August 3, 2021

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Scramble for the Ball: 2020 Award and Stat…

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Scramble for the Ball: 2020 Award and Stat...

Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week we’re finalizing our list of starters. Unlike most teams around the league, our list of starters is the same every year, which means this week it’s time to examine which of their starters is hotly tipped for success in the end-of-season awards.

Bryan: That’s right — this is the article each year our editors hate, if for no other reason than it features more tables than a Dudley Boyz ironman match. Sorry, Vince.

Andrew: I think Vince secretly likes editing tables. It’s the only best explanation I can think of for why we’re still writing this column.

Bryan: Oh, come now. We’ve already gone through the team-by-team predictions, it’s only fair that we give the same level of attention to all the players who make up those teams, with our annual awards and stat leaders predictions, an article which has been so accurate in past seasons that we’re back doing it again, rather than rolling in a big pile of money from our gambling winnings.

And by same level of attention, I mean “one article where we cram everything together,” but y’know, semantics.

Andrew: If we separated them out, you reckon we could get paid twice, once for each half of the column? Not now that I’ve asked out loud, obviously, but in a hypothetical alternative universe where Aaron hadn’t just read those words from me?

Bryan: Yeah, I think at that point, we’d be paid zero times, and they’d be looking for a new set of Scramblers, so moving on rapidly…

Andrew: Ah, moving on rapidly. That other thing we never, ever do.

Bryan: As a reminder, for each prop, we’re picking three players. The first is the player we think is most likely to win the category, regardless of the odds given. The second is the player we think is the best bet — the best value for your money. And our third is our favorite longshot; someone with long odds that we think could well end up surprising people, if the chips fall the right way.

Andrew: So not only do we get to be wrong, but we get to be wrong three times per category, each for completely different reasons!

Editors’ Note: These lines fluctuate quite regularly, and can differ from site to site. All odds were correct as of time of writing.

Player Stat Props

Most Passing Yards

Bryan: I think we’ve entered an era where, for years and years, the answer for “favorite” for any passing category is going to be Patrick Mahomes. Locked down for the next decade with a contract extension the size of a small Pacific Island nation, Mahomes is probably the best pure passer in the league, with an offense designed to maximize his opportunities to throw the ball. He was only seventh in yards per game last season, as big leads do reduce your odds of throwing the ball a zillion times, but A) that includes the Denver game he left early with the knee injury, B) any slide by the defense means more Mahomes passing to watch, and C) I’m not exactly sure you can count on, say, Jameis Winston repeating his victory in the yards-per-game category. Call it a hunch.

Andrew: Agreed, for all the reasons you just gave. Mahomes is the obvious favorite, regardless of how much we expect the Chiefs to throttle back in the second half of games. However, those odds on him are terrible. Considering different quarterbacks have led the league in passing yards in each of the past four seasons, and Mahomes does not play with a defense quite as bad as the pre-Marshon Lattimore Saints that kept Drew Brees throwing over and over again in the first two-thirds of the decade, odds of 7-2 are awful.

For value, we want somebody who will have volume, with a coach who loves to pass, who has plenty of targets, and whose team we do not expect to be a contender sitting on leads throughout the second half. That points me toward the second tier of guys: I think Jared Goff’s odds are laughably short at 12-1, but Matthew Stafford and Kyler Murray are very, very enticing. We’ve picked Stafford before for this, and will again, because he consistently racks up big yardage totals and the Lions consistently lose. If he’s healthy, which he should be, I think his 14-1 represents the best value in at least the top 12.

Bryan: I’m going to make a pick here which even I’m not 100% sure I believe in, which is always a fun way to start an article. Most of these players have a pretty standard distribution of potential passing performance, barring injuries and so forth — a pretty even spread over a thousand-yard range or so. But Tom Brady‘s probability chart feels like it would have two distinct peaks, with not much room in the middle. If he’s washed, he’s washed, and he’s going to tumble way down the table. But he was seventh in this category a year ago with Heckle and Jeckle as his receiving corps. Give him arguably the best set of weapons in the league, with Bruce Arians’ offensive philosophy, in a division which is likely to be shootout-heavy, in warmer weather and domes … I mean, am I crazy? I mean, yes, I am, but am I crazy for this?

Andrew: You just picked a 43-year-old quarterback coming off the least efficient season of his 20-year career to not only outperform the combined total of all 43-year-old quarterbacks ever in the history of the sport, but to actually lead the league in passing yards. That is a very, very interesting definition of “value.”

Bryan: Oh, DVOA has nothing to do with passing yards — Jameis Winston led the league in yards last season with a DVOA of -9.0% for these same Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brady’s cheaper than Matt Ryan or Dak Prescott, whom I would also consider more likely to lead the league than he is, so I mean, by that definition, he’s valued. Plus, good to start the column with a pick that will ensure a 50-comment-long thread, right? Apprehendite Disputandum.

Andrew: If the odds were better, I might consider Brady as my longshot, but they aren’t, and there’s no way I’m considering him for anything at that price. “Longshot” is one of those lovely subjective terms — at what exact point does somebody go from being good value to a longshot? — but I think we can safely say that going almost to the opposite extreme makes somebody a longshot. As far as I’m aware, no rookie has ever led the league in passing yards, and I’m not about to anoint Joe Burrow here, but second-year players are not unheard of, and I’ve already mentioned how good I think the value is on last year’s top overall pick. Give him a bunch of weapons, a tough division, a coach who loves to call pass plays, and 22-1 is good enough for me to put Kyler Murray down as my longshot.

Bryan: For my longshot pick, I’m going to slightly twist something you’ve already said — someone with volume on a team that we do not expect to contend. That’s why the Winstons and the Staffords of the world are good bets here. Well, there are few teams we expect to contend less than the Carolina Panthers, and I do believe they’ve significantly upgraded at quarterback over the dregs that were Kyle Allen and company. Teddy Bridgewater may excel at throwing the 2-yard pass, but if you throw a zillion of them, they do add up. I have to imagine he throws a bit deeper this year with Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel, and D.J. Moore as his targets, and the Panthers at least like to throw to their running backs quite a bit, which counts for this category. I mean, obviously, it’s unlikely, but that’s why it’s a longshot!

