Barnwell's NFL quarter-season awards: Picks for MVP, best rookies, more

Clark explains why Bell's absence is now being exposed (2:06)

After a 26-14 loss to the Ravens, Ryan Clark explains why the Steelers' offense has been stagnant without Le'Veon Bell in the backfield. (2:06)

The NFL hands out awards at the end of every regular season. I refuse to wait that long. Every year, I hand out awards at the quarter- and half-season marks. It's a fun way to look at the season through four games, but it's also a reminder later in the season of just how much can change. This time last year, while I was picking Tom Brady to win MVP, he was competing with Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, the latter of whom would play only three more games over the rest of the season.

I've gone through each of the NFL's awards, followed the traditional rules for who seems to receive consideration, and then picked my top three candidates through Sunday's games. I've also thrown in a few of my own awards for good measure. In each case, these are my picks solely based on what has happened through four weeks as opposed to where I think the awards will land at the end of the season.

Jump to a major award:

Coordinator of the Year

Let's start with an award that should be real, given how few coaches these days do the work of both coaching and coordinating on game days. In the cases in which a coach does handle both duties, such as Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams, we'll fold the credit for his success into the Coach of the Year balloting.

Third: Todd Monken, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The offensive coordinator set the league alight over the first two weeks of the season, as an offense with roots in the Air Raid managed to create easy completions while threatening to destroy teams vertically. Ryan Fitzpatrick even became the first quarterback in league history to top 400 passing yards in three straight games as he nearly led a comeback win over the Steelers in Week 3, although the FitzMagic came to an end when the Buccaneers benched Fitzpatrick for Jameis Winston at halftime of Sunday's 48-10 blowout loss to the Chicago Bears.

Winston might not be able to repeatedly hit 400 yards per game, but the Bucs have the scheme and playmakers to continually scare opposing defenses. Monken has managed to revitalize DeSean Jackson's career, and if the Bucs ever get their running game going, opposing defenses are going to be stuck between giving out steady yardage underneath or running the risk of giving up a big play on any down and distance.

Second: Bill Lazor, Cincinnati Bengals

Andy Dalton's athleticism and comfort with option concepts has been underestimated for the entirety of his NFL career, given that the TCU product was the first major college quarterback to run the inverted veer that Cam Newton would later ride to a national title at Auburn. Lazor incorporated some of these concepts into his offense with Miami, but when he was fired by '70s-era interim coach Dan Campbell in Miami, Lazor eventually made his way to Cincinnati, where he took over as offensive coordinator in September 2017.

He continues to run a modern offense in Cincinnati, which has helped Dalton stay in manageable situations and the Bengals to overcome what is already a stream of injuries to their offensive contributors. Cincinnati has kept its offense up despite losing Joe Mixon, A.J. Green, Billy Price and, most recently, Tyler Eifert to injuries for stretches of time so far this season. Dalton's 93.5 passer rating since Lazor took over in 2017 is 11th among passers with at least 500 attempts, nestling him between Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger. Dalton has plenty of weapons, but his most frequent targets after Green this season have been Giovani Bernard and Tyler Boyd, who were expected to be marginal backups. Lazor is creating opportunities for Dalton to succeed. Cincinnati is second in the league in Offensive Win Probability Added (WPA) through four weeks.

First: Vic Fangio, Chicago Bears

The 60-year-old Fangio was understandably upset to miss out on the Bears' head-coaching job to Matt Nagy, but one of Nagy's most successful moves of the offseason was to convince him to stay on as defensive coordinator. If Fangio thought he had missed out on his chance to become an NFL head coach, well, the Bears are playing well enough for the former 49ers coordinator to emerge as an early favorite for a top job somewhere in 2019.

The easy comparison might be to compare Fangio to Wade Phillips as the older consigliere to a young, offensive-minded head coach. It might be more accurate to compare Fangio's Bears to the Jaguars. Just as the Jaguars made a quiet leap to the middle of the pack in 2016 before adding star talent during the offseason and becoming the best defense in football last season, the Bears jumped from 23rd to 14th in defensive DVOA last season before adding Khalil Mack this offseason. The Bears rank second in the league in Defensive WPA through four weeks and lead the league with an 11.4 percent sack rate. And while Mack and Akiem Hicks are the defense's two best players, seven of Chicago's 11 starters on defense are homegrown players.

Coach of the Year

This award tends to reward coaches who drag mediocre teams into the postseason, which is why Bill Belichick has managed to win Coach of the Year only three times during his reign in New England. Andy Reid narrowly misses out in the top three here for that reason, although he's doing as good of a job as anybody in the league.

