Cam Newton, Carson Palmer top list of MVP candidates

Every week in this space, Chris Wesseling rolls out the power rankings for one specific NFL position, attribute or award.

As season wraps up this week, it's time to revisit the MVP picture. Below are Around The NFL's top 10 candidates for 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player.

1. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers quarterback: Newton is a lethal amalgamation of Steve Young (MVP, 1992 and 1994) and Steve McNair (co-MVP, 2003), leading the NFL in total touchdowns (41) while combining for more than 4,000 passing and rushing yards. Whereas Young and McNair were afforded multiple years of development behind veteran quarterbacks, Newton was thrown into the crucible, tossing go routes and slants to Steve Smith en route to one of the best rookie quarterback seasons in NFL history.

A half-decade later, Newton gets his offense into the right plays, reads defenses, exhausts his progressions and boasts the unique size and athletic ability to take advantage of over-aggressive pass rushes. He's the ultimate pick-your-poison weapon, capable of burning defenses with his arm on game-breaking downfield strikes or converting short-yardage situations with his legs.

Although Newton is blessed with a stout offensive line, a Pro Bowl running back and a Pro Bowl tight end, it's also true that he has elevated his surrounding talent while becoming just the fourth quarterback ever to win 17 consecutive starts.

2. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals quarterback: The Cardinals' offense ranks first in points per game, yards per game and third-down percentage. Palmer ranks first in the advanced metrics of Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders, as well as Gregg Rosenthal's QB Index. Perhaps most impressively, Arizona has more touchdowns (57) than punts (55) this season.

"Craziest stat I've heard," coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday. "Of all the stats out there, that's the one I'm probably most proud of."

It's the dream of most NFL quarterbacks to maintain their physical gifts long enough to take full advantage by mastering the mental aspects of the position. That's the sweet spot inhabited by Palmer as the NFL's premier passer and a "godsend" to a Cardinals organization enjoying its finest season of the Super Bowl era.

If the voters opt for Palmer after 16 games, it certainly wouldn't be an injustice to Newton. Reasonable minds can differ in a season with several deserving candidates.

3. Tom Brady, New England Patriots quarterback: Brady was the prohibitive favorite at mid-season, drawing comparisons to his own historically brilliant 2007 season as well as Peyton Manning's record-breaking 2013 season. Since then, he has lost football's most effective receiving back (Dion Lewis), his playoff-tested power back (LeGarrette Blount), his No. 1 receiver (Julian Edelman), his No. 2 receiver (Danny Amendola) and his top four offensive tackles. The Patriots have started 12 different offensive line combinations this season. No other team has started more than eight.

Brady stated earlier this season that he's a better quarterback now than he was five years ago. That's not hyperbole. A slimmer Brady has been more nimble in the pocket and has lost nothing from his fastball. He has put on a weekly quarterbacking clinic, showcasing rare field vision, processing information at rapid speed and attacking the right players on the right down and distance.

Brady is the only player to start every game at the same position in the Patriots' offense this season. Despite all of that attrition, Brady still leads the league in passing yards (4,636) and passing touchdowns (36) for a team with designs on a 13-3 record and the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed. If not for the injuries, the Patriots might have been the last undefeated team standing.

4. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks quarterback: Overcoming a losing record through mid-October to carry the Seahawks back to the postseason, Wilson has emerged on the periphery of the MVP discussion. During that winning streak, Wilson became the first player in NFL history with five consecutive games featuring at least three touchdowns and a 70-percent completion rate without an interception. Since Week 11, Wilson leads all quarterbacks in completion rate, yards per attempt, passing touchdowns and passer rating while watching the Seahawks lose their top two power backs.

At this time last year, scouts and analysts were bemoaning the regression of running quarterbacks. Now two of the top four MVP candidates are dual-threat quarterbacks, putting defenses in a bind with their pocket passing, strategic scrambling and uncanny decision making.

5. Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver: Brown has Gary Kubiak's vote after torching BroncosPro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris in a Week 15 shootout, but no wide receiver has won the award dating back to 1957. While Brown is the best route runner on the planet and the most productive wideout of the past three years, he has two more factors working against him: He failed to reach 50 yards in three consecutive games with Ben Roethlisberger sidelined, and the Steelers lost a must-win game versus the injury-ravaged Ravens in Week 16.

6. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans wide receiver: Offensive coordinator George Godsey called Hopkins "a quarterback's best friend" after the Texans essentially locked up the AFC South with fourth- and fifth-string quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and B.J. Daniels tag-teaming the Week 16 win over the Titans. That's the perfect description for a wide receiver physically outplaying defenders as the center of attention on an offense with a revolving door at every other skill position.

In fact, NFL Research confirms Hopkins is the first player ever to produce 100-yard receiving games with four different starting quarterbacks in the same season. Three of those four quarterbacks (Weeden, Ryan Mallett and T.J. Yates) were either cut by their original team or out of football at some point during the 2015 season.

7. Brandon Marshall, New York Jets wide receiver:Ryan Fitzpatrick is starting to generate MVP buzz in a career year, but it's the prowess of Marshall and Eric Decker that drives the Jets' offense. That dynamic duo has caught a touchdown in the same game eight times this season, breaking the NFL record held by Cris Carter and Randy Moss with the historically explosive 1998 Vikings. Since 2012, Marshall's 44 touchdown receptions are tied for first. Decker's 40 rank third over that span.

Marshall ranks with Brown, Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins as the pre-eminent wide receivers of 2015. Fitzpatrick can't say the same for his position.

8. Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings running back: The Vikings have clinched a playoff berth despite ranking 30th in passing touchdowns and 31st in passing yards through 15 games. The offense runs through Peterson, who sits 64 yards ahead of Doug Martin for the NFL's rushing title. Minnesota is 7-0 when Peterson rushes for 100 yards and 8-1 when he carries the ball at least 20 times this season.

With a strong finish this weekend, Peterson will join Hall of Famer Curtis Martin as the only age 30-or-older players of the Super Bowl era to lead the league in rushing.

9. Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots tight end: Much like Brady, Gronkowski's MVP case has taken a hit through no fault of his own. Despite missing one game with a knee injury, he is the lone tight end with at least 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns. That's a phenomenal feat considering Gronk draws consistent double teams in addition to getting jammed by defensive ends and linebackers at the line of scrimmage.

As long as Brady and Gronkowski are healthy, the Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC's playoff picture. Already the most unstoppable tight-end force the NFL has ever seen, Gronkowski is simply too big, too strong and too dynamic for any one defender to handle.

10. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback: Prior to Dalton's Week 14 thumb injury, the Bengals were on pace for the best season in their 47 years of existence. The once-beleaguered quarterback took full advantage of his top-shelf surrounding talent, showing his mettle with dramatic comeback victories versus the Ravens and Seahawks en route to the first 8-0 start in AFC North/Central history. He will end up missing a quarter of the season, knocking him down the list as AJ McCarron acquits himself well in relief.

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