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2018 MCM Awards

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The best of the Titans 2018 season as voted on by MCM’s staff.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Buffalo Bills Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Titans season was as up and down as any I can remember. There were extreme highs — the dramatic win over the Eagles, dominating the Patriots, sweeping the Jaguars (again), the four-game winning streak to get back into playoff contention — and there were extreme lows — the Bills and Dolphins losses, the embarrassing performance against the Ravens, getting swept by the Colts (again), another injury-marred season for Marcus Mariota...

As we try to make sense of what we just experienced over the past 17 weeks, the MCM staff got together to vote on some end-of-season awards. Because we believe in transparency here, we are sharing our ballots and then will talk a little bit about the winners.

MCM Awards Ballots

Writer MVP OPOY DPOY ROY Most Improved Biggest Disappointment Best Newcomer Coach of the Year
Writer MVP OPOY DPOY ROY Most Improved Biggest Disappointment Best Newcomer Coach of the Year
Morris Brown Henry Brown Evans Henry/Brown Lewis Vaccaro Pees
Lambert Casey Henry Brown Evans Henry Lewis Vaccaro Pees
Graver Casey Henry Ryan Evans Smith Matthews Vaccaro Pees
Herndon Casey Henry Brown Landry Davis Lewis Vaccaro McKenzie
Kinsley Davis Henry Casey Landry Brown LaFleur Landry Pees
Greenlaw Casey Henry Ryan Landry Brown Lewis Vaccaro McKenzie
Melo Brown Henry Brown Landry Davis Lewis Vaccaro McKenzie
Consensus Casey Henry Brown Landry Brown Lewis Vaccaro Pees

Most Improved Player

Winner: Jayon Brown

Others Receiving Votes: Derrick Henry (2), Corey Davis (2), Jonnu Smith (1)

Jayon Brown went from a promising role player during his rookie year to a box score stuffing star during his second season. He finished the season 2nd on the team in tackles (97), 2nd on the team in sacks (6), 2nd on the team in tackles for loss (8), 3rd on the team in quarterback hits (10), 5th on the team in passes defensed (6), and tied for the team lead in forced fumbles (2). Brown also had one of two Titans defensive touchdowns on the season. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 8th best linebacker in football. Each of those numbers represents a pretty major leap from Brown’s 2017 stats.

The 2017 5th round pick has been a massive value for Jon Robinson and appears to be trending towards a borderline Pro Bowl level linebacker as he heads into his third season.

Why I voted for Derrick Henry (Lambert): If you had told me that I’d be voting for Derrick Henry in this category at the start of December, I probably would have laughed in your face. Henry’s transformation began in his record-setting game against the Jaguars. His entire demeanor seemed to change during that game. Finally, we saw Henry do it in consecutive games. He came back with a fantastic performance in nasty conditions against the Giants, then strung two more games together to end the season against Washington and Indianapolis.

It was a Derrick Henry that we hadn’t consistently seen before. He ended 2018 in an all time high in confidence, working as the focal point of the offense. That’s an exciting thought heading into 2019. Let’s hope that continues.

Why I voted for Corey Davis (Herndon): Davis stood out to me as the most improved player. While he had his moments in his rookie season — the two touchdowns in the playoff game and the big debut against the Raiders come to mind — Davis really took off in 2018 despite less than favorable circumstances. He finished with 65 catches for 891 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the team in every significant receiving statistic. While those numbers aren’t incredible for a WR1, they’re pretty strong when you consider the context of having a quarterback that was banged up and in and out of the lineup all season as well as no other viable receiving threat to help take the pressure (and coverage) off of him. Davis was durable, playing all 16 games without injury despite the heavy workload, and he added in some excellent work as a blocker on top of his receiving contributions. This was a major step forward for the former 5th overall pick.

Why I voted for Jonnu Smith (Graver): Jonnu Smith was drafted by the Titans in the 3rd round of the 2017 draft with the expectation that he could learn from and be the heir apparent to Delanie Walker when Walker was ready to hang up the cleats. Many scouts actually compared Jonnu’s physical attributes to Walker himself. In 2017, he caught 18 passes in 16 games and was asked to block more than he was probably ready for. Then, an unfortunate season-ending injury to Walker in Week 1 of 2018 thrust Smith into the “TE1” role much sooner than anyone expected.

