The Overhang: Let's hand out some NFL midseason awards

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

We’re (kinda sorta) at the midway point of the NFL season, so what better way to celebrate than with some awards! It's purely digital and arbitrary, but a fun exercise nonetheless. It’s a wide-open season in the standings that also makes handing out these awards a fun game of choose-your-own-adventure.

I’ll be hitting all the major stuff today. Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Best Original Screenplay, etc. etc. First, I want to emphasize that these awards are being handed out based on what has happened so far through eight weeks in the NFL season, and not on who I think will win the award at the end of the season. It’s midseason awards, after all, not midseason predictions.

Without further ado, the envelope, please …

Offensive Player of the Year

And the nominees are ...

A.J. Brown, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

Tyreek Hill, WR, Miami Dolphins

Christian McCaffrey, RB, San Francisco 49ers

So many of these awards have strong contenders, and the Offensive Player of the Year is a great microcosm of the other awards to come.

It's a joy to watch McCaffrey with the football. He knows exactly when to press every button, making running the ball look like he’s playing a mini-game for when to time up hitting the circle button and when to hit the right stick:

He leads the NFL in rushing with 652 yards and total touchdowns with 13, having scored in an NFL record-tying 17 straight games. He’s second in yards from scrimmage, behind only Hill. He is currently second in rushing success rate and first in the amount of times fantasy owners said “thank God I drafted that guy”.

He is the best receiving running back in the game and one of the most efficient receivers at any position period, sitting 20th in successful targets per route, between Chris Olave and Mark Andrews.

Brown, meanwhile, has gone supernova since Week 3 and topped 900 receiving yards over the first eight weeks. His current mark of 3.13 yards per route run would make him just the fourth receiver since 2013 to eclipse 3 yards, and would be slightly better than Cooper Kupp’s mark of 3.12 in 2021, the year he won the receiving triple crown. Brown is currently having a season that would stack up among the best over at least the past decade.

The problem is that while McCaffrey and Brown are having fantastic seasons, Hill is currently having a historic one. He has already topped the millennium mark in receiving yards and is on pace to topple Calvin Johnson’s single-season record of 1,964.

His 4.26 yards per route run would be easily the highest since 2013, which is as far back as TruMedia’s data goes. Hill set the record last year at 3.21 yards, he’s over a yard higher per route right now. That is ridiculous. Like, simply ridiculous.

He is averaging an explosive catch (reception of 16 yards or more) once every 10 routes, which again would be the highest mark since 2013. And with eight touchdowns to boot.

Excellent seasons so far from all three players. But “season for the history books” is different from excellent. Hill is the easy call.

(And keep an eye on Ja’Marr Chase’s case in the second half of the year. The Bengals are doing things with him that are intriguing.)

Midseason Offensive Player of the Year pick: Tyreek Hill

Defensive Player of the Year

And the nominees are ...

Myles Garrett, EDGE, Cleveland Browns

Dexter Lawrence, DT, New York Giants

Micah Parsons, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

T.J. Watt, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers

Another absolute loaded group to sift through. Shouts to reigning award winner Nick Bosa, who didn't make the shortlist but might be sitting on a bigger second half to come.

Lawrence is posting absurd pressure numbers, currently ranking second among all defenders in pressure rate among players with 150 or more pass rushing snaps. A 20.7% rate that would be fantastic for designated pass-rushing edges. But this is a nose tackle impacting the passing game like that, quickly disrupting plays by instantly winning and putting himself in straight-line attack position for those poor quarterbacks. He has only three sacks so far, but as a pass rusher he is impacting the game as much as anyone in the league, along with eating space against the run.

Lawrence is a star and has been excellent for the Giants, and his sack total should rise in the second half of the year (he’s been a tad unlucky in terms of translating hits to sacks). But his skull count has to be a bit higher to put him at the top. It’s still beyond wild to see the impact he’s having every series, and doing it from where he plays makes it even more unbelievable. It’s like watching Jose Altuve smack a home run for the first time. But, like, opposite.

