With the NFL playoffs underway, it’s time to recognize some of the best and worst of what we saw during the regular season.
Here are my choices, with mid-season selections in parentheses:
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina. (Tom Brady, QB, New England). No-brainer because no player carried his team the way Newton carried the Panthers on the way to their 15-1 finish. He did it with his passing (3,837 yards, 35 touchdowns, 10 interceptions). He did it with his running (636 yards and a 4.8 yards-per-carry average, and 10 TDs). He did it with his dynamic personality, which set the tone for the entire squad. Yes, the Panthers have a strong defense, which includes an elite cornerback in Josh Norman and a top-flight inside linebacker in Luke Kuechly. But they had no prayer of being competitive, let alone the top seed in the NFC playoffs, without Newton. Remarkably, he put up those staggering passing numbers after losing his best receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, for the year in the preseason. His other target besides standout tight end Greg Olsen was wideout Ted Ginn Jr., who seemingly kept his fingers coated in butter given his penchant for drops.
Honorable mention: Brady; Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle; Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona.
Offensive Player of Year
Newton. (Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta). I thought about going in a different direction just to spread out the recognition, but I kept coming back to Newton’s incredible production and what it meant to Carolina having the league’s best record. Wilson comes the closest to that eye-popping versatility, but he did the bulk of his damage in the second half of the season and against a bunch of the NFL’s bottom-feeders.
Honorable mention: Jones; Brady; Wilson; Palmer; Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants; Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh.
Defensive Player of Year
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston. (Aqib Talib, CB, Denver Broncos). Watt led the NFL with 17.5 sacks, maintaining the pass-rushing dominance that has defined his career. Although he was slowed in the final month of the season while wearing a cast on a broken hand, he continued to reinforce his standing as the game’s single-greatest defensive force since Lawrence Taylor. When the cast came off for the season-finale against Jacksonville, Watt went off for 3.5 sacks, four quarterback hits, and a pair of pass deflections. The standard for this award is how much a player forces an opponent to adjust its game plan to account for him. No one does that as effectively as Watt, who consistently draws double teams to create one-on-one opportunities for his fellow Texan pass-rushers.
Honorable mention: Norman; Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis; Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders.
Offensive Rookie of Year
Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis. (Gurley). The Rams didn’t let the torn ACL that he suffered at Georgia stop them from making him the 10th overall pick of the draft. And Gurley rewarded their risk by ranking third in the NFL in rushing with 1,106 yards (an average of 4.8 yards per carry) and finishing tied for second in the league with 10 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 21 passes for 188 yards. Even more impressive is the fact Gurley wasn’t physically cleared to play until Week Three, when he was limited to six carries. He didn’t receive a full workload until Week Four when he ran for 146 yards against Arizona, which ranked sixth in the NFL against the rush. He would surpass 100 yards in the next three games, including a season-high 159 against Green Bay. Gurley looks like he’ll be the NFL’s top back for several years to come.
Honorable mention: Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay.
Defensive Rookie of Year
Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City. (Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo). Kicked off the University of Washington football team in 2014, Peters carried a checkered past into the NFL. Then, he made it seem like a distant memory with his play on the field. He performed as well as any cornerback, including veterans, in the league. Rookies tend to struggle at the position, but Peters and Darby put that notion to rest by emerging as two of the league’s best at the position. Rookies tend to be picked on, and no defensive back was targeted more than Peters. But he made opponents pay with eight interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, while also ranking first in the league with 26 passes defensed.
Honorable mention: Darby; Leonard Williams, DT, New York Jets.
Comeback Player of Year
Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona. This was a tough one. Palmer is extremely deserving for coming back from the torn ACL he suffered on Nov. 9, 2014, against St. Louis to throw for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns and rank third in the league with a passer rating of 104.6. His efforts went a long way toward allowing the Cardinals to finish with the NFL’s second-best record at 13-3. But another very strong possibility was Chiefs safety Eric Berry, who was diagnosed with cancer on Dec. 8, 2014, and finished the season on the Chiefs’ non-football illness list. He spent the balance of that season and offseason undergoing chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was declared cancer-free on June 22. Berry proceeded to have a Pro Bowl year in 2015 as Kansas City rebounded from a 1-5 start to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs.
Honorable mention: Berry; Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay.
Coach of Year
Ron Rivera, Carolina. (Mike Zimmer, Minnesota). His team’s record should say it all, but it doesn’t. He did an amazing job of keeping the Panthers from being distracted by the fact they had a real chance to achieve perfection on the way to 14-0. Rivera kept his squad focused on the real prize: reaching the Super Bowl. He further showed the strength of his leadership by giving orders to the entire team to be mindful of what they said to the media to help prevent the controversial clash between Norman and Beckham (who would serve a one-game suspension for helmet-to-helmet contact with the Panthers’ cornerback) from becoming a prolonged issue and another distraction. His players complied, a sign of the immense respect he commands.
Honorable mention: Zimmer; Bruce Arians, Arizona; Andy Reid, Kansas City; Jay Gruden, Washington.
Super Bowl choices
New England and Seattle. I know. Who wants to see these two teams again and the Seahawks for a third year in a row? But that’s the way I can see this going. Injuries to their top playmakers caused the Patriots to look more vulnerable on their way to a 12-4 finish, but Brady and Bill Belichick know how to navigate these often tricky postseason waters as well as anyone. Granted, the Seahawks have a longer road to travel as a wild-card entry. Yet, they, too, should be able to use their considerable playoff experience to their advantage.
Carolina. I can’t imagine that anyone envisioned this impressive run by the Panthers, including the Panthers. For Newton to clearly rise above Brady and the other quarterbacks typically attached to the MVP conversation is simply amazing.
Honorable mention: Minnesota, Washington.
Green Bay. Finishing second in the NFC North to the Vikings pretty much says it all. Offensive dysfunction isn’t something commonly associated with Aaron Rodgers or Mike McCarthy.
Honorable mention: Atlanta, Buffalo.
One man’s All-Pro ballot
WR: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh; Julio Jones, Atlanta
TE: Rob Gronkowski, New England
T: Tyron Smith, Dallas; Terron Armstead, New Orleans
G: Richie Incognito, Buffalo; Marshal Yanda, Baltimore
C: Max Unger, New Orleans
QB: Cam Newton, Carolina
RB: Adrian Peterson, Minnesota; Doug Martin, Tampa Bay
FB: Zach Line, Minnesota
PK: Stephen Gostkowski, New England
KR: Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota.
DE: J.J. Watt, Houston; Khalil Mack, Oakland
DT: Aaron Donald, St. Louis; Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia
OLB: Justin Houston, Kansas City; Von Miller, Denver
ILB: Luke Kuechly, Carolina; Sean Lee, Dallas
CB: Marcus Peters, Kansas City; Josh Norman, Carolina
S: Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati; Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona
P: Johnny Hekker, St. Louis