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Patrick Mahomes (+350) Matthew Stafford (+1400) Kyler Murray (+2200)
Bryan Patrick Mahomes (+350) Tom Brady (+950) Teddy Bridgewater (+5000)

Most Passing Touchdowns

Andrew: My colleague has already made the argument for Patrick Mahomes being favored to lead the league in every positive statistical category over the next 10 years. He probably won’t end up actually doing so, but he’s definitely the favorite. And yes, the odds are terrible again. The price of greatness.

Bryan: I, too, am on Mahomes, though I do enjoy looking at the differences in the two tables. Lamar Jackson goes from a +7500 passing-yard leader to a +1400 touchdown leader — I love it. It’s a great encapsulation of the Ravens’ whole offensive philosophy, in monetary form. I’m still on Mahomes to beat Jackson, but little differences like that make my day.

Andrew: There’s a similar effect for Russell Wilson, too, because the Seahawks’ entire offensive philosophy appears to be to hide their best player until they suddenly need points.

Bryan: I’m stealing your best bet from the previous section and going with Matthew Stafford here, in part because the Lions love to throw, in part because Stafford really enjoyed Darrell Bevell’s deep-ball offense last year, and in part because both D’Andre Swift and Kerryon Johnson are already banged up. If you don’t have a healthy running back corps, you’ve gotta throw the ball! Stafford had a 6.5% touchdown rate last season, fourth-best in the league, so he’s always in with a chance. The Lions drafted a first-round tight end last year, too, so maybe that will pay dividends now.

Andrew: Those guys do tend to show up more in their second season than their first, so that is a good shout. I’m also leaning on Stafford here; in fact, I’m picking the same 1-2-3, for basically the same reasons. Efficiency! That’s Mahomes as favorite, Stafford as value, and Kyler Murray as my longshot.

Bryan: To complete our similar picks, I’ll be leaning on Teddy Bridgewater as my longshot selection here, too — I’m banking on the Panthers being an entertaining bad team, one that loses 40-20 instead of 40-0. I think Bridgewaer deserves a spot in the mid-four-digit odds, not the five-digit odds the big sites are giving him, so there’s some potential value there, at the very least.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Patrick Mahomes (+400) Matthew Stafford (+1600) Kyler Murray (+2500)
Bryan Patrick Mahomes (+400) Matthew Stafford (+1600) Teddy Bridgewater (+10000)

Most Rushing Yards

Bryan: Vegas has co-favorites, and third and fourth place aren’t that far behind, so this is an interesting category in which to pick a favorite. Derrick Henry led the league last season, and he saw his yards per game go from 73 to 137 when Ryan Tannehill entered the lineup. Running backs fluctuate from year to year, of course, and I’m not on Tannehill repeating his 2019 performance, but he’s better than Mariota, and that improved offensive environment should help Henry out. Even if it’s only, say, 100 yards a game, that would have led the league last year by a pretty significant margin. Plus, while I would be murdered attempting to tackle any NFL running back, getting in front of Henry would be the most likely move to completely atomize me, so you have to take that into account, as well.

Andrew: Here’s where the logic from above switches a little for me. I’m looking for the guy whose team is most likely to be running out the clock, with a coach who loves to call rushing plays, in a division I expect them to lead. That’s Ezekiel Elliott, who I believe was my pick last year too. I expect Mike McCarthy to lean more on Dak Prescott early than Jason Garrett did, and that should enable him to lean more on Elliott late. Joint-favorites, and we pick one each. That makes its own sense.

Bryan: I kind of like the strange logic behind “McCarthy trusts Prescott more, thus Elliott will run for more yards.” It’s a weird statement on its face, and yet the logic is impeccable.

For my best bet, I’ll use that same logic for someone with more yards than Elliott had a year ago. If I’m right about the Panthers offense being better with Bridgewater under center, that means more opportunities for Christian McCaffrey to run the ball. He was third in the league in rushing yards last season as the only offensive weapon the Panthers could lean on; they were 31st in passing DVOA. Push that passing mark back towards average, force defenders to occasionally not line up in the box, and McCaffrey might see those rushing lanes open up.

Andrew: I find it rather unnerving that you chose this year to go all-in on the Panthers.

Bryan: As opposed to you doing it last year, which worked oh so well?

Andrew: Last year, they had a former MVP at quarterback. Of course, he’s now a former Panthers player too, which tells you exactly how well that worked.

Value’s a bit trickier when it comes to running backs, because most of those high-volume guys are at the top of the table. I consider it entirely possible for anybody in the top five of the table to lead the league in this category, and almost nobody else. Call me crazy, but value should mean you have a solid chance to win. Which means I’m simply picking the top-five guy with the best odds. Unfortunately, that’s the same pick you just made: Christian McCaffrey.

Bryan: Last year, my longshot was James Conner, under the theory that the loss of Antonio Brown would force the Steelers to run the ball a bit more. That was before both Conner and Ben Roethlisberger got hurt, and the Pittsburgh offense became the Price is Right fail horn. Well, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and I was an English major. I’m going Conner again — most of the people below him aren’t three-down backs, while Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has explicitly said that Conner is their three-down back. I’m selling the “best they ever had” comments as preseason jiggery-pokery, but buying Conner getting more work than, say, Benny Snell. With Roethlisberger back under center, I think you could do worse as a longshot.

Andrew: Longshot is the most interesting pick here, I’d say, because we can’t justifiably call anybody who’s a top-five pick a “longshot.” That forces us further down the table, where at the time of writing there were two standout names: Conner and Leonard Fournette. That might have been a tough choice, as Fournette has been a workhorse back in Jacksonville and Jay Gruden would quite happily have run him into the ground in the final year of his contract. However, the Jaguars waived Fournette on Monday morning, so I guess that means I’ll have to join you in picking James Conner.