Parsing through the other three is incredibly tough. Garrett and Watt both have 8.5 sacks (Garrett's coming on 41 fewer pass rush snaps), but Parsons is more impactful on a snap-to-snap basis in terms of pressure rate with his 21.7% ranking first over Lawrence. Garrett ranks third at 20.1%, and Watt is 20th at 14.5%.

Garrett and Parsons have both been more impactful against the run, each with six combined tackles for loss and run stuffs (tackles on run plays with a gain of zero yards), compared to Watt’s two. But Watt has six passes defensed and an interception.

This is impossibly close, but I am giving the nod to Garrett. He has always been an upper-echelon defender, but he has leveled up this season, gaining a boost in surrounding teammates and a defensive play-caller in Jim Schwartz more than excited to move him around to blast open cracks in the offensive line’s armor, with Garrett acting as his 275-pound detonation device.

Midseason Defensive Player of the Year pick: Myles Garrett

Offensive Rookie of the Year

And the nominee is ...

Puka Nacua, WR, Los Angeles Rams

This one is kind of open and shut. Bijan Robinson has been as advertised and has been incredibly efficient. (Look for his workload to start increasing even more soon.) Jahmyr Gibbs is starting to put together a case, and De’Von Achane lost momentum on his due to a knee injury.

If you are an “offensive linemen deserve love, too” person, the Arizona Cardinals' Paris Johnson Jr. has been impressive playing a whole new position at right tackle, and looks like a building block for a rebuilding team.

Due respect to the game's linemen, but it's Nacua. He had fans during the draft process, including myself, but zero percent of me expected this. Nacua currently sits third in receptions and yards and fourth in receiving first downs. And that’s among all NFL players. He’s behind only two players who are currently favorites for Offensive Player of the Year! Nacua is the successor to Robert Woods in the Rams' offense, a do-it-all Z wide receiver that Matthew Stafford loves to throw in-breakers over the middle to, with strong blocking and always being that sneaky threat on a jet sweep.

The Rams are a fascinating team as far as roster make-up and where they are on the team building timeline, with a wildly entertaining offense and scrappy defense. Nacua has been a revelation in the Rams' spread-and-shred attack.

Midseason Offensive Rookie of the Year pick: Puka Nacua

Defensive Rookie of the Year

And the nominees are ...

Brian Branch, DB, Detroit Lions

Devon Witherspoon, DB, Seattle Seahawks

Byron Young, EDGE, Los Angeles Rams

Jalen Carter, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

Another tough one!

Branch started the season with a bang, with a pick 6 in Detroit's opening game against Patrick Mahomes and the reigning Super Bowl champions. And he has remained a strong player in the slot for a Lions defense that took a leap way ahead of schedule.

Witherspoon has looked special in his six games for the Seahawks. Like Branch, he's a dynamo in the slot that impacts the game like a Swiss Army Knife, only a Swiss Army Knife made of rockets, shotguns and the pistol from Halo: Combat Evolved.

Young has been flashing potential in getting to the quarterback. His rawness shows at times, but there have also been flashes that have led to a handful of sacks and the highest rate of quarterback hits per snap in this draft class. (And 15th in the league!)

But it’s hard to watch the Eagles and not see the impact Carter has on games already in his young career. No. 98 uses offensive linemen like a weapon to attack the quarterback, moving them at ease as he figures out his best path to flatten the passer, while also flashing finesse and quickness that shouldn’t be possible at 6-foot-3 and 314 pounds:

He has 3.5 sacks and currently ranks sixth among all defenders in pressure rate, higher than players like Nick Bosa, Chris Jones and Aaron Donald. Carter is the total package as an interior defensive linemen, with the ability to impact the run and pass. It’s going to be an absolute experience watching his game grow as he tosses offensive linemen out of the way on his path toward stardom.

