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USA Today Sports Media Group
USA Today Sports Media Group
Christian D'Andrea

My NFL awards ballot, including a clear MVP and a brutal defensive player of the year decision

The 2023 NFL regular season is over. That means its time for all the awards players say don’t matter if they don’t culminate in a Super Bowl ring.

That’s a rough scene for the three guys I weighed for my Pro Football Writers Association defensive player of the year vote. The Las Vegas Raiders’ Maxx Crosby, Pittsburgh Steelers’ T.J. Watt and Cleveland Browns Myles Garrett are all on vacation despite dragging their teams to better-than-expected finishes this winter. But, as you might expect, the two guys battling at the top of my MVP ballot still have their sights set on the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Let’s talk about my picks for this year’s major awards, ranking my top three picks in each category. Then we can pick apart my All-Pro ballot.

MVP: Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

AP Photo/Ashley Landis

3. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

2. Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers

1. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

In a year without a runaway favorite, I deferred to the player most likely to tilt a game on its axis with a single play. And while Prescott and Purdy are certainly capable of that thanks to great supporting casts, Jackson is the one who can do more heavy lifting than his peers.

The numbers don’t bear this out, because it’s incredibly difficult to quantify Jackson’s value. This isn’t 2019 when he led the league in touchdown passes and QBR because of unsustainable scoring rates. He only ranks fourth in passer rating and 11th in expected points added (EPA) per dropback, 10 slots behind Purdy. Per Pro Football Reference he had only one fourth quarter comeback and zero game-winning drives this season.

But unlike Purdy, Jackson had to do this while missing key players and relying on unproven quantities. Baltimore went 4-0 after its Week 12 bye, beating three playoff teams — including the 49ers — and the Jacksonville Jaguars along the way. Over that stretch his top three targets were Zay Flowers, Rashod Bateman and Isaiah Likely. His top running backs were Keaton Mitchell and Gus Edwards. He was playing on hard mode and thriving.

Defensive player of the year: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

3. Maxx Crosby, Las Vegas Raiders

2. Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns

1. T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

There’s no wrong answer when you’re talking about ferocious pass rushers who pushed a team without a reliable quarterback to the postseason. Crosby was an endless pursuer who made life hell for passers and tailbacks alike. His 3.2 percent missed tackle rate is the lowest among anyone who had at least 24 quarterback pressures — and Crosby had 50 of those.

Garrett put together another prototypical Myles Garrett year, serving once more as a pass-rushing mutant for which there is no answer. Even his body began rejecting his sheer impossibility, as a late injury limited him to a single sack and four quarterback hits (all in the same game) over the Browns’ final four games before resting their starters in Week 18.

That left Watt atop my ballot, not just for his 50 pressures or league high 36 quarterback hits and 19 sacks. He also forced four fumbles and recovered three more, taking one to the end zone. He added an interception and swatted down eight passes to Garrett’s three. He simply had more ways to affect a game. That gave him an edge over the other two guys who carried shaky quarterbacks to better-than-expected seasons.

Offensive player of the year: Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

3. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions

2. Christian McCaffrey, 49ers

1. Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins

I love what Christian McCaffrey has done for the 49ers, but take him out of the offense and this is still a division champion team. If you removed Hill from the Dolphins, however, would they even make the playoffs? Miami was 1-7 when he had 90 receiving yards or fewer, with the only win coming against the hapless New England Patriots. The team was undefeated when he went over that mark — and he did it nine times.

Defensive rookie of the year: Devon Witherspoon, Seattle Seahawks

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

3. Kobie Turner, Los Angeles Rams

2. Brian Branch, Detroit Lions

1. Devon Witherspoon, Seattle Seahawks

There were plenty of good, not great candidates for this award. Turner began his rookie season slowly, then finished with eight sacks, seven tackles for loss and 14 quarterback hits in his final nine games. He’s gonna be a real problem for the rest of the NFC West.

Branch showed up to do a little bit of everything in Detroit’s secondary, which was good because the cornerbacks around him needed plenty of support. He had three interceptions, 13 passes defensed, eight quarterback pressures and seven tackles for loss as Dan Campbell’s Swiss Army knife.

