Jun 4, 2019
Bill BarnwellESPN Staff Writer
- Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
My colleague Louis Riddick tweeted out a prediction last week: Carson Wentz is going to win the MVP award in 2019. It’s a great pick given what we know about MVP winners. History tells us the ideal pick is an ascending quarterback who hasn’t won the award recently, plays for a great team, and is likely to improve in 2019. Wentz fits all those criteria.
Of course, Riddick was ahead of the curve on last year’s MVP winner too. It seemed like an obvious pick by the time the season ended, but this time last year, no one would have put Patrick Mahomes forward as a potential MVP. The Chiefs had drafted Mahomes in the first round in 2017, but he started just one game during his rookie season, a meaningless Week 17 contest. Mahomes would have fit the criteria I mentioned, but most people would have named the likes of Deshaun Watson, Marcus Mariota or Jimmy Garoppolo as trendier picks than the eventual winner.
Naturally, I started thinking about possible competitors with Wentz for the award and who might represent this year’s Mahomes. The five first-round quarterbacks from the 2018 draft are the closest comps to where Mahomes was a year ago, but they’re hardly the only long shots. He wasn’t the most likely candidate this time in 2018, but he was a plausible candidate.
And when you start using history to plot out plausible MVP candidates in 2019, the list gets big. Quickly. By my count, there are 233 players who history suggests could have some semblance of a shot at winning NFL MVP in 2019.
Let’s run through those players and why the past suggests they have a shot at winning the biggest individual award in professional football this season, group by group. I’ll also use the Caesars sportsbook’s current odds for MVP to pick a favorite and a least favorite selection from each group given the odds.
Group I: The Hall of Fame QBs
This is easy, right? Any of the guys who already have been fitted for gold jackets can win MVP in any given year. Late-career awards for guys such as Tom Brady (at age 40) and Peyton Manning (37) have proved that there’s no expiration date for glory. I shouldn’t need to explain this one.
Candidates (4): Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger
My favorite from this group: Rodgers (8-1). Freeing Rodgers from the grasp of Mike McCarthy can only help matters.
My least favorite from this group: Brees (10-1). Roethlisberger (30-1) has lost Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and offensive line coach Mike Munchak, but Brees’ downturn during the final weeks of the 2018 season at age 39 scares me.
Group II: The rookie-deal QBs
On the other side of the coin, there’s no reason to think that a passer needs some level of seasoning before being taken seriously as an MVP candidate. In 2017, Wentz was likely about to win the award in his second season as a starter before going down with a torn ACL. Mahomes won MVP last season with all of one professional start in his back pocket.
It would hardly be shocking if Baker Mayfield, who was one of the best starting quarterbacks in the league during the second half of his rookie season, is a legitimate MVP candidate in 2019 after the Browns added Odell Beckham Jr. I think it would even be foolish to totally count out Kyler Murray, who has transcendent athleticism and will be playing in a Cardinals scheme designed to rack up numbers. Some of these guys will fall off and play middling football, of course, but there’s every reason to believe one of these guys will put together an MVP-caliber season. One of them did just that a year ago.
My favorite from this group: Garoppolo (40-1). Injuries are going to be a concern, of course, but you could say that about half of the people in the list above, and most have worse odds. Underlying metrics suggest that the 49ers are one of the most likely teams in the NFL to improve in 2019, and Garoppolo should have an excellent offensive line while working under Kyle Shanahan for a full season. Wentz, for what it’s worth, currently has the second-lowest odds of any passer at +550.
My least favorite from this group: Mariota (60-1). He is one of those quarterbacks with serious injury concerns, but he also hasn’t played well enough when healthy to ever garner meaningful MVP consideration. The former Oregon star is also dealing with yet another offensive coordinator in Arthur Smith, who has never been a coordinator at any level.
Group III: The established veteran QBs
There’s a group of effective, Pro Bowl-caliber signal-callers between those first two groups. We don’t usually think about one of them suddenly piecing together a MVP season after six or seven years in the league, but Matt Ryan did just that in 2016. He wasn’t even an ascending quarterback at the time; both he and the Falcons had seemingly taken a step backward during the final years of the Mike Smith era. Ryan had a frustrating first season under coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but he averaged 9.3 yards per attempt and was a deserving league MVP in Year 2 with Shanahan.