Midseason Defensive Rookie of the Year pick: Jalen Carter

Assistant Coach of the Year

And the nominees are ...

Jim Schwartz, Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator

Steve Spagnuolo, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator

Mike Macdonald, Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator

Mike Caldwell, Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator

With apologies to coordinators Ben Johnson and Aaron Glenn in Detroit, who split votes in my head, I went elsewhere on my shortlist. It’s the year of the defense in the NFL, and it feels apt that the award winner should be on that side of the ball.

Caldwell leads an improved Jaguars side, with game plans that show off personality and awareness of opponent tendency. One example is a few weeks ago when the Jaguars trotted out their base defensive personnel with only four defensive backs against Indianapolis, even when the Colts were putting three wide receivers on the field, daring the Colts to throw.

Steve Spagnuolo and Jim Schwartz are longtime assistant coaches who are partying like it’s 2009. Both have defenses that sit firmly in the top 10 or five in every category you can look at, and have dominated stretches or entire games this season. Both play with an aggressive and attacking personality (with Spagnuolo’s junkball pitcher-like flair while blitzing) that have led to improved units while bewildering quarterbacks and offensive lines.

But I’m giving this very prestigious midseason award to Baltimore's Macdonald. The Ravens have been consistently the best defense this season. Macdonald doesn't major in any one thing. Instead, he adapts and custom-tailors his game plans for opponents, messing with protection rules on one snap and the quarterback’s reads on the next.

The Ravens are at the top of the heap in defensive DVOA with some dominant performances to match. He has unlocked veteran stars like Roquan Smith and young ones like Kyle Hamilton, shoring up weakness for players like Patrick Queen, and has allowed other young players like Justin Madubuike to flourish.

There are a lot of talented defensive coaches right now in the NFL. Macdonald is sitting right at the top.

Midseason Assistant Coach of the Year pick: Mike Macdonald

Coach of the Year

And the nominees are ...

Mike McDaniel, Miami Dolphins

Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks

Dan Campbell, Detroit Lions

Doug Pederson, Jacksonville Jaguars

John Harbaugh, Baltimore Ravens

The choices! Is it Campbell restoring the roar in Detroit? With a team playing well-coached football on both sides and Campbell himself displaying some of the best game and clock management and awareness of any head coach in the entire league?

Or is it McDaniel, with his innovative offense already reverberating through the league? Leading one of the most explosive offenses in the past two decades and doing it in one of the toughest eras to score points?

Carroll has the Seahawks in first in the NFC West, a team that many thought might be pretty good this season, but looks even better than anticipated and I currently think of among the league’s best. And I can say the same for the Jaguars! Pederson’s team is playing good ball on both sides, he’s aggressive as always on fourth down and he has put together some strong wins. With some cleaned-up turnovers, the Jaguars can be a force.

But my assistant coach nod was a bit of a teaser for my head coach nod, which I’ll be giving to Macdonald’s boss in Baltimore: Harbaugh.

John Harbaugh is Nate Tice's midseason NFL Coach of the Year. Congrats, coach! (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
John Harbaugh is Nate Tice's midseason NFL Coach of the Year. Congrats, coach! (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) (Norm Hall via Getty Images)

The Ravens are atop the AFC North with the best scoring differential in the league, while facing about a league-average strength of schedule (in terms of DVOA). The Ravens are a couple of close games away from being undefeated, with a fluky loss to the Steelers and another close loss to the Colts, where kicker Matt Gay finished with four field goals of 50 yards or longer and Indianapolis also benefited from some iffy officiating.

The Ravens are performing like a top unit on both offense and defense, and feature a quarterback who is playing at an MVP-level, all while battling a laundry list of injuries (what else is new in Baltimore). With some improved health and turnover luck, they could be scarier in the loaded AFC.

Midseason Coach of the Year pick: John Harbaugh

Most Valuable Player

And the nominees are ...

