The season is gone. The season was fun. Soon will come another one. In the meantime, I’m handing out awards. As always, GridFe awards include postseason play, with the general rule that the playoffs can only help a player’s standing.
Dr. Z had his 75% rule, but I am a little more flexible. There is no hard cutoff of 12 games in order to qualify. However, with the postseason included, it’s hard for a player to earn an award unless he played in at least 14 games. Even 14 requires a phenomenal performance in those games.1 My categories for doling out honors include traditional and advanced metrics, film study (one reason these are always so late), and a great deal of weeping and gnashing of teeth when trying to separate a player’s output from the help of his teammates, scheme, and opponent ineffectiveness.
Let’s get on with it then.
Automatic Award for Most Valuable Player2
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks QB
I went against the grain in 2016, and I’m doing it again now. Lamar Jackson led the league’s most dynamic offense, topped the leader boards in touchdowns, and broke the record for quarterback rushing yards. He deserves the MVP awards he earned from other publications, but I believe Wilson was more valuable to his team’s success. Wilson put up great traditional and advanced numbers and, like an old magician weary of pulling a new rabbit out of his hat year after year, led the Seahawks to one improbable victory after another.
Seattle’s offensive line ranked 28th in ESPN’s pass block win rate (54%) and 30th in Pro Football Focus’s team pass block grade (61.5). Their rushing attack ranked 14th in PFF grade (77.4) and 6th in DVOA (2.7%), with the line sitting at 20th in run block grade (58.5) and 15th in Football Outsiders’s adjusted line yards (4.32). Schematically and philosophically, the Seahawks were hell-bent on establishing the run and forced Wilson to bail them out when they inevitably failed to do so. A product of both design and talent, receivers often didn’t have significant separation, leaving Wilson with the unenviable task of having to make tough throws into tight windows or along the boundaries in order to keep the offense on the field. He had to convert on third and long because his risk averse team possessed a mortal disdain for taking chances on fourth down.
Despite all this, Seattle fielded a respectable 5th ranked offense by DVOA (17.4%). The root of this is Wilson’s stellar play. He boasted an impressed 4.8 in NFL Next Gen Stats’s completion rate +/-, meaning he was well above average when it came to completing passes based on distance, location, and receiver separation. Wilson also laid claim to PFF’s highest passing grade among full time starters. Perhaps most important, he had a comfortable lead in PFF’s WAR metric (4.08), which remains the only widely published, empirically based metric for capturing player value in the NFL (at least that I am aware of). Put these together, and you have a team that goes 11-5 and wins a road playoff game despite a point differential of just 7 in the regular season.3
World Award for Most Outstanding Player4
George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers TE
When Rob Gronkowski retired, I mourned the loss of the best tight end I had ever seen (and I’ve seen an awful lot of them). Then something happened; Kittle took his game to another level and nearly filled that Gronk-sized hole in my heart. The San Francisco tight end is a phenom, capable of doing anything you would want a player to do at the position. He runs routes well to create separation, makes contested catches when there isn’t a ton of separation, breaks away from or completely runs over would-be tacklers in the open field, and deftly clears out front seven defenders (and absolutely demolishes defensive backs) on run plays. Maybe his pass pro could use a bit of work, but it’s good enough that you’d be foolish to call it a weakness.
Sweetness Award for Offensive Player of the Year5
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens QB
I didn’t give him the MVP nod, but I’d be crazy not to give him OPOY honors. Jackson’s breakout year was reminiscent of Michael Vick in Madden 2004; he could kill you with his legs (or with his decision to merely threaten with his legs and give to a back), and he could carve your secondary if you focused on stopping him on the ground. Defenses hate having to guess, and Jackson made them do just that every single time he touched the ball. Among quarterbacks who started 75% of their team’s games, he led the NFL in passer rating (I know, I know) and ranked second in ANY/A. He also happened to lead all players in touchdown passes with a 9% touchdown rate straight out of the 1940s. Prefer more advanced stats? He also was first in passing DVOA (35.3%) and sat atop the QBR leader board with the 6th highest QBR (81.8) in the fourteen years the metric covers. His team became the third ever to score more than three points per drive, which is pretty amazing considering we just finished the hundredth season of NFL football. Also, he has an energy and presence that is palpable even from my couch. His teammates seem to genuinely love him, and that isn’t something you see a lot of in the modern NFL.