Was Ryan a better player under Shanahan than he had been under Dirk Koetter or than he would be under Steve Sarkisian? Maybe. It’s more likely that Ryan had a career year because the context surrounding him was ideal. The Falcons massively upgraded by signing center Alex Mack, and their offensive line stayed healthy for the entirety of the season. Julio Jones was healthy, and the Falcons replaced a hobbled Roddy White with Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel.
Getting the pieces around a quarterback right allows him to flourish. We saw players in this group blossom last season under those terms, as passers such as Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson improved their numbers behind the sorts of competent, ambulatory offensive lines they hadn’t seen in years. Everything could break right around a skilled vet in 2019.
Candidates (9): Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson
My favorite from this group: Cousins (60-1). If the Vikings’ offensive line is better after signing Josh Kline and drafting Garrett Bradbury, Cousins can add that to the league’s best wide receiver pairing and a running game that should be better with Gary Kubiak coming on board as an adviser. A great defense should ensure an impressive record if Cousins holds up his end of the bargain too. If the Vikings go 13-3 and Cousins has a great season, he’ll be up there.
My least favorite from this group: Stafford (75-1). New Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell just talked about how he wants to build around the running game and imposing their will on opponents, which might hurt Stafford’s stock. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer has said the same thing about his offense, but Minnesota’s defense is much better than Detroit’s. The Lions don’t have the defensive talent to play that way.
Group IV: The middling veteran QBs
Yes, it’s fair to say there are starting passers more likely to be out of the league by 2021 than suiting up on Sundays. It’s almost a joke to mention them as MVP candidates. I have to say almost, though, because a 35-year-old John Brodie was five years removed from his prior Pro Bowl appearance in 1970 and then won league MVP. The 1981 winner was 32-year-old Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson, who was five years removed from his last Pro Bowl nod and threw 13 interceptions against just six touchdown passes in 1980.
As long as you have a starting job in the NFL, you could conceivably have everything go right and win league MVP. Is there a strong chance that Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Dolphins are going to put together the sort of season The Fitzchise would need to win MVP? Absolutely not. You only have to look back to the first two weeks of 2018, though, to remember how hot Fitzpatrick can get when things are going well.
On top of that, remember that those same Dolphins entered the 2008 season coming off a 1-15 campaign in a division with the Patriots, who had gone 16-0 the previous year and returned virtually everybody from their terrifying offense. Tom Brady got hurt in Week 1 and the Dolphins ended up winning the division. A lot can go wrong — or right — in 16 games.
Candidates (6): Andy Dalton, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Joe Flacco, Case Keenum, Eli Manning, Colt McCoy
My favorite from this group: Dalton (250-1). All of these guys are extreme long shots, of course. I’d say Dalton because the Bengals’ offense was averaging 27.7 points per game during the first half of the season before Dalton and A.J. Green went down injured. That would have been the fourth-highest average in football if Cincinnati had been able to keep it up. The Bengals also might be more competitive than people think in a division in which the Ravens and Steelers lost talent, and the Browns, who admittedly added talent, were still only 7-8-1 a year ago.
My least favorite from this group: McCoy (3,000-1). Several of these veterans are likely to lose their jobs as the season goes on, but it’s unclear whether McCoy will even be on Washington’s opening-day roster.
Group V: Literally any other active QB
We actually can’t rule out any quarterback with NFL eligibility, thanks to Kurt Warner’s stunning MVP season in 1999. Think about how unlikely of an MVP candidate Warner was before that season began. He was a Northern Iowa product and NFL Europe veteran with 11 career pro passes to his name by age 28. Most NFL hopefuls who haven’t taken meaningful snaps by that age are selling insurance.
Furthermore, Warner was the backup quarterback on a team whose offense had finished 24th of 30 teams in points scored the previous season. Sure, the Rams had added weapons by trading for Marshall Faulk and drafting Torry Holt to play alongside Isaac Bruce, but no one expected the Rams’ offense to blow away the league with Trent Green at quarterback, and even those modest expectations collapsed into the basement once Green tore his ACL and gave way to Warner.
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Warner’s campaign tells us that any quarterback lurking on an NFL roster — and even a few guys who don’t currently have jobs — could conceivably win league MVP. To say otherwise is to ignore history, which means we can add a lot of candidates to our list:
My favorite from this group: Bortles (5,000-1). There are certainly better quarterbacks in a vacuum than Bortles on this list, but we’re looking for a passer who would be in the best possible situation to succeed if someone got injured. To me, that’s playing under Sean McVay in the Rams’ offense if Jared Goff got hurt.
My least favorite from this group: McGough (10,000-1). The former Seahawks seventh-round pick is the fourth-string quarterback on a Jacksonville team with arguably the worst offensive infrastructure in football. He’s playing behind an expensive free agent in Nick Foles and a pair of Jaguars draft picks, suggesting that McGough is extremely unlikely to make the active roster.
Group VI: Workhorse running backs
Fifteen running backs have won the AP’s MVP award, dwarfing the three won by non-quarterbacks at other positions. It’s obviously more difficult for a back to win it in a modern era in which teams happily rotate their backs and throw the ball more frequently than ever before, but Adrian Peterson’s 2012 season reminded us that it’s possible. His 2,097 rushing yards came within eight yards of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record, and his season culminated with the Vikings star almost literally carrying his team to the playoffs. It also came about one year after Peterson tore his ACL in December 2011.
If a 2019 back sets the rushing record on a playoff-bound team, he’s going to engender serious consideration. Maybe the path is slightly different; voters typically haven’t rewarded backs for their receiving production, but what if someone like Le’Veon Bell or Todd Gurley II becomes the first back to hit 1,500 rushing yards and 1,500 receiving yards in the same campaign? Any back with a plausible path toward 300 carries or with a key role on a dominant offense has to be in the running:
My favorite from this group: Barkley (60-1). The Giants are also one of the most likely teams in the league to improve in 2019, and with Odell Beckham Jr. leaving, Barkley is the most likely candidate to get credit for carrying the team. They seem decades away from the playoffs, but we also very well might have said that about the likes of the Bears and Colts a year ago, or the Rams two years ago. Barkley also should be running behind one of the league’s best run-blocking lines after New York traded for Kevin Zeitler this offseason.
My least favorite from this group: McCoy (500-1). The moves the Bills have made this offseason suggest that McCoy, entering the final year of his extension in Buffalo, isn’t going to be the featured back throughout the season.
Group VII: Star pass-rushers
We can’t ignore the chances that a dominant pass-rusher might catch fire and win MVP. It’s going to take an incredible season; since Lawrence Taylor won the trophy for his 20.5-sack campaign in 1986, the only defensive player to attract significant consideration was when J.J. Watt racked up 13 votes in 2014. Chances are that a defensive winner would need to happen in a season in which there’s no standout quarterback candidate, which could split the vote and create a scenario in which a defender could win with, say, 20 of the 50 electors backing him.
That player is also going to need to hit some significant number as part of a very successful team defense. Taylor’s Giants went 14-2 while allowing 14.8 points per game, the second-fewest total in the league. Taylor also became just the second player in the brief (official) history of the sack statistic to top 20 sacks in a single season, after Mark Gastineau hit 22.0 sacks in 1984.
The record currently stands at 22.5 sacks, and an MVP-winning edge rusher would almost certainly have to surpass that mark. Before the 2017 season, Khalil Mack and Von Miller speculated that they could each rack up 30 sacks in a single campaign. I laid out why that was unlikely at the time, but 25 sacks is more plausible and would still be a dramatic increase on the old record.
Let’s use Mack as an example. He finishes his 2019 season by traveling to Lambeau, hosting the Chiefs in a prime-time game, and then traveling to Minnesota for a Week 17 tilt with the Vikings. If Mack gets to 25 sacks, dominates Patrick Mahomes on national television, and then comes up with a big play or two in the finale to push the Bears into the playoffs, he would get some votes.
My favorite from this group: J.J. Watt (250-1). I’m going to go for the player who has exhibited the highest ceiling here, and that’s the Texans star. Watt stayed healthy and racked up 16 sacks a year ago, and while he wasn’t quite at the heights of his 2012-15 peak, if I have to pick one pass-rusher to get to 25 sacks, it’s him.
