NFL quarter-season awards: Barnwell’s picks for MVP, ROY, top coach, best catch, more

    Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

If it weren’t for the Steelers-Titans game getting postponed, we would be through exactly 25% of the NFL’s regular season. As is custom, with (something close to) the first quarter in the books, I’m taking stock of the league by handing out quarter-season awards for the league’s best performances over the first month of the campaign.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that I’m voting solely based on what has happened over the first month of the season; I’m not voting on who I think will win at the end of the season. I’ve tried to use history as evidence for which sorts of players are likely to win, but at the end of the day, I’m probably more inclined to use hard data and evidence than your average Associated Press voter.

I’ll be handing out six of the traditional awards, including Coach of the Year, Offensive and Defensive Rookie and Player of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, and league MVP. I’ll also throw in a lightning round where I pick players for some awards that should exist but haven’t yet made it to the ballot. Let’s start with the rookies, where one side of the ballot is stacked:

Offensive Rookie of the Year

When I started thinking about this award, I was overwhelmed by candidates. My pick after two weeks might have been New York Jets left tackle Mekhi Becton, but he has played just under 34% of the snaps over the past two weeks while dealing with a shoulder injury. Fellow linemen Tristan Wirfs (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Jedrick Wills Jr. (Cleveland Browns) and Mike Onwenu (New England Patriots) also deserve attention, with the latter spending time at left guard, right guard and right tackle already for New England. These awards, unfortunately, almost never reward linemen.

For the skill-position guys, moderate usage kept several notables from hitting this list. Washington back Antonio Gibson leads the league in rushing DVOA, but he has just 44 carries so far. Laviska Shenault Jr. looks like a really intriguing weapon for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but the Colorado product is averaging a little over six touches per game and hasn’t been as explosive on those touches as other receivers. On the other hand, Jonathan Taylor has taken over as the primary back in Indianapolis after Marlon Mack’s injury, but he’s averaging 3.8 yards per carry and is 31st in success rate.

In the end, I had six candidates for three spots. I realize that this hasn’t been the easiest September for Oklahoma fans, but let me throw another slight onto the pile …

3. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

I have to put Jefferson ahead of fellow rookie wideout CeeDee Lamb, although both have been great to start their careers. Lamb deserves a commendation as one of the few Cowboys who haven’t fumbled so far, and while Dallas has had plenty of mouths to feed in its passing game, Lamb has averaged 10.7 yards per target. His catch and run late in the fourth quarter against the Falcons set up his team’s lone win.

All of that would make Lamb a lock for this list if Jefferson wasn’t averaging 17.4 yards per target. He has racked up only 16 receptions in four games, but he has caught 80% of his passes despite seeing those throws travel an average of 13.5 yards in the air. The LSU star got off to a slow start, but after being moved into the starting lineup in Week 3, he has produced a 175-yard performance against the Titans and followed it with four catches for 103 yards in the win over the Texans. The Vikings have more than doubled their play-action rate since Jefferson entered the starting lineup, and I think Jefferson can be the A.J. Brown for Kirk Cousins in this offense.

Four games is a small sample, and you don’t want to get too carried away, but Jefferson is off to a special start. The list of guys who have racked up 300 or more yards in the first four games of their rookie season isn’t long, and since the turn of the century, it’s impressive: Anquan Boldin, Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, Marques Colston, Kelvin Benjamin, DeSean Jackson, Will Fuller, A.J. Green, Deion Branch and Marquise Brown are joined by Jefferson and Lamb.

2. James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Yes, Robinson comes in slightly ahead of Chiefs star Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has to settle for an Honorable Mention nod this time around. My first instinct was that Robinson would be the one coming up just short, but after taking a closer look, I have to go with the undrafted free agent.

Why? Robinson has been more efficient by virtually every rate metric I can find, including yards per carry, rushing DVOA, rushing success rate, yards per reception, yards per target, yards per touch and receiving DVOA, where he’s No. 1 in the league through four weeks. Robinson has more yards from scrimmage and more touchdowns on 11 fewer touches and 27 fewer snaps than the first-rounder.

I’ve been impressed with Edwards-Helaire so far, but let’s be realistic: He plays in an offense in which opposing defenses would usually prefer to see the ball in the LSU star’s hands than face Patrick Mahomes. Robinson is carrying the load in an offense with Gardner Minshew at quarterback. Yes, Edwards-Helaire is likely to have the better career of the two, but so far, I don’t see how you can argue against Robinson being the more productive back.

1. Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

It’s hard to play quarterback in the NFL. It’s especially hard when your offensive line ranks 25th in pass block win rate through four games. Most teams would respond to their offensive line issues and the presence of a 23-year-old rookie quarterback by keeping things simple and trying to take as much of the load off him as possible.

The Bengals had Burrow throw 61 times in Week 2, the second-most pass attempts we’ve seen from a quarterback in league history. He has thrown 46 passes out of empty sets, 13 more than anybody else in the league. The No. 1 overall pick has generally done a good job of protecting the football and has been something close to a league-average quarterback under difficult circumstances while putting the Bengals in position to win at Philadelphia before claiming his first win on Sunday against the Jags. The rookie receivers and running backs have been spectacular, but being an effective quarterback is more valuable than being a star anywhere else.

What about Justin Herbert? The Chargers’ first-rounder has unquestionably been impressive, and he’s within a couple of plays of starting his career 2-1, but missing that Week 1 game behind Tyrod Taylor hurts his chances. Missing one game out of 16 when we evaluate awards at the end of the season is no big deal. Missing one out of four when that one game represents a quarter of the season, as it does here, is another story. If Herbert continues to post a 73.6 Total QBR, he’s going to be in the discussion.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Perhaps owing to how dismally defenses have played over the first month of the season, there aren’t as many viable candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year through the first month. Rookies have combined for 15 sacks through four games, down from 25.5 in 2019 and 33 in 2018. In part, that’s simply because they’re not playing many snaps; rookie defenders have combined for just 1,477 snaps through the first month after averaging 2,730 over the prior two seasons.

Most of the regulars have been in the secondary, and while I think guys like Jeff Okudah (Detroit Lions) and Trevon Diggs (Dallas Cowboys) will still turn into good pros, they really haven’t been very good. One of the few players who has been great is Washington edge rusher Chase Young, but the No. 2 overall pick missed most of Week 3 and then all of Week 4 with a groin injury, meaning he has been out for the equivalent of something like seven games in a 16-game season. The Ohio State star still leads all rookies with 2.5 sacks, and if he returns for Week 5 at the same level, he’s going to rise up this list.

For now, though, two of my three picks come in the defensive backfield:

3. Patrick Queen, LB, Baltimore Ravens

It almost seems unfair. The Ravens needed an inside linebacker to replace C.J. Mosley, who left in free agency in 2019, and while they got by last season, having Queen fall into their laps at No. 28 in April’s draft was almost too good to be true. Queen hasn’t been Mosley through four games, but he has been impressive for a rookie.

The Chiefs game was a low point, with Queen getting benched for a spell in the second half after struggling in coverage, but you could say that the Chiefs game was a low point for just about everyone on the roster. One highlight isn’t enough to earn a spot on this list, but how many times do you see a linebacker reject a running back at the goal line with one arm?

2. Jaylon Johnson, CB, Chicago Bears

Finding a rookie cornerback who is good enough to stay on the field from Week 1 without being shredded is rare. Landing on a rookie corner who can actually hold his own and even excel from the jump is even rarer, and the Bears have to be delighted with what they’ve seen from Johnson. They desperately needed a cheap starting corner across from Kyle Fuller, and general manager Ryan Pace might have found one in the second round.

While the Utah product hasn’t been perfect, he has allowed a passer rating of 61.8 as the nearest defender in coverage, the eighth-best mark in the league for corners with at least 50 coverage snaps, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Teams that have gone after Johnson have seen their passes rejected, as he’s tied for the league lead with seven pass breakups and six passes defensed.

He was bailed out a couple of times on two would-be long completions by bad throws from Matt Ryan in the comeback versus the Falcons, but he has been great through four games.

1. Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

What’s even more uncommon, though, is a rookie who excels in multiple positions from the start. Winfield is listed as a free safety, but here’s where he has lined up through four games:

There are some free safety, strong safety and slot corner reps in there. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles loves to blitz his defensive backs and send speed into the backfield, and Winfield — who ran 4.45 40-yard dash at the NFL combine — is flying all over the field. He has two sacks, three quarterback hits and a tackle for loss, and he forced a fumble that set up a Bucs touchdown against the Panthers.

