Who's ready for MVP talk?
With only 234 days until the next "NFL Honors" awards show, there isn't much time (and yes, the math is correct). In fact, there really isn't much time before the NBA announces its Most Valuable Player. Those smart fellas who run the pro basketball association called an audible with their MVP award, announcing an awards night, a la the NFL. If imitation is indeed a form of flattery, it can be also be cool. NFL Honors night has generally been a success, adding a bit of drama to the announcement of the most indispensable player in pro football ... which is usually a thrower.
Thus, with the NBA's top player (James Harden? Russell Westbrook?) set to be announced June 26, why not take an early, deep dive into something that is not likely to upset you? Below, we parsed out the top candidate for MVP from every team in the NFL. You'll find 16 quarterbacks, 16 non-quarterbacks, and several other fun options (hey, you try picking an MVP hopeful from the Jets).
Let's start with a couple of obvious names that might very well be announced come Feb. 3. Oh, and if you harbor any disagreement, @HarrisonNFL is the dropbox.
The big three
Based on last season and expectations for 2017, these are the early favorites:
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots: For all the respect tossed Brady's direction, it's hard to believe he's only won two MVPs. Though that's still impressive, Peyton Manning's five MVPs appear to have re-jiggered our expectations. Despite winning Super Bowl LI and the game's MVP award for a fourth time, Brady's 2016 campaign somehow seemingly flew under the radar, though it probably only falls behind 2010 and 2007 as his best to date.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers: For the remainder of his prime, Rodgers will be the quintessential MVP candidate. He produces several wow plays per season while putting up statistics (like leading the league with 40 passing touchdowns in 2016) that make arguing for him easy. And the Packers will be good, again.
Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders: No longer an underdog, Carr is prominently mentioned as an MVP candidate. Too much talk? Maybe. But while his numbers didn't match those of Brady or Rodgers, the perception is that Carr makes the Raiders go. The addition of Marshawn Lynch may slightly hurt the passing numbers but help Carr's MVP case, simply because it should help keep Oakland relevant.
The big three, non-QB division
No non-QB has been named MVP since Adrian Peterson won the award five years ago. If it were to somehow happen again, these would be the most likely suspects:
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: Brown could have been MVP a couple of years ago. The problem is, wide receivers always fall well below quarterbacks in this deal, and historically, they've lagged behind the RBs -- as in, no wideout has ever won it. Brown couldn't get a sniff despite posting over 1,800 yards with Landry Jones and an end-of-career Michael Vick throwing him passes in 2015. The MVP drought at this position will end at some point. Brown was down 26 catches and nearly 500 hundred yards from his previous two years' averages without the suspended Martavis Bryant around in 2016. Now, Bryant is back.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys: If there is one running back who is most likely to wrest this award from a quarterback, it has to be Elliott. The Cowboys should at least contend in the NFC East again, while Elliott is only in Year 2 of his career. His offensive line isn't quite the same without Ronald Leary and Doug Free, the big three (All-Pros Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and Travis Frederick) are still there. If you're wondering about Le'Veon Bell, remember that playing a whole season factors into this award greatly -- and Bell's played in just 47 games over four seasons.
Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons: Why not list reigning MVP Matt Ryan here? While admittedly splitting hairs, I am thinking offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's departure for the top job in San Francisco will affect Ryan more than it will Jones. The best wide receiver in the NFC -- if not the NFL -- is going to get his throws and looks. Also, bear in mind how difficult it is for players to repeat as MVP winners. It's been a minute since Peyton Manning pulled it off in 2008 and 2009. Before that, Brett Favre went back-to-back-to-back in 1995, '96 and '97, and Joe Montana repeated in 1989 and 1990.
Rising tides lift all boats
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: Brees always carries the stat line. Unfortunately, his defense has ranked 31st, 32nd and 28th in points allowed over the last three seasons. An average year from that side of the ball would put this team in the postseason -- and Brees back into the MVP discussion.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals: If the Cardinals had won 10 games rather than seven in 2016, Johnson would have given Matt Ryan a run for his money. The NFL leader in yards from scrimmage (2,118) was so consistent that the he failed to total 100 yards just once: in Week 16, when he left early with a knee injury.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: We found out after the season that Newton had a bum shoulder, which required surgery. Even so, the franchise QB failed to successfully follow up his 2015 MVP campaign because of a variety of factors. But now rookie RB Christian McCaffery is in-house. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin is two years removed from the ACL tear that ruined his 2015. And the Panthers' defense should be improved.
Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts: Like Wilson, it is darn near impossible to separate quarterback from team with Luck -- perhaps more so in this case, given the weakness of Indy's defense. New general manager Chris Ballard bulked that area up during the draftand free agency. If the Colts play out of their minds, Luck's case gets stronger -- presuming, of course, Luck's surgically repaired shoulder doesn't get in the way.
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants:Contract talk aside, Beckham has the potential to turn it on at any time. Can he stay focused? Here's thinking new additions Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram will be such distractions to opposing defenses that Beckham has a big year -- maybe even big enough to win MVP.
Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions: Although an underdog, Stafford deserved to be mentioned as an MVP candidate for most of last season. Then he dislocated his middle finger and, with Matt Ryan keeping up his torrid pace, that was it. Additions on the offensive line and a return to health for running back Ameer Abdullah could result in an MVP run for Stafford.
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos: Miller came so close to winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 despite all the problems the Broncos had on offense, and despite the lack of team success (which had to have helped winner Khalil Mack). If Denver's offense shows up this time, Miller could be the first defensive player to win league MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins: Cousins is the second-best -- but most important -- player on the Redskins. Trent Williams won't be winning MVP any time soon, but he could be protecting an MVP if the young receivers (Terrelle Pryor, Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson) step up and Washington goes 10-6 or better.
Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams: This is a huge leap. But Donald -- who, in three short years, has come to be considered the game's premier interior lineman, earning first-team All-Pro honors multiple times -- meets the criteria for this section. If the Rams play well enough to win the NFC West and Donald plays like he has, Donald could take home the hardware. That is quite a large if, though.
MVPs ... of their teams
The guys below are easily the Most Valuable Players on their own teams, yet have neither the insane numbers nor enough talent around them -- at least, as of this writing -- to make much of a mark in this race at this point:
Philip Rivers, QB, Los Angeles Chargers: The consummate MVP of his team. I originally went with last season's rookie phenom, Joey Bosa, but I couldn't get away from the importance of Rivers to this franchise in a transition year. While his numbers were down and interceptions were up in 2016, remember that Rivers was having to force throws when half of his offense was out with injury and the Bolts were trying to stay in games. With the draft emphasis on offensive line and wideout, methinks No. 17 will be back.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans: Speaking of Mariota, the Titans' hopes rest on him staying healthy, something he has not been able to accomplish for a whole season through two years in the NFL. Yes, Tennessee's running game ranked third in the league in 2016. No, Tennessee can't win the AFC South with Matt Cassel under center.
Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens: If Flacco is going to win this, he'll need a lot of help. With Dennis Pitta (86 catches last season) gone and one of the weakest running games in pro football (91.4 yards per game, 28th in the NFL), will Mike Wallace, Breshad Perriman or recent signee Jeremy Maclin provide it? On the other hand, if Baltimore wins the AFC North and Flacco throws for 4,600 yards, how could he not be NFL MVP?
LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills: Surprise! The NFL's top running game did not reside in Dallas with Ezekiel Elliott or those run-happy Titans. Rather, the Billspaced the entire league, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Not sure about the M.O. of new head coach Sean McDermott, but I can't imagine it will involve a broad departure from the ground game. That starts with No. 25, who is still in his prime.
Carson Wentz, QB, Philadelphia Eagles: Don't laugh. While Wentz's numbers did drop badly down the back half of his rookie season, his receivers did more than their part to contribute by dropping everything in sight. The additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith should be a boon to Wentz's (gulp) MVP run.
Unlikely but cool cases to make
So Matt Ryan is obviously a household name, but as the quarterback of a team that, entering 2016, hadn't been to the playoffs since 2012, he came out of nowhere to be named the league's Most Valuable Player. Here is a handful of players who could similarly surprise with at least a few votes:
Eric Berry, S, Kansas City Chiefs: His story is amazing, and the girl I hang out with thinks "he's cute." Maybe more importantly, Berry has come all the way back to be a more impactful player than he was before. No safety has ever won the award, but Berry played like an MVP last year. Witnessthe game in Atlanta.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, Houston Texans: Going out on limb, but hear me out. Clowney was running around in opposing backfields like a kid at a public swimming pool late last year. J.J. Wattis back, which means Clowney could face a ton of single blocking. And Watt might be a year away from being his dominant MVP-like self.
Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins: Ajayi would have to enjoy a helluva campaign to be named MVP -- but why not? The Dolphins made the playoffs last season despite every member of the offense still learning in the team's first year in coach Adam Gase's system. We've seen Ajayi be a workhorse of epic proportions against the Steelers (204 yards on 25 carries in Week 6) and Bills (420 yards on 60 carries combined in Weeks 7and 16). Could he do it over a full season?
Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears: While everyone was watching Aaron Rodgers toss 40 touchdowns, Matthew Stafford pull games out of his butt and Sam Bradford complete a record number of 2-yard slant routes, Howard played out of his mind. He averaged more yards per carry than Zeke Elliott (5.2 to 5.1) on his way to 1,313 rushing yards. You don't like this choice? I'll take your Bears suggestions here.
Leonard Fournette, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars: The only rookie on this list, Fournette has the best opportunity to win league MVP among the incoming freshmen. Christian McCaffery will split carries with Jonathan Stewart in Carolina. Who knows if any rookie QB will start? Expect the Jags to greatly reduce Blake Bortles' pass attempts.
Sam Bradford, QB, Minnesota Vikings: Yeesh. Don't yell at me. This was between Bradford and an ascending player in safety Harrison Smith. Bradford should enjoy more protection with the arrivals of Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers on the offensive line. Maybe he'll push the ball downfield more. If not, Bradford won't win nine games, much less league MVP.
Not in this football lifetime ... or at least, this season
Welp, there are three teams left. Three outfits that very well could be picking in the top five in next year's draft. *Again. Instead of just going quarterback (Brian Hoyer, Cody Kessler and Josh McCown?), how about a handful of off-the-beaten path -- make that waaaaaaaaay off-the-beaten path -- MVP candidates?*
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers: Will Hyde thrive in Kyle Shanahan's offense? He should. The 49ers' RB1 rushed for 988 yards in only 13 games last season, an impressive feat when you consider how often his team trailed (badly). GM John Lynch and Shanahan have said they would like to get more out of Hyde, which could mean a huge season, albeit for a 5-11 team. More likely scenario:Pro Bowl.
Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns: Who to go with here? Isaiah Crowell? Jamie Collins? With the quarterback position up in the air and the roster filled with young players, the most talented prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft has as much chance as any Brown to be named league MVP. Of course, he would probably have to pull a Jevon Kearse, piling up 14.5 sacks with Cleveland going to the Super Bowl. More likely scenario: Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Leonard Williams, DE, New York Jets: Work with me. Please? The Jets are in rebuilding mode. Williams is as likely to steal the NFL MVP as the Jets are to, uh, take the AFC East. That said, at times, Williams plays like a first-team All-Pro. He improved in Year 2. If any Jet could pull this off, maybe it's him. Or not. More likely scenario: DPOY.