By: Mike Sampogna
The NFL 2020-2021 season is almost in the books. In spite of playing during the COVID-19 pandemic, this season has felt as blissful as past years with many surprises and heart-breaking moments that have left the football world in awe. With the annual NFL Honours award presentation set to take place on Feb. 6, 2021, there are many players and coaches in the mix for each award. Here are my top three picks for each category heading into the ceremony.
Most Valuable Player
In his 16th year in the league, Rodgers has shown he is still more than capable of putting up big numbers and leading the Packers to Super Bowl contention. Rodgers was highly consistent all year, in which he had 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and an average passer rating of 121.5 that led the league. Rodgers is tied with Dan Marino for the fifth most touchdowns in a season in NFL history. The rest of the players who had 48 or more touchdowns all won the MVP in that season. Rodgers balled out this year and it would be a major surprise if he did not win the MVP for this season.
The former recipient of this award in 2018 showed out once again this season. Mahomes had 40 total touchdowns and threw for almost 5000 yards in what was a commanding season for Kansas City. This high level of play is expected from Mahomes who led his team to the best record in the NFL this season. Mahomes is still very early in his career and the NFL will have plenty of more years with remarkable seasons from this young signal caller.
The Bills quarterback had a breakout campaign in 2020 setting franchise records and personal bests. Allen had 37 passing touchdowns and added eight rushing touchdowns on top of that. Whether Allen was facing heavy blitzes or lockdown coverage he found a way to dot up receivers and advance the ball with his arm or legs. Allen led the Bills to their first 13 win season since 1991 and their first AFC East title win in in over two decades. What Allen has done is impressive turning his game from mediocre to MVP potential. Allen is definitely in line to win an MVP award in the future even if he doesn’t receive the accolade this season.
Offensive Player of the Year
After finishing the regular season with 2027 rushing yards, Henry joins some elite company in becoming the eighth running back in NFL history to rush for over 2000 yards in a single-season. Henry’s rushing total is the fifth-highest of all time in the NFL passing Terrell Davis. Henry had 10 games with over 100 rushing yards and three games with over 200 yards. Whether it was his dominating stiff arms that sent defenders such as Josh Norman flying or game winning touchdowns in overtime, Henry single-handedly took over this past year’s regular season games. Regardless of the preparation teams would do before games Henry would still manage to come at them full force in the first half and wear the defence down with his usual second-half surge. Henry has established himself as the number one running back in the NFL after this season and it is scary to think this is only his fifth year in the league.
Arguably the best wide receiver in the league this past season, Adams imposed his will on defensive backs constantly creating separation and catching remarkable passes for MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers. Adams led the league in receiving touchdowns with a total of 18 which is tied for the third most touchdown receptions in a season. Adams had at least one touchdown reception in seven straight games which tied a Packers franchise record. Despite missing two games with an injury, there is no denying Adams accomplished quite a bit this season and deserves to be top conversation for this award.
If it wasn’t for Henry’s tremendous year, Cook would be in further conversation for offensive player of the year. Cook was a menace on offence and could explode for big runs at any time. The workhorse back had an impressive year rushing the ball with 1557 yards and 16 total touchdowns. The Vikings running back was right behind Henry in almost all positive running back stats with imposing numbers. After not receiving any votes for the NFL All-Pro team, Cook will be coming into next season with a vengeance to further prove he is one of the top offensive players in the league.
Defensive Player of the Year
The Steelers edge rusher had his best season to date leading the league in sacks with 15 in total. Watt was a dominant force on the field and offensive coaches struggled to contain him each week. The only way to stop Watt was to either double team him or simply commit a holding penalty which most of the time did not go in Watt’s favour. Not only did the fourth year linebacker get after quarterbacks, he was a crucial part in stopping the run for the Steelers defence leading the league in tackles for loss. Watt showcased a lot of versatility this season and improved immensely after finishing last season third in total votes for defensive player of the year. Watt would be the second member of his family to win this award behind his older brother J.J. Watt who has won defensive player of the year three times in his career.