My least favorite from this group: Griffen (750-1). The Vikings standout turns 32 during the campaign and might lose some pass-rushing snaps to Anthony Barr. He also has to beat Danielle Hunter to the quarterback.
Group VIII: Superstar wide receivers
No wide receiver has ever won the AP’s version of the MVP award. The Pro Football Writers Association gave their flavor of the trophy to Jerry Rice during the strike-hit 1987 campaign, when the legendary wideout racked up 22 receiving touchdowns over 12 games for a 49ers team that went 13-2. Awards for great passing performance typically go to quarterbacks over receivers, but Joe Montana missed five starts between the strike and an injury and ceded way to Steve Young, who racked up 10 touchdowns against zero picks.
Rice narrowly lost to John Elway in the AP voting that year, in part because the electorate split between the two Niners stars; Elway won with 36 votes to Rice’s 30, while Montana received 18 votes. For a wide receiver to win this award, he probably needs to post record numbers for a dominant team despite losing his quarterback to injury for a chunk of the campaign. (Naturally, losing a starting quarterback also makes it harder to rack up those record numbers and win a ton of games.)
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Of course, there’s still a huge round number out there to be hit. No receiver has ever topped 2,000 receiving yards in a single season, with Calvin Johnson the only wideout in league history to even top 1,900. What would happen if Michael Thomas topped 2,000 yards and added 16 touchdown catches? If the Saints went 13-3 despite being forced to turn to Teddy Bridgewater for a month after Drew Brees went down injured, I think Thomas would be a reasonable MVP option. The first receiver to top 2,000 yards will get votes if he’s on a successful team.
My favorite from this group: Hopkins (200-1). Nuk even managed to remain productive with Tom Savage & Co. at quarterback after Deshaun Watson went down during the 2017 season. There are similarly talented wideouts to Hopkins in the NFL, but nobody else can match his combination of target share and health, given that the former first-round pick has missed just one pro game.
My least favorite from this group: Diggs (250-1). Nobody doubts Diggs’s talent, of course, but he has yet to complete a 16-game season as a pro and has to share targets with Thielen.
Group IX: Kickers
Really. It seems absurdly far-fetched, but it has happened before. Mark Moseley won the AP MVP award for his 1982 season, when the Washington kicker went 20-of-21 on field goal attempts during a strike-shortened, nine-game campaign. I wrote about the Moseley story several years ago and found that there appeared to just be some level of hysteria — Moseley missed several extra points and took credit for several wins he didn’t really save for Washington — but he had a legitimately excellent season for a team that ended up winning the Super Bowl.
Admittedly, I think it’s tough to imagine a kicker winning the award in a full season. We’ve seen perfect campaigns from the likes of Gary Anderson and Mike Vanderjagt for successful NFL teams, and they didn’t sniff a single MVP vote, let alone the award itself. Moseley likely would have regressed toward the mean over the second half of a full campaign, given that the 34-year-old had hit on 62% of his field goal tries before 1982 and would go on to miss four of his eight tries during the subsequent postseason.
What you would need, realistically, is a season in which a team goes 13-3 with a great team defense, a middling offense, and a kicker who hit 95% of his attempts and booted through 10 game winners. Justin Tucker is the most obvious candidate to pull that off, but remember that Moseley was a middling veteran kicker with one Pro Bowl appearance across his first 12 seasons in the NFL before winning league MVP. Moseley’s win would be something like Mason Crosby or Stephen Hauschka winning MVP today. So, with that in mind, we’ve gotta throw every starting kicker onto the list:
My favorite from this group: Tucker (1,000,000-1). He’s by far the most plausible candidate from this group.
My least favorite from this group: Sanders (1,000,000-1). The New Mexico product went 18-for-20 on kicks as a rookie last season, but he’s playing for a Dolphins team in the middle of a rebuild.
Add all those candidates up and we get to 233 players. More than half are quarterbacks. Two hundred and fifteen of them probably have less than a 1% shot of winning the award, and 200 might not even have one-tenth of 1% of a shot.
History tells us, though, that strange things can happen in an NFL season. If a 34-year-old kicker, a 28-year-old NFL Europe backup, and a guy with one career start to his name can all win MVP in their own respective seasons, just about anything is possible in 2019.