When it comes to picking the NFL MVP, I'm a production guy. Forget a player's reputation or the cachet he carries with him. I want to know what he's done this season.
Although we still have four weeks to go in the 2013 campaign, I thought I'd take an early look at the MVP race. These six players are performing at a high level and helping their respective teams win. Some of the names might be surprising, especially when it comes to the order in which they're listed. But I'm not concerned with projecting who will nab the award based on what voters might be thinking. I'm concerned solely with listing the league's most valuable players based on what has transpired over the past 13 weeks.
1) Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson is amazing, as we're seeing with the phenomenal way he's begun his young career. In his first two seasons, he's thrown 48 touchdown passes (third-most in NFL history, behind Dan Marino's 68 and Peyton Manning's 52 over their first two campaigns) and won 22 games (tied with Ben Roethlisberger for the most), including 14 consecutive home victories. And he still has four games to play. He's done all that with a receiving corps that includes three former undrafted free agents (Doug Baldwin, Jermaine Kearse and Ricardo Lockette) and an offensive line that was without two key pieces (Breno Giacomini and Russell Okung) for a large stretch of this season.
What makes Wilson special is his versatility at quarterback. He can run the read option or Wildcat just as easily as he can win in a traditional passing scheme. He's also very smart. When he runs the option, he's extremely focused; as soon as the defense makes a mistake, he exploits it.
Wilson is still somewhat underrated, thanks in part to his height (5-foot-11) and the fact that he plays in the Pacific Northwest; though his dominant performance in Monday night's 34-7 win over the New Orleans Saints helped correct that a bit. The bottom line is, one day I think we'll talk about him in the same way we currently talk about guys like Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. He has that kind of ability.
2) Nick Foles, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Few have been better lately than Foles, who is just the third player in NFL history to have started a season with at least 16 touchdown passes and zero interceptions, joining Manning (who also did it this year) and Milt Plum (who did it for the Browns in 1960). Passer rating is one of the most accurate indicators of an ability to win games, and Foles is No. 1 in the NFL (125.2); the third-round draft pick has topped 100 in five of six starts this season. Foles has a 5-1 record as a starter in 2013 despite having very little experience and playing for a coach who was largely an unknown quantity heading into the season. Not many expected Chip Kelly's team to win more than six games, and here the Eagles are, tied with the Cowboys for the NFC East lead at 7-5 behind a quarterback who began the year as a backup.
Foles is tall and doesn't appear especially athletic, but he does have some moves. Namely, he knows how to sidestep the first defender and throw an accurate long ball. In that way, he's similar to Marino, who wasn't fast but knew how to slide and create an opportunity to get the pass off.
I recently talked to Raiders coach Dennis Allen about Foles, who memorably tied an NFL record by throwing seven touchdown passes at Oakland in Week 9. Allen said he couldn't believe the way Foles threw the ball long, praising the quarterback for his amazing touch.
We could have something like a Tom Brady story on our hands here, if on a lesser scale. Although Foles broke many of Drew Brees' records at Westlake High School (Austin, Texas), he didn't win many games at Arizona, and thus didn't generate much buzz. Still, he was working in an offense that lacked structure. And yet, he managed to become the Wildcats' all-time leading passer (topping 10,000 yards in three seasons).
3) Peyton Manning, QB, Denver Broncos
The four-time MVP has topped 4,000 passing yards for the 13th time in his career, an NFL record. He's thrown 41 touchdown passes through his first 12 games of the season -- the second-most in NFL history, behind only the mark he set in 2004 (when he threw 44). And, remarkably, he's done it all as a 37-year-old playing behind an offensive line that includes a former member of the Vikings' practice squad (Chris Clark).
Manning's understanding of the game is unmatched, and he has the Broncos leading the league in offense with 458.5 yards per contest. He also owns the NFL's second-best completion percentage this season at 68.1 -- especially notable when one considers that half of his games thus far have been played in Denver, which does not always provide the most hospitable football environment.
Placing Manning behind Wilson and Foles might raise a few eyebrows, but remember, this list is based only on this season. If I were to pick a quarterback based on the play of the past 13 weeks, this is how I would slot them -- though of course it would be very, very close. Don't forget that Manning benefits from the presence of outstanding playmakers (Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker).
4) Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers
You like a guy who can keep a team up when things are down, and Newton would seem to fit the bill, considering that he helped lead the Panthers to an eight-game winning streak after a 1-3 start. A rough 2012 ended with Newton playing better, and that trend continued in 2013. He has improved his passing skills while learning to take sacks rather than trying to force throws. Crucially, Newton also has the ability to get the Panthers out of trouble with his feet -- one minute, they could be struggling, and the next, he's ripping off a 50-yard dash.
Newton, with whom I talk regularly, has become more mature under new offensive coordinator Mike Shula. I spent three days at Panthers training camp both this year and during Newton's rookie season, and the difference in how he acted was huge. He's become a leader who does what it takes to put his team in position to win.
The quarterback still has his share of critics, but I think in many cases those people are simply unwilling to eat crow. After all, he has Carolina rolling despite not having much in the way of receiver help, and any time you can win as many games in a row as he has, you're doing something right.
5) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
It might be unusual to list two players from the same team, but Kuechly is an extremely valuable playmaker in the middle for Carolina, collecting 266 tackles in 28 NFL games while leading one of the league's better defenses (less than 290 yards allowed per contest in 2013). A competitor who never gives up, the candidate for Defensive Player of the Year plays with the skills of an exceptionally athletic running back.
He's also a true student of the game, a very smart asset for Carolina who excels at getting his teammates lined up correctly. In fact, I would venture to say he knows every assignment of all 11 guys on the field at any given time. Of course, it's exceedingly rare for a defensive player to be named MVP, but Kuechly's ability to help direct this unit makes him essential to the Panthers' success.
6) Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions
The bias away from receivers likely will keep Johnson from being named MVP, but he surely deserves a good number of votes. Most top pass catchers throughout league history had the benefit of playing with a complementary receiver -- Jerry Rice, for example, had John Taylor -- but Johnson has had none this season, meaning he's constantly double- and triple-teamed. And still, he's on pace for 1,700 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. Yes, quarterback Matthew Stafford is good, but Johnson is more responsible for the Lions' success; without Megatron, the team would not be atop the NFC North.
Johnson's virtues are many. He goes hard every play and never takes it easy. He's an "I'm even and I'm leavin' " type of guy, someone who has that extra gear that allows him to get separation. Defenders can stay with him for the first 10 yards of a route, and then Johnson just pulls away. And while we all know he's big (6-5, 236 pounds), it's hard to appreciate just how big he is until you stand next to him.
Why we didn't mention ...
... Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: He's a heckuva player, but I don't think he's been playing as well this season as he has before. He also seems to fall off a bit when he's not in the Superdome; the Saints are 3-3 on the road this season and 11-11 going back to 2011.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.