The Debrief  

 

The Debrief, Week 13: Updating MVP and other awards races

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Gregg Rosenthal catches you up on everything you need to know as we turn from Week 13 to Week 14.

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan beat Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil so badly on one play Sunday afternoon in New Orleans that Kalil was required to hold Jordan, inspiring a flag. When that didn't work, Kalil grabbed Jordan by the facemask, resulting in another flag. Jordan still knocked Cam Newton to the ground.

That type of play, which doesn't show up in the box score, is why Jordan is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in a wide open field. Forgive Jordan, who has toiled away on some dreadful New Orleans defenses for too long, if that suggestion catches him by surprise.

"That has nothing to do with me," Jordan told me in a boisterous Saints locker room after the team's latest beatdown of the Panthers. "I don't even know how that works. It's like fan votes? Media?"

The 50 voters for The Associated Press' annual NFL awards will have a difficult choice for the defensive honor this season, because there are so many quality options. Hopefully, they look beyond just the highest sack totals, because some of the best candidates -- like Jordan (tied for seventh in the league with 10.0 sacks), Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (tied for 18th with 8.0) and Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner (1.5 sacks) -- make an impact that goes far beyond sacks. Jordan is looking to go Full Russell Westbrook to gain a little attention.

"Once I get this triple-double, then I'll start talking about it," Jordan said, referring to a desire to finish with at least 10 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and 10 passes defensed on the season. (He already has 13 TFLs, 10.5 sacks and six passes defensed, which should be seven, if the NFL corrects one an official missed Sunday.)

In this edition of "The Debrief," let's take an awards tour around the NFL, handicapping each (meaningful) race with a quarter left to play in the season. I'll start with the aforementioned DPOY race, which is going to depend largely on the closing kick because it is so wide open. (I'm skipping Offensive Player of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year and Assistant Coach of the Year).

Defensive Player of the Year

Just running a Google search for "Defensive Player of the Year" brings up local writers stumping for players as disparate as Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones and Chargers linebacker Joey Bosa. None of those guys, who are all having great seasons, even crack my top five below.

1) Aaron Donald, Rams defensive tackle: Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was asked last week what has surprised them the most in his first year in Los Angeles.

"Aaron Donald, because he's better than everybody, and I didn't know he was better than everybody. I thought he was good, but I didn't know he was better than everybody. But he is," Phillips said.

That quote is essentially my case for Donald. Watch him enough and become convinced he's both the best defensive player in the league and the most valuable. His two sacks on Sunday brought his total to 8.0 for the season. His Pro Football Focus grade is leaps and bounds ahead of any defensive player in part because he has 71 pressures, far more than other interior lineman. He's on pace for the most pressures of his career despite missing Week 1 and not quite being himself in Week 2 after a holdout. I'm convinced no player has a bigger down-to-down impact on the team around him.

2) Cameron Jordan, Saints defensive end: He can line up at either end spot as a force against the run and pass. Jordan tortured Rams tackles Andrew Whitworth and Rob Havenstein a week ago, and this week, his disciplined play was the key to containing Cam Newton on Carolina's read-option plays. His elite run-stopping and pass-rush ability are why he's the highest-ranked 4-3 defensive end by PFF this season. Jordan has enjoyed an underrated pro tenure -- only J.J. Watt has more sacks and batted passes since 2011 -- but this is clearly a career year for the Saints star. Now he just needs to mess around and get that triple double.

3) Bobby Wagner, Seahawks linebacker: Wagner should get extra points for taking over as the Seahawks' defensive leader with the team so short-handed in the back end following injuries to Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. For this season, Wagner passed Luke Kuechly as the preeminent middle linebacker in football with his incredible pursuit, coverage ability and blitz skills.

"Bobby Wagner should be the Defensive MVP," teammate Doug Baldwin told reporters after Sunday's win over Philadelphia. "If he's not the defensive MVP, then I don't know what more he could do, honestly. He's played out of his mind this season."

4) Calais Campbell, Jaguars defensive end: Campbell is similar to Jordan in a lot of ways as an unheralded all-around lineman who is having a breakout season. His 12.5 sacks (third most in the NFL) will help his case. I'm splitting hairs with players this great, but Campbell has had a few more games than the guys above where he hasn't made a huge impact.

5) Everson Griffen, Vikings defensive end: Playing on one of the best defenses in football and leading the league in sacks is a sure way to get consideration for hardware. Griffen -- currently in fourth with 12 sacks, but only 1.5 back of DeMarcus Lawrence for the top spot -- has a shot. You know it's a loaded field when I don't even have a chance to mention Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward, Chargers linebacker Melvin Ingram or Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham.

MVP

1) Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback: Not voting for Brady during one of the very best seasons of his career feels like an exercise in taking excellence for granted, like when Derrick Rose won over LeBron James or Karl Malone won over Michael Jordan in the NBA. (Or when Michael Vick was propped up as a potential MVP candidate over Brady in 2010 before a rough end to the regular season.) Brady still needs to close out strong, but he should have a big lead over the field. Every time this "take" feels crazy, I comfort myself by noting he's lapped the field in PFF's grades, too.

2) Carson Wentz, Eagles quarterback: Coming up short in Seattle could stick in the minds of voters, but it hardly invalidates Wentz's incredible 12 games. Like a great running back, Wentz appears to assume he's going to beat the first unblocked defender in his way, already looking ahead to the next man up.

