Before the start of the NFL playoffs, awards for regular-season achievements need to be given. And below are NFL awards like you've never seen before.
Firstly, to be eligible any of the below distinctions, a player must have been part of the 2018, 2019, or 2020 draft classes (or an undrafted free agent any of those years). Why? As a young NFL player analyst, they're all part of my niche. I remember scouting all of these players for CBS Sports as they were entering the NFL and have followed their pro careers more closely than most.
Also too, I'm not handing out MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. These Young superlatives are more specific, both by name and positions for which they honor. Let's get to it.
Most Improved Quarterback: Josh Allen, Bills
I'll start with awarding a slam dunk winner -- Allen was the most improved player in all of football, raising his accuracy percentage from 71.7% (30th place) to 79.1% (6th) all while attempting the ninth-most passes of at least 20 yards in the NFL (68).
And with Allen, in every single game, his monumental growth from where he was in his first two seasons was palpable. He routinely threaded the needle from the pocket through passing lanes the vast majority of quarterbacks wouldn't dare throw the football and created chunk plays for Buffalo's offense out of structure all while efficiently running as a last resort. His deep-ball accuracy improved, as did his decision-making, and with the addition of Stefon Diggs, Allen had more passing yards than Aaron Rodgers (4,544 vs. 4,299) and more total touchdowns than Patrick Mahomes (46 vs. 40).
Most Improved Skill-Position Player: Falcons WR Russell Gage
Gage had the quietest 700-plus yard receiving season in NFL history in 2020. No one outside of Falcons fans seemed to notice. Well, the Young Player Superlative Committee sure did. While we know what we're getting with Gage -- gadget, possession wideout -- there's nothing to be ashamed about with that role.
Because Gage wasn't strictly schemed to 786 yards. He displayed lightning-quick agility and good contact balance to absorb hits and continue forward. Gage's yards-after-the-catch-per-reception average went from 3.3 in 2019 to 4.0 this season, and he forced 11 missed tackles after forcing just six during his second year in the NFL.
Most Valuable Undrafted Rookie: Jaguars RB James Robinson
Because everything about the Jaguars 2020 season was focused on obtaining the No. 1 overall pick and the team lost 15-straight contests after winning in Week 1, Robinson's legendary rookie campaign was pushed into the shadows. He went from undrafted to top 10 in yards from scrimmage in his debut NFL campaign. Ridiculous.
And Robinson didn't do it behind a tremendous offensive line. Robinson averaged a robust 3.18 yards after contact per rush on his 240 touches and forced a respectable 34 missed tackles. He ran with spry, low-center of gravity juice on every handoff, always seemed to find the cutback lane just as it materialized, and powered through weak arm-tackle attempts. Truly, Robinson looked much more dynamic than he was during his illustrious career at Illinois State where he succeeded seemingly with vision more than anything else.
Also too, Robinson was outstanding in the passing game, a must for backs in today's NFL. He caught 49 of his 56 targets and averaged nearly the same yards after the catch per reception as pass-catching specialist Duke Johnson (8.1 vs. 8.2)
Most Valuable Former Undrafted Rookie: Rams CB Darious Williams
While Jalen Ramsey was locking down opposing No. 1 receivers, Williams was doing similarly stingy things to No. 2 wideouts each week. Despite a final season at UAB with five picks and 15 pass breakups, Williams went undrafted but played like a first-round pick in 2020.
On 68 targets, Williams surrendered just two touchdowns but counteracted those negative plays with four interceptions and 14 pass breakups. One of his interceptions of Russell Wilson was a demonstration of his awareness to peel off a route in zone and make a play. The other three picks showed how explosive Williams can be when breaking on the ball -- two were on out-breaking routes near the sideline, the other was on a post route against the Eagles that Williams cut underneath and snagged in the end zone.
Ramsey deserves all the praise he gets. But Williams too is a vital aspect of Los Angeles' strong defense.
Blitzing LB of the Year: Devin White, Buccaneers
Second Team: Patrick Queen, Ravens
White blitzed as ferociously in his second season as it did in his final year at LSU in 2018. He registered 31 pressures on 109 pass-rushing snaps, which equates to a ridiculous pressure-creation rate of 28.4% given that amount of attempts to get after the quarterback.
At 6-foot and 237 pounds with 4.42 speed and a 39 1/2-inch vertical, White is a large, heat-seeking missile and is very deserving of this award.
Coverage LB of the Year: Fred Warner, 49ers
Coverage is the most critical job responsibility for a linebacker in today's NFL. And Warner, San Francisco's third-round pick out of BYU in 2018, has a legitimate case as the best coverage linebacker in the league regardless of age or draft class.
Fluid athletically with amazing route-recognition skills, Warner defended six passes and picked off two other throws in 16 games during the regular season. Whether it was running with tight ends down the seam, or drifting to find the football in zone, Warner was the most impactful linebacker in coverage I watched this season.
Most Efficient Pass-Rushing Edge: Brian Burns, Panthers
Second Team: Bradley Chubb, Broncos
Burns flashed as a rookie, and like the case for him when he entered the league out of Florida State as a first-round pick in 2019, he simply needed to add weight/strength to complete his game as an edge rusher. And boy did he ever do that in his sophomore NFL campaign.
