2014 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Pick: Khalil Mack

Odell Beckham Jr. had a season for the ages on the offensive side of the football this year and looks like an easy choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but two defensive rookies had rookie years that were equally as dominant. Oakland’s Khalil Mack and St. Louis’ Aaron Donald each ranked #1 at their respective positions, 4-3 outside linebacker and defensive tackle, on Pro Football Focus, the first defensive rookies to do so since Denver’s Von Miller did so at 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011. Other rookies had strong rookie campaigns in 2014, San Francisco’s Chris Borland, Baltimore’s CJ Mosley, and Minnesota’s Anthony Barr are names that come to mind, but to me, this award is between Mack and Donald as none of the other 3 even ranked in the top-3 at their respective positons.

Once you get down to Mack and Donald, it becomes a very tough choice. Both led their respective positions over some established All-Pro caliber veterans. Mack finished #1 right ahead of the aforementioned Von Miller, the first time Miller hasn’t been #1 at that position since he broke into the league in 2011, while Donald finished right ahead of Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, both of whom have been top-4 defensive tackles in each of the past 3 seasons.

Mack played a role very similar to the one that Von Miller has played in Denver for 4 years, playing 4-3 outside linebacker in base packages and becoming an edge rusher in sub packages. Mack only managed 4 sacks on the season on a 3-13 Raiders team, which ultimately might be the reason he doesn’t win this award, but his pass rush numbers were better than his sack totals as he also managed 10 hits and 40 hurries. That still means his pass rush productivity was significantly worse than Miller’s, as Miller had 15 sacks, 11 hits, and 47 hurries, giving him a pass rush productivity of 11.8, while Mack was at 9.1.

However, Miller had the luxury of playing with a lot of leads on a Peyton Manning quarterbacked team, giving him more easy pass rush situations, while Mack played on an Oakland team whose offense led by Derek Carr was the worst in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential by a wide margin at 62.27%. Jacksonville was next worst at 64.55%. Oakland’s defense was actually competent this season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 72.33% rate that was a middle of the pack 16th in the NFL, largely due to the play of Mack. That was despite the fact that of 13 Oakland defenders to play more than 400 snaps this season, only two of them graded out positively, Mack and veteran Justin Tuck, who was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 4-3 defensive end. If that’s your best defensive teammate and your defense is still capable, you played pretty well, regardless of what the sack numbers say. Mack also was significantly better than Miller as a run stopper.

Donald had a different rookie year. He had more than double Mack’s sacks with 9, very impressive for an interior player. When you add in his 6 hits and 29 hurries, you get a pass rush productivity of 8.3, worse than Mack’s, but 8th best among defensive tackles. And Donald wasn’t playing with a bunch of leads either. The Rams finished better than the Raiders did at 6-10, but their offense finished 25th in the NFL, moving the chains at a 68.90%. The Rams’ defense was why they were able to win 6 games, as they finished 5th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 70.28% rate.

Donald was a big part of that, not just rushing the passer, but also stopping the run surprisingly well for a player listed at 6-1 288 coming out of college. Along with ranking #1 at his position, he was the only defensive tackle to rank in the top-5 as both a pass rusher and against the run. However, unlike Mack, he had a lot more help around him. While just 2 of 13 Oakland defenders who played more than 400 snaps graded out positively this season, 8 of 14 St. Louis defenders did so, including Donald’s defensive line-mate Robert Quinn, who finished as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Ultimately, it’s a borderline toss-up between these two. I won’t complain if either of them wins it, but since I have to pick one I’m going with Mack for doing what he did with almost no help around him. This is easily the closest award race though.

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2014 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Pick: JJ Watt

In my Most Valuable Player article, I laid out why JJ Watt should not win MVP over Aaron Rodgers, as the Packers would undoubtedly be a worse team if they switched Rodgers for Watt and the Texans would undoubtedly be better if they switched Watt for Rodgers.  However, Watt not winning Defensive Player of the Year would be an equally big travesty as Watt winning MVP. It’s hard for a single defensive player to fit the definition of valuable as well as a quarterback, but Watt has still been the best player in football in each of the past 3 seasons.

He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top rated player in each of the last 3 seasons. Those ratings aren’t necessarily meant to be compared across positions, but Watt has been so much better than everyone else that it’s a fairly safe assessment to make. With Watt over the past 3 seasons, we’ve witnessed a stretch of dominance by a player that hasn’t been seen since Reggie White’s prime at best. This season was arguably the best of the bunch for Watt, and his rating on Pro Football Focus reflected that, though the ratings are not meant to be compared across seasons either, which is why I said arguably.

