A panel of media members votes on the NFL’s recognized awards, which will be handed out during “NFL Honors” festivities at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami on Feb. 1, the eve of Super Bowl LIV.
But what if the league’s top talent evaluators voted instead?
My annual early awards survey this year was completed by high-ranking executives in personnel from 24 NFL teams, including 13 general managers. All 24 individuals participated on the condition of anonymity for competitive reasons and to provide an honest assessment.
Who are the big winners in six notable categories? Here’s a rundown:
Most Valuable Player: Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens
It was a runaway win for Jackson, who received 19 votes to Seahawks QB Russell Wilson‘s five. “He’s just been so unique,” an NFC executive said of Jackson, who has thrown for 2,889 yards and an NFL-high 33 touchdowns while running for a QB-record 1,103 yards in his second season. “The stats alone give him the award, but what he’s done for that team, the energy he’s brought to that city, the energy he’s brought to his whole locker room — they’re just playing on a different level. And no one’s really figured out how to stop him.” The Ravens are 12-2 and on a 10-game winning streak, moving into position for the AFC’s top seed. They overhauled their offense in the offseason under new coordinator Greg Roman to maximize the impact of Jackson’s rare running and playmaking ability. And Jackson has developed as a passer, too. “He puts so much goddamn pressure on you,” an AFC executive said.
Multiple execs who voted for Wilson (28 TDs, 109.3 passer rating) made their case in part on his longevity, since teams have eight years of tape to use in devising a plan against him. Many teams are still facing Jackson, and that scheme, for the first time. “I think Baltimore’s defense has put [Jackson] in a lot of [good] spots,” one GM said, noting that Don Martindale’s ascending unit takes pressure off Jackson and the offense. “If I had to go win a game right now, what quarterback would I take? I’d take Russell Wilson.”
Defensive Player of the Year: Stephon Gilmore, CB, New England Patriots
Cornerbacks claimed this award in consecutive years back in 1993 (Rod Woodson) and 1994 (Deion Sanders), but only four DBs have received the honor since, with the most recent being Troy Polamalu in 2010. Nevertheless, Gilmore’s impact on one of the NFL’s top defenses made him the strong consensus winner here with 15 votes. “He allows them to do so much on defense,” an NFC executive said of Gilmore, who is tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions and has returned two for scores. “He can take half the field away. He can take their second-best [receiver] and let them double everyone that’s more dangerous. He really is a weapon for them on defense. Every week, it seems like he’s making a big play, too, which, for a DB, that’s rare.”
Saints DE Cam Jordan was the runner-up with 2 1/2 votes. Others receiving votes included Buccaneers OLB Shaquil Barrett (2), Steelers OLB T.J. Watt (2), Vikings DE Danielle Hunter (1), Chiefs S Tyrann Mathieu (1) and Rams DT Aaron Donald (1/2).
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Josh Jacobs, RB, Oakland Raiders
Despite playing through injuries much of the season, Jacobs received 15 votes on the strength of his 1,150 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Several executives noted it’s a down year for rookies on offense overall. Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick, was second with six votes. “He’s playing on a bad team, and he’s elevated the team,” an NFC executive said of Murray, who has thrown for 3,279 yards with 17 TDs, 10 interceptions and an 87.5 passer rating on the 4-9-1 Cardinals. “O-line’s not great. I don’t think they have great weapons. The defense is 32nd. I’d give it to him, based on what he’s overcome.”
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Nick Bosa, DE, San Francisco 49ers
The No. 2 overall pick has nine sacks — including seven in his first seven NFL games — and was the clear winner with 18 votes. “It’s him or (Jaguars DE Josh) Allen,” one GM said. “I look at team success, too. If [the 49ers] don’t have that D-line, I don’t think they’re doing the things they’re doing.” Allen, who has 10 sacks, and Steelers LB Devin Bush got three votes each.
Coach of the Year: Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills
With a 10-4 record and a second playoff berth in three years secured, McDermott received seven votes to edge out Ravens coach John Harbaugh (5 1/2) and 49ers head man Kyle Shanahan (five). “They’ve played really good defensively,” an NFC personnel director said of the Bills. “He’s winning with a young quarterback — they’re kind of winning because of the quarterback, too. I just think they have an identity. The team knows who they are. Isn’t that 90 percent of it?”
An NFC executive made the case for Harbaugh based in large part Jackson’s success: “Just what they’ve done with that offense, totally changed their philosophy for one player, is pretty amazing. Just to have the nuts to do it. Most coaches wouldn’t even draft the guy because he doesn’t fit or he wasn’t good on the board. Not only did they take him, but they changed everything so he would have the ability to have success. And it’s paid off.”
Shanahan’s 49ers are tied atop the NFC West at 11-3. Mike Tomlin (3 1/2 votes) also has some strong supporters, with the Steelers staying in the hunt at 8-6 despite losing QB Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. Receiving one vote each: Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur, Houston’s Bill O’Brien and … Miami’s Brian Flores, who is 3-11 in the first season of a ground-up rebuild. “Winning any games with that roster deserves recognition,” an AFC personnel director said.
Executive of the Year: John Lynch, San Francisco 49ers
Fitting that the two teams tied atop the NFC West would run neck-and-neck for this award, with Lynch (eight votes) edging out Seahawks GM John Schneider (seven). Lynch, the longtime NFL safety hired out of the FOX broadcast booth in January 2017, is seeing the dividends of a three-year rebuild in concert with Shanahan. “They built the right way — D-line, O-line,” another NFC executive said. “I know they inherited (Arik) Armstead and (DeForest) Buckner, [but they hit] on Bosa. Had some sneaky UFA signings with the corner from Seattle (Richard Sherman last year). They traded for (WR) Emmanuel Sanders, it helped. They’ve done a nice job collectively, him and Shanahan, getting players that fit Shanahan’s scheme and then getting players that fit what they want to do on defense.”
Schneider has a Super Bowl championship under his belt and remains as aggressive as any NFL decision-maker, with recent trades for DE Jadeveon Clowney (in exchange for two fungible players and a third-round pick, with Houston paying part of Clowney’s salary) and S Quandre Diggs (for a flip of late-round picks) buoying another title push. “He does a great job every year,” an NFC executive said of Schneider, who’s in his 10th season, “but they retooled that entire defense, picked up Clowney for a song, cobbled together a professional offensive line — still not great, but it’s good for what they do. He got the quarterback re-signed. And the fact that they took zero draft capital and turned it into a lot of draft capital last [April], too.”
Bills GM Brandon Beane came in third with four votes. Baltimore’s Eric DeCosta got two, while Pittsburgh’s Kevin Colbert, Minnesota’s Rick Spielman and Green Bay’s Brian Gutekunst received one each.
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.