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Less than one week remains before the Jan. 10 voting deadline for MVP and the other annual Associated Press NFL awards. I keep an open mind through the full season and am always looking to improve processes for evaluation. Some of the choices are difficult enough for Week 18 to prove pivotal.
As the voting deadline approaches, I’ll share where I’m leaning in eight categories, with insight into some of the tougher questions to resolve:
• Most Valuable Player: What to do in the absence of worthy candidates?
• Coach of the Year: DeMeco Ryans, Kevin Stefanski or Sean McVay?
• Assistant Coach of the Year: With two defensive coordinators from the same division in play, I lean toward the one whose defense solved superior offenses.
• Comeback Player of the Year: Can it be anyone else?
• Offensive Player of the Year: The non-quarterback MVP award?
• Defensive Player of the Year: The best player on the best defense has a couple of the best highlights.
• Offensive Rookie of the Year: C.J. Stroud has serious competition.
• Defensive Rookie of the Year: A third-round pick from Wake Forest crashes the party.
Real-time BetMGM odds appear for each award except one. We’ll begin with MVP.
How I’m leaning: Lamar Jackson, with some reservations. Some other quarterbacks — Matthew Stafford, Josh Allen, even Jordan Love — deserve mention for keeping their teams competitive without anywhere close to the support Jackson gets from his defense/special teams. That support is a leading reason Baltimore owns the NFL’s best record. Dak Prescott and Brock Purdy are also in this conversation.
2023 NFL MVP guide: Lamar Jackson and the challenger (almost) no one is talking about
Jackson is the leading passer and rusher for the NFL’s sixth-ranked offense by EPA per play. He was already the top game-plan consideration for every Ravens opponent even before injuries sidelined All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews and two running backs, J.K. Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell. Jackson has 11 touchdown passes with one interception in four starts against division-leading teams this season, games Baltimore won by 24.8 points on average.
With the AFC’s top seed at stake Sunday, Jackson completed 18 of 21 passes for 321 yards with five touchdowns and the highest possible passer rating (158.3) to lead a 56-19 victory over the Miami Dolphins. Jackson became the first player since himself during his 2019 MVP season to toss five or more touchdown passes with three or fewer incompletions, per Pro Football Reference.
There is no runaway choice for MVP in a season when most top-tier quarterbacks are injured (Joe Burrow, Aaron Rodgers, Justin Herbert), offensive production is down and non-quarterbacks are not breaking records.
NFL MVP odds: Time to crown Lamar Jackson once again
Jackson’s full-season EPA ranks only 11th among quarterbacks, which will be a deal breaker for those committed to measuring value with the flair of an accountant. Purdy would be the choice off of production, except we’ve seen the 49ers’ scheme and weaponry produce at high levels when Jimmy Garoppolo was the quarterback as well. Purdy’s four-interception game against Baltimore in Week 16 came at the wrong time for his candidacy.
The way Jackson has closed out the season against San Francisco and Miami, combined with his role in the Ravens’ offensive success without Andrews, has me leaning toward Jackson. I’ll take the season’s final week to think it through, with an eye on what the Bills’ Allen does in Week 18.
Coach of the Year
How I’m leaning: The Houston Texans’ DeMeco Ryans sits atop my ballot, with the Cleveland Browns’ Kevin Stefanski and the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay close behind. My midseason picks, in order, were the Dolphins’ Mike McDaniel, the Detroit Lions’ Dan Campbell and the Ravens’ John Harbaugh. The Indianapolis Colts’ Shane Steichen has a strong case as well. There’s no shortage of viable candidates.
Ryans has the Texans at 9-7 and on the verge of a playoff berth after entering the season with a rookie quarterback and a first-time offensive coordinator. He took over a franchise that had the NFL’s worst record (11-38-1) over the previous three seasons. No team faced longer Super Bowl odds than Houston entering the season.
A counterargument would point to Houston making its most significant gains on offense, which could mean quarterback C.J. Stroud and offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik deserve more credit for the turnaround.
But if we apply that reasoning to the defensive-minded Ryans, we need to do the same for Stefanski, an offensive-minded coach whose defense has carried the Browns to 11-5. Cleveland, with four starting quarterbacks, has produced positive EPA on offense just three times this season, including once after Week 10.
The idea that Joe Flacco is playing well enhances Stefanski’s credentials, although Flacco might simply be playing well relative to other Cleveland quarterbacks. He ranks 29th in EPA per pass play among 48 quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts this season. The Browns’ Deshaun Watson (39th), P.J. Walker (45th) and Dorian Thompson-Robinson (48th) rank lower. Unlike those other three, Flacco could be trending upward.
I wish we could watch the playoffs before voting on Coach of the Year. These stories remain in progress.
For a first-time defensive-minded coach such as Ryans to immediately stabilize a wobbly franchise without a veteran quarterback or veteran offensive coordinator separates him. But if Stefanski gets the Browns’ offense going better with Flacco and makes a playoff run, I’d like a chance to push him to the top.
McVay should not be overlooked. He stands out for getting the most out of so many young players while fielding the NFL’s seventh-ranked offense by EPA per play. The Rams scored seven offensive touchdowns while producing 20.8 EPA across Week 13-14 games against Cleveland and Baltimore, who possess the top two defenses in the league.
What would the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan have to do to win this award? He gets outsized credit for Purdy’s success. Shouldn’t that show up here? He has possibly risen to the level where he competes against his own standard. Bill Belichick and Andy Reid have been on that level for years — seen annually as the best coaches, but rarely honored for their efforts in any one season.
Assistant Coach of the Year
How I’m leaning: No betting odds exist for this one, but there are plenty of strong candidates. Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald holds a slight edge over Browns defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in my thinking now.
The Texans’ Slowik, Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, Las Vegas Raiders defensive coordinator Patrick Graham and Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen also figure into the discussion.
I’ve gone back and forth in my mind between Macdonald and Schwartz.
Cleveland’s defense has outperformed Baltimore’s statistically while covering for a bottom-five offense, but the Ravens have fared better against higher-ranked offenses.
Both teams dominated San Francisco’s offense similarly. Baltimore’s defense dominated against Detroit and Miami, whom the Browns did not play. The Ravens also dominated Seattle’s offense, which ranks 10th in EPA per play; Cleveland couldn’t stop the Seahawks from driving to the winning touchdown late in the game. The Ravens’ defense was 26.4 EPA better than the Browns’ defense against Seattle alone.
Comeback Player of the Year
How I’m leaning: Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills is the easy choice.
The debate surrounding this loosely defined award centers around how much to emphasize what hardship the player overcame versus how well the player performed after coming back from the hardship. In Hamlin’s case, returning to the field in any capacity after enduring cardiac arrest and the great potential for imminent death separates him from all other candidates. He has played 111 total snaps, including 93 on special teams.
Offensive Player of the Year
How I’m leaning: The 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey is a solid choice here if the MVP goes to a quarterback, which it has for the past 10 years. McCaffrey leads the league in rushing by 315 yards and accounts for a league-leading 30.4 percent of his team’s scrimmage yards with 2,023.
My midseason choice, Tyreek Hill, was on pace to break the single-season record for receiving yardage until suffering an ankle injury three games ago.
Defensive Player of the Year
How I’m leaning: The Browns’ Myles Garrett was my choice at midseason, and I’m sticking with him now. He’s the best player on the best statistical defense, with some of the best highlight plays for defensive linemen. Jumping over the Indianapolis Colts’ line to block a field-goal try in a tie game was one. Drawing the Tennessee Titans into a delay penalty by running back and forth across the formation while offensive players shadowed him was something I can’t recall seeing previously.
The Raiders’ Maxx Crosby stands out for playing 200 additional snaps on 95 percent playing time, compared to 81 percent for Garrett.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
How I’m leaning: This felt like Stroud’s award to lose at one point, and oddsmakers still consider him a heavy favorite. I’m considering Rams receiver Puka Nacua, who ranks fifth in receiving yardage, after Stroud missed two games to injury. But if Stroud finishes strong against the Colts in Week 18, he’ll be hard to push down the ballot.
Nacua has 14 receptions for 282 yards over the past two games, helping the Rams clinch a playoff berth. He has played 89 percent of the snaps without missing a game. His 101 receptions for 1,445 yards and five touchdowns have added 120.6 EPA, third behind Hill and CeeDee Lamb. That is elite production for anyone, let alone for a rookie fifth-round pick from BYU.`
Defensive Rookie of the Year
How I’m leaning for Defensive Rookie of the Year: Rams defensive tackle Kobie Turner tops my list with nine sacks and 45 pressures on 625 snaps for a defense that is outperforming preseason expectations by a wide margin.
Turner has more snaps, sacks and splash plays (sacks, tackles for loss, passes defensed/batted, stops on third/fourth downs, etc.) than the Eagles’ Jalen Carter or the Texans’ Will Anderson. Carter’s candidacy suffers from the Eagles’ defensive struggles. Anderson is a close second to Turner in my mind. He has a chance to finish strong in a big game against the Colts in Week 18.
(Photo of Lamar Jackson, right, and Myles Garrett: Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images)
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