We've made it to the midway point of the NFL season. One-hundred and thirty-five of the 272 regular-season games we will see this season have been played; the Chargers-Jets game on "Monday Night Football" officially will get us 50% of the way through the campaign.
It has been a weird season. Teams that have been anointed as the best in football typically have lost in ignominious fashion the next week. Breakout quarterbacks have fallen back to the pack. One of the two dramatic victories from the early slate Sunday came when Joshua Dobbs led the Vikings, his third team in three months, to a win over the Falcons. We sent the Chiefs and Dolphins to light up the scoreboard in Germany and had two of the league's most exciting offenses produce a total of 28 points.
If you don't know which teams are actually great or who should be the league MVP after nine weeks of football, well, join the club. Today, though, I'm going to take a crack at the latter problem and hand out my midseason awards.
I'll be naming my picks and top two runners-up for Coach of the Year, Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year and Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year before finishing up with my MVP selection. Keep in mind this is my pick based on what each player has done through the first nine games of the season. I'm not projecting what these players will do over the rest of the season or what the actual voters will do at the end of the campaign, although I discuss a player's chances of winning the real hardware when things are said and done in January.
This is an annual exercise for me, as are myquarter-season awards every year after Week 4. There are times when a player goes wire-to-wire and wins the quarter-, half- and full-season awards, but that won't be the case in 2023. Not one of my quarter-season picks is in the same spot here at the midway point, and none of my top-three MVP candidates through Week 4 is in the top three now. In a league full of upheaval, let's start with Coach of the Year, where I favor a leader whoinexplicably has never won the award:
This is typically an award that goes to the coach who exceeds his team's preseason over/under by the largest number of wins and takes a moribund team to the playoffs. By that criteria, the obvious candidate should be DeMeco Ryans, who has the Texans competing every week and winning well ahead of schedule in the AFC South. He's a viable candidate, but it's tough to pick a defensive-minded coach when the Houston defense ranks 25th in expected points added (EPA) per play. (If you're an unhappy Texans fan, there's good news coming later in the column.)
I'm more inclined to give this award to coaches who have been around and either continue to do great work, bring through young talent or get more out of players who struggled elsewhere. All three of my coaches have been in their jobs for at least two full seasons, and they're impressing again in 2023.
While even Eagles fans likely would acknowledge that the 2023 team doesn't look or play quite as dominant as the 2022 team did during the regular season, 8-1 is 8-1, right? The Eagles have the best record in football, and while they weren't exactly dominant during the fourth quarter against the Cowboys on Sunday, Sirianni's team did enough to hold on for a critical 28-23 victory.
Last year, I gave Sirianni credit for getting more out of veterans than coaches did in their prior stops, with A.J. Brown, C.J. Gardner-Johnsonand James Bradberry as very conspicuous examples. It's tougher this season because the Eagles didn't have the cap room to make many major additions, but D'Andre Swift is playing the best football of his career in Philadelphia. It's more about the young players, as Jalen Carter and Reed Blankenship have been forced into regular roles by departures and have exceeded expectations.
Sirianni's comfort with going for it on fourth down and being aggressive on offense also transforms the Philadelphia offense and what it can do playcalling through all downs. Having a money play like the "tush push" helps, but the Eagles are also willing to go for it in situations where even the tush push is out of the question, like the fourth-and-3 in field goal range that the Eagles converted on a pass to Dallas Goedert to help set up their first touchdown. Many coaches would have settled for an early field goal, yet Philly ended up needing those points late in the game. The Eagles are a special challenge for opponents, and Sirianni's aggressiveness aligns with analytics and with his team's strengths on offense.
One of my favorite things about soccer is how players will sign for new teams and refer to those teams as "projects." There's a beautiful pretentiousness there. Manchester City is a project. No player in the United States gets traded to the Brewers, Hornets or Coyotes and talks about being excited to join their project. It's one team to another.
