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Peter King’s picks for NFL MVP, coach, rookie of year, more

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The awards are always difficult. They could be painful this year, because four incredibly strong candidates—Drew Brees (MVP), Pete Carroll (coach), J.J. Watt (Comeback Player) and Ryan Pace (Executive)—all could fall short though they have excellent cases for the highest honors in their fields.

The Associated Press hands ballots to 50 voters in the football media for the annual awards, which will be announced Saturday night, Feb. 2, in Atlanta, the night before the Super Bowl. The NFL awards are basically all-or-nothing deals: voters are asked to pick one man in each category. I don’t do that all the time; I’ve split my vote on many occasions for certain awards.

A word about the MVP, which is the Holy Grail of the awards. The voting has not been close since 2005, when Shaun Alexander beat Peyton Manning 19 votes to 13. Since then, the winner has had an edge of at least 10 votes each year. I have no idea whether this year will be close or a runaway, but there are certainly two deserving candidates—Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Saints QB Drew Brees.

We’ll start there.

MVP: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City

The late Paul Zimmerman left me with one indelible lesson: “USE YOUR EYES! What did you see!” What I saw watching the game this season was Mahomes, a 23-year-old kid, an electric kid, taking over a division champion when incumbent Alex Smith was traded, playing like he belonged from the first series of the season, outplaying Philip Rivers on the road in Week 1, outplaying Ben Roethlisberger on the road in Week 2, throwing a left-handed desperation pass completion on third-and-five at Denver on the winning late drive in Week 4, going toe-to-toe with Tom Brady and surviving a bad first half in a 43-40 loss in Week 6, hiccupping at the Rams in the bizarre 54-51 November loss, and then willing his team to beat the formidable Ravens in Week 14.

But nothing is easy in this MVP season. In the last four weeks, I had the following leaders: Brees (Week 13), Mahomes (Week 14), Brees/Mahomes tied (Week 15), Mahomes (Week 16). The difference? Paper thin. Brees threw only three touchdown passes in the Saints’ last five games (he sat out the fifth), and New Orleans looked mortal offensively in every Brees game after Thanksgiving, against Dallas, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Pittsburgh. (Teddy Bridgewater played Sunday against Carolina.)

Finally, there’s the matter of touchdown passes. Mahomes 50, Brees 32. That matters. It’s unfortunate that Brees, who turns 40 in two weeks, has never won the MVP, because he’s one of the best quarterbacks of all time. I struggled with this decision Saturday, going over data and simply thinking about it for a while. The leadership of Brees has to be factored, too; there are few more respected players than Brees. Anyone who votes for Brees gets no guff from me, because he’s just had the most accurate passing season ever, and he is the keystone to the team with the best record of the regular season. That matters too. But my eyes saw the explosive and exciting Mahomes as the better player this year, slightly, and he gets my vote.

Next: 2. Drew Brees, 3. Philip Rivers.

Coach: Matt Nagy, Chicago

Some strong contenders here, but I like the impact of Nagy. The Bears in the four years pre-Nagy: 5-11, 6-10, 3-13, 5-11. GM Ryan Pace hired Nagy in January from Kansas City, and he won more games than any first-year coach ever in franchise history (including George Halas with the pre-Bear 10-1-2 Decatur Staleys in 1920). Nagy did a smart thing in hiring a smart coach he didn’t know and empowering him—offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich—to help Mitchell Trubisky grow. We don’t know if Trubisky’s going to be really good, but Nagy did an excellent job of managing Trubisky and hiding his weaknesses.

Two things put me over the top with Nagy. After the devastating opening-night loss in Green Bay, he kept the team together, and the Bears won the next three (by an 88-41 count) to establish he knew what he was doing. And I loved what he did in a stunning OT loss to the Giants in New Jersey in Week 13: Down seven in the last 10 seconds, he called a double reverse/halfback pass, and Tarik Cohen threw the tying pass to send the game to overtime. Chicago lost, but I love a coach who’s willing to put the game in such a risky scenario because he’s so confident in his players. Doug Pederson did it with Trey Burton and Nick Foles in the Super Bowl; Matt Nagy did it with Tarik Cohen and Anthony Miller with home-field in the playoffs on the line. That’s good coaching.