Godzilla Award for Defensive Player of the Year6
Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots CB
Being a top flight cover corner can make a player nearly impossible to evaluate with simple stats, and quantifying their value and the impact they have on a defense is often a guessing game. While he was no Darrelle Revis (who shut down receivers despite seeing high targets and playing for a team with no pass rush), he was consistently great and combined both shutdown and playmaking traits this year. Starring on a defense that loved man coverage, Gilmore more than held his own, allowing just one touchdown while leading the league in interceptions. Of course, those are rare and stochastic events and don’t necessarily tell the whole story of a cornerack’s performance. Despite being targeted every six snaps in coverage, Gilmore allowed just a shade over a yard per snap. He also allowed just 49% of passes his way to be completed, which is even more impressive when you account for the area of the field he was targeted.7 He was the best player at the most important position on the best defense in the league.8
Freak Award for Offensive Rookie of the Year9
Erik McCoy, New Orleans Saints OC
Guys who carry and catch the ball get the glory, but for my money the guy who snapped it was the most impressive offensive rookie this season. McCoy wasn’t just good for a rookie; he was one of the best overall centers in football this year. A solid run blocker who excelled at the second level, he was even more impressive in pass pro. Whether blocking for an aged legend, a beloved backup, or a running back people like to call a quarterback, McCoy just did his job. That’s all you really want from a center.
Night Train Award for Defensive Rookie of the Year10
Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ers
This one was a gimme. The younger Bosa brother notched 13 official sacks (and was in on 14 total), 102 pressures, and a league-leading 68 hurries. He also ranked third among edge rushers with 42 stops, demonstrating his ability to succeed against both the run and the pass. Bosa has the physique, he has the stats, and a hundred million souls watched him pass the eye test when he unleashed hell in the Super Bowl.
Comet Award for Comeback Player of the Year11
Brandon Brooks, Philadelphia Eagles OG
The comeback player award is a weird one. Often, a guy will get the nod for coming back from just being bad the previous year or two. I’m not really into that. Sometimes a player will get the award after moving to a new situation and “coming back” from a bad environment. That one makes more sense, but it’s still not my style. The Comet Award is for players who bounce back from real problems. Brooks tore his Achilles tendon in the 2018 playoffs and was able to play all 16 games in 2019. That’s amazing. Even more amazing is that he just played at the highest level of his career, finally gaining more consistency to go along with his incredible athletic prowess.
Genius Award for Coach of the Year12
John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens
Harbaugh bought in to building an offense around the unique and abundant skills of his young quarterback. He made use of a run-heavy attack in a pass-happy league, but he did it intelligently, putting the ball in the hands of Lamar Jackson and his otherworldly running ability. Harbaugh also incorporated analytics principles, keeping his offense on the field by converting fourth down after fourth down. The result? Just the third team in history to average more than three points per drive. The Ravens also fielded a great defense that feasted on opposing passers, but it’s Harbaugh’s attention to his star QB that gets him to the top of this list.
Slinger Award for Best Quarterback13
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
The future is bright, friends.
Supersonic Award for Best Running Back14
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
McCaffrey has a quick change of direction ability similar to a young Shady McCoy and the receiving skills of an actual wide receiver. He became the third back in history to post a 1000-1000 season, and he boasted the sixth best yards from scrimmage season in history.15 With Cam Newton unhealthy for two games and absent for the rest of them, the Panthers were forced to trot out the duo of So What and Who Cares to start 14 games. This left McCaffrey as the lone serious threat on the offense, and his valiant effort in a lost season is commendable.
