Who Really Belongs in the NFL MVP Race?

By Aaron Weiss

With Week 10 wrapped up, thoughts are beginning to swirl over who belongs in the NFL MVP race. While there are a number of viable candidates, I want to rank my top five candidates with 7 weeks to go!

  1. Doug Free, RT, Dallas Cowboys – Really this award could go to almost any of the Cowboy offensive lineman, but I’m going to give this spot to Free due to the Cowboys run power to the right side, and number of 10+ yard plays to the right side, compared to the center and left. The Cowboys are tied for third in average yards per rush, tied for first in rush touchdowns, tied for fourth in sacks, and fifth in QB hits. This line has been impeccable for years, and considering how their efforts are impacting a pair of rookies on that squad (more on them later), someone from that line deserves the nod. That being said, there have only been three instances where the MVP wasn’t awarded to a QB or a RB (1971 – DT Alan Page, 1982 – PK Mark Moseley, 1986 – LB Lawrence Taylor), and I have neither the hope nor the sabermetrics to make the argument that a lineman should really win the reward. Other analysts will though.
  1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots – You can make the argument that since his return from his 4 game Deflategate suspension Brady has been the best player in football. While for obvious reasons his total yards is lower than almost every other QB, he has the highest average yards per attempt among qualified players, second most yards per game, tied 14th for touchdowns, he has only one interception, the least amongst qualified QBs, and the highest Passer Rating and QBR. That being said, the Pats went 3-1 without Brady and are now 4-1 with him, so it is not like he has dramatically altered the success of the Patriots, and considering that it’s hard to be the most valuable player on a team when you’ve only played 56% of your team’s games, I don’t like Brady’s odds. He does have the best chance of jumping up the ranks, since by season’s end he’ll have played 75% of his team’s games, validating his right to the award more than now.
  1. Ezekiel Elliot, RB, Dallas Cowboys – Only two players have won the NFL MVP award in their rookie year, Jim Brown and Earl Campbell, but Zeke is making his case to be the third rookie to earn the prize. He leads the league with 1,005 yards in 9 games, and has a very legitimate case to break Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards. His 5.1 yards per rush is tied for 3rd best amongst qualifying RB’s, with Eddie Lacy and LeSean McCoy also having 5.1 yards per rush (although Lacy and McCoy combined only have six more attempts than Zeke on his own), and behind Jordan Howard’s 5.3 yards per rush and Jay Ayaji’s 5.7 yards per rush. Howard has 84 less attempts than Elliot, and Ayaji has 71 less attempts. Only Melvin Gordon, with 217 tries, has more attempts than Elliot, who as 198 attempts. He’s the only back averaging over 100 yards a game, and his 9 touchdowns on the ground is tied for 2nd with David Johnson and Gordon. Only LeGarrette Blount has more, with 12 touchdowns. An additional 250 receiving yards and one receiving touchdown has been the icing on the cake of an amazing start to his career (not to mention only one fumble).

All of that being said, I don’t have much enthusiasm to give Elliot the nod for MVP. As stunning as his campaign has been, he’s been immensely helped by the tremendous offensive line in Dallas, as I mentioned earlier. And as I mentioned in an earlier article, the Cowboys have always had a good running game, and the Cowboys would still be pretty good if Alfred Morris was the premier back (although Elliot should break Darren McFadden’s 2015 rushing total in the next week or two, despite McFadden being a top five back last year). If Elliot breaks Dickerson’s record, then he’ll improve his odds, but to me he is not the reason the Cowboys own the best record in the league.

