My annual early awards survey this year was completed this week by high-ranking executives from 22 NFL teams, including nine general managers. All 22 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, with help from statistics compiled by NFL Media researcher Brandon Mendoza:
Most Valuable Player: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
It's a two-man race in many executives' minds, but the final tally wasn't close: The Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes received 13 votes, beating out the Packers' Aaron Rodgers (six votes). "You can't stop him," an executive for an NFC team said of Mahomes, who won the MVP award two years ago. "He is the hardest player to stop in the league. Rodgers is right there. But this guy (Mahomes) -- he makes the unique look routine. He's unbelievable." Mahomes' 2020 campaign is just the fifth instance in NFL history of a QB posting at least 13 wins, 35 touchdown passes and fewer than 10 interceptions in a season; the other players to accomplish the feat (Tom Brady in 2007 and 2010, Rodgers in 2011 and Lamar Jackson last season) won the MVP award after those historic performances. Rodgers leads the NFL with 40 touchdown passes and a 118.0 passer rating, but Mahomes leads the league in passing yards (4,462) for the 13-1 Chiefs, who have played a tougher schedule based on opponent win percentage, particularly on the road. Mahomes arguably has better weapons overall, but multiple executives pointed out Rodgers' offensive line is better. And as one exec for an AFC team put it in giving Mahomes the nod: "He's just probably capable of a little more freaky s---." Bills quarterback Josh Allen received two votes. Titans running back Derrick Henry got one.
Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
A landslide for Aaron Donald, who received 19 of 22 votes. As one executive for an NFC team said: "It's always him, isn't it?" Donald is one of four defenders since the 1970 merger to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven seasons, joining legends Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas and Patrick Willis. Donald's 12.5 sacks this season are tied for second in the NFL behind only Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who has 13. "You can't block him with one, and then he beats two a lot of the time," another exec said of Donald. "He's a game-wrecker you need to account for every play, in both phases. He's one of the few D-tackles that can take over a game." Watt received two votes. Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard received one.
Offensive Rookie of the Year (tie): Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers; Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Quarterbacks usually have an edge for these awards, but Justin Jefferson needs 196 yards over the next two games to break Anquan Boldin's single-season rookie record -- a remarkable pace that helped Jefferson match Justin Herbert's 10.5 votes. "I don't feel like they miss (Stefon) Diggs," an executive for an NFC team said. "That's a big role to fill." The Vikings traded Diggs in March to Buffalo, where he leads the NFL with 111 catches. But Jefferson -- the 22nd overall pick in April's draft -- became the first rookie receiver in five years to make the Pro Bowl with huge numbers of his own: 73 catches for 1,182 yards and seven touchdowns, despite playing in a run-first offense that revolves around Dalvin Cook. Meanwhile, Herbert has completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 3,781 yards and 27 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions since making an emergency start in Week 2, never giving back the job. "I'm so impressed with that kid," another exec for an NFC team said of Herbert, the No. 6 overall pick and third QB drafted after Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. "We loved him coming out, but we just didn't know if he had the juice as a guy, and he's been that and then some. All the physical attributes you thought were there, are there, and then there's a little bit more to him than that. The team seems to be following him, and they're going to going forward." The other vote went to Buccaneers right tackle Tristan Wirfs.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Chase Young, DE, Washington Football Team
The No. 2 overall draft pick, Chase Young leads all rookies with 5.5 sacks and is the only NFL player this season with at least five sacks, three forced fumbles and a defensive touchdown, despite missing two games with a thigh injury and playing at less than 100 percent at times. One executive for an NFC franchise whose team faced Young when he was at full strength said simply: "It's impressive." He received 11 votes to edge out Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn (eight votes), who arrived with significantly less fanfare as a late second-round pick (64th overall) out of Southern Illinois, but has produced in a big way: 100 tackles to lead all rookies, plus a sack, an interception, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries both returned for touchdowns. "You can do so many things with him," another exec said. "He's a hybrid. Run game, he's a force. He can cover tight ends. He's really, really good." Ravens linebacker Patrick Queen, Colts safety Julian Blackmon and Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. received one vote each.
Coach of the Year: Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills
McDermott is the winner here for a second year in a row, having led the Bills to their first AFC East title since 1995, with the best record (11-3) of any team whose opponents' winning percentage is above .500. He received 7.5 votes to beat out Cleveland's Kevin Stefanski (6.5) and Miami's Brian Flores (6). "He's easy to overlook, because they've been such a steady, progressing program," an NFC team executive said of McDermott, who is now 36-26 with three playoff trips in four seasons. "But I think he still needs to get credit for a team that hadn't been in the playoffs in very long, hadn't won a division in very long and just won a division that's been a monopoly for 20 years." Despite the challenges associated with COVID-19, which shuttered NFL facilities and wiped out offseason practices and preseason games, Stefanski has turned the Browns around in his first season as a head coach. They're 10-4 and closing in on their first playoff bid since 2002; the NFL's other four first-year coaches are a combined 20-36. "Off the field's probably where he's done the best," another executive said. "The fact that it was a quarantine (but he) changed the whole culture quickly. Everyone's bought in. I just think he's such a refreshing change from what they had, and he gets it, and he's got a good staff. They don't do things just to do them -- there's always a reason." Flores also has the Dolphins in the AFC playoff picture in his second season, after somehow winning five games with a bare-bones roster in 2019. "What he's doing with that team is really impressive," said a third exec. "Defensively, they have exceeded expectations. I think they've got talent there, but they're playing above their level of talent. And they have a style and they dictate the tempo of the game." Kansas City's Andy Reid and Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin received one vote each.
Executive of the Year: Brandon Beane, Buffalo Bills
The Stefon Diggs trade was a bold stroke by Beane, who was the runaway winner here with 11 votes. He ate a mountain of dead salary cap space in his second season in 2018 to move on from cultural misfits, fix the Bills' cap situation and equip them to make moves like the Diggs deal. In his first draft with Buffalo, it appears Beane found a franchise quarterback in Josh Allen -- a polarizing prospect who has since developed into one of the game's ascending stars at age 24. "The main thing is just the type of players he's brought in and they've bought in and they fit the coach's vision," an NFC team executive said of Beane, who rose through the ranks over 19 years in Carolina before reuniting with his former Panthers colleague McDermott in Buffalo after the 2017 draft. The exec continued: "It's evident that he and McDermott are on the same page. And to get the franchise quarterback that early in their tenure is huge. That's kind of what turns it. They're going to play good defense, and they hit on some defensive players. And it's never easy making a trade like that for Diggs, obviously, and for him to do that and hit on it says volumes." Also receiving votes were Miami's Chris Grier (three), Cleveland's Andrew Berry (three), Indianapolis' Chris Ballard (two), Pittsburgh's Kevin Colbert (one), Kansas City's Brett Veach (one) and Tampa Bay's Jason Licht (one).