Next: 2. Anthony Lynn, T-3. Pete Carroll and Frank Reich. 

Offensive Player: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City

A phenom. First-year starter. Threw more touchdown passes in a season than Tom Brady, Dan Marino, John Elway and anyone not named Peyton Manning ever did. There will be a 30-for-30 made about this Mahomes season one day.

Next: 2. DeAndre Hopkins, 3. Drew Brees.

Defensive Player: Aaron Donald, L.A. Rams

Hard to imagine a player—without a training camp, with a slew of new defensive mates to get accustomed—having a better year on the fly than Donald. Once he got used to his surroundings, Donald had 16.5 sacks in his last 10 games, and threatened Michael Strahan’s NFL sack record of 22.5. Donald finished with 20.5.

Next: 2. Fletcher Cox, 3. Khalil Mack.

Comeback Player: J.J. Watt, Houston

Watt overcame three years of injuries to be back to dominant form this year. In 2015, he played with a torn groin, a broken hand and a herniated disc. In 2016, he missed most of the year with surgery on the herniated disc. In 2017, he suffered a tibial plateau fracture, necessitating a risky surgery, with no guarantee he’d be able to play at the same level. His 14.5 sacks were impressive enough. The best thing for him and the Texans: He played dominating football for 16 games. The Andrew Luck comeback would win in almost any other year, but after being hurt for three years and returning to form, Watt seems the better pick to me.

Next: 2. Andrew Luck, 3. Marshal Yanda.

Offensive Rookie: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland

If stats alone determined the winner here, Saquon Barkley would be the pick, with his seven 100-yard games and four games with nine receptions or more … and also putting up the third season ever of 2,000 scrimmage yards by a rookie. But this one’s about stats and impact. Mayfield was The Man from the day he got drafted, and he willed the Browns from 0-16 to a stunning 7-8-1 record. He threw more touchdown passes, 27, than any rookie passer in history. And get this: The number one defense in football, Baltimore, gave up 300 yards passing only three times all season. The list: Patrick Mahomes, 377; Baker Mayfield, 376; Baker Mayfield, 342.

This was an incredibly successful season for the Browns. And it was Mayfield, who was a top-five quarterback in the league in passer rating in the second half of the year, at the center of it.

Next: 2. Saquon Barkley, 3. Quenton Nelson.

Defensive Rookie: Derwin James, L.A. Chargers

A thumper from day one, with 16 sacks/hits/hurries (second only to Jamal Adams among NFL safeties), James also held quarterbacks to a rating under 70 when thrown at. When I think of James, I think of two things. He’s precociously aggressive for a rookie. And he reminds me of a more lithe Troy Polamalu. James had to be really good to beat out NFL tackles leader Darius Leonard.

Next: 2. Darius Leonard, 3. Leighton Vander Esch.

Executive: Chris Ballard, Indianapolis

A tougher call for me than MVP. Ryan Pace picked the right coach (Matt Nagy), re-signed the right corner (a dubiously received deal with the underachieving Kyle Fuller), and made the trade of the year (for Khalil Mack). But think of Ballard’s year. He fires Chuck Pagano. He makes a deal with Josh McDaniels to be his coach, trusting McDaniels so much that he agree to hire three McDaniels-approved assistants—and then McDaniels decides to stay in New England after the Super Bowl. The musical chairs are full. No top-prospect coaches left. Ballard settles on a guy who had zero interest from any other teams when the coach carousel was spinning, Frank Reich of the Eagles. Then the draft. Knowing he wanted to build a fortress around Andrew Luck, Ballard picked a long-term guard (Quenton Nelson) in round one and long-term tackle (Braden Smith) in round two. He got two other starters in round two for the D: the leading tackler in the league, linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis. Sixth-round wideout Deon Cain went on IR in the summer or he could have been another star. All in all, this was a great year for Ballard.