  1. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys – Dak Prescott is the reason the Cowboys are having their best year under Jason Garrett’s regime. Prescott’s only has 2,339 yards, ranking 17th in the league, and his 280 attempts ranks 24th in the league. He’s completed 66.8% of his passes, which ranks 10th in the league, if you remove everybody with less than 166 attempts (the number that Brady has thrown). Three of the QBs ahead of him have less attempts, Hoyer, Kessler, and Brady, and again, Prescott ranks 24th in attempts. He averages 8.4 yards per attempt, ranking third among qualified QBs, and he ranks 18th in yards per game, despite ranking 30th in attempts per game. His 14 passing touchdowns ranks 12th overall, and his two picks is tied for 2nd best, behind Brady and Kessler. Finally, he has a 106.2 passer rating, only behind Brady, Drew Brees, and Matt Ryan, and his QBR of 82.5 is 2nd only to Tom Brady. He also has over 100 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns.

Most significantly, Prescott is on pace to have the best rookie season for a quarterback in the history of the league. You compare him to the best rookie QBs of all time and he is absolutely dominating those backs, with a better completion percentage and far fewer picks, not to mention his other competitive numbers. While the Cowboy’s offensive line and running game should be acknowledged for helping Prescott have such a great start to his career, it doesn’t explain how the ‘Boys, who have had the best o-line and one of the best running backs each of the past few years, have twice as many wins this year, through nine games, as they had all of last year. That comes down to Prescott, who has been impeccable, despite being thrown into the fire without warning due to a Romo injury, and despite being without star wide receiver Dez Bryant for a third of the season.

Suffice to say, in my opinion, Dak Prescott has been the most impressive player in the NFL this year, and he is on pace to have the greatest year of all rookie QBs in the history of the game. But considering how complete the Cowboys are on offense, he still does not get my nod for MVP.

And that leaves…

  1. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons – Matty Ice ranks 1st in total yards, the only QB with over 3,000 yards, tied for 1st for touchdowns, 2nd in yards per attempt, behind Brady, 3rd in yards per game, 4th in completion percentage, 2nd in passer rating and 3rd in QBR despite ranking 19th in attempts per game. He’s only thrown five picks, and no one with less has close to the amount of touchdowns he has. Furthermore, the Falcons are 6-4 and in first place in their division, compared to 8-8 last year. This offense only has three remotely notable changes from years past, with Austin Hooper as the backup TE, Mohamed Sanu as the WR2, and, most significantly, Alex Mack at center. While Mack is one of, if not the best center in the game, Ryan projects to be sacked more this year than last year, and Sanu has not been a studly WR2. This offense has been all about Julio Jones, and the dual threat running backs in Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman, who have combined for over 500 receiving yards.

My guess is that Ryan won’t win the MVP, as he isn’t as popular, nor is he on as significant a hot streak as Brady, Elliot, or Prescott. But only Prescott has been as significant to the fate of his team as Ryan has been, and Ryan’s numbers have been more impressive.

There are three other potential candidates that could sneak into the conversation, but right now aren’t in my top five:

  1. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks – Wilson hasn’t had a tremendous year, and the Seahawks started out a little rocky, but last year Wilson had a nearly historic second half to his season, and he’s been one of, if not the best QB in the league each of the past two weeks. Should he go on a tear like he did last year to finish the season, he should inject himself into the conversation.
  2. Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints – 2nd in yards & completion percentage, T-1st in touchdowns, 3rd in passer rating and 4th in QBR. He’s been typically great, but a sub-.500 record, a 3rd place rank in their division, and a tremendous amount of attempts means that this is, if anything, a down year for Drew Brees, and down years don’t qualify for MVP awards. Still, if some of these other players slide over the rest of the season, Brees could be in consideration.
  3. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons – While his 5 touchdowns are low, Jones has been the best WR in football this year. He’s first in yards and average yards per catch (for WRs with over 25 receptions), and 2nd in yards per game. He and AJ Green are the only two receivers to average over 100 yards a game. Considering the other MVP contenders I don’t think Jones will enter the conversation, especially since his fate is directly tied to true contender Matt Ryan, but if Jones breaks Calvin Johnson’s single season receiving yards record, then you’d be hard pressed not to reward Jones for that achievement.

So those are the players contending for the MVP award at the end of Week 10. Leave a comment telling me who you think should win the award, or who belongs in the conversation!

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