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The Overhang: Breaking Down The NFL MVP Race And Some Tough Calls On Other End-of-season Awards | TheSportsDay The Overhang: Breaking Down The NFL MVP Race And Some Tough Calls On Other End-of-season Awards | TheSportsDay

The Overhang: Breaking down the NFL MVP race and some tough calls on other end-of-season awards

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

The long, winding road to the NFL playoffs is almost complete. Finishing records will be looked at wholesale as we forget the ebbs and flows of each team’s march (or stumble) to four or six or eight or 11 wins.

It’s also awards season! And I’m inevitably dooming myself by releasing The Overhang’s selections for each major award before Week 18, from MVP to assistant coach and everything in between. These are some great fields to sift through and work out, and there are plenty of tough selections to make. So, let’s get to them!

Offensive Player of the Year

A tough one, but there’s a clear three to me at the top. Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown fell off a bit in the second half of the season but still finished with strong numbers, both in total and rate wise, but this top three is as simple as the top three in yards from scrimmage this season: Miami Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill, Dallas Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb and San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey.

The case for Hill: Hill was running (cheetah-ing?) away with this award through just about every checkpoint this season. Likely falling short of Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving yard record but currently sitting with 112 receptions for 1,717 yards and 12 touchdowns with a week to play. Hill will almost certainly finish with one of the most efficient and explosive seasons by a wide receiver ever. Since 2013, Hill’s 3.93 yards per route run ranks first. Like substantially first. See that dot that the yellow arrow is pointing to? That’s Hill this season.

Miami Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill has had a season that's been almost literally off the charts in terms of efficiency per route. (TruMedia)Miami Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill has had a season that's been almost literally off the charts in terms of efficiency per route. (TruMedia)


The average over this time is 1.65 yards per route run. Hill has more than doubled that this season. The second-highest mark was Hill last season at 3.21 yards. There have been only five seasons above 3 yards per route run heading into this season since 2013. Hill is almost clearing 4 yards!

Hill has the highest rate of explosive receptions (gain of 16 yards or more) per route since 2013. His 9.9% rate nearly triples the pass-catcher average of 3.5%. I could keep listing off any of the eye-popping stats he has put up that got him in the MVP discussion before people moved onto the next shiny toy. Tyreek Hill’s season has been phenomenal. The way he manipulates defenses just by the threat of his speed changes the math constantly for the Dolphins’ offense (and poor defensive coordinators who have to figure out how to contain him).

The case for McCaffrey: McCaffrey has topped 2,000 yards from scrimmage this season and has been the workhorse for this 49ers offense who can be used as a thoroughbred and a clydesdale. His running style still features the tidy vision, burst and clinical tape-type footwork and movement that allows him to maximize every run play. The threat of him as a route runner opens up the entire 49ers attack, creating mismatches just with alignment. McCaffrey is efficient as a receiver as well, not only scoring seven receiving touchdowns but also recording an efficient reception on 10.5% of his routes, 32nd among all pass-catchers and right above players like Jake Ferguson, DeVonta Smith, Garrett Wilson and Calvin Ridley.

The case for Lamb: After the Cowboys lost to the 49ers in Week 5, they reconfigured their offense to essentially be “find CeeDee, give CeeDee the ball.” Lamb has been great all season but especially in the second half. He currently sits in first with 122 receptions and second with 1,651 yards, with another 106 yards on the ground thrown in for fun. His 2.81 yards per route run would be a top mark in most normal years, but sits behind Hill (and Brandon Aiyuk, who had a monster 2023 in his own right). Feeding Lamb has been a very good thing for this Cowboys team. Since Week 6, Lamb sits at 3.01 yards per route and averages a first down on 13.5% of those 430 routes, easily first in both categories. Using Lamb all across the field is going to be something the Cowboys will keep developing in this year’s playoffs and beyond.

All of these players had significant impacts for their offenses and in their teams’ general success. I am giving it to Hill. His numbers and palpable impact on every snap are too much to ignore.

The pick: Tyreek Hill, WR, Miami Dolphins

Defensive Player of the Year

Can I split this one? Not only is there a tough top two, there are numerous players to give the nomination that Tugg Speedman desperately craved.

