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Who Has the Edge in the NFL MVP Race a Third of the Way Through the Season?

Nine quarterbacks have a realistic shot at winning this year’s wide-open race, but four major categories will determine who ultimately takes home the honor: analytics, narrative, highlights, and team value

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As an NFL analyst, it pains me to say this, but the league’s MVP debates are the most boring in all of sports. There’s an obvious reason for that: In other major leagues, the award can realistically be won by a player at many positions. That’s not the case in the NFL, where only two defensive players have ever won it, and the past eight MVPs have been quarterbacks.

That trend will almost certainly continue in 2021, as the top 11 betting favorites are all quarterbacks, per FanDuel:

1. Dak Prescott +400
2. Josh Allen +400
3. Kyler Murray +400
4. Tom Brady +1000
5. Aaron Rodgers +1000
6. Matthew Stafford +1000
7. Justin Herbert +1200
8. Patrick Mahomes +1600
9. Lamar Jackson +1600
10. Derek Carr +5000
11. Sam Darnold +8000

As we’re now a third of the way through the season, it’s a safe bet that the 2021 NFL MVP will come out of this group. And it’s an even safer bet that it won’t be Carr or Darnold—I’m still trying to wrap my head around the latter’s odds being that high—so let’s just ignore them and focus on the top nine.

Before we can determine who out of this group will ultimately take home the honor, we first have to ask: What makes an NFL MVP? We have this debate seemingly every year and still haven’t come to a conclusion about the necessary criteria. Should it go to the quarterback on the best team? Or the quarterback with the best numbers, assuming those led to overall team success? How much emphasis should we put on the “valuable” part? How do we quantify value in any satisfying way? And, finally, how much should narrative drive the discussion?

In an attempt to take all of that into consideration and forecast who’ll end up winning one of the most wide-open MVP races in recent memory, let’s look at how the top contenders stack up in four different categories: analytics, narrative, highlights and, of course, value.

Analytics

1. Patrick Mahomes
2. Matthew Stafford
3. Kyler Murray
4. Tom Brady
5. Dak Prescott
6. Justin Herbert
7. Lamar Jackson
8. Josh Allen
9. Aaron Rodgers

Here’s how we know our expectations for Mahomes and the Chiefs offense might be a bit too high: After Mahomes threw his second interception on Sunday in Kansas City’s 31-13 win over Washington, Spotrac tweeted out the amount of guaranteed money left on his monster contract, as if to say Look at the albatross the Chiefs are saddled with for the next decade.

To be fair, the interception that inspired that tweet looked like something straight out of a Jets game, not something you’d expect to see from the NFL’s best quarterback:

I can’t really blame Spotrac for overreacting. Many of the rest of us were doing the same. Following a listless performance against the Bills on Sunday Night Football last week, the Chiefs offense had some wondering whether defenses had found a blueprint for slowing them down. Yes, Kansas City came into this week leading the NFL in both points per drive and yards per drive, and Mahomes was atop the league in QBR and second in EPA per play. (Not much will change after Mahomes led the Chiefs to 499 yards of total offense and 31 points despite a two-turnover day for the 2018 MVP.) But turnovers have been an issue for both Kansas City’s offense and its signal-caller so far this year.

The Chiefs came into the week ranked dead last in turnover rate and then turned it over three times on 11 drives against Washington. Mahomes is just four interceptions away from a career high (12 interceptions in 2018), and we’re only a third of the way through the season. But those picks haven’t hurt the team’s or the quarterback’s statistical profile too much, and that’s because of where those interceptions are happening. The average field position on Mahomes’s interception plays is the opponent’s 40-yard line, per the NFL FastR database. Only Carr (36.5-yard line), Herbert (30-yard line), and Carson Wentz (3-yard line) have thrown their interceptions deeper into the opponent’s territory among starting quarterbacks. So Mahomes isn’t really putting his defense in bad spots with the mistakes.

Eventually, Mahomes’s turnover luck will level out and some of these bizarre issues will turn into positive gains. He’s already at or near the top of the leaderboard in every advanced metric—he ranks in the top three in QBR, EPA, and DVOA—and that’s with the rotten luck. If we see that move a little closer to the mean, Mahomes could build a significant lead in each statistical category.


His top competition in that regard will be Stafford. The Rams quarterback is leading the league in both EPA and DVOA, and playing in Sean McVay’s offense has obviously inflated Stafford’s production. But his mistakes haven’t been punished as much as Mahomes’s have—Stafford’s five “turnover worthy plays” this season are just two behind Mahomes’s seven, according to Pro Football Focus—and based on their career track records, I think it’s safe to assume that Mahomes will outplay Stafford over the rest of the season.

