At the end of every season, NFL squads typically select one player who represents the team MVP. In today's exercise, it is our job to figure out who those players might be.
Let's get to it.
The Bills are poised to take the AFC East over from the Patriots, but so much comes down to Allen. Is he a versatile playmaker just starting to scratch the surface of his potential? Or do we already know the deal: that he's an up-and-down performer whose issues with throwing accuracy and ball security will keep him in the middle class of the league's starting quarterbacks? The Bills certainly believe in Allen, and the decision to surrender a first-round pick in exchange for Pro Bowl wide receiver Stefon Diggs was both a vote of confidence and a call to action: We drafted you to be a star ... now be a star.
The Dolphins have so many new pieces this season that it's almost impossible to project a favorite for team MVP. So I'll take the more conservative route, and get behind one of the bright spots of 2019. Parker broke out as your classic late bloomer, dropping a 72-1,202-9 line on 128 targets after four years of "first-round bust" talk. No one thinks that anymore, and the Dolphins reaffirmed their faith with a four-year extension last December. Whether it's Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tua Tagovailoa delivering passes, Parker is going to eat this season.
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Gilmore leads a stellar Patriots secondary that represents the team's best argument for getting back to the playoffs without Tom Brady. How good was Gilmore in 2019? Kurt Warner said on NFL Network's Film Sessions that Gilmore's work ethic and ability to study an opponent reminds him of Deion Sanders -- who might be the greatest cornerback ever. Gilmore is at the peak of his powers and easily the most talented player still in Foxborough. It makes him an easy pick in this exercise.
Sam Darnold is getting a fresh start. The 2019 season was a mess, marred by a WTF illness (mono) and an offensive line that gave him no chance some weeks. Less publicized was a painful left thumb injury that required offseason surgery. Despite all that, Darnold made statistical gains across the board in his second season, and now he gets to play behind a brand new offensive line that should be significantly improved. Add in the arrival of streaky playmaker Breshad Perriman, intriguing rookie Denzel Mims and the return of X-factor tight end Chris Herndon, and it's not hard to imagine Darnold ending the season as the best QB in his division. When's the last time you could say that about a Jets signal-caller?
Last year in this same exercise, I promised "one of these 32 players will be the NFL MVP in 2019." I then began with Baltimore and Lamar Jackson, which, while hardly a brave prediction for the Ravens last June, certainly wasn't the no-brainer selection it is now. (I very nearly wrote about Earl Thomas, which would have been ... bad.) Jackson could play another 15 years and never reach the historic greatness of his 2019 campaign, but even a season with lesser numbers -- say, 62 percent completion percentage, 3,000 yards passing, 800 yards rushing and 35 total touchdowns -- would be All-Pro production worthy of MVP consideration. Long story short: This guy is great and picking anyone else from the Ravens would be trying too hard.
Joe Burrow is the new kid in town, the player who has the most potential to return the Bengals to relevance. But Mixon is already fully formed: a talented, all-purpose back who can run through people and make them miss, who produced nearly 3,000 all-purpose yards with 17 touchdowns for cellar-dwelling Bengals teams in 2018 and '19. The arrival of Burrow and the return of star wide receiver A.J. Green to a sneaky-solid group of skill players should put Mixon in great position to take his game to the next level. The timing ain't bad, either: Mixon is entering the final year of his rookie deal.
The Browns are shaping up as a nice little post-hype sleeper in the AFC, and Mayfield is the single biggest reason why. This is the same Mayfield who set the NFL rookie record for touchdown passes in 2018, the same guy who made Browns football watchable for the first time in years. It all went to hell last season, of course, as a summer of breathless fawning from the football cognoscenti led to an ugly 6-10 flop. Mayfield took a step back, as well, and he said last month that he planned to be a better and more focused player going forward. The Browns reaffirmed their faith in Mayfield by addressing the team's two biggest areas of weakness: the coaching staff and the offensive line. Now it's on the third-year passer to reward that faith with a big season that buries any doubts that grew out of a lost 2019. I think he has it in him.
Let the history books note 2019 as the season the Greatest Watt In The NFL crown was passed from J.J. to T.J. It was a remarkable year for the Steelers linebacker, who ranked in the top five in the NFL in sacks, tackles for loss, quarterback hits, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. He was a playmaking machine who might have been an even better choice than Stephon Gilmore for Defensive Player of the Year. The Watt-led Pittsburgh defense is the only reason the 2019 Steelers didn't become a league doormat when Ben Roethlisberger was lost to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. Big Ben is healthy, but questions will persist about the offense until we see him in action. We already know what we'll get from Watt: dominance.
