* Throughout the 2021 NFL season, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux will follow all of the NFL's award races as part of the Leader in the Clubhouse series. Here, he makes his predictions for each award before the 2021 season begins.
Believe it or not, football is finally here.
The reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers are set to host the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday, the opening matchup for the NFL's 102nd season. After that, 271 contests -- Covid permitting -- will follow in the league's first 17-game season.
As part of a new series here at NBC Sports Washington, Leader in the Clubhouse will be a series that focuses on each award race throughout the season, following the trends and seeing how each one changes during the 18-week span.
This week's inaugural edition is a bit different than what the weekly post will be, as this one will serve as season predictions. For every week following, this series will focus on which player (or coach) has the best odds to win each award, along with what the best value bets and longshots for each honor are. All odds are provided by NBC Sports partner, PointsBet USA.
So, without further ado, here are my predictions for each of the NFL's main annual awards...
Most Valuable Player
The NFL's biggest award has gone to eight straight quarterbacks. Thirteen of the last 14 MVP winners have been signal-callers, too. So, it'd be foolish to pick any other position for this award than QB.
Two of the last three winners, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, were first-time winners. I believe that trend will continue in 2021, as Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson (+1400) will take home his first-ever MVP trophy.
Through the first half of the 2020 season, Wilson appeared to have the MVP all but locked up. After Week 7 concluded, Wilson had already thrown for 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Had he continued that pace, he would have come significantly close to breaking Peyton Manning's single-season pass touchdown record of 55.
Wilson fell off towards the second half of the season, as he threw for just 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions in Seattle's final nine games. Postseason appearances don't count towards regular season awards like MVP, but it didn't help that the Seahawks' offense was completely stagnant in a Wild Card round loss to the Rams.
This year, though, expect a big bounce-back from Wilson. After making noise about wanting out earlier in the offseason, Wilson recommitted himself to the Seahawks. There's a new offensive coordinator in town, too. With stars Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf on the outside to throw to, along with free-agent tight end acquisition Gerald Evertt, Wilson should have plenty of chances to stockpile stats.
Wilson has the fifth-best odds to win MVP, behind Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Seattle will need Wilson to play on an MVP level to compete in the deep NFC West. I fully expect him to do that.
Other good bets: Matt Stafford (+1900), Ryan Tannehill (+2200)
Offensive Player of the Year
While quarterbacks can win this award, too, skill players are often recipients of this honor. Only one QB -- Patrick Mahomes in 2018 -- has taken home the OPOY award in the past four years.
In a pass-happy league, the Minnesota Vikings are one of the few clubs that want to remain a run-first club. Yes, wideouts Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen are studs, but Dalvin Cook is far and away the best player on this offense. And, his incredible production has gone on far too long without getting recognized. Dalvin Cook (+1600) is my choice for Offensive Player of the year.
Last year, Cook put up over 1,900 scrimmage yards (1,557 rushing, 361 receiving) with 17 total touchdowns. That campaign almost certainly would have won him OPOY last year, had Derrick Henry not eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark on the ground.
For Minnesota's offense to be successful, Cook needs to see 350-400 touches in 2021. Few players around the league see that volume. Cook, Henry, Alvin Kamara and Nick Chubb are among the few that could.
If Cook is able to stay healthy and put up similar numbers to what he did in 2020, the Offensive Player of the Year award is his.
Other good bets: Derrick Henry (+900), Alvin Kamara (+2000)
Defensive Player of the Year
I'm going to keep this one short and sweet: Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (+400) will win Defensive Player of the Year once again.
Donald is the best defensive player in the league. He's won this award three of the past four years, including last season. He's dominant year in and year out; it would take a career-year from any other player in the NFL to unset Donald from his fourth DPOY award.
Outside of Donald, Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt makes arguably the best case to win this award. But he's currently in a contract dispute with Pittsburgh and could potentially miss games because of it. Cleveland's Myles Garrett also makes a compelling case.
Other good bets: Chase Young (+1000), Joey Bosa (+1300)
Offensive Rookie of the Year
This award almost always goes to QBs, too. And with five first-round quarterbacks, this award could very easily go to any one of them. Three specifically -- Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones -- are Week 1 starters. San Francisco's Trey Lance and Chicago's Justin Fields shouldn't be too far behind.
When looking at past Rookie of the Year winners, it often goes to a player who is set up to succeed the best. For example, Justin Herbert, last year's winner, took over an offense with several established playmakers. Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry all undoubtedly made his life under center a whole lot easier.
That's why this year, Trey Lance (+750) is the best bet to win this award. Out of all five rookie QBs, Lance plays in an offense with the most playmakers. San Francisco has two rising star wideouts in Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk to go along with one of the NFL's few elite tight ends in George Kittle. No other rookie quarterback is working with that much talent.
Lance also has the benefit of playing under coach Kyle Shanahan, one of the league's best play-callers. Sure, Lance may not be the 49ers' Week 1 starter, but he's expected to be used in packages until he becomes the QB1. And once he does takeover, I expect him to be the best rookie of the bunch.
Other good bets: Justin Fields (+700), Najee Harris (+1000)
Defensive Rookie of the Year
Last year, Washington star Chase Young entered the season as the heavy favorite for this award. He lived up to expectations and by season's end, this award was clearly his. This year, there's no overwhelming favorite. The 2021 Draft was way more talented on the offensive side of the ball, with few prospects deemed 'generational the way Young was in 2020.
Defensive Rookie of the Year has been won by a defensive back just twice in two decades. It's usually a linebacker or a pass rusher that takes it home. Fit matters, too. Taking all of this into consideration, I'm going to go chalk here and take the betting favorite, Micah Parsons (+600), to win the award.
Parsons skipped the 2020 college football season but has shined in camp. The No. 12 overall pick is expected to have a big role in Dallas' defense right away, something other contenders for DROY -- Jamin Davis and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah -- might not have. Parsons is the favorite to win the award, but also the best bet to win it as well.
Other good bets: Patrick Surtain (+1100), Zaven Collins (+1500)
Comeback Player of the Year
If Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (+185) stays healthy for all of 2021 and turns in a season similar to any of his first four in the NFL, this award will be his. There's a reason why he's the heavy favorite to win it.
However, I'm going to go with a player who means just as much to his defense as Prescott does to Dallas' offense. That would be Chargers safety Derwin James (+1600).
As a rookie in 2018, James was selected named first-team All-Pro. Injuries have hampered him the past two years, though, as he played in just five games in 2019 before missing all of 2020.
When healthy, James is as good as they come. At +1600, James has great value for this award, too. If the Chargers standout plays all 16 games, he'll certainly challenge Prescott for this honor, if not beat him for it.
Other good bets: Saquon Barkley (+700), Nick Bosa (+900)
Coach of the Year
Last but not least is Coach of the Year, which is the hardest of them all to predict. So, it makes sense to take the long-shot approach here. That's why I'm choosing Titans' boss Mike Vrabel (+2500).
Tennessee has questions on the defensive side of the football, but their offense is now one of the NFL's best with the addition of Julio Jones. If the Titans' defense can just be average, Tennessee will win a bunch of games in 2021. And if they win 12-13 games, win the AFC South and finish as a top-three seed in their conference, Vrabel has as good of a shot to win the award as anyone.
Of course, Andy Reid, John Harbaugh and Sean McVay are always solid choices, as each one of their clubs is usually postseason bound on an annual basis.
Other good bets: John Harbaugh (+2200), Bruce Arians (+2200)