NFL Awards According to League Insiders

At the midseason point, we polled general managers, personnel executives and pro scouting directors from around the league to get their votes for MVP, Rookies of the Year, Coach of the Year and more. Plus, why you should keep an eye on Dez Bryant and Malcolm Butler, and mailbag questions on Gronk’s struggles, the Texans’ success, Jason Garrett’s future and the best city for a hypothetical expansion franchise
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I changed my mind on Sunday afternoon. Drew Brees dropped a dime, over the outstretched arm of Rams corner Marcus Peters, landing between the 1 and the 3 of Michael Thomas’s jersey, for the Saints’ game-clinching touchdown. At that point, Brees had done what I hadn’t seen Patrick Mahomes do on a huge stage: slay a dragon in a marquee game that was close late and called for heroics.

Just to make sure, I went to the numbers. And honestly, I was stunned. I didn’t know Brees is completing 76.1% of his passes, nor did I figure his TD/INT ratio is 18-to-1. His passer rating is also a league-leading 120.6, vs. Mahomes’s 116.7. His team is 7-1, virtually even with the Chiefs’ 8-1 mark. I might have missed some of that, if not for his big shot to Thomas, and a discussion I’d had the week before about how crazy it is that Brees has never been league MVP.

“He’s a great leader, he knows what he wants, he communicates well and the preparation during the week is outstanding,” Thomas told me after the game. “We’re always trying to build on that because we know the benefits it brings on Sunday.”

It became obvious to me then: Brees should be MVP. How ridiculous is that? I spent two months thinking Mahomes was the easy pick, and all it took was about an hour for that to unravel, at which point it, again, became obvious that someone else deserved it.

That’s how fickle awards voting can be. It’s even worse when you’re doing them midseason, as we all do this time of year (The MMQB’s came out on Wednesday). But it’s fun and it clicks, so here we are again.

With all this in mind, I figured I’d tap into my resources to find a different way to do it.

In this week’s GamePlan, we’re going to give you the players—both college and pro—to watch this weekend, and answer your questions on Rob Gronkowski, the plucky Texans, the Steelers/Le’Veon Bell drama and more. But we’re kicking things off with our own spin, handing out some pre-Thanksgiving hardware. And we’re going to do it by giving the wheel to the guys who evaluate all these players for a living.

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I reached out to GMs, personnel executives and pro scouting directors across the NFL, asking them for picks for MVP, Offensive Player of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Offensive Rookie of the Year, Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Coach of the Year.

On short notice (I did want Week 9 to be complete, and we were doing this on the fly to begin with), we were able to assemble a panel of 18. They were asked only for the winners in each category, meaning all of these votes are first-places, and then we circled back with a few of them for some color afterwards.

Here are the results, along with some comments from those who voted for the winners, and my own picks, made before I went out and took this vote …


Winner: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (6.5 votes)
Also receiving votes: Rams RB Todd Gurley (6), Saints QB Drew Brees (5.5)

AFC exec who voted for Mahomes: “It’s his ability to create and extend plays with eyes downfield—good mobility, and no fear taking chances at appropriate times. Can make all the throws with high velocity, and he makes it difficult on your coverage to stick and sustain while he runs around.”

My take: I gave it to you already. Brees is my pick. Mahomes has been outstanding too. I won’t be mad at you if you picked him. The end.

Offensive Player of the Year

Winner: Mahomes (8.5 votes)
Also receiving votes: Gurley (4.5), Brees (4), Vikings WR Adam Thielen (1)

AFC pro scouting director who voted for Mahomes: To start, the guy has put up impressive numbers and is the No. 1 reason the Chiefs are one of the top teams in the NFL. No disrespect to Alex Smith, but the Chiefs with Mahomes is a much scarier playoff prospect And the poise and the ability he has shown to make plays in critical situations is impressive for a first -ear starter. He’s arguably outperformed every QB in the league.”

My take: I took Gurley. And really, this award is always up for interpretation—it has been 32 years since a defensive player won MVP, so it’s fair to question what separates MVP and Offensive Player of Year. I usually try and find the player whose individual performance was most impressive. That was Gurley last year. I believe it’s Gurley (1,230 scrimmage yards, 12 touchdowns through nine games) again this year. Three of those who voted Mahomes for OPOY also had him as MVP. Four more Mahomes OPOY voters had Gurley as MVP. And another vote, plus a half-vote, for Mahomas as OPOY came with Brees as MVP.

