The beginning of the 2018 NFL season is less than 100 days away. If you're like me, you've been studying your favorite team, diagnosing the roster's strengths and weaknesses as you make an internal case for a playoff run. Some of us might have to squint harder than others, of course, but there's always that path to success -- a best-case scenario for a fine autumn of football enjoyment.
I'm not breaking news when I say your team will probably need strong performances from its best players to find success. After all, if the big dogs don't lead the way, the journey is almost certainly doomed. (I'd love to draw a particularly famous Iditarod example here, but I just don't have the institutional knowledge to extend this labored analogy any further.)
Back to your stars. Need 'em. They gotta deliver. With that in mind, we went through the league to spotlight the 32 players who are set up to be their team's most valuable player in 2018. To be clear, this is not an exercise in predicting who'll win the league's Most Valuable Player award, though I feel reasonably confident that individual will be included in my lists. God, I hope so. Can't blow this one.
Baltimore Ravens: Justin Tucker, K
Ideally, my list doesn't start with a freaking place-kicker, but sometimes alphabetical order trolls you like that. That said, I'll pound the table for Tucker's greatness anywhere on this list. This is a guy coming off two of the greatest seasons a kicker's ever had. Shame it's been wasted on a pair of middling Ravens teams, but we can see the brilliance tucked amidst mediocrity. Some Tucker facts: He's missed just four field-goal tries in the last two seasons. He went 10-for-10 from beyond 50 yards in 2016, a season in which his only miss came on a block. He's never missed an extra-point try in 205 attempts. He's a game-changing talent at the game's most underappreciated position. Justin Tucker will win multiple games for the Ravens in 2018.
Buffalo Bills: LeSean McCoy, RB
McCoy is the choice here, because if LeSean McCoy has a LeSean McCoy season behind that offensive line, the man's Canton credentials will receive a major boost. Shady was quietly as good as ever last season: His 1,586 yards from scrimmage represented a third of the Bills' total offense during their run to the playoffs. They might ask even more of the soon-to-be 30-year-old as Buffalo attempts to get its quarterback position in order for 2018 and beyond. The man can't tip, but he can absolutely carry an offense.
Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, WR
Green is an excellent bounce-back candidate coming off a disappointing-by-his-standards 75/1,078/8 line in 2017. The Bengals could have done more to add another weapon or two around their All-Pro wideout (the decision to let both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu depart after 2015 remains puzzling, in retrospect), but the upside is, Green will continue to be Andy Dalton's best friend. Two outside factors that could help Green get back to All-Pro status: 1) Tight end Tyler Eifert returns after another season lost to injury. Then there's wide receiver John Ross, last year's first-round pick, who will try to wipe away all traces of a nightmarish rookie season. No matter what happens, Green will continue to be the centerpiece.
Cleveland Browns: Myles Garrett, DE
Garrett showed plenty of flashes in his debut season, registering seven sacks in just 11 games. It makes you wonder what the former No. 1 overall pick can do with a full season of health and the comfort that comes with escaping your rookie year. Browns head coach Hue Jackson has publicly stated the need for Garrett to blossom into an elite performer, something that typically hasn't happened for Cleveland first-round picks in the past 20 years. Still, Garrett projects as the most talented member of a potentially strong -- like, for real! -- Cleveland Browns defense.
Denver Broncos: Von Miller, OLB
Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Woods said he "nearly passed out" when the Browns passed on edge rusher Bradley Chubb in April's draft, a decision that allowed Denver to grab the N.C. State dynamo with the fifth pick. Von Miller called Chubb "Khalil Mack and Von Miller put together", which is about as high as praise can get. But the rookie won't be our MVP pick in Denver. It's Miller, who stands to benefit greatly from the sudden presence of another game-changing menace near the line of scrimmage. If Chubb lives up to the hype, it could free up Miller to go gonzo in 2018.
Houston Texans: J.J. Watt, DE
When's the last time we saw Peak J.J. Watt? You have to go all the way back to the 2015 season, when Houston's hometown hero was putting the final touches on a four-year run of dominance that rivals that of any defensive player in NFL history. At 29, there's still reason to believe he can be that player again after back and leg injuries wiped out most of his last two seasons. For what it's worth, Bill O'Brien expects the MVP-level stud to be back in full force. "I would never bet against J.J Watt," the Texans coach told NFL Network's Good Morning Football last month. "He's going to be back, he's going to be at full strength, and he's going to help us win a lot of games." Good enough for us!
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck, QB
Put it this way: If Andrew Luck is not the Colts' most valuable player this season, that means something has (once again) gone very wrong in Indianapolis. We choose to buy into all the optimism coming out of Colts Land and expect Luck to make a successful return from major shoulder surgery. The big question: Will Luck still have the old zip on the ball? If he doesn't, he might have to change the way he approaches the game -- a transition that could take time. Hopefully, we get the mad bomber version. That guy's fun!