3) Russell Wilson, Seahawks quarterback: Wilson has carried a decaying running game and worse offensive line, playing his best over the last month with both groups showing some signs of life. Wilson's receiving options are the best of his career, and he's developed incredible chemistry with them during off-schedule plays. He still ranks third here because of his slow start and the amount of negative plays compared to the two quarterbacks above. Wilson's case will get a lot more compelling if the Seahawks keep winning.

4) Antonio Brown, Steelers receiver: Take him away from Pittsburgh, and all those close wins could turn to losses.

5) Todd Gurley, Rams running back: The NFL's leader in yards from scrimmage routinely makes the first defender miss, especially as a receiver. Opposing teams game plan to stop him every week, and he is still on track for 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Speaking of which ...

Coach of the Year

1) Sean McVay, Rams: There are plenty of great options for this award, but McVay's turnaround in Los Angeles could be the coaching performance of the decade. He has helped make nearly all his offensive players better, accentuating their strengths and creating acres of open space for them to play in. There is no greater advantage in the NFL than having a quality starting quarterback on a rookie contract and a coach who can bring out the best in said quarterback. The Rams have that. McVay's excellent coaching-staff decisions (hiring defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and retaining special teams coordinator John Fassel) only further put him over the top.

2) Mike Zimmer, Vikings: It's telling when a team takes on the personality of its head coach. Zimmer's defense, carefully built over the last four seasons, is a testament to what he brings to the table. Few teams are better at situational football, and that's what NFL coaching is all about. That reminds me ...

3) Bill Belichick, Patriots: Just look at the front seven players on defense lining up lately for the Patriots. Then look at how many points the Patriots allow each week after a rough start. No team is better at identifying weaknesses, then covering them up.

4) Doug Pederson, Eagles: Pederson has done a fantastic job building an offense around Carson Wentz's strengths and has mostly avoided the game-management snafus that plagued his rookie season as a head coach.

5) Sean Payton, Saints: He's still one of the most creative and flexible offensive minds in football after all these years, pivoting to a punishing and versatile run-first offense. You know where this is going ...

Offensive Rookie of the Year

1) Alvin Kamara, Saints running back: Kamara is fourth in the NFL with 1,220 yards from scrimmage despite only touching the ball 146 times. His 8.4 yards per touch are the most for any player with his workload in the last 25 years, and it's not particularly close. It takes a rare player to make the Panthers' linebacker duo of Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis look bad on multiple occasions, including on plays when Kamara didn't even touch the ball. Kuechly sometimes bit hard for Kamara in motion, opening up the field for other Saints. Also rare: an NFL player whom teammates and opponents openly marvel at.

"Fluid, but strong. If [Kamara] gets his flow going, he's really strong with the current," Jordan told me after Sunday's victory.

When I think back on this regular season, Kamara's emergence will be one of the first things to come to mind. I know Brian Baldinger agrees!

2) Leonard Fournette, Jaguars running back: While Fournette's numbers have been up and down, it's hard to measure how much he means to a limited Jacksonville offense. The team has built its attack around him, and he's held up well enough to lead the Jags to an 8-4 record.

3) Kareem Hunt, Chiefs running back: His pace has slowed down dramatically, along with Kansas City's run-blocking, but Hunt's dominant five-game stretch to start the season shouldn't be forgotten: 1,297 yards from scrimmage through 12 weeks is an incredible achievement for a third-round pick, no matter how he reached the number.

4) Deshaun Watson, Texans quarterback: He'll go down as the season leader in ESPN's QBR metric, a reminder of what could have been before his season-ending ACL tear in early November.

5) Evan Engram, Giants tight end: Rams receiver Cooper Kupp was originally in this spot until I watched Engram's incredible performance against the Raiders. It was a reminder of Engram's dazzling route running and ability to haul in wayward throws, a rare combination for a rookie tight end. The next Giants coach and quarterback will be living right with Engram, Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard catching passes.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

1) Marshon Lattimore, Saints cornerback: Yup, the Saints could still sweep the rookie awards, despite Lattimore missing the last two games with an ankle injury. If the shutdown cornerback returns to the field to play significant snaps down the stretch, he should be the shoo-in pick. His ability to cover the opposition's best receiver ranks among the best of the players at his position -- rookie or not. Lattimore is the rare rookie who makes the players around him better, and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen was able to get creative with the rest of the Saints secondary because Lattimore could handle so much.

2) Tre'Davious White, Bills cornerback: The Bills traded down before selecting White with the No. 27 overall pick in April. He's given up a few big plays, but that's going to happen when you play every snap. White's tackling, instincts and ball skills give coach Sean McDermott a foundational cornerback to rely on for as long as McDermott is coaching the team.

3-4) Myles Garrett, Browns defensive end, and Reuben Foster, 49ers linebacker: In a season where few rookie defenders have truly stood out, Garrett and Foster qualify as the two biggest difference makers outside of Lattimore. They both missed huge chunks of the season, but they've shown enough promise to expect future trips to the Pro Bowl. Both could have won the award if they had played more.

5) Carl Lawson, Bengals linebacker: He's only a situational pass rusher, but Lawson takes advantage of those situations with aplomb, having collected 7.5 sacks. Pro Football Focus also has the fourth-round pick down for ten quarterback hits and 33 hurries despite playing only 364 snaps on the season. That's incredible production for a specialist, evidence of his rare burst around the edge.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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