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Projections: 2014 Awards

After 214 days off, we finally have real football again. Tonight, the Seahawks host the Packers, as Seattle begins its title defense.

Starting in 2004, the NFL now schedules the defending Super Bowl champion to take the field for the league’s opening night kickoff game.  For the first eight seasons, the defending champion hosted each of these Thursday night games, and won all eight times.  In 2012, the Giants lost the opening game to the Cowboys on a Wednesday night, as  President Barack Obama was speaking the following night at the Democratic National Convention.  And last year, a conflict with the Baltimore Orioles led to the Ravens/Broncos matchup moving to Denver, which the Broncos won, 49-27.

So the last two years, the defending champs have lost, although it’s worth noting that the Ravens were a 7.5-point underdog in 2013. Tonight, Seattle is a 6-point favorite, which has become the new norm for the team.  But it wasn’t that long ago that the Seahawks were far from a lock to win every home game.

In each of Russell Wilson’s first three home starts — against the Cowboys, Packers, and Patriots — the Seahawks were three-to-four point underdogs.  And, with an assist from the replacement referees, the Seahawks won each of those games.  For his career, Wilson is 17-1 in Seahawks home games, including a 2-0 mark in the playoffs (the one loss came to Arizona, in the last regular season game in Seattle).

That makes Wilson the fourth quarterback to win 17 of his first 18 starts, joining Daryle Lamonica, Kurt Warner, and Matt Ryan. But did you know that Danny White began his career as the Cowboys starter with 18 consecutive home wins (including playoffs)?

And now, before we kick off the season, I wanted to get in my 2014 projected award winners.

Most Valuable Player

Pick: Peyton Manning

I don’t see any need to be contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.  On the heels of one of the best seasons in NFL history, Manning should be everyone’s clear favorite for MVP, since he should be the best quarterback in the NFL. I could certainly envision Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, or even Colin Kaepernick stealing this award, but for now, Manning is the money pick.

Johnson should score lots of touchdowns in 2014

Johnson should score lots of touchdowns in 2014.

Offensive Player of the Year

Pick: Calvin Johnson

Hey, this pick isn’t as much chalk as you might think. Over the last three years, Megatron has gained more receiving yards, and averaged more receiving yards per game, than any receiver has ever recorded over any three-year period. But Johnson has not won the OPOY award during that stretch; in fact, no receiver since Jerry Rice in 1993 has taken home this award.

But I think this is the year Johnson does it.  I think the additions of Golden Tate and North Carolina tight end rookie Eric Ebron will do wonders for the Lions offense.  Defenses already had to worry about Reggie Bush and Joique Bell out of the backfield, but these two could help Johnson — and the offense — reach new heights.  Challenging 2,000 yards again may be a stretch, but how about leading the league in receiving yards and touchdowns?

Defensive Player of the Year

Pick: Gerald McCoy

I’ll admit, I’m a bit swayed after listening to Robert Mays on the Grantland podcast profess his undying love for both McCoy and Lovie Smith.  Let’s get something out of the way: J.J. Watt may be in Manning territory right now, and he should basically be the de facto pick every single year absent a compelling reason to the contrary. But I think the voters would prefer a new face, and McCoy fits that mold.

The former Sooner has steadily progressed from elite prospect in 2009 to Pro Bowler in 2012 to All-Pro in 2013.  McCoy had 9.5 sacks last year, and that was with the Bucs being a 4-12 team. The addition of Smith could help McCoy have his best year yet.  During Smith’s first tenure in Tampa Bay, as a linebackers coach, Warren Sapp won the DPOY award in 1999. And with Chicago, Tommie Harris turned into one of the most dominant linemen in the league.  McCoy is a great fit as the Bucs three-technique, and could easily pile up double digit sacks. There is no shortage of dominant defenders one could select here, but if McCoy and Smith lead a resurgent Bucs defense, he’ll be a very attractive DPOY choice.

AP Offensive Rookie of the Year

Pick: Whoever players the Cowboys Kelvin Benjamin

I’m in an optimistic mood today — hey, it’s the start of the freakin’ NFL season!!! – so I’m going to project the Panthers offense to not resemble a a tire fire.  If Cam Newton is going to have any success this year, it starts with Benjamin, the 6’5 rookie out of Florida State.

Benjamin was considered a raw prospect, but he has played well in the preseason, catching 12 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown. As Matt Harmon points out over at Black and Blue Review, Benjamin has quickly picked up the finer points of the pro game. While he looked like project pick in May, he’s clearly emerged as the Panthers top wide receiver.  That’s good enough for me to pick him as my OROY favorite in September.

What happens when you leave Clowney unblocked

What happens when you leave Clowney unblocked.

