Monday, January 7, 2008

2007 Regular Season Awards (1/7/2008)

Here are my Patriots awards for the 2007 regular season. I always like to recognize how the players improve from year-to-year, and going from 12-4 to 16-0 means someone must have played better. Given that first year players only sporadically make significant contributions to the team, and there were very few (if any) impact rookies this year, I renamed the "rookie of the year" award "newcomer of the year."

The Offense

Most Valuable Offensive Player: Tom Brady
Honorable Mention: Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk, The O-Line

Brady set a new NFL record for touchdown passes in a season (50), and oversaw an offense that set a new standard for points in one year (589). He's won 77.3% of his regular season starts and 87.5% of his playoff starts, and he was so good this year, the Patriots had the fewest punts in the league (44). But perhaps most important this year is the effect he had on Randy Moss. Moss was a lost football player in Oakland, but many have reported that he has been reborn in no small part due to Brady's calm and focused personality. Brady's won this award from me four other times, and this was his best year yet. He won the NFL MVP over the weekend, so this choice was easy for me.

Moss set an NFL record for touchdown receptions in a season (23), and gave Brady a deep threat he's never had. Welker set the Patriots record for receptions in a season (112) and was invaluable in keeping the chains moving with third-down catches. And with the talent upgrade at receiver, Kevin Faulk played a lot more as the offense went four- and five-wide a lot. That put more pressure on Faulk and the O-Line to handle the complex blitzes and screen calls, and they all handled the job well enough to help Brady set a career low in sacks (21).

Most Improved Offensive Player: Kevin Faulk
Honorable Mention: Jabar Gaffney

Faulk's stats are better than last year, but it's really in the amount of time he was on the field and how often he made the right play just when the Patriots needed it. His uncanny knack for squeezing out that one more yard for the first down or crossing the formation to pick up a corner blitz kept drives alive all year. He was almost offensive lineman-like, in that the less you heard about him, the better he was doing his job. He also had twice as many carries, yards, and first downs as he did in 2006.

Not only did Gaffney defy the odds to stay on the team, he started seven of the last eight games this year. He also notched 36 catches (up from 11 in 2006), 5 touchdowns (1), and 21 first downs (9).

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Randy Moss
Honorable Mention: Wes Welker

What don't you know about Moss already? How about that 75.5% of his catches went for first downs. And here are his stats for the 2007 season (as compared to his time in Oakland): 98 receptions (102), 1493 yards (1558), 23 touchdowns (11), 9 catches of 40+ yards (5), and 74 first downs (75). Oh, and in case you didn't remember, those Oakland numbers are for *two* seasons, not one.

What don't you know about Welker already? Perhaps that in addition to being a receiver, punt returner, and kickoff returner, Welker (Mr. Versatility) has also kicked a field goal in the NFL. He hit a 29-yarder in 2004, so if Stephen Gostkowski goes down, the team is all set :)

The Defense

Most Valuable Defensive Player: Vince Wilfork
Honorable Mention: Mike Vrabel

Why Vince over Mike? It was a real toss-up between those two, but when I checked all my updates for the year, there were several games where I thought Vrabel was sub-par, whereas Wilfork was a model of consistency. Apparently Vince lost some weight in the off-season (at his wife's urging), and it showed in his quickness. He had 36 tackles and 2 sacks, and had a career game against the Steelers -- when he recorded 7 tackles and was all over the field (even running down a ball-carrier at the sideline, almost unheard of for a nose tackle in the 3-4). He made his first Pro Bowl this year, and if he keeps the weight off, it could be the first of many.

Mike Vrabel also made the Pro Bowl, a long overdue honor. Depending on which page you read at, he had 11.5, 12.0, or 12.5 sacks on the year, and had an absolute monster game against Washington (3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and a touchdown reception).

Most Improved Defensive Player: James Sanders
Honorable Mention: Randall Gay, Vince Wilfork

James Sanders is really coming along as a safety. He was an adequate replacement when Rodney Harrison served his four-week suspension, and when Rodney returned, Sanders was actually an improvement over Eugene Wilson (who was apparently hurt). Sanders' 52 solo tackles and 2 interceptions both doubled his production from last year, and he also had the first 5 passes defensed of his (admittedly short) career. But the stats don't do him justice, as he was just around the ball more and rarely got beaten for long passes. With him coming on, Rodney Harrison's eventual retirement seems more survivable.

Last season, Randall Gay played in only 3 games due to injures. But he bounced back nicely in 2007, matching or exceeding most of his career-best stats. Note: most of those career bests were from his 2004 campaign -- the last year the Patriots won the Super Bowl. And Vince Wilfork might have topped this category, but he played pretty darned well in 2006.

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: Adalius Thomas
Honorable Mention: None

Thomas arrived on the scene as the most coveted linebacker in free agency, and he didn't disappoint. Initially, he played inside, allowing Mike Vrabel to move outside and have an absolute monster year. And when an injury knocked Rosevelt Colvin out for the year, Thomas moved outside and has played even better. He rushes the passer (6.5 sacks), makes tackles (78, 57 solo), can defend the pass (8 passes defensed, 1 interception), and can take over a game if needed. He was often among the best defenders on the field, and without him, the Patriots would be in big trouble at linebacker.

The Special Teams

Most Valuable Special Teams Player: Larry Izzo
Honorable Mention: Wes Welker

Twelve-year vet Larry Izzo continues to fly around like a rookie on coverage teams. He's the special teams captain, and his steadying influence contributes to the overall performance. He didn't have a career year in special teams tackles, but teams have to account for him and that opens up opportunities for others (such as Kelley Washington and Willie Andrews).

Wes Welker's stats don't jump out at you, but he solidified the kick return game and took pressure off other starters by returning punts (specifically Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown). He had only 7 fair catches on the year, and always got extra yardage when it counted.

Most Improved Special Teams Player: Chris Hanson
Honorable Mention: Kelley Washington

Chris Hanson was signed in the off-season, and though his number of punts was down, he averages almost a yard more per punt and gave up zero returns for touchdown (he had two last year). He also brought stability to a position where the Patriots had trouble the last few years, with some injuries and inconsistent play.

Kelly Washington had two tackles on special teams for the Bengals last year. He had 16 this year, and was a major contributor in areas where the Patriots improved.

Special Teams Newcomer of the Year: Wes Welker
Honorable Mention: Kelley Washington

Both for reasons mentioned above.

That's about it. Hope this holds you until my blockbuster mid-week update on the Patriots/Jaguars game. Until then...

Keep the faith,

- Scott



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