Next: 2. Ryan Pace, 3. John Dorsey.

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Two teams are set to dominate the 2019 NFL Draft: Patriots and…the Raiders?

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The owner of the 2019 NFL Draft? Oakland, with rookie GM Mike Mayock, who counts Bill Belichick as one of his best friends in football.

The power broker, potentially, of the 2019 NFL Draft? New England, which will have the ammo to move up, down and sideways—and Belichick has always loved wheeling and dealing on draft weekend.

The Raiders have four picks in the top 35. The Patriots have one pick in the top 55. But that’s a misleading part of the story. There’s great depth in this draft from pick 25 to 100 and even deeper, some scouts at the Senior Bowl thought. So there could be fine value in the Patriot picks when they are slated to choose five times in a 45-pick span from 56 to 101.

Raiders and Patriots picks in the top 110 overall choices of the draft, as of today:

• New England: 1st round, 32nd overall; 2-56; 2-64; 3-73; 3-97^; 3-101^

• Oakland: 1st round, 4th overall; 1-24; 1-27; 2-35; 3-66; 4-106

^ Projected compensatory picks for the losses of Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler in free agency, as calculated by Over the Cap’s Nick Korte.

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Bengals coach Zac Taylor has had no time to process the Rams’ crushing Super Bowl LIII loss

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Don’t you always wonder what it’s like for a man to coach in the Super Bowl, then, a day or two later, get introduced as the new coach of Team X? It’s crazy. Happened twice last week. The Patriots found it odd that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was in their Atlanta lobby at 9 a.m. Monday, 5.5 hours after the Super Bowl victory party ended, to ferry new coach Brian Flores (ex-Patriots defensive coordinator) to south Florida to be introduced as coach Monday afternoon. Zac Taylor had a few more hours to get his family to Cincinnati. The former Rams quarterback coach’s introductory press conference was Tuesday.

So it was interesting to hear Taylor’s reaction over the weekend when I asked him: “How disappointing was it to play the way your offense played in the Super Bowl?”

“I haven’t had a chance to process it, quite honestly,” he said from Cincinnati. “There just hasn’t been time. I haven’t watched the game. Honestly, I’m conflicted. It’s devastating to work so hard to get to the championship game, and for your entire team to pour everything they’ve got into it, and then to lose like that.

“But five or six hours after the game, I’m on a plane to Cincinnati, on the way to fulfill a dream I’ve had for so long—to be a head coach in the NFL. And then your brain goes there. It’s just … it’s just the way it is, and you’ve got to turn the page.”

There was some discomfort in his voice, bordering on pain. It’s easy to sit back and say, Buck up, buddy. You’re about to make millions to coach a football team. True, but if you’ve been a football coach for a while, and you help your team get to the Super Bowl, regardless of the outcome, it’s got to be odd to just walk out the door a few hours after the biggest game of all of your lives, no time to process or adjust, and you move on while everyone else wallows.

One other question. I asked Taylor if he’d had much of a chance to consider how close the Rams came to taking a lead with four minutes left in the third quarter, when Jason McCourty, panic-stricken, ran 20 yards in 2.4 seconds (per NFL Next Gen Stats) to bat a decisive touchdown away from Brandin Cooks in the back of the end zone. If Jared Goff was a millisecond quicker with his throw, the touchdown would have given LA a 7-3 lead and put huge pressure on New England. Instead, the Rams settled for a field goal to tie it, 3-3.

Taylor: Sigh.

“In football, you just miss by inch sometimes,” he said. “You can be an inch from … “

Sigh again.

“That’s football in a nutshell. That’s football.”

I thought that would be it from Taylor, but he brightened, as his mentor Sean McVay would have. Taylor continued, “Criticism, pressure, adversity. We want our staff and our players to understand that this is the NFL. This is why you do this job. The energy, the camaraderie, can’t be duplicated, except maybe at the craps table in Vegas when you’re on a roll.”

The Bengals have needed some energy, and an offensive spur. I’m looking forward to seeing what Taylor can provide.

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