It’s only November and The Associated Press NFL individual awards won’t be handed out until the NFL Honors show on Feb. 4. That doesn’t stop us from evaluating the field halfway through the schedule.
That field looks mighty slim when it comes to one award: top defensive player. Von Miller was riding high in an informal poll of several voters who regularly cover the NFL.
Nothing shocking there. Denver’s star linebacker and the Super Bowl MVP in February has been just as dominant thus far in 2016.
“Miller remains the most disruptive defender in the game,” Don Banks of Sports Illustrated says.
“The successful transition from an aging Peyton Manning to an inexperienced Trevor Siemian is done in large part because of Denver’s great defense,” adds Newsday’s Bob Glauber. “Miller is a generational defensive player who makes it all work.”
While that award appears lopsided right now, top coaching honors are as wide open as Atlanta’s offense. Among those mentioned: Oakland’s Jack Del Rio, Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer, New England’s Bill Belichick, Kansas City’s Andy Reid, Dallas’ Jason Garrett and Atlanta’s Dan Quinn.
Consider that their teams are a combined 38-12 heading into this weekend.
“Del Rio has restored pride and poise to the Raiders, who are 5-0 on the road and overcame an NFL-record 23 penalties in Tampa,” says Ira Kaufman of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Zimmer and Garrett have been without their No. 1 quarterback all season. Injuries also have beaten up the Chiefs.
The relatively new top assistant coach award tends to attract the most varied selections. Among the suggestions at this point in 2016 have been both Patriots coordinators, Josh McDaniels (offense) and Matt Patricia (defense); Eagles DC Jim Schwartz; Cowboys OC Scott Linehan; and Chiefs DC Bob Sutton.
“It’s hard to win with a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back,” says Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, “but the Cowboys have made it work, ranking fourth in total offense.”
That rookie QB, Zak Prescott, and freshman RB, Ezekiel Elliott, top the informal halfway poll for offensive rookie honors. And why wouldn’t they? Dallas is 7-1, Elliott leads the league in rushing and, in a year marked by NFC underachievers, the Cowboys have been a conference sensation.
They are not alone in the running, of course, with Philadelphia QB Carson Wentz, despite some recent regression, Chicago running back Jordan Howard, Tennessee tackle Jack Conklin, San Diego tight end Hunter Henry, New Orleans receiver Michael Thomas and Kansas City receiver Tyreek Hill all getting some love.
“Sorry, Dak Prescott,” Banks says. “Zeke is on pace to set the NFL’s rookie single-season rushing record, and his league-leading 891 yards rushing have helped the Cowboys string together a seven-game winning streak and perfectly complement Prescott’s passing game.”
Adds Nick Pavlatos of SiriusXM: “Dak handles the ball every snap, but Ezekiel is something special, running, catching, and blocking.”
There aren’t so many outstanding candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year halfway through the schedule. That is not unusual, though, as first-year players on defense tend to improve throughout the season.
Top contenders at this point appear to be San Diego DE Joey Bosa, despite missing September with an injury after holding out all preseason; Atlanta safety Keanu Neal; and Browns DE Emmanuel Ogbah.
“Like Tom Brady, he wasn’t there from the start,” Tom Pelissero of USA Today says of Bosa. “Who cares? Bosa has four sacks … and that only begins to illustrate the impact he’s had on San Diego’s defense.”
Many voters chose a 2014 All-Pro and Offensive Player of the Year with Dallas, the Titans’ DeMarco Murray, as the front-runner for Comeback Player honors. Murray is second in rushing in the league behind Elliott, ostensibly his replacement with the Cowboys. And Murray doesn’t operate behind anything close to the Dallas offensive line.
“After a forgettable season in Philadelphia, he has regained his place among the league’s rushing leaders for an emerging Tennessee club,” Kaufman says.
Others getting support include Bills LB Lorenzo Alexander, Packers WR Jordy Nelson, Giants WR Victor Cruz, and Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin.
As for the headline award, Most Valuable Player, it would be intriguing to see Miller in the mix with Brady, Oakland QB Derek Carr and Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. Unfortunately, a defensive player hasn’t walked off with the award since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
“Tom Brady may wind up with the award by the end of the season, but Carr has earned the nod halfway through,” Glauber says. “He’s carrying the Raiders on his back with 17 touchdowns and three interceptions and a bunch of clutch performances.”
And that’s usually what it takes.