Stafford or Goff for MVP? Barnwell likes these long shots for six NFL awards

    Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

If it feels like I’ve prefaced every one of my columns recently by pointing out that the 2020 NFL season is going to be weird, it’s not an accident. We’re approaching a season in which it would be a pleasant surprise if each team were able to play all 16 games. Even if that happens, teams are entering the campaign having barely practiced, let alone having played any preseason games. Sunday’s brief scare, in which several teams were forced to leave players out of practice or cancel sessions altogether as a result of false-positive tests for COVID-19, is unlikely to be the only one we see this season.

As a result, a sport that is already subject to massive amounts of year-to-year randomness and variance is likely to be even more unpredictable this season. We can throw our hands up in the air in frustration and wait to see what happens, but I think it’s worth embracing that weirdness.

Today, we’re going to do that by identifying various levels of long shots for each of the league’s major awards. For each award, I’ll pick three players who fit three different tiers of unlikeliness. Tier 1 will be a viable candidate who isn’t getting enough attention. Tier 2 will be a player (or coach) who would need an absolutely extraordinary season to win the award. Tier 3 is for the true long shots who would require a dominant campaign and some significant luck to even get the opportunity in 2020.

To be clear, I’m not considering or mentioning favorites for these awards. I’m not going to mention Patrick Mahomes for MVP because the Chiefs star is obviously the most likely person to win the award. I also won’t mention guys such as Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott and Drew Brees, because they’re also clearly within the running. Let’s run through the awards for top rookies and see how it works:

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Tier 1 long shot: Cam Akers, RB, Rams

Los Angeles cut Todd Gurley before April’s draft to create cap space, and after drafting Akers in Round 2, the once-trendy Sean McVay has looked toward the league’s newest trendsetters for his running back philosophy. McVay pointed to Kyle Shanahan’s hot hand philosophy with the 49ers from 2019 as a model for how he might split time between Akers, second-year back Darrell Henderson and veterans Malcolm Brown and John Kelly.

I’m a little skeptical McVay is telling us the truth after the last couple of seasons and his suggestions that the Rams suddenly decided to start using a healthy Gurley as a part-time back after his absence in December 2018. As last season went on, they went back to using Gurley as their primary back. Gurley, who was signed by the Falcons in March, took a little over 46% of the carries for the Rams before their midseason bye, but that number climbed to nearly 65% afterward.

My biggest reason for skepticism, though, is the draft capital the Rams used on Akers. One year after using a third-round pick on Henderson and at a position in which they could have easily added a veteran back such as Lamar Miller for close to the minimum, it’s unlikely that McVay & Co. would have used their top pick on a running back if they thought he was going to be a part-time player.

Akers can win the starting job here, and if the injury Henderson suffered in practice on Sunday costs him time, it could be earlier than people think. The Rams should have a healthier offensive line in 2020, and even with a compromised line a year ago, Gurley was still productive. After L.A.’s bye in Week 9, Gurley was ninth in the league in fantasy points among running backs. If Akers can carve out a significant percentage of snaps early in the season, he could be a threat for this award.

Tier 2 long shot: Bryan Edwards, WR, Raiders

Thirteen wide receivers were drafted before Edwards in April, but few of them have drawn more attention or earned more hype during training camp than Las Vegas’ third-round pick. The 6-foot-3 Edwards was a productive four-year player at South Carolina, only to end his 2019 season with a knee injury before breaking his foot while preparing for the NFL combine. Edwards then fell to the third round, where the Raiders snapped him up with the 81st pick.

He is already ahead of expectations after recovering from that foot injury, and while training camp reports for young players are almost always positive, virtually everything out of Raiders camp has suggested Edwards is turning heads. Las Vegas has a more notable first-rounder at the position in Henry Ruggs and returns Tyrell Williams after an injury-hit 2019, but there’s a chance that Jon Gruden and the Raiders could start the year with Ruggs playing ahead of Hunter Renfrow in the slot while both Edwards and Williams start outside. (Williams also could become trade fodder.) Ruggs is still the favorite to see a significant target share in Las Vegas, but Edwards is rapidly rising up the depth chart and could make an immediate impact, with his size playing up in the red zone.

Tier 3 long shot: Jalen Hurts, QB, Eagles

Hurts obviously has a big roadblock in his way to regular playing time in starter Carson Wentz, but you can imagine the scenario in which Hurts is an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. If Wentz were to suffer an early-season injury, Philly would be left with Hurts and veteran Nate Sudfeld under center. The Eagles like Sudfeld, who they’ve paid a little over $5 million between 2019 and 2020, but the Indiana product has just 25 career pass attempts, netting six first downs.

