We’ve hit the quarter pole of the NFL season. Time to fill out my first ballot for league superlatives.
At the end of the year, I’ll submit a final, official one for the Associated Press.
But for now, here are my choices (we’ll check back at midseason to see how my picks are working out then):
Most Valuable Player
Tom Brady, QB, New England. With so much focus on the fact the Patriots are 3-2 rather than on that “19-0” run more than a few pundits expected, Brady being the quintessential Brady has been somewhat overlooked. The guy is actually having one of the best starts in a career filled with all kinds of bests. Despite being without his top receiver, Julian Edelman, Brady leads the NFL with 1,702 passing yards and is on pace to put up 5,446 passing yards, 35 touchdowns, and one interception. Considering how bad the Patriots’ defense has been through most of the first five games, they’d be nowhere without Brady.
Offensive Player of the Year
Kareem Hunt, RB, Kansas City. His NFL career got off to an ominous start when, after going his entire career at the University of Toledo without a fumble, he lost the ball on his very first NFL carry in the season-opener against New England. Since then, it has been one spectacular play after another. Hunt’s speed and elusiveness have helped him lead the league with 502 yards on 68 carries, giving him a staggering 7.4 yards per rush. That’s 0.4 yards better than any player in NFL history has averaged on 50 carries through the first four games. Hunt also is as dangerous a receiver as he is a runner. He has 13 receptions for 157 yards and two touchdowns.
Defensive Player of the Year
DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas. How’s this for a player making a case for more money during a contract year? Lawrence leads the NFL with 7.5 sacks. He’s also first with 11 quarterback knockdowns and has forced two fumbles. It doesn’t seem possible Lawrence can sustain a sack pace that would give him 30 for the season, but it’s easy to see him collecting upwards of 15. It’s also easy to see increased competition for this honor through the balance of the year from the likes of Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones, and Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Hunt. See Offensive Player of the Year. As long as he stays healthy, it’s hard to see Hunt’s production taking a major fall. Keep an eye on Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson making a run, although it’s far more difficult to have that sort of dominant success at his position.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Tre’Davious White, CB, Buffalo. In the last two weeks, he was clearly targeted from the very start by Denver’s Trevor Siemian and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. Each time, White not only held his own, but he wound up holding the thing the quarterbacks previously had in their hand: The ball. White, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for September, intercepted Siemian and knocked down four other passes. Against the Falcons, he picked up a Ryan fumble and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown. White plays with the poise and savvy of a long-time veteran. He carries himself with a great deal of confidence, but maintains the team-first philosophy that Sean McDermott wants his players to have.
Comeback Player of the Year
Justin Houston, OLB, Kansas City. After struggling through last season with knee problems, he’s back to the form that once put him among the NFL’s foremost pass-rushing terrors. Houston has four sacks, eight quarterback knockdowns and three passes defensed. New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, who underwent back surgery last season, was on pace for an 80-catch season over 16 games … but he has only been healthy for four of five. Seattle safety Earl Thomas, who suffered a broken leg last year, also merits strong consideration for his impressive play so far.
Coach of the Year
Sean McVay, L.A. Rams. Lots of excellent candidates here, including the other first-year coach with the same first name running the Bills. Kansas City’s Andy Reid also deserves plenty of props for leading the NFL’s lone unbeaten team. But it’s hard not to go with McVay. The Rams were a mess under his predecessor, especially on offense. McVay has helped do wonders for the revival of quarterback Jared Goff, whose poor rookie season raised serious questions about his validity as the top overall pick of the draft. In addition, the 31-year-old coach has managed to help spark a rebound year for running back Todd Gurley (whose 362 rushing yards rank second in the league; he also has four touchdowns on the ground and three receiving).
The following are not official AP categories, just ones I feel are interesting enough to share:
Most surprising team
L.A. Rams and Buffalo. Both are 3-1 and have far exceeded expectations. They aren’t just playing competitively, they’re making cases to be viewed as legitimate contenders. Another consideration here is 3-1 Detroit.
Most disappointing team
N.Y. Giants. No other team is even close. At 0-4 and with a highly predictable offense, the Giants are going nowhere fast. At 2-1, Miami is in this conversation, although the Dolphins have the extenuating circumstances of losing Ryan Tannehill to a season-ending knee injury and having to bring Jay Cutler out of retirement to replace him.
Most disappointing player
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore. He has been simply awful. Flacco has thrown six interceptions to four touchdowns, and ranks next to last in the NFL with a passer rating of 65.0.
* The New York Jets have been using widespread media predictions of a 0-16 finish, on the assumption that purging their roster of key veterans was an indication of a tank, as motivational fuel. Media and fans can make all of the presumptions they want about the strategy of a team intentionally going for the worst possible record in order to have the highest possible draft pick the following year. Players aren’t aboard with that. Ever.
To make sure those nasty predictions for a team that hasn't been above .500 since the end of the 2015 season are in the forefront of their thoughts, a copy of a story containing one – with a note written on it saying "don't forget what they stated about us ..." – was anonymously distributed to throughout the Jets' locker room.
“I was disgusted by it,” defensive end Kony Ealy told NJ Advance Media. “For you to make bold predictions like that, about any professional team? It’s bad on you.”
* For Alexa Stabler, her recent certification as an NFL player agent is about much more than receiving commissions from big-time contracts she hopes to eventually negotiate. The 30-year-old daughter of late Hall of Famer Ken Stabler, who had retired from the game before she was even born, hopes to accomplish something much larger: Helping current players in the league and prospects avoid the many negative aspects that were as much a part of her father’s career as prolific passing. Before dying of colon cancer at in 2014 at age 69, Stabler dealt with alcoholism, three divorces, and financial troubles.
“I grew up the daughter of a professional athlete and I saw what happened after football – meaning what happened physically, mentally, emotionally, financially,” Alexa, who is a lawyer, told WNSP-FM in Mobile, Ala. “I’ve seen that repeated in my dad’s teammates and other players. And I saw some judgment calls that maybe could have been made differently. ... I feel like this is a great marriage of my professional life as an attorney and my personal life as the daughter of a professional athlete. And I just want to make a better life for my clients, these players who work so hard.”