Bryan: I still think you should have stuck with your Fournette pick from Sunday afternoon. Honestly, leaving the Jaguars might improve his odds, if you can get over the slight hiccup of him being currently unemployed.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Ezekiel Elliott (+750) Christian McCaffrey (+1100) James Connor (+5000)
Bryan Derrick Henry (+750) Christian McCaffrey (+1100) James Connor (+5000)

Most Rushing Touchdowns

Andrew: Similar to the quarterback odds we already discussed, I love that Clyde Edwards-Helaire wasn’t even on the yardage leaders board, but here he is (jointly) in the top 10 of the touchdown odds. Again, it says so much about the offensive approach of the Chiefs.

Bryan: Edwards-Helaire’s yardage total falls into the “others available upon request” category, which is Vegas speak for “sure, give us your money, I guess. We’ll take good care of it.”

Andrew: I feel much the same way about betting for him on the touchdown board. Again, this comes down to opportunities and philosophy. Derrick Henry‘s team is the one most likely to pummel him into a wall of defenders four times on goal-to-go, that’s why his odds are the shortest, and that’s why he’s my favorite. Red zone regression is coming for the Titans this season, but he’ll get his share.

Bryan: My favorite is Christian McCaffrey, one off the league lead last year in a much more deficient offense. And I promise that will be the second-to-last time I mention a Carolina Panthers player in this year’s article; even I’m surprised I’m leaning on them so much.

Andrew: McCaffrey‘s my value pick, again as the best odds in the top five. When the Panthers get to the red zone, he’s the guy they’ll lean on. I just reckon they’ll get there less often than the Titans do.

Bryan: A totally fair and probably correct assumption. I just figure that after giving him a massive contract, the Panthers’ offense will flow through CMC. And, speaking of running backs wanting a massive contract, it’s my value pick, Dalvin Cook. Cook was fourth last year in rushing touchdowns, behind Henry, CMC, and Aaron Jones, and he did it while missing two games. The Vikings will likely have to lean on their running game a bit more with Stefon Diggs gone, and Cook has every reason to try to rack up huge numbers to grab the next ill-thought-out running back deal. Gary Kubiak has never met a running back he doesn’t like, and his running games have always been more well-thought-out than Kevin Stefanski’s “plow ’em into the line” philosophy. Also, unlike my pick a few years ago, Le’Veon, Cook looks like he will in fact play this season, which is always a plus in your attempt to lead the league in a category.

Andrew: As for longshots, again I’m repeating my earlier pick. An improved Steelers offense should see the red zone far more often than last season, and Roethlisberger’s decline improves the chances of James Conner seeing a significant proportion of that workload.

Bryan: Last season, Todd Gurley was both my favorite and best bet, and, woah, did that not ever work out, holy cow. This year, he falls down to just the longshot role of “hey, he was good once!” on an offense that says they’ll try to give him 15 to 25 touches a game. If there’s anything left of 2018 Todd Gurley, maybe Atlanta will bring it out.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Derrick Henry (+500) Christian McCaffrey (+1000) James Connor (+3300)
Bryan Christian McCaffrey (+1000) Dalvin Cook (+1200) Todd Gurley (+2500)

Most Receiving Yards

Bryan: I have an argument against Michael Thomas as the prohibitive favorite. Of all the top names, he’s the one most reliant on volume — he has the highest percentage of short and intermediate receptions, partially due to his skill set, and partially due to the Saints’ offensive designs. With the addition of Emmanuel Sanders, Thomas should see his targets drop, at least a little. Is that enough to make up an over 300-yard gap between him and last year’s second-place finisher? I think it might be, so I’m going with Julio Jones in a category (and, increasingly, an article) that feels very NFC South-focused.

Andrew: That is a reasonable argument. I don’t think it’ll be enough to make up a 300-yard gap though. Michael Thomas absorbs too high a target share, with a quarterback who is willing to feed him the ball constantly. He’ll lead the league in targets and catches, and that will be enough to take home the yardage crown too.

The value pick is more interesting, because Thomas’ odds are a little too short. Jones is better value, but I’d still be looking for a little more from a win here. The value I like is Adam Thielen; in the absence of Stefon Diggs, he has the chance to be for Kirk Cousins what Thomas has been for Drew Brees in the past three years — just a constant vacuum for pass targets.

Bryan: I had a plan for my best value pick. I was going to take whichever Tampa Bay receiver had the longest odds — and then Vegas goes ahead and puts Chris Godwin and Mike Evans side by side. Great. They were No. 2 and 4 in receiving yards per game a year ago (with Thomas and Jones rounding out the quartet — see what I mean about the NFC South focus?), so assuming both are healthy, it’s really a coin flip as to which one will be the team-, and therefore potentially the league-, leader. Evans has the longer track record, Godwin’s arguably on the greater upward trajectory. Screw it, I’m going to actually flip a coin. Evans it is.

My longshot has to get out of the NFC South, just for the sake of variety. I’m looking at the receiving yards per game leaders from a year ago, and Robert Woods just squeaked into tenth place. Brandin Cooks is gone, so that should give Woods a larger piece of the offense — a fast-paced offense, at that. I’ll take the flier on Woods, and not Cooper Kupp, benefiting the most from too few Cooks spoiling the target volume.

Andrew: My longshot’s hitting a lot close to your home, and the reasoning is very similar to my previous picks. San Francisco struggle badly enough to acquire receivers without them all getting hurt too, and there’s a solid chance that the one trusted, relative veteran target on the field for them this season could be tight end George Kittle. Kittle’s due a ton of regression on a per-target basis, but volume counts for even more than efficiency here and he’s in a great spot to get the volume.

Bryan: You do love picking a tight end as your longshot pick here, don’t you? You took Travis Kelce last year!

