Schultz: An early look at the NFL's major player awards
theScore's NFL insider Jordan Schultz checks in on the major award races and gives you his early leaders in each category.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Kenneth Walker III, Seahawks
Walker possesses a special blend of power, speed, and a herky-jerky running style that has helped him average 100.8 yards rushing (6.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns in the last four games as he assumed the starter's load.
The Seahawks will continue relying on Walker because there's built-in trust, not only between him and the coaching staff but with quarterback Geno Smith as well. That's even more significant to me, and it's why Walker has a chance to put together one of the more impressive rookie campaigns we've ever seen at running back.
His five rushes of 20 or more yards not only lead all rookies, but he's tied with three teams - yes, teams - for the most touchdown runs of 10 or more yards.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Tariq Woolen, Seahawks
I could easily go with the Jets' Sauce Gardner here, but my pick is Seattle's fifth-round selection out of UTSA - "lightning in a bottle," as one GM described him to me. "He just keeps making plays, not easy ones either: really tough plays that are next level for a veteran, let alone a rookie."
Woolen, who played wide receiver until his junior year, is 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, and clocked a freaky 4.28 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the combine. He also has a 42-inch vertical leap. In eight games, he's recorded four interceptions, two fumble recoveries, and a touchdown - not to mention seven passes defended.
"Watch, he's going to be very good." DK Metcalf told me recently. "Tariq is similar to me athletically, except he's a DB. You can't coach that. He's got the perfect mentality too."
Should Woolen and Walker both win, it would be just the third time the same team has captured both awards. (The Saints' Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore did it in 2017; Detroit's Mel Farr and Lem Barney both won in 1967.)
Offensive Player of the Year
Saquon Barkley, Giants
Explosive, fast, balanced: Take your pick. Barkley has been all three and plenty more, looking every bit like his dominant self from his 2018 ROY campaign. What I love most about Barkley this season is his clutch playmaking. It seems like he's made every big run and catch when called upon by the Giants. The Green Bay game in London is a perfect example - Barkley scored the game-winning touchdown - but so too is his game-winning two-point conversion in Week 1 at Tennessee. Not to mention the win over Chicago when Daniel Jones and Tyrod Taylor both got hurt, forcing Barkley to take snaps at QB - and succeed.
"One of the most dangerous guys in the league once he touches the ball," one team's director of scouting told me. "He's so strong and so quick laterally, but then he rips off a 40-yarder because he's also so fast."
Defensive Player of the Year
Micah Parsons, Cowboys
It seemed impossible that Parsons could follow up his record-setting rookie season with an even better year, but that's exactly what No. 11 has done. One of the league's most dominant players, period, the former Penn State standout anchors one of the league's best defenses.
Parsons is the ultimate unicorn. On a given series, he'll play inside linebacker and track down a running back in the open field. Then he'll line up as a defensive end, bulldoze a chip block, and sack the QB. Come third-and-long, he'll cover a receiver 10 yards down the field and help force an incompletion.
It's no surprise that he ranks first in the NFL in terms of pass-rush win rate, ahead of Myles Garrett and Bradley Chubb. "You can't block him, like at all," a Pro Bowl offensive player told me. "You're always aware of him. Always."
Comeback Player of the Year
Geno Smith, Seahawks
Geno Smith is the best story in sports right now. How many times was he counted out? Twice in New York, not to mention with the Chargers and even to some extent in Seattle while backing up Russell Wilson. Not only has Smith bested Wilson this season, but he has also been one of the premier quarterbacks in football - leading the league in completion percentage (72.7%), third in passer rating (107.2, ahead of Josh Allen), and fourth in QBR (66.6).
I spent some time with Smith last week and what impresses me the most isn't just the football side of things, but his maturity and appreciation for this moment. At 32 years old, he hasn't been QB1 since 2014. But he's been preparing like one, intent on succeeding when the time came.
Halfway through the season, he's guided the surprising Seahawks to a 5-3 record and first place in the NFC West. According to Next Gen Stats, Smith also leads the league in completion percentage above expectation, which measures the difference between a passer's actual completion rate and the rate at which he would be expected to complete those throws based on how difficult they are. TruMedia puts Smith fifth among QBs with an off-target rate of only 6.8%, according to The Athletic's Michael-Shawn Dugar.
"Geno's the real deal," an NFL executive told me recently. "Someone's gonna pay him a ton of money, and if I'm John (Schneider, the Seahawks GM), I'm probably looking at extending him now before the price goes up."
Coach of the Year
Brian Daboll, Giants
Daboll was the perfect hire for the G-Men. His workmanlike mentality and the team's overall culture change after Joe Judge have been vital shifts. The roster hasn't turned over that much, yet the results couldn't be more different. At 6-2, Big Blue has been the definition of toughness and resilience.
Giants players have echoed this idea to me as well. Look at their unlikely comeback win over the Packers. Down 17-3 to Aaron Rodgers, they easily could have folded - as they did on a weekly loop under Judge last season. Instead, they took ownership of the situation and adopted the identity of their head coach, ultimately stealing a 27-22 win.
"Not a fun team to play," a starting offensive player told me. "They're not beating themselves and you can tell they believe. Not fancy, but that's a solid approach to winning."
Most Valuable Player
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
We told you before the season that Mahomes might hit the 50-touchdown mark, and we were wrong. He might hit 60.
There's no designated way to play him either. Remember last year, when it felt like every team was going two-high with its safeties, basically forcing him to take the middle and short stuff? He's figured that out and graduated to the next level. Mahomes' weekly masterclass on quarterbacking is matched only by Bills megastar Josh Allen, who I'd slot second in this race.
"The best quarterback to me is Mahomes," the scouting director told me. "He's Steph Curry. He's changing the game."
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