Burns pressured the opposing quarterback 57 times on just 418 pass-rushing snaps. That's tremendous production. He was downright unblockable during a four-game stretch in the middle of his second season with 21 pressures and finished with 10 in his final two games. From his burst, to his bend, to his pass-rushing moves, and now his bull rush, Burns is on the upswing as one of the league's most devastating edge rushers.
Nastiest Run-Stuffing DL: Quinnen Williams, Jets
Williams was nearly invisible as a rookie, then went bananas as a sophomore with the Jets. He was outstanding as a pass-rusher, and that's how and where he deservedly received most notoriety. Williams was just as good -- if not better -- halting the run with a blend of quickness, jolting hand work, and a large reliable, tackling radius on the interior.
The No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 class led the all defensive linemen with 38 stops -- tackles that constitute a "loss" for the offense based on down and distance. It didn't appear to be the case after his rookie year, but Williams emerged as a foundational defensive piece for the Jets as they being their rebuilding process this offseason.
Rookie WR of the Year: Justin Jefferson, Vikings
There were plenty of quality rookie seasons turned in by pass catchers. None compared to what Jefferson did with the Vikings. The fifth wideout picked in the 2020 draft finished with 1,400 yards, breaking Anquan Boldin's post-merger record for rookie receiving yards.
At 6-1 and 202 pounds with spindly legs, Jefferson is a fascinating watch because he jukes defenders like he's a squatty running back. His 13 forced missed tackles were the 11th-highest among receivers in the NFL. Jefferson is a violent route runner too. He consistently got open for Kirk Cousins and rocked in contested-catch scenarios when he wasn't able to shake defensive backs down the field. The latter is not surprising given what he did at LSU in 2019, when he hauled in 12 of his 13 contested-catch opportunities from Joe Burrow.
Jefferson proved to be an instant superstar.
Sophomore WR of the Year: A.J. Brown, Titans
Second Team: D.K. Metcalf, Seahawks
This was a difficult selection. Brown got my pick for this distinction because of his consistency throughout the season and the fact that he demonstrated more of a well-rounded performance throughout the year. He forced 17 missed tackles on 70 receptions. Is that good? Well, Stefon Diggs forced 20 on 127 catches. Cooper Kupp led the league with 21 on 92 grabs. So, yeah, 17 on 70 catches is elite running back type elusiveness.
Brown's 6.2 yards after the catch per reception average was the highest among wideouts with at least 60 grabs. His game against the Ravens, when he forced seven missed tackles on just four grabs gave me flashbacks of him at Ole Miss against a non-conference opponent. Brown also had five outings with at least a 20.0 yard-per-grab average. At nearly 6-1 and 226 pounds with 4.49 speed, Brown has such a unique physical skill set.
Third-Year WR of the Year: Calvin Ridley, Falcons
Second Team: D.J. Moore, Panthers
During a season in which Julio Jones labored through injury and limited to just nine games, Ridley took over as Atlanta's No. 1 wideout and thrived, believe it or not. Ridley led the NFL with 16 receptions on passes made 20 or more yards down the field and impressive forced 12 missed tackles on his 90 receptions.
It didn't matter the cornerback or which type of defense he faced -- Ridley was a reliable, big-play option for Matt Ryan. He had eight 100-plus yard receiving games. A lot of people -- including me -- believed the former first-round pick's previous production was mostly thanks to playing opposite Jones and facing No. 2 cornerbacks.
He proved that not to be the case with his 1,347-yard, nine touchdown-grab masterpiece in 2020.
Most Valuable Blocker: Buccaneers OT Tristan Wirfs
Second Team: Michael Onwenu, Patriots
Wirfs has a legitimate case to be an NFL All Pro this season. He was that dominant -- especially in the second half of the season -- at right tackle for the Buccaneers. He allowed only one sack of Tom Brady and 22 total pressures on 702 pass-blocking snaps.
His run-blocking wasn't as studly, but Wirfs rocked against a nearly unfair gamut of edge rushers -- Cam Jordan (2x), Bradley Chubb, Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Brian Burns (2x) and Frank Clark. The overwhelmingly strong, superb athlete held down the right side about as well as any team could hope from a first-year blocker.
Lockdown CB of the Year: Packers CB Jaire Alexander
Second Team: Denzel Ward, Browns
Alexander is another honoree here who had an All Pro season. Often responsible for press man coverage in Mike Pettine's ultra-aggressive defense against the opposition's No. 1 receiver, Alexander allowed two touchdowns but had a pick and 13 pass breakups. That's an outrageous stat line for a man-coverage boundary corner on 563 pass-coverage snaps.
The first-round pick in 2019 was a feisty, in-your-face corner at Louisville and has played exactly the same way during his first three seasons in Green Bay. He has defended 41 passes in the regular season in that time frame.
Do-Everything S of the Year: Jessie Bates, Bengals
Bates is deserving of an All Pro distinction like Alexander. Despite Cincinnati's defensive troubles for most of the year, their third-year safety roamed the second and third levels unlike any other at his position. The former third-round pick registered his third-straight 100-plus tackle season and had three picks just like he had in 2018 and 2019. Bates defended 15 passes while only allowing one touchdown in his target area.
The athletic and instinctive Bates has become the best pure free safety in the game, and he makes his presence felt in the run game on a weekly basis.
All advanced statistics courtesy of TruMedia unless otherwise noted*