Winfield is still getting used to playing safety at the NFL level, and the Chargers were able to complete some throws in front of him in zone coverage last week, but he has been such a difference-maker that I have to put him first through four games. The Bucs rank second in defensive DVOA through four games, and while their defense is loaded with talented players, Winfield has stepped in and looked like a star from the start.

Coach of the Year

This nod usually tends to reward new coaches who turn around franchises that were struggling the prior year, but last year John Harbaugh (Ravens) topped Kyle Shanahan (49ers) and Matt LaFleur (Packers) for the AP award. As a result, we have a mix of candidates in here after the first quarter of the season, with Pete Carroll (Seahawks) as the last man out:

3. Kevin Stefanski, Cleveland Browns

It would be one thing to say that the Browns were a laughingstock last season; realistically, they were a laughingstock as recently as Week 1, when they lost 38-6 to the Ravens. The same old Browns have proceeded to … win three straight, leaving them at 3-1 for the first time since 2001.

Cleveland has a league-leading 118 points over that time frame, and while it’s fair to note that it went up against the Bengals, Washington and Cowboys across that three-game run, it’s not as if its recent track record gives the franchise a high bar to clear. Installing the run-first, play-action-heavy offense we saw from the Vikings a year ago, Stefanski has quarterback Baker Mayfield playing smart, efficient football. Frankly, that might be more important than the win-loss record for Browns fans.

2. Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills

It’s always difficult to separate a great coach from great players, great scouting and great drafting. I don’t want to disrespect Buffalo’s players or the work of general manager Brandon Beane, but when I look at what the Bills have done over the past few years, the reason I lean on McDermott as arguably the most important part of their turnaround is one question: How many players come to Buffalo and get better?

So many free agents have come to this organization and looked better than they did elsewhere, starting with safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde in 2017 and running all the way through to this past week, when cornerback Josh Norman made his Bills debut and immediately forced a fumble to help give his team a win in Las Vegas. Norman was barely playable in Washington last season. Daryl Williams was a mess for the Panthers a year ago, but he has turned back into a solid starter at right tackle, which allowed Cody Ford to move to guard and solidify two positions for Buffalo.

The two biggest questions for McDermott in 2020 involved wide receiver Stefon Diggs and quarterback Josh Allen, and again, they’ve been hits. Diggs is averaging just over 100 receiving yards per game and hasn’t shown any hint of frustration or disappointment, in part because Allen has been brilliant. For years, Allen seemed like the one blind spot in a nearly flawless rebuild for McDermott and Beane, but even skeptics had to admit that he took a step forward last season. McDermott has made everyone around his quarterback better, so perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that Allen has made a leap in 2020.

I’ll touch more on Allen later, but McDermott deserves recognition both for what he has done during his tenure in Buffalo and what he has done specifically in 2020. The Bills are 4-0, and for a team that was built on its defense over the past couple of seasons, the offense is carrying the way by leading the league in win probability added. The schedule hasn’t been too strenuous, but 4-0 is 4-0.

The only reason McDermott isn’t No. 1 is because the defense, which is considered his specialty, hasn’t been the focal point of the team. Success is more closely aligned with specialty for the guy atop the rankings after four weeks …

1. Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers

You could argue that the AP snubbed LaFleur last season, when he took a Packers team that had gone 6-9-1 under Mike McCarthy and Joe Philbin to 13-3. There were some reasons to think that record was generous, but despite some idiots thinking the Packers would decline in 2020, they have been an absolute juggernaut.

I’ll get to more of their numbers on offense when I write about Aaron Rodgers later, but Green Bay leads the league in offensive DVOA and points per drive despite spending most of the season without a healthy Davante Adams. The Packers have scored 30 points in each of their first four games for the first time in franchise history; the last time they did it even three times was 2011, when Rodgers & Co. went 15-1. That team outscored its opponents by 51 points over the first month of the season. So has this one. No snub this time, at least through four weeks.

Comeback Player of the Year

As many people have suggested, this would be quarterback Alex Smith’s award if he steps onto the field to take a snap in 2020. With Washington benching Dwayne Haskins for Kyle Allen on Wednesday, Smith is one step closer to returning. Until then, there’s no shortage of viable options, with Kelechi Osemele (Chiefs) and Jerick McKinnon (49ers) narrowly missing out on the top three:

3. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Roethlisberger’s return has almost been too quiet and taken for granted. After all, this is a 38-year-old quarterback known for his ability to take punishment who was coming off an elbow surgery we don’t typically see quarterbacks undergo. There was no guarantee that the Steelers were going to get a playable quarterback this season, let alone the old Roethlisberger.

