Published: Nov. 20, 2019 at 05:31 p.m.

Next Gen Stats: Key figures shaping the MVP race

We're taking a different approach with the Next Gen Stats photo essay this week, looking at the MVP race from a NGS perspective. We will examine each of the five players on Around The NFL editor Gregg Rosenthal's MVP Watch, as well as two other players who deserve to be in the conversation.

7 Photos Total

  • Russell Wilson has willed the Seahawks to an 8-2 record even though they have <a target="_blank" href="https://twitter.com/KevinColePFF/status/1196885381913952257">trailed for over half of their offensive plays in 2019</a>. The most impressive part of Wilson's game has been how well he's performed in high-difficulty situations, especially given his volume in those situations. Wilson has had 15.3% of his passes come on extended plays (4+ seconds to throw), the second-highest rate in the NFL, and he has averaged 9.6 yards per attempt (fourth-most) with a 129.9 passer rating (highest) on those passes. He has been aggressive throwing downfield, passing deep on 15.6% of his attempts (third-highest rate) while completing 16.9% of his deep passes above expectation (highest) for 7 TDs and 0 INTs. Although Wilson has excelled in high-leverage situations, he's also excelled in stable situations, with the highest passer rating (122.4) and second-most yards per attempt (9.2) when not pressured. 7

    Aaron M. Sprecher/Associated Press

    Russell Wilson: Delivering in difficult moments

    Russell Wilson has willed the Seahawks to an 8-2 record even though they have trailed for over half of their offensive plays in 2019. The most impressive part of Wilson's game has been how well he's performed in high-difficulty situations, especially given his volume in those situations. Wilson has had 15.3% of his passes come on extended plays (4+ seconds to throw), the second-highest rate in the NFL, and he has averaged 9.6 yards per attempt (fourth-most) with a 129.9 passer rating (highest) on those passes. He has been aggressive throwing downfield, passing deep on 15.6% of his attempts (third-highest rate) while completing 16.9% of his deep passes above expectation (highest) for 7 TDs and 0 INTs. Although Wilson has excelled in high-leverage situations, he's also excelled in stable situations, with the highest passer rating (122.4) and second-most yards per attempt (9.2) when not pressured.

  • Lamar Jackson has taken the league by storm in his sophomore season, making his doubters from the 2018 draft process eat crow. Anyone who still thinks Jackson can't be a superstar NFL QB can <a target="_blank" href="https://twitter.com/Ravens/status/1196177929568444416">go see Mark Ingram</a>. Jackson has been explosive and efficient on the ground, reaching 15+ mph on 55 runs (trailing only Dalvin Cook, who has 63 runs of 15+ mph and 99 more carries than Jackson). The threat of the QB run in the Ravens' option-based offense has made edge rushers more hesitant. Opposing edge rushers average 0.94 seconds to cross the line of scrimmage vs. the Ravens, the slowest pass rush get-off faced by any offense. This, combined with his pocket awareness and elusiveness, has given him the fifth-lowest pressure rate in the NFL (21.1%). Jackson has also shown great blitz recognition, throwing a TD on 13.8% of his attempts vs. the blitz (the only QB over 11%). 6

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Lamar Jackson: Blitz him at your own risk

    Lamar Jackson has taken the league by storm in his sophomore season, making his doubters from the 2018 draft process eat crow. Anyone who still thinks Jackson can't be a superstar NFL QB can go see Mark Ingram. Jackson has been explosive and efficient on the ground, reaching 15+ mph on 55 runs (trailing only Dalvin Cook, who has 63 runs of 15+ mph and 99 more carries than Jackson). The threat of the QB run in the Ravens' option-based offense has made edge rushers more hesitant. Opposing edge rushers average 0.94 seconds to cross the line of scrimmage vs. the Ravens, the slowest pass rush get-off faced by any offense. This, combined with his pocket awareness and elusiveness, has given him the fifth-lowest pressure rate in the NFL (21.1%). Jackson has also shown great blitz recognition, throwing a TD on 13.8% of his attempts vs. the blitz (the only QB over 11%).