Justin Houston gets some mention for this award and he actually led the NFL with 23 sacks, while Watt “only” had 21. Houston was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, but he didn’t dominate the position anywhere near as much as Watt dominated the 3-4 defensive end position. Houston’s sack total is very impressive, but Watt’s 21 are even more impressive considering he plays a position where it’s tougher to get to the quarterback. Also, while Houston had just 8 quarterback hits, Watt had 44. No one else had more than 21 in the NFL at any position.

Watt added 54 quarterback hurries, which is actually less than Houston’s 56, and in terms of overall pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps), Houston was actually the better of the two at 15.7 as compared to 15.0, but, again, Watt plays a much tougher position to get to the quarterback from. No 3-4 defensive end other than Watt was better than 9.7 in pass rush productivity.

At 3-4 outside linebacker, Houston wasn’t even the best at his position as Brandon Graham led the way among eligible players, posting a 17.7 on more limited snaps. Twenty 3-4 outside linebackers were more productive pass rushers than the 2nd best 3-4 defensive end. Watt also had a league leading 10 pass deflections, which pass rush productivity doesn’t even take into account. Houston only had 5 and the 2nd best player in that aspect (Clay Matthews) only had 6.

Also, while Watt’s rating on Pro Football Focus was more than 2.5 times better than the 2nd best 3-4 defensive end (Sheldon Richardson, who had a great season in his own right), Houston didn’t even double the next best 3-4 outside linebacker. Watt’s position is also more important to run defense than Houston. Watt wasn’t nearly as good at his position against the run as he was as a pass rusher, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect this season.

The Texans’ defense finished 10th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential at 70.62%, despite not having a single player other than Watt finish in the top-10 at his position. Only Kareem Jackson finished in the top-15 at his position on the Texans’ defense other than Watt. Kansas City’s defense was a little better, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 70.29% rate, 7th in the NFL, but Houston had Tamba Hali opposite him (13th among 3-4 outside linebackers) and Sean Smith at cornerback (5th among cornerbacks. Both players had a fantastic season, but this is Watt’s award.

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2014 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Pick: Odell Beckham Jr.

From 2005-2013, 31 receivers went in the 1st round. They averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season as rookie. The most productive 1st round rookie wide receiver over that stretch was AJ Green, who caught 65 passes for 1057 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2011, after going 4th overall in that year’s draft. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks who went on to have fantastic careers and they only had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies. Green joined just two other players from that time period to have over 1000 yards in his rookie season, Marques Colston (70/1038/8 in 2006) and Keenan Allen (71/1046/8 in 2013). The college to NFL adjustment for wide receivers is about as tough as it gets, or at least it has been until this year.

This year, three wide receivers, all drafted in the first round, went over 1000 yards (Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin, and Mike Evans), while Sammy Watkins came a few yards shy. That pushed the number of guys who have had 1000 yard rookie seasons in the last 20 years from 8 to 11 in just one season (Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin, and Michael Clayton all did it from 1995-2004). None of those rookies was as good as Odell Beckham though, who was on a level all by himself in one of the greatest wide receiver rookie classes in NFL history.

Beckham didn’t just dominate in his first season in the NFL, he did so despite missing the first 4 games of the season and a lot of the off-season with hamstring problems. He essentially came into the NFL cold week 5, having missed valuable off-season work, and had 4 fewer games to put up numbers than his rookie counterparts and he still led all rookie receivers in receiving yards by 254 yards. Rookie receivers aren’t supposed to put up 1000 yards as a rookie, let alone 1305 YARDS IN 12 GAMES! I know the NFL has become more of a passing league and the adjustment from college to the NFL is smaller now that NFL offenses have adapted more things from the college game, but still. That’s insane.

Beckham’s 108.8 yards per game led the NFL. And it wasn’t like Eli was just forcing him the ball as he was targeted just 129 times (14th most in the NFL), catching 70.5% of them for 91 catches, that as opposed to just 2 drops. Beckham also caught 12 touchdowns and only 2 balls intended for him were intercepted. Eli had a 127.6 QB rating throwing to Beckham this season, 4th best among eligible wide receivers. The top-3 all played on either Green Bay or Dallas, whose teams have quarterbacks that will be MVP finalists and who finished 1-2 in QB rating for the season.

