Among the NFL’s major individual awards only one, and possibly two, seem like open and shut cases. Houston Texans defensive end and three-time Pro Bowler J.J. Watt figures to waltz away with the Defensive Player of the Year award by a wide margin. It will be the second piece of DPOY hardware in three years for Watt, who posted his second season with 20.5 sacks while defending 10 passes and recovering five fumbles for a Houston defense that allowed 19.2 points and 348.2 total yards per game.
Many have tried to make the case for Watt as the league’s Most Valuable Player, but with so many quarterbacks posting tremendous numbers and carrying their respective teams to the post season, it’s highly unlikely that Watt snaps the 28-year-old stranglehold offensive players have held on the MVP award. The last defensive player to win the MVP was former New York Giants legend Lawrence Taylor in 1986, when Taylor also locked up DPOY honors.
But after Watt, there could be a number of surprises in the four other major awards that will be handed out at the NFL Honors Awards Show on Jan. 31. Below is a breakdown of the candidates and a prediction.
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Owning an astounding 38-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and carrying the Packers to the No. 2 seed and the NFC North title is maybe the most impressive feat of Rodgers's career, other than capturing the Super Bowl four years ago. Rodgers guided the Packers to their first 12-win season in three years, all while dealing with several early injuries along his offensive line.
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
A huge fan favorite, Romo led the league with a 69.9 completion percentage, 113.2 passer rating and 8.5 yards per pass attempt, with the first two new career-highs. He powered the Cowboys to their first NFC East title in five years, and swatted away any more talk of poor play in December with a 4-0 run, by throwing 12 touchdowns and just one interception. What might hurt Romo’s chances is the stellar year from running back DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing and helped keep defenses honest, which favored Romo tremendously.
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots
The only two-time winner on this list, Brady didn’t lead the NFL in any passing category and didn’t set any new career benchmarks. But he steered the Patriots to the best record in football, and was nearly as efficient as Rodgers, with 33 touchdowns to nine interceptions despite several injuries to his running backs and only one consistent receiving threat in tight end Rob Gronkowski.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
If the Texans made the postseason Watt’s stock would be worth much more. He even contributed on offense with three receiving touchdowns while playing at tight end. Watt did make history this season by becoming the first player to ever post 20 or more sacks in two different seasons. However, had he managed to break Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record then Watt would get more consideration.
Prediction: Watt siphons some votes from Romo, which ultimately gives Rodgers his second MVP.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
The main bright spot in a 6-10 year for the Giants, Beckham exploded on to the scene with 91 receptions for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns -- all in only 12 games. And he came up with the most astonishing catch the NFL has seen in years.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
One of only two rookies on this list to make the postseason, Benjamin flourished on a Panthers squad that was in dire need of targets for quarterback Cam Newton. He tied Greg Olsen for a team-best 1,008 yards off 73 catches, and hauled in nine touchdowns.
Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Evans didn’t blow up until Week 9 when he lit up Cleveland for 124 yards and two touchdowns, and that was the first of a three-game tear that saw him total 458 yards and five touchdowns. Evans equaled Beckham Jr. in touchdowns scored, but the Bucs porous record might hurt him with voters.
Zack Martin, G, Dallas Cowboys
Arguably the biggest reason for why Romo is up for MVP lies with Martin. Starting all 16 games for an offensive line that battled injuries beginning in training camp, Martin played an integral role for an offensive line that let up only 30 sacks all season and protected Romo’s injured ribs and back.
Prediction: Beckham takes it with Evans and Benjamin close behind.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
Donald quickly assimilated to the NFL game, and became one of the most feared run-stopping defensive tackles. He was among the league leaders with 11 stuffs, pushing back opposing rushers 38 yards, and Donald proved nearly as dangerous against the pass, totaling 9.0 sacks.
C.J. Mosley, Baltimore Ravens
The only rookie to rank in the top 10 with 133 combined tackles, Mosley played a huge role in the Ravens fourth-ranked rushing defense from the start of the season. He helped catapult them back into the playoffs, which could be a huge reason why he walks away with the award.
Khalil Mack, LB, Oakland Raiders
Mack actually bettered Donald with 13 stuffs for a loss of 22 yards, while coming up with 4.0 sacks and three passes defended. He was a big reason why Oakland was ranked 16th against the pass and 22nd versus the run, numbers that would have plummeted if it weren’t for Mack.
Prediction: This will be a very tight race, but Donald figures to squeeze out the award just ahead of Mosley.
Coach of the Year
Bruce Arians, Arizona Cardinals
In Arians’s second year, the Cardinals only improved by one game, going 11-5 compared to 10-6 last season. But that’s even more impressive when Arizona’s quarterback carousel is taken under consideration. Arians helped the Cardinals contend for the NFC’s top seed and the West title even with injuries to Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton in the second half of the season.
Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions
Another job well done by a coach that dealt with injuries. Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson missed some time, but Caldwell still kept the Lions offense largely humming and relied on his talented defense to make the postseason. The Lions improved by four wins in Caldwell’s first year, and while voters aren’t allowed to consider postseason performance, he nearly helped Detroit win its first playoff game in 24 years.
Jason Garrett, Dallas Cowboys
Even with his expiring contract looming throughout the season, Garrett and the Cowboys exceeded all expectations by winning the NFC East even after letting such defensive stars like DeMarcus Ware go. He also dealt with injuries to the offensive line and still the Cowboys trudged on for their first double-digit win total in five years and the No. 3 seed in the NFC.
Prediction: Arians appears to be the frontrunner, but under Garrett’s leadership the Cowboys took four-straight must-win games in the final month of the season. Don’t be surprised if Garrett wins.
Defensive Player of the Year
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Hands down the best defensive player in the league, Watt could go down among the greats. There’s little chance anyone but Watt wins this award.
Justin Houston, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
Houston led the NFL with 22 sacks, and has posted double-digit sack totals in three straight years. He was an absolute terror for opposing defenses, and the Chiefs ranked second in the league against the pass because of his work off the line. A postseason berth would have helped his chances.
Darrelle Revis, CB, New England Patriots
Revis’s stats suggest he’s far from the corner that became known as “Revis Island” with the Jets, but under his watch opposing quarterbacks completed only 59.6 percent of their attempts, eighth-best in the NFL.
Prediction: Watt in a near unanimous decision.