If there's any NFL team that feels like a project, though, it's Campbell's Lions. We've seen them develop in real time, from the hopelessly frustrating 2021 team to their 2022 breakthrough in the second half. And now, in 2023, they're off to a bright start. At 6-2, the Lions have an 83.4% chance of winning the NFC North for the first time since the league moved to the eight-division format in 2002 (via ESPN's Football Power Index). It would be Detroit's first division title since 1993, when Campbell was a high school junior in Clifton, Texas.
Are the Lions a little worse than their record indicates? Maybe. Five of their six wins have come against teams with losing records that are collectively 15-27. They've gone 1-2 against likely playoff teams and been outscored by 37 points in those three games, with their one win coming over the Chiefs in a game in which Kansas City seemed allergic to catching the football and one of the drops turned into a Brian Branch pick-six. Tips and overthrows count, though, and the Lions have improved dramatically on defense, even without offseason additions Emmanuel Moseley and C.J. Gardner-Johnson for most of the snaps.
That's one of the most exciting things for the Lions and a good argument for why Campbell deserves consideration as one of the best coaches in football: His players continually get better. Last season, it was Jared Goff, Penei Sewelland Amon-Ra St. Brown taking the leap on offense. This season, it's Aidan Hutchinson turning into one of the league's best edge rushers. Branch looks like an impact player. Alim McNeill looks like a new man. Even veteran Alex Anzalone is making more plays and looks more confident than he has in years past. The Lions are a complete team, and I'm willing to give a fair amount of credit for that to their coach.
If you've been reading this column for a few years now, you know me. I like rationality. I want to understand what's helping teams win or causing them to lose. I want there to be clean reasons things are occurring. Football is complicated, but if you look hard enough, you can usually find reasons under the hood to explain things.
And then there's the Steelers, whose quarterback ranks 29th in the league in QBR. Whose lead running back is averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Whose defense is good, of course, but is 12th in points allowed per game. The turnover differential matters -- the Steelers are plus-8 through eight games -- but even that doesn't fully explain how they are over .500 while being outscored by 30 points and outgained in every single game.
At this point, Tomlin feels inevitable as a coach who will bend the football universe to his whims and coax a successful season out of a flawed football team. These Steelers aren't like the old ones, as they've gone from being a team full of drafted-and-developed talent to one of the teams with the least homegrown talent in football, but we still see some of those draftees shine every year. First-round pick Broderick Jones has been in and out of the lineup, but second-round defendersJoey Porter Jr. and Keeanu Benton look like stars. Pittsburgh has managed to overcome going without Diontae Johnson, Minkah Fitzpatrickand Cameron Heyward for stretches.
Tomlin has never won Coach of the Year and hasn't even appeared in the top five in voting at any point during his career, which seems bizarre. These awards shouldn't substitute as lifetime achievement awards or be makeup calls for mistakes from years past, but I don't see many people doing more with less than he is doing with his roster.
We've seen lots of rookies flash with big games or impressive stretches of play on the offensive side of the ball. Sadly, some of them have gone down injured: Colts quarterbackAnthony Richardsonis out for the season, while Dolphins running back De'Von Achane has missed the past month with a knee issue.
Last week, it was Lions back Jahmyr Gibbs; on Sunday, the breakout rookie was Texans wideoutTank Dell, who had 116 yards and two touchdowns in the win over the Bucs. Of course, Dell's quarterback figures into the discussion here, too.
Through four games, Robinson looked every bit like the generational running back prospect the Falcons hailed him as when they drafted him in Round 1. Since then, he has missed most of a game with a mysterious illness, has averaged 4.0 yards per carry and has as many fumbles as touchdowns (two). He has been in a legitimate rotation with Tyler Allgeier, with each back racking up 15 touches in Sunday's brutal loss to the Vikings.
