With the full 2018 season in the rear view, it’s time to hand out some awards. As always, I include postseason performance when deciding on awards, but my rule is this: the postseason can only help.1
In general, I lean toward players who played the entire season. However, I will make exceptions for those who missed a few games but either produced at such a high level that I had to include them or played as many snaps as those who played in all sixteen games. As I have said before, I will take a little bit of great over a lot of good. The primary factors in determining award winners are: traditional and advanced stats, film study, and my hopefully accurate attempts at adjusting for context (e.g., surrounding talent, coaching, degree of difficulty).
Each award is named in honor of the players and coaches who made the game what it is today. They helped write the story of the league, and the stories are what inspire love and awe, keeping us coming back for more.
Automatic Award for Most Valuable Player2
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs QB
In the most impressive sophomore season since Dan Marino‘s 1984, Mahomes ran away with this award. I felt the competition between him and Drew Brees was pretty close for much of the year, but the latter began to falter around week 12, while the young playmaker didn’t have a bad game all year. Mahomes became the sixth quarterback to throw for more than 5000 yards in a season and just the third to thrown for at least 50 touchdowns. But he didn’t just get by on his big volume numbers. He was also the most efficient quarterback in the league, boasting 8.89 ANY/A, 10.93 TAY/P, 40.1% passing DVOA, and 81.8 Total QBR, all of which led the league.3 When you combine his volume and efficiency, you get a quarterback who finished the year with a huge advantage in DYAR, total adjusted yard above average, points added, WAR, and any other value measure I have seen or imagined.
On tape, it felt like I was reading E.E. Cummings for the first time all over again. Much of it didn’t make sense, I never knew where it was going, and it was completely and utterly beautiful. Mahomes played well within structure, but he reached Elway/Favre/Rodgers levels of majesty when operating outside of structure. He quickly processed what he saw both before and after the snap, often made good decisions (whether taking what was there or using his otherworldly arm to make magic), and made some of the most inexplicable throws in recent memory, and produced more highlight reel material in one year than many quarterbacks do in a career.
World Award for Most Outstanding Player4
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams DT
I considered just copying and pasting what I wrote last year, because it’s still true. Donald remains the best player in the NFL, and the gap between him and everyone else remains large. He is the best pass rushing defensive tackle since Alan Page, and he combines that gift with an incredible ability to stop the run. He just broke the record for sacks by a DT (20.5), and his 59.5 sacks through five years ranks seventh in history (behind six edge rushers).
Those who have extensively talked football with me know I’m a Small Hall guy, meaning I only want the best of the best of the best in the Hall of Fame. After just five years in the league, I believe Donald already belongs in that pantheon of football immortals. My DT Rushmore comprises Page, Joe Greene, Bob Lilly, and Merlin Olsen. At this point, those are the only guys I’d put ahead of Donald on the GOAT list.5
Sweetness Award for Offensive Player of the Year6
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs QB
This was a tough choice between Mahomes and Hopkins. Ultimately, I went with the season I believe people will still talk about decades from now. The time we saw a young gunslinger bounce off tacklers like a young Randall Cunningham before firing exquisite deep balls like… an old Randall Cunningham. These choices don’t always have to be complicated.
Godzilla Award for Defensive Player of the Year7
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams DT
Donald is the best, most dominant player in the league at a time when it has bigger, stronger, faster, and more talented players than ever. He was combined a knack for big plays with every down consistency, as he has for the last four years. When watching games live, I don’t even watch other players when Donald is on the field.
Freak Award for Offensive Rookie of the Year8
Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns QB
The brash quarterback with more spunk than Mary Richards, or the dynamic stud running back with the third most yards from scrimmage of any rookie in history? This was an easy one for me. Mayfield walked into an insane situation, expected to be the franchise savior, while playing for an inept and unaccountable head coach under an inept and corrupt owner.9 He survived the worst head coach in modern history, helped turn around a moribund franchise, and gave crestfallen fans hope for the future. The star QB brought a brand of swagger we don’t usually see at the position, and he backed it up despite being set up to fail.
