The NFL Three-Quarters Award Winners

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We’ve made it three-quarters of the way through the NFL season, so that means one thing: It’s time to catch up on the various award races. Every quarter, I run through the regular-season trophies to get a gauge on how perceptions are changing as the season goes along. The league moves so quickly that it’s actually pretty incredible to see players enter a race and then disappear over the course of mere weeks. Philip Rivers went from being an MVP candidate to downright mediocre and then flipped that script in Sunday’s win over Baltimore alone.

Please keep in mind that these aren’t my picks for who should win each award, but instead who I think is most likely to win. These are also based on a combination of each player’s current output and what’s likely to happen over the remainder of the season; if I had thought Haloti Ngata deserved to be defensive player of the year for his performance through the first 13 weeks of the season, the news of his suspension for Adderall would immediately ix-nay his candidacy.

Let’s start with an award where one teammate’s late surge might very well usurp another’s …

Comeback Player of the Year

Week 4: Jeremy Maclin, Eagles
Week 9: Jeremy Maclin, Eagles1
Week 13: Mark Sanchez, Eagles

Eagles vs. Eagles! Maclin had been the clear choice for this award for the first two months, having overcome his second torn ACL to emerge as one of the most productive wide receivers in football. He hasn’t slipped much over the ensuing four weeks, and he was also the obvious favorite to win the award by a significant margin.

But then the Sanchize showed up. Not only is he also returning from missing 2013 with an injury, just like Maclin, but he’s also undergoing the emotional comeback from the butt fumble, which still thrills journalists on Twitter and pregame talk show hosts who need something to mention. Sanchez is quickly coming on as he rebuilds his career in Philadelphia, and because these awards basically amount to popularity contests, a quarterback with a big name is always going to win over a quietly impressive wide receiver. Is this why Sanchez has been throwing to Jordan Matthews more than Maclin? (It’s not.)

At this point, I think this will depend on how Sanchez plays over the final four weeks more than what Maclin does or doesn’t do. If Sanchez suddenly turns into putty starting with his game against the Seahawks on Sunday and gets benched for a returning Nick Foles, Maclin probably wins. If Sanchez keeps it up, holds on to his job even after Foles is cleared to play, and helps push the Eagles over the NFC East finish line to win the division title for the second consecutive season, I think he’ll walk away with the hardware.

Coach of the Year

Week 4: Bruce Arians, Cardinals
Week 9: Bruce Arians, Cardinals
Week 13: Bruce Arians, Cardinals

Beware, the Cardinals are fading fast. They’ve scored just one offensive touchdown across their last 11 quarters, and that came in garbage time against the Falcons last week. Drew Stanton’s performance in that game made me wonder how Brian Hoyer could be playing quarterback for two teams at the same time. It was not pretty. Arians has already banked a lot of points after taking a team riddled with injuries to 9-1, but the Cardinals have lost two straight and could very well be underdogs in each of their final four contests.

If Arizona were to finish the year losing six straight to end up at 9-7, it would probably miss the playoffs. Given how much emphasis voters tend to place on what happens over the final month, an end-of-season collapse would seem to disqualify Arians from consideration as the league’s best coach, even if he might deserve the nod.

But if not Arians, then who? This award almost always goes to a coach who takes an unlikely team with a losing or disappointing record during the previous year to the playoffs, but those sorts of candidates — Jason Garrett, Joe Philbin, even somehow Mike Smith — aren’t likely to receive many votes this year. The electorate could honor Bill Belichick, who helped his Patriots team weather an early-season storm before embarking on yet another dominant run, but unless the Cardinals lose out and miss the playoffs, I think they’re more likely to give Arians the award.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Week 4: Kyle Fuller, Bears
Week 9: Anthony Barr, Vikings
Week 13: Chris Borland, 49ers

Last time, I jokingly wrote Borland’s name before crossing it out. No joke this time. Borland’s profile has exploded over the past four weeks, to the point where he’s now the highest-profile defensive rookie seeing regular playing time. Seahawks fans were actually trying to troll me on Twitter on Thanksgiving by pointing out that Marshawn Lynch had run over Borland, not noting that Borland had made probably a half-dozen solo tackles on Lynch up to that point, let alone that we’re talking about the most powerful running back in football versus the fourth inside linebacker on the 49ers depth chart. It’s a sign of how far Borland has come.

It’s also a sign that there really isn’t a clear-cut choice to compete with Borland. Barr had only one sack during this past quarter and he left Sunday’s win over the Panthers with a lingering knee injury that will likely keep him out for at least one week. C.J. Mosley has immediately settled in and taken over as a fine inside linebacker for the Ravens, and he’s actually a better player than Borland, but Borland’s story is better, and that matters to the electorate that votes on these awards.

