The preseason list of favorites for the NFL’s MVP award featured all the usual suspects, headlined by Tom Brady (+550), Aaron Rodgers (+600), Derek Carr (+800), Ben Roethlisberger (+900), Dak Prescott (+1200), Russell Wilson (+1600), and last year’s winner, Matt Ryan (+1600). The first non-quarterback on that list was Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell (+1600), and he was followed by Cowboys workhorse Ezekiel Elliott (+2000) and 2015 league MVP Cam Newton (+2500).
Plenty can change over the next three months, but just two of those names make our list for the top MVP contenders at the season’s quarter mark. Carr has struggled mightily in back-to-back Oakland losses and is now due to miss the next two to six weeks with a fracture in his back. Roethlisberger, Prescott, and Wilson are all off to slower starts than expected, and Ryan’s played efficiently but still has fewer passing yards and touchdowns than, say, Eli Manning. Elliott’s currently ninth in rushing yards and touchdowns and 28th in yards per carry, Bell has been similarly solid but unremarkable, and Newton’s only impressive game came against the worst defense in the league.
So, who’s moved up the leaderboard for MVP through the season’s first four weeks? Brady and Rodgers make the cut, but the players above them on the list are a lot more surprising.
RB Kareem Hunt, Chiefs
We’ll never know how long it would’ve taken Chiefs head coach Andy Reid to turn to Hunt as his bell-cow back had Spencer Ware not torn up his knee in the preseason. But alas, Ware did go down in Kansas City’s third preseason game, and the rookie third-round pick out of Toledo has led the Chiefs to a perfect 4-0 start in Ware's stead.
Hunt shrugged off a lost fumble on his first carry as a pro, bouncing right back to emerge as the most elusive runner in the NFL. He’s posted a league-leading 502 rushing yards on a ridiculous 7.4 yards per carry on 68 totes—for some context, no player in NFL history has ever averaged 7.0 yards per carry on at least 50 rushes through a season’s first four games—to go along with four touchdowns. He’s added 13 catches for 157 yards and two scores through the air. His 659 scrimmage yards through four weeks is second-best for a rookie ever, trailing the 745-yard mark former Lions running back Billy Sims set back in 1980.
Hunt runs with power between the tackles, can bounce to the outside with explosive agility and quick feet, and is slippery in the open field; he’s well ahead of all running backs with 25 broken tackles on the year (LeGarrette Blount is a distant second with 16, per Pro Football Focus). Kansas City’s offense has been much more electric through the air than expected, and quarterback Alex Smith has been impressive—orchestrating a league-high three game-winning drives—and deserves an honorable mention for the MVP award, but without the foundation Hunt has provided both on the ground and in the passing game, this Chiefs team wouldn’t be undefeated.
RB Todd Gurley, Rams
You don’t have to look much further than the Rams’ win over the Cowboys on Sunday to get a picture of Gurley’s impact on the Los Angeles offense this year. The third-year running back ran the ball 23 times for 121 yards against Dallas and added seven catches for 94 yards and a score, accounting for 215 of the team’s 412 yards of offense in the 35-30 upset win.
If it weren’t for Hunt stealing some of the spotlight, we’d be in awe of the season Gurley has put together so far. The former Georgia star has been the foundation of the team’s run game, with 86 totes (second in the league) for 362 yards (second) and four touchdowns (tied for second), improving his yards per carry from 3.2 last year to 4.2 this season. But it’s his impact in the passing attack that’s been felt the most. Gurley’s been Jared Goff’s safety net, and has caught 20 passes (tied for 20th amongst all pass catchers) for 234 yards (23rd) and three touchdowns (tied for fourth). Gurley came into the season with exactly zero receiving touchdowns in his career, but he’s scored one through the air in three straight games. His seven total touchdowns this year lead all players, and his 596 scrimmage yards is second to only Hunt.