Eli finished 15th at 92.1, meaning Eli’s quarterback rating was 35.5 points better when throwing to Beckham than it was overall, the best margin by an eligible wide receiver this season. Beckham’s 2.74 yards per route run were also 4th in the NFL. For his efforts, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver as a rookie, including 2nd in pure pass catching grade, meaning he basically played at an All-Pro level, despite missing 4 games with injury. This guy wasn’t just the best rookie in the game, but one of the game’s best players at any position this season.

The scary thing is that Beckham should only get better. He doesn’t have an extensive injury history so we should be able to expect him to play 15 or 16 games next season and be present for the entire off-season, which is only going to help his production going forward. Also, unlike guys like Anquan Boldin and Marques Colston who had great rookie years, but never really went from being top-20 wide receivers into that top-5 range (Keenan Allen could be in that same boat), Beckham has the kind of athleticism that allows a guy to get drafted in the first round, giving him a borderline limitless ceiling.

I don’t like to get too excited about guys after one year and I’ve never put a guy going into his 2nd year in the league in my pre-season top-50 (Sheldon Richardson was the highest ranked one last year at #60 and Bobby Wagner was the highest the year before at #64), but Beckham is the exception. His rookie receiver counterparts Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and Kelvin Benjamin all had great rookie seasons, as did guys like quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, running back Jeremy Hill, guard Zack Martin, guard Joel Bitonio, and center Corey Linsley at other positions on the offensive side of the ball, but this is OBJ’s award.

2014 NFL Most Valuable Player Award Pick: Aaron Rodgers

The consensus 3 candidates for MVP seem to be Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, and JJ Watt. I’ll explain why I feel Rodgers has the edge on both of them. I’ll start with the two quarterbacks, Rodgers and Romo. Comparing the two, Romo had generally more efficient numbers. He completed 69.9% of his passes, as opposed to 65.6% for Rodgers, and averaged 8.52 yards per attempt, as opposed to 8.43 yards per attempt for Rodgers. Rodgers’ 38 to 5 touchdown to interception ratio was better than Romo’s at 34 to 9, but Romo still was #1 in the NFL in quarterback rating at 113.2, while Rodgers was slightly behind at 112.2 at #2.

However, Rodgers led the better offense, as they moved the chains at a 79.38% rate, best in the NFL. The Cowboys were very good offensively, moving the chains at a 77.30% rate that was 4th in the NFL, but the Packers were as good as it got offensively this regular season. Rodgers was a bigger part of his offense than Romo, with 520 attempts to 435 for Romo. Add in Rodgers’ superior rushing numbers (269 yards and 2 touchdowns on 43 carries, as opposed to 61 yards on 26 carries for Romo) and Rodgers actually had 103 more dropbacks than Romo.

Romo played on a team that ran 476 times (excluding quarterback runs), while the Packers ran 382 times. He also played with the strongest supporting cast. DeMarco Murray led a running game that not only carried the ball more times, but also averaged more yards per carry (4.6 to 4.4). Rodgers had a pair of great receivers in Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson and the best guard combo in the NFL in TJ Lang and Josh Sitton and Eddie Lacy is no slouch at running back, but Romo had arguably the best running game and offensive line in the game and Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are no slouches in the passing game.

The Cowboys ranked 4th in pass blocking grade, 2nd in run blocking grade, and 2nd in rushing grade on Pro Football Focus, while the Packers ranked 1st, 17th, and 7th in those 7 aspects respectively. Rodgers also had 32 dropped passes to Romo’s 10 and ranked #1 in adjusted QB rating (which takes into accounts yards after the catch, drops, throw aways, etc) by a decent margin over Romo (99.04 to 97.70). Rodgers was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked quarterback on the season, while Romo ranked all the way down at #7, as they felt his numbers were really boosted by the play around him. At the end of the day, Rodgers led the better offense despite less supporting talent.

It definitely needs to be mentioned that Tony Romo missed one start with a back injury, a 28-13 home loss to the Cardinals in which the offense really struggled, moving the chains at a 67.86% rate. That’s part of why Rodgers had so many more drop backs and if you take out that game, the Cowboys moved the chains at a 77.85% rate on the season. However, that’s still worse than Green Bay and that rate of moving the chains looks a little better when you take into account that they were facing a very tough Arizona defense, which allowed opponents to move the chains at a mere 69.83% rate on the season, 3rd best in the NFL. Besides, the Packers felt Rodgers’ absence on a greater scale last season, as they went 2-6 in 8 games that Rodgers either missed or barely played in. Compare that to an 18-6 record with Rodgers at quarterback over the past 2 seasons. I know you can’t use things that happened in previous years to pick MVP, but it does provide some helpful context.

