A panel of media members votes on the NFL's recognized awards, which will be handed out during NFL Honors festivities the night before Super Bowl LII in Minnesota. But what if the league's top evaluators voted instead?
My third annual early survey (and first for NFL.com) this year included personnel executives representing 14 NFL teams, including six general managers. All participated on the condition of anonymity for competitive reasons and to provide an honest assessment of what, in some cases, turned out to be a rather hotly contested debate.
Who are the big winners in six notable categories? Here's a rundown:
Coach of the Year: Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams
The youngest head coach in modern NFL history received six votes for rebooting a Rams team that went 4-12 last season and is on the verge of clinching its first playoff berth since 2004. "He's turned the franchise around," an AFC GM said of McVay, 31. "Kids believe in him. He's re-energized the first pick in the draft (Jared Goff). Guys buy into what he's doing. And he's sound."
There also was strong support for two other coaches: Minnesota's Mike Zimmer and Jacksonville's Doug Marrone, who received three votes each. Zimmer built the defense that has led the Vikings to the playoffs despite losing Sam Bradford and Dalvin Cook in the first month. "From a distance, I've always been such a big fan of Mike Zimmer," an NFC GM said, "and what he's doing with a third-string quarterback and losing your running back -- man, it's hard to imagine anyone is doing a better job than him right now." Marrone has played to the strengths of his roster -- run the ball and stop the run -- while guiding the Jags to a 10-4 record and their first playoff spot since 2007. "I just think because Jacksonville's been down so many years," said an NFC GM on why he voted for Marrone. "He comes across as a no-nonsense, hard-nosed, tough guy that's got no bulls--- to him."
Eagles coach Doug Pederson and Patriots coach Bill Belichick received one vote each. ("Every year," said the NFC executive who voted for Belichick.) But McVay's instant turnaround in L.A. carried him. "With all due respect to the guy in Jacksonville, (McVay's) been nothing short of genius," an NFC executive said. "Jacksonville's been building, building, building. The Rams have sucked. And this guy's come in and just thrown some magic dust on them."
With 6 1/2 votes, Kamara narrowly beat out Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt, who received 5 1/2. "Hunt's been the lead dog," an NFC GM said. "But Kamara has made some explosive plays that have won some games for them. It takes a lot of the burden of having (Drew) Brees having to win games for you, especially at his age." Indeed, Hunt has 291 touches to 167 for Kamara -- who splits time with Mark Ingram -- and accounts for 70.3 percent of the Chiefs' rush attempts (second behind only Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell). Hunt burst onto the scene with a huge game in Week 1 and still leads all rookie running backs in rushing yards (1,201) and scrimmage yards (1,641). But Kamara has more touchdowns, a higher average per touch and has logged a run or catch of 20-plus yards in 11 games on a Saints team that is 10-4. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson -- who looked like the front-runner until a knee injury cut him down after seven games -- and Jacksonville running back Leonard Fournette received one vote each.
This is the only blowout on the list, with Lattimore receiving 12 of 14 votes. No player has had a bigger impact on the Saints' defensive revival. "He's turned into a pretty good shutdown corner, and they leave him on an island and he's been able to match up, which is hard for a corner to do," an NFC GM said. "That's maybe the hardest position to transition from college." The other two votes went to Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White.
Executive of the Year: Howie Roseman, Philadelphia Eagles
Roseman received five votes from the panel of his peers, who really were rewarding him for two years of work since regaining authority over football following Chip Kelly's dismissal. "To me, the two best trades made in the past five years in the NFL are Howie trading up for (Carson) Wentz and Howie getting a [first-round draft pick] for (Sam) Bradford," an NFC executive said. "The guy has done an amazing job." The bold move up last year for Wentz -- executed via multiple trades involving negative assets -- came up frequently. But Roseman also replaced the talent Kelly dumped with shrewd moves, such as signing receiver Alshon Jeffery on a one-year deal. He traded for defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. Guard Brandon Brooks and safety Rodney McLeod were free-agent hits. Roseman also re-signed the likes of Lane Johnson and Zach Ertz to deals that now look like tremendous values. "He retooled the franchise by all facets of acquiring players," an AFC GM said. And the Eagles, even after losing Wentz to a knee injury, are on the verge of locking up home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs.
Joe Douglas, hired as the Eagles' vice president of player personnel in 2016, also got a vote. Tom Coughlin, in his first season as the Jaguars' executive VP of football operations, was the runner-up with three votes. "He obviously came in and set a f------ program," an AFC executive said. Saints executives Mickey Loomis and Jeff Ireland received 1 1/2 votes each on the strength of that rookie class, led by Kamara and Lattimore. Vikings GM Rick Spielman and Rams GM Les Snead each got one.
With six votes, Campbell received the most in any category besides Lattimore, beating out Rams DL Aaron Donald, who got five. "He's got 14.5 (sacks) as an inside player," an NFC executive said of Campbell. "That's a monster, monster year. And he completely changed the (team). That's valuable." The four-year, $60 million contract the Jaguars gave Campbell in March seems to have paid off beyond the field. "I just think he's brought the whole team together," an NFC personnel director said. "He's that type of leader." Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, Chargers end Joey Bosa and Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones, who leads the NFL with 15 sacks, received one vote each.