The story the Falcons told about Robinson serving as some sort of hybrid star and slot weapon hasn't held up. Per NFL Next Gen Stats data, he has run 78 routes outside of the backfield, or about eight per game. Those routes have produced a total of 43 yards, for an average of 0.6 yards per route run. That figure ranks 185th out of the 202 players who have run at least 50 yards outside of the backfield this season. Robinson has done more out of the backfield, but he's averaging 1.0 yards per route run; he hasn't been an impact receiver on any sort of regular basis.
He has been better as a pure runner, although most of his best work came over the first month of the season. He generated 106 rush yards over expectation (RYOE) across his first 103 attempts, which is notable when you consider that Allgeier has racked up minus-43 RYOE on his 116 carries. At the same time, consider that fellow rookie Achane leads the league with 236 RYOE on just 38 attempts. Achane is within 57 rushing yards of Robinson's total despite the fact the Dolphins draftee carried the ball just 38 times before hitting injured reserve with a knee injury.
Robinson has been the best rookie back this season, although Gibbshas looked more explosive over the past month and Achane is set to return from injured reserve after the Dolphins return from their bye. Vikings fans might feel as if wideoutJordan Addison deserves to be ahead of Robinson in this top three, and I wouldn't begrudge them. Robinson was the prohibitive favorite to be Offensive Rookie of the Year before the season, but he feels closer to dropping out of the top three than to the lead spot right now.
It was an inevitability that Nacua would see his numbers decline after the return of Cooper Kupp, but he's still way ahead of the competition. His 827 receiving yards is nearly 300 more than any other first-year receiver's, with Addison the only other rookie to top 500 receiving yards. With half a season to go, Nacua is within 10 yards of the rookie receiving record for fifth-round picks, trailing only Herschel Walker.
Even over the past month, Nacua has been competitive with Addison atop the rookie charts. He has 25 catches on 44 targets for 326 yards and 2.4 yards per route run, while Addison is at 28 catches on 39 targets for 349 yards and 2.2 yards per route run. Addison has five touchdowns over that stretch, and Nacua's one weakness has been getting into the end zone. Still, he's on pace for nearly 1,600 receiving yards. It's going to take something special over the second half to get him out of the top three here.
Stroud would have been the pick even before what he did Sunday, but having one of the best games a rookie has ever played doesn't hurt. He set the single-game passing record with 470 yards in the win over the Bucs and became the second rookie quarterback in league history to throw five touchdown passes in a single game, tying Matthew Stafford's performance from 2009.
Stroud has eliminated the competition for Offensive Rookie of the Year and is almost in the conversation for most impressive rookie seasons by a quarterback in league history. He now has thrown 14 touchdown passes against one pick. Even good rookies often are executing in sheltered offenses, but he is averaging more than 8.0 air yards per throw, which is the fifth most of any quarterback. The only quarterbacks picking up first downs more often than Stroud are Brock Purdy and Tua Tagovailoa.
On top of that, could we really argue that Stroud is executing with great players around him? The offensive line has been banged up with injuries for most of the season. Houston's running game has been anonymous. His top two wideouts have been Nico Collins and rookie third-rounder Tank Dell, whom some teams saw topping out as a gadget player. Dell had six catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns Sunday (including the winning score) as one of several Texans to light up Bucs corner Carlton Davis. Former Cowboys wideout Noah Brown had six catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.
Does Stroud have things to work on? Sure. He's completing only 62% of his passes, although that's still good for a completion percentage a half-point over expectation. And 19% of his passes have been off-target, which is the third-highest mark in football behind Deshaun Watson and Stafford. Stroud is way ahead of schedule, though, and he has turned the Texans into a must-watch on a weekly basis.
Texans fans hoping for a one-two punch from their first-round picks will be disappointed to hear Will Anderson Jr. is the last man out of the discussion in this category. He has only two sacks through nine games, but his underlying metrics are more promising. He has 22 pressures, which leads all rookies and ties him withAaron Donald and Josh Sweat for 15th in the league. Anderson's nine knockdowns suggests he should have four sacks. Given that we aren't doubting the former college star's physical talent, he should produce more sacks as the year goes along if he continues to play this way.
