The Schein Nine

Dark-horse NFL MVP candidates in 2020: Josh Allen tops the list

Two years ago at this time, Patrick Mahomes had one NFL start and zero touchdowns to his name. Then he went out and recorded the second 5,000-yard/50-touchdown season in league history, running away with MVP honors.

Last offseason, Lamar Jackson was fresh off a rookie campaign where he showed electric ability as a runner ... but left much to be desired on the passing side of quarterbacking. Then he proceeded to lead the NFL with 36 touchdown passes (against just six interceptions), post a 113.3 quarterback rating and, yes, shatter Michael Vick's QB rushing record with 1,206 yards on the ground. This made him the second unanimous MVP in NFL history (Tom Brady, 2010).

What am I getting at? Well, the last two MVP awards capped off transcendent seasons nobody saw coming. (OK, almost nobody: Props to NFL.com clairvoyant Dan Parr, who predicted Lamar's MVP tour last August.) Is this a trend we should take to heart?

Spinning forward to the 2020 season, Mahomes and Jackson will get plenty of love as top MVP candidates. Award predix will be dotted with an unsurprising cast of accomplished quarterbacks, including Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford and reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray.

But maybe, when it comes to forecasting the league's most prestigious individual award, it's time to think outside the box. Which well-positioned players are we not considering right now, but should be?

Here are my dark-horse candidates for the 2020 MVP award, Schein Nine style.

1
Josh Allen
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB

Allen has all of the criteria in place to be a dark-horse MVP candidate. While he was selected seventh overall in the 2018 NFL Draft, his unrefined skill set made him a lightning rod for criticism. This only increased during an uneven rookie year when he mixed enticing athleticism with scattershot accuracy.

But Allen vastly improved in Year 2, significantly boosting his marks in completion percentage (58.8, up from 52.8 in 2018), TD-to-INT ratio (20:9, up from 10:12) and passer rating (85.3, up from 67.9). Not to mention, he showcased a definite clutch gene, leading the NFL in fourth-quarter comebacks (four) and game-winning drives (five). Behind his guidance, the Bills reached double-digit wins for the first time this millennium, making the playoffs for just the second time in the past 20 seasons.

"Most times, how a quarterback goes, the team goes," Bills coach Sean McDermott recently told me on SiriusXM Radio. "Josh is very aware of that in his responsibilities."

I think this team is going places. And I think this aerial attack is about to explode. Buffalo GM Brandon Beane brilliantly traded for Stefon Diggs, giving Allen a legit No. 1 receiver. Those two will make beautiful music together. And don't forget about Allen's great chemistry with John Brown and Cole Beasley, which will only get better in their second season together.

With Tom Brady in Tampa, Buffalo will take the AFC East with 11 or 12 wins. Allen will put up monster numbers -- with his arm and legs -- to complement McDermott's great defense. This is the player to watch on a team to watch. Big things coming.

2
Baker Mayfield
Baker Mayfield
Cleveland Browns · QB

No, really: This time, I mean it.

Last offseason, I ranked Mayfield as the No. 3 candidate for MVP. Not the No. 3 dark horse -- No. 3 overall. Whoops.

The 2019 season was a mess for Baker (sub-60 completion percentage, 21 picks, 78.8 passer rating) and the Browns (6-10 after a full offseason of hype). But Freddie Kitchens was clearly in above his head, leading to his firing after one highly disappointing year in the big chair. Enter the buttoned-up Kevin Stefanski, the right guy -- with the right play-action-heavy scheme -- at the right time. The offensive line is now bookended by a pair of talented newcomers in first-round pick Jedrick Wills and big-ticket free-agent acquisition Jack Conklin. The pass-catching weaponry is eye-popping, with Pro Bowl tight end Austin Hooper joining the fray and Odell Beckham Jr. returning to good health. The ground game is ready to rock, with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt providing great balance. Everything's in place.

Don't forget: Mayfield was stellar in Year 1, setting a rookie QB record with 27 touchdown passes. Now, in Year 3, he's flanked by a spectacular supporting cast. Time for a major bounce-back.

3
Ezekiel Elliott
Ezekiel Elliott
Dallas Cowboys · RB

Don't get me wrong: I love Dak Prescott. That said, I've always been of the opinion that Zeke makes Dak, not the other way around. Elliott is the star at The Star.

