rush. However, regardless of whether stud edge defenders Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram got home, Hayward maintained consistently close coverage. He doesn’t have the length of Ramsey, the power of Rhodes, or the speed of Slay, but he compensates in attention to detail. It doesn’t matter if he’s covering in the traffic of the slot or along the boundary, his excellent use of hand placement and recognition of offensive concepts allows him to flourish.
Tunnell Vision Award for Best Safety33
Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
If you’re into old-school deep safeties patrolling the field and effectively capping offenses, Earl Thomas is your guy. If you want do-it-all players who allow for flexibility on dynamic defenses, Smith is your man.34 This time, I went with Smith, whose versatility allowed Mike Zimmer and George Edwards to do almost anything they wanted schematically. He was a capable slot defender, a solid run stuffer, and decent blitzer, but his understanding of the defense and everyone’s role within it may have been his greatest attribute.
The Toe Award for Best Kicker35
Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
As well as I can know anything about kickers, I know Tucker is the best in the game. The Bayesian in me gave the award to him in the beginning of the season and wouldn’t take it from him till he lost it. For me, he never lost it. He was among the most accurate in the league from every distance, and he did it (as he always does) in the disadvantageous kicking conditions of the AFC North. In addition to being stone cold at field goals, Tucker was also excellent on kickoffs.
TD Award for Best Punter36
Johnny Hekker, Los Angeles Rams
This was a close one between Hekker and rookie phenom Rigoberto Sanchez. The latter was terrific at pinning opponents deep, and his performance against the Bills proved he is more than capable of performing outside of a dome. Hekker was his typical stellar self. He boasted the league’s highest average adjusted yards per punt, despite playing with an efficient offense that didn’t give him ample opportunity to boom kicks. He tackled well when coverage broke down and returners made it to him, and he is one of the better trick play threats of recent punting vintage.
Gray and White Award for Best Returner37
Pharoh Cooper, Los Angeles Rams
Cooper takes the honor in a runaway. He was the most effective kickoff returner and one of the most effective punt returners around. Cooper ranked seventh among all returners in kickoff average, with nearly twice as many returns as the guys above him on the list. He maintained high punt return averages without artificially boosting his stats with fair catches, instead choosing to try to put his offense in more favorable positions whenever a kick sailed his way.
- Traditional stats, my own stats, Football Outsiders metrics, ESPN’s QBR, and stats from NFLGSIS, Stats Inc., and Pro Football Focus ↩
- I’m just one guy, so I can’t watch every play of every player of every game, but I do spend several hours a week during the season studying games. I also spend several hours a week studying games during the offseason, but that isn’t going to help me here. In general, I won’t finalize my All Pro team or awards until I’ve studied at least 220 team-games (110 games, both sides of the ball). I’ll also watch breakdowns by other analysts to supplement my study, cover games I’ve missed, and get a valuable second opinion on the games I’ve seen. That’s nowhere near exhaustive, but I’m happy with the results. ↩
- More aptly, my interpretation of context. I try my best to account for entanglement with both coaching and teammate support. Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck have had success in spite of their scheme. Russell Wilson has thrived behind an atrocious offensive line. DeAndre Hopkins has continued the Texans tradition of destroying secondaries while receiving passes from replacement level passers. The Buffalo secondary stands out as excellent on tape, even behind an underwhelming front seven. Brandon Graham is an excellent pass rusher, but it definitely helps having Flecher Cox draw attention. I think that’s enough examples. ↩
- Named in honor of Automatic Otto Graham, legendary Browns quarterback. ↩
- Named in honor of Jerry Rice, arguably the greatest player of all time, who earned the nickname for his ability to catch anything in the world. ↩
- The 91 pressures figure comes from Pro Football Focus. ↩
- Named in honor of Walter Payton, the greatest all-around running back in history. ↩
- Named in honor of Lawrence Taylor, so called because of his reckless style. ↩
- For example, I named Nnamdi Asomugha the best player of 2008 but gave the DPOY award to James Harrison for having a greater overall impact on his defense. Similarly, I named Justin Smith the MOP in 2010 but gave DPOY honors to Clay Matthews. ↩
- Named in honor of Randy Moss, who gave defenses nightmares after his very first game as a pro. ↩
- He also proved to be a capable kick returner, albeit on a small sample of returns. ↩
- Thanks to Gurley sitting out, sure. ↩
- Named in honor of Night Train Lane, who set the still-standing single-season record with 14 interceptions as a rookie. ↩
- Named in honor of Gale Sayers, transcendent playmaker who suffered a severe knee injury in 1968 but returned with a new playing style to lead the league in rushing the following year. ↩
- Over the last two seasons, Gronk leads all players (min 100 catches) in yards per reception. That includes deep threat receivers like DeSean Jackson and Tyrell Williams. ↩
- Named in honor of Bill Walsh, legendary innovator and team builder. ↩
- Named in honor of Sammy Baugh, the first superstar quarterback. ↩
- The last three seasons I did it are 2008, 2000, and 1967. ↩
- Named in honor of Jim Brown, who was the most dominant running back in history but thought nicknames were for sissies. ↩
- Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1932, when positions were much more fluid. ↩
- Named in honor of Marion Motley, superb runner and ferocious blocker, who stood out on film as the best player on the Cleveland Browns dynasty. ↩
- Named in honor of Lance Alworth, because Rice already has an award and I like Bambi better than Don Hutson‘s nickname, “Alabama Antelope.” ↩
- Named in honor of Tony Gonzalez, who may be the greatest tight end of all time. ↩
- Named in honor of Jim Parker, who kept Johnny Unitas‘s jersey clean. His best position was guard, but he had a nickname and Anthony Munoz didn’t. ↩
- Named in honor of John Hannah, the greatest guard ever to do it, and maybe the finest lineman in NFL history. ↩
- Roethlisberger’s sack%+ of 121 trails only last year’s 124. ↩
- Named in honor of the great Mike Webster, who dominated his position for a long time. Dwight Stephenson already has a namesake award from PFF, and Jim Otto‘s Double 0 doesn’t flow. ↩
- Named in honor of Reggie White, because who else would I name it after? ↩
- Named in honor of Mean Joe Greene, who was the fulcrum of the Steel Curtain. ↩
- Named in honor of Jack Ham, one of the game’s smartest defenders, it literally means “Good Ham.” ↩
- Named in honor of Dick Butkus, who treated every play like a knife fight. ↩
- Named in honor of Deion Sanders, who was the best cover corner in a game in which he wasn’t even fully invested. ↩
- Named in honor of Emlen Tunnell, among the great safeties in history and the first pure defensive back inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. ↩
- This is sort of a modern Willie Wood – Larry Wilson debate. ↩
- Named in honor of Lou Groza, who is statistically the most dominant kicker in history after adjusting for era. ↩
- Named in honor of 49ers punter Tommy Davis, who is arguably the best to play the position, and who also didn’t have a nickname. ↩
- Named in honor of Mel Gray and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, two of the best return men the game has ever seen. ↩