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Colin E. Braley/Associated Press
On Feb. 2 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, football’s best and brightest will gather for the eighth annual NFL Honors.
Comedian Steve Harvey will host the event, which begs the question of whether he’ll reprise his “Miss Colombia” gaffe.
A number of awards will be handed out that night, including the Offensive and Defensive Rookies and Players of the Year and MVP. Some of the awards appear up for grabs, while others have a clear front-runner.
With that in mind, the NFL writers at Bleacher Report came together to hand out some end-of-season hardware of their own in advance of Saturday’s awards show.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Before we start handing out the giant make-believe trophies and envelopes filled with imaginary cash, here’s a rundown of the writers at Bleacher Report who participated in this article.
Gary Davenport, NFL analyst
Tyler Dunne, NFL features lead writer
Mike Freeman, NFL national lead writer
Brad Gagnon, NFL analyst
Matt Miller, NFL draft lead writer
Dan Pompei, NFL national lead writer
Brent Sobleski, NFL analyst
Mike Tanier, NFL national lead writer
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Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press
Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears (6 votes)
A number of NFL coaches did an excellent job in 2018. Sean McVay (who won this award in 2017) has his Los Angeles Rams within one game of winning the Lombardi Trophy. The team standing between them and glory? Bill Belichick‘s New England Patriots, who are playing in the ninth Super Bowl of Belichick’s tenure.
Our winner for Coach of the Year has already been knocked out of the playoffs, but the fact the Chicago Bears made it there in Matt Nagy’s first season is a big part of why his name is listed here.
In 2017, the Bears won five games and finished last in the NFC North. They also finished in fourth place in 2016. And 2015. And 2014. Their record over that span was a woeful 19-45.
Then Nagy, who the Pro Football Writers of America have already named their Coach of the Year, came to town. The Bears offense and young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky kicked into overdrive, and Chicago won 12 games and the division.
“Nagy’s exotic personnel packages at the goal line drew the most attention in 2018,” Davenport said. “But the 40-year-old is much more than just smoke and mirrors. In his first year at the helm in Chicago, Nagy won nearly as many games as John Fox did in three years.
“Last year at this time, the Bears were a punchline. The only ones laughing now are Nagy and the team… well, except for Cody Parkey.”
Others Receiving Votes: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots (1 vote); Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers (1 vote)
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Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs (8 votes)
In March, the Kansas City Chiefs shipped Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins to clear the way for second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes to take over under center.
That decision proved to be franchise-changing.
In the 38-28 season-opening win against the Los Angeles Chargers. Mahomes tossed four touchdown passes. The following week at Pittsburgh, Mahomes passed for 326 yards and threw six more scoring strikes.
By the time the dust settled on a 12-win season in which the Chiefs won the AFC West and secured the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed, Mahomes had amassed 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns. In doing so, he joined Peyton Manning as the only other quarterback in NFL history to top 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season.
As Matt McMullen reported for the Chiefs’ website, Mahomes’ big year didn’t go unnoticed around the NFL.
“He’s amazing,” Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said. “He has a cannon for an arm, he can run enough to get away from most guys who are on the line and even some linebackers, and to throw the ball with your left hand and throw no-look passes? You only do that in the backyard, and he’s doing that in professional games.”
It didn’t go unnoticed at Bleacher Report, either.
“He threw for 50 touchdowns,” Freeman said. “It’s virtually impossible to give this award to any other player. He played the position this year with skill, intelligence and charisma. He defines Player of the Year.”
This may not be the last time you see Mahomes featured here.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Aaron Donald, DE, Los Angeles Rams (8 votes)
We are living in a golden age of defensive players in the NFL.
Both Khalil Mack of the Chicago Bears and JJ Watt of the Houston Texans are generational talents who have won the Defensive Player of the Year award in previous seasons. Both were great in 2018, too.
Neither came close to having the sort of year Aaron Donald did.
Donald is a virtual lock to be named the DPOY for the second straight season after he paced the NFL with a career-high 20.5 sacks and was the league’s most unstoppable force inside. Donald has now been a Pro Bowler in all five of his NFL seasons and has been a first-team All-Pro every year since 2015.
“Aaron has been unbelievable,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think when you really look at it, the stats can be misleading with regard to the production and the influence that a defensive player is having on the game.”
McVay won’t hear any arguments from writers here at Bleacher Report.
“Can’t imagine anybody would object to this one,” Gagnon said. “An interior rusher with 20.5 sacks? Is that some sort of joke? Donald also forced four fumbles and always seemed to be at his best in big moments. This wasn’t just the best defensive season of 2018; it was one of the best of all time.”
There wasn’t a more obvious call to be made here.