I was trying to limit most of these nominee lists to three players or coaches, hoping to highlight the best of the best and make every midseason award a nice tidy podium with gold, silver and bronze medals being dished out.

I was barely able to stick even close to that number for most of the awards. (Which I’m sure my editor just loved. Hi, Joey!) For the midseason MVP, I didn’t go full Academy and have 10 nominations so I could sneak in a Pixar film. But I did go four players, specifically four quarterbacks, who have been jockeying for position through eight weeks. All doing damage in different ways against the best defensive season we’ve seen in recent memory.

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs' offense has felt disjointed at times this season while working out their wide receiver pecking order (Rashee Rice is showing some flashes recently) and working through an ineffective run game (31st in rushing success rate!). But they've had the luxury of a young defense that has vastly improved and is playing like a borderline top-five unit.

The other luxury this Chiefs team has is Mahomes, who, as long as he is healthy, is going to be in contention for this award. He is inevitable in the most Thanos-like way possible, still ranking second in QBR and ranking among the league’s best in all of the other metrics, all while holding auditions with wide receivers in the middle of the regular season. He is also the new reigning champ of the backbreaking third-down scramble; no one has generated more expected points added (EPA) on scrambles this year than Mahomes.

Oh, and speaking of inevitability, the Chiefs are currently the No. 1 seed in the AFC and their offense still ranks fifth in DVOA. This is while sorting its personnel and best method of attack going forward (outside of more heapings of Mahomes to Travis Kelce). The Chiefs will likely take another leap following their post-Frankfurt game bye week.

Mahomes has still been very, very good and is still the best player in the world. But he hasn’t quite played to the ridiculously high standard that we have for him this year. Still a lot of season left, however …

Speaking of that game in Frankfurt:

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins

Tagovailoa is behind the wheel of the offense that does its best impression of an F1 car every single week, adding new motions and formation tweaks like they’re sponsor stickers and creating oodles of space for their scorching fast offensive weapons. Tagovailoa’s whole game is timing and anticipation. He has average-at-best arm strength, but maximizes it by getting rid of the ball well before his receiver breaks on the route:

Tagovailoa currently sits in the top five of the alphabet soup of advanced metrics like QBR, DYAR and success rate while also ranking first in EPA per dropback. He's also taking the second-lowest rate of sacks in the league, which reflects the scheme and Tagovailoa’s preferred quick-hitting style. It’s not a coincidence that every play-caller Tagovailoa has had in college and the pros has leaned heavily into RPO (run-pass option) plays. It's still impressive given the Dolphins' infirmary-ridden offensive line.

For the box score crowd, the lefty is currently first in passing yards at 2,416 and net yards per attempt at a hysterical 8.25. (To put that into context: Daniel Jones currently averages half of that number.) And, of course, the Dolphins sit at 6-2 and first in the AFC East.

But I couldn’t quite get there with making Tagovailoa MVP. He has been shredding defenses throughout the year, but it’s the third-easiest defensive schedule faced by an offense by DVOA. He also does not provide much in terms of ground production. He has three efficient scrambles on the season; the only QBs with fewer are Derek Carr, Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins. And he is one of four quarterbacks without a successful designed run the entire season. It’s a lot of fun to watch Tagovailoa torching defenses from the pocket, and he doesn’t take a lot of sacks, but there are times when creativity or an ad-lib could have helped the Dolphins' offense this season.

And there’s also the debate, much like with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, over how much of the Dolphins' offensive success is because of its driver or the car. Is it the driver, i.e. Tagovailoa, operating the machine as designed? Or is it the souped-up car, which features an Offensive Player of the Year candidate in Tyreek Hill, a strong No. 2 pass catcher in Jaylen Waddle and an innovative play-caller in Mike McDaniel who's already having his creations covered more times than The Beatles. It's all enough to keep Tagovailoa at third.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens

We know Jackson can run. His legs have been sawing off shrieking defenders like they’re starring in an "Evil Dead" sequel for years, and he currently has the most rushes of 10 yards or more, while also generating the most rushing EPA of any quarterback this season. But Jackson's long underrated strength — operating from the pocket — has been on full display this season under new offensive coordinator Todd Monken.

