Quarterbacks have dominated the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award for decades. The logic makes sense: Every offense runs through its quarterback. He handles the football on every snap, diagnoses the coverage, and finds receivers downfield. There’s nothing defenses can do to keep the ball out of his hands. You can’t double team him. You can’t scheme away from him. You have to stop him, or you lose.
Due to the outsize effect each team’s quarterback has on the outcome of the game, they’re almost invariably each team’s MVP. So, rather than hand out honors to 32 quarterbacks, let’s took at the players who provide the most value — even if they don’t touch the ball on every snap.
Buffalo Bills: WR Sammy Watkins
When the Bills throw, they want to throw deep — Tyrod Taylor had the highest percentage of throws traveling 20 yards or more in the air last year — and Watkins is their most dangerous threat. He got off to a slow start in 2015, but his second half — when he finally got the targets he needed — placed him among the upper echelon of NFL receivers. He averaged an absolutely ridiculous 18.4 yards per reception on 49 catches, racking up 900 yards and seven touchdowns over his last nine games (trailing only Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham Jr. over that span).
Miami Dolphins: DT Ndamukong Suh
Quarterbacks fear few players more than the former Lion — he generated 60 quarterback pressures from the inside in 2015, grading out as PFF’s third-best interior pass rusher while playing more than 1,000 snaps (a career high) for his new team. Miami reunited its franchise player with former Detroit defensive line coach Jim Washburn, and the defense will implement the aggressive “wide-9” look that Suh thrived under in Detroit.
New England Patriots: TE Rob Gronkowski
Gronkowski is probably the most dominant tight end ever: When healthy, he’s a force up front in both pass protection and the run game, and he’s virtually unguardable as a receiver, where he’s a touchdown-maker at the highest level. Since entering the league in 2010, he has 65 receiving touchdowns, more than any other pass catcher in the league.
New York Jets: DE Muhammad Wilkerson
Wilkerson is a force in the run game, and his 12 sacks, seven pass deflections, and three forced fumbles in 2015 don’t properly describe how troublesome he was to opposing offensive lines. He totaled 78 pressures — second among 3–4 defensive ends in the league — and did it from everywhere, playing at least 10 snaps at every spot on the defensive line last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Baltimore Ravens: G Marshal Yanda
Yanda is a two-time All-Pro at right guard, and he has been one of the most consistently dominant linemen in the game for years. He provides a combination of toughness, quickness, and intelligence in Baltimore’s zone-blocking run game, and he is a rock in pass protection. As leader of an offensive line that’s given up the fewest sacks in the NFL the past two years, Yanda surrendered just one half-sack in 2015.
Cincinnati Bengals: WR A.J. Green
With a unique combination of speed, length, body control, and hands, Green is a threat to score on any snap. He’s a pure no. 1, go-to guy in any situation, and he’s found the end zone 45 times since entering the league in 2011, tied for seventh most leaguewide. Meanwhile, his 415 catches ranks fifth, and his 6,171 yards rank sixth.
Cleveland Browns: OT Joe Thomas
Thomas is a peerless technician at left tackle. He’s strong in the run game, and he gave up just 24 pressures (hits, hurries, and sacks) in 705 snaps of pass protection. There’s no one player Hue Jackson needs more in his first season in Cleveland than Thomas, who’ll be tasked with protecting Robert Griffin III’s blind side.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Antonio Brown
No one has more catches (375) or receiving yards (5,031) in the last three seasons than the 5-foot-10, 180-pound jitterbug, and just two players (Dez Bryant and Brandon Marshall) have more touchdowns (31). It’s not just footwork and speed, either; he’s got great hands (just five drops on 141 catchable targets) and the savviness in space to come back to the ball and get himself open when Ben Roethlisberger scrambles.
Houston Texans: DL J.J. Watt
We don’t need to spend much time here: There’s not a more dominant non-quarterback in the the league. You can’t game plan for him because he can line up everywhere. In 2015, he led the NFL in sacks (17.5) and total pressures (90), and he forced three fumbles.
Indianapolis Colts: CB Vontae Davis
Davis couldn’t match his elite 2014 campaign—in which he gave up zero touchdowns in coverage — as he surrendered seven scores in 2015 while fighting through a foot injury. But he’s still Indianapolis’ best defender, and his role is extremely important — he spends a ton of time in press coverage, and is often on an island against opposing teams’ best receiver.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Allen Robinson
Robinson caught 80 passes for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns (tied for most in the NFL) last year. Opposing defenses have to scheme for him down the field: He averaged 17.5 yards per catch, his average target traveled more than 15 yards in the air, and he led all receivers with 19 catches of 20-plus yards.
Tennessee Titans: TE Delanie Walker
Delanie Walker had the quietest 94-catch season in the history of the NFL in 2015 while emerging as an extremely dependable security blanket for Tennessee’s young franchise quarterback, Marcus Mariota. He led all tight ends in catches, was third in yards (1,088), and he’s a strong run blocker, too, grading out fourth at his position, per PFF.
Denver Broncos: OLB Von Miller
Miller is so good at what he does that you could almost make the argument the Broncos don’t even need a quarterback: His combined five sacks in the AFC championship came and in the Super Bowl demonstrated his ability to take over. He’s one of the NFL’s most prolific pass rushers (11 sacks, four forced fumbles in 2015), he’s one of the best run defending 3–4 OLBs in the game, and he’s steady in coverage. Remember this?
Kansas City Chiefs: ILB Derrick Johnson
With sack machine Justin Houston’s season in doubt, Derrick Johnson gets the nod. Johnson runs things from the middle of Kansas City’s defense, where he racked up 60 defensive stops (third at his position), four sacks, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles in 2015. The savvy vet is one of the team’s most respected leaders, is a stud in pass coverage, and can get it done when asked to blitz.
Oakland Raiders: DE Khalil Mack
Mack racked up 15 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 82 pressures as a three-down defender for the Raiders in his second season. He’s just as good of a run defender as he is a pass rusher, and he registered 54 stops, the best mark in the league for edge defenders, per PFF.
San Diego Chargers: CB Jason Verrett
Verrett is San Diego’s best defender. He can play press or off coverage, and he can line up on the outside or slide into the slot. He picked off three passes in 2015 while registering 12 passes defended, and if he can stay healthy, he’s only going to get better as he goes into his third season.
Dallas Cowboys: OT Tyron Smith
Smith’s a beast in the run game and a dancing bear in pass protection: He gave up just 22 pressures on 581 pass plays for the Cowboys in 2015. He anchors the excellent Dallas offensive line and will be an integral part of keeping Tony Romo injury-free in 2016.
New York Giants: WR Odell Beckham Jr.
Beckham might be the most electric player in the NFL. No one combines pure explosiveness with absurd acrobatic catches like the Giants’ go-to guy. He got to 150 career catches faster than anyone in league history (21 games), and only two players have ever had more touchdowns over their first two seasons (Randy Moss and Gronk) than Beckham (25).
Philadelphia Eagles: DL Fletcher Cox
Cox is a disruptive force on the Eagles defensive line, and he finished with 77 total pressures (hits, hurries, and sacks) in 2015, third-most among 3–4 defensive ends. He’s big, powerful, athletic, and versatile; he can rush against guards on the inside and can kick outside and rush against tackles; he’s also very good against the run. These are the reasons Philly is building its defense around him.
Washington Redskins: OT Trent Williams
Williams is right there with Joe Thomas and Tyron Smith as one of the game’s elite left tackles. The mainstay on Washington’s offensive line is tough and physical — the embodiment of GM Scot McCloughan’s proverbial “football player.”
Chicago Bears: WR Alshon Jeffery
Jeffery played in just nine games in 2015 but grabbed 54 passes for 807 yards (a career-high 90 receiving yards per game) and four touchdowns. He’s Chicago’s premier weapon on offense, and he’s a potent deep threat: He averaged 14.9 yards per reception and his average depth of target was 15.5 yards downfield. His 2.87 yards per pass route run (which tracks production on a per-snap basis) marks a clip of production bested last year by only Julio Jones, Steve Smith, and Antonio Brown.
Detroit Lions: WR Golden Tate
Playing opposite Calvin Johnson the past two seasons, Tate’s been really good, but when he was asked to be the no. 1 when Johnson was out, his average depth of target, yards per reception, and touchdown rate nearly doubled. Tate is dangerous at all levels: He’s better than most people think at running vertical routes and catching contested passes, and he’s easily the most elusive receiver in the NFL after the catch. He led all receivers in forced missed tackles in each of the past three seasons, and his 30 in 2015 is the most ever recorded outside of Brandon Marshall’s 2007 season.
