Who will take home the major NFL awards?
By JOHN WESTENBERGER
College Contributor Network
The NFL regular season is quickly coming to a close. Ten out of the twelve playoff spots have been clinched, with seeding the only question with one week to go. There have been perennial powers, dark horses, great quarterback play, and awe-inspiring rookie performances in yet another fantastic season. As fans and analysts gear up for the postseason, the talk about what players, coaches, and front office members should take home awards will start to heat up. Here is my take on who should take home the hardware.
NFL Executive of the Year
A relatively unknown award might be getting a lot of publicity this year if Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones takes this one home. After an offseason of doubts -- many proclaiming that the Cowboys would struggle to even play .500 football -- Dallas will be tied for the most wins in the NFC should they beat the Washington Redskins Sunday.
A strong offseason started with Jones pulling the trigger on a trade for retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker Rolando McClain. Widely considered a bust after being selected 8th overall by the Oakland Raiders in the 2010 draft -- McClain was beckoned out of retirement by the Dallas owner after their defensive anchor Sean Lee tore his ACL in an offseason workout. As it turns out, the troubled Alabama product has become the new anchor for the rejuvenated Cowboys' defense, and they will look to change Lee's position next season to make room for both players.
The other move that will earn Jones major applause from his peers was his decision to draft Notre Dame's stud offensive lineman Zack Martin while Texas A&M quarterback and celebrity Johnny Manziel was on the board. Jones has admitted since that it was not easy for him to leave Manziel on the board, but Martin has been Tony Romo's best offensive lineman on a front unit that could be the league's best. The quarterback, coming off his second back surgery and needing help up front, has had his best season as a Cowboy thanks to his owner and general manager making the correct, but less sexy pick.
The owner who usually makes headlines for making off the wall comments, can put his resume as general manager up against any other executive in the NFL this season. After a failed marriage with former coach Jimmy Johnson -- much of which was blamed on Jones and his first NFL hire fighting over credit -- Jones can finally hang his hat on his outstanding personnel moves.
NFL Coach of the Year
The job that Bruce Arians has done as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals this year has been nothing short of spectacular. It appears like they may finally fall victim to the rash of injuries that have beleaguered this team, but Arians ability to hold the ship together and take the Cardinals to the playoffs should be awarded.
Most will point to the quarterback position, which now sees third stringer Ryan Lindley at the helm, as Arians biggest obstacle this season. With the weight put on that position, there is certainly no denying that Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton's injuries have crippled them, but the Cardinals also lost several other playmakers.
Pro Bowl linebacker Daryl Washington was suspended prior to the 2014 season, as well as three-time Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett missing the entire season due to injury. The team has also had Tyrann Mathieu, Calais Campbell, Andre Ellington, and John Abraham miss significant time throughout the season. Still, Arians has never used the injuries as an excuse, and prior to Stanton going down with a knee injury, it appeared they would be major players in the NFC.
Stanton is slated to return in time for the playoffs, but even if the Cardinals don't manage any postseason success, it will not be because of Arians.
NFL Comeback Player of the Year
This will be perhaps the hardest award to give out. The aforementioned Rolando McClain has been an inspiring story, Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones has returned from a foot injury in tremendous fashion, and Eagles wide out Jeremy Maclin has made an incredible return from a torn ACL. However, outside of quarterbacks, there may not have been a bigger impact player in the NFL this season than Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski.
With Gronkowski back in the lineup full time after a lost season last year -- dealing with forearm and a season-ending knee injury -- the tight end helped Tom Brady turn back the clock a few years as New England ran through the AFC. "Gronk" has had a monster season of 82 catches, 1,124 yards, and 12 touchdowns after many had questioned if he could ever dominate again.
After the Patriots aggressively pursued defensive help with the signings of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, it has been argued that a new-look defense is responsible for the Patriots' resurgence. However, the offense appears to be on a different level with the emergence of a true threat in the middle of the field. Capable of scoring with anyone now, the Patriots are the favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl thanks to Gronkowski.