Lamar currently ranks seventh in dropback success rate and sixth in pass attempt success rate. He is efficiently spraying the ball around to an improved (but oft-injured) receivers room, and has also developed a minor unexpected chemistry with Nelson Agholor while other WRs missed time.

The rushing stats are of course strong. But the passing stats aren’t as overwhelming so far with Jackson as they are with the other nominees. They are still in the good to very good range and will get a significant boost when Jackson and the Ravens' offense choose better times to turn the ball over (preferably never).

He's still outside of the cream of the crop that the other quarterbacks listed here have.

Jackson has had random turnovers that seem to crop up every game or two; you don’t ask why with geniuses, you just let them figure it out while left to their own devices. These mistakes have held back the Ravens' offense and Jackson’s ability to go fully nuclear — although the Week 7 game against the Lions sure did seem to look like Jackson was glowing green.

I wish I had more argument than the fact that Jackson feels dominant again. The passing is efficient and feels like it’s sustainable with more answers to the problems of the past. Even if some of the results haven’t fully reflected that process, Jackson has been carrying a Ravens team that has dealt with injuries to seemingly every position this season. And he has not only kept them afloat (along with a stingy defense), but has led the Ravens to a top-10 offense that seems to be getting only better on one of the best teams with one of the best records in the NFL. All while facing a slate of defenses that rank among the 10 hardest in the league.

The stats aren’t there (yet) for me to go over the top with my vote for Jackson. But he certainly is in the final grouping heading into the second half of the NFL season. A runner-up vote feels like a nice middle ground.

2023 Midseason Most Valuable Player: Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills

Where to begin with the player I have lovingly liked to call "Professor Chaos"?

He sits first in QBR, second in dropback success rate, third in EPA per dropback (first if you don’t include the Shanahan offense-boosted quarterbacks). He has accounted for more touchdowns than any other player this season (17 passing, five rushing). He has generated the second-most rushing EPA of any quarterback, slightly behind Jackson. He has more rushing first downs than Breece Hall — and they aren’t all sneaks!

Allen can still venture too far into madness, pulling RPO reads when he shouldn’t, getting the zoomies in the pocket, going deeper down the river trying to find his own Colonel Kurtz-shaped big play. But he has wildly improved and honed that tendency into a "break glass in case of explosive play” element, rather than have it be something the Bills live with down-to-down.

Having said that, Allen has tightened his decision-making tremendously and is a positive play machine with both his arms and legs. And most importantly, he has gotten much better at limiting negative plays. His 4% sack rate (along with Mahomes’ 3.2%) is insane considering how much the ball is in his hands and what kind of creation he is capable of. And he's lost only 55 yards on the times he was sacked, lowest in the league among all starters.

Allen is Happy Gilmore learning how to putt, alternating between making a pizza or french fry with the skis in his brain and choosing when to enter berserker mode and when to rein it back:

That is real quarterbacking on that drive from Allen. He is a force of nature as an athlete sprinting at linebackers and defensive backs like an ostrich on the loose. But the mental side of his game has taken another leap this season. He’s willing to check the ball down and throw the ball away. He has the ability to veto the offensive line and adjust protections pre-snap. And the Bills' Week 8 Thursday night tilt against the Bucs showed off his command at the line of scrimmage, when Buffalo decided to use tempo for most of the evening:

Don’t let those run-around highlights fool you. Allen continues to fine tune the little things of playing quarterback, and he has helped the Bills continue to win games despite their defense seemingly losing a starter every quarter.

Top of the line stats while winning games. And doing it while carrying the load so large that it has Atlas feeling empathy. What’s more valuable than that?

Midseason MVP pick: Josh Allen