Yes, his production dipped a bit last season. OK. A) He got off to a slow start after a contract holdout. And B) Must be nice when your production can dip to 1,357 rushing yards, 54 catches and 14 total touchdowns.

Dallas will win 11 games this year under new head coach Mike McCarthy. Zeke will be unstoppable as a runner/receiver. Book it.

4
Derek Carr
Derek Carr
Las Vegas Raiders · QB

I was honored to be part of "The Carr Six" -- the half-dozen AP voters who entered Derek's name on the MVP ballot back in 2016. He was superb that season before breaking his leg in Oakland's Christmas Eve win -- a devastating injury that prevented the 12-4 Raiders from realizing their potential in the postseason. I know he has it in him. Honestly, it feels like I like Carr more than the Raiders do. But Carr knows this is a critical year, with Marcus Mariota now breathing down his neck.

I think the former second-round pick rises to the occasion. I foresee Carr maximizing first-round burner Henry Ruggs III early and often. I envision the Raiders surprising some people this year, with Carr being the main reason why.

5
Alvin Kamara
Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · RB

Kamara wasn't fully healthy last year, so don't get it twisted: This cat's a do-it-all freak. Over a century of NFL football, four players have recorded 2,000 yards rushing and receiving in their first three seasons: Roger Craig, Herschel Walker, Christian McCaffrey and Kamara.

This is a multi-faceted weapon playing for a creative play caller in an inventive era of football -- the stars are aligned for Kamara to absolutely stuff the stat sheet. Especially considering this sure seems like it's going to be Drew Brees' final season. I could see Sean Payton running the football more frequently in an attempt to conserve his 41-year-old quarterback for a hopeful Super Bowl run.

6
Matt Ryan
Matt Ryan
Atlanta Falcons · QB

OK, admittedly, this is the least-bold name on the list -- by far. After all, Ryan already has an MVP under his belt.

Still, the Ice Man never gets proper credit for being awesome. He's rarely brought up in conversations about the game's top signal-callers. And that's just wrong. Frankly, Ryan would be listed much higher on here if I felt more confident about the Falcons' defense or head coach, as this award is largely dependent on team success.

But I think Ryan will put up monster numbers this season with the plethora of weapons he has at his disposal. Todd Gurley is a significant upgrade over Devonta Freeman. Julio Jones remains a force of nature. Calvin Ridley is a great No. 2. And trade acquisition Hayden Hurst gives Ryan a fine weapon up the seam. Get ready for some fireworks in Atlanta.

7
Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · RB

I am obsessed with Henry, so this feels low. But the fact is Ryan Tannehill was excellent last year and should be even better this season, now that he's entrenched. So the quarterback could take some of the running back's shine.

Regardless, the reigning rushing king is the straw that stirs the drink in Tennessee, as a physical and dominant back who punishes opponents. This Titans team is legit. Last season wasn't a fluke. Mike Vrabel and Co. are building something in Nashville.

8
Drew Lock
Drew Lock
Denver Broncos · QB

Insane? Or light years ahead of the curve?

Lock played well down the stretch last year, going 4-1 in five December starts with a 7:3 TD-to-INT ratio. Remember when the rookie outdueled Deshaun Watson in a 38-24 win at Houston? Yep, that happened, with Lock completing 22 of his 27 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns (against one pick).

And John Elway has provided his second-year quarterback with a bunch of new toys this offseason. After adding RB Melvin Gordon in free agency, the Broncos GM stole WR Jerry Jeudy at No. 15 and then astutely plucked speed merchant KJ Hamler in Round 2. In the middle rounds, Denver grabbed a plug-and-play center (Lloyd Cushenberry) and Lock's old college tight end (Albert Okwuegbunam) As an organization, this is what you do when you have a young quarterback you believe in: You fully support him.

Every time Lock speaks, I come away impressed. I think the former second-rounder could enjoy a fantastic sophomore campaign. And I can't wait to watch this offense work.

9
Michael Thomas
Michael Thomas
New Orleans Saints · WR

No receiver has ever taken home the NFL's top individual award. In fact, wideouts rarely even receive consideration. But this one should.

Thomas, of course, just became the second receiver ever to be named Offensive Player of the Year (Jerry Rice earned the honor in 1987 and 1993). The Saints star set an NFL record with 149 receptions, leading the league by a whopping 33 grabs. He averaged a beastly 107.8 yards per game, earning a first-team All-Pro nod for the second consecutive season.

Can we get an encore in 2020? I don't doubt it.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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