It was pretty obvious who the best teams in the NFL were last season. It was even more obvious who the best player was.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, at the ripe age of 37, set every offensive record under the sun en route to earning the fifth NFL MVP award of his storied career.
By default, Manning remains the favorite to win the award again in 2014. Yet the Seattle Seahawks reminded us rather loudly that the Broncos’ offense isn’t invincible, and the target on Denver’s back this season might be too big to ignore.
That’s only one intriguing storyline in what should be an exciting 2014 NFL season that features several big-name stars in new places, a handful of highly touted rookies looking to live up to the hype and the usual suspects hoping to maintain their standings among the NFL elite.
Here’s who we believe will distinguish themselves as the best of the best this season.
League MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
If Manning has a target on his back, Rodgers has exactly the opposite. After missing seven games last season, the 30-year-old looks hungrier than ever to lead his team back to dominance. With Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the talented Eddie Lacy at his disposal, Rodgers should take the Packers’ offense to dizzying heights and put up monster numbers in the process.
Offensive Player of the Year: Rodgers
Makes sense, right? Just as Manning did last year, Rodgers will take home both league MVP and offensive MVP for putting up the best stats in the league while guiding his team to a deep playoff run.
Defensive Player of the Year: Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
This guy is scary good. Kuechly joined the Panthers out of Boston College in 2012 and promptly led the NFL in tackles to win Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He got even better in 2013, doubling his 2012 interception total and winning Defensive Player of the Year. Kuechly shows no signs of slowing down, and we see no reason to give the award to anyone but him.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
There are handful of talented rookies out there — Brandin Cooks and Sammy Watkins both have high ceilings — but none have the chance to make as much of an impact on their team as Bortles does. The most game-ready QB of this year’s draft won’t start right away, but if he can drag Jacksonville out of the basement once he gets his chance, this award is his.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans
Say what you want about his “motor,” but Clowney is a beast. He showed flashes of brilliance during the preseason, as his lethal combination of speed and size resulted in some monster hits. Once he turns it on in the regular season alongside J.J. Watt, Clowney should be almost impossible to stop.
Comeback Player of the Year: Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons
A quarterback has won this award for six consecutive seasons. It’s time to put an end to that. Jones was averaging over eight catches and 110 yards per game before a foot injury ended his season just five games into 2013. With Josh Gordon sidelined for the entire season because of a drug suspension, Jones has a legitimate chance to lead the NFL in receiving in 2014. (While we’re on the subject, we’d like to lock in Josh Gordon for 2015 Comeback Player of the Year honors.)
Coach of the Year: Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2013 was a disaster in Tampa Bay, but Smith has the chance to turn things around in a big way. The Bucs greatly improved this offseason, signing the likes of quarterback Josh McCown and cornerback Alterraun Verner and drafting offensive talents Mike Evans and Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. The even-keeled Smith could be the glue that holds this team together and leads it toward a respectable, if not playoff-worthy, record in 2014.
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