Green Bay Packers: LB Clay Matthews
Matthews has become Green Bay’s defensive Swiss army knife, playing on the inside on base downs, then moving to the outside in the team’s subpackage on passing downs. From the inside, he’s been very good in coverage, adequate in defending the run, and an effective blitzer. From the outside, he’s, well, Clay Matthews — one of the most explosive pass rushers in the league. He’s going back to his most natural position on the outside in 2016, and the production will likely follow.
Minnesota Vikings: FS Harrison Smith
The 27-year-old Pro Bowl safety’s versatility makes him a valuable chess piece for Mike Zimmer in the Vikings defense. Smith spends around 60 percent of his time as Minnesota’s deep safety, but the other 40 percent of the time, he gets to mix it up, playing up in the box, on the wing as a corner, or in the slot. Last year, he racked up 66 tackles, two picks, three tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. Quarterbacks targeting him in coverage finished with a 43.3 passer rating in 2015.
Atlanta Falcons: WR Julio Jones
This sums it up: 136 catches (tied for most in the NFL in 2015) and 1,871 yards (most in the NFL). At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Jones is the prototype for how you’d build an X-receiver and was the model of consistency for an inconsistent offense in Atlanta. He provides what every offense dreams about: a truly unstoppable force on the outside.
Carolina Panthers: ILB Luke Kuechly
Kuechly is everywhere in the Carolina defense — he hits like a ton of bricks in the run game (118 tackles on the year) and is one of the most instinctive and athletic coverage linebackers in the league (four interceptions, 10 passes defended). If there’s one moment that sums up Kuechly, it came against the Seahawks in last year’s playoffs: He made one of the best plays you’ll ever see a middle linebacker make late in the Panthers’ win, strafing all the way across the field, completely out of his area, to get a hand on Russell Wilson’s pass to Doug Baldwin.
New Orleans Saints: DE Cameron Jordan
It’s hard to find silver linings on New Orlean’s atrocious defense in 2015. Athletic freak of nature Cameron Jordan might be the only one. The pass rusher racked up 10 sacks, 70 pressures, five batted passes, and a forced fumble.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LB Lavonte David
When it comes to pure football instincts and IQ, David is in the same mold as Luke Kuechly. The former Cornhusker seems to know where the ball is headed before it’s even snapped. His 15 punt-forcing stuffs on third-down plays in 2015 led the NFL, and his sideline-to-sideline speed is reminiscent of former Buc Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks.
Arizona Cardinals: WR Larry Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald, who will turn 33 this season, seems ageless, and he experienced a renaissance after playing primarily inside in the Cardinals passing game last year. He catches everything, is physical as a run blocker, and finished with 109 catches for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns last season. His value was never more apparent than in Arizona’s overtime playoff win against the Packers, when he took a broken-play leak-out pass 75 yards — a play that included the nastiest stiff-arm this side of Marshawn Lynch’s — down to the 5-yard line, setting up his own game-winning reception off a Carson Palmer shovel pass.
San Francisco 49ers: OT Joe Staley
Staley is a complete player: He’s devastatingly physical and tough in the run game, he’s technically proficient in pass protection, and well, he’s just plain mean. You probably couldn’t draw up a better left tackle for Chip Kelly’s offense. His rare athleticism and movement skills make him a great fit in Kelly’s wide zone–oriented offense, which asks its tackles to block in space and on the move.
Seattle Seahawks: FS Earl Thomas
Thomas is the linchpin in the Seahawks’ single-high, cover-3 defense, where he’s responsible for all post and seam routes, and his extreme range and uncanny instincts make his area of the field — the largest for just about any defender — one of the least targeted spots in the entire NFL, per NFL GSIS tracking. Opponents got bolder in 2015, attempting 20 passes Thomas’s way (and completing nine), but in the three seasons from 2012 to 2014, they attempted just 33 passes to the deep middle against the Seahawks — an average of 11 deep shots each year — which was the fewest in the NFL.
Los Angeles Rams: DT Aaron Donald
Donald’s ability to penetrate is not only devastating to opposing quarterbacks in the passing game — he racked up 79 sacks, hits, and hurries combined in 2015 — but his quickness off the snap, brute strength, and excellent hand usage makes him unblockable in the run game as well. J.J. Watt is the only player in the NFL who’s more disruptive than Donald.