Andrew: It’s a silly pick, because not even Tony Gonzalez ever led the league in receiving yards as a tight end, but it’s a longshot, dangit. One year. ONE YEAR.

Bryan: It’s a silly pick because all the wideout injuries will mean Kyle Shanahan busts out a 41 formation for the first time in decades: Kyle Juszczyk and Raheem Mostert in the backfield, Tevin Coleman and Jerrick McKinnon split out wide, Kittle at tight end. And Jimmy G will still find a way to throw an interception to a linebacker who apparently has the ability to turn invisible, as far as he’s concerned.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Michael Thomas (+375) Adam Thielen (+1800) George Kittle (+3500)
Bryan Julio Jones (+850) Mike Evans (+1600) Robert Woods (+5000)

Most Receiving Touchdowns

Bryan: Am I missing something? Kenny Golladay led the league last year — admittedly with only 11, so it wasn’t a super high-level competition, but still. Golladay spent half the year with guys from the local Y throwing him the ball, and now he gets Matthew Stafford back. I’m not saying it should be a runaway choice or anything, but +2500 seems … I mean, terribly bad. For the first time in this article, I’m doing the lame copout of picking one guy as both my favorite and the best value. Give me Babytron.

Maybe I’ve just gone insane from watching too many Lions games this offseason. It’s a real possibility.

Andrew: Who wouldn’t, really? My favorite is the one established target of a quarterback who received a ton of extra prove-it motivation this offseason. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t pick Davante Adams to finish higher in the yardage stakes this year, but I do think he’ll bring in a lot of scores as Aaron Rodgers looks to prove a point to his current (and soon to be former?) organization. My value pick is Adam Thielen, for the reasons I detailed above.

Bryan: My longshot pick is a case of long-deferred vindication. I was big on DeVante Parker in the 2015 draft — I had him as a top-10 value in a draft I felt was loaded with receiver talent. That, uh, hasn’t really worked out; Parker has spent much of the first few years of his career not remotely living up to expectations. But hey, with Adam Gase gone, all of a sudden he snapped to life last season, catching nine touchdowns and doubling his career totals! Also, with both Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson being COVID-19 opt-outs, the Miami receiving corps is particularly bare. I don’t think Parker will keep up the touchdown-per-game pace he had over the last five weeks of 2019, but at 66-to-1, he’s worth gambling on.

Andrew: My longshot is so long, he’s not on the board, so he falls afoul of our “give free money to Vegas” rule. Instead, I’m going to be marginally more sane and pick Stefon Diggs as the recipient of a couple of Josh Allen bombs (and the target of many, many more) per game.

Bryan: Out of curiosity, who is your insane longshot longshot?

Andrew: He’s a rookie, so we’ll get to him later.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Davante Adams (+1400) Adam Thielen (+3000) Stefon Diggs (+6000)
Bryan Kenny Golladay (+2500) Kenny Golladay (+2500) DeVante Parker (+6600)

Award Props

Most Valuable Player

Bryan: Just rename this the “best quarterback” award. Just one of the last 13 winners here was a running back, and it took Adrian Peterson running for 2,000 yards in 2012 to claw his way through the quarterback wall. I don’t expect that to change any time soon. Once again, it’s an award for quarterbacks, so Patrick Mahomes is your favorite by default — all due respect to the reigning champ in Lamar Jackson, of course.

Andrew: Mahomes is the clear favorite, but the value conversation is more interesting. I wouldn’t say either Mahomes or Jackson have great value as recent winners, and Tom Brady as MVP at 43 years old is a proposition so ludicrous it could only possibly occur in this thrice-cursed mess of a year. Cam Newton looked capital-D Done the last time we saw him on a field, Russell Wilson’s team actively tries to purge him from their base offense, and Carson Wentz has an unfortunate tendency to miss time with injuries. That puts the value conversation between Dak Prescott and Kyler Murray, which just feels nonsensically wrong. I’m going to step one rung lower, therefore, and pick Aaron Rodgers. The offseason headlines around Rodgers have concerned the Packers’ record last season being a mirage, the team drafting his replacement, and the motivation that might provide this year. That means the sportswriter narrative is already written for his coronation. He’s an established star and the most likely of the “old guard” to be considered the man responsible for any team success. He’s not Aaron Freaking Rodgers anymore, but he won’t have to be for people to give him their MVP votes.

Bryan: That’s assuming that the decline of Rodgers over the last four years isn’t real, or that it will be reversed this season, which I find … dubious, I’ll admit. I’ve been wrong before — oh lord, have I been wrong before — but I just don’t see it. Instead, I’ll double down on my best value pick from last year and go with Drew Brees, because I’m going more and more all-in on the Saints this season, as the 49ers are rocked with receiver injuries, the Seahawks’ pass rush is questionable, the Packers look set to decline… The Saints missed out on a bye week last season due to the incredible strength atop the NFC, but they might well pick it up this year, despite one less spot on offer. Plus, it’d be a nice consolation prize for the dude who was jobbed out of a spot on the All-Decade team.

Andrew: Brees would have been my alternative choice, but I don’t see how a group that hasn’t given him the award for any of his previous great seasons will give him the award this year.

Bryan: Lifetime achievement award! Lifetime achievement award!

Andrew: My longshot’s between two Matts: Stafford, who we’ve already discussed repeatedly, and one of my traditional favorite longshots, Matt Ryan. Both play on franchises who’ve underachieved the past few seasons, with coaches in win-or-bust mode. What swings it for me is the relative chances of a division crown. I don’t really see how the Falcons win the NFC South this year, absent something catastrophic in New Orleans (wouldn’t be the first time, sigh). I can see a path to the Lions winning the North, even if it largely entails the head coach getting out of the team’s way. I think Ryan’s supporting cast is generally regarded more highly than Stafford’s, which is another point in Stafford‘s favor. Neither is likely, but that’s why it’s a longshot.

