OZY's Too Early NFL Honors
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we’re telling you first.
By Matt Foley
The NFL regular season is three-quarters finished, meaning there are only about two slices left in our football pizza box before we arrive at the dessert that is the playoffs. That means we’ve seen enough to digest a wild 2017 season and forecast who will take home season-ending hardware — both of the traditional kind and OZY’s special-sauce honors.
Rookie of the Year: Alvin Kamara, Saints RB
Runner-Up: Kareem Hunt, Chiefs RB
If the season ended today, Kansas City’s dynamic rookie tailback would win this award. But it doesn’t, and he won’t. Hunt got off to a torrid start, but all six of his touchdowns came in the first three weeks. Down in the bayou, Kamara started slower but then topped 100 total yards in five consecutive weeks as the most dynamic threat in the 9-4 Saints’ wicked three-man backfield. New Orleans’ mighty offense looked limp without Kamara in action in a Thursday night loss to Atlanta, as he went out with a concussion during the first series. But the rookie says he’ll be back next week. New Orleans’ Super Bowl hopes might depend on his noggin.
Most Improved Player of the Year: Jared Goff, Rams QB
Runner-Up: Kevin Byard, Titans FS
Goff hasn’t been the best quarterback in the NFL this season, but he’s been successful enough that his woeful 2016 rookie season is all but forgotten. Still, simply saying that Goff isn’t as bad as last year would be an incredible slight. Teamed with new head coach Sean McVay and surrounded by a talented, revamped offense, Goff has limited mistakes (10 total turnovers) and exploited defenses via the long ball. In less than a year, Goff has transformed into a playoff-caliber quarterback — and his NFC West–leading Rams (9–3) will go as far as he can take them.
Coach of the Year: Doug Pederson, Eagles
Runner-Up: Sean McVay, Rams
McVay deserves kudos, but Pederson is the unquestionable pick here. In fact, let’s give him “Most Improved Coach” too. Viewed as an underwhelming hire to replace Chip Kelly in 2016, Pederson went 7–9 in his first year, and more mediocrity was expected this season. But Pederson’s innovative play-calling, combined with the development of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz into an MVP-caliber talent, has vaulted Philadelphia (10–2) to the top of the league. What’s more, Pederson seems to have established a strong, trusting culture in the Eagles locker room. Given Philly’s famously tough fans and media, that cannot be overlooked.
OZY’s Change Generator: David Thornton, Colts
We wanted to honor someone making a positive impact behind the scenes, and the former NFL linebacker turned director of player engagement fits the bill. Indianapolis has underwhelmed on the field, but Thornton’s charge to work one-on-one with players to prepare them for life beyond the gridiron goes beyond wins and losses. League insiders are taking notice. “In terms of his role and the significance of that role in the lives of his players, [Thornton] is operating at a really high level,” says former Tampa Bay linebacker Ryan Nece. “He helps players network with industries that will set them up for a successful transition. He’s leading the charge in player engagement.”
OZY’s Inaugural Buzzkill of the Year: Andrew Luck’s Shoulder
More disheartening than Jameis Winston’s interception-riddled, injury-filled flop, Dak Prescott’s regression or even the Cleveland Browns’ 0-fer (well, maybe) is the saga of Luck’s bum shoulder. The No. 1 draft pick in 2012 and Pro Bowler his first three seasons, Luck was as guaranteed a prospect as we’ve seen in decades — the next Peyton Manning or John Elway. Then, his shoulder started acting up. After missing half of the 2015 season to injury, he played 15 games last year but wasn’t quite the same. Now, following off-season surgery on his throwing shoulder, he has not played a down in 2017. While the Colts flounder without their leader, Luck has traveled to Europe in search of alternative rehabilitation methods. Here’s hoping that the best quarterback prospect of his generation hasn’t taken his last snap.
OZY’s Inaugural Make It Rain Award: DeMarcus Lawrence, Cowboys DE
“Tank” Lawrence is the name, but until this season, DeMarcus appeared more Fisher-Price than military-grade. Dallas’ fourth-year defensive end did have 55 tackles and eight sacks in 2015, but then he disappeared last season — suspended four games for violating the league’s drug policy, he only logged statistics in four of the nine games in which he played. But this year, with 50 tackles and a league-leading 13.5 sacks through 12 games, Lawrence has resurrected his career. Conveniently, it’s a contract year, so Tank is about to get paid.
Most Valuable Player: Tom Brady
Runner-Up: Carson Wentz, Eagles QB; Russell Wilson, Seahawks QB
The esteemed OZY panel had a hard time here, as this race is essentially a toss-up. Philadelphia fans will argue that Wentz’s franchise-changing heroics deserve the honor, but I don’t quite see it that way. While the NFL prefers to reward breakout players over MVP staples, Brady is still the top choice. At 40 years of age, Brady leads the league with 3,632 passing yards and a 109.7 quarterback rating. His 26 touchdowns trail only Wentz, and his 68.5 completion percentage is second to Drew Brees (71.7). Oh, and New England (10–2) is the clear favorite to win yet another Super Bowl. The two-time NFL MVP has somehow gotten better with age and, while Wilson and Wentz have been exceptional, Gisele’s hubby is the pick.