By Conor Perrett
With the NFL Divisional Rounds soon upon us, only eight teams are coming round for corner for the final stretch, so let’s look at the players that have got them in contention for the Super Bowl.
In this piece we’re looking at the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year for each remaining franchise.
These players have played an important part in getting their team to compete and now stand just three wins away from lifting the Lombardi Trophy.
Kansas City Chiefs
MVP – QB Patrick Mahomes: When it comes to MVP’s, there is no doubting that Mahomes may just be the best player on not only his team, but in the National Football League. He currently has the best odds to lift the award in three weeks time after his spectacular season, where he finished first in passing yards, passing touchdowns and QB rating. All the while commanding his offence to first in DVOA and EPA per drive.
With the way the offence runs with Mahomes at the helm and the average defence he has to deal with, there is no more important piece to this Chiefs side and it seems he won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
ROTY – RB Isaiah Pacheco (7th Round): When Pacheco was selected with the 251st pick in the draft, there was probably no intention for him to make the impact he did in his rookie season. With 4.3 40-yard speed, Pacheco looked to be a return specialist that could also be a speedy piece in the backfield.
That speedy piece has proved his worth and it was Week 1 when he started to make impacts with a rushing touchdown. It wasn’t soon after that Pacheco had beaten out the likes of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and was announced the starter by Week 7. From there, Pacheco grew into his role with 960 scrimmage yards on the season, leading NFL rookies and the most yards in NFL history from a seventh-round pick in his rookie year.
MVP – CB Darius Slay / James Bradberry: The Eagles have had a fantastic season on both sides of the ball, as it was hard to pick a standout. QB Jalen Hurts stepped up to be a franchise quarterback behind his impressive offensive line, but cornerback duo Slay and Bradberry, have shutdown opposing receivers all year to turn around Philly’s defence.
Having a lockdown corner is always important to defences, but the luxury of two is rare. In the Eagles’ case they did, with both defensive backs nabbing three interceptions on the season. Interceptions were only a small part of the story, as both corners ranked in the top-7 for passer-rating allowed and finished 1st and 2nd in NFL’s Next Gen stats for production score.
ROTY – S Reed Blankenship (UDFA): When you are as successful as Philly, it’s hard for rookies to make an immediate impact on the team. In Blankenship’s case he was the next man to step up when C.J. Gardner-Johnson went down mid-season and paved a way onto the starting defence.
Blankenship is the only rookie on this list to go undrafted, but that shouldn’t qualify how talented he is. Collecting 34 tackles, two pass breakups, and one INT, he started the season as No. 4 safety, but soon earned the right to No. 3 and got starting thanks to injuries. Gardner-Johnson soon returned but coaches still wanted the undrafted rookie on the field. Blankenship now comes into the lineup when the Eagles move into nickel, and will likely still play a key role in Philly’s playoff run.
MVP – QB Josh Allen: It’s no secret that Josh Allen is the engine to this high explosive offence. Allen isn’t afraid to take risks and is a reason why the Bills finished the season 2nd in offensive DVOA, as his passing touchdowns and QB rating were 2nd in the league, behind only Mahomes.
Allen brings a different style of play to the table though and is a force on the ground. At 6’4, 235 pounds, he’s a big fella to bring and loves to make contact with defenders. His erratic playstyle comes with its downside such as injuries and turnovers, but it’s the risk you take with Allen and the rewards have so far outweighed the consequences.
ROTY – RB James Cook (2nd Round): We’ve already spoken about the Bills’ offence under Allen, but the run-game has always been a weakness. The younger brother of Pro-Bowler Dalvin Cook, James exploded onto the scene in college thanks to his receiving ability out of the backfield. It got him drafted in the second round, but he was never able to be an outright starter.
Cook might have not had the season that was expected out of him, but he was far more successful on the ground. With 687 scrimmage yards, 507 of them have come on the ground at a fantastic 5.7 yards per carry. Though he shares the backfield in a committee, averaging the amount of yards he does, on limited carries is a great way to stand out from the rest.
San Francisco 49ers
MVP – RB Christian McCaffrey : The Niners look like one of the strongest teams in the playoffs right now, but their season didn’t start with great success. At the start it was a bumpy ride with a 3-4 record before a 10-game win streak to finish the year, making them the team they are today.
There are many factors on why this turnaround happened, but the trade in Week 7 for McCaffrey was a major turning point. The 49ers had weapons all over the team, but the superstar running back was the missing piece. Since landing CMC, the 49ers have scored 31 or more points in seven of 11 games with McCaffrey personally having 100+ scrimmage yards or a touchdown in every game but one. He fits like a glove in Kyle Shanahan’s offence and despite starting a seventh-round rookie at QB in Brock Purdy, McCaffrey’s presence on the field had tipped the Niners over the edge.
ROTY – QB Brock Purdy (7th Round): That seventh-round rookie I just mentioned shouldn’t be taken as a negative and despite starting the season as the third-string QB, Purdy is the man of the hour in San Francisco right now. Being the last pick in the draft can be embarrassing when the title ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ comes into play, but Purdy has almost won it as a badge of honour.
