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2021 NFL awards winner predictions: Way Too Early To Tell edition

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Drama surrounding the reigning NFL MVP suggests we’ll likely see a new AP Most Valuable Player crowned at the end of the 2021 regular season.

Is it too early to speculate who might overthrow Aaron Rodgers atop the NFL award circle? With the draft over and the league’s schedule release show planned for May 12, this week presents the perfect lull in the NFL’s never-ending news cycle to take first stabs at who might bring home some new hardware at the 11th Annual NFL Honors in February 2022. 

Here are predictions for the league’s top individual prizes:

Who will win NFL MVP in 2021?

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the commanding preseason MVP favorite at +450, according to our partner PointsBet, and that makes sense. Mahomes won the award running away in 2018 and has seemingly been in contention ever since, with injuries derailing his case slightly over the last two years. Rodgers is the only other player listed under ten-to-odds at +800. 

 

Three young signal callers -- Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, and Kyler Murray -- will draw the most attention in 2021. Allen finished behind Rodgers and Mahomes last season in MVP voting, and seems best positioned with the Buffalo Bills coming off a 13-3 campaign in 2020. Murray and Herbert -- the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2019 and 2020, respectively -- have the potential to elevate each of their franchise’s to Super Bowl contention. If either the Arizona Cardinals or the Los Angeles Chargers top 10 wins, expect Murray and Herbert to be in the top 3 MVP candidates. 

We’d be remiss not to mention Matt Stafford’s name in the MVP conversation considering it’s a quarterback award through and through. The new Los Angeles Rams quarterback will get to engineer Sean McVay’s high-octane offense for the first time in 2021, and that could result in  not only Stafford’s best statistical year yet but also his third double-digit winning season under center. A 13-4 campaign for the Rams -- remember, there are 17 NFL games this season -- could present Stafford an inside track for the MVP award, especially if no other quarterback reaches a baker’s dozen wins this fall. 

 

Projected winner: Josh Allen. 

Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll decided to stay in Buffalo after being a hot head coaching commodity this past NFL offseason, and that decision could have a monumental impact on the 2021 NFL MVP race. Allen transformed under Daboll’s tutelage in 2020. And, as a dual threat quarterback who’s proven durability is not an issue in his first three seasons, Allen should be in line for his best statistical season yet. 

Wins should also come easy again for the Bills, as the New York Jets and New England Patriots are in the process of reshaping their rosters. The Miami Dolphins pose the biggest threat to Allen and Co. but Tua Tagovailoa’s struggles as a rookie limit the team’s ceiling as a Super Bowl contender. 

Who is going to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year?

Voters haven’t gotten tired of checking Aaron Donald's name on their postseason award ballots as the Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle has taken home this award three of the last four years.

In 2021, there are a pair of brothers looking to unseat Donald. San Francisco 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa might have the inside track playing on a defense that’s loaded with talent and on a team that’s poised to win double digit games. His brother, Chargers’ defensive end Joey Bosa, will have a more uphill battle to climb but does have a path to the award: The AFC West offensive lines are all in flux. Denver has lost its starting right tackle for the season, Kansas City has five new offensive lineman slated to start in September and Las Vegas parted ways with its two top-rated offensive lineman during the offseason. 

 

While the Bosa brothers are worthy of consideration, the Watt brothers should also be in the running as favorites. JJ Watt, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, signed with Arizona in the offseason and paired himself with Chandler Jones on the edge to give the Cardinals one of the NFL’s best pass rushing duos. Similarly, his brother, TJ Watt, is surrounded by complimentary defensive playmakers in Pittsburgh. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush and Cameron Heyward are all names who, under the right set of circumstances, could compete for this award themselves. 

Outside of the Bosa and Watt families, there are four other contenders -- Khalil Mack, Myles Garrett, Darius Leonard and Xavien Howard -- who can't be ruled out. Mack won the award in 2016 and Howard finished as a finalist in 2020. Leonard, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018, led the league in tackles that same year.   