After three games, though, the future Hall of Famer looks a lot like the guy we saw in 2018. His rate stats are roughly similar, and while he isn’t throwing as frequently as he did during that 675-attempt campaign, it hasn’t been an issue. The Steelers are 3-0 as they come out of their unexpected Week 4 bye, and while coach Mike Tomlin said the organization “does not care” about needing to play 13 games in a row, I wonder if the Steelers will keep Roethlisberger’s attempts down and try to keep that elbow fresh for a long season.

2. Aldon Smith, DE, Dallas Cowboys

Best defender on the Cowboys is not a huge compliment in 2020, but Smith’s return after years away from the NFL is extraordinary. You might remember the Missouri product racking up 33.5 sacks over his first two NFL seasons, the most of any player in league history through their first two campaigns. What you might not remember is that those seasons came all the way back in 2011 and 2012, when the first-rounder teamed with Justin Smith for the Jim Harbaugh-era 49ers. Smith had not played a pro game since 2015 before returning to the Cowboys this season.

While Dallas has been a disaster on defense, Smith has been a bright spot. The 31-year-old has four sacks and seven knockdowns in the first four games. His one-year deal has $500,000 incentives when he hits eight, 10, 12 and 14 sacks. At this rate, he seems set to hit them all. Some help from his teammates would be nice.

1. Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots

Acknowledging that Newton missed the loss to the Chiefs after testing positive for the coronavirus, is there anyone who even comes close to the Patriots quarterback? He has been a revelation in his three starts, completing more than 68% of his passes and averaging 7.8 yards per attempt while simultaneously adding just under 50 rushing yards per game. The latter mark would be a career high for Newton, who hasn’t looked this good since 2015.

The former MVP came within one yard of leading the Pats to a 3-0 start, and given how Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham played during the loss to the Chiefs, he’s not in any danger of losing that starting job anytime soon. Newton has gone from being an afterthought nobody wanted in May to a down-ballot MVP candidate.

Defensive Player of the Year

Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore won this award last season, but it takes a widespread consensus and a dominant season for a defensive back to win, given that the seven prior winners were front-seven defenders.

Outside of maybe Carlton Davis (Bucs) and Marlon Humphrey (Ravens), we haven’t really seen that sort of lockdown play from any cornerback so far. As a result, my three candidates here all play up front.

3. Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

I’m never going to take a healthy Donald out of the top three for this award, because while I understand that it’ll be tough for the Rams star to win after taking home consecutive nods in 2017 and 2018, he’s still the first defensive player I would take if I were building a football team. It’s also tough to knock the production, as Donald has 3.5 sacks, 10 knockdowns and a forced fumble across his first four games. He has done that while facing 73 double-teams, 16 more than any other player through four games.

The future Hall of Famer is a huge reason the Rams are 3-1 and came within a hit or two on Josh Allen in Buffalo in Week 3 of getting them to 4-0.

2. T.J. Watt, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Packers fans will want Za’Darius Smith here, and given that he’s tied for the league lead with five sacks, I can’t blame them for saying their star edge rusher belongs. I have Watt just ahead of his Packers counterpart, though, because of everything beyond sacks. Smith has five sacks, eight knockdowns and a forced fumble in four games. Watt hasn’t missed time, but with the Steelers losing their Titans game to a coronavirus outbreak, he has 3.5 sacks to go with 10 knockdowns, two pass breakups and an interception in just three games.

Watt also excels by ESPN’s automated rush analysis. The first-round pick has won on 33.8% of his pass rush attempts this season, which is the highest rate in football among qualified defenders. Smith is 47th, coming in at 13.4%. They’re both great players, and I would have no issue with Smith being anywhere on anyone’s ballot, but Watt is just the tiniest bit better so far for me.

1. Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns

This really isn’t new. Over the course of his career, Garrett has had only three settings: injured, suspended or dominant. He’s neither of the first two right now, so he ranks among the best pass-rushers in football. To me, he has been the most impactful this season. Garrett has five sacks and six hits, and he leads the league in forced fumbles with three and recovered two of them himself.