Night Train Award for Defensive Rookie of the Year10
Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts LB
This was a close race most of the season, and it ended up coming down to splash plays. Both Leonard and Derwin James demonstrated versatility and a natural instinct (preparation) for their positions. The linebacker gets the award for making up for his occasional lapses in concentration with the ability to make timely plays. Using EPA to derive a Playmaker Score, Leonard ranked behind only Donald in points added on defensive plays. He led the league in tackles (which are a bogus stat, but it’s something), and he added a pair of interceptions and fumble recoveries, four forced fumbles, and seven sacks.
Comet Award for Comeback Player of the Year11
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans DE
First note: Often, this award goes to players who played well after playing poorly the previous year. I’m not giving a guy an award for failing to meet expectations a year ago; I’m giving it to the guy who came back from injury. This came down to the popular pick, Andrew Luck, and my pick, J.J. Watt. I went back and forth between the two, weighing the significance of the situations from which they came back and the level of play they reached upon their return. We weren’t sure if we’d ever see Luck play at an elite level again, and I don’t think we did until halfway through the season. Given Watt’s past two years, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to doubt he would reemerge as the dominant force he was in the past. Watt allayed those fears immediately, kept it up all year, and did so without schematic mascara.
Genius Award for Coach of the Year12
Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams
The second year head coach gets the award from me for doing things that seem like common sense. He has embraced concepts supported by analytics, including high usage of play action passing, using the pass to set up the run instead of the opposite, and generally only running in advantageous situations. He hasn’t shown much willingness to trust his offense on fourth downs, and he seems to be the spiritual successor of Andy Reid in the clock management department, but his Xs and Os remain masterful.
Also, I think McVay is a good leader. He takes the reigns on the offense and lets his wise defensive coordinator coach without interference. Some would call that a negative, but I look at smart delegation as a positive. Importantly, he tends to deflect credit and absorb blame when his team doesn’t meet expectations. Those who haven’t had to work for a person who lacks responsibility and accountability may not see this as a big deal, but I imagine those with the experience would undoubtedly prefer McVay’s style.
Slinger Award for Best Quarterback13
Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
I’ve run out of superlatives, so I’ll just throw in some gratitude. Thank you, Patrick, for putting on a must-see show whenever you stepped on the field.
Supersonic Award for Best Running Back14
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
By virtue of being a running back, Barkley necessarily didn’t live up to draft position. However, he was the league’s best player at his position at just 21 years old. He led all players in yards from scrimmage, produced 15 touchdowns, and didn’t fumble once. Playing behind a mediocre offensive line and lining up behind a washed up quarterback, Barkley had to manufacture more of his own offense than did most of his peers. Almost by necessity, he led the league with 94 broken tackles (56 on runs, 38 on receptions). The next closest player had 62. No one with a similar workload came close to his 26.7% broken tackle rate.
Motley Award for Best Fullback15
Kyle Juszczyk, San Francisco 49ers
There wasn’t much competition for the award this year, as only a handful of fullbacks even had significant playing time. Juszczyk gets the honor for being a decent runner and receiver, as well as being solid as both a run blocker and a pass protector. On a per-snap basis, I don’t think he was better than Anthony Sherman. However, Sherman barely got on the field, while Juszczyk was a major player in Kyle Shanahan‘s offense. By season’s end, he had played nearly two-thirds more offensive snaps as the next closest fullback (Develin).
Bambi Award for Best Wide Receiver16
DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Nuk Hopkins has been among the best receivers on the planet since he entered the league. With a healthy Deshaun Watson tossing him the ball, we’re able to get an even better idea of what he can do, and it’s glorious. Hopkins runs beautiful and crisp routes, he possesses elite body control and hand-eye coordination, and he has some of the surest hands in the business. His range helps mitigate inaccuracy, which occasionally troubles his quarterback. On top of that, he has improved as a downfield blocker.
Gonzo Award for Best Tight End17
George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
Kittle gained 873 yards after the catch this season. Only Kelce, Ertz, and Jared Cook had more total yards than that. He set the tight end record for receiving yards in a single season, with 1377, and he did it without catching passes from the league MVP. The breakout star broke more tackles than any other tight end in the league, often reminding this viewer of a young Jeremy Shockey. He was also a willing and capable run blocker. The only knock onhis game at this point is that he needs to improve in pass protection.