Defensive Player of the Year

Winner: Rams DL Aaron Donald (11 votes)
Also receiving votes: Vikings DE Danielle Hunter (3), Bears LB Khalil Mack (2), Panthers LB Luke Kuechly (1), Texans DL J.J. Watt (1)

NFC exec who voted for Donald: “F--- … Highly impactful and disruptive, makes big plays when they are needed most, gets the ball out. He’s the catalyst for that defense.”

My take: I figured this might be unanimous for Donald, and it was closer to unanimous than all the others except for Offensive Rookie. I just think so much of playing defense now, since it’s hard to consistently stop your opponent, is making the game-turning play, a la Brandon Graham in the Super Bowl. And while he’s good at pretty much everything, Donald has a particular knack for making those sorts of plays when it matters most.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

Winner: Giants RB Saquon Barkley (12 votes)
Also receiving votes: Falcons WR Calvin Ridley (3), Broncos RB Phillip Lindsay (1), 49ers OT Mike McGlinchey (1), Lions G Frank Ragnow (1)

AFC exec who voted for Barkley: “His pass game stuff is excellent. … Home-run ability, combo of size and speed, hands and route-runner …” (In other words, while there’s still a very valid argument to have over the wisdom in taking a running back second overall, there’s no question that Barkley can play.)

My take: I probably wouldn’t have taken him second overall if I was in the Giants’ position last April. But that’s a positional value discussion. We don’t, on the other hand, really have to have a talk on how good Barkley is. He has a legit shot at becoming the first 1,000/1,000 player of the millennium and just the third in NFL history, joining Marshall Faulk and Roger Craig. (As a rookie. Behind one of the shakiest lines in the league. It’s unbelievable.) And so while I like Ridley, believe there are a lot of good rookie linemen, and even considered Baker Mayfield until the last couple weeks, there’s no need to complicate this.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

Winner: Colts LB Darius Leonard (8 votes)
Also receiving votes: Chargers S Derwin James (4), Broncos DE Bradley Chubb (3), Browns CB Denzel Ward (2), 49ers LB Fred Warner (1)

AFC pro scouting director who voted for Leonard: “Athletic and rangy, he’s a versatile defender with a nose for the ball. Makes plays in the run game and can cover in space. Has some pass-rush ability. He’ll be a big-time player in this league for a long time.”

My take: Another one I agree with. A little story here … The Colts loved Roquan Smith pre-draft, and swallowed hard in passing on him to take Quenton Nelson. Is it possible they wound up with Nelson and a better ’backer than Smith? It just might be. Indy’s draft class has shown immense potential, to the point where last April is starting to look like an organizational turning point. And the best of the bunch to this point has been the second-round linebackers, more so than even the blue-chip guard taken at 6.

Coach of the Year

Winner: Andy Reid, Chiefs (8.5 votes)
Also receiving votes: Sean McVay, Rams (5), Bill Belichick, Patriots (2), Anthony Lynn, Chargers (1), Matt Nagy, Bears (1), Sean Payton, Saints (.5)

AFC GM on Reid: “Andy adapts his offense to what his players can do as well as anyone in the NFL. Even with players down on the offensive line, they have not missed a beat. He has a generational talent in Mahomes—every team that passed on him will regret it for years—and that combined with his ability to adapt and teach on offense, and the skill players they have is why they will be very hard to stop.”

My take: I gave it to Reid also, and my reasoning was pretty simple: He’s in his 20th year as a head coach, and yet he’s adapting his offense to what we’re seeing on Saturdays, and continuing to innovate as some of his stuck-in-the-mud peers have struggled to get untracked. His development of Patrick Mahomes, and vision for an offense around him, has been incredible. But I did think it was interesting that I didn’t get a single vote for Belichick until the eighth ballot was cast. I told that voter, an AFC exec, that his was the first vote for the New England icon. He responded, “Yeah, everyone is overthinking it. Or I don’t understand what Coach of the Year means. … Everyone knows who the best coach is. Not sure why it isn’t acknowledged through awards.” Then the second vote came in for Belichick, from another AFC exec, who I apprised of the feelings of the first Bill voter. “Not even a question to me,” he said. And that got me to thinking, maybe it shouldn’t be a question to any of us.

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Saints WR Dez Bryant:This one doesn’t need much explanation. One thing to watch as the Saints travel to Cincinnati—Bryant lost explosiveness at the end in Dallas, evident in the inches he lost on his vertical. What will he look like after 10 months away? I can’t wait to find out.

