As we sit halfway through the 2020 NFL Season, it’s time to take a pause and take a look at the top performers — and underperformers — across the first 8 weeks of the year. Rookie quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert have more than exceeded expectations, proving themselves as true franchise cornerstones through just a few starts. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Big Ben Roethlisberger have turned back the clock and are playing like it’s 2015 again. And while teams like the Steelers, Seahawks, Chiefs, and Buccaneers are at the top of the conference currently, the majority of the league still has shot at the playoffs — sorry Jets fans, but on the bright side, Adam Gase will be gone soon. There are loads of storylines, but who gets our awards? Let’s get down to it.
Biggest Surprises & Let Downs
While Buffalo and New England made headlines early in the season with Josh Allen’s gaudy start and the Patriots’ addition of Cam Newton, the Miami Dolphins were somewhat forgotten in the thick of the AFC East. But so far, the 4–3 Phins have proven to be no joke, tallying convincing wins against the 49ers and Rams, in part to their punishing defense and Brian Flores’ scheme. If newly-injected rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa plays anywhere near the level he did in Tuscaloosa, then the Dolphins will certainly make a playoff push — something not many would have foreseen coming into the year.
Up in Seattle, we heard rumblings that Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer were finally going to “Let Russ Cook” this year. So far Russell Wilson is on pace to reach 5,000 yards and 50-plus touchdowns, something that only Brady, Peyton Manning, and Patrick Mahomes have done. Part of the issue with Seattle over the past couple years has been their philosophy to run the ball incessantly on early downs and early in the game. This often caused them to fall behind and essentially left Wilson to play Superman in the second half of games. This year, however, per Ben Baldwin, the Seahawks are leading the league in early-down pass rate over expected at 64%, which means the team passes 13% more than expected on 1st and 2nd downs. This shift in offensive ideology can in large part take the credit for Seattle’s success and Wilson’s historic play this year.
Most Valuable Player
The MVP race is an intriguing one, as right now, Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes clearly lead the way, but with many games left to play, there are certainly opportunities for others to make a run at it. In the last 10 years, 8 of 10 MVPs have been quarterbacks on teams with a playoff bye, meaning their team had the first- or second-best record in their conference. Mahomes has led the Chiefs to a 7–1 record, continued to make mind-boggling plays each week, all while posting a 21:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, something that would be considered unearthly for anyone other than the Chiefs superstar. If I’m a betting man, my money would go on Mahomes; however, if you are looking for a dark horse, Ben Roethlisberger could be that guy. He’s playing fantastic this year coming off elbow surgery, and has led the Steelers to a 8–0 record including a signature win over the division rival Baltimore Ravens.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
The Rookie of the Year race is going to be one of the more neck-and-neck races in recent memory, with both Burrow and Herbert already emerging as young stars. Burrow was selected first overall, and with that comes more expectations, but he has done more than live up to them. The LSU product is on pace for 4,544 yards this season, which would shatter the rookie passing record (4,374) set by Andrew Luck back in 2011. But beyond the stats, Joey Burrow has transformed the Cincinnati Bengals’ culture with his coolheaded demeanor that exudes confidence. In last week’s win against the Tennessee Titans, Burrow was making plays all over the field, putting his poise and elite ball placement on full display. Each game the Bengals have played has been competitive, with the exception of the Ravens game, and he has led his team to a 2–5–1 record with one of the lesser rosters in football. Although Herbert is also a stud and may have a higher ceiling, what Burrow has been able to do on a consistent basis week in and week out earns him my R.O.Y. vote thus far.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
There hasn’t been as much buzz over the DROY at this time compared to previous years. Defense is down league-wide, and rookies are getting fewer defensive snaps than before. But there are still a few rookies who have distinguished themselves. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is proving to be a key piece in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense, the top defense in the NFL by Football Outsiders’ defensive efficiency rating. Though he is listed at free safety, Winfield has played all across the field, logging snaps at free safety, strong safety, and slot cornerback. It’s incredibly impressive to see a rookie come in and be able to excel at multiple positions. Winfield is also an excellent blitzer, with 2 sacks, 1 quarterback knockdown, and 3 pressures. Jaylon Johnson, cornerback for the Chicago Bears, is another player to watch out for in this category. Like Winfield, Johnson is also contributing to a top-ten defense. The second-round pick from Utah has allowed a 50% completion percentage when targeted. Johnson hasn’t been perfect — allowing a passer rating of 91.9 — but he leads all rookie CBs with 10 passes defended.