Bryan: In that case, I’ll be the one grabbing Ryan in this Matt-chup. The general consensus is so high on the Saints and Buccaneers that if the Falcons do come out on top of the heap, there’ll be plenty of people who want to fling some gaudy trophies in that sort of direction, and quarterback takes priority.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Patrick Mahomes (+400) Aaron Rodgers (+2200) Matthew Stafford (+4400)
Bryan Patrick Mahomes (+400) Drew Brees (+2500) Matt Ryan (+3500)

Coach of the Year

Bryan: Alright, if the Patriots are good this year, and Bill Belchick does not win the award, we can just accept that he’s forever ineligible, right? Raised on a dais above mere yearly awards; the obvious choice that everyone nods and accepts and moves on from. If the Patriots are, say, a 10-win team after losing their Hall of Fame quarterback, he has to win, right?

Andrew: Ten, maybe. Eleven, surely. Twelve, definitely. Considering all the COVID opt-outs and other storylines, Belichick is the clear favorite if his team has any kind of successful season. He has the ability, the narrative, and the history to back it up.

Bryan: And I think even then voters will look to go another way, because they’re crazy like that. Instead, I’m going with the usual lazy “team with the biggest win change from 2019 to 2020” methodology and saying the favorite will be Bruce Arians. Remember, he was the favorite a year ago too for … some reason, and the media really likes him. If the Bucs topple the Saints, I think Arians comes away with the title regardless of what Darth Hoodie pulls off up north.

And my best value bet is Sean Payton, in case Arians and company do not pull it off. Payton being in the middle of the second column feels awfully low to me, in what’s a particularly tough category to parse at times. Really, Brian Flores is more likely to win this thing? It requires a team with a winning record, and while if the Dolphins DO have a winning record it’s the sign of some kind of miracle, the odds of that seem way lower than the Saints storming through the league.

Andrew: Payton suffers from the same ailment as Reid, Harbaugh, et al. They’ve had too much recent success, so they don’t have much room to overachieve what people expect of their teams. This is a category where the voters look for the latest and greatest, not a top team that sustains their level.

Rather than the former Cardinals coach in Arians, the value pick for me is the current Cardinals coach. That squad is well configured to be a big surprise in the NFC, and the Cardinals going from the No. 1 pick to the playoffs in two seasons, given where the roster was a year ago, would be enough to push votes the way of Kliff Kingsbury. He’s young, he’s innovative, he’s affable, and his team would be considered surprise contenders-slash-overachievers, which always counts heavily in this specific category. I’d like Kingsbury better as an outsider than a value pick, but the value looks set to be here.

Bryan: For my longshot pick, I’m going to pull a Football Outsiders Almanac special and repeat my projection from last year, when I wrote the following:

But if you want a longshot? I’ll give you a longshot. Go all the way down to the bottom of the table … wait, no, that’s one too far. Come back up, there you go, to Matt. Freaking. Patricia. 50-to-1 underdog! But we give the Lions the second-best chance of winning the NFC North, something most of the media world doesn’t believe has a chance in hell of happening. If the Lions do take home a division crown, the sheer shock of it could give Patricia votes.

Change “one too far” to “two too far,” change “50-to-1” to “40-to-1,” and change “second-best chance” to “best chance,” and the argument stands as written, though the media is slightly less doubtful this year.

Andrew: I hope you realize that every single Lions fan who is reading this article just called you a rude name.

Bryan: If it’s just Lions fans, then I’m having a better-than-usual day.

Andrew: It’s not, but their names are probably ruder than average.

My longshot isn’t that long a shot, but we’ve mentioned already in other articles that if anybody else is to challenge Kansas City and Baltimore in the AFC, it may well be another team from Baltimore’s own division. The Steelers struggled mightily without their franchise quarterback a year ago, but have built one of the league’s best defenses in his absence. If Lamar Jackson comes down a little from his MVP heights, and Ben Roethlisberger is still anything like the quarterback he was two seasons ago, Pittsburgh could be a relative surprise contender, Roethlisberger the Comeback Player of the Year, and Mike Tomlin the Coach of the Year.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Bill Belichick (+1000) Kliff Kingsbury (+1500) Mike Tomlin (+2500)
Bryan Bruce Arians (+1000) Sean Payton (+2500) Matt Patricia (+4000)

First Coach to Lose Job

Bryan: I need to clarify here that this is technically “first coach to leave their position.” Being fired counts, but so does retirement. It would not count if, say, Ron Rivera has to miss a few games due to chemotherapy. No interim coaches here!

Andrew: The easy money here is in north Florida. Sure, there’s no Wembley game after which to carry out the traditional firing, but this team has been on a downward trajectory since 2017, the front office traded away most of their best players, and the coach is in the final year of his contract. This looks primed for a total reboot in 2021, under a completely different staff. They even hired the perfect interim head coach as offensive coordinator this offseason. Doug Marrone is the clear and obvious choice, even ahead of the famed Detroit Rocket Scientist himself.

Bryan: I’m with you — especially if the Lions are even in a whisper of contention, the Jags are much more likely to make a mid-season switch than Detroit is. Plus, as we were writing this, news that they finally finalized the Yannick Ngakoue trade came down the wire, so there are some pretty clear tanking vibes coming out of the swamps. Marrone’s my pick, too.

But the Jags have no expectations. The Texans have some expectations, which is a greater amount. That leaves more room for disappointment and frustration. Bill O’Brien is now the only man in charge in Houston, which is a double-edged sword. It makes it harder to fire him, because firing both your coach and general manager signals a complete rebuild, and this was a playoff team in 2019. On the other hand, it also means there is no one else to blame if things do go south. If the Texans fail to win the division, after some of the harebrained moves O’Brien the GM has made, I could see Janice McNair feel like she has no other choice than to burn it down and start over.