Guardian Award for Best Tackle18
David Bakhtiari, Green Bay Packers
Bakhtiari has taken the mantle from Joe Thomas as the best pass blocker in the league. Often left on an island to handle pass rushers, he almost never loses a one-on-one battle. Last year, he kept an oblivious backup quarterback from getting driven into the ground. This year, he gave his veteran quarterback plenty of time to scan the field and throw the ball away. Bakhtiari could stand to improve as a run blocker, but he’s not really getting paid to open holes; he’s getting paid to try to keep Aaron Rodgers happy.
Hog Award for Best Guard19
Joel Bitonio, Cleveland Browns
An underrated aspect of Cleveland’s turnaround is the incredible pass protection from the interior line. Bitonio, along with J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler, has kept his young quarterback from feeling much inside pressure. He has been an excellent performer every year of his career, especially on pass plays, but this season has been his best. If only we could coax Joe Thomas out of retirement, Mayfield may never get hit again. Alas and alack.
Iron Award for Best Center20
Rodney Hudson, Oakland Raiders
I’ve said before that Hudson is not the most complete center in the league. That honor belongs to last year’s Iron winner Jason Kelce. However, as passing becomes more and more important, pass protection becomes increasingly valuable. Whether he is blocking for a backup or a richer version of Blake Bortles, Hudson has proven time and again that he can keep his man off the quarterback. In 2018, that’s what matters.
Deacon Award for Best Defensive End21
J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Watt takes his fourth Deacon Award (I cheated and gave him the Mean Award in 2013). He isn’t the dominant force who garnered MVP consideration for a lackluster team, but he was still the best DE in the league. It says something about his peak that he can be at the top of his position right now and still not be at the level he once was.
Mean Award for Best Defensive Tackle22
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Dobre Shunka Award for Best Outside Linebacker23
Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Leonard isn’t technically an outside linebacker, but that designation doesn’t mean all that much anymore. He is an off ball linebacker who has played a Will role a significant portion of the time, and that’s enough for me.
Enforcer Award for Best Inside Linebacker24
Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
Wagner didn’t attack the line of scrimmage like his counterpart in Carolina, so he doesn’t have quite as much ink in the stuffs and stops column. However, the future Hall of Famer excelled at every aspect of linebacker play. He missed one tackle the entire season, despite playing nearly 900 snaps on defense. Despite only having one interception, he was a marvel in coverage. That one interception? He returned it 98 yards for a touchdown against a division rival. Oh, he did that in a game in which he also forced and recovered a fumble, had a sack, deflected a pass, and made a tackle for a loss.
Prime Time Award for Best Cornerback25
Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
Gilmore is here for his tremendous work tracking top receivers. It’s one thing to follow around top guys, it’s another to actually do it successfully. His 0.825 adjusted yards per coverage snap figure is among the best in the league. As good as he was in the regular season, he was arguably even better in the playoffs. He had two interceptions, eleven pass defenses, and a forced fumble in the postseason, and he was a major factor in one of the most impressive defensive performances in Super Bowl history.
Tunnell Vision Award for Best Safety26
Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears
When it comes to safeties, I am a fan of both coverage specialists and do-it-all types. Last year, I went with the versatile Harrison Smith over the rangy Earl Thomas. This year, I went with Jackson, whose coverage was nothing short of phenomenal. Rarely does a young safety come along and remind me of Nolan Cromwell or Ed Reed, but the young Chicago star has done just that. He hauled in six interceptions, returning two for scores, and he returned a fumble 65 yards for another touchdown. His performance was so impressive that I was compelled to give him the award for just 14 games of work.