Murray and Brady aren’t too far behind the pace set by those two, but they both have some knocks against them. A good chunk of Murray’s production this season has come on improvised plays, which should set off your sustainability alarms. And while Brady’s history suggests he will continue to play efficient ball, it’s hard to imagine him matching Stafford and Mahomes throw for throw given their physical ability and Brady’s, um, advanced age. This is also the one category that might prevent Rodgers from winning back-to-back MVP awards. Rodgers currently ranks a good-but-not-great ninth in EPA, 10th in success rate, and 14th in adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A). Yes, the Packers offense would fall apart without Rodgers, and yes, we know he’s going to provide us with plenty of highlights. But it’s going to be hard to make his MVP case without numbers that capture how valuable he is to Green Bay.

Narrative

1. Stafford
2. Prescott
3. Jackson
4. Allen
5. Rodgers
6. Brady
7. Murray
8. Herbert
9. Mahomes

We’re now a month and a half into the season, and there hasn’t been a whole lot of talk about the two first-round picks the Rams sent to the Lions in the trade for Stafford. That’s how you know the deal has been a massive hit for Los Angeles. It’s not often that convenient offseason narratives play out once the games start, but Stafford’s presence under center has indeed freed McVay from his schematic shackles (better known as Jared Goff) and unlocked the premium version of this offense.

This unit looks completely different this season. With a quarterback he can trust to do the right thing more often than not, McVay has increased his usage of shotgun formations and deeper dropbacks; he’s added an RPO element to the offense; and he’s stopped running the ball into loaded defensive fronts.

The 2020 Rams Offense vs. the 2021 Rams Offense

Play type 2020 usage 2021 usage Change
Play type 2020 usage 2021 usage Change
Shotgun 42% 59% 17%
RPO 0% 13% 13%
Short dropbacks 60% 31% -29%
Runs v. stacked box 46% 24% -22%
Data via Sports Info Solutions

Gone are the days of establishing the run in hopes of getting the play-action game rolling, which was really the only way the Rams could produce explosive plays after defenses caught on to McVay’s QB-friendly tricks. Goff’s explosive play rate dropped from 26.3 percent in 2017 to 25.9 percent in 2018, then to 22.4 percent and 23.4 percent in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Stafford, meanwhile, is hitting on explosive plays without play-action at a 33.1 percent rate, which leads all qualified starters, according to Sports Info Solutions.

Before the trade for Stafford, many NFL analysts had spent the previous few seasons wondering whether McVay could ever get the Rams offense back to the peak we saw in 2018. Through six games, the 2021 offense isn’t far off the pace.

The 2021 Rams Offense vs. 2018

Stat 2018 Rams 2021 Rams
Stat 2018 Rams 2021 Rams
EPA/play 0.15 0.17
Success rate 50.7% 50%
Points/game 32.9 29.8
Data via RBSDM.com

Take it from me: NFL media loves to pat itself on the back, and if Stafford continues to make us look smart, voters won’t need a lot of convincing to give him the nod.

Stafford’s lead in this category will be difficult to erase, but let’s just say his play falls off over the rest of the season. Who could step into that void? Prescott has a nice story: He’s coming off a terrible leg injury that exposed all the inadequacies of the Cowboys offense, and delivering an MVP-caliber season right after signing a big contract that came years later than it should have will also add to his lore. Jackson’s constant battle to prove his ever-shrinking group of doubters wrong also ranks high on this list. The same goes for Allen, whose critics (myself included) have had to quiet down considerably since the start of last season. But with Allen, there is still enough residual doubt that he’ll have to improve his statistical output over the next three months if he wants to have a chance. I have Rodgers just edging out Brady among the vets on the list, because we’ve already seen Brady succeed in Tampa, and the Packers have the whole Last Dance thing going on.


Highlights

1. Murray
2. Allen
3. Jackson
4. Prescott
5. Herbert
6. Stafford
7. Rodgers
8. Mahomes
9. Brady

After making quick work of the Browns on Sunday, the Cardinals remain the NFL’s lone undefeated team. But their 6-0 record isn’t the only thing that makes them unique: They’re also the only team that has successfully designed an offense solely around vibes. If you want schemed open receivers and perfectly executed timing throws, this is not the unit for you. But if you enjoy pure, unadulterated chaos, you’ve come to the right place.

