The NFL preseason is a great way to confirm your priors on rookies you liked/disliked and overreact to how your team’s third stringers played in a game that meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. While the preseason is more or less a means of getting better and evaluating the lower spots on teams’ depth charts, it can provide us some clarity for the up and coming NFL season.
Through two weeks, we have seen a lot of game-changing rookies and free agent additions make their presence felt in an exhibition-style game to give us fans a peek into what teams might look like during the season.
With reasonable expectations from what I’ve seen and hours of player/team projection researching, here are my picks for every meaningful 2021 NFL Award.
For reference; Best Bet is what I would feel most comfortable taking while Long Shot is more of something I can certainly see happening but it’s not quite as likely.
Here it goes.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Best Bet: Zach Wilson (+800)
I’m admittedly a Zach Wilson fan, but the reason this bet makes the most sense is because outside of Trevor Lawrence, Wilson is the only other rookie QB that we know will start the entire season at this point. Now, I think Lawrence (+350) would have just as good a chance to win this award all things being equal, but you never know what’s going to happen with Urban Meyer calling the shots (it already isn’t off to a great start). Wilson doesn’t have to be outstanding, but if he can play all 17 games and be solid in this Shanahan-based, QB friendly offense, I can see him taking the award just off of end of season stats.
Long Shot: DeVonta Smith (+2200)
I think that this is a quarterback’s award to lose, but if there is one non-QB on this list I can see taking it, it’s DeVonta Smith. Not many rookies can come in and you can comfortably expect them to get a 20% or more target share from day one, but that is certainly reasonable with Smith. Although we only saw him in limited action against the Patriots last week, he was getting open with ease and in turn getting peppered with targets. All of the skills that made him a Heisman Trophy winner at Alabama looked to have translated well to the NFL. Smith can be the focal point of that offense and realistically end the season with more catches, yards and TD’s than any other receiver in this class.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Best Bet: Jamin Davis (+750)
Davis is an uber-athletic linebacker that Washington head coach Ron Rivera heavily coveted going into the draft before they ultimately selected him. That defense is going to be great again this year, and Davis will be the beneficiary of playing behind arguably the best defensive line in the league. He is going to be a tackling machine and if he can add a couple of interceptions/fumble recoveries/sacks to his end-of-season resume, I don’t see a way he could lose this award.
Long Shot: Alim McNeill (+5000)
Many probably don’t even know who McNeill is, and to be frank that doesn’t really matter. He is a rookie defensive tackle who plays for the Detroit Lions. Now I know, a lot of people are going to want to instinctually clown the Lions for being a bad team, but I really don’t find that to be the case (to an extent). At the very least they are going to have a really good defensive line rotation and if McNeill can carve out that starting role (he should) I can see him finishing the year with a bunch of tackles for loss and a couple of sacks. Not the most sexy pick, but the chances he can win this award are much higher than his +5000 odds suggest.
Comeback Player of the Year
Best Bet: Dak Prescott (+210)
Not much to say about this, the Cowboys are the most talked about team in the NFL and Dak Prescott is coming off a season ending ankle fracture after storming out of the gates in 2020. With a loaded receiving corps and a healthy offensive line, Prescott is poised to have a great season and is the odds-on favorite to win this award. Barring another injury, I think this is realistically Dak’s award to lose.
Long Shot: Derwin James (+1600)
People forget just how good Derwin James was in his rookie season. He was a first-team all-pro in 2018, racking up 105 total tackles, three interceptions and three and a half sacks. Now, he is finally healthy again and is playing in a scheme coached by the guy who led the Rams to the #1 overall defense in the league last year. There’s no doubt new head coach Brandon Staley is going to do some cool things with James in 2021 and he has a chance to earn a spot back on that all-pro roster if he can stay healthy.
Coach of the Year
Best Bet: Kyle Shanahan (+1400)
Despite being well regarded as one of the best offensive masterminds in the NFL for quite some time, Shanahan has never won the coach of the year award. He won NFC coach of the year in 2019, which basically was the runner up to John Harbaugh, but the point is there isn’t voter fatigue on him. His 49ers were 6-10 last year (due mostly to injuries) and if that can change to 12-5 or 13-4, which are both very likely outcomes, he will be the odds-on favorite heading into playoffs. He has built this offense in his image and gets a healthy George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel, Raheem Mostert and a bevvy of offensive lineman. He’s easily my favorite for this award.
Long Shot: Frank Reich (+2500)
Reich had consideration for this award towards the end of last season, and rightfully so. He brought the Colts to an 11-5 record despite not having an all-star roster. Now, turn to this season. Carson Wentz is now the starter for them after a season where he was regarded as one of, if not the worst quarterback in the NFL. If Reich can spark the magic that turned Wentz into an MVP candidate in 2018 when they were both with the Eagles, it will be hard for voters to not at the very least consider him.
Offensive Player of the Year
Best Bet: Dalvin Cook (+1400)
Cook ran for almost 1600 yards and 16 touchdowns last season in only 14 games. If it weren’t for an awful defense in the beginning of the season allowing 32 points per game through the first six games of the year leading to some negative game scripts – Cook could’ve had even more production. From week 8 to week 15 when the defense reeled it in and gave the Vikings more of a neutral game script, Cook was on pace for 410 carries, 1990 yards rushing while adding another 570 yards receiving. The defense in Minnesota will undoubtedly be better this season and they added OT Christian Darrisaw in the first round of the draft. All signs point to more rushing attempts with Dalvin Cook being the main beneficiary.