The Toe Award for Best Kicker27
Wil Lutz, New Orleans Saints
Special teams selections were the most difficult of all for me to finalize. There were a handful of kickers who were accurate on field goals from both short and long range. Those kickers were basically indistinguishable from one another, to me, because they were all so good and had so few glaring weaknesses. I originally overlooked Lutz because he plays his home games in a dome, in addition to playing divisional away games in the friendly confines of other NFC South fields. However, when I looked more closely at his games, he performed just as well outdoors, and I don’t feel like docking him for playing the schedule he was assigned. He (and the honorable mentions) also handled kickoff duties and did so at a high level.28
TD Award for Best Punter29
Tress Way, Washington
While Hekker may very well be the best punter in history, I had to take the award in another direction this year. I opted for one of the lone bright spots from an otherwise lackluster Washington squad: Tress Way. When I looked at punting EPA over expectation (based on field position), Way was in a class of his own at the top. He ranked third (behind Hekker and Morstead) on a per punt basis, but he maintained his efficiency on nearly twice as many punts. With 41 punts inside the 20 without a single touchback, Way’s career year was too good to pass up.
Gray and White Award for Best Returner30
Andre Roberts, New York Jets
Roberts was effective whether returning kickoffs or punts, which is less common than you may think. He was a big play threat, having scored on both a punt and a kick. But he was more than that, consistently providing the Jets with better field position with his league-leading punt return average and second-place kick return average. Perhaps he could have sacrificed some of his punt return average by trading a few of his fair catches for modest gains, but that’s a minor quibble.
Taskmaster Award for Best Special Teamer31
Albert McClellan, Baltimore Ravens/New England Patriots
Whether playing for the Ravens or the Patriots, the veteran linebacker was a key contributor on special teams. McClellan did a little bit of everything, and he did it all well. He rarely lost as a blocker, which is impressive when you consider he has spent the bulk of his football career working to be a starting defender. He used his pursuit and tackling ability to his advantage, picking up six tackles and often funneling ball carriers to other tacklers. McClellan was a threat to make splash, as he proved when he blocked two against the Dolphins and when he recovered a muffed punt against the Chargers. He rarely lost focus or lost contain, and he was a model of consistency over the course of more than 250 special teams plays.
- In other words, I am not going to use a poor outing in the playoffs as a reason to demote someone. That is, unless it is a historically awful effort. ↩
- For Otto Graham, legendary winner ↩
- His ANY/A was the sixth highest figure in history. His TAY/P figure includes the postseason; he was behind Brees by a hair in the regular season. His DVOA is the fifteenth highest figure since 1986. His QBR is the sixth ranked season since 2006. He also ranked just behind Brees in EPA/P and success rate. ↩
- For Jerry Rice, the real GOAT ↩
- At this point, Randy White is the only other DT for whom I can see a realistic case for ranking above Donald. ↩
- For Walter Payton, whose game had no holes ↩
- For Lawrence Taylor, a monster on the field ↩
- For Randy Moss, who embarrassed defenders from day one ↩
- Allegedly, lawyers. ↩
- For Night Train Lane, who sported the best necktie of all time ↩
- For Gale Sayers, who never played a healthy game as a pro ↩
- For Bill Walsh, the tortured scientist ↩
- For Sammy Baugh, the first real quarterback ↩
- For Steve Van Buren, the original generational runner ↩
- For Marion Motley, the best player on any field ↩
- For Lance Alworth, who dominated gracefully ↩
- For Tony Gonzalez, who rewrote the rules for the position ↩
- For Jim Parker, because I couldn’t find a nickname for Anthony Munoz ↩
- For John Hannah, who could get an octogenarian a thousand yards ↩
- For Mike Webster, the tragic hero in the middle of a dynastic line ↩
- For Deacon Jones, the reason we care about sacks. ↩
- For Joe Greene, who brought hope to the Steel City ↩
- For Jack Ham, the cerebral cover artist ↩
- For Dick Butkus, who treated each play like a fight to the death ↩
- For Deion Sanders, the first to tell you how great he was ↩
- For Emlen Tunnell, the first great safetyman ↩
- For Lou Groza, who dominated the position in a way that isn’t actually possible today ↩
- This is what kept Aldrick Rosas off the list. I just wasn’t impressed with him on kickoffs. When splitting hairs, stuff like that matters. ↩
- For Tommy Davis, who tamed the wild Kezar winds ↩
- For Mel Gray and Billy White Shoes Johnson, masters of adding hidden value ↩
- For Steve Tasker, who did his job ↩