Reigning champ Nick Bosa continues to do Nick Bosa things for the 49ers. Edge rusher Josh Allen has had a career year for the Jaguars, with 16.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a top-notch pressure rate (more on that in a second). Allen has improved every single season as a pro, culminating into this dominant season that just so happens to coincide with his potential upcoming free agency.

The Raiders’ Maxx Crosby is the iron man of the defensive line, playing nearly every snap of every game and blowing up the run and pass. Crosby finished the season with 18 combined tackles for loss and run stuffs, the highest number among the 55 NFL defenders with 400 or more pass rush snaps this season. He also racked up 13.5 sacks and plenty of pressures despite his 900+ snaps, amassing pressures and quarterback knockdowns at a higher rate than players like Danielle Hunter or Haason Reddick.

The Steelers’ T.J. Watt is on top of the leaderboard again with 17 sacks, while also disrupting the game in other ways. Watt has shown the same knack for getting his hand on passes like his brother, J.J., used to. T.J.’s eight batted passes this season ties Khalil Mack for the NFL lead. Watt also has four forced fumbles and gets involved in the run game often. He’s worthy of consideration in this discussion as much as anybody.

The other anybodies? The Cowboys’ Micah Parsons and Browns’ Myles Garrett. Parsons (13) and Garrett (14) both have fewer sacks than the aforementioned players. All of these players have that feel of dominance when you watch their defensive units, the laughable replays of “oh, how do you block that?” and “wait, how did he bend like that?” But it’s not just the eye test, both Garrett and Parsons, along with Allen, have been pressuring quarterbacks at some of the highest rates on record. Parsons’ pressure rate of 22.4% is easily the highest in a single season among pass rushers with 300 or more pass rushing snaps in a season since 2019. In fact, it would be the only one to sit above 20%. Allen’s pressure rate of 18.8% and Garrett’s 18.3% would sit third and seventh, respectively. Parsons has pressured quarterbacks on 102 snaps this season, and if he gets near his game average in Week 18 against the Unsinkable Sam Howell, he could very well end up with more pressures than quarterbacks like Daniel Jones and Deshaun Watson had completions in 2023.

In terms of knocking down the quarterback, it’s again very close. Watt tops the leaderboard this season in terms of total (36) and rate (7.2%), with Allen (6.9%) and Parsons (6.8%) following and Garrett in sixth at 6%. Parsons can be a bit undisciplined in the run game, but he also has more tackles for loss and run stuffs (11) than Allen or Watt, but Garrett tops Parsons in that area with 12. (Garrett is a bit of a home run hitter in the run game, as he has only 25 tackles against the run, 14 fewer than Parsons.)

This award is hard! And that’s not even considering the fantastic players at off-ball positions, like Fred Warner, Roquan Smith or Pat Surtain II. Or other players who top the sack leaderboard, like Trey Hendrickson or Danielle Hunter.

For almost this entire season, I have been torn between Parsons and Garrett. Garrett’s underlying numbers have fallen off some, but this is an entire season award. It’s unfair to knock Garrett because he’s battling an injury. There’s still the healthy chunk of production and those monster moments still show up even when he’s battling the injury.

But Parsons has been a banshee every single week and on every single play. With the rest of the Cowboys’ defense seemingly trying to keep their heads above water currently, Parsons gets wielded like a stick of dynamite by coordinator Dan Quinn, getting thrown at wherever there’s a weak point in the offense.

Right now, as I write this going into Week 18, I am going to have to give this to Parsons (sorry to my editor, Joey Gulino). The sheer effort and will on which he plays, reflected in those historic pressure numbers, make him an every-down wonder. But just know, this wasn’t easy.