Now that Rodgers has been narrowed down as the top quarterback in the NFL, the argument is between him and the top non-quarterback in the NFL, who is almost definitely JJ Watt. Watt was Pro Football Focus’ top player this season by a wide margin, as has been the case in each of the last 3 seasons. I’ll get into what makes him so good in my Defensive Player of the Year write-up, but Watt is the only one in recent memory that I think can say he’s been the best player in football for 3 straight years. This is Reggie White in his prime type stuff and maybe even he couldn’t say that.

However, this award isn’t best player, it’s most valuable and it’s just so hard for a non-quarterback to be the most valuable player in today’s NFL. I would be fine with the NFL making a separate award for non-quarterbacks and if that existed Watt would be the heavy favorite. However, imagine if Watt and Rodgers switched places. Rodgers might not have quite the same amount of offensive supporting talent in Houston and the defense would suck without Watt, but Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins, Arian Foster, and that Houston offensive line are a good bunch so that would still be one of the best offenses in the NFL. Defensively they could easily struggle, but so did the Packers’ defense this year, ranking 27th in rate of moving the chains allowed and they still won 12 games because of how good their offense was. The Texans are a playoff team if they swapped Watt for Rodgers.

If the Packers swapped Rodgers for Watt, their defense would be a lot better, but their offense would be so much worse. Even if they still made the playoffs, there’s no way they’d be 12-win NFC North champions. That’s simply what it boils down to. If you switched Watt and Rodgers, the Texans would become a better football team and the Packers would become a worse football team. Rodgers deserves this award more than anyone else.

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2014 NFL Comeback Player of the Year Pick: Rob Gronkowski

Comeback Player of the Year is the award that I feel has the vaguest definition because it depends on your definition of comeback. Guys like Aaron Rodgers, Julio Jones, Randall Cobb, Harrison Smith, and Von Miller missed significant time last season (7 games, 11 games, 10 games, 8 games, and 7 games respectively) and were among the best at their respective positions this season, but I think one player fits the definition of the word comeback to a tee and that’s New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.

While the aforementioned quintet came back from significant injuries, broken collarbones, torn ACLs, broken legs, serious foot injuries, etc, Rob Gronkowski came back from injuries to pretty much every part of his body. Not only did he return from a December 2013 ACL tear, but when he had January 2014 surgery on that knee, it was his 7th surgery since November 2012, including 5 on a twice broken arm, and one on his back. When Gronk was limited to 7 games in 2013, only 3 of those 9 missed games were because of the torn ACL, as he missed 6 games to start the season with arm and back problems. Throw in a significant high ankle sprain that limited him severely in the Super Bowl after the 2011 season and the fact that his back problems dated back to his days in college, when he missed an entire season with a back injury, and you had a guy that, even only going into his age 25 season, looked like damaged goods and someone who might never be the same again.

Instead, Gronk was Pro Football Focus’ best tight end by a wide margin. He finished 15th in the NFL in receiving yards and had 116 more yards than Greg Olsen, who was 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards this season. That was despite the fact that he wasn’t 100% to start the season, catching just 13 passes for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season, and despite the fact that he didn’t play in a meaningless week 17 game for precautionary reasons. That means that Gronk had an 11 game stretch in which he caught 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns. The Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% rate in those 11 games (and went 10-1), as opposed to 65.47% in their other 5 games (2-3).

Gronk made it through the whole season injury free and was nothing less than he’s always been, which is possibly the most valuable offensive skill position player in the NFL (excluding quarterbacks). He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker.

In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When he doesn’t over the past 4 years, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. After all he went through injury wise, the future is still as bright as it’s ever been for Gronkowski, which is the definition of a comeback.

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2014 NFL All-Pro Picks

QB Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay)

RB LeVeon Bell (Pittsburgh)

WR Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh), Jordy Nelson (Green Bay), Odell Beckham (NY Giants)

TE Rob Gronkowski (New England)

OT Andrew Whitworth (Cincinnati), Jason Peters (Philadelphia)

G Marshal Yanda (Baltimore), Josh Sitton (Green Bay)

C Nick Mangold (NY Jets)

IDL JJ Watt (Houston), Sheldon Richardson (NY Jets)

ER Von Miller (Denver), Justin Houston (Kansas City)

NRLB Dont’a Hightower (New England), Luke Kuechly (Carolina)

CB Chris Harris (Denver), Vontae Davis (Indianapolis), Richard Sherman (Seattle)

S Eric Weddle (San Diego), Harrison Smith (Minnesota)

2014 Pro-Bowl Selections

QB: Tom Brady (New England), Drew Brees (New Orleans), Andrew Luck (Indianapolis), Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay), Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh), Tony Romo (Dallas)

RB: LeVeon Bell (Pittsburgh), Jamaal Charles (Kansas City), Justin Forsett (Baltimore), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle), Eddie Lacy (Green Bay), DeMarco Murray (Dallas)

FB: Anthony Sherman (Kansas City), Ryan Hewitt (Cincinnati)

WR: Odell Beckham (NY Giants), Dez Bryant (Dallas), WR Antonio Brown (Pittsburgh), WR TY Hilton (Indianapolis), WR Julio Jones (Atlanta), WR Jordy Nelson (Green Bay), WR Emmanuel Sanders (Denver), WR Demaryius Thomas (Denver)

TE: Rob Gronkowski (New England), Greg Olsen (Carolina), Delanie Walker (Tennessee), Jason Witten (Dallas)

OT: Kelvin Beachum (Pittsburgh), Jason Peters (Philadelphia), Tyron Smith (Dallas), Joe Staley (San Francisco), Joe Thomas (Cleveland), Andrew Whitworth (Cincinnati)

G: Joel Bitonio (Cleveland), TJ Lang (Green Bay), Evan Mathis (Philadelphia), Zach Martin (Dallas), Josh Sitton (Green Bay), Marshal Yanda (Baltimore)

C: Travis Frederick (Dallas), Rodney Hudson (Kansas City), Corey Linsley (Green Bay), Nick Mangold (NY Jets)

DE: Michael Bennett (Seattle), Calais Campbell (Arizona), Fletcher Cox (Philadelphia), Cameron Wake (Miami), JJ Watt (Houston), Mario Williams (Buffalo)

DT: Marcell Dareus (Buffalo), Aaron Donald (St. Louis), Gerald McCoy (Tampa Bay), Sheldon Richardson (NY Jets), Ndamukong Suh (Detroit), Muhammad Wilkerson (NY Jets)

OLB: Elvis Dumervil (Baltimore), Justin Houston (Kansas City), Ryan Kerrigan (Washington), DeAndre Levy (Detroit), Khalil Mack (Oakland), Von Miller (Denver)

MLB: Jamie Collins (New England), Dont’a Hightower (New England), Luke Kuechly (Carolina), Bobby Wagner (Seattle)

CB: Vontae Davis (Indianapolis), Corey Graham (Buffalo), Chris Harris (Denver), Darrelle Revis (New England), Orlando Scandrick (Dallas), Richard Sherman (Seattle), Sean Smith (Kansas City), Desmond Trufant (Atlanta)

FS: Glover Quin (Detroit), Eric Weddle (San Diego)

SS: Antoine Bethea (San Francisco), Devin McCourty (New England)

K: Matt Bryant (Atlanta), Adam Vinatieri (Indianapolis)

P: Johnny Hekker (St. Louis), Pat McAfee (Indianapolis)

RET: Devin Hester (Atlanta), Darren Sproles (Philadelphia)

ST: Kelcie McCray (Kansas City), Cedric Peerman (Cincinnati)

Pro-Bowlers by team

New England: 6

Buffalo: 3

NY Jets: 3

Miami: 1

Cincinnati: 3

Pittsburgh: 4

Baltimore: 3

Cleveland: 2

Indianapolis: 5

Houston: 1

Tennessee: 1

Jacksonville: 0

Denver: 4

Kansas City: 6

San Diego: 1

Oakland: 1

Dallas: 8

Philadelphia: 4

Washington: 1

NY Giants: 1

Green Bay: 6

Detroit: 3

Chicago: 0

Minnesota: 0

New Orleans: 1

Atlanta: 4

Carolina: 2

Tampa Bay: 1

Seattle: 4

San Francisco: 2

Arizona: 1

St. Louis: 2

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