With Anderson out, there's a pretty clear three-man grouping at the top. I had to leave out two players for playing-time issues: Lions safetyBrian Branch has two complete games, two absences and four games somewhere in between, andSteelers cornerJoey Porter Jr. was a backup for the first five weeks before moving into a regular role during the win over the Rams in Week 7. Both look like they'll blossom into stars in the secondary for their respective teams.
When the Rams went with one of the most dramatic defensive rebuilds we've ever seen around Donald this offseason, the hope naturally was they would land on a few young players on rookie deals who would emerge as playmakers for Raheem Morris. I'm not sure that plan has gone particularly well, as they rank 24th in EPA per play, but there are a couple of promising players coming through the pipeline.
The most conspicuous of those young players is Young, who leads all rookies with five sacks through Week 9. That includes two takedowns of Jordan Love on Sunday against the Packers. While neither was on a play in which Young created the initial pressure, his awareness and motor have played up as he has cleaned up plays.
Young's 20 pressures ranks him second in the league among debuting players behind Anderson, so he has created some havoc playing downwind from the future Hall of Famer in the middle. Young was an undersize third-round pick and already is 25 years old, so the Rams probably can't count on him to turn into a superstar. If he can be a solid situational rusher who makes an average of just under $1.4 million per year on his rookie deal, though, he will be a nice find for L.A.
Carter, on the other hand, was a top-10 pick with a résumé as one of the best defensive players in all of college football. Through eight games, he has looked as good as the Eagles could have hoped from a rookie defensive tackle. The only thing that has slowed him down has been Carter himself, as he missed a game with an ankle issue and is battling a back injury at the moment.
Carter wasn't as dominant Sunday as he has been in earlier stretches, but he helped come up with a key play against the Cowboys when he joined in with Brandon Graham for a sack of Dak Prescott with 2:09 to go in the fourth quarter. Second-year lineman Tyler Smith won most of his battles with Carter on Sunday, but Carter created the initial pressure on that key sack before Graham helped finish the job and take down Prescott. Smith will move to left tackle once Tyron Smith finishes his time with the Cowboys, but Prescott and the rest of the Cowboys will be seeing plenty of Carter for years to come.
Nobody on the Seahawks can feel good about getting blown out in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, but that's not going to define Seattle's season. Witherspoon has very conspicuously emerged as a force in the secondary, settling in and immediately looking like a veteran.
After missing the Week 1 loss to the Rams with an injury, he has been virtually an every-down players. He made 11 tackles in the win over the Panthers, but his coming-out party was in Week 4, when he tormented the Giants for 2 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback knockdowns and a 97-yard pick-12 to put the game to bed. He followed that with a viral hit on Rondale Moore against the Cardinals, albeit on a play that produced a first down.
The Seahawks started with Witherspoon playing outside before moving him into the slot, which speaks to a flexibility that we almost never see from rookie corners. He has been great in both places. He has been targeted 51 times as the nearest defender in coverage, allowing just 5.4 yards per target while giving up two touchdowns in eight games. The only cornerbacks with 200or more coverage snaps who have allowed fewer yards per target this season are Xavien Howard and L'Jarius Sneed.
Seattle still is a heavy zone team, so Witherspoon isn't the sort of traveling man-coverage defender we associate with the league's best corners, but he's off to a spectacular start.
This is by far the toughest award to nail down. There are at least a half-dozen credible candidates to finish No. 1, let alone in the top three. I won't even be able to get to someone like Ravens defensive tackleJustin Madubuike, who is playing out of his mind and dominating games, or Vikings edge rusherDanielle Hunter, who leads the league in sacks. The Giants'Dexter Lawrence is doing things nose tackles shouldn't be able to do on a weekly basis over the past few weeks and can't sneak into the top five. Jaguars pass-rusherJosh Allenis having a career year. I'm mad that I have to narrow this down to three.