OK, so maybe I’m not giving Kliff Kingsbury enough credit, but it’s been hard to ignore how many times we’ve seen Murray escape near disaster this season to create a big play. Kingsbury, one of the few head coaches in the NFL who calls his own plays, missed Sunday’s game after testing positive for COVID-19. But it appears his offensive assistants are perfectly capable of running the “Do something cool, Kyler” offense, as the bite-sized playmaker continued to add to his already impressive highlight reel.

Usually, a quarterback’s aesthetic would have no effect on their MVP chances, but Kyler might be different. Whether it’s his humming bird–like running style or the way he generates so much arm strength from his tiny frame, he just has an aesthetically pleasing game. That his skill set is conducive to scoring a lot of points and winning a lot of games obviously helps, too.

The question is, can Murray keep this up? The highlight-reel plays won’t stop, but outside of Russell Wilson, we haven’t seen many quarterbacks put together elite seasons with such a chaotic style of play. And Wilson has famously never received an MVP vote, which might be a bad omen for Murray.

Another thing working against Murray here: There are a lot of fun quarterbacks in the league right now. Allen has gotten off to an uneven start statistically, but he’s already made a number of jaw-dropping plays. Jackson seemingly creates a highlight every time he runs the ball, and he’s throwing downfield at a league-high rate, which has padded his reel. And Mahomes, of course, is still finding new ways to throw touchdown passes:

I haven’t even mentioned Rodgers yet, and he’s already made a handful of ridiculous throws this season and just told Bears fans he “owns” them after scoring a touchdown.

The man is nothing if not a showman, and I have him ranked seventh! This might be the most competitive category we’ve covered here.

Team Value

1. Jackson
2. Murray
3. Rodgers
4. Prescott
5. Mahomes
6. Herbert
7. Allen
8. Brady
9. Stafford

If it wasn’t already clear before the 2021 season, it is now: Lamar Jackson makes the Ravens offense viable—not the other way around. When Jackson won the MVP award in 2019, there were still some naysayers who believed his success was the product of a stellar supporting cast and play-calling that was custom built for his strengths and weaknesses as a passer. Those arguments can no longer be made. The Ravens offensive line has devolved into a mediocre unit; the (already underwhelming) skill group has been living out the NFL’s version of a Final Destination movie over the past two months; and it appears offensive coordinator Greg Roman is calling the same passing plays he was a decade ago. Yet the Ravens offense ranks fourth in success rate and eighth in EPA, according to RBSDM.com. That’s all Lamar.

We spent the offseason worrying about Baltimore’s passing game, and for good reason. The receiving corps was upgraded during the offseason, but those upgrades were two rookies and a past-his-prime Sammy Watkins. On paper, this still looked like an offense that would be powered by the run game. But so far this season, the Ravens passing game ranks higher in EPA and success rate than the running game, according to RBSDM.com. And the gap would be much larger without Jackson’s rare mobility supercharging the ground attack. The Ravens rank sixth in total EPA on quarterback runs. On runs by any other position, they fall to a pedestrian 15th, according to Sports Info Solutions. Roman has adjusted to this new paradigm, increasing his pass calls on early downs by a significant margin over Jackson’s first two seasons as the starter.

I’m not saying the Ravens are a passing team now—they still call runs at a rate above the league average—but the offense has never before leaned on Lamar’s passing prowess like this. And he’s thriving! Even if you strip out all of the schematic shortcuts that tend to help limited quarterbacks—play-action, designed rollouts, screens, and RPOs—and focus on only pure passing plays, Jackson still shines. Among the 31 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 50 such passes, Jackson ranks second in yards per attempt and eighth in EPA per play, according to Sports Info Solutions. And he’s done it while sporting the league’s highest average depth of target.

The fourth-year pro, who is still waiting on a second contract, has absolutely carried the Ravens to their division-leading 5-1 start. And Baltimore is getting healthier every week—first-round pick Rashod Bateman returned to the lineup Sunday—and coming off its most balanced showing of the season, a 34-6 drubbing of the Chargers. That performance should get the ball rolling on Lamar’s MVP campaign and give his odds a significant boost after they were sitting at 25-1 just two weeks ago.

When it comes to value, Murray isn’t far behind Jackson. We’ve already covered how QB-centric the Cardinals offense is, and Kyler is playing on a rookie deal, which allowed Arizona to bring in a number of veteran contributors, including J.J. Watt and A.J. Green. But, really, we can make a strong value argument for any of the quarterbacks in the MVP race—even those with stellar supporting casts around them. We’ve seen what the loaded Cowboys and Buccaneers offenses have looked like without Prescott and Brady under center. We’ve seen what replacing a mediocre starter with a top-10 talent at the position has done for the Rams. The point is, any offense would crumble if you took away its star passer. There’s a reason the award always goes to a quarterback.