My annual early awards survey was completed this week by high-ranking executives from 23 NFL teams, including 10 general managers. All 23 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 Matt Okada.
Most Valuable Player
It was a two-man race between Aaron Rodgers (11 votes) and Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (eight), the rare non-QB to make an MVP case.
"I'd love to not say he's the guy, because he's easy to root against," said an executive for an NFC team, "but f---ing Aaron Rodgers, [he's] amazing."
At age 38 and playing with a fractured pinkie toe the past two months, Rodgers leads all qualified passers this season in QB win percentage (.846), touchdown-to-interception ratio (30:4) and passer rating (110.4). The last QB to lead in all three categories was Rodgers back in 2011, when he won the first of his three NFL MVP awards; a fourth this year would make him the first repeat MVP since Peyton Manning in 2008 and '09.
"I don't think they're the same team without him," said another NFC exec. "They've got good defense and everything, but Rodgers makes them who they are."
The Packers are 11-3, while the Colts have rallied from a 1-4 start to 8-6 by riding Taylor, who's on the short list of backs who can run with power and strength but also create explosive gains even when things aren't blocked perfectly. He's on pace to eclipse 1,800 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns -- thresholds crossed by only three running backs in NFL history, who all won MVP the year they accomplished the feat (Terrell Davis in 1998, Shaun Alexander in 2005 and LaDainian Tomlinson in '06).
"He's kind of taken the team on his shoulders, which is hard to do for a runner, and he's taken over games," said an AFC executive. "Most of their big games, he's taken over."
Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady received two votes. Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert and Rams receiver Cooper Kupp each got one.
Defensive Player of the Year
With eight votes, T.J. Watt won a divided race, doubling the four votes of the runner-up, dynamic Cowboys rookie linebacker Micah Parsons.
Watt leads the NFL in sacks (17.5), QB hits (30) and sack rate (6.0% of pass-rush snaps, the highest in the Next Gen Stats era, which began in 2016) despite playing in just 12 games this season, missing one because of a groin injury and another due to hip/knee ailments. He also missed half of a Week 14 game against the Vikings due to a groin injury. Only Pro Football Hall of Famer Reggie White averaged more sacks per game (1.75 in the strike-shortened 1987 campaign) than Watt (1.46), who still has a shot to take down Michael Strahan's single-season sack record of 22.5 -- and can impact the game in other ways, too.
"He can rush the passer and he can drop and he does a lot of multiple things for their defense," said an NFC executive. "He's not just a pass rusher only."
Said an AFC executive: "He's not the most gifted dude, but he's relentless."
Also receiving votes were Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs (three), Browns DE Myles Garrett (three), Chargers edge rusher Joey Bosa (two), Rams DT Aaron Donald (one), Bears OLB Robert Quinn (one) and Rams CB Jalen Ramsey (one).
Offensive Rookie of the Year
It was a tight race between Mac Jones (11 votes) and Bengals receiver Ja'Marr Chase (nine) -- two players who won college national titles and have made an immediate impact on NFL teams coming off losing seasons that now lead their respective divisions in a crowded AFC playoff race.
Jones' 69.0 percent completion rate this season would be the highest by a rookie in NFL history, eclipsing Dak Prescott (67.8%, 2016), Justin Herbert (66.6%, 2020) and Ben Roethlisberger (66.4%, 2004), who all won Offensive Rookie of the Year. The fifth QB off the board back in April, Jones has helped the Patriots to a 9-5 record; all other rookie QBs this season are a combined 7-36.
"He's poised beyond his years," said an AFC executive. "He has less 'rookie moments' than the others, but really processes quickly within their offense, moves the team. He plays in rhythm, doesn't turn over the ball too much. He just plays like a vet."
As an NFC exec put it: "He's making the least critical mistakes at the most prominent position and really turned that team around."
Chase leads all rookies with 1,038 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns (on 61 catches). Only three other rookies in the Super Bowl era have eclipsed 60 receptions, 1,000 yards and 10 receiving TDs; two of them, Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr., won Offensive Rookie of the Year.
"I would definitely go Chase over Mac," said another exec for an NFC team. "(Justin) Herbert last year had more of an impact than Mac Jones has with New England. I can see Herbert in (Jones). But I think Chase has had more impact."
Falcons TE Kyle Pitts, Chargers OT Rashawn Slater and Dolphins WR Jaylen Waddle received one vote each.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
It was a runaway for Micah Parsons, who received 20 votes to Broncos cornerback Pat Surtain II's three.
