We’ve made it to the middle of the NFL season! Your reaction to this news may depend on which team you support. If you’re a Jets or Vikings fan, it may seem like the season has flown by. If you’re a Packers or Steelers fan, you might wish it was over.
The middle of the road is a natural time to reflect on what we’ve seen, and so I’m going to give my awards for the first half of the NFL season. This is not my choice of who wins the real equipment at the end of the season, but my (hopefully informed) opinion based on what I saw in the first nine weeks. In each case, I will note who I selected for the category in question in my quarter-season awards and list the top three nominees in order.
Let’s start with the Returning Player of the Year and work our way up to MVP:
Go to reward:
Most Valuable Player | Top return | Best Coach
Best Rookies: Offense | Protection
Players of the Year: Offense | Protection
Returning Player of the Year
After 4 weeks: Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
It was like a one-man race in the first quarter of the season as Barkley returned from years in the desert to play as one of the league’s top running backs. Barkley does not give up, but halfway through more competition.
It’s dangerous to rely on free agents to add talent, but two of the three players on this list will be considered among the best offseason rookies.
3. Za’Darius Smith, EDGE, Vikings
I don’t mean to say that Smith was written off, but there were legitimate concerns that the former Packers star was past his prime. He played just 18 snaps last season before missing the rest of 2022 with a knee ailment, and when the Ravens wanted to sign him in the offseason, their doctors didn’t sign a deal. The Vikings ended up signing him to a one-year contract for less than $7 million.
Even if Smith spent the second half of the season ice fishing, he had already delivered more than the Vikings paid. He has 8.5 sacks and 12 knockdowns in eight games, including three sacks against the Cardinals in Week 8. Minnesota managed to use him on the edge and isolate him on the inside from consummate defensemen and centers. With a limited secondary, he was needed for the Vikings 7-1.
2. Jeno Smith, QB, Seahawks
I’m not entirely sure where Smith came back from, aside from being written off as a backup passer, but from a veteran standpoint, he should be on this list. As much as the Seahawks would like to pretend they knew it was coming from the start, he wasn’t even on the Seattle roster when the team traded quarterback Russell Wilson for Drew Lock in March. Anyone could have signed Smith at large, but the former Jets player returned to Seattle right before the draft in April.
By winning the pre-season competition from Locke for this job, Smith exceeded even the wildest expectations. It leads the league in completion percentage (73.1%) and completion percentage above expected (plus-7.1%). He averages almost 8 yards per try and ranks ninth in expected points added (EPA) per pullback.
The Seahawks were throwing more aggressively than I expected, and Smith rewarded them. His season is more like a delayed breakout than a comeback, but either way, he was one of the best stories and most valuable players in the NFL.
1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
A more traditional candidate, Barkley looks like a transforming player after three years of slowdown due to ankle and knee injuries. He looks much closer to the player we saw as a rookie, but this time he is the coordinator of a Giants team that is actually winning games and fighting for a playoff spot.
We can draw on extended metrics from NFL Next Gen Stats to tell the story. Let’s use the Yards Compared to Expectation (RYOE) metric, which measures how many yards a running back gets compared to what the average back expects to get with the same blockers against the same defensive players. Barkley averaged 1.1 RYOE per carry as a rookie. After falling to 0.6 RYOE in 2019 and posting minus 0.3 RYOE in 2020 and 2021, it is back to 1.1 RYOE in 2022.
Of course, Barkley managed to time some of his most important games from the key moments of the fourth quarter. He broke a tackle on a two-point try that gave the Giants a win over the Titans in the first game. His biggest catch of the season, a 41-yard goal against the Packers, helped him score the game-winning touchdown. 13, 18 and 20 yard runs in the final quarter against the Jaguars secured a return win. It’s impossible to imagine the giants thriving in the NFC East without Barkley.
Coach of the Year
After 4 weeks: Nick Sirianni, Eagles
The good news is that there are only six real candidates for this award. The bad news is that all of them can confidently win. I was ready to put Mike Vrabel in the Hall of Fame as his Titans were winning most of the game in Kansas City with Malik Willis as the quarterback, only to have Patrick Mahomes eventually pull out the victory with his feet. His Titans, riddled with injuries and left for dead after starting 0-2, go 5-3 and continue to find ways to compete every week.