Andrew: My value pick is another team that has some expectations, even if that expectation is that they improve in the second half of the season. In 2020, Atlanta’s schedule looks very back-heavy, which is to say that if they struggle in the first half, this could be a very tough year. The bye is in Week 10, which is late enough that we’ll have a clear idea of who the team is. If it’s not what Arthur Blank hopes, there’s incentive for him to cut bait early and avoid the late-season surges that have clouded his vision over the past couple of winters. That would mean Dan Quinn finally getting the chop we’ve been expecting to see for a couple of years now.

Bryan: One good way to find potential candidates for this category is to look for coaches who fit three key criteria. First, they’re entering at least their third season with a team, so there’s less room for “well, give them time!” explanations for poor performance. Secondly, they did not make the playoffs in the previous season, so there are no “well, this was a one-year blip” excuses to make. Thirdly, they have a clear path to double-digit losses, so there is no “well, it wasn’t that bad” get-out clause. A coach who I think fits all three criteria is one Jon David Gruden, who hasn’t had a division title or playoff berth since 2007. He did push the Raiders from 4-12 to 7-9 last season, but you don’t raise banners for 7-9. I have no faith in the Raiders’ long-term plan under Gruden, and another bad season might just convince Mark Davis of the same. For the second year in a row, Gruden’s my longshot.

Andrew: I’ve picked Gruden here before, but not this year. At least, not as the first coach to leave their job. He has the relocation excuse, and I doubt they fire him mid-year no matter how bad it might get. If he goes, it’ll be on Black Monday. Similarly, if Bruce Arians retires, it’ll be after the season and somebody else will go first. My longshot is Matt Nagy, as the coach whose firing I consider reasonably likely, but who doesn’t have any of the excuses — rookie quarterback, rebuilding, “better than when I took over” — that might usually buy a coach time. If the Bears offense flames out again and they’re bottom of a division that isn’t considered especially strong, they may well finish out the season under the experienced oversight of Chuck Pagano.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Doug Marrone (+450) Dan Quinn (+1000) Matt Nagy (+2500)
Bryan Doug Marrone (+450) Bill O’Brien (+1100) Jon Gruden (+5000)

Offensive Player of the Year

Bryan: Hey! Someone offered actual odds this year! That’s a change — we’ve included this award every year we’ve done this, but never have had actual odds to work from. Gotta gamble on something, I suppose!

Andrew: This really ought to be “non-quarterback MVP,” as we say every year, even though it doesn’t ever work that way.

Bryan: In recent years, there has been about a 50/50 split in giving the award to the best non-quarterback (Michael Thomas, Todd Gurley, DeMarco Murray), or just doubling up the MVP award and making this one comparatively meaningless. And then there was the weird 2011 year, where Aaron Rodgers was the MVP but Drew Brees the Offensive Player of the Year somehow, as if that makes a lick of sense? Brees has somehow been OPOY twice while never winning MVP? I think the voters just hate Drew Brees.

Andrew: I’m going to stay away from quarterbacks, because we’ve covered them so extensively already. That makes Christian McCaffrey my clear non-QB favorite, as the most effective dual-threat runner/receiver in the game.

Bryan: Yeah, McCaffrey is my pick too, and that’s the last time I mention a Carolina Panthers player in this week’s column. My best bet goes to last year’s winner, Michael Thomas, because if I’m wrong, and the Saints hit him with as much volume as he had last season, he’s going to run away with all the statistical categories once again, and the receptions/yardage/touchdown triple crown is too much to pass up.

Andrew: For me, this is where the Sanders thing comes into play for Thomas. Thomas’ volume stats may drop a bit, as you noted, and I doubt they’d give a player this award for being less important to his team than he was last season. (Yes, I get that’s a risk for McCaffrey too.) The receiver I think could have an impact here probably has longshot rather than value odds, so I’m going to stick him in as a longshot. If the Cardinals offense is significantly better than last year, DeAndre Hopkins is going to get a lot of the credit. If he leads that team in yards, OPOY votes may well follow.

It’s boring, but my value pick is another running back. If the Titans offense is good this year, people are going to claim over and over again that Derrick Henry is the reason why. Yardage and touchdown totals near the league lead coupled with a playoff Titans team would have a lot of people looking at Henry here. That’s an entirely realistic scenario.

Bryan: My longshot is Travis Kelce, who has every reason to try to reclaim the title of best tight end in football from George Kittle. Never mind that the two essentially play different positions; the argument as to which one is better is likely going to swing back and forth for the next few seasons. Kelce is the most established weapon the Chiefs have, and the least likely to see any sort of decline in 2020. If other aspects of the Chiefs’ offense flounder for some reason, we could see Kelce once again shouldering a massive quantity of targets — and he’s more than capable of handling it.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Christian McCaffrey (+1400) Derrick Henry (+2800) DeAndre Hopkins (+5000)
Bryan Christian McCaffrey (+1400) Michael Thomas (+1800) Travis Kelce (+6000)

Defensive Player of the Year

Andrew: Aaron Donald is the best defensive player in the league. Aaron Donald is the favorite for this award. These two statements may be related.

Bryan: Fully agreed on Donald — he’s a Mahomes-esque level preseason favorite for this sort of thing; the best until someone proves better for a significant period of time. Unlike last year, however, I don’t think he’s the runaway preseason favorite — we both had him as favorite and best value in 2019, but I think we’ll split it up a bit here.

Andrew: The best value, for me, is found on a team that might surprise some people, and that team throughout this article — and indeed, throughout our season previews — has been Arizona. A Cardinals defense that is good enough to make the playoffs may bring some love the way of Chandler Jones, a consistently dominant edge rusher who would be a much brighter star if he played somewhere like Dallas or New York.

Bryan: I like the Jones pick, I really do. I’m not going to agree with it, but you’re right that Jones doesn’t have nearly the national profile he deserves based on the quality of his play. My best value pick comes from someone who already has that name value, and is more likely to be able to attract votes in what is always a crowded, messy field among players it’s really hard to compare against — J.J. Watt. A healthy Watt is a thing to behold, and while he may never get back to his early career self, he’s still one of the few people who can hold their own in a “Donald versus ” competition.