Advanced stats detail just how Garrett has changed games. He’s eighth in pass rush win rate behind Watt, but there’s more to the story. Garrett has been double-teamed more than 30% of the time, while Watt has been doubled on only 10.8% of his rush attempts. ESPN also tracks how many times a pressure by a pass-rusher created events, even if it didn’t produce numbers for the specific player. Garrett leads the league with six sacks created, including five of his own and one for Adrian Clayborn. He’s also second in the league in interceptions created (two) and tied for the league lead in incompletions created (10).

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Garrett is just the fifth player since 2016 to force two or more turnovers with pressure in two games. Even more notable is that he has done that in consecutive games before we even hit Week 5. I don’t think the Browns would be 3-1 without their star edge rusher.

Offensive Player of the Year

Every year, I have to get into why this award needs to change. The MVP of the league is almost always an offensive player, so it makes no sense that someone could be the best player in football and simultaneously not the best offensive player in football. It would be like a pitcher winning MVP and not taking home the Cy Young Award. I love having an award for people who aren’t MVP candidates, but since quarterbacks almost always win that award, we should just specify that the Offensive Player of the Year goes to a non-quarterback.

Voters agree with me … sometimes. In 2017 and 2019, a pair of non-quarterbacks took home the trophy in Todd Gurley (Rams) and Michael Thomas (Saints), respectively. In between them was Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and I can’t get too mad at giving the 2018 version of Mahomes any and every award you can find. To keep this piece more interesting, though, I’m going to stick with non-quarterbacks for this honor.

The only issue is that we don’t really have an obvious receiving candidate to include in the top three. Atop the receiving yardage leaderboard, we have five stars within 16 yards of one another in Diggs, DK Metcalf (Seahawks), Amari Cooper (Cowboys), DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals) and Terry McLaurin (Washington). It’s tough to pick between any of them, which kept all five of them out of my fake ballot. With three running backs clearly ahead of the pack, though, it was easy to identify who I wanted to be in the top three. Placing them was slightly more difficult.

3. Aaron Jones, RB, Green Bay Packers

This three-back list includes the guy who has been the most productive runner and the one who has been the most productive receiver. Jones is neither, although he might be the best balance of both. He broke out as a touchdown factory last season, and while he seemed likely to regress after taking 19 of his 285 touches to the house, he has six scores on 80 touches so far this season.

The tough part in evaluating Jones is considering his usage rate. The Packers don’t like overworking him and have used him on only 56% of their snaps this season. The other backs on this list are on the field closer to 70% of the time. Should we give him credit for being so effective with fewer opportunities (theoretically opening up more opportunities for Aaron Rodgers to fling the football around) or just take his performance at face value?

The only real knock I can have on Jones over the first month of the season is that he has been less consistent than the competition. The free agent-to-be had a mammoth game against the dismal Lions defense in Week 2, racking up 236 yards from scrimmage while scoring three touchdowns. In his other three games, while he has still been productive, he has averaged 91 yards from scrimmage and a lone score. By that tiniest of margins, I have to leave Jones at No. 3.

2. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

Cook, on the other hand, has had two huge games. After racking up 113 rushing yards and three scores across 26 combined carries between Weeks 1 and 2, the newly extended Vikings standout carried the ball 22 times for 181 yards and a score in the Week 3 loss to the Titans. Cook then followed up with 130 yards and two scores in Minnesota’s first win of the season, the 31-30 win over the Texans that ended Bill O’Brien’s run in Houston.

The 25-year-old comfortably leads the league in rushing yardage (424, 50 yards ahead of the second-placed Jones), rushing touchdowns (six, two more than any other player), and DYAR (124, 26 ahead of second-placed Melvin Gordon). He ranks highly in terms of rate stats like yards per carry, DVOA and success rate. You can’t really poke a hole in what Cook has done as a rusher.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for his receiving performance … there really isn’t any. He has seven catches for 40 yards and two first downs. It’s been disappointing for a guy who was so effective on screens while racking up 519 receiving yards a year ago. He’s running just under 15 routes per game after topping 18 routes per game last season, but he just hasn’t gotten much focus in the passing game. For me, that’s just enough to tip the award toward …

1. Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

Forget Offensive Player of the Year; for stretches this season, Kamara has been almost the entirety of the Saints’ offense. Quarterback Drew Brees looked good in Week 3 and better in Week 4 against that awful Lions defense, but the one thing the legendary quarterback has been able to do each and every week is make his star running back a focal point of the attack. Kamara has shouldered a heavier portion of the workload with Michael Thomas out and delivered.