"Micah's having a hell of a year," said an NFC executive. "Every time we study them, he's making plays all over the joint. And he's such a versatile piece. Whether he's playing off the edge, playing in the middle, dropping, moving forward -- he's sideline to sideline. He's easily the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and I don't know that he's not the Defensive Player of the Year."
Though Parsons is primarily an off-the-ball linebacker, the Cowboys were infatuated with his pass-rushing ability during the pre-draft process and have even used him at defensive end for stretches because of injuries. His 12 sacks for a vastly improved Dallas defense this season are tied with Bradley Chubb for the most by a rookie in the past decade, and three more would break Jevon Kearse's 22-year-old rookie record of 14.5. The last two players to win Defensive Rookie of the Year -- Chase Young and Nick Bosa -- had fewer sacks in an entire season than Parsons has in his past seven games (9.5).
"Really, the pass rush is what separates him," said an AFC executive. "He's just got an incredible get-off, burst, so explosive, can beat you with speed, speed-to-power [and he's] getting a better arsenal."
Coach of the Year
It's been a running joke in the NFL that Bill Belichick could've been Coach of the Year virtually every season for the past two decades, yet he's won the recognized award from the Associated Press just three times, the last in 2010. (He has won three Super Bowls since.) That makes Belichick's runaway win (11 votes) in this poll long overdue.
"He's just kind of reinvented himself," said an AFC executive. "Not the scheme, but whole new free agency (approach), spent all the money, got a rookie quarterback, bunch of new pieces and it's all kind of come together. Took a year off, and now they're back. It's amazing what he's doing."
After a 7-9 finish in the first season of the post-Tom Brady era -- missing the playoffs for the first time since Brady was sidelined by a knee injury in 2008 -- Belichick has the Patriots atop the AFC East again. They rank No. 1 in scoring defense (16.2 points per game) with 27 takeaways and 33 sacks.
"The one thing that stood out when they were struggling early -- (Belichick) made adjustments to the defense and all of a sudden their defense started to play really well," said an NFC executive. "That's because of who he is and knowing his personnel and adjusting his scheme accordingly to what's working. He's one of the rare birds that will change things up to fit the personnel. That's why he is who he is."
The Ravens' John Harbaugh, Cardinals' Kliff Kingsbury, Packers' Matt LaFleur and Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn received two votes each. The Rams' Sean McVay, Chargers' Brandon Staley, Bengals' Zac Taylor and Titans' Mike Vrabel each received one.
Executive of the Year
That's not a mistake. Bill Belichick not only won Coach of the Year in this poll -- the league's top general managers and personnel men also acknowledged him for the way he's overhauled the Patriots' roster in concert with director of player personnel Dave Ziegler and the team's personnel staff.
With seven votes, Belichick edged out Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, who received six. Four executives, including two GMs, voted for Belichick for both awards; 14 of 23 ballots had Belichick's name in at least one spot. (Ziegler also received a vote for top exec.)
Since Super Bowl LV in February, the Patriots have spent $312.1 million on free-agent contracts -- by far the most of any NFL team -- and appear to have found their quarterback of the future in Mac Jones.
"It usually doesn't work out," an AFC executive said of the offseason spending spree. "We have so many examples of it not working out, so it really takes a good coach to get everyone on the same page and your culture, and then they drafted well, with (defensive tackle Christian) Barmore and (running back Rhamondre) Stevenson. They've done a nice job."
Gutekunst weathered the offseason Aaron Rodgers storm and tweaked the franchise's longstanding approach to roster-building, making important additions not only through the draft (cornerback Eric Stokes) but also via trades (receiver Randall Cobb) and free-agent signings (De'Vondre Campbell, Rasul Douglas). Even Rodgers has complimented the personnel work that went into an 11-3 start and a third straight NFC North title despite a string of injuries to key players.
"The way he's handled the (Rodgers) situation," said an AFC executive. "Bit of a reach on the corner, Stokes, but he's played well, has gotten snaps out of Rasul Douglas, and a fourth-round rookie OL (right guard Royce Newman) that has played every snap."
Colts GM Chris Ballard and the Cowboys' front-office triumvirate of Jerry Jones, Stephen Jones and Will McClay received three votes each. Bucs GM Jason Licht and Chargers GM Tom Telesco got one. (One exec abstained.)