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The Eight Best Players of the 2018 NFL Season So Far

At this point in the schedule, the MVP race is far too close to call. So instead of trying to predict who’ll wind up taking home the hardware, we’re celebrating the players who have defined the first six weeks of the season.

Khalil Mack, Patrick Mahomes II, Adam Thielen, and Todd Gurley Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At the six-week mark of almost every NFL season, the MVP race is too close to call. Sure, there are usually front-runners (and plenty of people willing to prognosticate and play the odds), but there’s so much football left that—especially in 2018—the award seems pretty up for grabs. So instead of trying to predict who’ll take home the hardware at the end of this season, we’re celebrating the players who have stood out in their respective positions so far this year and examining why and how they’ve been so effective.

Todd Gurley, RB, Rams

The Case: As I mentioned in Monday’s Starting 11, Gurley is on pace for 2,320 yards from scrimmage and 29 touchdowns. If he pulls that off, he’d be just the second player to do it since the merger (the other being LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006, the year he won the MVP award). For the second straight season, Gurley has been the most dangerous player on arguably the league’s best offense. Sean McVay has crafted an offensive identity centered around Gurley—he masks certain play designs, making them look identical to others. The play-action passes look like runs. The runs look like play-action passes. McVay’s scheme is completely unpredictable, and it only functions that way because Gurley can do everything you could ask of a running back. His skills as a receiver and dominance on screen passes ensure that when he’s in the game, any play on McVay’s call sheet is on the table.

And the Rams have taken full advantage. Gurley faces eight or more rushers in the box on 10.08 percent of his carries, the seventh-lowest rate in the league. On the surface, that doesn’t make any sense. Why the hell would the league’s best running back face light boxes on nine out of every 10 runs? The answer is that the Rams use 11 personnel on nearly 93 percent of their running plays, and opponents are forced to respond with sub-package defenses. Then Gurley responds in kind by gashing them all game.

Saying that McVay does all he can to accentuate Gurley’s talent isn’t meant to take anything away from what Gurley’s been doing this season. The only time a player should be dinged for the damage he does in a great system is when another player could come in and produce at the same level—which is certainly not the case with Gurley. There might be one other back in the league who could destroy defenses under McVay the way that Gurley has, but that’s it. We’ve all seen the wrong coaching staff steal the joy of peak Todd Gurley by slamming him into the line on every play. Let’s all just be thankful McVay got to him when he did, because he’s turned Gurley into the MVP frontrunner.

The Clip:

Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz did a great job of breaking down this concept on Twitter earlier this week. When the Rams use jet motion, it holds the opposing linebackers just long enough for L.A.’s linemen to execute blocks that wouldn’t be possible with a normal inside zone run. With Gurley carrying the ball and the big boys picking off players at the second level, just say goodnight.

Patrick Mahomes II, QB, Chiefs

The Case: I dunno, let’s start with the fact that in six games this season, Mahomes has emerged as the most exciting player in football. The dude’s passing charts look like a light show at a particularly wild rave. He’s averaging 9.76 air yards per throw — the fourth-highest mark in the league — while completing nearly 64 percent of his passes. He’s thrown 18 touchdowns in six games, against just four interceptions. Mahomes is the perfect conduit for the modern NFL, and Andy Reid has helped turn him into the scariest force in the game.

Reid’s decision to move up in the 2017 draft, select Mahomes, and ultimately end the Alex Smith era in Kansas City was undeniably risky, but the Chiefs head coach saw what many others didn’t: Mahomes has once-in-a-lifetime ability. The challenge for Reid was channeling all that physical talent and molding a quarterback who could shoot laser beams from his right arm and control the game from the line of scrimmage. So far, the experiment has been a success. Mahomes is must-see TV and the headliner of the league’s most explosive offense, but he also has a firm grasp on what might be the most innovative scheme in football. That combination is damn near unstoppable.

The Clip:

Everything about this play is ridiculous. Mahomes does some work dictating protection before the snap; more impressive than that, he does a masterful job holding the single-high safety. He barely even turns his head or body as he flips this throw to Tyreek Hill. This is the football version of LeBron James slinging one of the those left-handed, no-look passes cross court. It’s only physically possible because Mahomes has the arm strength to get the ball there, but it wouldn’t even be an option without his ability to see the entire field and manipulate the defense.

Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings

The Case: After finishing Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Cardinals with 123 yards receiving, Thielen became just the sixth player since the merger with at least 100 receiving yards in six straight games — and the first player in NFL history to do over the first six games of a season. The league record is eight straight games (set by Calvin Johnson in 2012), and right now, betting against Thielen to break it seems foolish.

