The 2011 NFL season kicks off with a Thursday night showdown between the last two Super Bowl champions, as Super Bowl XLIV MVP quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints march to Lambeau Field to take on Super Bowl XLV MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers — in the first of 256 regular season games that span from Sept. 8 until Jan. 1, 2012.
Before a snap has been taken, Athlon Sports looks into our crystal ball in an attempt to predict who will be award-worthy after the dust settles this season.
Most Valuable Player
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
Rodgers has already matched Brett Favre’s Super Bowl ring tally, but the leader in Titletown is three down to his predecessor in league MVP trophies. If the 27-year-old with the title belt can match his average stats as a starter — 4,131 yards, 29 TDs and 10 INTs; 293 rush yards and four scores per year since taking over for Favre three seasons ago — he will add a regular season MVP to the Super Bowl MVP he earned after knocking off the Steelers at Cowboys Stadium in February.
Offensive Player of the Year
Michael Vick, QB, Eagles
Vick posted 3,018 yards, 21 TDs and only six INTs for a 100.2 passer rating, along with 676 rushing yards and nine TDs on the ground in only 12 games last season. As a result, the Eagles traded Kevin Kolb to the Cardinals and signed Vick to a six-year, $100 million contract. If the dual-threat lefty passer can stay healthy this season, he could put up his best numbers to date. Andy Reid and the Philly front office are banking on it.
Defensive Player of the Year
Patrick Willis, LB, 49ers
Willis has taken over for Ray Lewis as the new standard for middle linebackers. New coach Jim Harbaugh will have the luxury of having a coach on the field. The 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year has been named All-Pro in each of his four seasons. The next logical step is to receive the league’s top defensive honors.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Mark Ingram, RB, Saints
The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama should see plenty of scoring opportunities as a featured weapon in the Saints’ high-octane attack. The namesake of the Giants’ Super Bowl-winning receiver, young Ingram’s physical running style will also be useful late in games where the Big Easy looks to run out the clock.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Von Miller, LB, Broncos
John Elway’s first draft choice since becoming Denver’s Executive VP of Football Operations, the No. 2 overall pick out of Texas A&M will be counted on to rush the passer early and often. Teaming with edge-rusher Elvis Dumervil (17 sacks in ’09) to form the soon-to-be feared “Von Doom” duo, Miller has the best chance to put up the numbers necessary to take home the Defensive R.O.Y. hardware.
Comeback Player of the Year
Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys
After suffering a fractured clavicle six games — and a 1–5 record — into the 2010 season, Romo was forced to watch as the Cowboys struggled to a 5–11 finish. Now, the pressure is on the three-time Pro Bowl signal-caller to deliver his fourth playoff berth as the starter in Big D. If Romo does that, Jerry Jones won’t call it a comeback — those are the results he expects — but the voters sure will.
Coach of the Year
Jim Schwartz, Lions
Detroit has not had a winning record since 2000 and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1999. If Schwartz can end either of those losing droughts — and it will take a healthy Matthew Stafford and dominant Ndamukong Suh — it will certainly be award-worthy.
Executive of the Year
Ted Thompson, Packers
A little retroactive respect may be in order for the man who bit the bullet and sent Brett Favre packing — so to speak — in favor of Aaron Rodgers four years ago. Although Thompson did not make a major splash in free agency, his team will “acquire” several playmakers returning from injury — Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley.