[dt_divider style=”thick” /]The 2017 season saw notable players from both sides of the ball miss big chunks of the season, if not all of it, and you can come up with your own pro bowl roster with the list of names who finished the year on IR. In addition, players who normally have good seasons stumbled in 2017 and could look to bounce back and have a prosperous 2018. Here are your top 5 candidates for the award and why they should be considered the favorites, along with some under-the-radar candidates as well.
1. Aaron Rodgers, Quarterback, Green Bay Packers
How far the Green Bay Packers go rests on the arm, legs, and mind of Aaron Rodgers. His return from a shoulder injury in 2018 could put Green Bay back on top in their division. Joe Philbin, member of the Super Bowl winning team in 2010 and 15-1 team in 2011, returns as the offensive coordinator, which should help revitalize the offense. Tight ends Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis come in as new targets for Rodgers in the red zone, while Lewis adds a presence for in-line pass protection as well. Jordy Nelson is gone but the 2018 receiving prospects they drafted were focused on adding size and speed to the group. When plays breakdown, or just to add more time, Rodgers is at his best maneuvering outside the pocket and delivering an “I can’t believe that just happened” moment.
2. Odell Beckham, Jr., Wide Receiver, New York Giants
An ankle injury during the preseason sidelined Beckham for the first game of the 2017 regular season. After only playing in the next four games (contributing 302 receiving yards and three touchdowns), the Giants shut him down for the rest of the season, finishing 3-13 and firing of head coach Ben McAdoo. Hiring Pat Shurmur as the new head coach for the Giants adds offensive versatility and opportunities for Beckham to get the ball. Second-year tight end Evan Engram and third-year wideout Sterling Shepard alongside a healthy Beckham could make for a dangerous trio in 2018. Beckham should return to dominate if Eli Manning can stabilize his play in the new offense.
3. David Johnson, Running Back, Arizona Cardinals
David Johnson is ready and motivated to beat his 2016 numbers. Only LeGarrette Blount had more rushing touchdowns (18) while Johnson also finished seventh in rushing yards overall. He’s applauded the additions of Andre Smith and Justin Pugh to the offensive line and the run-heavy system being implemented by new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy. Johnson’s tackle-breaking ability along with his receiving ability will be nice to have, as it is important to keep Sam Bradford and rookie Josh Rosen (when he gets the nod) upright. There isn’t a doubt that Johnson will be the workhorse of this offense going forward.
4. Deshaun Watson, Quarterback, Houston Texans
A 2017 candidate for Rookie of the Year, Watson was taking the league by storm before suffering an ACL tear in practice. Through his first six starts, he completed nearly 63% of his passes, threw 18 touchdowns and just seven interceptions while contributing 253 yards and two more scores on the ground. His highly anticipated return to the field is no secret. Strengthening the offensive line through free agency and the draft should help Deshaun Watson elevate his game further in year two.
5. Jimmy Graham, Tight End, Green Bay Packers
Graham’s stay in Seattle didn’t work out as planned for either Graham or the Seahawks, as he eclipsed 100 receiving yards only four times in the three years he was there. In 2018, he will head to an offense that should utilize him and set him up favorably like how he was used in New Orleans. He will be an immediate threat in the red zone, plus he already has some experience on scrambling plays after seeing Russell Wilson do it.
Under the Radar Candidates
1. Dak Prescott, Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys still have a very good offensive line and Prescott is entering his third year under offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. The 2016 NFL rushing leader Ezekiel Elliott should see a full season in the backfield after missing six games in 2017 due to a league suspension, a big bonus. In the games without Elliott, Prescott threw for 1,146 yards, five touchdowns and 7 interceptions with a QB rating of 76.7. The selection of receiver Michael Gallup in the 2018 draft kept their quarterback and the offense in mind to allow Prescott to take the next step.
2. Cam Newton, Quarterback, Carolina Panthers
A new offense under Norv Turner that favors what Cam Newton loves to do – throw deep. A career passing percentage at 58%, Newton had his share of peaks and valleys the last two seasons. Turner would like to help him even it out, making Newton be more consistent, to possibly mimic how he performed during the Panthers Super Bowl run in 2015. A healthy and refined Newton with a healthy Greg Olson, and new receivers D.J. Moore and Torrey Smith, could get him back on track.
3. Richard Sherman, Cornerback, San Francisco 49ers
Having suffered a torn achilles in early November vs Arizona, Seattle felt it was the end and released the 3-time all pro corner in early March. Signing with San Francisco a day later, Sherman has familiarity with 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh from their time in Seattle. The Alpha dog for the San Francisco defense, he will be a teacher to this young secondary in a division he knows too well.
4. Eric Berry, Safety, Kansas City Chiefs
Berry’s 2017 season ended abruptly against New England in the season opener with rupturing his achilles. Berry has dealt with setbacks before and willed himself to a great season the following year. He came back stronger in 2012 after an ACL tear in 2011, and won the 2015 Comeback Player of the Year after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014. With his processing ability and coverage skills, it is possible for Berry to become the second player to win the award twice (Chad Pennington in 2006 and 2008).
5. Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, Los Angeles Rams
The stint in Miami could be forgotten, though he definitely still performed under the radar of much of the national. A change in scenery to the West Coast could help change that and Suh could thrive next to teammate Aaron Donald. Both players compliment each other as Donald has been a quarterback’s nightmare while Suh has been a force defending the run. A slight problem is having spent nearly all of his professional career in four-man fronts, there will be a learning curve for Suh in Los Angeles under Wade Phillips and his 3-down linemen scheme. Philips is Suh’s seventh defensive coordinator in the past six seasons. It will take effort from both coaches and players to get on the same page and to make the signing work. If it does, a 1-year deal in Hollywood could potentially mean a bigger contract for Suh in 2019.