NFC South: Midseason Awards
As we settle at the season’s halfway point, we can definitively say that the NFC South did not turn out as initially advertised.
With Sean Payton returning to the sidelines in New Orleans, we all had a feeling that the Saints would be good once again. But this good? And what about Carolina? The Panthers, who started 1-3, managed to break away from their seasonal woes and ride an elite defense into the thick of playoff contention.
And unfortunately for those in Atlanta and Tampa Bay, someone is always fated to suffer. The Falcons can’t seem to recover from injuries to Julio Jones, Steven Jackson and Roddy White and now find themselves three games under .500. Then the Bucs, who came into the year with a relatively talented roster, are fighting their fellow Floridians-- Jacksonville Jaguars-- for the league’s worst record.
But let’s venture away from team performance for a bit and acknowledge the individuals. Join Pro Football Spot’s NFC South team journalists as we hand out the midseason hardware and compile an all-division lineup.
[Participants include David Pifer (Buccaneers Team Journalist), Joe Riollano (Panthers Team Journalist), Anthony Rizzuti (Panthers Team Journalist) and Allen Strk (Falcons Team Journalist).]
Most Valuable Player
Pifer: Drew Brees
The midseason vote has got to go to Saints QB Drew Brees. He has been lighting up defenses all season long, and while that is typical for him, he has posted the third most passing yards (2290) and second most touchdowns (19) in the entire league this season. And, oh yeah, the Saints are 6-1-0 and in control of the division. Brees is an easy selection for the MVP of the NFC South, if not the entire NFL.
Riollano: Drew Brees
Brees is having an incredible year. It is crystal clear to me the relationship between Brees and coach Payton cannot be overstated. They have an incredible connection that is on display this year. 2290 yards, 19 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and a quarterback ranking of 109 is lighting up this division. I think this award is Brees’ to win easily.
Rizzuti: Drew Brees
He’s a painfully simple choice here. The Saints sit atop the division by two games at 6-1 under the direction of their undisputed leader and quarterback. Outside of Peyton Manning, Brees is arguably the single most important player to any NFL roster.
In fact, this is the way it’s been for a handful of seasons now. Without Brees, we can probably imagine New Orleans as the resident bottom feeder year in and year out.
Strk: Jimmy Graham
I’m giving Graham the slight nod over Drew Brees. This isn’t a knock on Brees, because every quarterback should throw to their number one target as much as possible. The offense is so dependent on Graham, which makes him the most valuable. He’s such a nightmare for teams to cover and allows other receivers like Kenny Stills one-on-one coverage all game long. You take him out of the offense and they become average at best, even with Brees.
Offensive Player of the (mid)Year
Pifer: Jimmy Graham
The wide receiver and running back positions have been lacking in the NFC South this year, leaving my vote wide open to another position. Enter TE Jimmy Graham. This guy has posted better numbers (40 rec., 630 yds., 8 tds) than all the receivers in the NFC South and is on pace to shatter TE records across the league. He's Drew Brees favorite target and helps carry a Saints offense that ranks third in passing yards.
Riollano: Jimmy Graham
This guy has been the biggest beneficiary of the return of Sean Payton. He has had an incredible season thus far by any standard, but he is a tight end. He is the number 9 receiver in the league. 40 receptions, 630 yards, and 8 touchdowns. Certainly numbers that are worthy of the award.
Rizzuti: Drew Brees
More often than not, capturing the MVP honors means the Offensive Player of Year (or midyear in this case) distinction is not too far behind. Brees takes this one home as well.
He has tossed for a conference-leading 19 touchdowns to go along with 2,290 yards and just five interceptions in seven games. Brees’s 67.5% completion rate and 109.2-passer rating are also tops amongst NFC quarterbacks.
Strk: Drew Brees
I’ll give Brees his due here. His QB rating is at 109 and has already thrown for 19 touchdowns. Nothing has changed for Brees, as he continues to put together a Hall Of Fame caliber career. Don’t see much debate here, unless you want to rotate Graham and Brees.
Defensive Player of the (mid)Year
Pifer: Luke Kuechly
Luke Kuechly has been a leader on a Carolina defense that is greatly improved from a season ago. He showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie and seems to be putting it all together this season while spearheading the surging Panther defense.
Riollano: Lavonte David
He is on a team that is still winless to this point in the year. He has not quit on the season though. 60 tackles, 5 sacks, and 1 interception. He is a young player and we will continue to see his development. Very good linebacker and is still learning the game.
Rizzuti: Luke Kuechly
If the Buccaneers weren’t so awful, Lavonte David would have this one wrapped up. But I refuse to gift this honor to a player that’s on an 0-7 team with an underperforming defense.
Instead, I’ll throw it to the backbone of a very successful defense. Kuechly has grabbed two interceptions to go along with 56 tackles. He’s led the stout Panthers defense that is 2nd in points allowed, 3rd in total yards allowed, 2nd in rushing yards allowed and 9th in passing yards allowed.
Strk: Cameron Jordan
Luke Kuechly was seriously considered here, but I’ve got to give it to Jordan. In the 3-4 defense, Rob Ryan has given Jordan the perfect role and he’s made the most of it. Jordan has six sacks and two forced fumbles, while giving the Saints their first legitimate pass rushing threat in a few years. If there were a most improved player of the year award, he would be my pick instantly.
Offensive Rookie of the (mid)Year
Pifer: Mike Glennon
This one is harder to pick, but I have to go with Bucs' QB Mike Glennon. While it may be due more to the lack of a better choice, this kid has improved steadily since inheriting the starting position. Anyone who can handle the playcalling of Greg Schiano and still put together solid numbers deserves a shoutout.
Riollano: Mike Glennon
This award was probably the most difficult for me to hand out. I chose Mike Glennon because he is doing surprisingly well for being on a team as in shambles as the Bucs are. Almost 59% completion percentage, almost 1,000 yards passing and 6 touchdowns are decent numbers from Glennon. He has very little help around him and the team as a whole is a wreck.
Rizzuti: Mike Glennon
The pickins are slim here so Glennon kind of takes this by default.
Tampa’s rookie quarterback hasn’t been as abysmal as his team’s record. Through four starts, Glennon has passed for 997 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Strk: Kenny Stills
This is considered to be a weak year for rookies in the NFC South. Mike Glennon has shown glimpses of promise, but it seems wrong to give him the award by default. Stills has came in and replaced Joe Morgan, as the Saints’ best deep threat. While he only has 13 catches on the season, those catches went for a combined 327 yards and 3 touchdowns. He could be due for a big second half of the season. What an excellent pick by New Orleans finding him in the fifth round.
Defensive Rookie of the (mid)Year
Pifer: Kenny Vaccaro
The Saints' pass defense is much improved thanks in large part to the hard-hitting Kenny Vaccaro. This dude is a monster in the backfield and knows how to makes plays on the ball.
Riollano: Star Lotulelei
This guy is all he was reported to be in college. He is just a beast. According to Pro Football Focus, Lotulelei is the 3rd ranked defensive tackle against the run. He is the reason Carolina has become one of the top defensive units against the run.
Rizzuti: Star Lotulelei
Even though he plays on a limited snap count, Lotulelei has had just as much impact as any rookie in the league this year. Prior to his arrival, the Panthers’ run defense was far from viable. Lotulelei has come in, plugged up the middle and helped catapult the entire Carolina defense into the league’s best.
Strk: Star Lotulelei
The Saints aren’t going to sweep after all. Lotulelei has given Carolina an interior force on the defensive line for the first time since Kris Jenkins. Other than Sheldon Richardson, there hasn’t been a better rookie so far this season. He’s played a big part in Carolina having the second best run defense in the league. Carolina needed help on the interior to go with their outstanding duo of Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. They have done that and now have one of the top defensive lines in the league.
Head Coach of the (mid)Year
Pifer: Sean Payton
I think the NFC South coach of the year to this point can be none other than Sean Payton. To come back to what is essentially an unchanged team after being suspended for a year and get them performing at a higher level speaks volumes to his coaching ability. If Ron Rivera continues to lead the Panthers' ascendancy then he might enter the discussion, but if the Saints win the division I think Payton is the easy and obvious pick.
Riollano: Ron Rivera
”Riverboat” Ron has gone from not trusting his big bank offensive backfield to: its fourth down, ah hell we got the talent, let’s go for it. He has grown as a coach right before the eyes of Panthers fans. I know many were calling for his firing, myself included, but now I find myself rooting for the guy to succeed. I hope he continues to trust his players and coaches to win games instead of coaching not to lose.
Rizzuti: Sean Payton
This is too easy. Not only does Payton have his 6-1 Saints sitting pretty in the division lead, but suggesting that any of the other three coaches is a joke right now.
Ron Rivera put the Panthers in an early 1-3 hole, Mike Smith continues to prove he’s the NFL’s most overrated head coach and Greg Schiano is Greg Schiano.
Strk: Sean Payton
There isn’t much competition here. I’d love to pick Rob Ryan, but he’s the defensive coordinator. Payton has helped Brees work through an average offensive line and still manage to be successful. He’s still one of the true offensive gurus in the league. New Orleans has benefited greatly by his return this year.
All-NFC South Team
QB: Drew Brees (4 votes)
RB: DeAngelo Williams (3 votes)
FB: Mike Tolbert (3 votes)
WR: Vincent Jackson (4 votes), Julio Jones (3 votes)
TE: Jimmy Graham (4 votes)
LT: Jordan Gross (3 votes)
LG: Justin Blalock (2 votes)
C: Ryan Kalil (4 votes)
RG: Jahri Evans (3 votes)
RT: Demar Dotson (2 votes)
DE: Cameron Jordan (4 votes), Charles Johnson (4 votes)
DT: Star Lotulelei (4 votes), Gerald McCoy (2 votes)
LB: Luke Kuechly (4 votes), Lavonte David (4 votes), Thomas Davis (3 votes)
CB: Darelle Revis (3 votes), Keenan Lewis (3 votes)
S: Mike Mitchell (4 votes), William Moore (2 votes)
K: Graham Gano (4 votes)
P: Thomas Morstead (2 votes)
KR/PR: Darren Sproles (3 votes)
- Truth Hurts Huffman and Joe Riollano like this