Long Shot: Calvin Ridley (+2500)
Honestly, the chance that Ridley wins this award outright are much better than the +2500 odds are suggesting. In seven games without Julio Jones last year, Ridley was on pace for 192 targets, 120 receptions and 1858 yards across a 17-game season. He saw an insane amount of targets last year even with Julio Jones, but now that he’s gone I fully expect him to get even more. If he can get the steady influx of targets that he is projected to get and improve on his catch rate, it will be hard for him to lose this award.
Defensive Player of the Year
Best Bet: Chase Young (+850)
Even though he has the fourth highest odds, it still seems like no one is talking about the fact that Chase Young could win this. Not only is he one of the best edge prospects the NFL has ever seen, he is playing on for my money the best defensive line in the league. Unlike with other teams, you can’t afford to shift attention to just one guy on that defensive line. We saw it to an extent last year with T.J. Watt. Will teams try to gameplan to stop Chase Young? Absolutely. But offenses can’t throw as many resources into doing so against this team as they could others. He had 7.5 sacks in his rookie year and is just learning his potential. He’s going to earn a ton of sacks, but also luck into a good amount due to the pressure forced from the rest of his defensive line.
Long Shot: Danielle Hunter (+4000)
Not as much of a long shot as it seems, but recency bias has people misremembering how talented Danielle Hunter is. He has recorded 14.5 sacks in each of the last two seasons he played (missed 2020 with injury). With a full year off to rehabilitate his injury he should come back as fresh as ever. The Vikings defense should be a lot better than it was last year and their offense should be high-powered enough to put opposing offenses in negative game scripts (meaning they have to pass more) which bodes well for a guy like Hunter. The risk-reward for this bet honestly might be too good to pass up. Get it while it’s hot.
Most Valuable Player
Best Bet: Matthew Stafford (+1800)
This could just be my love for Stafford talking, but I really don’t see a scenario where he isn’t at least in the MVP conversation at the end of the year. When looking for MVP candidates, you have to look for a couple of things. High win team, high touchdown count, prime time exposure and a good media narrative. Let’s go one by one.
- High win team: The Rams year in and year out are a playoff contender with Sean McVay at the helm. They went 10-6 last year with some ugly losses that shouldn’t have happened, and they only got better this offseason.
- High touchdown count: Jared Goff threw for 32 touchdowns in 2018 and was in the MVP conversation. The Rams also had the best run game in the league and Todd Gurley “stole” some red zone touchdowns for Goff. Stafford is much better and the run game is expected to be much worse. Expect a lot of touchdown passes.
- Prime time exposure: Not only do the Rams have five prime-time games this season, they also are favorable matchups for Stafford. Aside from week one vs. the Bears, the Rams play the Texans, Titans, 49ers and Cardinals. Aside from the 49ers, those are all bottom-10 defenses in the league. Stafford is poised to have his best performances when the whole world is watching.
- Good media narrative: Stafford has been wasting away in Detroit for his whole career despite being one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL. Watching Stafford succeed in year one on a new team with a genius offensive head coach will be a recurring story line throughout the year.
I think McVay and Stafford are going to be the most exciting head coach-quarterback duo of the season and I really believe Stafford will win MVP this year.
Long Shot: Ryan Tannehill (+2800)
I won’t get too deep into this, but last year Tannehill was incredible throwing 33 touchdowns to only seven interceptions. That was with Derrick Henry pretty much controlling the entire offense. The Titans went out and acquired Julio Jones this offseason to replace Corey Davis. They add him to a receiving corps with A.J. Brown, who is poised for the best year of his career. I think the Titans will opt to pass the ball more anyways this season, but if Derrick Henry loses a step (he has a lot of tread on those tires) this team could pretty easily become more pass-happy. If Tannehill can keep the same efficiency and throw some more touchdowns (he should) and the Titans are among the top seeds in the AFC (they should be in that division), then there is a world where Tannehill gets MVP hype.
Super Bowl Winner
Best Bet: Baltimore Ravens (+1400)
Last year was most likely a fluke year in Baltimore for the Ravens. The receiving weapons weren’t great, Lamar Jackson got COVID and the play-calling was just awful at times. Despite all of this, they managed to go 11-5 and make the playoffs, winning one game. They lost the Steelers game where Jackson didn’t play, so I would say they played more like a 12-4 team. It never really looked good for the Ravens last year, and they were still one of the best teams in the league. Teams really can’t defend that rushing attack the Ravens deploy even if they know what’s coming. The problem last year is that when they had to pass the ball, they weren’t that efficient. Now, they went out and added two wide receivers in the draft and signed Sammy Watkins. Not to mention they will have a new-look offensive line with Ronnie Stanley coming back and Kevin Zeitler signed as a free agent. The defense and special teams are always going to be good on this John Harbuagh-coached team. If 11-5 is this team’s floor and they got much better this offseason, their Super Bowl aspirations are much closer than people think. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them hoist the Lombardi at the end of the year.
Long Shot: Minnesota Vikings (+5000)
I know a lot of people have a tough time believing in Kirk Cousins. While I agree, we have seen lesser quarterbacks get carried to Super Bowls on the backs of good defenses and a bevy of offensive talent (recently the 49ers in 2019-20). I fully expect the Vikings defense to be a lot better this year, and that offense could potentially be better than they were last year, too. They lost four games in 2020 by less than a touchdown and are due for some positive regression in that category. They have a star-studded offense and beefed up their offensive line in the draft this year. Say what you want about Cousins, but a very similar Vikings team was one win away from the Super Bowl in 2018 with Case Keenum running the offense. They are a sneaky contender this year, and these odds may be too good to pass up.