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Ron Schwane/Associated Press
On Saturday evening at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami, the NFL‘s biggest stars will gather on the eve of Super Bowl LIV for the ninth annual NFL Honors—a ceremony where the league will crown its Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and Most Valuable Player, among other awards.
There will be pomp. Circumstance. Jokes from comedian Steve Harvey. And hopefully no confusion regarding the actual winner of any of the awards.
Here at Bleacher Report, we don’t have a glitzy theater in which to host a black tie affair. We also don’t have Steve Harvey—he’s busy hosting every other show and event on earth.
But we aren’t going to let those minor details stop us from handing out some (imaginary) honors of our own.
Six of our NFL writers (NFL Analyst Gary Davenport, NFL Features Lead Writer Tyler Dunne, NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman, NFL Analyst Brad Gagnon, NFL Analyst Brent Sobleski and NFL National Lead Writer Mike Tanier) have gathered to offer their picks for the best of 2019 in a number of categories, from Most Valuable Player to Fantasy Player of the Year.
The first envelope, please.
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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Brian Flores, Miami Dolphins (3 votes)
The NFL’s Coach of the Year award has likely never gone to a coach whose team started its season 0-7. Or to a coach whose team was outscored 163-26 in the month of September.
Those numbers get coaches fired, not congratulated.
But after what Brian Flores accomplished in his first season as head coach of the Miami Dolphins, the 38-year-old has earned an attaboy or two.
At first glance, it doesn’t appear Flores accomplished much—the Dolphins were a five-win team. But those five wins are remarkable in their own right.
Miami entered the 2019 season in the opening stages of a ground-up rebuild. The Dolphins were hands-down the most talent-deficient team in the league this season. But you wouldn’t know it if you watched them play.
Yes, the first month of the season was rough, as they endured four straight blowout losses. But when the Dolphins beat the New York Jets 26-18 on Nov. 3, it set the stage for a second-half surge in which they went 5-4 over their final nine games.
Under Flores, these Dolphins had no quit. Rather than giving up after that disastrous start, the team rallied. Miami logged a pair of wins in December over teams that made the playoffs—including a Week 17 victory in New England that cost the Patriots a first-round bye.
Imagine what the guy can do once he has better players.
Others receiving votes: Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs (1 vote); Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers (1 vote); Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans (1 vote)
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Tony Avelar/Associated Press
Robert Saleh, DC, San Francisco 49ers (4 votes)
San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch is well aware that it’s only a matter of time before defensive coordinator Robert Saleh leaves for a head coaching gig of his own, per NFL.com’s Steve Wyche.
“I don’t like to compare, but I do talk often about the qualities that make up the good and the great, and he embodies those qualities. He’s smart, confident and humble. I think we all know we’re on borrowed time with him (in San Francisco). We’re disappointed for him that it didn’t happen this year, but we’re thrilled to have him. We do know he’s too good of a leader, too good at what he does and too good of a person to not get another chance.”
What can’t be questioned is the job that Saleh did in his third season as the Niners’ defensive coordinator.
The defense was the engine that propelled the 49ers to Super Bowl LIV. San Francisco led the NFC in total defense, led the NFL in pass defense, ranked eighth in scoring defense and tied for fifth in sacks with 48.
It didn’t hurt that San Francisco’s stacked defensive line features five first-round picks. But Saleh’s scheme consistently put the 49ers in position to succeed defensively and kept opposing offenses on their heels.
And there isn’t a more enthusiastic coach in the league.
Others receiving votes: Eric Bieniemy, OC, Kansas City Chiefs (1 vote); Greg Roman, OC, Baltimore Ravens (1 vote)
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens (4 votes)
More than ever before, the NFL is an offense-driven league. Thirty-point games are more rule than exception. Statistical performances that once would have been considered historic are now routine.
But even on that slanted playing field, the 2019 season featured some amazing individual performances.