Howard escalated his game immensely this season setting personal record highs in passes defended with 20 and 10 total interceptions. The 10 picks also lead the league this year with quarterbacks having to think twice about throwing the ball in his direction. Howard would completely eliminate his side of the field and the offensive player he was matched up against in games this season. Howard was without a doubt the top cornerback in the league and he is a one of the many reasons the Miami Dolphins went from a 5-11 team in the 2019 season to a 10-6 team in 2020 that had a shot at making the postseason right until the very end of the regular season. If Howard won this award, he would be the sixth cornerback in NFL history to win defensive player of the year and the first Dolphins player since defensive end Jason Taylor in 2006.
Donald was once again a force to be reckoned with this season. The defensive tackle finished with 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. The ability to make an impact on every single play is what sets Donald apart from other defenders. Often being double or triple teamed by offensive lineman Donald still couldn’t be stopped and affected both passing and running plays. Donald was the backbone of a potential Super Bowl contending defence that ranked number one overall by the end of the season. The Los Angeles star is on the verge of winning his third defensive player of the year award of his career.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
The future looks bright for the Chargers and Herbert after the 2020 regular season. Despite having limited weapons on offence, Herbert was able to sling the ball and make spectacular throws every week. Herbert led all rookie quarterbacks in every positive category and set highs for almost every conceivable NFL rookie passing record. The Chargers overall record did not reflect how well Herbert played this season as he gave them a fighting chance to win almost every week scoring multiple touchdowns in 10 total games. Herbert definitely has potential to be considered an MVP in years to come and if Los Angeles adds key weapons on offence for Herbert to throw to he could easily be in that conversation in no time.
The rookie wide receiver shined in his first year with Vikings leading all rookies with receptions and receiving yards. Jefferson put up veteran numbers for a player that was just drafted prior to this season. The Vikings got Jefferson through a package deal that sent wide receiver Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills and various draft picks to Minnesota. The trade has seemed to do wonders for both teams based on this past regular season. With Jefferson, the Vikings have a young and hungry wide receiver who will only improve as the seasons pass. Jefferson should strongly be considered offensive rookie of the year in tandem with Justin Herbert who is most likely the front runner for this award. The race should be much closer than anyone initially would think as Jefferson proved to be a dominant future number one wide receiver in the league.
This last spot could easily go to other offensive rookies such as Johnathan Taylor, however Robinson is the most deserving when it comes to this third spot. Robinson was an undrafted free agent coming into this season with the Jacksonville Jaguars and had no expectations of performing at the level he did. Taylor was behind a Colts offensive line that ranked fourth in the league this season, meanwhile Robinson ran behind the 21st ranked Jaguars offensive line. This is much more impressive for Robinson additionally considering how poorly the Jaguars season was overall. Regardless of the fact the Jaguars had only one win, Robinson was the lone bright spot for the team heading into the future with a number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Robinson quietly had an exceptional campaign with over 1000 yards rushing, 10 total touchdowns, and 344 receiving yards. Robinson’s 1070 rushing yards was tied for the fifth most rushing yards this season with David Montgomery of the Chicago Bears. If the Jaguars can improve their offensive line and Robinson can improve his game even more, Jacksonville is looking at the best running back they’ve had since three time Pro Bowler Maurice Jones-Drew.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
The second overall pick out of Ohio State University had a stellar season for a rookie defensive end. Young showcased his strong and forceful ability to get to quarterbacks with seven and a half sacks which led all rookies. To add on to that, Young had three crucial fumble recoveries this season in which he returned one of those for a touchdown. The former Buckeye helped turn Washington into a top 10 defence which is huge considering only a season ago the Football Team ranked 27th overall in total defence. The ceiling is high for Young who is only looking to improve and become even more of a threat off the edge.
Antoine Winfield Jr.
The Buccaneers free safety has demonstrated the ability to be a solid starter since the beginning of the season. Winfield Jr. deserves more recognition when it comes to the top defensive rookies. Although his stats may not initially catch the eye, his play speaks for itself and not the numbers. The energy and intelligence he brings to the Bucs could be compared to a long-time veteran. The way the season has gone for Winfield Jr. almost makes you wonder how the rookie didn’t get selected until the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Chinn has flourished in a young Panther’s defense and made himself a strong case for defensive rookie of the year. The young star was flying under the radar until a week 12 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings where Chinn scored back to back touchdowns off of two fumbles. Following this performance, Chinn became the first Panther and the first player since 1948 to score multiple defensive touchdowns in a single game. These sequence of plays were remarkable in themselves and his odds to win this award skyrocketed after his week 12 performance. Chinn will be a grueling force in a maturing Carolina defence.
