The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
Peyton Manning has retired, taking with him his five NFL Most Valuable Player awards. He is the only five-time winner in league history, but his departure doesn't exactly leave a vacuum of already-decorated MVP candidates.
There are four former MVPs still active in the league heading into 2016, and all of them would be reasonable choices for any analyst trying to predict this year's winner: Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson and Tom Brady. All four play on teams that are coming off playoff seasons and have high expectations of making it back to the postseason this year.
Take a look at some of the best photos of the Buccaneers' offense from the 2015 season.
On the other hand, there are other rising stars, or already-established stars, looming, players who seem destined to be MVP candidates sooner rather than later. Russell Wilson led the NFL in passer rating last year and is on a very competitive Seattle squad. Ben Roethlisberger has the assets around him to possibly guide the NFL's best offense in 2016. Carson Palmer drew MVP buzz in Arizona last year. Jerry Rice might be the only wide receiver MVP ever, but in today's passing-centric NFL, how long can we ignore the inflated numbers being put up by the likes of Julio Jones and Antonio Brown. And, at some point, J.J. Watt could bring defense back into the mix and become the first winner on that side of the ball since Lawrence Taylor.
So, guys, we've got plenty of decent choices as we finish up our week of award predictions with the biggest one of them all. Joe Kania, Andrew Norton and I have already made our choices for Comeback Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, and in each case we made both an overall NFL selection and a smaller-scale one just for the Buccaneers. Here was our schedule of award predictions for the week:
Joe, you get pole position on this one.
Joe Kania's NFL Prediction: New England QB Tom Brady
Joe Kania's Buccaneers Prediction: RB Doug Martin
I had a few different players who I considered giving this award to, including Eli Manning, Cam Newton and Carson Palmer. While I think all three could have similarly impressive seasons as far as stats are concerned, the MVP is usually a player competing for a contender, and New England has proved to be in the hunt each and every season Brady is at the helm. Plus Brady works under a coach who will go down as one of the best to ever do it. I took the safest route possible here on this one.
The quarterback should be the MVP, right? In most cases, probably. But if we're being truthful to ourselves, I think that Martin could have a more significant impact than Winston. Hot take, I know. But hear me out. It's no secret that a strong running game aids a quarterback, whether it be by bringing defenders down into the box, helping sell play-action or putting the offense in manageable third-down situations. The Buccaneers had the fifth-ranked offense last year, mainly because they had the NFL's No. 2 rusher. Winston said himself how Martin's success helped take pressure off of him, and as Winston continues to grow, the luxury of having one of the top rushers in the league will help him develop. The Buccaneers need Winston to perform at a high level like he did during his rookie year, but it will be much more difficult to accomplish without Martin performing.
Andrew Norton's NFL Prediction: QB Ben Roethlisberger
Andrew Norton's Buccaneers Prediction: QB Jameis Winston
I'm hedging my bets a little on this one. For our Offensive Player of the Year predictions, I took Julio Jones over Antonio Brown. Both had unreal seasons last year and could do the same thing this year. While I think Jones makes the leap and wins the award, I still think that Pittsburgh could put the NFL's best offense on the field this year. Brown could very well break the record for receptions and post big numbers in yardage and touchdowns too. In fact, a recent NFL.com fantasy hot take article has Brown finding the end zone 20 times this season.
With his potential numbers and the return of Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh is primed to make another Super Bowl run. If Roethlisberger can take them there and flirt with his 2014 numbers again (4,952 yards, 32 touchdowns, 103.3 passer rating), the award is his.
I'm staying under center as we transition to the Buccaneers award. I took Mike Evans as my Offensive Player of the Year award because personally I hate it when a player wins both OPotY and MVP. Your quarterback should be your most valuable player and Winston should continue to improve this season. After leading this offense to the fifth-most yards in his rookie season, the sky is the limit. All that is missing is translating those yards into points and I think the Bucs are on their way. If Winston can continue to grow and mature into the NFL game, he'll have a big year and certainly be the most valuable Buc.
Scott Smith's NFL Prediction: QB Aaron Rodgers
Scott Smith's Buccaneers Prediction: LB Lavonte David
Earlier in the week, I noted that Rodgers had arguably his worst season as a starter last year. It's a toss-up between 2015 and the first post-Brett Favre season, 2008, but even in his initial go-around Rodgers threw for more yards than last year (4,038-3,821) and had a better passer rating (93.8-92.7). Yes, it is a testament to how good the two-time MVP has been that a season in which he threw for nearly 4,000 yards, had a 31-8 TD-INT ratio and compiled a 92.7 passer rating is his "worst" season.
Still, other than a 2013 campaign in which he lost seven games to injury, I'm willing to bet that 2015 was the least satisfying season in Rodgers' career. His team still went 10-6 and earned a Wild Card berth, but an offense that had ranked in the top 10 in scoring in every other season in which he was the starting QB dropped to 15th last year. The absence of wide receiver Jordy Nelson was keenly felt, and lead back Eddie Lacy had something of a lost season. The Packers' offense was still good, but it just wasn't the juggernaut it had been for years.
I get the impression that Rodgers is the type of player who is driven to prove that last year was the aberration (again, a still-not-that-bad aberration), and that he can take the Packers' offense back to the top. From 2009-14, Rodgers had a triple-digit passer rating every, topping out at an otherworldly 122.5 in 2011. He won the MVP award that year, and again in 2014. I think the Packers, who have a sneaky good defense that could get even better with the addition of first-round DT Kenny Clark, are going to be very good this year. Like, Super Bowl-contenders good. That all adds up to Rodgers becoming just the eight player to win three MVP trophies, a list that also includes Brett Favre.
For the Buccaneers, I think the best pick is probably Winston, as Andrew hit on above and Joe seemed close to taking as well. I'd give Winston the best odds to win it, but I do think there are a few other candidates who would be close, so I feel comfortable going a different route. While defensive players rarely win the league MVP award, it's a little different on the team level. The local media picks a Buccaneer MVP at the end of each season, and defenders have won it plenty of times, including three times for Hardy Nickerson and twice for Derrick Brooks.
Picking a defensive player this season is a bit of a risk, given that the Buccaneers' offense appears to be ahead of the defense heading into the season. However, a number of critical additions could return Tampa Bay's defense to something akin to its glory days, and since I picked David as the Bucs' defensive MVP yesterday, he has to be the choice for overall MVP, too, if I'm going that direction.