Carolina Panthers tailback Christian McCaffrey became only the third player in league history to gain both 1,000 rushing and receiving yards in the same season. The third-year pro averaged 4.8 yards per carry, ranked second in the NFL with 116 catches and found the end zone 19 times.
It was a great season, but it wasn’t enough to net him Offensive Player of the Year honors from our panel. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was that much better.
In only his second season, Jackson led the NFL with 36 touchdown passes, ranked sixth leaguewide with 1,206 rushing yards (a new single-season record for quarterbacks) and became the first player ever to surpass 3,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season.
The Ravens were stunned by the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, but that loss doesn’t erase their 14-2 regular season. Or the fact that they set a new NFL record for rushing yards by a team in a season. Or that the they led the league in scoring at 33.2 points per game.
Jackson had one of the most dynamic offensive seasons in recent memory. And this likely won’t be the last time we see his name featured here.
Others receiving votes: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers (2 votes)
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Scott Taetsch/Getty Images
T.J. Watt, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers (2 votes)
While the votes for Offensive Player of the Year were confined to just two players, the tallies for Defensive Player of the Year were much more widespread.
One went to Arizona Cardinals edge-rusher Chandler Jones, who was second in the league with 19 sacks. Jones has piled up at least 11 sacks in each of the past five seasons—a jaw-dropping 72.5 over that span.
Another vote went to New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who was the Pro Football Writers of America DPOY. Per Jeff Howe of The Athletic, he admitted that being a leading candidate for the honor this year is a big deal.
“It’s pretty cool. That’s a big award,” Gilmore said. “The award speaks for itself, a lot of hard work, a lot of good teammates that put me in that position, a lot of preparation from myself. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates to even be in this position. I feel like I had a good year. Hopefully, I’ll win it.”
Kansas City Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu and Green Bay Packers edge-rusher Za’Darius Smith also picked up one vote each, but two members of our panel tabbed another player.
In only three seasons, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt has already become one of the NFL’s most imposing edge-rushers. Watt was named to his second Pro Bowl after amassing a career-high 14.5 sacks in 2019, and while many question the value of that game, he told the team’s website that he views it as a great learning opportunity.
“I remember being here with Von Miller and Dee Ford last year, just talking about getting off the ball and those first few steps, and a couple more stuff I don’t really want to give away. Some stuff that really helped me, and I really believe being here last year, talking to those guys and being around some of the best pass-rushers of the game really helped me visualize and be able to actually put the film to work and just things to look at to help me become a better player.”
Watt is apparently a quick learner.
Others receiving votes: Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots (1 vote); Chandler Jones, Edge, Arizona Cardinals; (Tyrann Mathieu, S, Kansas City Chiefs (1 vote), Za’Darius Smith, Edge, Green Bay Packers (1 vote)
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Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals (3 votes)
Entering the 2019 season, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers was the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for 3,500 yards and run for 500 yards as a rookie.
Newton has company in that club now.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray was one of the most polarizing picks in the 2019 draft. For every person who lauded Murray’s arm talent and athleticism, there was another who bemoaned his relatively diminutive stature.
One year doesn’t settle the debate, but after Murray threw for 3,722 yards and 20 scores and added 544 yards and four touchdowns on the ground as a rookie, the first group is out to a substantial lead.
As good as Murray was this year, he told Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic that he intends to follow the lead of young signal-callers like Lamar Jackson of the Ravens and Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs and take a big step forward in his second season.
“I think their offenses are very quarterback-friendly,” Murray said. “I think we have a very quarterback-friendly offense. And as far as the elite status goes, I don’t play to be mediocre. I think that’s a deal that can obtained. So, we’ll see next year.”
Mahomes did more than just take a step forward in his second season—he was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. Jackson will most likely follow suit this year.
No pressure, Kyler.
