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The Schein Nine

NFL MVP candidates: Tom Brady, Cam Newton, Khalil Mack ...

On Wednesday night, in front of the raucous home crowd at Oracle Arena, Steph Curry was formally presented with his second straight MVP award -- the spoils of an iconic regular season (and something he hopes to pair with another Larry O'Brien Trophy next month).

Could Steph's buddy from his favorite football team, Mr. Cam Newton, follow suit with back-to-back MVP honors of his own? It's most certainly possible. But is Cam the favorite?

Glad you asked.

Here's an early look at the top candidates for NFL MVP in 2016, Schein Nine style:

1) Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

Twelve games?Sixteen games? It doesn't matter.

Yes, I still feel the suspension is way over the top -- a four-game ban does not fit the "crime" here. But actually, if New England's forced to start the season without Brady, and the future Hall of Famer comes back and saves the 2-2 Patriots, it'll take his MVP candidacy to another level.

Brady is still at the top of his game. We saw that last year. I predicted a Middle Finger Tour for the ages, and Brady responded with a league-high 36 touchdown passes (against just seven picks) and a sparkling 102.2 passer rating.

Here's another thing: The return of longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who hung it up after the 2013 season, is a major plus. As evidenced by the AFC title game, when Brady absorbed a whopping 16 hits, the O-line needs to be whipped into shape. Obviously, better health up front will help, but the Pats also added line talent this offseason, acquiring Jonathan Cooper in the Chandler Jones trade and drafting a couple guards last month.

Lastly, Brady got another enticing mismatch nightmare in the form of Martellus Bennett, who joins Rob Gronkowski to form a terrifying tight end duo.

Who's ready for another revenge tour from No. 12??

2) Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

The Packers also improved their offensive line this offseason, adding Indiana OT Jason Spriggs in the second round of the draft. And that's a big deal, as Rodgers was sacked an unacceptable 46 times last season. The return of Jordy Nelson -- one of the five best receivers in the league -- is even bigger. The passing attack lacked sizzle, explosiveness and consistent execution without Rodgers' favorite target.

Perhaps the biggest deal of all, though: Eddie Lacy is no longer big. Well, he's no longer too big, I should say. The talented running back's recommitment to fitness will give Rodgers the balance he needs. After dipping to just 758 yards rushing and three touchdowns last season, Lacy should be back north of 1,000 yards and around double-digit scores again this fall.

Aaron Rodgers is still the best quarterback in the NFL, and he's set up for a vintage Rodgers season -- one where he guides the Packers to an NFC North title and carves up defenses on a weekly basis.

3) Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

Don't let the Super Bowl 50 performance -- or the nonsense after the big game -- fool you. Newton is a beast. He earned that MVP trophy last year and should be right back in the mix in 2016.

Kelvin Benjamin is returning, which will help Newton's numbers. But his value goes way beyond the stat sheet. And with Josh Norman now in Washington D.C. -- following Dave Gettleman's foolhardy decision to rescind the franchise tag and let one of his best players go for nothing -- Cam again will be asked to play the role of Superman. Precedent says he'll be up for the challenge, dabbing and dancing his way to victory. After all, Cam and Co. led the NFL in scoring last seasonwithout their best receiver.

4) Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings

After missing almost the entire 2014 season while facing child-abuse charges, Peterson returned in 2015 and led the league in rushing. His off-field issues were upsetting, and I hope he has indeed learned from those mistakes. On the field, he's still a flat-out superstar, poised for another big-time season.

Teddy Bridgewater is solid, but not spectacular. If the Vikings win 10-plus games again, Peterson will be the biggest reason why. AD will be forced to carry the offense while facing loaded boxes until Bridgewater proves he is a consistent big-time quarterback, but the 31-year-old physical marvel is up to the task.

5) J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

I'm all in on the Texans this year. I loved the signing of Brock Osweiler -- and how the team immediately worked to upgrade the new franchise quarterback's surrounding cast. Houston added running back Lamar Miller in free agency, then drafted two big-time receiving talents (Will Fuller and Braxton Miller), a talented interior offensive lineman (Nick Martin) and an explosive change-of-pace back (Tyler Ervin).

But don't confuse the issue here: J.J. Watt is still the man in Houston. This is an all-time great defensive lineman, the best defensive player in the game today. Over the past four seasons, Watt's racked up three Defensive Player of the Year awards and an astounding 69 sacks. He's a one-man wrecking crew. The Texans' success this year will stem from Watt's domination and the defense.

6) Khalil Mack, DE/OLB, Oakland Raiders

I'm also all in on the Raiders. And Mack is a stud pass rusher, an absolute freak of nature. Last season, we saw what happens when a defensive coordinator completely turns Mack loose off the edge: 15 sacks and two forced fumbles. (Touché, Ken Norton Jr.) And Oakland added another explosive edge rusher (Bruce Irvin) in free agency, so it'll be more difficult to completely focus all protection on Mack.

I don't think it's hyperbole to conjure up a scenario where the Raiders win 10 games, Mack sacks the quarterback 20 times and Oakland sits atop the AFC West. What a time to be alive -- eh, Raider Nation?!

7) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Sometimes you forget how special Bell is. But his versatile skill set will be on full display in 2016.

Heath Miller is retired. Martavis Bryant is suspended for the season. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown need help if they are going to make the playoffs again.

Fortunately, Bell will be the driving force of the offense, a terror to contain in the running and passing games. After an injury-shortened 2015 campaign, the 24-year-old will regain his status as a top-three back in the NFL.

8) Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys

Speaking of injury-abbreviated seasons ... Dez Bryant is back, and he's going to dominate. I think he'll post a season worthy of first-team All-Pro recognition. Why? Well, Tony Romo is back, as well, and that changes everything. He's a true franchise quarterback.

Ezekiel Elliott's presence will provide the necessary balance on offense. Dez, who never lacks passion for the game, will be a man on a mission.

After a highly disappointing season, 2016 is going to be fun for Dallas.

9) Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

This is my way of saying he's back, too. Luck's healthy. And the 26-year-old quarterback is still an elite talent.

I think the Colts are the third-best team on paper in the suddenly competitive AFC South. But they still have the best QB in the division. And now that Ryan Grigson actually drafted a few offensive linemen to support the face of the franchise, Luck will mask areas of deficiency and remind you he's Andrew Luck.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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