Making his first appearance for San Fran, during their massive ‘Master vs Student’ game against Miami in Week 13, Purdy came in to replace Jimmy G mid-game and hasn’t looked back since. Brock has a sense of confidence you rarely see in a rookie QB, let alone one taken at pick 262 in the NFL Draft. His passer rating of 107.3 is the best amongst quarterbacks in the span of his first snap and he caused serious confusion on what the 49ers might do at the QB position next season, which will have the third overall pick from 2021 Draft Trey Lance vying to start.
MVP – QB Joe Burrow: Mahomes and Allen are regarded as the best two quarterbacks in the NFL, but if there’s one man who can compete with them; it’s Joe Burrow.
Burrow struggled to get playing time at Ohio State in college, but since his senior year at LSU, Burrow may be the most impressive and coolest quarterback out there. Shattering all the college records and then getting drafted to the Bengals, has led Burrow to this moment.
On Cincinnati’s’ run to the Super Bowl last year, Burrow showed he could get out of the AFC and a year on it still feels the same. Finishing the season 5th in passing yards and 2nd in passing touchdowns, Burrow can conduct an offence and hit his receivers better than anybody. The confidence that surrounds him must be intimidating for opposing defences and to think he’s still on his rookie contract.
ROTY – OG Cordell Volson (4th Round): Much like the best teams in the NFL, the Bengals didn’t have too many rookies contributors on the team. Their first-round pick Dax Hill didn’t see the field too often, but left-guard Volson played in every offensive snap.
The Bengals’ offensive-line has been a problem over the years, but it gradually improved over the course of the season. For a Day 3 pick to make the contribution he has on a Super Bowl contender, should be seen as an enormous achievement, and his confidence should keep growing.
MVP – EDGE Micah Parsons: Parsons hit the scene when he was in contention for Defensive Player of the Year in his rookie season last year, and this past season was no different. Parsons is up for that same award again, with the versatility he brings to the linebacker and edge-rusher position. His 13.5 sacks on the season put him in 7th for that statistic, on a Cowboys’ defence that ranked 2nd in defensive DVOA.
The ability of Parsons makes him one of the most feared players on the defensive side of the ball and as he’s one of the main reasons why Dallas were able to get 12 wins on the season.
ROTY – OL Tyler Smith (1st Round): The pick of Tyler Smith back in the Draft was highly criticised as it was seen as a reach. These criticisms should get put to bed, as he’s had the best season of all the rookie offensive linemen.
Smith was thrown straight into the action during training camp when star left-tackle Tyron Smith went down. Having spent the off-season training at guard, it caused him to have to switch to the tackle position. The transition hasn’t been perfect but better than expected.
Smith was seen as a great run blocker which he has been and it was his pass blocking that was seen as a weakness. He’s had his ups and downs with penalties, but shutting down the likes of Trey Hendrickson early in the season was particularly impressive.
MVP – QB Trevor Lawrence: Lawrence didn’t quite have the start to his career that many expected from the ‘generational talent’, but his second half of the season was just what people hoped to see.
Lawrence struggled with interceptions but his decision-making has improved over Year 2. His completion percentage, yards-per-attempt, and TD-to-INT ratio have improved significantly, which led the Jaguars to the playoffs. In that first half to the Chargers, it wasn’t pretty with four interceptions but he didn’t let that affect him or the team. He triumphed back in the second half, making the right reads and completing passes that helped score Jacksonville a win for the ages and a place in the Divisional Rounds.
ROTY – C Luke Fortner (3rd Round): Jacksonville had many rookies thrown into the lineup and make contributions, but the third-round pick was the most valuable. Fortner went directly into the starting lineup during training camp and has played in all 17 games. He allowed just one sack all season from the centre position and has regularly received praise from head-coach Doug Pederson.
New York Giants
MVP – HC Brian Daboll: It may feel like cheating not choosing a player for this Giants team, but no person was more valuable to the organisation than the head-coach. Expectations for the season in the first year of a rebuild, was to build an identity and get a few wins. New York exceeded these and then some and now find themselves as one of the last eight remaining teams in the playoffs.
Daboll came from an offensive background and has turned round the career of Daniel Jones. In Jones’ first three seasons, it was looking like he may not have a future in the league, but Daboll has slowed things down for him at the quarterback position. It started with Daboll relying on the run-game and getting Jones to cut down on the turnovers that had haunted him up to that point in his career. It meant this offence relied on the run more, while Jones made the simple safe throws.
When that started to work, he slowly amped Jones’ production up, letting him be more loose until in the Wild-Card round where he was the first QB in Playoff history to record 300+ passing yards, 70+ rushing yards, two touchdowns with zero interceptions. With the turn around Daboll has conducted with this team, his name is leading the way for Coach of the Year.
ROTY – EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux (1st Round): Thibodeaux was seen as the No. 1 prospect entering his Junior year in Oregon, but injuries and a down year found him to go fifth in the NFL Draft to the Giants.
He had a fairly slow start to the season and his stats didn’t jump out to you with four sacks, but his overall game looked good. His speed to power made him a force in the run-game with his Week 16 game vs the Commanders being a standout. Exploding in that NFC East divisional game with 12 total tackles, one sack and three tackles for loss and a touchdown, Thibodeaux finished the regular season second in total pressures among rookie edge-rushers.