Motley Award for Best Fullback16
Kyle Juszczyk, San Francisco 49ers
Being the best player at a dying position is like being the smartest of your mother’s five goofy sons. It’s great to be the best, but look at the competition. Regardless, Juice is doing his bet to keep the position alive. He blocks well on both run and pass plays, and he does a good job catching passes out of the backfield. With only 25 career rush attempts, no one is going to confuse him with this award’s namesake, but Juszczyk is the best of the new breed of fullback who block and catch and never run the ball.
Bambi Award for Best Wide Receiver17
Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
This should be no surprise. Thomas broke the single season record for receptions and posted the 7th highest yardage total for good measure. Also impressive but underreported, he was just two first downs away from trying Julio Jones‘s single season record of 93. He continued to play at a high level catching passes from Teddy Bridgewater (who is a good passer but isn’t the legend Thomas is used to). A clean route runner with soft hands and the determination to improve each offseason, Thomas has everything it takes to thrive even after Brees hangs up his cleats.
Gonzo Award for Best Tight End18
George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers
Guardian Award for Best Tackle19
Ronnie Stanley, Baltimore Ravens
Stanley has been good for some time, but this year he was great. He paved the way for one of the best and most dynamic rushing attacks in NFL history and, more importantly, protected his young quarterback from danger better than any other tackle in the league. In 543 passing snaps, in front of an inexperienced passer, Stanley allowed just one sack and ten pressures. Those are incredible number when blocking for Peyton Manning or Dan Marino. Perhaps most impressive: he didn’t have a bad game in pass pro all year, including the playoffs.
Hog Award for Best Guard20
Brandon Brooks, Philadelphia Eagles
Iron Award for Best Center21
Ben Jones, Tennessee Titans
The eight-year veteran has been pretty good his entire career, never producing a bad or even below average season. That said this year was his finest. Jones was solid in pass pro. He was solid as a drive blocker. And he was solid blocking at the second level. He maintained a steady level of play whether blocking for Mariota or Tannehill, two stylistically different quarterbacks. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Jones gets the award.
Deacon Award for Best Defensive End22
T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers
Yes, Watt is not actually a defensive end by traditional nomenclature. However, his role as an edge rusher is closer to that of a Jason Taylor than a Derrick Brooks. Also, my award, my rules. Watt impressed when it came to overall consistency and when it came to making splash plays. He pressured passers 81 times and was in on 18 sacks, he led all edge rushers in batted passes (6) and interceptions (2), and he led all players in forced fumbles (8). Watt played the run as well as anyone not named Calais Campbell, and he was among the best edge rushers when it came to dropping into coverage.
Mean Award for Best Defensive Tackle23
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Last year, Donald gave us perhaps the best season ever by a defensive tackle. That came after four straight seasons as the best in the league at what he does. He has reached the level of Michael Jordan in the ’90s, with people so used to seeing greatness from him that it almost becomes white noise. Don’t fall into that trap. Donald is still the premier interior defender – and one of the top players – in the NFL. This season, he didn’t have a bad game and played well late in the season despite playing nearly 60 snaps per game. He averaged five pressures per game from the inside. Among interior rushers, Chris Jones (4.2) was the only other player to even eclipse four. Not just a pass rusher, Donald led all players in tackles for a loss. He did all this despite being double-teamed (and sometimes triple-teamed) more than any other defender.
Dobre Shunka Award for Best Outside Linebacker24
Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
David has been a stud since day one. Since he came into the league, no player has created more negative plays for opposing offenses. Whether attacking the line of scrimmage or dropping into coverage, David has been a master of his craft. This year was no different. He excelled at creating pressure when blitzing, maintained his high standard of play attacking ball-carriers, and had a career year in coverage, displaying down-to-down consistency as well as a knack for the big play.
Enforcer Award for Best Inside Linebacker25
Eric Kendricks, Minnesota Vikings
Kendricks has been a solid performer since entering the league, but he took a huge leap this year. Nowhere did that jump manifest itself more clearly than when he was in coverage. Despite the lack of gaudy interception numbers, Kendricks impacted plenty of passes in his direction, leading all linebackers with 13 pass deflections. Passer rating when targeted isn’t the best stat, given the low sample size, but his 73.8 on passes into his coverage was incredible for a linebacker. He was typically excellent in zone but was also impressive in man coverage, limiting receivers to a catch on just one in every fifteen snaps (best among all backers).