Hurts would be in a position to win games in a competitive NFC East, and while the former Alabama and Oklahoma starter is still a work in progress, the Eagles could reconfigure their offense to play to Hurts’ strengths. As we saw last season, Hurts can be an efficient, effective quarterback if you help him get the ball out quickly and take advantage of his skills. If Wentz were to go down, Hurts could make enough impact plays to help the Eagles win the East. He would have to be in Rookie of the Year consideration if that happens.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Tier 1 long shot: A.J. Terrell, CB, Falcons

If a cornerback is going to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, he needs to rack up interceptions on a playoff contender. The past three corners to win this award all fit that bill. Charles Woodson (1998 Raiders), Marcus Peters (2015 Chiefs) and Marshon Lattimore (2017 Saints) combined for 18 interceptions in their breakout seasons, with Peters racking up eight and the other two adding five each.

Interceptions are harder to come by at all levels these days, but Terrell had five over his last two seasons at Clemson. He should see plenty of targets on a Falcons team that is thin at cornerback and likely to see more targets than the 536 they faced a year ago. If Atlanta improves on defense and competes for a playoff spot in the NFC South, Terrell could be an instant contender for Rookie of the Year.

Tier 2 long shot: Kyle Dugger, S, Patriots

Expecting much out of a defensive back taken in the second round by the Patriots can be a dangerous game, given that Bill Belichick has used that round to go after disappointing defenders such as Ras-I Dowling and Duke Dawson in years past. He also has landed Darius Butler, Eugene Wilson and Patrick Chung in the second round, and Chung’s decision to opt out of the 2020 season might open the door for Dugger to prove what he can do from Day 1.

I don’t often get the chance to hype prospects from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, which is where Dugger excelled before impressing at the Senior Bowl. If you want to see why Dugger turned heads, look at his Mock Draftable radar; his closest physical comparables at safety are guys such as Terrell Edmunds, Eric Berry and Derwin James. Dugger is already expected to play a role as a returner, and if he is able to challenge for regular snaps in the league’s most dominant secondary, he could draw immediate attention for the Patriots. New England linebacker Josh Uche also could qualify here.

Tier 3 long shot: Terrell Lewis, DE, Rams

Another member of the Rams’ rookie class, Lewis played just 14 games across three seasons at Alabama while battling a torn ligament in his elbow and a torn ACL. In those 14 games, though, he racked up seven sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Football Outsiders’ SackSEER projection model sees Lewis as a high-upside candidate, projecting him with the sixth-highest sack total through his first five seasons of any pass-rusher from this class.

Of course, the third-round pick Lewis has to be healthy enough to stay on the field and then beat out his competition on the edge. The good news is that it’s a wide-open race for the Rams, who lost both Dante Fowler Jr. and Clay Matthews this offseason. Los Angeles signed Leonard Floyd, but the former Bears first-rounder wasn’t often an impactful pass-rusher in Chicago, and that was while playing across from Khalil Mack over the past two years. The depth chart is otherwise mostly bare. The easiest path to winning Defensive Rookie of the Year is by racking up sacks on a playoff team, and Lewis could have a clearer path to pulling that off than it might seem given his draft status.

Coach of the Year

Tier 1 long shot: Frank Reich, Colts

Reich was already a Coach of the Year candidate in 2018, when he went from being Indy’s second choice after the Josh McDaniels fiasco to winning 10 games and a playoff berth. The former Bills backup went 7-9 in Indy last season, but his team has retooled by adding Philip Rivers and DeForest Buckner. The Colts are slight favorites to win the AFC South at the Caesars sportsbook.

To get Reich a Coach of the Year nod, the Colts would have to win their division and be one of the best teams in the AFC. As we saw in Indy’s ceiling projection from FPI, an 11-win season isn’t out of the question. The division is also up for grabs, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which the Texans take a major step backward, the Titans fall apart after Ryan Tannehill gets injured and the Jaguars tank for Trevor Lawrence in the 2021 NFL draft. If the Colts blow away their divisional competition and end up with a first-round bye, Reich is going to be in the discussion here.

Tier 2 long shot: Andy Reid, Chiefs

It’s even more unlikely that we see a perennially successful coach such as Reid compete for Coach of the Year honors. Reid has gone 207-128-1, won 10 or more games 14 times and won the AP’s Coach of the Year award … once, back in 2002. Bill Belichick, who is a favorite to my eyes this season if he can lead a Tom Brady-less Patriots team to another division title, has only won the award three times. This trophy typically rewards authors of quick turnarounds as opposed to consistent brilliance.

What would it take for Reid to win Coach of the Year? My guess is that the Chiefs would need to dominate on offense and win at least 14 games. The first part should be pretty easy. ESPN’s Football Power Index has the Chiefs favored in 14 of their 16 games this season, only narrow underdogs in road games against the Ravens and Saints. We can’t assume Kansas City will win all of the games in which it is favored — Mahomes lost at home to the Colts and Texans last season — but it’s a sign of how dominant the Chiefs are expected to be in 2020. If the schedule does get reduced, I also think Reid could win if Kansas City were to go undefeated in a shortened season.