Seven different players received votes, showing how muddled this race is. But Brady rather unsurprisingly led the way with five votes amidst another remarkable season at age 40. "They're overcoming some defensive deficiencies and he's lost some receivers, sometimes three at a time," an NFC GM said. "It's hard not to (vote for him). He's just so damn good." Even with some rocky moments the past few weeks as he managed a sore Achilles, Brady ranks first in passing yards (4,163), second in passer rating (104.0) and third in touchdown passes (28) for the Patriots, who are AFC East champions for the ninth straight year and have the inside track on home-field advantage. Two executives used the exact same phrase when I asked why they voted for Brady: "Because it's f------ Tom Brady." In other words, Brady could be named MVP every year. He might be the greatest of all time. Everyone else is just hoping for a season close to his level -- and several can make that claim this year.
Steelers star Antonio Brown got three votes, a notable number for a receiver. "What's 'most valuable' mean?" an NFC GM said. "[Brown]'s just a game-changer. He makes a difference when he's in the game." Wentz received two votes despite his season-ending knee injury in Week 14. Vikings quarterback Case Keenum, Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, Rams running back Todd Gurley and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson got one vote each.
The Five Ws for Week 16
WHO is the Buccaneers' next head coach? (submitted by @JaimeTPA) I continue to hear from wired-in NFL people who are convinced Tampa's going to make a serious run at bringing back Jon Gruden to replace Dirk Koetter. Gruden, 54, is a white whale in every NFL coaching cycle. It'd take a mammoth contract to make him think about leaving the broadcast booth. But the word is Gruden is more inclined than ever to consider it, and there are reasons to think the team that fired him nine years ago makes a lot of sense. Gruden still offices in the Tampa area. He was just inducted into the team's ring of honor and would be a popular hire among Bucs fans. I've spoken to personnel executives and head-coaching candidates who have expressed trepidation about the growth of Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston; Gruden praised his potential on ESPN's broadcast Monday night. The Bucs traditionally wait to finalize head-coaching changes until after the season, but if Gruden is the man, it figures to happen quickly.
WHAT changes do you see in Green Bay with the eight-year playoff run coming to an end? (submitted by @ChanceBringman) I've spoken many times with Packers coach Mike McCarthy about the value he places on continuity and consistency. In 12 years as head coach, he has fired only two coordinators. Two! So, while nobody should be surprised if there are changes -- McCarthy shuffles his staff almost every year, and one source close to the situation said Friday to expect some shakeup again -- it'd be a surprise if it's a major overhaul. The biggest potential move involves 67-year-old defensive coordinator Dom Capers. If Capers is gone, one way or another, a name worth watching is respected Bears DC Vic Fangio, whose contract is set to expire. The contracts of McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson run through at least the 2018 season. Team president/CEO Mark Murphy has said before that Thompson can stay as long as he's doing a good job, and the famously private Thompson, 64, has given no indications he'll retire.
WHEN will the NFL change the offensive player fumbling out of the end zone = turnover rule? In the offseason? (submitted by @VenitVirginia)Derek Carr's goal-line gaffe in the Raiders' nationally televised loss to the Cowboys brought up this debate again. But as one source with knowledge of the competition committee's thinking told me this week, changing the rule "has never had much support." In other words, don't hold your breath. While it seems odd to discourage players from trying to make a play at the goal line -- something that also came up with Jesse James' overturned TD late in the Steelers' loss to the Patriots under the catch/no-catch rules -- what about all the other fumbles forced in that area of the field? Giving the offense the ball back where a player lost possession would punish the defense that just made a play instead.
WHERE will Jacoby Brissett end up next season once Andrew Luck comes back? Because he proved quite well he can be a great starting and maybe even a franchise quarterback. (submitted by @3RSKK) Part of the Colts' thinking in trading for Brissett at the cutdown deadline was the value he'd provide as a cheap backup. He's under contract for two more seasons (through 2019) for $1,675,190 total. Never say never -- there's always a market for quarterbacks, and Brissett is a tradeable asset. But given Andrew Luck's ongoing shoulder issues, I'm not sure there's any team that needs a backup plan more than Indianapolis, which gets one step closer to the virtually certain end of the Chuck Pagano era Saturday at Baltimore.
WHY are these Vikings different than the 2015 team Mike Zimmer led into the playoffs? (submitted by @DonFromOhio) There obviously are a lot of different parts on offense: Case Keenum, Latavius Murray, four new starters on the offensive line, Pat Shurmur calling plays, etc. But the maturity of the Vikings' fantastic young defensive core shouldn't be overlooked. Days before that infamous playoff loss to Seattle two years ago on Blair Walsh's hook, here's how Zimmer described the group's potential to me: "We've got (Anthony) Barr -- this guy could be amazing. Linval (Joseph), he can be amazing. Everson (Griffen), Harrison Smith is really a good player, Xavier (Rhodes) when he concentrates. ... (Then-rookie Eric) Kendricks -- he's just learning. I think in Year 3, he's got a chance to be really good, and Barr will be Year 4 then and Harrison (in Year 6). I think this team has a chance to really grow, defensively it does." Right on schedule, this Vikings' D has become one of the NFL's dominant units -- top four in virtually every key category except sacks and takeaways entering Saturday's game against the Aaron Rodgers-less Packers -- and is the main reason opposing executives consider this team dangerous.