Jacksonville Jaguars: Leonard Fournette, RB
Fournette's rookie season was a hit-and-miss affair. At times, he looked like the young star the Jags thought they were getting when they drafted him fourth overall. But he also looked slow and hobbled for long stretches, averaging less than 4 yards per carry during the regular season and playoffs. New season, new expectations for Fournette, who must blossom into a dependable stud if Jacksonville is going to take the next step. The addition of mauling guard Andrew Norwell in free agency could be just what Fournette needs. Ground and pound, baby.
Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes, QB
There's a lot of pressure on Mahomes, the 10th overall pick in 2017, but you get the feeling Andy Reid knows a star at quarterback when he sees it. Mahomes replaces Alex Smith in Kansas City and immediately changes the dynamic of the Chiefs' offense with his electric dual-threat capabilities. Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce and Kareem Hunt is as enviable a Big 4 as there is in the league right now. The obligatory "growing pains" are possible, but it's also possible the former Texas Tech star takes the league by storm this fall.
Los Angeles Chargers: Joey Bosa, DE
Bosa has been a star since the day he stepped foot on an NFL field, so expectations will be immense as he enters his third season. We're squarely in "prime" territory now, and Bosa comes off a season in which he piled up 70 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, 21 QB hits and 12.5 sacks. That's tremendous production, but you get the feeling he could be just scratching the surface. Having Melvin Ingram cause chaos on the other side is an embarrassment of riches in a league where elite pass rushers are in short supply. Bosa might be the best of the bunch.
Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill, QB
It's easy to forget now, but Tannehill was finally living up to his promise in 2016, his first season with Dolphins head coach Adam Gase. During an appearance on the Around The NFL Podcast at the owners meetings in March, Gase lamented the fact that he'd only gotten 13 starts from his QB1 in 33 games on the job in Miami. There may be a lot of Tannehill doubters at this stage, but Gase is a believer, and that's all that really matters. Here's an eye-opening Tannehill stat, courtesy of the Sun Sentinel: The Dolphins went 7-1 in Tannehill's last eight games before his knee injury in December 2016, a stretch in which he posted a passer rating of 102.6.
New England Patriots: Tom Brady, QB
I mean, c'mon. What do you want me to say? Rookie running back Sony Michel could have a transformational effect on Josh McDaniels' offense in New England. Please. And that's not taking anything away from Michel, who will probably (definitely) tear it up at Gillette. The truth is that Brady has had a case for MVP in, like, 15 of the past 17 NFL seasons. By that, I mean NFL MVP. True story: I just did a cursory search for Patriots team MVP awards and found nothing. They probably treat team-specific awards the way Belichick treats the AFC Championship trophy. Worthless, pitiable, and small-minded in scale.
New York Jets: Trumaine Johnson, CB
The Jets shelled out massive bucks to land Johnson, who Todd Bowles hopes will be the game-changing presence at CB1 that Darrelle Revis never was in his return engagement at the Meadowlands. It was a no-brainer investment for a Gang Green secondary that suddenly has the look of one of the league's more promising defensive backfields. If Johnson thrives -- something he did regularly during his years with the Rams -- he can be a domino piece that takes New York's defense back into the top 10 for the first time since Bowles' first season as head coach (2015).
Oakland Raiders: Derek Carr, QB
Here's something that didn't get brought up enough in the post-mortem of Oakland's deeply disappointing 2017 campaign: The quarterback broke his back. Like, legitimately. Carr suffered multiple fractures in his back in Week 4, then rushed his return to action after missing only one game. His play suffered as a result, his MVP-level performance in 2016 rendered a distant memory. Enter Jon Gruden and a new era of Raiders football, which still very much includes Carr. I talked about a Carr renaissance on this week's "Around The NFL Podcast" for a reason: Gruden and Carr could be the league's new power couple. Grudrek? Carrden? Do people still do the combined names thing? Let's just move on.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Antonio Brown, WR
We love, as sports fans, to celebrate legends in real time -- it's part of the reason why the LeBron vs. MJ debate has picked up so much steam this spring. That said, I find it strange Antonio Brown doesn't get any "best-ever" love. Because, let's be clear, Brown is an all-time great currently performing -- like James in these NBA Playoffs -- at the very height of his powers. Last year, Brown had a legitimate shot at league MVP honors before a calf injury cut his regular season short: It makes his 2017 stats (101 catches, 1,533 yards, nine touchdowns), accrued in just over 13 games, all the more remarkable. Big Ben and Le'Veon Bell are tremendous talents, but Brown is the deadliest of the Killer Bs.
Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota, QB
While we won't call this a make-or-break year for Mariota, you can safely assume the Titans hope this is the year their quarterback develops into the full-blown star they've always expected him to become. Last season, we saw progress with a 9-7 season followed by that upset playoff win over the Chiefs in Arrowhead. Mariota's growth will be tied to new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, who, we're told, plans to build an offense that properly suits Mariota's strengths as a player. Um, what took so long, guys?