A few years ago, reports suggested Le’Veon Bell wanted to negotiate a transcendent contract because he regarded himself as both a No. 1 running back and No. 2 wideout. Bell was a legit top back at the time, but the idea that he was a No. 2 wideout was not validated by his actual performance.

Kamara, on the other hand, has really been a No. 1 running back and a borderline No. 1 wideout through four weeks. He ranks 11th in the league with 321 receiving yards, and his 30-321-3 line is virtually identical to those of wideouts like Keenan Allen (Chargers) and Tyler Boyd (Bengals). Kamara hasn’t been a dominant rusher in the way that Cook and Jones have been through four games, but he has been better than league average in terms of DVOA and success rate while racking up 236 rushing yards.

The Saints star leads the league in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns. The only back in the league averaging more yards per touch is San Francisco’s Raheem Mostert. Kamara hasn’t fumbled. He has been the most productive non-quarterback in football so far.

The made-up awards

Coordinator of the Year: Brian Daboll, OC, Buffalo Bills. As surprising as Josh Allen’s turnaround has been, Daboll’s emergence as one of the league’s best offensive coordinators might be even more surprising. His offenses a decade ago with the Browns, Dolphins and Chiefs were nothing memorable, but his current scheme is a quintessential modern offense, with heavy doses of motion and play-action. Both he and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier should be in line for head-coaching consideration after the season.

Catch of the Year: Kyle Rudolph, TE, Minnesota Vikings. I know that Rudolph isn’t the first name that comes to mind when you think about otherworldly catches, but this is spectacular, and it isn’t the first time he has done something special:

Post-Prime Breakout of the Year: Tyson Alualu, DT, Pittsburgh Steelers. There’s no reason Alualu should be one of the NFL’s best players at age 33 five years removed from his last season as a starter with the Jaguars, but he has been dominant on the interior for the Steelers during their 3-0 start.

Under-the-Radar Breakout of the Year: Chase Winovich, DE, New England Patriots. A more traditional breakout belongs to Winovich, who was considered a steal from the moment the Michigan product fell to the Patriots in the third round of the 2019 draft. Moved into a starting role after the Patriots were ripped apart by free-agent losses and opt-outs in their front seven, Winovich has 2.5 sacks and six knockdowns across the first four games of the season. Winovich is winning on 29.5% of his pass rush attempts this season, the fifth-best rate in in the league.

Most Underrated Player: Vita Vea, DT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’ll do another all-underrated team later this season, and I hope that Vea isn’t on it because he has gotten the recognition he deserves. Watching Vea on tape is a joy because you’re going to see him absolutely lay waste to an opposing lineman and look like he’s a man among boys at least once per game. Vea’s never going to post huge numbers, and he’s only one part of one of the best defensive lines in football, but he holds his own alongside some very expensive and talented defenders.

Best Pass: Russell Wilson’s 38-yard touchdown pass to David Moore. NFL Next Gen Stats gave Wilson just a 6.3% chance of completing this lob to Moore, who was blanketed by Jason McCourty in coverage. Wilson’s pass was perfectly placed to the point that Moore was able to catch the ball and almost simultaneously hit the pylon.

Most Valuable Player

Here come the quarterbacks. I’ll make the picks at the end for this one, but let’s narrow down the pool. I see five plausible candidates. One of them is the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott, who has set passing records through four games, but he has been sloppy at times and is playing on a 1-3 team. There’s no way I can realistically consider him when the other four quarterbacks are on teams that are a combined 16-0.

There are only four 4-0 teams, of course, so the four quarterbacks in consideration here are Josh Allen, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. If we combined those guys and their first month of the season into one 16-game quarterback campaign, they would be completing just under 71% of their passes, averaging 8.6 yards per attempt and throwing for 4,959 yards with 52 touchdowns against three picks.

While he’s the most talented player in the league, Mahomes has been the fourth-most productive quarterback in this pack so far. He trails the other three in completion percentage, yards per attempt, passer rating, passing yards and passing touchdowns. His CPOE (completion percentage over expectations) is an even 3.5 percentage points below expectation when the other three guys are all well above their expected rates.

The 2018 MVP has played the most difficult schedule of the bunch, but by his impossible standards, even Mahomes would tell you he struggled for stretches against the Chargers and Patriots. It’s tough to cut a guy who has a 87.7 QBR from any sort of MVP consideration, and he could very well win the award at the end of the year, but he’s fourth right now.