Aaron Donald is an absolute freak and deserves the J.J. Watt–lite comparisons he got before the draft, but his rookie-leading sack total is at just six. He is Borland’s biggest competition for the award, and it should come down to how these two play over the final month.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Week 4: Kelvin Benjamin, Panthers
Week 9: Kelvin Benjamin, Panthers
Week 13: Odell Beckham Jr., Giants

Benjamin’s gone off the boil, with Cam Newton’s injury-enforced inaccuracy creating what otherwise might be perceived as Benjamin’s rookie wall. He has three touchdowns in his last four games, but two came while the Panthers were down 30-plus points to the Eagles in the fourth quarter. Over the past four weeks, he’s caught just 19 of the 42 passes thrown in his direction (45.2 percent), producing a mundane 13.3 yards per reception. He’s quickly getting a reputation as a player capable of sheer brilliance who also drops more than his fair share of throws.

More than anything, Benjamin has been passed by the players taken ahead of him in the draft. Mike Evans and Beckham each rose to the top of the offensive rookie of the year race with dominant stretches of performance. In his first four games after returning from the bye, Evans caught 25 of the 35 passes thrown to him (71 percent) for 536 yards and five touchdowns. That’s more than 21 yards per reception.

Beckham has been almost as good. He’s working on a five-game stretch with 38 catches on 51 targets (74.5 percent) while averaging 15.6 yards per reception and scoring twice. Evans has been more devastating downfield, while the Giants have been more aggressive about moving Beckham around the formation and putting him in places where he can catch screens and take quick tosses for impressive gains after he gets the ball in his hands. That five-game stretch would put him on pace for 122 catches and 1,898 yards.

More than anything, Beckham has that catch in his back pocket. While Evans might have a stronger body of work, if it’s anywhere close to a tie, voters are always going to pick Beckham. Highlights matter.

Defensive Player of the Year

Week 4: J.J. Watt, Texans
Week 9: J.J. Watt, Texans
Week 13: J.J. Watt, Texans

It’s pretty clear that Watt’s going to lead this race from start to finish. Justin Houston may very well end up leading the league in sacks, given that he has a 2.5-sack lead on Watt with four games to go, but Watt’s work across the board makes him the obvious candidate. He leads the league in quarterback knockdowns with 36; Von Miller (26) is the only other guy with more than 20. He’s knocked down quarterbacks more frequently than the entire San Diego Chargers team (31). The last defensive player with more touchdowns than Watt was Frank Gifford, who was playing both ways on a regular basis when he did it in 1953.

On Monday, I was asked on SportsCenter whether Watt could win the MVP award this year. It would be tough; no defensive player has won MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986, and before him, the last non-skill position player to go home with the award was Washington kicker Mark Moseley in 1981, which is a trick I’m convinced people from 1981 are playing on the future. It would normally take a Herculean, record-approaching number of sacks, and even that didn’t do it for Watt in 2012, when he posted 20.5 sacks and 16 passes defensed for a playoff team and didn’t receive a single MVP vote.

His path to winning the MVP requires a dominant final four weeks of the year. All of the following needs to happen:

The Texans need to win the AFC South. That’s not impossible; my Log5 Monte Carlo simulation of the final four weeks gives the Texans a 12.4 percent chance of winning the division. Their most likely path to victory sees them win out and finish 10-6, including a crucial win over the Colts in Indianapolis in Week 15.

The Colts, currently two games ahead of the Texans, would then lose the division on a tiebreaker if they lost any of their three other games, with the most plausible candidate coming when they travel to Dallas in Week 16. The Cowboys helping out their in-state rivals? Even Texans fans might pause at that idea.

Watt needs to get to 20 sacks. No, 20 sacks didn’t do it for Watt in 2012, but the timing of those sacks can be key. Adrian Peterson won the MVP award that year with a 2,000-yard season, and while Jamal Lewis didn’t win the official Associated Press MVP for his 2,000-yard year, Peterson peaked at the very end of the year, when he was running through nine-man boxes while dragging the Vikings to the playoffs.

Watt can do the same thing here. He has 11.5 sacks with four games to play; 8.5 sacks in four games would be a remarkable achievement,2 but it’s not impossible, for Watt is blessed with a favorable gift from the scheduling gods: two games against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars have allowed 50 sacks, and no other team is within 10 sacks. If Watt comes away from those two games with a combined six sacks, he needs 2.5 sacks over his two other games — Indy and Baltimore — to make it to 20.

He needs to tie or set the record for touchdowns by a defensive player. Really, given that the players ahead of him were people like Gifford who touched the ball hundreds of times on offense, this isn’t exactly a fair comparison. The only other true defender in history with five touchdowns in a single season is Oilers safety Ken Houston in 1971.