Third: Sean McVay, Los Angeles Rams

Plenty of offensive geniuses have struggled through a sophomore slump. McVay is only getting better. The Rams have rarely needed to hit top gear so far, although we saw just how dominant they can be during a ferocious shootout with the Vikings on Thursday night. They lead the league in Offensive WPA despite running only 254 offensive snaps, which is 10th-most.

What's particularly remarkable about the Rams is that McVay is basically doing this with the same players on the field every single snap. Los Angeles' 11 offensive starters -- the five linemen, Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks, Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Tyler Higbee and Jared Goff -- have each played 205 or more of Los Angeles' 252 snaps. Backup tight end Gerald Everett has played 53 snaps and reserve back Malcolm Brown took most of his 40 snaps when Gurley went out with cramps in Week 3, but otherwise, nobody has played more than 10 snaps. Some teams want to substitute in specialists to create mismatches. McVay uses scheme to execute the same thing.

Second: Matt Nagy, Chicago Bears

The Bears are one crazy Aaron Rodgers drive from starting the season 4-0, and while Nagy deserves some of the blame for mismanaging the clock on Chicago's final drive with the lead in Week 1, the Bears have continually impressed ever since. Nagy has schemed around an inexperienced, limited quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky, and we saw signs of a breakthrough this week, when Trubisky was throwing receivers open in a six-touchdown performance during a rout of the Bucs. In a suddenly wide-open NFC North, the Bears deserve to be in first place

First: Mike Vrabel, Tennessee Titans

The Titans have every excuse to be 0-4. Their Week 1 game against the Dolphins was interrupted twice by lightning storms. They lost Marcus Mariota and both of their starting tackles for Week 2 and then had to bring Mariota back even though he couldn't grip the ball effectively after Blaine Gabbert was concussed in Week 3. This week, they hosted the Super Bowl champion Eagles and let a possible game-winning touchdown slip through their hands in overtime when Darius Jennings dropped a perfectly thrown Mariota bomb.

Instead, the Titans keep answering the bell and manufacturing ways to win. After losing the opener, they parlayed a fake punt touchdown, a Wildcat drive with Derrick Henry at quarterback, and a tough defensive stop into a win over the Texans. They shut down Blake Bortles after a career day against the Patriots in Week 3 to win with a limited Mariota. On Sunday, they converted a fourth-and-15 and a fourth-and-2 in overtime, with Vrabel correctly passing up a 50-yard field goal to push for a victory. It might be tough to keep pulling out games this way, but Vrabel has his team fighting adversity and beating some tough football teams right now. The rookie coach deserves a ton of credit.

Most Disappointing Player of the Year

This is based on expectations heading into the 2018 season, with some allowance for context. Tom Brady has been disappointing, but the offense around him hasn't been very good, either. (He also looked just fine on Sunday.)

Third: Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints

One of the four best cornerbacks in the NFL as a rookie, Lattimore was torched repeatedly by Mike Evans in the Week 1 loss against the Buccaneers and hasn't been able to keep the Saints' secondary afloat. The good news is that Lattimore had his best game of the season against the Giants in Week 4, as the former first-round pick forced a red zone fumble and helped limit Odell Beckham Jr. to seven catches for 60 yards, most of which came in the fourth quarter with the Saints in a prevent defense.

Lattimore can't do everything; he was effective against Julio Jones in Week 3 but saw the Falcons torch P.J. Williams with throws to Calvin Ridley, and then saw the ball head to Jones after Lattimore switched to the rookie sensation. Last year, though, Lattimore was so good that the Saints were able to help Ken Crawley in coverage and had enough time in the back end for their pass rush to get home. If Lattimore is back to his old self, the Saints should be the favorites to repeat in the NFC South.

Second: Tyrod Taylor, Cleveland Browns

Taylor was supposed to be a stable set of hands who could keep things steady until No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield was ready to take over, but the Taylor who was efficient-if-unspectacular in Buffalo wasn't the same in Cleveland. While he came up with big plays late in Weeks 1 and 2, Taylor threw two interceptions, fumbled three times and completed just 48.8 percent of his passes. His confidence disappeared, and he went 4-of-14 for just 19 yards in the first half of Week 3 before getting hurt and being benched for the rookie. The Virginia Tech product is likely looking at backup duty in 2019, with Baltimore looming as a possible landing spot if Joe Flacco leaves.