And yet, here we are. The last two players out are Lions defensive endAidan Hutchinson, who has been the driving force behind his team's massive improvement on defense, and Cowboys edge rusherMicah Parsons, who is the single most unblockable player in the league at his best. Maybe I'm just waiting for Parsons to have that inevitable game where he takes over and single-handedly destroys the opposing offense. He's just outside the top three.
As difficult as it has been to pin down a winning formula for the Steelers, one constant generally has been a big game from Watt, whose presence seems to be a prerequisite if they want to win. Since the start of 2022, Pittsburgh is 13-5 with Watt and 1-6 without him. If the Steelers can keep it close, he usually finds a way to get them over the hump.
Back in an every-down role after tearing his pec last season, Watt has 9.5 sacks and 18 knockdowns in nine games. His big plays have been essential for Pittsburgh in the division. Watt took a fumble to the house in the 26-20 win over the Browns in Week 2, then recovered a fumble with 1:12 left in a four-point game against the Ravens to set up a field goal in what would turn out to be a 17-10 win. (He finished that game by sacking Lamar Jackson with 20 seconds to go.)
A Watt interception started off the second half against the Rams and set a flailing Steelers offense up on a short field for Pittsburgh's first touchdown in what would eventually become a 24-17 victory. He drops into coverage more often than other pass-rushers and actually adds value in doing so. He has seven interceptions in seven seasons, most of which occur when a quarterback who isn't expecting him to be in a throwing lane tosses the ball directly to the opposing team's best player.
I tend to lean toward the most productive player in parsing out value for these awards. If I were picking the most essential player on any defense around the NFL if the team wants to play at a high level this season, Watt would be a viable choice.
I understand the reticence to hand this award to a player who isn't on a good defense. It's tough to watch the Raiders every week, let alone watch them and reward a player for being among the best in the NFL. If you have subjected yourself to watching the Raiders, though, there's been exactly one reward: getting to watch one of the league's best defensive players wreck shop up front each and every week.
Crosby is unblockable for stretches every week. He leads the NFL with 40 pressures through nine games, serving as the only pass-rusher of note on a defense in which nobody else had more than one sack all season before Sundayagainst the Giants and third-string quarterback Tommy DeVito. Crosby racked up three sacks and three tackles for loss in a Raiders victory that felt like a party celebrating the departure of Josh McDaniels. It's not just getting after the quarterback, either. Crosby is tied for the league lead with 13 tackles for loss. Just the sheer numbers of plays he makes is impressive: No defensive lineman has more tackles against the run this season. He has played virtually every snap, which is essential given what little they have around him. Nobody does more with less around them.
Maybe it's too simple to just give this award to the best player on the league's best defense. In terms of pass-rushing production per snap, I'm not sure anybody has been better than Garrett. After a sack in Sunday's shutout win over the Cardinals, he has 9.5 sacks on 188 pass-rush opportunities this season. In other words, he is requiring just under 20 pass rushes per sack, which is the best mark in football and well ahead of his competition at the top of the league:
Garrett ranks second among edge rushers in pass rush win rate despite being double-teamed at the second-highest rate on the edge in football. (In both cases, he is behind Parsons.) ESPN's automated analysis suggests he has created a total of 11.5 sacks for himself and others this season, which is tied for the league lead with Chris Jones. Garrett is the one irreplaceable player on the league's most dominant defense.
As I always mention, the NFL inexplicably differentiates between this award and the Most Valuable Player nod when the MVP almost always goes to a quarterback. With that in mind, I keep quarterbacks out of the discussion here.
I'm willing to nominate an offensive player who isn't a quarterback for the MVP conversation in the right moment, but we'll get to that in the MVP conversation.
The bloom is off the rose in San Francisco after three straight losses, but I don't think many people would blame McCaffrey for the decline. Despite dealing with a groin injury, he still leads the league in yards from scrimmage (994) and is tied for the lead in touchdowns (13) alongside Raheem Mostert. He's a first-down machine; his 56 first downs is 13 more than anybody else, andTravis Etienne is the only other player who has more than 40 this season.