Titans CB Malcolm Butler: Last year, playing for a contract got into Butler’s head, and he admitted to me before the Super Bowl it affected his play. This year, he’s been worse than he was last year. And his former team comes to town Sunday. The Pats have a rep for finding the goat in an opposing defense. That’s Butler right now.

Eagles OTs Lane Johnson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai: Whether or not Johnson can go on his sprained MCL is worth closely watching. And whether it’s Johnson or Vaitai playing at right tackle against Dallas Sunday night, combatting DeMarcus Lawrence coming off that edge will be priority No. 1 for the Eagles.

Falcons QB Matt Ryan: Atlanta’s field general has been on fire since his underwhelming opener, posting passer ratings of 115 or better in six of his last seven games. And the Falcons are a week or two away from getting Deion Jones back. With a quarterback playing this way, and reinforcements coming on defense …

Seahawks OL coach Mike Solari: We normally don’t put coaches on here, but it’s necessary in this case. Aaron Donald has historically crushed the Seahawks, posting his eighth sack in nine career games against them in Week 5. So it’s on Solari, who has been a terrific hire for Pete Carroll, to find the best solutions with D.J. Fluker, Justin Britt and J.R. Sweezy at his disposal on the interior of the O-line.


Boston College DE Zach Allen (vs. Clemson, ABC, 8 p.m. ET): Allen isn’t Ed Oliver or Nick Bosa, but he’s in a big group of defensive linemen jockeying for position behind the super-elite in what’s an all-time bumper crop of edge rushers and defensive tackles. And this game is one of those that the scouts will pop in first when they dig into his evaluation, so the 6' 4", 285-pound senior has a chance to make a real impression. “Not sure he’ll run great, which could push him down a little, but he’s a great player with scheme versatility,” says a scout for an NFC team. “He’s a playmaker, capable of getting heat on the quarterback, but he’s not an edge rusher or real up-the-field type with speed—he beats you with leverage, hand use, size and tenacity.” The Tigers, by the way, start a true freshman at quarterback, and it stands to reason it will be a priority for BC to get to him. Allen should have chances.

Auburn DT Derrick Brown (at Georgia, ESPN, 7 p.m.): At 6' 5" and 325 pounds, Brown is the biggest hurdle (literally) that the Bulldogs will face in trying to get their vaunted run game established. And the 20-year-old is every bit as strong as he is big. “He’s a monster, just a huge man,” says one AFC scouting director. “He’s strong and, obviously, powerful in the run game. I think there are better pure rushers, but for a big man, he moves well. He’ll make his money knocking people back in the run game.” This will be a good game for scouts to check his motor, and they’ll be looking for any opportunity (and there won’t be many of them) to see him matched up with Georgia center Lamont Gaillard. The expectation is that he, ideally, projects as a 5-techinique end or a nose in a 3-4 in the pros. And he’s among the best of the big, run-stuffing types in this year’s draft class, behind Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence.


From GW (@Gordo19571): Gronk? What is up with him?

GW, I’d tell you that for one reason or another, Rob Gronkowski is absolutely not himself. And if you don’t believe it, I’d add that teams have told me that, on tape, it doesn’t look like he can run anymore. Over the last month we’ve seen opponents send less his way scheme-wise as a result. So that’s either as a result of injury—he’s still listed as having ankle and back injuries—or he’s slowing down.

I’d guess the former, with no assurances he’ll be able to return to form over time, like he did last year (he stumbled a little out of the gate in 2017). And if I’m the Patriots, I’d quietly tell him that he’ll get his incentives, and to take all the time he needs to get himself in position to be right as the season approaches its finish line.

One other thing on this: We’re probably going to hear more about retirement after the season. Once the door opens on that with great athletes, it doesn’t just shut. And it sure feels like this season has been as frustrating for Gronk as last year was.

From Charley COYS (@charlesrich82): Are the Texans lucky, or is 6-3 about right?

More than they’re lucky, I’d say the Texans are tough and clutch, and built in the way Bill O’Brien wants. But they’re also flawed. The offensive line and corner positions still present problems, and even with Demaryius Thomas, receiver depth is an issue. On the flip side, Deshaun Watson has returned to form, DeAndre Hopkins is as tough a cover as there is in the NFL, and the front seven is nasty.

Sure, the Bills and Broncos inflate the record, and the Texans did get the Jaguars when they were ripe for the picking. But what I like here is what O’Brien and new GM Brian Gaine were looking to build, searching for a certain type of player, is coming to life in the way the Texans play. They might be a draft class or two away from getting it totally right, but the arrow is pointing up in Houston.