First: Anthony Barr, Minnesota Vikings

Chris Conte might have been the victim of the most embarrassing play of the 2018 season when he was stiff-armed onto injured reserve by Vance McDonald in Week 3, but nobody has been on the receiving end of as many notable big plays as Barr over the first month of the campaign. Some aren't necessarily his fault; while he was the closest defender in coverage on three different touchdowns against the Rams, Barr can't reasonably be expected to carry Cooper Kupp up the sideline on a "leak concept." No linebacker in the league is going to cover Robert Woods up the seam, let alone Barr.

During Week 3, though, Barr was made to look foolish more than once by Bills quarterback Josh Allen in the latter's first NFL start. Barr was the defender Allen hurdled on the most spectacular run from that game, which will earn Barr poster status in Western New York for the foreseeable future. The former first-round pick is in a contract year and wasn't locked up to an extension over the offseason. Based on his early-season form, the Vikings won't be able to justify bringing Barr back on an eight-figure annual salary again in 2019.

Most Improved Player of the Year

And likewise, this award is for the players who have improved the most in 2018. I'm not looking for players who are playing great because they moved to a better team, but more realistically players who have broken out in an expanded role and/or carved out more playing time on their current team.

Third: Margus Hunt, DE, Indianapolis Colts

While Hunt was already the second-best Estonian in NFL history after former Titans tackle Michael Roos, it was a list that went only two deep. The former Bengals second-round pick was an overage draftee at 26 and never got regular playing time behind Carlos Dunlap & Co. in Cincinnati, so when the Colts signed Hunt to a two-year, $4.1 million deal before the 2017 season, they were mostly just expecting a reserve end with some raw athleticism.

Instead, Hunt has turned into a monster after the Colts moved back to a 4-3 base this offseason. The SMU product already has four sacks and nine tackles for loss through four games, which are more than Hunt racked up during his four seasons in Cincinnati combined. The Colts have been competitive in each of their games, and the duo of Hunt and another player we'll get to later have been the driving forces in Matt Eberflus' defense.

Second: Tyler Boyd, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Boyd was a healthy scratch at times last season and appeared to be buried on the depth chart behind the likes of Brandon LaFell and John Ross. LaFell was cut during camp to help free up snaps for Boyd, who has emerged as Andy Dalton's security blanket. The former second-round pick has 26 catches for 349 yards and 18 first downs through four games, including back-to-back 100-yard games over the past two weeks. If he keeps this up, Boyd might be one of the top No. 2 wideouts in the league.

First: Byron Jones, CB, Dallas Cowboys

After being moved from cornerback to safety and failing to develop, the Cowboys at times last season took Jones out of the lineup for sixth-round pick Kavon Frazier. Dallas picked up its former first-round pick's fifth-year option for 2019 and decided to move him back to cornerback, where the UConn product has been a revelation. Opposing No. 1 wideouts are averaging four catches for 61 yards this season against the Cowboys, and the only big play they've hit was a 52-yard touchdown in Week 3, when Tyler Lockett torched Cover-2 away from Jones' side of the field. He's this season's DeMarcus Lawrence for the Dallas defense.

Defensive Rookie of the Year

This award (as well as Defensive Player of the Year) normally goes to a pass-rusher because sacks are easier to accrue and notice than tight coverage and interceptions, but no rookie edge rusher has more than two sacks through four weeks. There is no shortage of impressive rookie defensive backs, though, which is why it's tough to leave out Donte Jackson and Minkah Fitzpatrick, among others.

Third: Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

Few defensive backs in the league are doing more than James, who has been an immediate contributor on a Chargers defense struggling without Joey Bosa. James leads the Chargers in pass knockdowns (six), which isn't all that crazy for a safety, but he also tops Los Angeles with three sacks, which is significantly weirder. No defensive back has ever hit 10 sacks in a season, and the last player to hit eight sacks in a campaign was Adrian Wilson in 2005. James is on pace for 12, and while he probably won't get there, his impact is clear.

Second: Denzel Ward, CB, Cleveland Browns

Ward's two-interception debut launched him into an early lead for this award, and while those weren't really a great measure of his play in the opener, he has quickly turned into a building block for Cleveland's defense. The problem, to be honest, is that he's already so much better than Cleveland's other cornerbacks that teams are looking away from him and toward the lesser lights of the secondary. Opposite corner Terrance Mitchell fractured his forearm against Oakland and could be out for the rest of the season, which could only further serve to isolate Ward away from the football as the season goes along.

