NFL execs pick major awards: Who's MVP? Rookies of the Year?

A panel of media members votes on the NFL's recognized awards, which will be handed out during "NFL Honors" festivities at the Fox Theater in Atlanta on February 2 (9PM ET/PT on CBS), the eve of Super Bowl LIII.

But what if the league's top talent evaluators voted instead?

My annual early awards survey this year was completed by the most robust panel yet: high-ranking executives in personnel from 22 NFL teams, including a dozen general managers. All 22 individuals participated on the condition of anonymity for competitive reasons and to provide an honest assessment of what, in several cases, turned out to be extremely close races.

Who are the big winners in six notable categories? Here's a rundown:

Most Valuable Player: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

"Only one I'm sure on is MVP = Brees," texted an NFC general manager -- and the panel agreed, rewarding the league's all-time leading passer with 10 votes for a remarkable season at age 39. Is there a sentimental aspect to giving the highest individual honor to a veteran who may never have another crack at winning it? Probably. One NFC executive admitted as much in giving the nod to Brees over Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who was the runner-up with six votes. "I just think (Brees has) played the best," a different NFC exec said. "He's completed almost 75 percent of his passes, 8.15 (per pass) -- it's amazing. Mahomes, (Philip) Rivers -- they're right there. But I just say Brees. He's the best quarterback and, right now, they're the best team."

Of course, the Chiefs are awfully good, too -- and nobody can beat Mahomes' highlight reel. He leads the NFL in passing yards (4,543) while averaging a healthy 8.8 yards per attempt, and his 45 TD passes are 11 more than anyone else. "He's really made that team," said an NFC personnel director who voted for Mahomes. "They were explosive (in past seasons), but now, no play's ever dead with him. His ability to create, move around. Alex (Smith) was the point guard, but I feel like this guy's a point guard with 3-point shooting ability."

The 37-year-old Rivers received three votes for what statistically has been his best NFL season. Rams running back Todd Gurley received one. "The numbers are just ungodly (for Mahomes). But how much of it is Andy Reid?" an AFC executive said. "The threat of that f------ running game is what makes all of that s--- work in L.A. So I'm saying Gurley."

One vote each for Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack did not indicate a groundswell of support for the idea of a defensive player playing winning in this category. "The MVP is not only the best player, but the best player on their team that helps your team," said the AFC GM who voted for Mack. "I think [Mack's] impact is greater than anybody. And he's got the stats to back it up."

Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams

Donald got 13 votes in this category -- as well as one for MVP, from an AFC GM who put it simply: "He's basically unblockable." An NFC executive who voted for Donald pointed in part to his 16.5 sacks from the interior, compared to 12.5 off the edge for Khalil Mack (who missed two games because of an ankle injury). As an NFC personnel director put it regarding the Rams star: "That guy's just a f---ing freak."

Others made a case for Mack, who received eight votes in this category, plus one for MVP. Mack also has six forced fumbles and an interception return for a touchdown, all after sitting out the whole preseason in a contract standoff before the Raiders traded him. The Bears' defense ranks third in yards and points allowed, the Rams 20th. "Khalil Mack really set the tempo and the entire tone for the Chicago Bears' season. And they wobbled a little bit when he was hurt," another NFC executive said. "Aaron Donald has been dynamic -- my gosh, he's made some incredible plays. But their defense as a whole is so bad."

The last remaining vote went to J.J. Watt.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

This vote was a surprise landslide, with Barkley getting 14 votes to outpace Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (four) and Colts guard Quenton Nelson (three). "He's the best player and he's been the most productive," an AFC GM said of Barkley, the No. 2 overall pick who ranks third in the NFL with 1,115 rushing yards. He's averaging 5.2 yards a carry and has scored 13 total touchdowns on a Giants team that has been challenged on offense. As an NFC personnel director bluntly stated: "I'll go Saquon, because they don't have an offensive line and they don't have a quarterback."

Nelson has been manhandling people all season to lead a vastly improved Colts O-line. Mayfield, the No. 1 overall pick (and only QB to receive a vote), has won four of six starts since Hue Jackson and Todd Haley were fired and Freddie Kitchens took over play-calling. He now has 21 touchdown passes and a 92.6 passer rating in 12 games (11 starts) and brings a presence sorely needed for the NFL's most tortured franchise. "The guy's had three offensive coordinators," said an NFC executive who voted for Mayfield. "As soon as the storm was over, he's done nothing but flourish at the most difficult position in the NFL."

