NFL Picks: 2020 AP Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year Awards

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This is the fourth in a five-part series picking the winners of each AP season-long award. Check back soon for the final piece. Previous articles:

Continuing this week’s NFL Picks series with predictions for the Associated Press season-long awards, we move today to Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year.

As noted previously, I’ve reviewed the past winners looking for trends that can help us make smarter picks for the upcoming season, specifically using the past decade’s winners. Obligatory disclaimer that COVID-19 makes predicting these awards particularly difficult this season.

For each of these award picks, I’ve been noting the odds-on favorite, the “trendy pick,” my “best bet” pick, and my “best longshot” pick. My “best bet” is who I think is most likely to win, while “best longshot” is the higher-payout option that may be worth sprinkling a little additional Monopoly money on if you feel so inclined.

Without further ado, let’s get into it, continuing today with my picks for the AP Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year Awards.

Defensive Player of the Year

Favorite: Aaron Donald (+600)

Trendy Pick: T.J. Watt (+1600)

Last Decade:

Trends we see here:

  • On first glance you’d think sacks rule this category, and to an extent that is true, but the “narrative” aspect is perhaps more important for this award than any others. The player who led the league in sacks only won this award 3 times in the last 10 years.
  • 80% of winners played for a team with 11+ wins; 70% played for teams with 12+ wins. 90% of winners played for a 9+ win team that made the playoffs (2014 J.J. Watt with 20+ sacks from the interior is the one exception).

So we’re looking for a pass rusher—could be an edge or an interior guy—on a 12+ win team who can build a strong narrative as the best player on a great defense.

A couple more random notes that aren’t quite trends:

  • The narratives that drive this award tend to give more credit to sacks from an interior rushing position than edge rushers, and even more credit to “game-changing plays”; forced fumbles or other turnovers in big moments. Khalil Mack bested Von Miller in 2016 with his reputation for producing game-changing plays (both teams were 12-4 that season with the Broncos even winning the division).
  • Great players on bad defenses don’t get consideration for this award. Chandler Jones and Shaquil Barrett each put up 19+ sacks last year. Jones did come in second to Stephon Gilmore, who was viewed as the consensus best player on a historically good defense, ahead of third-place T.J. Watt. Barrett came in fourth with just two votes after leading the NFL in sacks.

I like the Rams this year, but there are some other players who could be hyped more than Donald if Donald doesn’t put up 20+ sacks. The Chiefs and Ravens should win a lot of games, but the narrative of those teams is the offense, not one stud defensive player. I think Myles Garrett and Chandler Jones are great candidates to lead the league in sacks, but I have a hard time seeing the Browns or Cardinals managing 11-12 wins this season or being viewed as one of the best defenses in the league. I mentioned Garrett as a possible Comeback Player of the Year candidate for this very reason.

The San Francisco 49ers won 13 games last year with the Defensive Rookie of the Year in Nick Bosa. They should continue to receive hype as one of the league’s best defenses, and the DROY award for Bosa will help drive his hype train. If he gets to double-digit sacks and the Niners continue to be one of the league’s best teams, Bosa feels like a safe bet for this award.

Best bet: Nick Bosa (+900)

When it comes to longshots, I like Tre’Davious White (+5000) to be a darkhorse for the Bills. The Bills don’t have a singular stand-out pass rusher, but they also should continue to be one of the league’s best defenses and play in the AFC East, where defense should be easier than in most divisions. If the Bills manage to dethrone the Patriots, White may have the hype to take this award after receiving one vote last year, and his odds are so long that you can get a big payout with a small investment.

I do think there’s a chance that voters reward Chandler Jones (+1600) for years of unrecognized elite pass rushing ability if the Cardinals take even a marginal leap in team record. If they get to 9 or 10 wins and Jones again has 19+ sacks, I could see a scenario where voters declare this to finally be “his year.”

But my favorite longshot pick is easily T.J. Watt. Watt was already in the running for this award last season, and while the Steelers defense will likely regress after forcing an insane 0.2 turnovers per drive to lead the NFL last year (that’s one turnover forced on every FIVE opponent possessions), if the offense returns to its 2018 form, the defense should have ample opportunity to pin their ears back and rush the passer with the 24th-ranked strength of schedule by projected win totals.