McCaffrey is still a wideout-caliber receiver. He's averaging 1.7 yards per route run, which is third in the league among backs with 100 routes or more, behind Alvin Kamara and Jaylen Warren. He has been the most productive back in football, although he has come off the historic pace we saw through the first month.
Brown's streak of six games with 125 or more receiving yards came to a close in the win over Dallas on Sunday, and while that's an arbitrary cutoff, this is a far more impressive streak than Antonio Brown's 35-game5-for-50 stretch at his peak with the Steelers. The Eagles star has been changing games over the past two months, serving as a get-out-of-jail free card for Jalen Hurts& Co. when Philly has struggled to find answers elsewhere on offense.
Brown was once a devastating play-action receiver for the Titans working the middle of the field, but he has turned into a nightmare for opposing corners isolated one-on-one on the outside. He already has 619 receiving yards on throws outside the numbers this season, where opposing defenses will struggle to get safety help all the way to the sideline. He never topped 441 receiving yards on those throws in a single season during his time in Tennessee; he's on pace for 1,170 receiving yards outside the numbers, which would be the most any receiver has posted in a single season since 2008. The timing cutoff there is no accident, as the last receivers to rack up more receiving yards outside the numbers in a single year were Reggie Wayne and Randy Mossin 2007. Pretty good company.
The 26-year-old receiver had a quiet start to the season, which drops him just below our No. 1 pick for OPOY after nine weeks. If Brown can get another 125-yard streak going, though, he'll have a strong case as the winner.
Hill already has had a productive full season ... and we're only nine games into it. His 69 catches for 1,076 yards and eight touchdowns on 97 targets are roughly what Tee Higgins did in 16 games (74 catches, 1,029 yards, 7 touchdowns on 109 targets) last season. And Hill still has half the season to go!
Hill is averaging 4.1 yards per route run through the first nine games. ESPN has route data going back through 2007, and no receiver over that time frame has more yards per route run through the first nine games of his season. No. 2? It was Hill from a year ago. The 2022 version of Hill is the only receiver to average more yards per game through the first nine contests than the 2023 version of Hill.
He has been absolutely sensational, although Sunday wasn't his best game: Hill, 29, turned 10 targets into 62 yards and lost a fumble that the Chiefs returned for a touchdown. Given what Hill does to opposing defenses on a week-to-week basis and how he makes the Miami offense work, I'm willing to forgive him one disappointing game. He has been the league's most dynamic playmaker this season.
Before we taped our weekly segment for "SportsCenter" on Sunday, I asked Scott Van Pelt who he thought the MVP was through nine weeks and he just laughed at me. There's no clear-cut favorite. Every candidate has flaws, many of which are disqualifying.
It might be easier to approach this "Guess Who" style and eliminate candidates before we see who's left standing. I'll start by taking the non-quarterbacks out of the equation, although this is the sort of year in which a receiver or pass-rusher could break through if he sets a single-season record for receiving yards or sacks. With no quarterback breaking away from the pack, the door is open for a non-quarterback to do the spectacular. That's just the sort of thing that will only become apparent once we get to the very end of the season, though. Hill might be on pace for a 2,000-receiving-yard season, but he'll have to get there to garner serious support.
Lots of quarterbacks are out of the discussion without a second thought. Justin Herbert has great numbers, but he has missed too many big throws for a Chargers team that is 3-4 in advance of Monday's game against the Jets. He owes Keenan Allen a Subway commercial after the past few weeks.
Joe Burrow hasbeen on fire the past two weeks and looked excellent in Bengals wins over the 49ers and Bills, but he had a sub-70 passer rating and 728 passing yards for the first month of the season. He could dominate from here on out and win the MVP, but I'm judging based on the first half of the season, and his first quarter was compromised by that calf injury.