At the start of 2018, Smith was still struggling with his blocking, and he wasn’t a very reliable pass catcher either. But by the time he suffered his season-ending MCL injury, he had shown tremendous improvement in both areas. He finished his 13-game season with 20 receptions, including a few catches where he displayed excellent ability to break tackles and gain yards after the catch. Most importantly, his blocking had gone from a targetable weakness to a valuable asset. On the play that ended his season, it was Smith’s ability to block not one but TWO Jacksonville defenders that gave Henry the initial crease to famously make a 99-yard house call. While this award could be about who showed the most improvement from 2017 to 2018, I decided to vote for the guy I thought was most improved over the course of the 2018 season itself.

Biggest Disappointment

Winner(?): Dion Lewis

Others Receiving Votes: Matt LaFleur (1), Rishard Matthews (1)

The Titans signed Dion Lewis to a 4 year, $19.8M contract with $5.75M in guaranteed money in free agency and it seemed pretty clear early in the season that they viewed him as the 1A to Derrick Henry’s 1B in the backfield. Things didn’t work out very well for Lewis though. He finished the season with 155 carries for 517 yards (3.3 YPC) and 1 touchdown on the ground and 59 receptions for 400 yards (6.8 YPR) and 1 touchdown through the air.

Advanced stats were pretty unkind to Lewis as well. He finished 43rd out of 47 qualifying backs in Football Outsiders DVOA, 33rd out of 33 in successful rush rate, and 47th out of 63 in PFF grading. The only real statistic that Lewis graded out favorably in was PFF’s Elusive Rating where he ranked 10th among 27 qualifying backs.

Lewis’ 3.3 yards per carry was a full 1.1 yards per carry lower than his previous career low. By the end of the season he was relegated to a 3rd down back role behind a surging Derrick Henry. This certainly wasn’t the season the Titans envisioned from Lewis when they signed him back in March.

Why I voted for Matt LaFleur (Kinsley): I had pretty high expectations for LaFleur considering he worked with Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan in the past, and while he was an unknown before the season (this was his first real season as a play caller), I felt confident in him being a boost for the Titans. And while the scheme and play calling are better than the Mike Mularkey days, the consistency of the play calling was all over the place, ranging from aggressive vertical highs to suffocatingly conservative lows.

If LaFleur does stay in Tennessee in 2019, perhaps he needs another receiver or two to truly show what he can bring to the Titans offense, as well as an offensive line that actually has competent guard play.

Why I voted for Rishard Matthews (Graver): I went outside the box with this pick, because I’m not sure a player who is no longer with the team is even eligible to “win” this award. To me, Rishard Matthews was responsible for the single most disappointing non-injury-related development of the 2018 season. Matthews underwent offseason surgery, but no one expected his abilities to drop off to the extent that they did. I remember being excited when he was back on the practice field catching passes in late August.

Matthews was a part of the group of pass catchers that traveled to Southern California to work out with Marcus Mariota back in March of last year, and he was expected to be a huge piece of the passing attack this season as the compliment to Corey Davis. When Delanie Walker went down in Week 1, Matthews’ role as Mariota’s go-to receiver (Mariota once called him “Mr. Reliable and Mr. Consistent”) became even more important. However, three weeks into the season, when he hadn’t received as many targets or snaps as he thought he deserved, Matthews requested his release from the team despite signing a one-year contract extension earlier in the offseason.

I don’t harbor any resentment for Matthews, but I was decidedly disappointed in the state of his physical abilities, in his attitude as a teammate, and most of all, in his decision that ultimately left the Titans’ pass-catching corps extremely inexperienced, depleted, and pretty limited overall. Had the Titans gotten the 2016 or 2017 version of Matthews, who knows what the offense would’ve looked like this season, and that is why I felt that he was deserving of the biggest disappointment award for 2018.

Best Newcomer

Winner: Kenny Vaccaro

Others Receiving Votes: Harold Landry (1)

Vaccaro didn’t have a huge season statistically. He finished with 58 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, 4 passes defensed, and 1 interception. However, the numbers don’t fully explain the impact that the former 1st round pick had in Tennessee. He missed 3 games due to an elbow injury during the season and the Titans lost all three. In games that Vaccaro started, Tennessee was 9-4.

Vaccaro was a tone setter on defense, delivering hard hits and playing with a near maniacal level of effort on a play to play basis. His diverse skill set also gave Dean Pees an interchangeable set of safeties to work with (a defensive coordinator’s dream) as Vaccaro and Kevin Byard could both play near the line of scrimmage or range deep over the middle as needed.

Vaccaro will likely be the top priority among the Titans expiring contracts this offseason. Whether they can find a way to bring him back will be interesting.

Why I voted for Harold Landry (Kinsley): Only five quarterbacks got put on the Honor Roll in 2018, but Landry has already proven himself as a force inside this Titans’ pass rush. Landry led the Titans defense in quarterback hits in his rookie season, collecting 14 QB hits. His bend is also beautiful, helping him create heavy pressure even in games where he doesn’t collect sacks or hits (see Week 2 against the Texans).

Simply put, Landry gives the Titans defense an edge they badly needed on the pass rush. Here’s hoping it gets more explosive in 2019.

Rookie of the Year

Winner: Harold Landry

Others Receiving Votes: Rashaan Evans (3)

Landry finished the season with 44 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and 14 quarterback hits (most on the team), almost immediately becoming the Titans best edge rusher. His speed rush was as advertised, helping him rack up 34 pressures over the course of the season. While Landry will need to continue to add counters as his career continues, that speed rush is a tool that will be a problem for opposing tackles for years to come.

The Titans 2018 2nd round pick finished the season strong after taking over a starting position for the final three weeks due to an injury to Brian Orakpo. In those three games as a starter Landry had 6 quarterback hits and 2 sacks. If he can build on that momentum this offseason, he has a chance to really break out in 2019.

Why I voted for Rashaan Evans (Graver): Harold Landry was the Titans best edge defender all season, but I felt that Rashaan Evans became more important to the team’s defense as the year progressed. The run defense was severely lacking during Wesley Woodyard’s absence early in the season when Evans was still figuring things out after missing nearly all of training camp with a hamstring injury. But over the final 7 games of the year, Evans was in the Titans top-three graded players on defense according to PFF 5 different times. He made several key stops, most notably the 4th-and-goal tackle of Leonard Fournette that led to Henry’s 99-yard touchdown, and down the stretch I thought he performed more consistently than Harold Landry, even though I felt Landry was very promising in his own right. This was a tough call ultimately, and I’m happy to say I had trouble choosing a rookie of the year for the Titans. The future is bright for both of these players (and Dane Cruikshank, too, for that matter).

Coach of the Year

Winner: Dean Pees

Others Receiving Votes: Tyrone McKenzie (3)

The Titans defense really took off in 2018 under Dean Pees. They finished 3rd in scoring defense, 8th in yards allowed, and 2nd in red zone defense. The truly impressive thing about Pees’ contribution was that they achieved all that success without a natural pass rush. The Titans pass rushers really struggled to win one-on-one matchups outside of Jurrell Casey and sometimes Harold Landry. Instead, Pees was relied on to dial up pressures using an array of well-disguised blitzes. He managed to do just that without consistently getting burned on the back end (the Titans allowed the 11th lowest explosive pass rate in the NFL per Sharp Football Stats).

Why I voted for Tyrone McKenzie (Melo): We can all agree that the Titans defense was the backbone of the team this year, and I’m of the opinion that no position group performed better on that side of the ball than the inside linebackers. McKenzie joined the Titans from the Rams this year and did a great job. Wesley Woodyard continued to play at a high level in his age-32 season. Jayon Brown took a giant step forward under McKenzie this year and looks like an All-Pro in the making. I mean, Brown lead the team in sacks with 6 and almost single handedly sent the Titans to the playoffs thanks to his two turnovers forced and defensive touchdown in a crucial week 17 showdown with the Colts. Last but not least, rookie Rashaan Evans, despite getting off to a slow start due to injury played completely out of his mind during the second half of the season. How strong he came on towards the end of the season is another bright spot for McKenzie in his debut season with the Titans. If Dean Pees is truly considering retirement, I believe McKenzie would be an excellent choice as the defensive coordinator for next season. For all the reasons above, he gets my vote for Titans coach of the year.

Defensive Player of the Year

Winner: Jayon Brown

Others Receiving Votes: Logan Ryan (2), Jurrell Casey (1)

Brown’s stats were great (as listed above), but the reason he won this award was his consistency. Guys like Jurrell Casey and Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan also had great years on this defense, but Brown was an impact player on defense virtually every week. Whether he was batting away a pass, sacking a quarterback, or hauling down a back behind the line of scrimmage, Brown showed up with a big play constantly during 2018.

Why I voted for Logan Ryan (Graver): Jayon Brown was outstanding in his second season, but Logan Ryan was the MVP of the defense in my opinion. Some of this is due to his leadership abilities in the locker room and influence over the other defensive backs, but most of it is due to his play on the field. Logan Ryan led the DBs in sacks with 4 on the season (5th on the team overall) to contribute to the team’s record-breaking season in terms of DB sacks. His coverage was outstanding most of the year, as he ranked #9 in the NFL in separation yards allowed, 12th in yards per reception allowed, and 19th in yards per target allowed, all team-bests, and he finished fourth on the team in total tackles despite missing the final two games of the year. He generally erased opposing slot receivers, which was a crucial part of the defense’s outstanding performance on 3rd downs and in the red zone. All of that combined with Ryan’s underrated contributions in run support made him the MVP of the defense to me, and his absence was noticeable over the final two games of the season.

Why I voted for Jurrell Casey (Kinsley): Jayon Brown, Harold Landry, Rashaan Evans, and Kevin Byard are quality players, but Jurrell Casey is the bread and butter of this Titans defense. The defense in Week 17 only mustered one sack and two quarterback hits on Andrew Luck on the night without Casey, so his impact was sorely missed.

Casey’s smooth athleticism has always been pleasing to the eye since he arrived in Nashville, and his quick hip movement in particular stands out. The four-time Pro Bowler collected seven sacks, eight tackles for loss and 11 quarterback hits in his eighth season in the league, and he’s still one of the top defensive tackles in football.

Offensive Player of the Year

Winner: Derrick Henry

Others Receiving Votes: None

This was our only unanimous selection and it’s hard to make an argument for anyone else. Derrick Henry’s season started slow. Prior to the Titans Week 8 bye, Henry had 84 carries for 273 yards for an average of 3.25 yards per carry (ranked 47th out of 50 backs with at least 40 carries to that point). After the bye, Henry carried 131 times for 786 yards for an average of 6.00 yards per carry (ranked 1st out of 34 backs with at least 70 carries over that stretch).

When the Titans turned to Henry as their lead back in December (or D-Henber as I like to call it), he blew up for 625 yards on 97 carries and 8 touchdowns. If he could translate that month to a 16-game season he would rush for 2,000 yards and 26 touchdowns.

The story of Eddie George’s talk with Henry is now legendary, but if you haven’t read Jim Wyatt’s article about it yet, you should check it out here. Henry was a monster down the stretch and should enter 2019 as the Titans unquestioned lead back.

MVP

Winner: Jurrell Casey

Others Receiving Votes: Jayon Brown (2), Corey Davis (1)

Jurrell Casey has been the Titans best player for years and that didn’t change in 2018, though there were some challengers. Casey finished with 62 tackles, 7 sacks (best on the team), 11 tackles for loss (best on the team), and 11 quarterback hits (2nd on the team) despite missing the final game of the season with a knee injury. Casey finished 17th among interior defenders in PFF’s pass rush productivity metric and tied for 8th in run stop rate.

For his efforts, Casey was selected for his 4th consecutive Pro Bowl appearance, most in the Titans era. He also lives up to the billing of “most valuable” here as his interior pass rushing was irreplaceable for Tennessee. Casey may be underappreciated nationally, but Titans fans know what that guy means to their team.

Why I voted for Jayon Brown (Morris): This might be recency bias because of how good Brown was in the week 17 game against the Colts. We talked heading into that game about how the Titans were going to need someone to step up and play the game of their life. That is exactly what Brown did against the Colts, and you could argue that he was the only player on the team that was consistent for the whole season. It’s an absolute travishamockery that he didn’t make the Pro Bowl.

Why I voted for Corey Davis (Kinsley): You’re probably wondering how we got here. Well, Corey Davis happens to be the only consistent receiving threat on the Titans, and he took a huge step in his sophomore season, catching 65 passes for 891 yards (13.7 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. He only fumbled once all season (not lost), and his game-winning catches against the Eagles and Jets highlight how valuable he is regardless of the situation.

Davis’ quickness after the catch point is underrated; he has an incredible combination of burst and vision as soon as the ball is in his hands, and his vertical skills are also that of quality. Derrick Henry probably had a more explosive season, but Davis kept showing up for the Titans when they needed him the most, and receivers are more valuable than running backs in my book.