T.J. Watt caused 8 forced fumbled and 14.5 sacks last year playing with an offense that was completely non-threatening. Mike Tomlin did his best to run clock and shorten games as much as possible after Ben Roethlisberger went down. Watt finished second in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity metric and carries the Watt family pedigree that has received this award 3 times in the last 10 years.

Best longshot: T.J. Watt (+1600)

Offensive Player of the Year

*No Coach of the Year odds are available on William Hill US, so these odds come from Bovada.

Favorite: Patrick Mahomes (+400)

Trendy Pick: Kyler Murray (+1600)

Last Decade:

Trends to be aware of:

  • 60% of winners played quarterback
  • The non-QB winners were inarguably the best non-QB offensive player of that particular season…
    • Adrian Peterson’s 2000+ rushing yards in 2012
    • DeMarco Murray bested the 2nd-leading rusher by nearly 500 yards in 2014
    • Todd Gurley had over 2000 scrimmage yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017
    • Michael Thomas set an NFL record for receptions in a season in 2019
  • 60% of winners also won MVP the same year
  • 100% of winners played for 10+ win teams; 70% for 12+ win teams; 50% for 13+ win teams (!)

So unless a wide receiver or running back sets a record (not impossible), we’re looking for the quarterback of the NFL’s best offense. This award has so much overlap with MVP that I see two strategies to betting it:

  1. Diversify by betting on different players to win this award and MVP. If you think a non-QB has a shot at a great season, don’t bet them to win MVP, bet them to win this award instead, or…
  2. Double up on your MVP pick by also betting them to win OPOY. That way, in case someone else emerges to swipe one of these awards away, “your guy” will still have a chance to win one of the two.

My strategy for OPOY is going to be to place my primary bet on a quarterback and then sprinkle a little on a player I think could set a record in 2020, and then bet on a different quarterback to win MVP as a way to spread out my investments.

Patrick Mahomes had a slight dip in production last year after an unbelievable debut season as a starting quarterback. Missing three games with injury didn’t help, but Mahomes also saw a sharp drop in TD% and average yards/game from 2018 to 2019. He doesn’t need to repeat his 2018 output to be a strong candidate for this award, he just has to bounce back from his “down year” in 2019. The Chiefs offense seems like it’s only getting better with the addition of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and young receivers like Mecole Hardman continuing to develop. I think there’s a reason Mahomes is favored to win this award, so I’m taking him as my best bet pick.

If I wasn’t betting OPOY at all, Mahomes would be my recommendation for MVP as well (my actual MVP pick will be published tomorrow).

Best Bet: Patrick Mahomes (+400)

When it comes to longshots, if you can get Kyler Murray as good as +1600 or better, I think that’s worth a little sprinkle. Anything less than +1500 probably isn’t going to pay off though.

The guy I like as a potential darkhorse for this award is Derrick Henry (+2800). As I outlined above, because quarterbacks almost always win MVP, voters sometimes reward the best player at another position with the OPOY award.

Derrick Henry has a history of starting slow and really ramping up his production as the season progresses, but if he can start 2020 as hot as he finished 2019, and maintain that throughout the season, he could be even better than last year. Henry played 12 games with Ryan Tannehill last year if you include the playoffs and piled up 1,570 yards in those 12 games alone. Extrapolate that to a 16-game season and you’re looking at over 2,000 yards on the ground.

That’d be crazy, obviously, but he doesn’t need 2,000 yards to win this award. Cynthia Frelund’s model projects him to lead the league in rushing again, and narrative-wise, he already has the perception of being the “entire” offense for the Titans after his epic playoff run. He’ll have the attention of the media if he continues to be near the NFL’s leader in rushing. The Titans have the 31st-ranked strength of schedule according to projected wins, meaning the gamescript could favor a heavy Henry approach on near weekly basis.

I mentioned in my Coach of the Year picks how the road to an improved Titans season could unfold. If that happens while Henry approaches a 2,000-yard rushing season, there’s no doubt he will receive strong consideration for this award as Mahomes or another quarterback takes MVP.

Best Longshot: Derrick Henry (+2800)

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