Tier 3 long shot: Matt Patricia, Lions

There’s probably a better chance of Patricia getting fired during the year than there is of the former Patriots assistant winning Coach of the Year. As I laid out in my column on the teams most likely to improve in 2020, though, the Lions are among the four teams in the league with the best shot of improving this upcoming campaign. If Patricia does lead them to an unlikely divisional title after a 3-12-1 season in 2019, the history of the award suggests he would be among the favorites to win Coach of the Year.

Defensive Player of the Year

Tier 1 long shot: DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys

While the Defensive Player of the Year award typically rewards a wider variety of players than its offensive counterpart, the easiest way to win is still to rack up a ton of sacks on a playoff team. Lawrence is in position to do that for the Cowboys after both player and team disappointed in 2019.

The Boise State product registered 14.5 sacks and 26 knockdowns during his breakout campaign in 2017, but while he made it back to 10.5 sacks and 23 knockdowns in 2018, he had just five sacks and 16 knockdowns a year ago. Lawrence underwent shoulder surgery before last season, but it wasn’t as if he struggled early before coming on late; the sixth-year man had just a half-sack during the second half of the season.

If Dallas does live up to lofty expectations and rank among the leading teams in the NFC, Lawrence will have more opportunities to get after opposing quarterbacks. A return to his 2017 form would earn the 28-year-old DPOY consideration.

Tier 2 long shot: Marshon Lattimore, CB, Saints

I mentioned earlier that Lattimore’s five interceptions as a rookie helped the former Ohio State star win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017. Since then, Lattimore only has three interceptions over the ensuing two seasons, although he did add three fumble recoveries in 2018. It hasn’t been for lack of opportunity, either, as teams targeted Lattimore 90 times in 2018 and 88 times last season.

Interceptions, however, are a wildly random stat from year to year. We know Lattimore has the ball skills and the opportunities to come away with picks, and with 90 targets a year, it’s just a matter of time before he has another season in which he challenges for the league lead in interceptions. If 2020 is that year and Lattimore finishes with seven or eight picks on a Saints team that is likely to rank among the best in football, he could follow in Stephon Gilmore’s footsteps and win this award.

Tier 3 long shot: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Bills

As the defensive coordinator for the Panthers, Sean McDermott had Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. In Buffalo, his new duo of star linebackers consists of Edmunds and Matt Milano. The Bills have built one of the best defenses in football around their two linebackers, and with everyone of note besides Star Lotulelei returning from 2019, they might even expect to improve on last year’s sixth-place finish in defensive DVOA.

Kuechly won Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 under McDermott while filling up the stat sheet from middle linebacker for a 12-4 Panthers team. It was his age-22 season. You can probably see where this is going: Edmunds is entering his age-22 season for McDermott on a Bills team in which the minimum expectation is a return to the playoffs. I’m not sure they have a 12-4 ceiling in them with Josh Allen at quarterback, which is why Edmunds isn’t a tier higher, but few linebackers in the league have Edmunds’ combination of skills and instincts, especially at a young age. It’s not out of the question he has some sort of Jamal Adams-esque season and comes out of nowhere to win this award.

Offensive Player of the Year

Tier 1 long shot: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys

While there has been plenty of chatter surrounding Dak Prescott and his chances of winning hardware in a contract year, I’m going to look in a different direction and toward a running back. The Cowboys got more pass happy last year on early downs, but even in a season in which they went 8-8 and were trailing a bunch in the fourth quarter, Elliott got 301 carries and 355 touches.

If the Cowboys get another 16-game season out of Elliott and are winning handily more frequently in the second half, his workload and production could challenge for this award. Todd Gurley won Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 by racking up 1,823 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns. Elliott’s best season was his rookie campaign, when he actually topped Gurley’s total with 1,994 yards from scrimmage, although he only made it to 16 scores.

The easiest way for Elliott to win would be to follow in Gurley’s footsteps and tally a ton of touchdowns. Eighteen scores would get him in consideration, although as we saw with Aaron Jones a year ago, those touchdowns aren’t enough. Elliott also probably needs to top 1,800 yards to get there. That might not be enough to win Offensive Player of the Year alone, but unless Elliott becomes the latest player in the 16-game era to rack up 2,000 yards, it’s his most plausible path to glory.

Tier 2 long shot: Davante Adams, WR, Packers

Last year, the Saints’ Michael Thomas became just the second wide receiver in league history to win the AP’s version of this award, joining Jerry Rice. To get there, Thomas needed to be an incredible receiver, play for a winning team and get a lot of targets: he was thrown the ball 185 times, 28 times more than any other wideout.