What head coach Sean McVay’s done with Goff has been nothing short of miraculous, but much of the credit should go to Gurley (and his revamped offensive line), too. Without his power and speed in the run game and defense-stressing versatility as a pass catcher, this Rams offense wouldn’t be nearly as difficult to defend. It damn sure wouldn’t be leading the league in scoring through four games, either, and without him, Los Angeles would not be 3-1.
QB Tom Brady, Patriots
It’s been lost in the Pats’ sluggish 2-2 start, but Brady is quietly off to one of the best starts of his career. He’s posted a 116.6 passer rating through four games, a number which puts him on pace to come close to the career-high mark he set in 2007 (117.2)—the year he threw 50 touchdowns to just eight picks and won MVP while leading the Patriots to a 16-0 regular-season record. At his current pace, the 40-year-old future Hall of Famer would finish the year with a record 5,596 passing yards with 40 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Without Brady, the Pats may not have won a game all year. New England’s defense has been shockingly bad after allowing the fewest in the league in 2016, surrendering 32.0 points per game this year, good for second-worst. Brady’s arm has almost single-handedly kept New England in a few games: He put them in a position to win last week against Carolina by throwing a game-tying touchdown to Danny Amendola on fourth-and-goal with New England down seven late in the game, but the defense let him down in the end, as Carolina came back to kick the game-winning field goal. At this rate, with that quality of defense, the Patriots are going to need Brady to continue to play like his 30-year-old self to defend their Super Bowl title.
QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers
It feels like we’ve almost come to expect Rodgers to continue to make otherworldly plays and carry his team forever and always. So while the two-time MVP has put together yet another incredible first-quarter of the season, he’s done so with relatively little fanfare. Rodgers is third in yards (1,146), tied with Brady for first in touchdowns (10), and tied for seventh in passer rating (100.7).
What makes that more incredible are the obstacles Rodgers has overcome so far: Few QBs have had a higher degree of difficulty on offense through four games. The 33-year-old playmaker has weathered injuries to both starting tackles and three of their backups and soldiered on despite losing Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, and Ty Montgomery for portions of the team’s four games to calmly lead his squad to a 3-1 record. Rodgers’s ability to make plays outside of the constructs of the offense, get his team free plays with a devastating hard count, and even grab first downs and get into the end zone with his feet make the Packers one of the toughest teams in the league to defend—no matter who’s out there with him.
QB Drew Brees, Saints
Brees just never seems to slow down. The 38-year-old signal-caller has completed 69.1 percent of his passes (fourth) for 1,135 yards (fourth), eight touchdowns (tied for third), and no picks so far, leading the Saints to back-to-back wins over the Panthers and Dolphins the past two weeks. New Orleans’s defense has been so bad in recent years that even record-setting performances by Brees haven’t been enough, but with a marginal improvement from that side of the ball—the shutout the team posted against the Dolphins last week was a great start—Brees’s dangerous arm could make the Saints playoff contenders.
QB Matthew Stafford, Lions
The Lions are an overturned Golden Tate touchdown versus Atlanta from a 4-0 start, and the arm of the league’s highest-paid player has a lot to do with it. Stafford’s thrown seven touchdowns against just one pick, and while he hasn’t posted prolific numbers (he’s just 17th in total passing yards) his steely, clutch play late in games continues to give the Lions a chance every week. He’s already posted one game-winning drive this year after leading the league with eight last season, and he came pretty damn close to a second in that Falcons game.
WR DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
We’re getting into “this is a stretch” territory, but Hopkins needs to get a shout-out here. The talented playmaker has been a huge part of rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson’s early breakout this year, giving his young quarterback an explosive, reliable target to throw to on third downs and in the red zone. Hopkins leads the league in targets (49) and receptions (31) through four weeks and has accounted for 39 percent of the Texans’ offensive target share. He’s the unquestioned go-to guy in that passing game, a transcendent talent that embodies the “throw it in his general area and let him do the rest” style of playmaker—a player that Watson can throw to on every single play if he really needs to (and he nearly did just that in Week 2 against the Bengals). If Hopkins wasn’t on the field, Houston—and Watson—would take a huge step back.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the round Kareem Hunt was drafted in; it was the third round, not the second.