Andrew: A longshot pick, for me, comes down to expectations, history, and perception. If the Bills are the team that finally breaks the Patriots dynasty, people are going to be looking for somebody to honour. One of those somebodys will be Sean McDonough (who neither of us picked in our Coach of the Year poll but one of us probably should have), and another will be one of their star defenders. Tre’Davious White is the one who appears on this poll, and that’s good enough for me.

Bryan: For me, I’m going with Chris Jones, who had 35 pass pressures a year ago, a heck of a total for an interior defensive lineman. He “only” had 9.0 sacks, down from 15.0 two years ago — a little better luck, and he could hit that double-digit mark, which is pretty much the requirement for a pass-rusher to get consideration for this award, due to the quantity of fingers most of us sportswriters possess. Really, though, this is a difficult award to predict; seven different players received votes in 2019, with Stephon Gilmore, Chandler Jones, and T.J. Watt all pulling in double-digit levels of support. Your guess may be as good as ours.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Aaron Donald (+700) Chandler Jones (+2000) Tre’Davious White (+3300)
Bryan Aaron Donald (+700) J.J. Watt (+1300) Chris Jones (+5000)

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Andrew: A quarterback who starts on Day 1 will always be the prohibitive favorite here, and Joe Burrow is no exception despite horrendous odds. I much prefer the value of Cam Akers here as my favorite of the top handful of running back picks.

Bryan: Ah, a quarterback who starts on Day 1 and plays well is the prohibitive favorite, and I’m not sure Joe Burrow will hit the second of those criteria. I’m going with Clyde Edwards-Helaire instead; he’s already the featured back in the Chiefs’ offense, and that’s a really nice place to be if you’re looking to rack up gaudy statistics on national television! For value, I’ll go with Jonathan Taylor, who might be good enough that I’ll eventually stop adding “Thomas” to his name like the horrible ’90s kid I am. Marlon Mack’s the Week 1 starter in Indianapolis, for sure, but Taylor will likely get a larger share of red zone opportunities right away, Mack’s got an injury history, and I expect the Colts’ leash will be short.

Andrew: Mack’s the reason I’m not going with Taylor with any of these picks, but I do agree that Taylor will get more time as the season progresses. My longshot pick here is a Colts player though, and this circles back to my extreme longshot pick from earlier. Philip Rivers loves a big, strong outside receiver with a large catch radius and the ability to make contested catches. Who doesn’t, really? That’s not T.Y. Hilton’s game though, and Michael Pittman has a clear path straight into the Colts starting lineup if he’s anything like the player he looked to be ahead of the draft. Rivers loves receivers with that body type, and Pittman could be a red zone stud from Day 1. He may not be Mike Williams straight away, but that’s the type of potential we’re talking about if Pittman puts it all together quickly.

Bryan: Jinx! I was going to pick Pittman as well! It helps that he’s developing a rapport with Rivers as Hilton has been sidelined with hamstring issues; as Rivers is dealing with new teammates all around, it wouldn’t be at all surprising he Rivers turns to someone he clicked with in training camp. I know Playmaker Score didn’t love Pittman, but as a rookie, that matters less than opportunity. I like the way you think, there.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Joe Burrow (+275) Cam Akers (+1000) Michael Pittman (+3500)
Bryan Clyde Edwards-Helaire (+300) Jonathan Taylor (+800) Michael Pittman (+3500)

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Andrew: There’s a reason Chase Young is the most prohibitive favorite on any of these boards. He’s the consensus best defensive player in the draft, who will start from opening day in Washington, on the strongest unit of a team that sucked last season and could be much better this season. All he has to do is not screw it up or get hurt, and he’s the favorite for DROY. The value sucks, but he’s so clear and obvious a favorite that it doesn’t matter.

Bryan: Yeah, I’m with you on Young being both the favorite and the best value pick. I’d go so far as to put him as the best player in the draft, offense or defense, and he’s at the value position, as someone who racks up sacks draws attention to themselves very quickly. See Nick and Joey; Bosa those guys burst onto the scene quickly.

Andrew: So prohibitive a favorite is Young that anybody else could quality as a longshot. The guy I like the most to emerge from that pack is Jeff Okudah. If — and again, this is a very conditional statement — if the Lions are anything like a contender this year, Okudah is going to get a lot of love as the rookie replacement for Darius Slay.

Incidentally, please don’t put money on Grant Delpit, as he’s already out for the season with a torn Achilles. We wish him a full and quick recovery.

Bryan: I feel we should have one non-first-rounder here, just for completeness’ sake, so I’ll bite the bullet and take Jaylon Johnson, assuming he can get onto the field as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. The Bears lost Artie Burns for the season, which opens up a spot for someone to get on the field. Moving Buster Skrine to the outside would be a disaster waiting to happen, and I’d have to think Johnson’s a better option than Kevin Toliver.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Chase Young (+200) Chase Young (+200) Jeff Okudah (+1600)
Bryan Chase Young (+200) Chase Young (+200) Jaylon Johnson (+3000)

Comeback Player of the Year

Andrew: What is the bare minimum a player can do in terms of on-field performance and still win this award? That question might be answered by Alex Smith this season. Just getting back onto the field would be such a massive achievement for a guy who reportedly almost lost his leg. He’s unlikely to play a down, yet in the top 10 for this award.

Bryan: It’s worse than that. There was a point of time where Smith’s life was in danger due to sepsis from one of his 17 operations. There was talk that he’d have his leg amputated above the knee, which is the worst version of an already terrible situation. The fact that he’s in uniform at all is beyond astonishing. If he plays any significant action, he’s the winner. If he plays a few snaps, he’s in the running. Hell, I wouldn’t be stunned if he wins the award despite sitting on the bench all year, though there would at least be a significant debate about that.