As recently as last season, Thielen was still just considered a feel-good story: the former practice-squad player who rose up and performed at a Pro Bowl level. We’re past all of that now. Over the last year, the list of receivers you’d take ahead of Thielen has gradually gotten shorter and shorter, and at this point, I’m not sure how many people are on it anymore. Aside from Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and DeAndre Hopkins, anyone else is debatable. A.J. Green is having a great season and Michael Thomas has been an absolute beast for the Saints. But Thielen’s production stands on its own. He’s one of the more refined route runners in the sport, but his game is about more than savvy and nuance. Thielen is good for one “How in the hell…?” reception per game, and he elevates Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins’s play — which is saying something, because Cousins is already playing pretty damn well. The rapport that Minnesota’s first-year QB has developed with Thielen this early in their partnership is incredible, and it’s helped elevate the 28-year-old receiver to the upper echelon of NFL wideouts.

The Clip:

This route nearly made choke on my breakfast this morning. Minnesota’s fullback originally lines up wide before motioning in the backfield. Based on how the defense reacts to that move, both Thielen and Cousins know they’re getting zone coverage, which gives the Vikings an advantage, as Thielen understands a cornerback’s leverage and how to use it better than almost any other receiver in the league. To beat the corner playing him outside, Thielen has to sell a hard move toward the post before working back to the sideline, and does he ever. He’s about as refined as they come at the receiver position right now.

Jared Goff, QB, Rams

The Case: For anyone wondering why the Rams are still undefeated and clearly the best team in football, maybe it’s because their running back and quarterback both have a viable claim as the league’s best player. Goff’s improvement from his rookie year to last season’s sophomore campaign was the largest jump any player in the league made over that period, and he’s continued his ascent in his third season. While Goff was merely seen as a capable point man for McVay’s offense last year, he’s spent the first six weeks of the 2018 season making throws only a few quarterbacks in the league can make.

His Week 4 performance against the Vikings was the most impressive game I’ve ever witnessed in person from an NFL quarterback. Goff threw five touchdown passes, and each one was more gorgeous than the last. It was like watching a ridiculous Steph Curry game where he’s pulling up from near half-court and casually dropping it through the net. The rim was 10 feet in diameter for Goff against Minnesota, and after his second touchdown throw to Cooper Kupp that night — a throw ripped into the back corner of the end zone while on the move — he couldn’t help but smile. Goff admitted to me after the game that he might have gotten lucky with that one; I don’t think he’s giving himself enough credit.

From the 2017 season to now, not much has changed about the Rams’ offensive personnel. This unit has taken another step because Goff looks like a different quarterback. McVay will do plenty to scheme receivers open, but if Goff continues to make throws like he has for much of this season, there’s no limit to how great the Rams can be.

The Clip:

Goff’s touchdown pass to Kupp is the only reason this bomb to Cooks won’t be remembered as the prettiest throw from his evisceration of the Vikings. Plays like this one are what differentiate 2018 Goff from last year’s version. Design has some role in allowing this touchdown to happen — by holding the safety with Kupp’s deep in route, McVay turns the play into a foot race between Cooks and cornerback Trae Waynes. But even color commentator Troy Aikman admitted that he didn’t think Goff had the arm to get the ball there. This pass travels 60 yards in the air, which would be impressive in its own right. But dropping it right into the receiver’s arms makes it truly special.

Khalil Mack, DE, Bears

The Case: Even after giving up 380 passing yards to Brock Osweiler and the Dolphins last week, the Bears still rank no. 1 in defensive DVOA through six weeks. Several other members of Chicago’s defense (including Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, and all three starting cornerbacks) have played at a high level this season, but Mack is the rug that ties the room together. His presence alone has elevated every aspect of coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit. With Mack firmly on the brain, opposing quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball considerably quicker, which makes the secondary’s job easier. As Mack absorbs double and triple teams, Chicago’s line stunts become more effective, and players like Hicks get single-blocked more often.

The Bears have recorded 18 sacks this season (tied for fifth in the league) despite blitzing less often than just about any other team in football. That success has come in large part because of the opportunities Mack affords his teammates, but Mack has also done his fair share of damage on the rare occasions he’s been left one-on-one with a poor, unfortunate tackle. Through Chicago’s first four games, Mack was good for at least one strip sack per game. And against the Buccaneers in Week 4, he also hit Jameis Winston’s throwing arm to cause an interception. No defensive player in football has been the wrecking ball that Mack has this season.

The Clip:

Truly great players pull off feats in plays that aren’t even designed for them. On this sack against Arizona, Mack dives inside the tackle and should be the first man through on a stunt that frees up nose tackle Eddie Goldman. At least, I think that’s what was supposed to happen. It’s hard to tell because Mack splits the double team and crushes the pocket so fast that the stunt never develops. Instead, Mack drags Sam Bradford to the ground and sabotages another Cardinals drive.

Drew Brees, QB, Saints

The Case: You’d think that the 39-year-old Brees would have to slow down eventually, but don’t bet on this being the season he falls off the cliff. Brees is playing as well as he ever has right now, and that’s saying something. Through five games, he’s completed 77.9 percent of his passes while averaging 8.7 yards per attempt—both would be career highs over a full season. Think about that for a second.

Brees has completed plenty of passes around the line of scrimmage this season, but don’t confuse the 2018 version of Brees for some dink-and-dunk artist. He has two dynamic pass catchers in Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara, and his accuracy at every level of the field is still the best in the league. He can threaten defenses anywhere, and he’s still dropping throws in wherever the hell he wants.

It’s been fascinating to monitor the demands New Orleans has placed on Brees over the past few seasons. For years, the Saints needed Brees to throw for 5,000 yards and sling the ball all over the yard to make up for their terrible defense. Last season, a defensive renaissance and the league’s best running game allowed Brees to take a back seat and merely steer the ship. But in 2018, the defense has regressed and the burden on Brees has returned. The future Hall of Famer is on pace for more than 5,300 passing yards with some of the most efficient metrics in the league. In a murky MVP race, this may finally be the year that Brees gets his long overdo turn.

The Clip:

This throw to Austin Carr isn’t one of Brees’s 11 touchdowns on the season, and therefore has probably already been forgotten by most people, but passes like this are my favorite Brees plays. His ability to throw with touch to every spot on the field and alter the trajectory of passes to fit it between defenders has always been mesmerizing. He’s the most accurate passer of his era, and he hasn’t declined one bit.

Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers

The Case: Brees isn’t the only old guy that’s getting into the fun of the pass-happy 2018 NFL season. Rivers has been stellar for a Chargers offense that currently ranks third in passing DVOA behind the high-flying Chiefs and Rams. Those also happen to be the only teams the 4-2 Chargers have lost to this season. Rivers and Co. are absolutely rolling right now, and the 36-year-old quarterback’s play is the biggest reason why. Rivers has completed 68.6 percent of his passes on 8.8 yards per attempt with 15 touchdown passes and three interceptions, and according to Pro Football Focus, he has a 115.9 passer rating when under pressure this season. No other QB has a rating above 100 when the heat is on.

The most underrated part of Rivers’s game over the years has been his football intelligence. He’s one of the league’s most brilliant minds, and it shows in how well he anticipates throws. Next time you’re watching the Chargers, look at how early Rivers releases certain passes. Before receivers are even entering their breaks, he’ll let throws loose because he has so much confidence in his understanding of the coverage. Rivers has always been one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, and with a talented array of pass catchers and an improved running game, he’s spending his twilight turning the Chargers into legitimate contenders.

The Clip:

Rivers has been my favorite deep-ball passer since he took over as the Chargers’ starter 13 years ago. This deep toss to Tyrell Williams from last week’s win over the Browns is an odd-looking thing of beauty, and it also shows off an underrated element of Rivers’s game. He leads the league in yards per attempt in play action situations, but the Chargers rarely use it because they spend almost every snap in shotgun (they’ve used PA on only 17.3 percent of dropbacks, which ranks 30th out of 35 qualified QBs, according to PFF).

David Bakhtiari, LT, Packers

The Case: Putting an offensive linemen on this list amounts to self-parody for me, but it’s been impossible to ignore Bakhtiari’s play this season. He’s been one of the best pass-protecting left tackles in the league for years, but he’s brought his play up a notch in 2018. Bakhtiari used to rely on his athleticism to cut off speed rushers as they tried to get the edge; this season, he’s combined that quick first step with technically perfect hand usage and some next-level mind games. Most offensive tackles try to get their hands on defensive ends quickly in order to dictate the play. Bakhtiari waits, and waits, and waits until the very last moment to stick his hands in a defender’s chest, and he can pull it off because he’s always accurate with that punch. No one is playing better on the blind side right now, and the gap between Bakhtiari and the other players at his position is arguably the biggest in the league.

The Clip:

The Scouting Academy’s Brandon Thorn came on last week’s Ringer NFL Show to chat about Bakhtiari, so I’ll let his collection of clips speak for itself. Buffalo’s edge-rushing duo of Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes have tormented offensive tackles this season. Against Bakhtiari, they looked completely hopeless.