Coach of the Year
Through 8 weeks, making a coach of the year pick is probably the easiest decision out of all the awards, and that pick is Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins. As noted earlier, many were quick to write off the Phins, and letting Tagovailoa acclimate to NFL life on the bench certainly added to a lack of hype. But in B-Flo’s second year, the Dolphins are already proving they are legit. Flores has constructed a New England-esque defense by putting together an elite secondary of Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe. With this myriad of starting corners, it gives the defense flexibility to play man coverage at a high percentage, which has been the Patriots mantra for some time now. We saw this scheme and defense utterly destroy the 49ers, and make Rams quarterback Jared Goff look like a deer in headlights. The offense has been above average with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, ranking 11th in scoring at 26.9 ppg, and hopefully Tua can keep things rolling. Even the biggest Flores believers could not have predicted that he would turn around this Dolphins team this fast, and he is quickly becoming a star amongst the coaching ranks.
Comeback Player of the Year
This award should be a slam dunk at this point. Coming off Tommy John surgery, many wondered how Big Ben would fare this late into his career. The Steelers’ 7–0 record says a lot about his recovery process. As opposed to sticking with his gunslinging, deep pass mentality that made him a star, Roethlisberger has become a wiser, more precise passer this year, finally accepting that he doesn’t always need to force the ball down the field. With a promising squadron of receivers in James Washington, Juju Smith-Schuster, Dionte Johnson, and Chase Claypool, Big Ben has been able to throw the ball short and let these receivers do all the work after the catch. This is evident in Washington’s and Smith-Schuster’s average depth of target which has declined from 15.2 and 9 in 2019 to 9.2 and 5.9 in 2020, respectively. Nonetheless, props to Big Ben for coming back and leading the Steelers to the league’s best record so far. And come playoff time, be careful — Big Ben is one of the only AFC quarterbacks with postseason experience and success.
Second Half Story Lines
As more teams acclimate to COVID protocols and earn more practice time together, some teams and units will become more dangerous. One of those will be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Yes, yes, I know, they’re first in their division already, but they are just scratching the surface of their potential. Brady and the Bucs were never expected to be elite from Week 1. It was expected that it would take time for Brady and the receivers to build a rapport, and for Rob Gronkowski to get back into football shape. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have also been battling injuries, and once both get healthy, adding Antonio Brown to the mix may present us with the best trio of receivers we’ve seen on a single offense. With the emergence of Carlton Davis, stellar play from rookie Antoine Winfield Jr., and the wrecking balls they have at linebacker, the Bucs defense is elite as well. Give it a little more time and this may be the best team in football.
Another interesting outcome to follow will be the AFC South division race between the Colts and the Titans. Phillip Rivers is just starting to find himself in Indy’s offense, the defense is elite and ranks second in yardage allowed, and most of the team is young and developing by the week. If they can get Jonathan Taylor going they could certainly make a playoff run. The Titans, on the other hand, have played inconsistent football as of late, but should never be counted out with the punishing cyborg they have on offense in Derrick Henry. Henry has already had one monster game with 212 yards and multiple scores against the Texans this year, and we know his numbers only get better as the season progresses. Ryan Tannehill has also been great, ranking fifth in passer rating, and the receiving core has steadily improved, with Corey Davis finally proving why he was a first round pick four years ago. The battle for the division will come down to the wire, and the Colts-Titans matchups in weeks 10 and 12 will be some of the most pivotal games of the season.
Photos courtesy of Larry Maurer and Jeffrey Beall