Andrew: If he does that though, hard to see the coach not at least giving him a couple of kneeldowns at the end of a game if the team’s out of contention. Just to get him back out there.

Bryan: We can debate all we want about whether Ben Roethlisberger or Cam Newton are best set to return to their previous form after missing much of 2019 with injuries, but Smith has to be my favorite and best value at this point in time.

Andrew: And the longest of longshots, too, no matter what the oddsmakers say.

I am, however, going to make alternative picks here, for the still-strong possibility that Smith does not make it all the way back. In such an event, my favorite would be Cam Newton. Newton is surely going to be the starter in New England — we’re not sure what Jarrett Stidham is, but we’re quite confident it’s not good, whereas we know full well what Brian Hoyer is, and that it is not good. Whatever Newton has left, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will drag it out of him, and even a solid starter-level season may be enough for Newton if he lasts all 16 games.

For value, I like A.J. Green if he can make it back onto the field for Cincinnati. Green missed the entirety of last season through injury, but would still be the presumptive No. 1 target for Joe Burrow if he comes back. That’s a good position to be in for a comeback story.

Bryan: My longshot is the rare non-quarterback whom I believe can change an offense entirely. The Eagles were counting on DeSean Jackson to open up the offense last season; they fell into a very conservative shell when he went down early with a sports hernia. The return of Jackson (plus Jalen Reagor, if he’s healthy after this weekend’s injury scare) should see Philadelphia return an element of verticality to their passing attack, and if none of the quarterbacks have particularly good seasons, that might be enough to win the award.

Andrew: I don’t really see any longshot picks I like, so I’m happy to second your pick of Jackson. The longest shot I see on the board is Colin Kaepernick, who won’t win because I don’t see how he ever gets back into the league. His odds are far too short, suggesting too many people are putting money on him. That’s definitely more hope than expectation.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew Cam Newton (+300) A.J. Green (+1000) DeSean Jackson (+3300)
Bryan Alex Smith (+1200) Alex Smith (+1200) DeSean Jackson (+3300)

Super Bowl Winner

Andrew: Speaking of hope and expectation, my favorite here is the New Orleans Saints because they have the most complete roster in the league. Just like they did last year. And the year before. It worked out so well those times, why shouldn’t I pick them again? Sigh.

Bryan: Last year, you had the Saints as your best bet, and you’ve bumped them up to favorites, joining … well, me, from last season. I, too, am on New Orleans, winning a tight game over the Chiefs to end the year and, I would assume, Drew Brees’ career. End it on a high note, right?

Andrew: My best value is Dallas, who I expect to surprise some people. Mike McCarthy is not Andy Reid, but he had a very similar set of circumstances in Green Bay to Reid in Philadelphia. McCarthy landed on his feet in Dallas, with a talented roster that should benefit simply from McCarthy not being Jason Garrett. A Super Bowl-winning head coach in his own right, McCarthy can do enough of what Dallas does well, and mask enough of what Dallas does poorly, to make them pretty good value for the division at the very least.

Bryan: For best value, I’m stabbing myself repeatedly in the knee as I go ahead and take the Seattle Seahawks. I am wary of a revival of the Legion of Boom, and I do think that Russ Cooking is one of the most frightening things to face off against in the entire NFL. If Wilson is allowed to be Wilson more frequently, there’s no reason Seattle shouldn’t be near the top of the league; pretty good for the eighth-longest odds. Yes, the NFC West is a beast of a division, but the Seahawks are one of the reasons it’s a beast; they were an inch short of the division title last year, and it’s not that hard to get better by an inch.

For my longshot, I’m going with the Minnesota Vikings. Someone has to win the NFC North — I know; I checked; the rules are quite clear on this. We have all four NFC North teams in a big mashmash to do it, so the Vikings have as good a chance as anyone else. They just added Yannick Ngakoue to their defense, which means they have a pair of elite players on every level. So you give them the division, that gives them a home game, assuming football is still being played in non-bubble format in January. Then, they’d still have to upset the Saints in the postseason at some point, but the Vikings have gotten pretty good at doing that over the past couple seasons!

Andrew: My longshot is a nonsensical stab in the dark, as the team with arguably the worst starting quarterback in their division, but the issue is this: if they can get there, the Buffalo Bills are built exactly right that a four-week hot patch could get them to the big dance. Strong front seven that generates a heap of pressure, great coverage, big-play potential from the offense, and a soft conference outside the big two. That’s the Flacco Ravens, except with bigger booms (and, it should be noted, bigger busts). Now they could also easily finish last and need to draft a quarterback, but hey, that’s why they’re a longshot.

  Favorite Best Bet Longshot
Andrew New Orleans Saints (+1000) Dallas Cowboys (+1500) Buffalo Bills (+2200)
Bryan New Orleans Saints (+1000) Seattle Seahawks (+1800) Minnesota Vikings (+3000)

Bryan: I think that just about covers things, unless you’re about to tell me there are other divisions outside the NFC South I should be watching. I didn’t realize going in just how heavy I was going to go on that division, but man, things just ended up working out that way for the group I called the one with the highest ceiling in the league two weeks ago.

Andrew: It’s not the number of NFC South players I didn’t expect, it’s the number of Panthers players. McCaffrey sure, but Teddy B? This season should be a lot of fun if the Panthers are any good.

Bryan: Hey, I said they have a ceiling of 8-8, and if they do get there, it’ll be on the back of their offense! … I also said they have a floor of 0-16, in which case I’ll look like a massive idiot.

Andrew: … a massiver idiot. Which will make up for me looking like one last year, with the same franchise!

Bryan: Ironically, the Panthers appear to be our catnip.

Andrew: It’s long been considered bad luck for a black cat to cross your path.

That does it for this lot of preseason picks. We’ll be back next week, on Tuesday instead of Wednesday, with our topic yet to be determined. A mystery topic! A spoooooky mystery topic!

Bryan: As soon as we think of what it is, I’m sure!

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