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Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press
Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns (6.5 votes)
It’s been a while since the top two picks in the NFL draft had the kind of rookie seasons that Saquon Barkley and Baker Mayfield had in 2018.
Barkley, who the New York Giants selected second overall, wasted no time establishing himself as one of the NFL’s best tailbacks. As a rookie,he topped 1,300 yards on the ground, caught 91 passes for another 721 yards, averaged five yards per carry and found the end zone 15 times.
That’s none too shabby. But it isn’t good enough for him to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors over Mayfield.
For most of the last 20 years, the Cleveland Browns have lacked a franchise quarterback. But after Mayfield set an NFL record for touchdown passes by a rookie, the times they-are-a-changing.
“Baker Mayfield didn’t just set a rookie record with 27 touchdown passes (in 13.5 games), he helped to change the culture in Cleveland,” Sobleski said. “The former Factory of Sadness now looks like one of the NFL’s most promising franchises with Mayfield leading the way.”
“This was between Baker and Barkley, and it was close,” Freeman added. “But given the importance of the QB position, the decision goes to Mayfield.
“For the first time in a long time, he gives the Browns hope.”
Others Receiving Votes: Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants (1.5 votes)
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Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Darius Leonard, OLB, Indianapolis Colts (7 votes)
Several rookie defenders had excellent debut seasons. Denver Broncos defensive end Bradley Chubb paced all rookies with 12 sacks, while Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward earned a Pro Bowl nod.
“Not to take anything away from what players like Chubb, Derwin James and Darius Leonard did in 2018, but Ward was thrown into the deep end at a position that has maybe the steepest learning curve of all from day one,” Davenport said. “He didn’t just hold up his end of the bargain—he shined.”
But Chubb and Ward were top-five picks, so they entered the league with lofty expectations. Meanwhile, no one could have expected Darius Leonard to lead the NFL in tackles by a sizable margin.
“Not only did the second-round pick lead the league in tackles despite missing a game,” Gagnon said, “but he also added eight passes defensed, seven sacks, four forced fumbles and two interceptions. Derwin James had a hell of a rookie season, but he didn’t come close to Leonard statistically.”
Considering Leonard helped to fuel the Colts to an unexpected playoff berth after their 1-5 start to the season, it’s hard to argue against him as the correct pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Others Receiving Votes: Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland Browns (1 vote)
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Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (6 votes)
It was a good year for rebounds in the AFC South.
After suffering a tibial plateau fracture and undergoing multiple back surgeries, Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt missed most of the 2016 and 2017 seasons. It was fair to wonder if the three-time Defensive Player of the Year ever would recapture his past form.
Then he racked up 16 sacks and forced a league-high seven fumbles this season while helping the Texans win the AFC South.
“I know that Watt won’t win this category, because quarterbacks get all the glory in the NFL,” Davenport said. “But as a fan of both Watt personally and defense as a whole, it felt good to see No. 99 back to doing what he does best—terrorizing quarterbacks.”
Davenport was right: Watt wasn’t the winner here. It was a player from the same division, though.
After missing all of the 2017 season with a bad shoulder, Andrew Luck was back under for the Colts this year. He passed for 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns, both of which were the second-best marks of his career.
“Luck didn’t just lose one season, he vanished from the NFL conversation,” Tanier said. “There was no sense entering this year that he would ever approach the player he had the potential to be before his injuries started to pile up. Now, his career will have a welcome second act. Franchise quarterbacks are the NFL’s rarest commodities, so having Luck back among the league’s best is like finding a stack of money in a cigar box in the basement.”
Others Receiving Votes: JJ Watt, DE, Houston Texans (2 votes)
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David Eulitt/Getty Images
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs (4 votes)
For most of these awards, there’s been an alarmingly high amount of agreement. That wasn’t the case with the Fantasy Player of the Year, as five different players received at least one vote.
Four of those players were running backs, which makes sense. Running backs might not dominate fantasy football to the extent they once did, but they do still rule the roost.
One voter tabbed Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing for the second time in three years. Another chose Christian McCaffrey, who set an NFL record for catches out of the backfield. Alvin Kamara received a vote, as did Todd Gurley.
However, those ball-carriers combined for as many votes as the winner had himself.
For Davenport, a finalist for the Fantasy Sports Writers Association Football Writer of the Year Award each of the last three years and the winner in 2017, picking Mahomes is all about the magic word in fantasy football.
“Mahomes didn’t get my vote because he was the highest-scoring quarterback in fantasy, although he was by a huge margin,” he said. “He gets it because he entered the year with an average draft position of 16th among quarterbacks. That sort of value wins fantasy championships, and Mahomes got plenty of people to the promised land in 2018.”
There isn’t going to be any such discount this coming summer.