Others receiving votes: A.J. Brown, WR, Tennessee Titans (2 votes); Josh Jacobs, RB, Oakland Raiders (1 vote)
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Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers (6 votes)
The 2018 season was an injury-marred four-win fiasco for the San Francisco 49ers, and the nadir came when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Week 3. However, Garoppolo now views the injury as a blessing in disguise.
“Things have a way of working out,” he said in mid-January, per NFL.com’s Nick Shook. “I always told myself it was a blessing in disguise, the ACL. We got (Nick) Bosa out of it. That’s a pretty good trade-off, I guess. But yeah, things have a way of working out, I guess. This ride is crazy.”
Head coach Kyle Shanahan echoed Garoppolo’s sentiments about the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft.
“It definitely helped,” Shanahan said. “I mean, everything happens for a reason, and you need to get good players in, some difference-makers, and Bosa has definitely been a difference-maker. I’m very glad we have him. I don’t wish 4-12 on anybody, but after going through it, it’s nice what it brought us.”
Just as he was at Ohio State, Bosa has been a force of nature for the Niners. At a position where young players often need time to acclimate to the pros, Bosa didn’t miss a beat. He had a sack in his NFL debut and finished the season with 47 total tackles, nine sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
The best player on the best defensive line in the game, Bosa is our first unanimous award-winner.
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Tony Avelar/Associated Press
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, San Francisco 49ers (3 votes)
The 49ers entered the 2018 campaign as a trendy dark-horse playoff pick. But those postseason hopes vanished after Garoppolo went down with a torn ACL in Week 3.
This year, the Niners entered the year with far lower expectations. Fifteen wins later, they’re now getting ready to face the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.
While San Francisco’s defense and ground game deserve much of the credit for the team’s success, Garoppolo also deserves a fair share.
Garoppolo’s numbers aren’t eye-popping. He finished the regular season with 3,978 passing yards and 27 touchdowns, and he attempted only eight passes in the win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
But just because Garoppolo didn’t post big numbers against the Packers doesn’t mean he can’t. In a wild 48-46 win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 14, he went 26-of-35 for 349 yards and four scores, engineering a last-minute comeback.
There are other worthy candidates for Comeback Player of the Year. Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill went from Marcus Mariota’s backup to the NFL’s highest-rated passer. Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick regained his status as one of the league’s best players at his position after he missed the entire 2018 season with Guillain–Barre syndrome.
But the 49ers wouldn’t be playing in Super Bowl LIV without Garoppolo. And if San Francisco is going to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, Jimmy G likely needs to have a big game.
Others receiving votes: Travis Frederick, C, Dallas Cowboys (2 votes); Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans (1 vote)
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Brian Blanco/Associated Press
TIE – Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers and Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens (3 votes each)
It’s fitting that the vote for Fantasy Player of the Year is tied. After all, Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson defined fantasy football this year.
McCaffrey finished the season second in the NFL with 116 receptions for 1,005 yards, led the NFC with 1,387 rushing yards and touched the ball a staggering 403 times. In scoring formats that award a point per reception, McCaffrey was the No. 1 running back by more than 150 points (!).
While McCaffrey had a fantastic season, he was also a top-five pick in the overwhelming majority of fantasy drafts. Jackson wasn’t even drafted as a starter in most leagues, although he didn’t stay a reserve for long.
In the season opener, Jackson threw for 324 yards and five scores and posted a perfect passer rating of 158.3. By the time the dust had settled on the 2019 season, Jackson wasn’t just a weekly starter—like McCaffrey, he was the top player at his position by a sizable margin.
If you had one of these players on your roster, your fantasy team likely made the playoffs.
If you had both, you’re presumably celebrating a championship.
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Elise Amendola/Associated Press
Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans (3 votes)
There were two main contenders for the Breakout Player of the Year award—one on each side of the ball.
Over his first five NFL seasons, edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett tallied a combined 14 sacks. In 2019, he led the league with 19.5 during his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After that wildly successful first season in Tampa, Barrett hopes he’ll be a Buccaneer for years to come, per Eduardo A. Encina of the Tampa Bay Times.