Comeback Player of the Year
This award will undoubtedly go to Smith and rightfully so as he deserves to win comeback player of the year after the long journey he’s had since breaking his leg against the Texans in the 2018 regular season. Smith suffered a spiral compound fracture of the fibula and tibia in his right leg. Reports surfaced that there were severe complications after the initial surgery to repair Smith’s leg. The Washington quarterback ended up having a total of 17 surgeries on his injured right leg and in the midst of all this, Smith developed an infection called Sepsis. In Smith’s case the severity of the infection posed a high-risk of amputation and further life-threatening outcomes as doctors’ were having difficulty controlling the infection. Eventually, Smith was cleared of infection and placed on an external fixator for several months. This hard fought journey would pay off as Smith would be cleared to resume football activity on Aug. 16, 2020. During the 2020 regular season in games Smith played, the former number one overall pick posted a 5-3 record and put up personal career highs in completions, passing attempts, and passing yards in a game against the Detroit Lions. If it wasn’t for Smith, Washington wouldn’t have had a chance to make the postseason this year. What is truly remarkable though is that Smith was able to fight back and overcome such a gruesome injury. Smith is the true definition of what this award stands for and he deserves all the credit for it.
Following a season-ending elbow injury in the 2019 regular season that almost ended the 17-year veterans career, Roethlisberger led the Pittsburgh Steelers to an 11-0 record through 11 weeks of the 2020 regular season. This run for the Steelers is the franchise’s best start since 1978 where they went 7-0 that season. Roethlisberger also had his longest stretch of wins in a regular season since his rookie year in 2004. A lot of this success can be attributed to the Steelers defence and Roethlisberger’s quick passing from snap to throw that led the league this season. At 38-years-old, Big Ben does deserve credit for being able to comeback and still show the capabilities of a franchise quarterback after having three torn tendons in his throwing arm. Not many veteran athletes can overcome an injury of this caliber.
In his first year back from coming out of retirement, Gronkowski proved he has not missed a beat. The Brady and Gronk connection took their flair in Buccaneer uniforms and shined in moments that brought fans back to their days in New England with Bill Belichick and the crew. The 31-year-old tight end put up respectable numbers considering he was sharing catches with the NFL’s most talented receiving core this past season. Gronkowski totalled for seven touchdowns on 623 receiving yards showing he is still a major threat to score on any drive. The explosiveness expected from Gronk was steady as he caught 10 plays for 20 plus yards and two for 40 plus yards. There is plenty of juice left in the tank for Gronkowski and he showed this season he’s still got it.
Coach of the Year
From a head coaching standpoint, Flores was by far the best head coach out of all 32 teams this season. Flores accomplished the most by taking a 5-11 team in the prior season to a surprising 10-6 record in 2020. Nobody expected for the Miami Dolphins to be a potential playoff contender, let alone have a fighting chance to win the AFC East. All players on the Dolphins bought into the system and Flores was able to turn the team around. In one season Flores was able to additionally turn a historically bad defense into a powerhouse core that ranked in the top 10 this year. Any of these coaches could win this award, however Flores should be the favourite after the things he achieved. Miami has a bright future ahead with Flores leading the helm.
In his first season as the Washington Football Team’s head coach, Rivera faced many challenges prior to the 2020 season. Rivera was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in his lymph nodes this past August. He underwent seven rounds of chemotherapy and still managed to coach his team throughout all the treatment. Washington ended up playing phenomenal in the second half of the season winning the NFC East and earning a spot in the playoffs. Rivera was at the centre of this success all while battling cancer. Rivera’s strength and devotion and to his team and the game of football is truly remarkable.
The Cleveland Browns may have finally found the head coach they’ve been looking for. The Browns have had a long list of head coaches that have not worked out over the past decade. After this season, Stefanski appears to be the guy who will change that heading into the future. Without having the ability to introduce his offseason program due to COVID-19, Stefanski installed a winning program and mentality that helped the Browns achieve their full potential this year winning notable games against some of the league's top rated teams. Cleveland earned a playoff spot for the first time since 2002 in which Stefanski helped end that drought. If Stefanski can replicate this season and assure his team performs to the same standard, if not better, then the first year head coach will absolutely win coach of the year in the near future.