Here are a few of the key stats for our three finalists:

Whew. Those are three incredible stretches to the season. The differences between these guys are going to be absolutely minute, but two of them have to come up short.

3. Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills

I’m not sure what’s crazier: the idea that Allen would be third in the MVP race after four games, or that Bills fans might realistically be able to get angry at his only being third in the MVP race after four games. I wrote about him after his Week 3 performance against the Rams, and he was almost as good in Sunday’s victory over the Raiders. If anything, given that he has two fourth-quarter comebacks so far, you could make a case that his performance has been more critical to his team’s chances.

There are a couple of small issues that drop Allen into third. One is that he has fumbled three times, which is reflected in his slightly negative DYAR. He fumbled twice in the win over the Jets, losing each. Both came while the Bills were in scoring range, so while they didn’t matter in the long run, they did hurt his team at the time. The other two quarterbacks have combined to fumble once.

Allen has also had more obvious plays relative to these two where something went wrong. Rodgers and Wilson have been totally unconscious. Allen has been close, but he badly missed two open receivers for touchdowns in Week 1 and threw a pair of near interceptions. In the win over the Raiders, his second touchdown pass to Cole Beasley was thrown at an awkward enough angle to require a spectacular catch. His biggest play of the day was a 49-yard completion to Stefon Diggs, but he badly underthrew the pass; what could have been a long touchdown with an appropriately led pass turned into a 50/50 ball with Diggs outjumping Erik Harris for the catch. The results worked out fine, but those are moments Rodgers and Wilson haven’t had as often.

If you think this is nit-picking, it is, but these tiny differences are all that separate these three quarterbacks at the top of the charts. Allen has been incredible, but so have the other guys on this list.

2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

First off: We’re watching something absolutely incredible. Last season, Rodgers’ era-adjusted passer rating index stat from Pro Football Reference was 105. It’s 140 so far this season. That’s a 35-point leap, which doesn’t really happen. If you look for players who made a 35-plus-point leap in that index stat at age 35 or older, you get only guys who succeeded or failed in a small sample, like Boomer Esiason and Randall Cunningham. You have go back to someone like Earl Morrall in 1972 to find a quarterback who made a leap comparable to Rodgers’ improvement, and even he changed teams. Rodgers is on the same team with roughly the same supporting cast and has turned back into the guy who terrified opposing teams on Sundays after two or three solid seasons.

There’s a strong case to put Rodgers first. He has been incredible over the first four games and has done it without having Davante Adams for most of it. If you consider the absences of Devin Funchess, who opted out of the season, and the injured Allen Lazard, Rodgers threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns against the Falcons on Monday night without his top three receivers. Instead, he just casually threw three touchdown passes to Robert Tonyan, an undrafted tight end with 14 career catches before the season began.

The toughest part in evaluating his start is considering that context. His receivers have dropped 5.8% of his passes, including two would-be touchdowns in Week 1. Somehow, these three quarterbacks all have higher-than-normal drop rates: Wilson is at 5.1%, while Allen is at 4.1%. The league average is 3.2% through four games. Rodgers, somehow, was at 7.5% before the Falcons game. Do you give him more credit for those drops because he made catchable passes, or do you ignore it and just evaluate his final performance?

The fairest way to go about it is just to evaluate what we’ve seen without weighing drops heavily, especially given that each of the candidates has dealt with drops at a higher-than-normal rate this season. Rodgers versus Wilson then comes down to a matter of preference. Wilson’s numbers have been better, but Rodgers has played with inferior receivers. Wilson needed to be dominant for the Seahawks to beat the Patriots and Cowboys, but Rodgers has been good enough early in games to put opposing teams away before the fourth quarter. More than anything, I think it comes down to a matter of preference …

1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

… and I prefer Wilson. Is there some sentimentality in there? Sure. Rodgers has already won two MVP awards, and while the story about Wilson never getting an MVP vote ignores how MVP voting works, it’s fair to say that Wilson hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves. As good as Rodgers has been — and he has been impeccable — nothing is more exciting or feels more likely to result in a completion right now than Wilson throwing the ball downfield.

I didn’t think Wilson could top what we saw from him during 2018-19, but he just finished one of the best four-game stretches we’ve ever seen from a quarterback. He has been so good that even coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer have been convinced that they need to let Russ cook.

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