Witherspoon, however, had the largest and longest overall impact. His 16 passes defensed tied for the rookie record. He allowed just an 87.9 rating in coverage despite being targeted six times per game. He added three sacks and generally was a deterrent no matter where Pete Carroll lined him up.

Offensive rookie of the year: C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans

AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith

3. Sam LaPorta, Detroit Lions

2. Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams

1. CJ Stroud, Houston Texans

LaPorta is my All-Pro tight end (with apologies to George Kittle and David Njoku). Nacua would be my second-team All-Pro wideout. But as great as they are, neither is the singular force that turned a laughingstock franchise into a division champion in less than one year.

The man behind that transformation was Stroud, who put together one of the best rookie campaigns we’ve ever seen from a quarterback. The Ohio State product elevated a young receiving corps, throwing for more than 4,000 yards in 15 games along with 23 touchdowns. With him at the help, Houston rose from last place in offensive efficiency in 2022 to 15th in 2023 *despite the league’s 26th-best running game.*

via and the author.

As valuable as Nacua was, Stroud meant more to his team. Thus, he wins a tight race.

Coach of the year: Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

3. DeMeco Ryans, Houston Texans

2. Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns

1. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh Steelers

Things should not have gone right for the Steelers in 2024. Their rebuilding offensive line wasn’t ready yet. Kenny Pickett could be trusted for three good throws per game, making life even more difficult for the run game that had to run behind that line. Pittsburgh’s defense was laden with stars and also major question marks in the secondary.

And yet, that team won 10 games despite starting Pickett, Mitchell Trubisky and Mason by-god Rudolph. It won five of those games against opponents who made the playoffs despite a secondary in which the only starting quarterback to allow a passer rating under 90.0 in coverage was a second round rookie. It made the playoffs despite playing in a division where every other team had a winning record.

Other coaches were more successful. I don’t think any got more out of less. Which is a descriptor we can apply to most of Tomlin’s last five seasons, but this one felt especially obvious.

My All-Pro ballot

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First, here’s the ballot:

Position Player(s)
QB Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
RBs Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers and Raheem Mostert, Miami Dolphins
WRs Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins and CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
TE Sam LaPorta, Detroit Lions
C Jason Kelce, Philadelphia Eagles
OGs Chris Lindstrom, Atlanta Falcons and Joe Thuney, Kansas City Chiefs
OTs Penei Sewell, Detroit Lions and Bernhard Raimann, Indianapolis Colts
DEs Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns and Maxx Crosby, Las Vegas Raiders
DTs Justin Madubuike, Baltimore Ravens and Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
OLBs TJ Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers and Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys
ILB Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers
CBs DaRon Bland, Dallas Cowboys, Charvarius Ward, Kansas City Chiefs and Martin Emerson, Cleveland Browns
S Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore Ravens and Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers
PK Jake Elliott, Philadelphia Eagles
P Jamie Gillan, New York Giants
KR Keisean Nixon, Green Bay Packers
PR Derius Davis, Los Angeles Chargers
ST Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Detroit Lions

Let’s talk about some of my less conventional picks, especially compared to the AP All-Pro team.

  • I had Raheem Mostert as my second-most impactful tailback. This could easily have been Kyren Williams, who was great. But Mostert’s red zone production (a league-high rushing 18 touchdowns) and superior rushing yards over expected (0.61 RYOE per carry vs. 0.45 for Williams) gave him the nod.
  • Raimann’s improvement stuck out to me every time I saw him play. Maybe he looked better because I came into the season with lower expectations for him than a Trent Williams or Lane Johnson. But I loved what I saw from him — enough to make him an All-Pro.
  • I picked three cornerbacks when the ballot said two, which means Emerson is the odd man out. Which is fine; there was some steeeeep competition here.
  • Speaking of steep competition, I did what I could to fudge the edge rusher positions and still couldn’t find room for Josh Allen or Khalil Mack or Trey Hendrickson or Aidan Hutchinson. That stinks!
  • Jamie Gillan is my punter. Not just because he’s the Scottish Hammer, but because he had a massive workload in New York and responded with his finest season as a pro.
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