From Poncie C (@Poncie916): Do you think Gruden’s plan is going to work for the Raiders? Starting next year of course …

First off, Poncie, I think you realistically need to be looking to 2020—that’s really what Jon Gruden’s building towards. And in Gruden’s defense, he tried to tell all of us that the roster had a long way to go (he certainly told me that, and pretty directly). You can argue over whether he was right—they were 12-4 in 2016—but once you accept that’s how he felt, it’s easier to understand why Oakland dealt Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper.

Will it work? Gruden’s track record for developing young players wasn’t great in his first stint in Oakland or in Tampa. He relied on vets in those places. But he’s got a staff of rock-solid teachers, and no one has more draft capital over the next few years. How they spend that capital will go a long way to determining Gruden’s fate, as will the development of guys like Kolton Miller, Arden Key and Maurice Hurst.

There’s also the matter of quarterback Derek Carr, who is seen by some as a tough fit—a spread quarterback in a West Coast world—for Gruden’s offense.

From Jordon Husman (@HusmanJordon): What will it take for the Cowboys to fire Jason Garrett?

This isn’t the first year that I’ve had to check in with people in Dallas on this question. I’d say the tone of the responses I’m getting is different than before, and so I do think Garrett is coaching for his job—particularly with the idea of Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley hovering here. And I think if the Cowboys miss the playoffs, moving on is something the Jones family would discuss.

That said, firing Garrett wouldn’t be like firing anyone else for Jerry Jones. Jones green-lighted Garrett being in game-planning meetings when Garrett was still a player, to prepare him to coach, and hired him as an assistant before picking Wade Phillips as head coach in 2007. Jones changed the way NFL assistants are paid in 2008 to keep him, when Atlanta and Baltimore were in pursuit, and didn’t hesitate to promote Garrett in 2011.

Simply put, I think Jones would view Garrett’s failure as his own failure, and so my belief has always been it would be hard for Jones to pull the plug on him.

From Jordan Shiley Jr. (@no_not_shirley): What impact does Lev Bell have on offense if/when he returns?

He could teach the guys to tweet upside down? So there’s that. And Bell’s versatility lends itself to playing together with James Conner. He’s a good enough receiver where you can move him all over the formation. Plus, Bell being back would allow for the Steelers to back off a bit on Conner’s workload, and so long as he’s in shape, the idea of bringing the fresh legs of All-Pro to table in November is terrifying.

The bigger question for me is how he fits back in with his teammates, and whether or not he makes an effort to bury the hatchet with those he ticked off. Steelers linemen, for example, spoke out against Bell in September because they’d been told he’d be back for Week 1, and when he didn’t show they couldn’t get ahold of him. How are those types of things worked out? And does Bell care to work them out?

We’ll get answers soon, of course. Either he shows up Tuesday, or his season is over.

From Chris M. (@Bmoreravensscm): Do the Ravens make a push and make the playoffs? Does Lamar Jackson start before the end of the season?

These two questions are interrelated—if the Ravens fall out of the race, I think it’s fair to say we see more of Jackson. Even if they just continue to teeter, we might see him. And man, it’s not looking great if you check out the schedule. Baltimore already has five losses with games against the Bengals, Falcons, Chiefs and Chargers still ahead. I’m gonna say they don’t make the playoffs.

And if they don’t make the playoffs, bigger questions arise. John Harbaugh might be gone (and, to steal a phrase, would be unemployed for about five minutes). Joe Flacco almost certainly would be. And then, new GM Eric DeCosta would have the interesting task of finding the right staff to work with Jackson, not to mention a talented defense. Interesting days ahead, either way, in Maryland.

From Carlos David (@carlosdavidmzt): If you could start one more NFL franchise in any city you want, where would you choose and why?

Let’s wrap it up here: Austin/San Antonio, Texas. I’m tempted to say San Diego or Portland, because I think both would support a team under the right circumstances, or St. Louis, because I’m not sure those fans deserved to lose their team.

But I have a soft spot for Austin. I had my bachelor party there. That place is awesome, and no one who’s been there would deny that. And the city itself probably isn’t big enough for its own NFL team, so I’d sell the team as San Antonio/Austin (with it marketed to a robust fan base in Mexico as well), but the team would be in Austin. Because Austin is awesome.

Enjoy the week, everyone!

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