Guys like Vrabel, great coaches with a lot of experience, almost never get this award. Which is why Pete Carroll probably won’t get much attention, but who thought the Seahawks would be 6-3 after Week 9? The offense has been leading, but Carroll is making the most of the likes of cornerback Tarik Wulen and cornerback Uchenna Nwosu, and he deserves credit for being forward-thinking and loving passing offensively with Jeno Smith at quarterback. The Seahawks look like a legitimate playoff team.
3. Robert Saleh, Jets
It’s even harder to keep Kevin O’Connell, who has the Vikings 7-1 by far with NFC North. O’Connell is exactly the kind of coach who usually receives this award in real life. Considering the Vikings have essentially spent the entire season winning coin flips in one-point games, I’m not entirely happy with Minnesota, as their results suggest.
Instead, I’ll pick the coach last seen slowing down the much-lauded Bills offense in the Meadowlands. Saleh and the Jets benefited from playing with several reserve quarterbacks earlier this season, but Gang Green roughed up Aaron Rodgers at Lambo and they just beat the Bills in New Jersey on Sunday.
After a rocky start to the season, the Jets defense is playing very well. Starting in Week 3, he ranks second in EPA points allowed per snap (-0.10), fourth in points allowed per drive (1.47), and third in allowed red zone possessions per game (2.4). ). I’m not sure about second-year quarterback Zach Wilson – and the offense is sorely lacking in injured people – but Saleh bypassed that defense.
2. Mike McDaniel, Dolphins
McDaniel’s Dolphins aren’t unbeatable 6-3, but they’ve won every game quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has started and finished this season. Tagovailoa is playing better than before in the NFL by a significant margin, and while adding Tyreke Hill to the mix is a big deal, remember that he could barely stay upright behind Miami’s offensive line until McDaniel arrived. Miami would be the league’s second-best EPA offense per game if we only count the games that Tagovailoa started.
The Dolphins’ last three-game winning streak came against mediocre competition from the Steelers, Lions, and Bears, but Tagovailoa and company also picked up dramatic early-season wins against the Ravens and Bills. I’m not sure any other coach of this caliber has pulled off two equally impressive victories, although the Jets joined the Dolphins on Sunday in a win over the Bills.
1. Nick Sirianni, Eagles
I am simple. As long as the Eagles don’t lose a single game, I don’t think anyone can knock Sirianni out of first place. The former Colts assistant was a good fit last season when he helped lead an Eagles team that went 4-11-1 in 2020 to a 9-8 record and a playoff berth. After a busy off-season, many probably expected them to take another step forward in 2022.
However, the start with a score of 8:0 was not expected. Quarterback Jalen Herts continues to thrive under Sirianni’s tutelage, and in a season with so many one-point games, it’s a testament to Philadelphia’s dominance that it hasn’t been in many close competitions. The Eagles only had two games by seven points or less; one was a game against the Lions that required two fourth-quarter touchdowns to close, the other was a 20–17 win over the Cardinals.
Some factors beyond Sirianni’s control helped. The Eagles were one of the healthiest teams in the league. According to Sportzshala’s Football Power Index (FPI), they have the easiest schedule in the league and plan to face the easiest schedule in the future. After all, 8-0 is 8-0. When you’re the coach of the only undefeated team in the league, you’re coach of the year.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
After 4 weeks: Devin Lloyd, LB, Jaguars
Defensive awards generally favor pass rushers over players in other positions, but the only candidate to feature in the discussion for Defensive Rookie of the Year in this category is Aidan Hutchinson, whose 4.5 sacks per season was supplemented by a critical goal line. stealing Aaron Rodgers on Sunday. I admit that the idea of having someone from the Lions defense, no matter how good they were against the Packers on Sunday, seems too aggressive.
After Week 4, my third-place finisher was Chiefs cornerback Jaylen Watson, who missed this time. Then I excluded the big name from the vote, but I need to return him to the list, since both he and his team got in shape:
3. Devin Lloyd, LB, Jaguars
The Jaguars struggled defensively, but Lloyd looks like a building block, along with corner rusher Josh Allen and cornerback Tyson Campbell. Lloyd already…