I was happy to endorse Brock Purdy's candidacy before the 49ers' current three-game losing streak, where his ability to create out of structure and without Trent Williams on the field have come into question. Purdy is still averaging a league-high 9.1 yards per attempt and ranks second in QBR, but he has thrown five interceptions over the past three weeks and doesn't offer much with his legs relative to the league's top quarterbacks. Let's see what he does after a much-needed bye.
Dak Prescott nearly carried the Cowboys to victory with an excellent performance for most of Sunday's game against the Eagles, but the oft-discussed quarterback stepped out of bounds on a would-be 2-point conversion that would have changed the late-game scenarios on both sides. Then he didn't get to an open Jake Ferguson over the middle of the field on fourth down before tossing up a contested ball to backup wideout Jalen Tolbert against James Bradberry. Mina Kimes noted that Prescott leads the league in completion percentage on the run, and he repeatedly created impressive plays out of structure against Philadelphia, but he hasn't been that player every single week.
Trevor Lawrence has been dragged down by failing to execute near the goal line. Lawrence's 6.6 QBR inside the red zone ranks last in the NFL, as he has gone just 10-of-21 for 78 yards with seven first downs this season. That lack of execution cost the Jaguars in their early-season loss to the Chiefs. He hasn't been bad, but his numbers are almost identical to what we saw him from over the full season a year ago, suggesting he's not playing as well as the guy who broke out over the second half of 2022.
Josh Allen leads the league in QBR and continues to make impossible throws for the Bills every week, but he also has thrown nine interceptions, including an underthrown Cover 2 shot against the Bengals on Sunday night on a pass that never should have been thrown. Allen's hero ball can win the Bills games, but it also cost them the Week 1 contest against the Jets when he turned the ball over four times. His six rushing touchdowns helps, but he struggles to find solutions when opposing teams take away Stefon Diggs. We'll see whetherDalton Kincaidis that playmaker in this offense during the second half.
The last quarterback out is Tua Tagovailoa, who has had one standout game in six tries since that 70-20 demolition of the Broncos in Week 3. That game came against the lowly Panthers, and while I'm not entirely in agreement with the argument that the Dolphins have beat up on bad teams and struggled against playoff-caliber opposition, it's hard to make a case that he has been an MVP-caliber quarterback during the losses to the Chiefs, Eagles and Bills. Tagovailoa's offensive line is beat up and Jaylen Waddlehas been playing through myriad injuries, but at this point, I might pick Hill as the MVP candidate from this offense ahead of Tagovailoa.
After getting the pool down to three, Mahomes is an easy choice in the third spot. It might be unfair to judge the reigning champ by his own lofty standards. While voters typically don't pick a defending MVP to retain his title after his numbers decline, I shouldn't be held to those same standards. Mahomes has been excellent this season.
With Travis Kelce struggling to be the week-to-week dominator we saw last season, Mahomes has often been asked to find solutions on his own without resorting to the legendary rapport he has with Kelce on scramble drills. It's a credit to the future Hall of Fame quarterback that he has been able to adjust. He ranks fourth in the NFL in QBR on throws made in 2.5 seconds or less. He has also been devastating as a scrambler, running for a league-high 16 first downs while scrambling. His average first down while scrambling has come with 10 yards to go.
Mahomes' ability to sense that he can get the first down as a runner without taking a big hit is otherworldly. When he goes, he almost always picks up a first down, even on third-and-forever. It's one of his two secret superpowers alongside movement within the pocket. The average quarterback is sacked on nearly 23% of pressures, but Mahomes is sacked on only 12% of his pressures. That's the best mark in the league.
We can blame drops or a lack of playmakers at wide receiver for some of their problems, but the Chiefs have drifted in and out of too many games on offense for Mahomes to feel like an ideal candidate here. Sunday was an example, as the Chiefs scored 14 points on two long drives against the Dolphins and otherwise gained 110 yards on the other seven meaningful drives they attempted in Germany. Nobody on the planet is better at manufacturing answers than Mahomes, but even he seems to be struggling with Kansas City's inconsistency at times.