“Everything is working down here, (defensive coordinator Todd) Bowles’ system, we’ve got some great guys down here. I know we weren’t the team we wanted to be. But we’ve grown into a team that has a great and bright future. I think that if we can keep everybody together, I know people want to go and chase money and chase everything. I want money, too, but I just want to stay here. It feels perfect. I like (Arians). I like (general manager Jason Licht). I like the training staff, I like everybody. I don’t want to mess this up. There’s no reason for me to mess this up down here.”
Barrett had a great season, but it wasn’t enough to put him over the top here. Because while he was harassing opposing quarterbacks, Derrick Henry was carrying the Tennessee Titans all the way to the AFC Championship Game.
After failing to hit 750 rushing yards in either of his first two seasons, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner posted his first 1,000-yard campaign in 2018. That was just a preview of what Henry had in store this year—a league-leading 1,540 yards on the ground, 5.1 yards per carry and 16 rushing touchdowns.
As good as Henry was during the regular season, he was even better in the playoffs. In upsets of the New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens, Henry topped 180 yards each game and averaged upward of six yards per carry.
Both Henry and Barrett are about to receive huge raises in 2020.
Others receiving votes: Shaquil Barrett, Edge, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2 votes); Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Pittsburgh Steelers (1 vote)
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens (2 votes)
Given the disappointing end to the Baltimore Ravens’ season, quarterback Lamar Jackson is more motivated than ever to get better in the offseason.
“There’s always room for improvement,” he said at the Pro Bowl, per Ryan Mink of the team website. “I’m not the best. I’m not the greatest. I’m going into my third year and I’m trying to get somewhere. I’m trying to get to that Super Bowl, so I’ve got to work on everything.”
That thud you heard was every defensive coordinator in the NFL banging their heads against their desks.
For most of the year, Jackson was the league’s hardest player to defend. His record-setting season on the ground was impressive, but not especially surprising—it was no secret that he’s a nightmare to bring down in the open field.
But Jackson’s massive improvement as a passer in his second season was surprising.
After completing only 58.2 percent of his passes as a rookie, Jackson completed 66.1 percent of his attempts this year. After throwing only six touchdown passes in 2018, Jackson exploded for an NFL-leading 36 in 2019. His passer rating went from 84.5 to 113.3.
That leap forward spurred the Ravens to the best record in football and thrust Jackson into superstar status. It also made the former Louisville star the runaway favorite for a certain award we haven’t mentioned yet.
Others receiving votes: Shaquill Barrett, Edge, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1 vote); Kenyan Drake, RB, Arizona Cardinals (1 vote); DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins (1 vote); Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans (1 vote)
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens (6 votes)
Like it was going to be anyone else.
For a while, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks gave Jackson a run for his money in the MVP race. And Wilson might earn a few MVP votes (the first of his career, somehow) this go-round.
But Jackson was unquestionably the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2019.
Don’t just take our word for it. The Pro Football Writers of America have already named Jackson their MVP. As ESPN’s Courtney Cronin noted, a panel of ESPN experts tabbed Jackson as their MVP as well.
“Jackson emerged as the front-runner for the MVP award by Week 10 and separated himself from the pack in every game that followed. Few NFL teams could figure out how to beat him this season. Putting a spy on the QB rarely worked. No type of coverage slowed him (61.4% completion percentage vs. man coverage, 70.7% completion percentage vs. zone). The Patriots’ No. 1 defense couldn’t even contain him. Simply put, Jackson reshaped the way teams play defense.”
Yes, the Tennessee Titans were able to keep Jackson mostly under wraps in the playoffs. But that one game doesn’t erase all the havoc that he wreaked across the NFL this season. He shredded teams with his legs and destroyed them with his arm.
And he’s a mortal lock to win the NFL’s premier individual award Saturday night.