Minicamps are in full swing around the NFL -- and the beauty of minicamp season is that optimism can be found in abundance.
It's also a perfect time to talk MVP.
Now, I won't make my official pick until right before the season begins. And I'll have another ranking at some point of dark horse candidates. But I love making a list of MVP candidates every year around this time.
Before we dig in, here are a couple of thoughts:
Every player on this list is on a team that I have making the playoffs. That might change. But when it comes to the MVP, I put a value on winning. This is why you won't see Russell Wilson below, as I don't see the Seahawks reaching the postseason. (That said, if my last name rhymed with 10 instead of nine, Wilson might have made it.) I also put value on the quarterback position, which is the most important in sports. Finally, Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback and player of all time -- but he's not on this list. I'm not a hater. I think New England will make the playoffs, and I think Brady will be great. I just think he'll have a lot of help from the run game and, you know, the greatest coach of all time, Bill Belichick.
With all that said, here's my early ranking of those most likely to win the 2019 NFL MVP award, Schein 9 style.
1) Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs
Kareem Hunt is gone and Tyreek Hill's availability is a question mark, but don't get caught up in who will and won't be returning to this offense. Let's not overthink this: Mahomes is special. He's the most electrifying player in all of sports. And remember, he's still a kid (he'll turn 24 in September) who has just one year as an NFL starter under his belt. It's scary to think of, but he's going to be even more comfortable and dominant in 2019 than he was in 2018 -- when he threw for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns. He's going to continue to thrive under Andy Reid's coaching.
In the Super Bowl Era, just three players have won back-to-back MVP awards: Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Joe Montana. It would not be at all shocking to see Mahomes join that exclusive club.
2) Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
Don't you dare slam the door shut on my guy after his loss to the Patriots in the playoffs. Yes, he's 37 and entering his 14th season as the Chargers' starter. But he's still playing at a Hall of Fame level. Over the past five seasons, he's thrown for the third-most yards (22,287) and touchdowns (153) in the NFL, and he matched the second-best passer rating of his career last season (105.5). There are reasons to believe Rivers will be even better in 2019. First, the healthy return of tight end Hunter Henry, who missed all but one game (the loss to the Pats) last season with a torn ACL, will be a gigantic advantage for Rivers. The Chargers could have the best defense in the NFL, as I boldly predicted back in May, which would lead to Rivers getting the ball even more -- and he will make opponents pay. Plus, there's the rapport he's established with the cast around him. This will be Year 7 with receiver Keenan Allen and Year 5 with running back Melvin Gordon, while the QB and third-year pro Mike Williams connected on 10 touchdown passes last season.
3) Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns
Expectations are sky high for the Browns (who added Odell Beckham Jr. after winning five of their last seven games in 2018) and Mayfield (who broke Peyton Manning's record for touchdown passes by a rookie last season). The 2018 No. 1 overall pick only has 13 pro starts to his name. But Mayfield won't fail. He can't fail. He has the talent, moxie, work ethic, accuracy and leadership skills to push the Browns to the playoffs.
Mayfield played great after Freddie Kitchens took over as offensive coordinator last October. During the Browns' 5-2 stretch to close the season (from Week 10 to Week 17), Mayfield ranked third in touchdown passes (17), fourth in passer rating (108.4) and first in yards per attempt (8.86) among those with 200-plus passes. Now, of course, Kitchens is Mayfield's head coach, with new OC Todd Monken's watchful eyes set to provide Mayfield with extra help. Mayfield will keep Beckham happy and maximize the talents of the three-time Pro Bowler, along with those of Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb and, when he returns from suspension, Kareem Hunt. And Mayfield will get extra credit for driving Cleveland to an AFC North title, fighting against both a tough group of division rivals and the Browns' long, established history of dreadful, misguided ineptitude.
4) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
When I make my official pick for 2019 MVP, it just might be Rodgers. I was practically ready to hand him the award just for the way he responded to the ribbing he was receiving from other NFL quarterbacks for the apparent difficulty he had chugging a beer at a Milwaukee Bucks game: "For some of them, there's finally a talent they can say they're better than me at."
The two-time MVP is coming off a down year. In addition to missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, Rodgers compiled the lowest touchdown total (25), second-worst completion rate (62.3%) and third-worst passer rating (97.6) of any season in which he started 15-plus games. But with Matt LaFleur replacing ex-head coach Mike McCarthy, the Aaron RodgersI Can Be Coached Tour -- combined with the You Can Chug Beer While Watching Me in the Playoffs Tour -- is going to be real and spectacular. The Chicago Bears have more talent than the Packers. So do the Minnesota Vikings. Rodgers will put himself in the MVP mix by carrying the Packers to an NFC North title.
5) Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
And Luck is one of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL. He makes everyone around him better. After shoulder issues cost him all of 2017, Luck came back last season and put together one of his best campaigns as a pro, throwing for 4,593 yards (fifth most in the NFL) and 39 touchdown passes (second most) while shepherding Indy from a 1-5 start to a playoff berth. And he's the reason the Colts can be Super Bowl-bound this season.
6) Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
7) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
I think the Cowboys are going to challenge for the Super Bowl in 2019 -- and I think Zeke fuels this team. When Elliott runs for 95-plus yards, the Cowboys are 19-4; when he falls below that benchmark, they're 9-8. Quarterback Dak Prescott is obviously a key component for Dallas, but Elliott makes Prescott, and not the other way around. Yes, it's true that only one of the past 10 MVP awards has gone to a running back (Adrian Peterson in 2012). But consider these projected numbers for Zeke: 1,500 rushing yards, 15 total touchdowns and 70 catches. That's MVP-caliber production, even if he's not a quarterback.
8) Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams
The Rams' stud is the single best non-quarterback in the NFL and the best defensive player in the league, bar none. He wrecks games. He's unstoppable. No other interior defensive lineman has ever posted as many sacks in a season as Donald's league-leading 20.5 last year. Donald will be my pick, as per usual, for Defensive Player of the Year, an award he's won two years running. Now, his MVP candidacy does suffer from the fact that he plays defense, at a position that is not commonly associated with gaudy stats, as well as the fact that Donald's head coach, Sean McVay, leads a sensational and explosive offense for the Rams. But never get it twisted. This cat is the truth.
9) Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints
Kamara has dazzled in his two pro seasons, even while sharing carries with Mark Ingram. Well, Ingram is now in Baltimore, having signed there in free agency. Quarterback Drew Brees is still amazing, but Saints coach Sean Payton has rightly made this offense more run-oriented than it has been in the past. Consider that in 2018, Brees attempted the lowest number of passes (489) of his 13 Saints seasons, while New Orleans posted more rushing attempts (471) as a team than it has since 2006 (472). Only three players in the NFL have more combined yards from scrimmage in the past two seasons than Kamara (3,146), who is the straw that stirs the drink for the Saints. He is the most valuable player on this team.