AP Defensive Rookie of the Year

Pick: Jadeveon Clowney

Clowney is about an obvious pick as Manning was. The last 25 players selected by the Associated Press for Defensive Rookie of the Year were drafted in the top 40 overall.1 The only non-first round picks during that stretch were DeMeco Ryans in ’06 and Kendrell Bell in ’01.2 In the last 30 years, half of the DROY winners were top ten overall draft picks, and one-third were top five selections. The Associated Press doesn’t like wading into the deep end of the pool here, folks.

Clowney is one of only a handful of defensive players during that stretch to be drafted number one, so talent isn’t the question.  And playing alongside Watt will ensure that Clowney is rarely the focus of opposing offenses.  If that wasn’t reason enough, who is his competition?  The only other top ten defensive players were Khalil Mack, Justin Gilbert, and Anthony Barr. The biggest threat comes from Aaron Donald, but for now, Clowney’s the obvious frontrunner.

AP Coach of the Year

Pick: Jay Gruden

Why yes, I am more than happy being contrarian here.  After all, being contrarian is the nature of the game when it comes to picking the AP Coach of the Year.  I went far off the reservation when I predicted this award in 2012, but fared better last year. This remains the toughest award to pick every season, but let me outline the case for Gruden.  Remember, with COTY, it’s not about likelihood of success — you basically have to assume best case scenario, and then see which narrative sounds the best.

  • He’s a Gruden! The media loves a Gruden.
  • RG3 throws one of the best deep balls in the NFL. DeSean Jackson may be the best deep route runner in the NFL. Add in Alfred Morris, Pierre Garcon, Jordan Reed, and Andre Roberts, and Washington has the potential to be one of the top offenses in the NFL.  Gruden, as an offensive coach, will get credit for this.
  • Washington plays in the easiest division in the NFC.  No, I’m not predicting the team to win the division, but the team is better set up for a Cindarella run than say, the Rams, Bucs, or Vikings.
  • Don’t put it past the media to tie the Gruden’s success (if it occurs) to the the controversy surrounding the team nickname, because of course.
  • Washington had one of the worst special teams units in history last year. Gruden will be the beneficiary of some serious regression to the mean.  Add it up, and if Washington can jump to a 10-win season, Gruden is now a very tempting pick.

Pro Football Writers Executive of the Year

Pick: Rick Spielman

The award so nice PFW gave it to Scott Pioli twice.  Oh, and Ryan Grigson. Even last year, the selection of John Dorsey (how many voters live in Kansas City?!) over Steve Keim was ridiculous

PFR is destined to hand this to the executive whose team made a big improvement from 2013 to 2014 and saw significant turnover among key faces in the organization. I’m not predicting great things out of Buffalo, Cleveland, or Oakland, and Houston already is expected to be pretty decent. The Vikings — subject to them, ya know, actually being good — fit the bill nicely here.   If things go well, Spielman will get credit for hiring Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner (who is bound to get credit no matter what the situation), along with the “gutsy” move of trading up to grab Teddy Bridgewater (no, Spielman is not going to win EOTY if Matt Cassel starts half the team’s games).

New coach, new quarterback, and a jump from last in the NFC North to the playoffs would make Spielman a fantastic choice for EOTY.

Comeback Player of the Year

Pick: Julio Jones

RG3 is a good pick here, but this would require the media actually liking him.  Rob Gronkowski is another good choice, but that would require him actually staying healthy. Ditto Percy Harvin. Is Eli Manning eligible?

No matter, Jones is the strong favorite.  He’s a good bet for 90-1300-10 if he stays healthy, and few teams like to air it out like Matt Ryan.3 Jones was leading the NFL in receiving yards through four games last year, so if healthy, he should run away with this thing.

Walter Payton Man of the Year

Pick: Michael Sam

Let’s not split hairs here.

Super Bowl MVP

Pick: Russell Wilson

The Broncos might be more likely to make it to the Super Bowl, courtesy of playing in the easier conference.  But the Seahawks are my clear preseason number one.  Given the ridiculous defense and my view that Wilson produces his best season yet, he’s an easy pick for SB MVP.

  1. In 1988, Jets rookie Erik McMillan out of Missouri won the award after being the 63rd overall pick, and one of the only players both Jason Lisk and I cheered for. []
  2. And since they played in the SEC, both of those players obviously should have been first round picks. []
  3. Neil, if you’re reading here, you can read this as “No current team likes to.” Happy now? []
  • On coach of the year, I think Gruden makes sense. I also kind of love Lovie, though. And Zimmer, too.

    First-year coaches have done pretty well winning COTY lately. They’ve won it four of the last eight years: Bruce Arians (’12), Jim Harbaugh (’11), Mike Smith (’08), Sean Payton (’06). And both Washington and Tampa seem well-placed for that quick turnaround that wins COTY. One advantage of Lovie over Gruden is that we already know Lovie is a good coach. I’m more in on Zimmer being a good coach than Gruden, too. Not that the best coach generally wins the award. Rex Ryan is one of the five best coaches in the NFL and he’s never even gotten a COTY vote.