As the start of the 2016 season slowly but surely continues to crawl its way to it's opening moments, expectations for
all 32 teams remain the same: A Lombardi Trophy. Unfortunately, only one team is destined to fulfill this goal. However, there are a number of awards at seasons end that await a winner.
These honors, while not as highly sought after as a championship, still hold a tremendous value in the players community. If a Super Bowl is the gold medal standard, an MVP award surely takes home silver.
Can Cam Newton repeat his Superman heroics to grab back-to-back league MVP awards and be the first player to do so since Peyton Manning did in 08-09?
Can anyone dethrone early favorite Ezekiel Elliott as offensive Rookie of the Year?
Who rebounds from 2015 and grabs the prestigious honor of Comeback Player of the Year?
NFL Awards Predictions:
AP Offensive Rookie of the Year- Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
At this point in the preseason, Elliott is far and away the favorite to take home offensive rookie of the year. Even Vegas oddsmakers agree, putting Zeke at a -110 odds to win the honors. In his sole action against Seattle, Elliott displayed everything that was advertised as a top-five pick, flashing both agility, power, and even excellent pass protection. Elliott has quite the expectations piled on his pads, as the injury to Tony Romo only furthers the reliance of Zeke to run crazy on opposing defenses. However, given Elliott's skill set and running behind the league's best offensive line, to see anybody else win the award will be quite the surprise.
AP Defensive Rookie of the Year- Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Arizona Cardinals
Robert Nkemdiche was a top five talent in last May's NFL Draft. Unfortunately, a horrible off the field track record caused Robert to free fall on many teams' draft boards, at least until Arizona was on the clock. Despite his troubles off the gridiron, it was a high ankle sprain that kept Nkemdiche away from action until Arizona's third preseason game, where he was finally able to flash his playmaking ability. Nkemdiche is far and away one of the most dominant talents in his draft class, and provides the Cardinals with a force to clog lanes and disrupt harmony between the two tackles. Given Arizona's solidified depth at the defensive line, Robert isn't projected to have the same impact as other rookies in the likes of Jalen Ramsey, Karl Joseph, etc. With a support cast to usher in Nkemdiche into the professional side of football, Robert's issues relating to anything but football won't cause any issues. When it comes down to X's and O's, Robert is as promising as any other young defensive player in the game, and we will be seeing his number in the backfield for years to come.
AP Comeback Player of the Year- Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Despite missing significant time due to failed/missed drug tests, the true travesty of Bell missing games belongs to his injury history. Bell has proved to be one of the premier backs in the game today. However, Le'Veon has yet to start/finish a full season, mostly thanks in-part to his health (missed 3 games in 2013 for mid foot sprain, missed playoff game with hyper-extended knee in 2014 and missed 10 games due to a torn MCL in 2015). While questions always surround players following a major surgery, Le'Veon cleared any questions in his preseason debut against New Orleans. "Juice" told reporters that his knee "feels crazy strong" and, oddly enogh, should benefit from his suspension, giving him further time to re-assure the health of his knee. Bell's extraordinary vision, cutting and hands make him one of the more coveted backs in the NFL, and playing in a contract year, Le'Veon Bell will be on a mission to rebound in dominant fashion.
AP Offensive Player of the Year- Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones has been one of the most dominant wide receivers since his arrival in 2011. His big frame (6'3", 220 lbs), freakish athleticism and hands are what makes him virtually impossible to keep quiet on a week-to-week basis. We can debate all day who is better between Jones and Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, yet we're better off leaving them tied for first. With this in mind, Jones managed to lead the league in receptions (136), receiving yards (1871) and yards after catch (620). While durability concerns have haunted Jones previously, Julio managed to stay healthy for all 16 games in 2015. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan stated Jones was capable of reaching 2,000 yards in a single season, something never done before in the history of the league, and even Julio himself agreed. Jones receives plenty of targets and nine times out of ten converts them, leaving the magical number of 2,000 a goal for 2016. Fully capable of doing so, should Jones accomplish this feat, he'll surely lock this award up for good.
AP Defensive Player of the Year- J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Although there are many players that could win this honor, it would be flat-out disrespectful to not have J.J. Watt winning this award. Should Watt do just that, J.J. would have the most all-time awards in this category (4) and would be the first player ever to receive it three years in a row. There is no particular set of words to describe Watt, as the terms not-human, freak of nature and unstoppable have been worn thin when describing the league's sack leader last season. Watt is best described as a player you would create when playing Madden NFL. Big, strong, huge muscles and 99 overall attributes for each category. Watt is a match-up nightmare for every team he faces, and is versatile enough to move down the defensive line and still be the best player on the field. Watt checks all the boxes of what you want out of a player, in terms of size, athleticism, motor and ability to find the football. To make matters even more fun for offensive coordinators, J.J. has no apparent weaknesses. 2016 is poised to be another status-quo year for the NFL's biggest, baddest wolf in the forest.
AP Most Valuable Player- Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
To quote the great Stephen A. Smith, "Aaron Rodgers is a baaaaaaad, bad mann." 2015 was a result of a down year for Rodgers, as a banged up Packers squad failed to win the division for the first time since 2010. However 2016 brings a new light, with Jordy Nelson back from a torn ACL and a rushing attack that really can't be as inconsistent as last year's appeared. Rodgers, since he took over after the Brett Favre-era in Green Bay, has been nothing short of the absolute best quarterback in the league. Aaron has pin-point precision, arm strength to get the ball down the field, mobility, pocket presence, etc. You name it, he's got it. Although not quite the runner Cam Newton is, nor possessing the heavenly-high football IQ of Peyton Manning or raw arm strength of Colin Kaepernick, Rodgers is a far more complete quarterback than a vast majority of the league. With a full arsenal at his dispensary, Mr. Rodgers neighborhood should be well on his way to rebounding in MVP-like form.
Other Award Predictions:
AP Coach of the Year- Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
NFL.com Fantasy Player of the Year- Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
FedEx Air Player of the Year- Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
FedEx Ground Player of the Year- Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Pepsi NEXT Rookie of the Year- Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Donnie Druin is an award winning sports writer from the Arizona Newspaper Association. Follow him on twitter @DonnieDruin for the latest updates on all the sports you love, or just to tell him why he's so wrong.