  • Dak Prescott is making his case to become one of the NFL's highest-paid QBs when his rookie contract expires in March. Prescott's been one of the most aggressive quarterbacks pushing the ball downfield this season (9.9 air yards per attempt, third-highest in NFL), and he has the highest completion percentage (60.2%) on passes traveling 10+ air yards. He's also excelled on passes outside the numbers, which is considered one of the most difficult areas of the field for quarterbacks to throw for completions. Prescott leads the NFL in yards per attempt (9.8) and passer rating (116.1) on passes outside the numbers and his 70.1% completion percentage on such attempts is second among qualifying QBs. According to expected completion percentage, Prescott has attempted the third-most difficult passes (61.4% expected completion percentage) this season, but has completed 67.7% of passes, +6.3% above expectation (third-highest in NFL). 5

    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Dak Prescott: Career year for Cowboys star

    Dak Prescott is making his case to become one of the NFL's highest-paid QBs when his rookie contract expires in March. Prescott's been one of the most aggressive quarterbacks pushing the ball downfield this season (9.9 air yards per attempt, third-highest in NFL), and he has the highest completion percentage (60.2%) on passes traveling 10+ air yards. He's also excelled on passes outside the numbers, which is considered one of the most difficult areas of the field for quarterbacks to throw for completions. Prescott leads the NFL in yards per attempt (9.8) and passer rating (116.1) on passes outside the numbers and his 70.1% completion percentage on such attempts is second among qualifying QBs. According to expected completion percentage, Prescott has attempted the third-most difficult passes (61.4% expected completion percentage) this season, but has completed 67.7% of passes, +6.3% above expectation (third-highest in NFL).

  • Aaron Rodgers, enjoying what appears to be his first fully healthy season since 2016, has gotten back to his signature style, throwing on the run (8+ mph) on 19.9% of attempts (second-highest in the NFL) and extending plays (4+ seconds to throw) at an outlier rate (20.2%, only QB over 16%). A quarterback's pocket movement, as well as his ability to recognize pressure packages pre-snap and adjust protections accordingly, gives him <a target="_blank" href="https://www.pff.com/news/pro-z-quarterbacks-in-control-a-pff-data-study-of-who-controls-pressure-rates">significant control over his pressure rates</a>, and Rodgers has been pressured at the third-lowest rate (19.5%) in the NFL this season. Rodgers' command at the line of scrimmage has led teams to blitz him on just 23.3% of dropbacks (third-lowest rate in the NFL). When defenses blitz him, he's torched them for 10.4 yards per attempt (most in NFL) and 6 TDs with 0 INTs. 4

    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Aaron Rodgers: Dominating like old times

    Aaron Rodgers, enjoying what appears to be his first fully healthy season since 2016, has gotten back to his signature style, throwing on the run (8+ mph) on 19.9% of attempts (second-highest in the NFL) and extending plays (4+ seconds to throw) at an outlier rate (20.2%, only QB over 16%). A quarterback's pocket movement, as well as his ability to recognize pressure packages pre-snap and adjust protections accordingly, gives him significant control over his pressure rates, and Rodgers has been pressured at the third-lowest rate (19.5%) in the NFL this season. Rodgers' command at the line of scrimmage has led teams to blitz him on just 23.3% of dropbacks (third-lowest rate in the NFL). When defenses blitz him, he's torched them for 10.4 yards per attempt (most in NFL) and 6 TDs with 0 INTs.

  • It's very difficult in today's NFL to win the MVP award if you don't play QB, but Michael Thomas has been the focal point for a Saints team that is contending for a playoff bye despite losing Drew Brees for five games earlier this season. Thomas has exceeded his expected yards after catch on 52.1% of his receptions (fourth-highest rate among 55 WRs with 30+ receptions), despite having 19 more catches than any other WR. Thomas leads the NFL in target share (33.4%) and has accounted for the second-highest share of a team's air yards (41.8%), which is crazy given he averages 7.8 air yards per target (only player in top 10 who averages fewer than 11 air yards per target). Thomas has also caught +12.4% of his targets above expectation (fifth-highest in NFL, min. 50 targets) and gains 3.1 yards per route run (the only player in NFL over 3.0, min. 200 routes). Thomas has done most of his damage in the short area (0-9 air yards), where he has gained 595 yards (194 more than any other player). 3

    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Michael Thomas: Saints' reliable rock