Others Receiving Votes: Ezekeil Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys (1 vote); Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams (1 vote); Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints (1 vote); Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers (1 vote)
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David Eulitt/Getty Images
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs (4 votes)
Just like with the Fantasy Player of the Year award, five players received at least one vote for Breakout Player of the Year.
Saquon Barkley received Sobleski’s vote after he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage.
“Barkley is special,” he said. “Everyone saw that during his time at Penn State. In his first NFL season, he led the league with 2,028 yards from scrimmage and broke the rookie receptions record for a running back (91) despite subpar play from Eli Manning and an inferior offensive line.”
Another tailback (Chris Carson of the Seattle Seahawks) also received a vote. So did a tight end (George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers) and a defensive end (Chris Jones of the Chiefs), both of whom came out of nowhere to have massive seasons.
But just as with Fantasy Player of the Year, the Breakout Player of the Year award is all about Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, who drew the praise of Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden last week.
“Andy Reid’s a heck of a coach,” Gruden said, via Kirk Larrabee of 247Sports. “He calls some good plays. But they don’t always work. And when he calls a play that’s covered and there’s nothing there—there’s just nothing there—and he gets a 28-yard gain or a touchdown out of it. It’s sickening, isn’t it? It’s maddening to people that aren’t fans of the Chiefs. So, I think everybody’s looking for the dual-threat. Obviously Tom Brady’s made a living doing it a different way. But Mahomes is on the cutting edge of different, that’s for sure.”
We haven’t seen the last of Mahomes here.
Others Receiving Votes: Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants (1 vote); Chris Carson, RB, Seattle Seahawks (1 vote), Chris Jones, DE, Kansas City Chiefs (1 vote); George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers (1 vote)
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Ron Jenkins/Associated Press
Jaylon Smith, LB, Dallas Cowboys (3 votes)
The votes for Most Improved Player of the Year were spread out, as five players received at least one vote.
A pair of playoff quarterbacks who made big strides in 2018 landed one vote apiece: Jared Goff of the Rams and Mitchell Trubisky of the Bears. So did tight end George Kittle of the 49ers, who emerged from obscurity to erupt for 88 receptions and nearly 1,400 yards.
Two players received multiple nods from the NFL writers here at Bleacher Report. A pair of scribes (including NFL national lead writer Dan Pompei) cast their vote for tight end in Eric Ebron of the Indianapolis Colts.
“Ebron was considered a bust, and the team that drafted him (the Detroit Lions) didn’t even want him anymore,” Pompei wrote. “He not only resurrected his career in Indianapolis, but he also had a big hand in resurrecting the team. The Colts almost certainly would not have been a playoff team without his 13 touchdowns, which were tied for the second-most in the NFL.”
However, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith was our leading vote-getter for Most Improved Player.
After Smith shredded his knee in his final game at Notre Dame, his draft stock plunged. But as Miller noted, Dallas spending a second-round pick on him in 2016 looks brilliant in retrospect.
“In 2018, Jaylon Smith took over, showing the burst, instincts and all-around playmaking skills that had scouts in love with him before his knee injury left his career in doubt,” he said. “He already looks like one of the league’s best linebackers, and he’s still developing.”
Others Receiving Votes: Eric Ebron, TE, Indianapolis Colts (2 votes); Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams (1 vote); George Kittle, TE, San Francisco 49ers (1 vote), Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears (1 vote)
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs (7 votes)
Like it was going to be anyone else.
It wasn’t a unanimous vote—Drew Brees of the Saints broke up that party—but Mahomes was this panel’s runaway choice for Most Valuable Player. He already won the PFWA’s version of the award, and he figures to take home another one Saturday at the NFL Honors.
Pompei was the lone dissenter who favored Brees.
“Mahomes is the popular pick for MVP, and he is worthy,” Pompei said. “I gave Brees the edge even though his numbers aren’t quite as impressive because I thought he meant more to his team than any player in the league when factoring in other intangibles, especially leadership.”
On the other hand, Tanier was on board with the rest of the group in choosing Mahomes.
“Once a decade or so,” Tanier said, “a quarterback has a season that resets our expectations for what’s possible: Dan Marino in 1984, Steve Young in 1994, Tom Brady in 2007 and now Patrick Mahomes in 2018. Mahomes changed our expectations of what a second-year quarterback can achieve, what types of plays and schemes can be successful in the NFL, and what great quarterback play can look like. It wasn’t just a big statistical year; it was a paradigm-shifter for the position and the NFL.”
As gaudy as Mahomes’ numbers were, they don’t do justice to the season he had. Mahomes didn’t just take advantage of the opportunities he was given. So many times, he created his own.
Now he just needs the shelf space for his new trophies.
Others Receiving Votes: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (1 vote)