Projected winner: TJ Watt. 

Like Joey Bosa, TJ Watt has the potential to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines in his division. The AFC North is far from a murderer’s row of pass protectors, and the possible disruption of Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Joe Burrow can’t be underscored enough. 

In addition, Watt has been a runner up for this award the last two years -- losing to Stephon Gilmore in 2019 and Donald in 2020. Despite the recency of a defensive back and interior defensive lineman capturing the award, Defensive Player of the Year is historically a pass rushers award. In four seasons with the Steelers, all TJ Watt has done is rack up 59 tackles for loss, 49.5 sacks and 17 forced fumbles. A win in this category seems inevitable. 

 

Who will win Comeback Player of the Year?

Dak Prescott will undoubtedly be the favorite in this market but he won’t be the only quarterback in contention, as Jimmy Garoppolo, Sam Darnold and Joe Burrow all have the potential to make a case for Comeback Player of the Year following Alex Smith’s triumphant win in 2020

Four running backs could also contend for this award, with Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffery getting more of a workload in their respective backfields than Austin Ekler and Tarik Cohen. All four backs spent a majority of the 2020 NFL season rehabilitating injuries. 

Wide receiver nominees include Odell Beckham Jr. and Courtland Sutton. 

On the defensive side, Nick Bosa will be the clubhouse leader over Von Miller, Devin Bush, Derwin James and Landon Collins.

Projected winner: Nick Bosa. 

Like in the MVP race, wins will matter here. Eleven of the last 12 winners in this category played on playoff teams. That outcome is not a given for a majority of the players listed above, which positions Bosa nicely as the 49ers are heavily favored to make the postseason in 2021. One thing working against Bosa is the award hasn’t gone to a defensive player since Eric Berry in 2015. Would 15 sacks be enough to buck this trend? 

Who will win NFL Coach of the Year in 2021?

Sean McDermott should have a Coach of the Year trophy on display in his office at this point, but unfortunately has fallen just short twice over the last three years. Also in the running for Coach of the Year in 2020 was McDermott’s AFC East coaching counterpart, Brian Flores. The Dolphins head coach will likely be one of the three favorites heading into the season with Miami poised to go from Tank for Tua to the NFL playoffs in two short years.

 

One newcomer who could put fly in the ointment? Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley. With Justin Herbert under center, he is taking over what is arguably the most attractive coaching vacancy. First year coaches have thrived in this category in recent years. Kevin Stefanski, Matt Nagy and Sean McVay have won three of the last four awards, all of them in the first year as head coach of their respective teams.

Some other new coaches to consider based on this trend: New York’s Robert Saleh, Atlanta’s Arthur Smith and Philadelphia’s Nick Sirianni.

Projected winner: Brandon Staley.

Having the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year is a nice place to start but it can’t be overlooked that the Chargers will have Bosa and James back to full health on the defensive side of the ball. In addition, the front office signed Packers center Corey Linsley in free agency and added Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater in the draft to protect their investment in Herbert. 

This is a roster that was largely held back due to Anthony Lynn’s coaching in 2020. They could easily flip their 7-9 record into a 10-7 mark, and that three game swing might be more than McDermott and Flores have to offer despite having better long-term resumes at their jobs. 

Will the AP Offensive Player of the Year go to a non-quarterback again?

Derrick Henry and Michael Thomas have given this trophy some spice in recent years, moving away from the formulaic quarterback trope and toward a more diverse crowd of candidates.

 

While Henry and Thomas might find themselves high on the odds list again for this award in 2021, the best non-quarterback option available has to be McCaffery. If everything goes right for the Panthers, the former No. 8 overall pick could be a MVP contender so this award seems like an inevitable consolation. 

In his division, McCaffery will have stiff competition for the award as Saints running back Alvin Kamara is coming off a 2020 campaign in which he recorded 21 total touchdowns and averaged 6.3 yards per touch. 