    It's very difficult in today's NFL to win the MVP award if you don't play QB, but Michael Thomas has been the focal point for a Saints team that is contending for a playoff bye despite losing Drew Brees for five games earlier this season. Thomas has exceeded his expected yards after catch on 52.1% of his receptions (fourth-highest rate among 55 WRs with 30+ receptions), despite having 19 more catches than any other WR. Thomas leads the NFL in target share (33.4%) and has accounted for the second-highest share of a team's air yards (41.8%), which is crazy given he averages 7.8 air yards per target (only player in top 10 who averages fewer than 11 air yards per target). Thomas has also caught +12.4% of his targets above expectation (fifth-highest in NFL, min. 50 targets) and gains 3.1 yards per route run (the only player in NFL over 3.0, min. 200 routes). Thomas has done most of his damage in the short area (0-9 air yards), where he has gained 595 yards (194 more than any other player).

  • After a slow start to the season, Kirk Cousins has been playing lights out since Week 5, defeating noted boogeyman narratives that have haunted his career (such as an inability to beat winning teams and win prime-time games). Cousins' case for MVP starts with his accuracy, especially relative to the difficulty of his passes. Cousins has completed 70.6% of his passes this season, which is +7.2% above expectation (best in the NFL). Cousins' performance has been no fluke. He has excelled when not pressured, which is the metric we can expect to be most stable going forward. Cousins has the highest TD rate (7.5%) when not under pressure and trails only Russell Wilson in passer rating (121.0). Cousins has also completed 48.6% of his deep passes (third-highest rate in the NFL), throwing 7 TDs with 0 INTs on such passes. Play-action has been critical to his success, as he's throw 12 TD passes when using play-action (five more than any other QB). 2

    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Kirk Cousins: Silencing his critics

    After a slow start to the season, Kirk Cousins has been playing lights out since Week 5, defeating noted boogeyman narratives that have haunted his career (such as an inability to beat winning teams and win prime-time games). Cousins' case for MVP starts with his accuracy, especially relative to the difficulty of his passes. Cousins has completed 70.6% of his passes this season, which is +7.2% above expectation (best in the NFL). Cousins' performance has been no fluke. He has excelled when not pressured, which is the metric we can expect to be most stable going forward. Cousins has the highest TD rate (7.5%) when not under pressure and trails only Russell Wilson in passer rating (121.0). Cousins has also completed 48.6% of his deep passes (third-highest rate in the NFL), throwing 7 TDs with 0 INTs on such passes. Play-action has been critical to his success, as he's throw 12 TD passes when using play-action (five more than any other QB).

  • The only team other than the Seahawks that has a winning record despite trailing for over half of its offensive plays? That would be the Deshaun Watson-led Texans. Watson has kept the Texans in the playoff hunt thanks in part to his performance in crunch time. Watson has completed +9.2% of his passes above expectation (highest in NFL) and leads the NFL in yards per attempt (8.6) in the fourth quarter. Watson has completed 14 of his 20 attempts traveling 10+ air yards in the fourth quarter (70.0 completion percentage) for 339 yards with 6 TDs and 1 INT. In a season full of highlight plays for Watson, the most iconic was his one-eyed, game-winning TD pass to Darren Fells in Week 8, but the most impressive sequence was his back-to-back 30+ air-yard completions in the final minute of the Week 1 loss to the Saints. He's the only player to accomplish the feat <a target="_blank" href="https://twitter.com/KeeganAbdoo/status/1171275850152435717">in a regular season game in the past decade</a>. 1

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Deshaun Watson: Late-game heroics spark Texans

    The only team other than the Seahawks that has a winning record despite trailing for over half of its offensive plays? That would be the Deshaun Watson-led Texans. Watson has kept the Texans in the playoff hunt thanks in part to his performance in crunch time. Watson has completed +9.2% of his passes above expectation (highest in NFL) and leads the NFL in yards per attempt (8.6) in the fourth quarter. Watson has completed 14 of his 20 attempts traveling 10+ air yards in the fourth quarter (70.0 completion percentage) for 339 yards with 6 TDs and 1 INT. In a season full of highlight plays for Watson, the most iconic was his one-eyed, game-winning TD pass to Darren Fells in Week 8, but the most impressive sequence was his back-to-back 30+ air-yard completions in the final minute of the Week 1 loss to the Saints. He's the only player to accomplish the feat in a regular season game in the past decade.