The pick: Micah Parsons, Edge, Dallas Cowboys

Offensive Rookie of the Year

It’s a two-horse race between two incredibly impressive rookies. On one hand, you have the No. 2 overall draft pick at the most difficult and most important position in football who has looked every bit the part of his draft pedigree during his inaugural campaign:

Houston’s C.J. Stroud is a gatling gun at the quarterback position. Already in contention as one of the most accurate QBs in the NFL, he has plenty of arm strength to zip throws all over the field. He’s a quarterback coach’s dream, with his intelligent play, aggressiveness and polish. There is zero fat with his pocket movement and mechanics — actually, there’s zero calories when he’s back there. Stroud can get to a throw position from any platform or body angle, his subtle steps buying just another sliver of a second so he can fire out a throw well before his receiver is breaking on their route. But he’s shown clever throw angles and touch when needed:

As a rookie, Stroud has played like a good starter, a player who carries the load of the passing game already. It’s remarkable considering the asks of the position and what the Texans’ offense has looked like in previous seasons. It’s hard for a rookie to play at a competent level in his first year, but Stroud enters the final week of the season with success rate and EPA per dropback numbers that rank ninth in both categories. His .09 EPA per dropback is tied with Cam Newton for the sixth-highest mark among the 50 rookie quarterbacks who have had 300 or more pass attempts in their first season. He’s behind only the rookie seasons of Dak Prescott, Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Justin Herbert, four of those being previous winners of the award. His success rate checks in at 10th, between Ryan Tannehill and Justin Herbert’s respective rookie years.

The normal box score stats are pretty good, too! Stroud ranks fourth among quarterbacks in net yards per attempt this season and ninth in passing yards, despite missing time with injuries. He has also thrown an interception on a minuscule 1.1% of his pass attempts, lowest in the league.

Some other stats are more “solid” than spectacular. His touchdown rate is 14th, he doesn’t have many rushing stats (which is a feature, not a bug of Stroud’s excellent play from the pocket) and his QBR of 54.4 is 17th, between Derek Carr and Baker Mayfield. I’m (begrudgingly) picking at nits here, but this is a tight race!

In the other corner, we have a former fifth-round selection who is already one of the premier triple threats at the wide receiver position. Los Angeles Rams receiver Puka Nacua lit up the Seahawks in Week 1 for 10 catches and 119 yards, and hasn’t really slowed down since, entering Week 18 with 101 receptions for 1,445 yards and five touchdowns. He’s within a few first downs length of the 1,473-yard rookie receiving record set by Bill Groman all the way back in 1960 for the Houston Oilers, and four receptions away from breaking Jaylen Waddle’s rookie reception record as well.

Those stats aren’t just pure volume, either. Nacua’s 2.61 yards per route run would be the third-highest rookie mark by a wide receiver since 2013 if the season were to end today, behind only Odell Beckham Jr. and Justin Jefferson and above Ja’Marr Chase and Chris Olave. That 2.61 number would rank fourth among all NFL pass catchers in 2023-24, beating out players like A.J. Brown, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Mike Evans, Keenan Allen, Amari Cooper and DJ Moore. Nacua currently records the second-highest first down per route rate by any rookie player since 2013. He’s not just “good for a Day 3 guy” or “good for my fantasy team.” Nacua is a flat-out excellent football player who has been a huge cog for one of the NFL’s best passing attacks this season.

Nacua, of course, benefits from Matthew Stafford throwing Hadoukens throughout the season, but he also contributes on a down-to-down basis (he’ll be one of a handful of wide receivers to play 1,000-plus snaps this season) as a legit blocker and rusher as well. The Rams use him at the point of attack in the run game and even as a pass protector at times:

This is an impossible decision. Stroud already looks like a star and has a chance to end the season with an exclamation point against the Colts in a pivotal Week 18 matchup. His numbers are worthy of winning this award, and if he actually wins it I totally get it. Stroud is playing quarterback already at a Pro Bowl level and that’s had me wavering on this one for awhile. But what Nacua is doing this season is historic. Counting numbers and rate stats point to a season for the ages. He will likely make my (very unofficial) second-team All-Pro team at the end of the season because he’s been one of the best players at his position. For that reason, I’m going to give Nacua the nod.

The pick: Puka Nacua, WR, Los Angeles Rams

Defensive Rookie of the Year

It seemed for a while like Eagles defensive tackle Jalen Carter was about to run away with the award, with stretches of his stardom carrying over from Georgia. But his play, much like the Eagles in general, has tapered off in the back half of the season (only two quarterback hits and one tackle for loss since Week 10), which has opened the door for other contenders.

Among the pass rushers of this rookie class, Houston’s Will Anderson Jr. has seven sacks entering Week 18 but has retaken the hold as the most productive rookie defensive lineman in terms of underlying statistics. His 15.7% pressure rate is first among rookies and 14th among the 99 defensive players with 300 or more pass rushing snaps, just below Rams star Aaron Donald and tied with Dolphins edge Bradley Chubb. Anderson has hit the quarterback (either a sack or knockdown) on 5.8% of his pass rush snaps, which ranks 10th among those same 99 defensive players, notching just below Chris Jones and Nick Bosa. So, while Anderson may have only one sack more than Carter’s six, he has been more effective on a down-to-down basis in terms of affecting the quarterback (Carter’s 12.2% pressure rate is still very good for a rookie interior defender, but his 10 quarterback hits is more “fine” perhaps because he wins so quickly and gives quarterbacks time to bail right away).

TruMedia’s pressure data goes back to 2019, and Anderson’s pressure and hit rates would rank second among the 33 rookie pass rusher seasons over this time period, slotting behind Bosa in pressure rate and Josh Allen in quarterback hits.

Anderson is productive on run downs, too. He plays with effort and strong hands, and has recorded nine tackles for loss or run stuffs (gains of zero) this season.

Fellow rookie Calijah Kancey recorded a TFL or run stuff on an astounding 7.1% of his run down snaps this season, first among qualifying defenders and the highest rate by a rookie defender since at least 2019. Kancey and third-round rookie YaYa Diaby, who has 6.5 sacks this season, look not only like keepers but actual needle-movers already for this Buccaneers defense.

The Rams nailed their draft and found two already productive defenders themselves in Round 3. Kobie Turner and Byron Young were instant contributors this season, with Young showing real pass rush chops and developing run defense and Turner rapidly developing into a bona fide game-wrecker in the back half of the season. Splitting double teams for fun on his way to nine sacks (!), often times from the nose tackle position, Turner provides some thumping run support (nine combined TFLs and run stuffs). Here’s Turner creating pressure against the Packers (which is also an excuse to show off a fun throw from Jordan Love):

Some of those sack numbers are inflated, but Turner’s underlying numbers, down-to-down effectiveness and eye test show that the Rams may have found a real running mate for Aaron Donald’s (still dominant) twilight years.

On the back end, Seahawks cornerback Devon Witherspoon and Lions safety Brian Branch both deserve a mention. They’re two slot dynamos who both missed time this season, which dings their candidacy for this award, but I cannot wait to keep watching them in the NFL. Both are able to affect the play and change games in the run, in coverage or as a blitzer on any given snap. And with the All-Pro team now featuring a slot position on the defensive side, these are two players who will be battling for accolades for years to come.

On the outside, Joey Porter Jr. played well for the Steelers, contributing (and even erasing receivers out of games) far earlier than expected. Tyrique Stevenson looks like a future star for the Bears, part of a resurgent and impressive defense in Chicago that has been cooking since the return of Kyler Gordon and addition of Montez Sweat (and defensive assistant Phil Snow). Ivan Pace Jr. was a solid starter as an undrafted rookie for the Vikings, the only off-ball linebacker worth giving a shoutout to (and hoo boy there’s a dearth of young linebacker talent in the NFL right now).

The pick: Will Anderson Jr., Edge, Houston Texans

Coach of the Year

This award has turned into a reflection of what aspects of coaching we want to argue for.

Outside of sheer homerism, is it the rookie coach who turned a team around, like DeMeco Ryans or Shane Steichen? Sheer force of personality and the capper to a three-year rebuild with a division title in Dan Campbell? Or pure success with John Harbaugh and Kyle Shanahan? How about Cleveland’s Kevin Stefanski, who brought in a new defensive coordinator and worked through a litany of injury issues to his offense? With Joe Flacco, of all people, the fourth quarterback to start for the Browns this season, Kevin Stefanski has used tight and thought-out game plans and a dominant defense to get to double-digit wins and a spot to be frisky in the playoffs.