In the AFC, Nick Chubb, Stefon Diggs and Travis Kelce are all tantalizing options amongst the list of non-quarterbacks. Could Kelce make history at the tight end position? It’s probably more likely Mahomes sweeps both this category and the MVP award if the Chiefs reach yet another level of regular season dominance.  

Projected winner: Alvin Kamara. 

Drew Brees’ injury sidetracked what was going to be an MVP caliber season for Kamara. Now, with Jameis Winston under center, things might not look as bright for the Saints star back but it can’t be denied that the easiest way to this award is 2,000 all-purpose yards or 25+ touchdowns. Kamara is capable of exceeding one of those numbers in a single season, if not both. With Thomas drawing opposing defenses downfield, things should open nicely for the 2017 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

Who are the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates?

Trevor Lawrence is an overwhelming favorite, according to PointsBet, and deservingly so. Jaguars season tickets are skyrocketing with the introduction of the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and new head coach Urban Meyer.

While it’s certainly Lawrence’s award to lose, he won’t be without competition. First round quarterbacks Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones won’t make it easy for voters to go with the favorite. If any of those four signal callers outperforms Lawrence, then it becomes their race to lose. 

 

Atlanta’s Kyle Pitts and Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris are two notable skill position players who could threaten the five QB favorites. If either can find the end zone a dozen or more times in their rookie campaign, then they might have a strong case.

Of course, Odell Beckham Jr.’s win in this category in 2014 means we cannot ignore wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith.

Smith, the defending Heisman winner, will likely be the Philadelphia Eagles top pass-catching option and is the ninth favorite to win the award.

Projected winner: Zach Wilson.

The Jets didn’t waver in their love for Wilson throughout the pre-Draft process, and even went as far to say they had him ranked above Lawrence on their big board. Talk is sometimes cheap; however, if you listen closely, New York’s front office is saying something very clear: We won’t repeat the same mistakes that were made with Sam Darnold. Only time will tell if that’s true but what is obvious is that if the Jets can get to seven or even eight wins in a competitive AFC East in Wilson’s first season while knocking off Buffalo or New England along the way, then the former BYU standout might have a better case than Lawrence, who’s playing in a smaller market and in a weaker AFC South. Not to mention: Lawrence enters the 2021 NFL season with the highest expectations of any rookie QB since Andrew Luck.

 

Who will be named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year?

Washington defensive end Chase Young is the league’s reigning AP Defensive Rookie of the Year after a dominant campaign that resulted in the Football Team winning the NFC East. With no defensive players selected in the top seven picks of this year’s draft, there’s not a clear cut favorite heading into the 2021 NFL season. 

Micah Parsons, Jaelen Phillips and Kwity Paye are the early clubhouse leaders, according to PointsBet. Phillips and Paye could follow Young’s path as a pass rusher with significant sack totals and a handful of tackles for loss.

Parsons will be a day one starter who will get plenty of tackles for a Dallas Cowboys defense that’s desperate for a playmaker in the middle of the field. If Dallas’ defense turns around quickly and compliments its offense, then Parsons could be a runaway similar to Young. If his off-the-field concerns hold him back, it might open the door for a pair of first round linebackers -- Arizona’s Zaven Collins and Washington’s Jamin Davis

Of course, Phillips and Paye aren’t the only potential pass rushers who can follow Young’s path. The New York Giants’ Azeez Ojulari and Baltimore Ravens’ Odafe Oweh are both capable of contending for the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year crown.  

 

Projected winner: Jamin Davis. 

Playing behind arguably the best defensive line in football gives the University of Kentucky linebacker an inside track for this award. Montez Sweat, Daron Payne and Chase Young are going to punish opposing offensive lines, and that means Davis could be in line for 100+ tackles. If that happens and Washington wins its second consecutive division title, it’ll be hard to top Davis’ case for this award.  

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