If you want to know how valuable someone really is to your football team, watch them get up limping from a pile and see what you feel. Eagles fans had to endure that pain for a minute Sunday when Hurts took a hit to his knee and limped to the sideline before halftime against the Cowboys. After the break, the fourth-year star returned to the lineup and looked no worse for wear. It wasn't always pretty, but he threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns and added another on the ground in a 28-23 Eagles victory.
The nearly unprecedented gains Hurts made as a passer over the past few seasons aren't going anywhere. Having great receivers helps, but he continues to be one of the league's most accurate quarterbacks. His 68.9% completion percentage comes in 6.9 percentage points ahead of expectation by the NFL Next Gen Stats model, which is the best mark for any quarterback. He has a reputation for being able to damage teams outside of the pocket, but his 72.4 QBR inside the pocket ranks as the NFL's best mark this season.
Of course, Hurts also makes a significant difference as a runner, in part because of his essential role in the operation of the league's most devastating play. He has run for 39 first downs this season, 22 of which have come on designed runs of 2 or fewer yards. That's right in line with what we saw a year ago, when he ran the ball for a league-high 67 first downs. His ability as a scrambler gets lost in the proverbial cloud of dust that comes with the tushpush and how it changes Philly's offense, but he has added 11 more first downs scrambling this season.
The one issue holding Hurts back is his propensity for the negative play. He has improved his sack rate from 7.6% a year ago to 6.2% this season, but the interceptions have been a concern. He had just six picks on 460 pass attempts last season, but he already has eight in about half of a season in 2023. That includes three interceptions in a frustrating loss to the Jets last month. Hurts is still a dazzling football player and essential to the cause in Philadelphia, but he's just ever so slightly behind my top pick.
Jackson is getting plenty of help from his defense, and we still need him to stay healthy deep into December and January after missing most of those months in 2021 and 2022 with injuries. Just based off the first half of the season, though, I believe he's the one left standing and the best player in football through two months.
As a passer, Jackson has made major strides. He leads the league in completion percentage (71.5%) despite throwing downfield at one of the highest rates. He averages a league-high 10.2 yards per throw off play-action, and he has picked apart defenses dominating in the intermediate zone. On throws traveling 11 to 20 yards in the air, his 94.4 QBR is the second-best mark in football, trailing only Herbert's. He ranks third in QBR under pressure.
And as a runner, Jackson hasn't lost much off his peak. He is running for a league-high 48.9 yards per game, which tops all quarterbacks. His 32 first downs is second only to Hurts, who has the benefit of steadily operating a play that generates free first downs about 95%of the time. Jackson's 19 runs of 10 or more yards is by far the most of any passer in the league. He ran for 47 gains of 10-plus yards in his MVP campaign, and no other quarterback in recent memory has topped 33 such runs in a single campaign. He's on pace for 36 this season.
Jackson has also been just slightly better at protecting the football and avoiding drive-stalling plays than his Eagles counterpart. He has taken sacks on 6.8% of his dropbacks, right in line with Hurts' 6.2%. The big difference is Hurts has thrown eight interceptions to Jackson's three, albeit with 52 more pass attempts. They each have two fumbles, although Hurts has lost both of his fumbles, while Jackson has not. With Jackson coming in as a more effective runner and protecting the ball as well as any other quarterback, his all-around game leaves me to pick him No. 1 here.
Is that enough to propel Jackson to the MVP title? Probably not. MVPs typically need to win their division, if not claim the top seed in their conference. That'll be easier said than done in a white-hot AFC North, where all four teams won their games this weekend. Jackson has been let down at times by drops, and even he has gone through stretches when it felt as if Baltimore was caught playing with its food before losing in frustrating fashion to the Colts and Steelers, but there's no perfect candidate right now. Jackson has minimized mistakes, improved as a passer, kept a lot of what people liked about him as a runner and made enough big plays to win each week. That's enough to be in the lead for the MVP balloting.