The other vote went to 49ers tackle Mike McGlinchey.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

James (eight votes) edged out Colts linebacker Darius Leonard (seven) and Broncos edge rusher Bradley Chubb (five). "Looks pretty special," said an NFC executive who voted for James, a crucial cog in the NFL's eighth-ranked defense with 93 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions. Leonard, a second-round pick (36th overall) from tiny South Carolina State, has been one of the season's best surprises. "He's around the ball a lot. And also, on a team that doesn't have much around him, he's made a difference," an AFC GM said of Leonard, who leads the NFL with 146 tackles and also has four forced fumbles and seven sacks in limited pass-rush opportunities. Chubb leads all rookies -- and ranks eighth overall -- with 12 sacks.

Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and Browns cornerback Denzel Ward received one vote each.

Coach of the Year: Anthony Lynn, Los Angeles Chargers

Lynn received six votes to win a divided race over Kansas City's Andy Reid (four), Chicago's Matt Nagy (four) and Indianapolis' Frank Reich (three). The Chargers have won 20 of their last 26 games, are tied for the AFC West lead in Lynn's second season and will make their first playoff appearance in five years, all while playing virtual road games at home in a soccer stadium, with star pass rusher Joey Bosa missing over half the season and running back Melvin Gordon sidelined recently. "They keep having injuries and keep seeming to not give a s---," said an NFC executive who voted for Lynn. "It's impressive. It's as much a credit to (GM) Tom (Telesco)'s depth he's put in there and the fact of whatever culture they've created there -- next man up."

Reid, in his 20th season as a head coach and sixth with the Chiefs, is the outlier among all these newcomers. But executives credit him with grooming his second-year quarterback into an MVP candidate. Reid's former assistant, Nagy, led the Bears to an NFC North title in his first season. "He has instilled stability," an AFC GM said. "He's injected an offense that they're actually scoring points. And players believe in him." Reich couldn't even get an interview until he helped the Eagles beat the Patriots in Super Bowl LII and Josh McDaniels backed out of the Colts job, but has immediately thrust Indianapolis into playoff contention. "He's changed the culture totally in Indy," an NFC executive said. "They were a team that couldn't protect the quarterback -- now they're No. 1 in sacks per pass play, they're No. 1 on third down ... Andrew Luck hasn't played in how long? And now he's back. They're really good in the critical areas, which they were in Philly, too. They're sixth in the red zone. That's coaching."

Receiving one vote each were the Seahawks' Pete Carroll, Texans' Bill O'Brien, Saints' Sean Payton, Rams' Sean McVay and ... Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio? "You said Coach of the Year," an NFC executive said. Fair enough.

Executive of the Year: Chris Ballard, GM, Indianapolis Colts

Ballard's six votes narrowly beat out Bears GM Ryan Pace and Chargers GM Tom Telesco, who received five each. All three have a strong case, but Ballard's handling of the McDaniels fiasco helped put him over the top here. "He's rebuilding the team and the organization, but here's the other thing that's one of the toughest parts of the job, is he hired a really good head coach," said an NFC executive who voted for Ballard. "And he did it after what could've been a train wreck with the Josh thing." Though the roster rebuild remains a work in progress, an NFC personnel director pointed out the Colts' top three draft picks (Nelson, Leonard and guard Braden Smith) are starters, with others contributing. And Ballard has utilized every avenue to upgrade the roster, from veteran free agency (Eric Ebron, Denico Autry) to practice squad call-ups (starting defensive tackle Al-Quadin Muhammad) to waiver claims (starting cornerbacks Kenny Moore and Pierre Desir). "He allowed the youth movement to happen instead of staying in the comfort zone," the personnel director said.

Pace's three signature moves as GM all paid off on the way to the Bears' first division title since 2010. "Two courageous trades for the QB (Mitch Trubisky) and Mack," an NFC executive said. "Ballsy hire in an inexperienced coach, Nagy, that looks great." Telesco finally is seeing dividends on what he has been building for six years, too. "They have one of the more talented rosters in the league," an NFC executive said. "And he's done it the right way, through the draft. They haven't won a lot of games (previously), but it's just been a matter of you keep waiting and it looks like it's come together. They're a tough out right now."

Saints executive vice president/general manager Mickey Loomis received two votes, while the Seahawks' John Schneider, Rams' Les Snead, Browns' John Dorsey and Ravens' Ozzie Newsome received one each. One NFC GM added that former Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie should get some votes, based on how two of his first-round draft picks (Mack and Amari Cooper) are producing ... for other teams. Oakland traded both for draft currency before firing McKenzie last week.

Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.

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