All have fantastic cases that I don’t really feel the need to argue against this arbitrary award. Instead, I am going to throw out a different coach I am going to argue for this arbitrary award. That’s Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay.

The Rams, a team with a preseason win total of 6.5, featuring double-digit rookies (with no first-rounder) and numerous former undrafted free agents and Day 3 draft selections on the roster, with a reconfigured offensive line, is on the doorstep of 10 wins with a chance to win a game (or two?) more. This is the same team that traded away Jalen Ramsey and is currently eating $78 million in dead salary-cap money, second most in the NFL, according to Spotrac.

McVay has still kept his run-first offensive philosophy, but has reconfigured the look slightly to match the defensive landscape and his current offensive personnel, like Matthew Stafford, Puka Nacua, Cooper Kupp and Kyren Williams:

After a highly disappointing Super Bowl hangover season in 2022, the Rams spent an entire offseason finding their best selves and have played that way when healthy. It’s an elite offense with McVay pulling the strings and Stafford firing throws down the field. The defense still has Aaron Donald, plus strong play from several rookies and previously unheralded players. This Rams team and McVay are incredibly fun to watch because of the obvious deliberation they showed this offseason, which is something that had to require an incredible amount of thought and effort to manifest. The playoffs are one reward for that, but more tips of the caps should be going to McVay (and general manager Les Snead) for how they have found this new version of the Rams franchise. It’s a reload that happened way ahead of schedule because of the decision makers at the top.

The pick: Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams

Assistant Coach of the Year

There are two historical defenses this season, and they both play in the AFC North. This award feels as simple as that. But first, a shoutout to Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan for patching together that group and its run game throughout 2023, and Todd Monken for his varied attack in Baltimore. Plus, watching Steve Spagnuolo having a ball making quarterbacks’ lives hell with his young defense has been a highlight of the season.

But, back to those defenses in the north. Jim Schwartz has brought his defensive staples to Cleveland and Mike Macdonald has honed his rainbow scheme in his second year in Baltimore. Both have underlying metrics that rank among the top 25 defenses since the start of the new millennium. Both feature aggressive attacks that have straight personalities with how they get after quarterbacks and offenses. Schwartz lets his stable of pass rushers get after the quarterback and allows his defensive backs to play aggressive in man-heavy looks. Macdonald has gotten the best out of several young players across the defense, like Justin Madubuike and Odafe Oweh, while also getting straight resurgences from veterans like Jadeveon Clowney. This Ravens’ defense plays fast and smart:

I could argue for either of these coaches because both of their units are so dominant. The Ravens under Macdonald, especially given the slate of offenses they’ve faced and the performances in those games, sticks out for me.

The pick: Mike Macdonald, defensive coordinator, Baltimore Ravens

Most Valuable Player

The week-by-week blows at the top of this award (which was also a reflection on the “last thing happens is most important” take environment) have simmered after a huge Ravens win over the 49ers in Week 16, and with Lamar Jackson putting a stranglehold on the award.

Niners QB Brock Purdy’s numbers are top of the line, staying above the “that’s bonkers” threshold no matter how you splice them up. While it’s been argued ad nauseam how much of those numbers are Purdy or the environment of his personnel and play-caller, it can’t be argued that he has operated in the 49ers’ offense as good as the team could have hoped. He’s not perfect and can have moments of chaotic play every game, but he has several excellent throws every single game, too (I will say again that I think Purdy was unfairly dinged during the 49ers’ three-game losing streak and made several crisp throws before the turnover bug started biting). That being said, the training wheels of this environment would have made it hard for me to give him the award, even before the unfortunate turnovers against the Ravens.

Buffalo’s Josh Allen is as dangerous as ever. There is another timeline where he is the winner of this award, and he deserves a hearty honorable mention. He can take over games at any time. He’s near the top of a lot of the underlying stats. He’s adding more to his game (Allen has become a superb pre-snap operator in terms of setting protections and changing plays). His running ability is a nuclear device that can be used at any time — Allen is barely second to Patrick Mahomes in the amount of EPA generated on scrambles. He has scrambled or been used on designed runs 89 times this season, 66 of those runs were successful plays for the Bills. Essentially, two out of every three times you see No. 17 running around like an ostrich in a helmet, it will be a good play for the Bills.