Watson was done dirty when Bill O'Brien traded DeAndre Hopkins, who may have eclipsed Andre Johnson as the greatest wide receiver in Texans history had he been allowed to finish his career in Houston. Instead, Watson moves forward with Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb and Kenny Stills -- a wide receiver group that comes with upside but also major durability concerns. Watson will continue to be the engine that makes Houston go, both as a passer and with his legs. Even without Hopkins, Watson feels like a safe bet to throw for 4,000 yards, rush for 500 yards and account for 30-plus touchdowns. There's a very short list of players in the league that can match that production.
If I were a bolder man, I'd go with Quenton Nelson, the Patrick Mahomes of guards. But instead, I'll retreat and go with Rivers ... a safer pick that's still not all that safe! For all the positivity around Rivers after his decision to sign with the Colts -- and it's been a veritable waterfall of optimism around the 38-year-old passer -- the football cognoscenti might have put too much of his 2019 struggles (which included 20 interceptions and 28 turnovers overall) on the Chargers and their shoddy offensive line. Having Nelson and friends protecting him should do wonders for Rivers (that's why he's my choice here), but I'm not eliminating the possibility that the modern-day Rivers is also a quarterback who will struggle with ball security.
The Jaguars' defense regressed badly in 2019, but that wasn't on Josh Allen. The team's first-round pick last year, Allen thrived in a supporting role, tallying a franchise rookie record 10.5 sacks to go with 44 tackles and 39 pressures, the second-highest total among all rookies. He did that in 634 snaps, including just four starts. Allen is continuing to develop other aspects of his game, and it's safe to say Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash will find ways to keep his talented 22-year-old on the field. The fate of Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville's talented but highly disgruntled pass rusher, could play a role in how much of a Year 2 leap we see from Allen.
Henry was an incredible workhorse for the Titans in 2019, piling up more than 400 touches over 18 games. That's rarefied air in league history, and it's fair to wonder if that workload is sustainable in the long term. (It's certainly the question the Titans are asking themselves as they weigh whether or not to hand Henry a big extension.) But in the here and now, we have faith Henry will continue to be a stud in 2020, even with Jack Conklin now opening running lanes for Nick Chubb in Cleveland. Ryan Tannehill was a revelation last season, and there are football heads smarter than me who believe he won't be a flash in the pan in Nashville. But Henry is the better player and safer bet to be the engine that carries the Titans back to postseason football.
Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said this week that Bradley Chubb is "full speed and ready to go" after surgery to repair the ACL tear that cost him the final 12 games of last season. Chubb was sensational as a rookie in 2018, piling up 12 sacks and 60 tackles in 16 games. With the great Von Miller likely to again command double teams on a regular basis, the stage is set for a healthy and rested Chubb to go off on overwhelmed offensive linemen who will have wished they chose a different line of work.
Mahomes is the NFL's most talented quarterback, playing in a stellar offensive system tailored to his skill set and alongside a collection of talent that is the envy of most signal-callers. Yes, it's a perfect storm that will continue to do irreversible damage to the game plans of defensive coordinators across football. Mahomes showed during the Chiefs' Super Bowl run that he is virtually unstoppable when he gets into a groove ... and that was against some of the best competition in football. He's the best player in the league -- and it might stay that way for some time.
With all due respect to Kyler Murray (who will pop up later this week in the second part of this column), Jacobs deserved Offensive Rookie Of the Year honors in 2019. He was one of the most productive running backs in football before a shoulder injury curtailed his season in December. Pro Football Focus graded Jacobs out as the league's most elusive rusher to go with a top-five grade in yards after contact. Add the comments made by general manager Mike Mayock, who said at the NFL Scouting Combine that he expected Jacobs to have a bigger role in the Raiders' passing game in 2020. We're about to see Jacobs make a jump to All-Pro-level production in Year 2.
Don't let Nick Bosa's big splash in San Francisco overshadow the greatness of his older brother. In 2019, Joey Bosa became just 10th player since 1982 (the first year sacks were tallied as an official stat) to total 40 sacks in his first 50 games. Bosa displayed durability by playing in all 16 games for the second time, and he enters a contract year in 2020 at the peak of his powers. Around The NFL Podcast colleague Gregg Rosenthal nominated safety Derwin James as the Chargers' top MVP candidate, but Bosa could have a 20-sack campaign in him one of these years. In perhaps his final season lining up opposite from Melvin Ingram, why can't it be 2020?