First: Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts

One of Indy's three second-round selections, Leonard has been an instant playmaker after entering the starting lineup. He leads the league in tackles with 54 through four weeks, and while tackles aren't a great measure of quality, Leonard also can throw in a team-high four sacks, a forced fumble, two pass breakups and seven tackles for loss, including five against the Eagles in Week 3. The only concern is that the Indy weakside linebacker was spotted in a walking boot after the Texans game, which could cost him some time. When he comes back, Indy can hope that they continue to get Lavonte David-esque performance from its new star linebacker.

Offensive Rookie of the Year

One of the league's five first-round quarterbacks should eventually emerge as a top candidate for this award, but to this point, none has been able to string together two consecutive quality starts. None makes it onto our shortlist here.

Third: Kerryon Johnson, RB, Detroit Lions

Johnson might sneak onto this list for breaking that infamous Lions streak of games without a 100-yard rusher alone, but after running the ball all over the Patriots, he started anew on Sunday with a 32-yard run against the Cowboys. He is still a boom-or-bust runner -- his six subsequent carries against Dallas cost the Lions expected points before Johnson ran in a touchdown from eight yards out -- but the booms have been present frequently enough through four weeks. He's averaging nearly six yards per carry, which should encourage the Lions to play him ahead of LeGarrette Blount, who is failing to even hit three yards per rush so far.

Second: Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Barkley has nearly 160 more yards from scrimmage than any other rookie in the league, so while the early returns for the Penn State star have been inconsistent, he's assuming a massive amount of volume for a pro offense. Just 21 of his 83 touches have resulted in a first down, though, and 133 of his yards from scrimmage have come with the Giants trailing by 10 or more points in the fourth quarter, which is the most in the league by nearly 50 yards.

First: Calvin Ridley, WR, Atlanta Falcons

After being targeted zero times in the season opener, Ridley has been a huge part of the Falcons' offense over the past three weeks and has become virtually an every-down player alongside Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu. All he has done over the past three weeks is rack up 15 catches for 264 yards and six touchdowns, with the first-round pick becoming an immediate focal point of the Falcons inside the red zone. The touchdown rate is unsustainable, and Jones has to catch one eventually, but Ridley is going to maul single coverage for the next few years.

Copycat Play of the Year

I'm going with only one play here, the concept which I've seen described by about 25 different names but which has been known as the "touch pass" in college. I wrote about the touch pass last week in talking about the Chiefs, who scored two touchdowns with it in Week 1 against the Chargers.

While Andy Reid didn't invent the play or bring it to the NFL -- the Patriots ran it last season, and I suspect others used it before them -- his success in the opener prompted teams across the league to start using it. The Dolphins picked it up for a touchdown pass to Jakeem Grant earlier this season:

The Rams also have used it with Cooper Kupp. This week, the Bears turned to it for Mitchell Trubisky's fifth touchdown of the first half:

Comeback Player of the Year

History suggests we're looking for a player who made his way back from serious injury as opposed to a player who just wasn't very good for a year or two. We actually have a few good candidates, and it's tough to leave off Eagles left tackle Jason Peters despite the fact that the 36-year-old looks like his old self less than 12 months after tearing his ACL.

Third: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

If anything, Luck looks too much like his old self, given that the Colts have spent all season without left tackle Anthony Castonzo and are down their first two choices at right tackle. Luck is getting hit a fair amount and doesn't quite have all of his old arm strength back, but the conclusions people drew from Indy substituting Luck out of the game for a Hail Mary in Week 3 were unfair and inaccurate. He has thrown shorter passes this season because the Colts are trying to keep their franchise quarterback in one piece. Despite losing T.Y. Hilton for chunks of the game on Sunday, Luck had one of his best games as a pro, going 40-of-64 for 464 yards and four touchdowns in a 37-34 loss to the Texans. He has basically been a league-average passer by Total QBR through four weeks, which is just fine for the first four weeks after a missed season.

Second: John Brown, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Brown seemed on the road to stardom in Arizona after racking up 1,003 receiving yards as a sophomore in 2015, but the Pittsburg State product spent the next two years dealing with a cyst on his spine and struggles to avoid muscle injuries, in part due to the sickle-cell trait Brown was diagnosed with in 2016. He signed a one-year, $5 million deal with the Ravens this offseason, and he should more than double that annual salary in 2019 if he keeps this up. Brown torched the Steelers for a 33-yard touchdown early on Sunday night and could have had as many as three long scores with better throws. He's up to 15 catches, 338 yards and three scores through four weeks, which is impressive for a deep threat in an offense with Joe Flacco.

First: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

He's back. He's finally back. We hadn't seen the Watt who single-handedly wrecked offenses since the end of the 2015 season, but the guy we've seen over the past two games is straight out of that ridiculous 2012-2015 peak. Watt racked up three sacks and four knockdowns in the Texans' narrow loss to the Giants in Week 3, and then followed things up with two sacks and two forced fumbles in the overtime victory over the Colts on Sunday. Those are admittedly two of the worst tackle situations in the league, but there are plenty of players who line up against bad offensive lines and don't rack up five sacks in two games. Watt gets La'el Collins and the diminished Cowboys line this week in the Texas Derby, so another big game could be on the way.

Defensive Player of the Year

Third: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

Wouldn't you know who makes into the top three? Watt has six tackles for loss against the run to go with his five sacks. He sneaks onto this list ahead of Xavien Howard, who had been the best cornerback in football before an ugly day against the Patriots on Sunday saw the Dolphins star give up two touchdowns and extend two other scoring drives with third-down penalties.

Second: DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys

Lawrence now leads the league with 5.5 sacks after racking up three against the Lions in Week 4. He has been consistent as a pass-rusher, chipping in with at least one-half sack and a quarterback knockdown in each of his first three games. Lawrence is up to 10 knockdowns through four weeks, suggesting that the franchise-tagged Cowboys star can keep this sort of pace up. He's on pace to justify a Khalil Mack-sized deal this offseason.

First: Khalil Mack, LB, Chicago Bears

Speaking of Mack, it would just be impossible to put anybody ahead of him on this list through the first quarter of the season. He has been a playmaking machine. Mack has racked up five sacks, four forced fumbles and a pick-six against the Packers in the opener. Through three weeks, the Bears were allowing a 77.8 passer rating and 7.3 yards per attempt with Mack on the field and a 142.6 passer rating with 9.3 yards per attempt while Mack was on the bench.

Offensive Player of the Year

Usually, this award seems to be given to either the best non-quarterback on offense or the second-best quarterback in the league. Cam Newton and Matt Ryan broke those trends by sweeping OPOY and most valuable player in 2015 and 2016, but Todd Gurley restored order last season by winning this award without coming close to Tom Brady in the MVP balloting. I'm going to treat it as an award for the best non-quarterback player on offense.

Third: Todd Gurley, RB, Los Angeles Rams

It's almost too easy for Gurley, who sneaks in ahead of Ezekiel Elliott and Christian McCaffrey to make it back onto this shortlist for another season. The Rams haven't really needed to rely on him to close games. If he fails to score inside the 5-yard line or doesn't get the maximum on a screen, coach Sean McVay seems to have no concerns about conjuring up a play to get a wideout wide open. You might make a case that the Rams simply aren't as dependent upon Gurley as other teams are on their stars, which obviously isn't Gurley's fault.

The production is still there. Gurley has really had only one big play so far this season, the 56-yard screen pass he took downfield against the Vikings in Week 4, but he's consistently productive and is tied for the league lead with six touchdowns. He's averaging nearly 11 yards per target, which would be a good number for most wide receivers, let alone a running back. (Barkley, for example, is averaging 5.6 yards per target.) It feels like Gurley still has another gear in reserve, but the Rams might not need to activate that gear until the postseason with the NFC West riddled with injuries.

Second: Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints

Kamara has been just a tiny bit more productive than Gurley across the board through four weeks, although a lot of that did come during Sunday's win over the Giants. Gurley has 94 touches for 532 yards and six touchdowns; Kamara, owing to his presence in the passing game, has 91 touches for 611 yards and six touchdowns. Kamara's first-down rate of 34.3 percent is the best mark in the league for players with 50 touches or more, ahead of Matt Breida (32.1 percent) and Christian McCaffrey (29.6 percent).

Kamara's role will be diminished with the return of Mark Ingram from suspension this week, but he's still going to get the bulk of the targets between the two in the receiving game. Kamara was also the more consistent of the two backs last year by success rate, so it's not as if the Saints need to turn to Ingram to keep their offense on schedule. Gurley should have bigger numbers by the end of the season if he stays healthy, but Kamara is going to have a larger role than he did a year ago.

First: Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

What Thomas has done through four weeks, honestly, is a little nuts. I had to check the numbers three or four times to make sure they were right. Drew Brees has thrown Thomas 44 passes. Thomas has caught ... 42 of those throws. He has a catch rate of 95.4 percent. To do that, you typically have to be a running back or a tight end who only catches passes when the defense falls asleep and forgets you exist. Thomas is the No. 1 wideout in a pass-happy offense!

He isn't running incredibly long routes -- his average reception attempt travels 6.9 yards in the air, which is below that of receivers like Adam Thielen (9.1) and Julio Jones (15.6) -- but it's in line with what we might see from a wideout like Golden Tate, who comes in at 6.8 air yards per attempt. Tate is having a good season, and he's catching 65.1 percent of his targets. Cooper Kupp is averaging 7.0 air yards per throw and has the second-best catch percentage in the league ... at 80.0 percent. Thomas is the most efficient wideout in football, combining steady yardage with a first-down rate north of 50 percent. He has fumbled twice, which is the only blemish on his record so far.

Most Valuable Player

Unsurprisingly, the top three candidates for MVP are all quarterbacks. With quarterbacks producing record numbers across the board this season as a whole, it's going to be tough for a back, receiver or defender to really challenge for MVP unless someone gets funneled a staggering number of touches.

Third: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints

I suspected before the season began that Brees would end up as an MVP candidate, and a lot of the soft factors are going his way. The Saints are the favorites to win the NFC South after starting 3-1. He's going to set the passing yards record as early as next Monday night. Brees' veteran brethren don't appear likely to get in the way, since Tom Brady is struggling and held to a higher standard as a would-be repeat MVP, and Ben Roethlisberger's Steelers are off to a 1-2-1 start. Brees also has never come close to winning an MVP award, having racked up just 13.5 votes over his Hall of Fame-caliber career. If anyone is going to get a lifetime achievement MVP award, it's Brees.

None of this is to say that Brees doesn't deserve consideration; to the contrary, he has deserved more MVP consideration before this. As the league has increased its passing numbers, Brees has followed. He's completing a ridiculous 75.8 percent of his passes, which is the third-best mark for any quarterback with 100 attempts or more through the first four games of the season. He has more touchdown passes (eight) than sacks taken (six). Brees is third in the league in both passer rating and Total QBR. Coincidentally, the two players ahead of him in QBR rank one and two on this list.

Second: Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams

The comparison I made for Goff after he torched the Vikings on Thursday is Joe Montana, although that's less about Goff's skill and more about how we think of him. Bill Walsh was an offensive genius who probably could have succeeded with just about any quarterback. When Montana left, Walsh and his successors had similar success with Steve Young and then a great run with Jeff Garcia. Those guys got to play behind a great line and with Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens for two decades. Does that make Montana a system quarterback? Of course not. Walsh made Montana better, but Montana also executed Walsh's scheme brilliantly.

Likewise, while it's easy to have the sort of polarizing discussion that ends with Goff either being a system quarterback or a smug rejection of the idea that he's a system quarterback, the reality is that he's a very good passer in a great scheme. McVay schemed his way into easy matchups against Anthony Barr & Co., but Goff's throws were on time. His touchdown pass to Kupp in the corner of the end zone was sublime and one of the best throws of this season. (The Aaron Rodgers touchdown to Geronimo Allison in Week 1 remains the best pass of the year for me, for what it's worth.)

It's possible that this is the best quarter-season we see from Goff. Goff posted a passer rating of 112.2 over the first four games of last season. Over the remainder of the year, he was below that mark at a passer rating of 96.7. Some of that was due to receiver injuries in midseason, and the Rams didn't suffer much because Gurley took over in December, but those factors might also influence Goff's MVP case as the season goes along this year, too. For now, he's undeniably a contender.

First: Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

I tend to avoid picking players who have three games when everyone else already has played four, but unless Mahomes lays an absolute egg Monday night against a Broncos defense that has been only league average to start the season, he's going to top these rankings. As good as Brees, Goff and others have been, Mahomes has been an absolute force of nature to start the season.

I wrote about Mahomes & Co. last week, and since they haven't played over the ensuing week, the numbers and the stories still apply. Yes, Mahomes enjoys the benefits of playing for a brilliant offensive mind and gets to throw to the league's best set of weapons.

He's also hitting throws into impossible windows, ruthlessly exploiting mismatches and forcing teams to cover every inch of the field as deep as 60 or 70 yards downfield just with the sheer threat of his arm strength. Mahomes spent most of the second halves of the first three weeks killing clock. It's scary to think, but we haven't even seen what the second-year quarterback is capable of doing when the Chiefs need to score points. If Mahomes remains as deadly as he has been through the first three weeks of 2018, we won't see the Chiefs look desperate to score points anytime soon.