Ranking early-season NFL award front-runners: Barnwell picks MVP, OPOY, DPOY, top rookies

    Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

Let’s pick quarter-season NFL awards for the 2022 campaign. It’s ridiculous to hand out awards for four weeks of football — and with 17 regular-season games now, we’re not officially quite at the 25% mark — but it’s also a good time to take hold of what has happened across the league over the first month of the season and have a historical document for what we felt at the time.

Remember: This time a year ago, Sam Darnold was a Comeback Player of the Year favorite, and Kyler Murray looked like an MVP contender. A lot can change in three months.

This time, I’ll pick my three early favorites for seven awards: Coach of the Year, Comeback Player of the Year, Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, and MVP.

These are my picks for who I think deserves to win over the first month of the season, not who I think will win at the end of the campaign. I’ll generally abide by the rules and preferences we’ve seen from Associated Press voters in the past, although I’ll make one notable exception when we get to Offensive Player of the Year. Let’s start on defense:

Defensive Rookie of the Year

This award is typically dominated by young pass-rushers, but it hasn’t been a great start for edge defenders this season. Aidan Hutchinson (Lions) is the only rookie with more than two sacks, but his three all came in one game against the Commanders, who hand out free sacks like they’re candy on Halloween. Hutchinson ranks 54th out of 58 qualifying edge defenders in pass rush win rate, and it isn’t as if the Lions have stopped anybody on defense through three games. No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker (Jaguars) has been promising, but he hasn’t even been the best rookie first-rounder on the Jaguars.

Instead, we’re blessed with a group of first-year cornerbacks competing for this award. Most rookie cornerbacks aren’t playable on an every-down basis as they adjust to the speed of the NFL, so seeing as many as eight rookie corners with 150-plus defensive snaps through four weeks is a rare treat.

The two biggest names at the position were top-five picks Derek Stingley Jr. (Texans) and Sauce Gardner (Jets); they’ve had their moments so far. But two corners taken later in the draft have made a bigger impact for their teams.

3. Jaylen Watson, CB, Chiefs

Stepping in as a starter when first-round pick Trent McDuffie went down with a hamstring injury in the opener, Watson might not be giving back the right cornerback job once McDuffie is ready to return. Watson, a seventh-round pick, was not supposed to be covering the opposing team’s top wide receiver, but because the Chiefs keep him one side of the field, he has gotten a disproportionate percentage of his targets against stars such as Mike Evans, Michael Pittman Jr. and Mike Williams.

Watson has allowed two touchdowns in two weeks against a pair of standouts — Evans and Marquise Brown — but has made enough plays to more than make up for those scores. Watson has generated minus-8.9 expected points added (EPA) as the nearest defender in coverage so far, which ranks second among rookie cornerbacks. He has broken up four of the 28 targets in his direction, but his most notable play helped swing a game for the Chiefs, as he took a Justin Herbert pass 99 yards to the house for a pick-six.

2. Tariq Woolen, CB, Seahawks

Pete Carroll rightfully has been regarded as a coach who can draft and develop cornerbacks as well as anybody. Remember that the corners in the Legion of Boom didn’t enter the league as stars: Richard Sherman was a fifth-round pick, Byron Maxwell was a sixth-rounder and Brandon Browner was undrafted and playing in the CFL. Carroll targeted big, toolsy cornerbacks and helped mold them into superstars.

A decade later, Carroll might have found his next standout in Woolen, a fifth-round pick who entered the league with 99th-percentile height and 40-yard dash time. He is a converted receiver who had only two years of cornerback experience before entering the league; the expectation was that Woolen would need some time before stepping into the Seahawks’ lineup.

Scratch that. The 6-foot-4 Woolen has played 93% of Seattle’s snaps, and the early returns are stunning. The 23-year-old has allowed a 33.1 passer rating in coverage and already has picked off two passes, taking one to the house for his first score against Jared Goff and the Lions last week. Woolen is still a bit of a boom-or-bust player — he has allowed more than 8 yards per target — but the Seahawks are getting a player who can run with anyone and appears to have promising ball skills. There’s superstar upside here.

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