Mahomes is surviving his surroundings and while still having a very good season and still very much Mahomes, he is a bit of a victim of his own all-world ability and expectations amid this “underwhelming” Chiefs season (ho hum, another division title).

Dak Prescott had the best stretch of his career, finishing second in QBR and touchdown rate and EPA per dropback. He used his legs as effectively as ever and has developed a devastating mind meld with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. But he couldn’t quite get it over the top in the end. Prescott has the Cowboys lined up to host in the first round of the playoffs as the Cowboys’ trying to find answers on defense remains fascinating to watch.

Tyreek Hill and Tua Tagovailoa both had splendid seasons as well for the Dolphins, but also fell short in the end with injuries to Hill hindering just about every other player on the Dolphins’ offense.

Now to Ravens QB Lamar Jackson.

Are his statistics more “good” than “no doubt Most Valuable Player”-like? Sure. Jackson is seventh in touchdown rate and middle of the pack for the meat-and-potatoes stats like passing yards. But he’s third in net yards per attempt, behind Purdy and Tagovailoa, and fourth in QBR. In dropback success rate, which includes scrambles and sacks, his 46.7% mark is sixth, between Prescott and Mahomes.

Jackson has of course received help from his surroundings as the Ravens feature a fantastic defense and a good run game. But he has also been the keystone player on this offense that has suffered injuries to every single position group. Running backs JK Dobbins and Keaton Mitchell both ended up on IR, along with tight end Mark Andrews. Only Zay Flowers and Nelson Agholor have played all 16 games among the Ravens wide receivers. At offensive line, only left guard John Simpson (in the middle of a breakout season himself) has started every game this season. No matter the personnel around him, Jackson has been able to shift between his different modes, and has constantly remained effective.

Tapping into his true dual-threat ability (emphasis on both parts of the dual); from peppering teams like the Dolphins, Lions, 49ers and Rams with throws — Jackson goes from 13th in EPA per dropback to fifth in EPA per pass attempt (i.e. just the throws that quarterbacks make, his pass attempt success rate also bumps to fourth.) Jackson has long been underrated as a passer (did we not watch him in a Bobby Petrino offense in college?) but this season he’s finally getting to consistently showcase his arm talent. Those flashes of Mr. Fantastic-like arm angles and lighting up the intermediate areas went from a featured part of the show to the main event under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken:

But Jackson can get back into his scrambling self when needed. In between lighting up teams like the Rams, he was also scrambling and extending play after play. That game in particular, he had eight scrambles, tied for the second-most in a single game of his career. He currently ranks first in scrambles and scramble rate among all quarterbacks and ranks second in designed rushes, behind only Jalen Hurts. While his effectiveness isn’t at the height of his previous MVP season in 2019, his rushing success rate of 52.1% would be like having the easily most efficient running back in the NFL with more rushing attempts than Jaylen Warren, Miles Sanders or Kareem Hunt.

I try to use a healthy mix of film and statistics when looking at these awards, with the scales weighing differently every year and for every award. Does team success weigh in, too? Absolutely. But what players do for their teams, given the surroundings and what gets asked of them is what matters so much for this award. That is where this term value lies. Is that subjective? Yes. Hell, yes. It should be!

How things get weighed, even among groups like All-22 zombies, stat truthers and QB WINZ heads is going to be completely different given the voter. To me, it’s down to, are you the constant factor in the team’s success, no matter the personnel’s makeup? I think that answer is definitively “yes” for Jackson.

Do you have the statistics to match that eye test? I think Jackson easily does, especially given the degree of difficulty in which he accomplishes his tasks. It’s impossible to encapsulate a game with 22 players all attempting to accomplish different tasks into one number, but watching Jackson open throwing lanes with his eyes or a subtle move in the pocket, standing in the pocket to fire something over a linebacker’s head or picking up a first down with his legs when all else fails, he is a constant engine for this team. This is a team with the No. 1 seed in the AFC that features a dominant defense, but they also feature a dominant quarterback. And to me, the most valuable player.

The pick: Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

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