The record is seven, though, and that’s where Watt must go for the record-achieving notation he needs. Even if he just ties the record with a pair of receiving touchdowns in short yardage, it’ll add just enough to his résumé to attract the attention of some less interested voters.

The top offensive candidates need to cancel each other out. Voters are obsessed with players who touch the football, so none of them can stand out as an obvious candidate; Watt will lose a tie to a quarterback or a running back every time. That means DeMarco Murray can’t go over 2,000 yards. Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, and Peyton Manning can be good enough to keep their teams afloat, but they can’t set any records, and none of them can emerge as the standout candidate from the pack. Ideally, they’re each within the mix of very good, totally viable candidates, the vote splits among the four of them, and Watt wins without having to pick up 30 votes.

The chances of all of this happening, to be fair, are pretty slim. But that’s more about whom the voters choose and why they make that choice than Watt being undeserving. Watt has single-handedly carried a defense that really doesn’t have a ton of above-average players and never got anything from first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney, who went on injured reserve this week without having recorded a single sack. The Texans are 10th in scoring defense and 15th in DVOA; without Watt, they would be the Falcons with replacement-level quarterback play. He would be a deserving MVP choice.

Offensive Player of the Year

Week 4: DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Week 9: DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Week 13: DeMarco Murray, Cowboys

I was originally going to swing this toward one of the aforementioned quarterbacks until Murray was used to bludgeon the Bears on Thursday night. Murray finished with 32 carries for 179 yards and led the Cowboys with nine catches and 10 targets. In all, he produced 228 yards from scrimmage, averaged 5.6 yards per touch, and was responsible for more than 57 percent of Dallas’s offensive output.

If Murray makes it to 2,000 rushing yards, I think he’ll be the prohibitive favorite to win offensive player of the year. It’s going to be very close. He finishes with games against rush defenses ranked eighth (Eagles), 10th (Washington), and 26th (Colts). After Thursday night, Murray’s on pace to carry the ball 394 times and gain … wait for it … 1,977 yards. I doubt he’ll finish that close to the figure without going over, just because the Cowboys will force-feed him the ball in Week 17 if he’s within 50 yards of 2,000. We could end up with a game in which the Washington fans get to boo Robert Griffin when Washington has the ball and Murray’s rush toward history when Dallas takes over.

Then again, it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys force-feeding Murray more than they did this week. He touched the ball 41 times in a game in which the Cowboys had a 98 percent chance of winning halfway through the third quarter. After that exact point, Murray carried the ball or was targeted as a receiver on 14 of Dallas’s remaining 15 offensive plays. The only other touch went to Joseph Randle, and he ran for a 17-yard touchdown, so you can’t pretend there weren’t any other options.

You do that if you’re the Cowboys for one of three reasons. One, you have no regard for player safety or long-term sustainability whatsoever and can’t look past giving anybody but Murray the football in any situation. I don’t think Garrett and the Cowboys are that naive. Two, you’re desperate for Murray to get to this statistical landmark and want to get him as many carries as possible in the hopes of hitting 2,000 yards. That’s not ideal, but it’s plausible.

The third reason is that you have no intention of re-signing Murray after the season and have no qualms about running him into the ground during his final season with the team, like how the Brewers tried to pitch CC Sabathia’s arm off when they had him for that half-season in 2008. The more I watch what the Cowboys are doing — and think about the likelihood that Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch join Murray in this year’s free-agent running back class — the more I think they’re just getting every last drop out of a player who won’t be in a Cowboys uniform next year.

If so, Murray will be a fascinating free-agent case. What do you give a guy coming off of a 390-carry, 2,000-yard season who hadn’t completed a full NFL season before this year? Even if you assume he won’t hit 2,000 yards again, if you’re a team like the Colts, do you take the plunge in hopes that you’re coming away with a three-down, 1,500-yard back who might finally complete your offense? It’ll be a very interesting spring.

Most Valuable Player

Week 4: Philip Rivers, Chargers
Week 9: Andrew Luck, Colts
Week 13: Aaron Rodgers, Packers

Rodgers is separating himself from the pack, mostly because of that absurd touchdown-to-interception ratio. The gap in terms of volume between Rodgers and the rest of the pack is notable and meaningful, but that’s not a product of a run-first scheme suggesting that Rodgers doesn’t have the skill to throw all the time. He’s not throwing the ball because the Packers have been dominating games and allowing Rodgers to spend most of the fourth quarter handing the ball off.

The voting committee often prefers new candidates, which could push things in Luck’s direction, but if the Packers win out — and they have the Falcons, Bills, and Buccaneers coming up before a titanic struggle with the Lions at Lambeau in Week 17 — Rodgers will probably have done enough to win his second MVP award.

Filed Under: NFL, Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles, Mark Sanchez, Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals, Chris Borland, San Francisco 49ers, Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants, J.J. Watt, Houston Texans, DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys, Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell