My 2021 NFL Awards

The awards that are handed out at the end of the NFL season are always an incredibly prestigious honor for whoever receives the trophy. This season might be the most prestigious yet since these awards will be the first 18-week season awards. The first MVP to play 17 games (maybe) will be a very distinguished honor to earn. Since this is such a unique set of awards, I thought I would wade into the murky waters and give my opinions on who should take home every award. This will not be a prediction of who will win each award (if you want that just look at the odds). This is who I think is most deserving of each honor and how I would hand them out if it was up to me.

MVP: Los Angeles Rams WR Cooper Kupp

This is where you go to the intro and read the part where I said these are not my predictions because you are so confused why I have a wide receiver winning the MVP. Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones. All great legendary receivers that have not won MVP, but I believe Kupp should finally break the mold. The first reason is something that he has accomplished that would impress people in baseball or horseracing but is not being talked about enough in football: The Triple Crown. In the Super Bowl Era (1967-present) there have been just three players to win the receiving Triple Crown (Jerry Rice, Sterling Sharpe, and Steve Smith) and there have been five horseracing Triple Crown winners. If Secretariat got a movie for winning the Triple Crown then I think Kupp deserves an MVP award for doing something even more unusual.

Kupp’s season has been one for the history books, literally. Only one player has ever recorded more receptions than Kupp’s 145 (Michael Thomas with 149 in 2019) and only one player has racked up more receiving yards in a season than Kupp’s 1,947 (Calvin Johnson with 1,964 in 2012). He also grabbed 26 touchdown receptions, which was enough to tie for 15th of all time. Numbers don’t lie, and the numbers are telling me that Kupp had arguably the most dominant season of any receiver in NFL history.

If dominance plays a role in deciding the MVP (which I think it should) then why should Aaron Rodgers be the odds-on favorite to win the award when this isn’t even his best season ever? He has 13 fewer touchdown passes than last season, 332 fewer yards than last season, and a completion percentage that is 2.1 points worse than his from last season. I think players like Rodgers and Tom Brady are incredibly valuable to their teams. But how can we allow one of them to go home with this award when they aren’t even having the best season of their career while at the same time there is a receiver that is rewriting the history books and accomplishing a feat that hasn’t been done in 16 years?

Kupp is not going to actually win this award. This is a quarterback award now. The last time a non-quarterback won MVP was when Adrian Peterson won it in 2012. Just like Kupp, Peterson didn’t break any records. He came very close to breaking the single-season rushing record but fell just short. He was still able to get 30.5 of the 50 votes for the award (don’t ask me how a half vote is even a thing, I have no clue). And there was a precedent for running backs actually winning MVP at the time, two other backs had won the award in the 10 years prior to Peterson. Kupp just had the most dominant season from a receiver in the 2000s. Even if Kupp doesn’t get the most votes for the award, he certainly deserves some. He would have mine.

Offensive Player of the Year: Indianapolis Colt’s RB Jonathan Taylor

I think Kupp has a much more realistic chance to win this award but because I have a personal policy of not doubling up MVP and OPOTY, I am going in a different direction on this one. That does not diminish what Taylor did this season though. He was the only player to record more scrimmage yards than Kupp, racking up 2,171 total yards including 1,811 rushing yards. If you want to reward dominance with these end-of-season awards (like I do) then Taylor is certainly worthy of Offensive Player of the Year.

Not only did Taylor lead the league in rushing attempts, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and rushing first downs but he led those categories by 25, 552, 3, and 42, respectively. We knew months ago that Taylor would have the best numbers of all the running backs but didn’t expect him to run away with all these categories. It helped that he absolutely turned it on in the second half of the season. Here are Taylor’s rushing totals in each game from week 9 to week 18: 172, 116, 185, 83, 143, 170, 108, 108, 77. Those 1,162 yards he gained in half a season would be good for the fifth-most rushing yards this season.

Another aspect of Taylor’s season that adds to his OPOTY candidacy is how much the Colts relied on him. He led the Colts to the second-most rushing yards this year but did so without much help from the passing game. Indianapolis had the seventh-least passing yards on the sixth-least attempts. One Colt receiver had over 1,000 yards (Michael Pittman with 1,082) with the second leading receiver tallying 384 yards. Third on that list is Taylor with 360 yards and is tied for second with 40 receptions.

Simply put, this offense almost exclusively relied on Taylor and how well he was running the ball. Each game he rushed for less than 100 yards was a loss for the Colts. He accounted for over 35 percent of the team’s total yards gained this year; Kupp and the Steeler’s Najee Harris were around 31 percent. This type of season that Taylor put together is exactly what this Offensive Player of the Year award is for. Was he the most valuable player this year? No. But was he one of the best, if not the best, offensive players this season? Absolutely.

Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year: Dallas Cowboys LB Micah Parsons

Again, this is another one of my picks that is probably not going to happen. Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt just tied Michael Strahan’s two-decade-old sack record, notching 22.5 this season. Despite that incredible effort from Watt, I still think Parsons is the most impactful defender this season. He has had Defensive Rookie of the Year locked up for a couple of months now so that award is not in question, but DPOTY is a different conversation.

The fact that Parsons is even a legitimate candidate for the award is wildly impressive. Just one rookie has won the award before: Lawrence Taylor in 1981. And if we are using that season from the greatest defensive player of all time as a measuring stick for Parsons then he is more than deserving of taking home the honor. Taylor had 9.5 sacks in his award-winning season and Parsons has recorded 13 this season. Taylor was tied for 13th in sacks while Parsons finished sixth. Parsons also did this without primarily playing a pass-rushing position. Sure, he blitzed and rushed off the edge quite often but at the end of the day, he is an off-ball linebacker that was able to achieve those numbers.

That brings us to another reason Parsons earns this award in my opinion. If this was only down to sack totals Watt would obviously run away with the honor considering he just tied the NFL record for sacks in a season. But Parsons has so many other responsibilities as a middle linebacker that he excels at. He allowed a completion of 61.1 when targeted and broke up three passes without allowing a touchdown. His passer rating against is 71.5, which ranks 37th in the league but fourth amongst linebackers. That just goes to show Parsons’ versatility and range of talent, something that a lot of others can’t match.

Parsons has also been emblematic of the turnaround from the entire Cowboys’ defense. The Dallas defense has now become one of the best in the league. According to sharpfootballanalysis.com, Dallas ranks eighth in run defense success rate and first in pass defense success rate. I think team success points to a reason why Parsons should win DPOTY. Is Watt more impactful than Parsons when Pittsburgh ranks 24th in run defense success rate and 10th in pass defense success rate? The numbers are very close between the two so I think Parsons gets the edge due to team success, something that he was a huge part of changing.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Cincinnati Bengals WR Ja’Marr Chase

When a conversation about the best wide receivers in the league contains a rookie, it is probably a good bet that rookie will win Rookie of the Year. For a while it looked like Patriots quarterback Mac Jones was on his way to earning the honor but with the Bengals ending up with a better record than the Patriots, there is really no case Jones can make.

Despite opting out of the 2020 college season, Chase never missed a step. He reunited with his LSU teammate quarterback Joe Burrow and proceeded to set the league on fire, starting with 101 yards and a touchdown in his first game of the season. Here are the records Chase broke this year: Rookie receiving yards in a season, Bengals receiving yards in a season (both 1,455), rookie receiving yards in a game (266). You don’t have to rewrite the history books in order to win this award but it certainly helps if you do.

The conversation doesn’t just stop at whether Chase is the best rookie wide receiver (which he is despite a great season from Miami’s Jaylen Waddle) but extends to his place among all receivers. He had the fourth-most receiving yards, the third-most touchdowns (13), second-most yards per reception (18), and tied for the second-most 40+ yard receptions (8). Those are numbers worthy of a Pro-Bowl roster spot (which he already has), an All-Pro selection (which is very likely on the way), and undoubtedly the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Comeback Player of the Year: Dallas Cowboys QB Dak Prescott

What are the criteria for this award, exactly? It is not as easy to comprehend as some of the others but it basically comes down to which player shows the most perseverance in overcoming adversity. It technically has nothing to do with on-field performance, as we saw demonstrated last year with Washington quarterback Alex Smith taking home the award (which was 100 percent deserved). On-field does have some impact on the award though, which is why this award is basically coming down to two players: Dak Prescott and Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow.

I give the upper hand to Prescott for this honor for a few reasons. The first is that his injury was more devastating. I know it is unfair to compare the severity of injuries but this is where we find ourselves. Prescott was having a career year in 202 before breaking his ankle and getting carted off the field with tears streaming down his face. Fast forward nearly a year later to the opening night of the 2021 NFL season and Prescott has battled through rehab and setbacks to throw for 403 yards and three touchdowns against the defending Super Bowl champions. That kind of stuff is what wins you Comeback Player of the Year.

The second reason Prescott is my CPOTY over Burrow is the effectiveness of the Cowboys’ offense as a whole. Dallas, with Prescott leading the way, was first in the league in total yards and second in passing yards. Prescott also piloted his team to a 12-5 record, leading his team to wins over the Chargers and Patriots as well as a perfect 6-0 record in the division. Everybody knows that this award was Prescott’s to lose heading into the season and lose it he did not. He went out and picked up right where he left off, leading a top-tier offense into the playoffs.

Coach of the Year: Tennessee Titans HC Mike Vrabel

This is probably my favorite award to speculate about because of how many different directions you could take it. Give it to Bill Belichick for retooling the Pats on the fly? Sure. Hand it to Matt LaFleur for handling a disgruntled quarterback and leading the best team in the league? Why not? I think both of those coaches are very worthy of taking home Coach of the Year honors but not as worthy as Vrabel.

Here are just some of the things Vrabel had to deal with this year. Losing star running back Derrick Henry for the season in game 8. Missing stud wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones for four and seven games, respectively. Ryan Tannehill throwing more interceptions this season than the last two combined. Using eight different offensive linemen as starters this year, including having franchise left tackle Taylor Lewan miss four games. Having just three defenders make over 13 starts. Breaking the record for most players used in a season.

Most of those things would cause major issues for a lot of teams in the NFL. Not only did Vrabel and the Titans overcome all of those obstacles and more, they did to the tune of a 12-5 record and the number one seed in the AFC. This was Vrabel’s best season in Tennessee and he didn’t have his MVP-caliber running back for half the season and got minuscule production from his big offseason acquisition at wide receiver. The former linebacker also got elite production from defenders such as safety Kevin Byard, outside linebacker Harold Landry, and defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons. The Titans’ defense finished sixth in points allowed, eighth in passing yards allowed, and 12th in total yards allowed. Sure, they weren’t the best defense in the league, but they also had to use more players than any other team in the league. Vrabel could have won this award by leading a full roster to the top of the conference, so the fact that he did it with the limitations that he faced makes it all that much more impressive.