In trying to find another player who could fit those criteria in 2020, one obvious name popped out. Adams is a star wide receiver. I think the Packers are going to decline this year, but they should still be a competitive team and in position to compete for the NFC North crown. They also famously didn’t add any receiving weapons for Aaron Rodgers, which might help Adams’ case. He averaged 11.3 targets per game in 2018, which is right in line with the 11.6 targets per game Thomas averaged last season. If Adams gets that sort of workload again, he could follow in Thomas’ footsteps.

Tier 3 long shot: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Panthers

I wanted to pick at least one quarterback for this section, and of the guys who qualify as long shots who also simultaneously have a starting job or a path to one, Bridgewater’s path is most promising. To start, the voters are human and love a good story, and it’s hard to think of a better one than Bridgewater’s multiyear path back from a serious knee injury.

On the field, Bridgewater showed last season in New Orleans that he can be a productive, efficient quarterback even after the injury. He was checking down a fair amount for the Saints in his five successful starts, but he was able to get the ball out quickly and he protected the football, leading to long drives. He won’t get to bring along Michael Thomas and Sean Payton, but Bridgewater has some of the best weapons in football and a high-upside coordinator in Joe Brady, who sparked a huge leap from Joe Burrow at LSU last season.

Obviously, Bridgewater has to stay healthy and productive. The Panthers also would need to compete for a playoff berth, which might be tough in the NFC South with the Saints, Buccaneers and Falcons. If the unexpected happens and the Panthers are competing for a playoff berth in December, a series of big games from Bridgewater might be enough to push him over the top. It’s difficult to see him possessing a Mahomes-esque ceiling and winning MVP, but Offensive Player of the Year could be more feasible.

Most Valuable Player

Tier 1 long shot: Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions

Stafford has never been an MVP candidate and only has one Pro Bowl appearance across his 11-year career, but he was playing at that sort of level through the first half of 2019. His prorated numbers would have resulted in 4,998 passing yards and 38 touchdowns over a full season. If you stretch that a tiny bit further and look at the quarterbacks who have racked up 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in a single season, that list includes six seasons, three of which were authored by MVPs.

One of the three that didn’t result in a MVP campaign belongs to … Stafford himself, when he threw for 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns in 2011. The Lions were 10-6 that season, which shows how difficult it can be for even lofty numbers to produce an MVP vote. To get serious consideration, Stafford needs to keep those numbers up and, at the very least, win the NFC North. The final month of Detroit’s season includes high-profile home games against the Packers, Bucs and Vikings; if he sweeps those games, wins the division and ranks among the most productive quarterbacks in football, he has a chance here.

Tier 2 long shot: Jared Goff, QB, Rams

Last season was a course correction for Goff, who struggled mightily under pressure and posted his worst marks in most major passing categories under Sean McVay. I would expect Goff’s interception rate to improve after spiking to 2.6% a year ago. He also was unlucky with touchdowns; as Rich Hribar pointed out on Twitter, Goff had a league-high seven completions land on the opposition’s 1-yard line and then didn’t throw a touchdown on any of those subsequent drives.

Even without Todd Gurley and Brandin Cooks, Goff should still have some of the best weapons in football. If right tackle Rob Havenstein can return to his 2017-18 form after a disastrous 2019 campaign, the Rams also should do a better job of protecting their starter. You can take issue with his contract and/or suggest that they would be better with another quarterback under center, but that’s irrelevant for the purposes of this piece. Goff could be in line for a big season, and if that’s enough to win a crowded NFC West, that would push him right into MVP consideration.

Tier 3 long shot: Andy Dalton, QB, Cowboys

OK, let’s go for a real long shot here. It’s safer to pick a backup quarterback than it is to pick a non-quarterback to win this trophy, and if we’re looking at backups around the NFL, a few players stick out. John Wolford of the Rams is one. Guys such as Jameis Winston (Saints) and Nick Mullens (49ers) also come to mind if they were to get significant playing time.

The best candidate of the bunch, though, is Dalton. We’ve already seen his ceiling when he has help; the then-Bengals starter played at an MVP level in 2015, when he posted a passer rating of 106.2 and went 10-2 in his first 12 starts before going down with a broken thumb. The Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in football, and Dallas was third in my weapons rankings. If Dalton was called upon, he would have plenty of help.

Of course, the Cowboys aren’t about to bench Dak Prescott. It would take a September injury to Prescott for Dalton to get the sort of playing time and record the sort of yardage he would need to be a serious MVP candidate. If that happens and Dalton goes something like 12-1 as the starter while playing the way he did with the Bengals in 2015, he is going to compete with Patrick Mahomes & Co. for MVP.

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