Prime Time Award for Best Cornerback26
Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
Tunnell Vision Award for Best Safety27
Justin Simmons, Cincinnati Bengals
Simmons isn’t a household name, but hopefully that is about to change. He displayed his versatility all season, playing over the top, in the box, or as a slot defender – all at a high level. Seemingly always around the ball, he had a knack for both making plays on the ball and keeping it away from receivers. His combined 15 pass disruptions (11 deflections and 4 interceptions) easily led the league, he allowed a mere 25 catches in 639 snaps in coverage, and he didn’t allow a single touchdown on the season.
The Toe Award for Best Kicker28
Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens
Tucker is the best kicker in history, and each passing season only adds more confidence to that position. He makes a high percentage of kicks, does so from any distance, and succeeds despite playing home games in Baltimore and three away games a year in the AFC North. This year, he also played games in Kansas City and Buffalo. Football Outsiders incorporates distance and weather/stadium effects into their field goal value metric, and they have Tucker comfortably in first place. I don’t know how PFF grades kickers, but they have him on top too. When the advanced stats, the “professional” eye test, and my eye test agree, it makes my life easy. Tucker gets the nod.
TD Award for Best Punter29
Brett Kern, Tennessee Titans
Over the last few years, Kern has been one of the best voluntary turnover specialists in the game. In 2019, he punted often, and he punted well. His 43.1 net average was good, his +35 I20-touchback differential in the regular season was the league’s best, as were his his 18 kicks out of bounds. He wasn’t quite as effective in the postseason, but he did punt quite a lot while the Titans were establishing the run.
Gray and White Award for Best Returner30
Deonte Harris, New Orleans Saints
Harris was my second team all pro punt returner and just missed an honorable mention as a kickoff returner. Being able to excel at both isn’t as common as you might think, and his ability to do so is worthy of praise. He led all players in punt return yards and ranked fifth in kick return yards, managing to rank fourth and third in return average for each. His four kick returns of at least 40 yards and four punt returns over 20 yards both led the league. Moving forward, he needs to improve his focus on bringing in the ball, as his three muffed punts also led all players.
Taskmaster Award for Best Special Teamer31
J.T. Gray, New Orleans Saints
It remains to be seen if Gray is on his way to establishing a long and successful career as a special teams ace in the mold of Tasker and Ivory Sully or if he is a one hit wonder, but one thing is certain: he was excellent this year. Playing on the coverage teams for both kickoffs and punts, he led all players with 16 special teams tackles. Blocking on kick and punt return units, he didn’t make any highlight reels, which is a good thing for a guy charged with blocking. He added a blocked punt for a safety during a week 7 game in Chicago when people still thought the Bears might be good.
- I also look at snap counts to see if a team really leaned on a player when he was able to play. ↩
- For Otto Graham, legendary winner ↩
- For reference, Lamar Jackson’s Ravens boasted a 2nd ranked 69% pass block win rate. Jackson’s NGS +/- was 0.8, which is still above average. The Ravens fielded the league’s top rushing attack (in large part due to Jackson) and the 4th ranked defense by DVOA. He ranked 5th in PFF’s WAR (2.29). The Ravens also had top-down organizational buy-in to building around his strengths and embracing analytics principles (such as fourth down aggressiveness, which extended several drives). ↩
- For Jerry Rice, the real GOAT ↩
- For Walter Payton, whose game had no holes ↩
- For Lawrence Taylor, a monster on the field ↩
- Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Gilmore ranked second among all cornerbacks with an incredible 11.8% below expectation. ↩
- As measured by DVOA, where their -24.6% defensive DVOA and -32.2% pass defense DVOA both topped the NFL. ↩
- For Randy Moss, who embarrassed defenders from day one ↩
- 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 ↩
- The top five: O.J. Simpson 1975, Chris Johnson 2009, Jim brown 1963, Marshall Faulk 1999, and Walter Payton 1977. ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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 ↩