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Texans pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney was supposed to enter the league and take it by storm. A knee injury robbed him of his rookie season -- maybe even his career. With Clowney out of the picture, Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald stole the show.
Donald was drafted 13th overall with the Rams' second pick of the first round out of the University of Pittsburgh. The undersized tackle has made an immediate impact on perhaps the NFL's best defensive line. Donald was able to crack the talented lineup early. The Rams investment was returned with an early payoff of eight sacks in Donald's debut campaign -- an impressive sack total for an interior lineman. In fact, those totals put him in company with tackles Gerald McCoy, Ndamukong Suh, and Marcel Dareus. Paired with exciting talents Robert Quinn and Chris Long, the pass rush in St. Louis looks healthy for years to come.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Once an afterthought after missing four games, Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is almost a slam dunk for this award at this point. What is even more impressive is that he will secure the award despite outstanding seasons from fellow wide outs Mike Evans and Sammy Watkins. Other impact rookies included Dallas' Martin and Kelvin Benjamin.
However, since Beckham Jr stepped on the field, his talent has absolutely jumped off the screen. His rookie highlight reel will be impressive, and he will boast one of the best catches of all time as well. Beckham has accrued his first 1,000 yard season and 11 touchdowns in just eleven games to this point. The NFL has not seen this type of rookie season by a wide receiver since Randy Moss dominated the league in 1998. If Beckham can keep up this type of play, he might be in the running for more prestigious awards than this one down the road.
Defensive Player of the Year
If Texans defensive end J.J. Watt doesn't win this award unanimously, then it will surely never happen. It is not that the league is down in defensive talent, rather that Watt is just clearly the most talented football player on the planet. Despite offenses scheming their game plan around Watt, he has still notched 17.5 sacks and two defensive scores.
In a year that pass rusher Justin Houston puts up 18 sacks, and Darrelle Revis is back to putting receivers on an island -- it is Watt who is the unquestionable Defensive Player of the Year. It is not even debated at this point, as most would rather turn their focus on comparing Watt to the all-time greats instead. Watt's accomplishments have even got his name thrown into the MVP conversation, but it appears unlikely a defensive player could win the award. Nonetheless, Watt has secured his status as a transcendent player of this generation.
Offensive Player of the Year
I do believe that Tony Romo and Aaron Rodgers are going to split the Offensive Player of the Year and MVP awards. With Rodgers having a chance to get his team a first-round bye next Sunday against the Lions, Romo will come up just shy in his MVP efforts. It has been truly stunning that Romo has come so far from his early season struggles to get his back healthy. Once gaining his bearings, the quarterback has guided the Cowboys to their first playoff appearance since 2009.
A balanced offensive attack is spear-headed by the veteran quarterback who has thrown up 32 touchdowns to just eight interceptions while missing one game. All circumstances considered, this has been Romo's best season to date. A stretch run of the his last three December contests that had his team go 3-0 while he threw for 10 touchdowns and no interceptions has launched Romo into the major award conversation.
Most Valuable Player
Any quarterback who throws for 36 touchdown passes with only five interceptions is going to win the most valuable player award. With a revamped defense and running game, Aaron Rodgers has been able to shine bright once again. Rodgers has been tremendous with his arm and his feet as his artillery of weapons have enjoyed fantastic seasons as well.
The presence of Rodgers appears to one of only a few threats to dethrone the Seattle Seahawks this season. The Packers will need help should they hope to get home-field advantage, but they shouldn't feel helpless should they need to take to the road. Although Rodgers and Green Bay were shut down in their matchup with the Seahawks to begin the NFL season, the MVP-to-be will surely be given a punchers chance because he is so supremely talented.
John Westenberger is a journalism student at Rutgers University. He's passionate and hungry to cover any and all sports, but his true love lies in football and the Dallas Cowboys! Follow him on Twitter: @GuardtheStar