The NFL's Most Valuable Player race is starting to come together five weeks into the 2021 season, with a host of quarterbacks emerging on the short list of MVP candidates. The leader of the league's only remaining undefeated team is tied for the best Vegas odds and, unsurprisingly, has the most first-place votes from our panel. Those jockeying for the front-runner spot have 13 more weeks to make their case.
We asked a group of analysts -- Stephania Bell, Matt Bowen, Mike Clay, Courtney Cronin, Jeremy Fowler, Domonique Foxworth, Kevin Seifert, Field Yates and Seth Walder -- to vote on the top players in the MVP race right now. Then we used those nine sets of rankings to give our top five candidates overall, using Heisman Trophy-esque scaling for each ranking, to determine how the field stacks up to this point.
We'll also look at a few players who have seen their MVP stock either spike or plummet in the early going. And finally, ESPN analytics writer Seth Walder weighs in on an under-the-radar MVP-caliber player, and ESPN Chalk analyst Doug Kezirian identifies his top value bet for MVP through five weeks. But first, here are the players off to an MVP-caliber start.
Note: All odds are via Caesars Sportsbook.
1. Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals
2021 stats: 1,512 passing yards, 110 rushing yards, 13 total TDs, 4 INTs, 68.4 Total QBR
Murray has made life difficult for opposing defenses with his quick throws and ability to escape the pocket, and it has paid off in the form of a 5-0 start for the Cardinals, the franchise's first such start since 1974. Murray's MVP campaign is bolstered by his becoming the third player in NFL history with 1,500 passing yards and a 75% completion percentage in the first five games of a season, on top of the fact that he has the Cardinals sitting atop a loaded NFC West.
The Arizona QB might be the front-runner entering Week 6, but he'll have to get his team back to its early-season form after failing to reach 30 points or 400 yards for the first time all season in an uninspired win over San Francisco. Murray is currently the co-favorite at +500 to win MVP.
2. Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
2021 stats: 1,576 passing yards, 14 total TDs, 3 INTs, 66.1 Total QBR
The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year was part of an instant classic 47-42 win over Cleveland, in which the Chargers scored 26 fourth-quarter points. Herbert has looked great late in games in his second season. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Herbert's QBR is up by more than 30 in the fourth quarter and overtime from his rookie season, and he has already thrown more touchdowns in those situations while also averaging nearly three more yards per passing attempt. In fact, his 89.3 QBR in the fourth quarter/OT leads all QBs this season.
Herbert and Lamar Jackson face off this Sunday after leading their teams to impactful wins in Week 5 in a game that will almost certainly factor into how this list looks several weeks from now. Currently, Herbert is +700 to win MVP, tied for the fourth-best odds.
3. Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills
2021 stats: 1,370 passing yards, 188 rushing yards, 14 total TDs, 2 INTs, 65.3 Total QBR
Allen turned the narrative of his regression upside down and has Buffalo on a four-game winning streak after a loss to Pittsburgh in the opener. On Sunday night, the quarterback captivated the NFL in a highly anticipated prime-time rematch of the 2020 AFC Championship, throwing for 315 yards (on 15 completions) and three touchdowns while rushing for 59 yards and another score in a win over the Chiefs. It was the third game of Allen's career with 300 passing yards and 50 rushing yards, which is tied for the fourth most in NFL history.
If Buffalo can take advantage of its upcoming stretch against Tennessee, Miami and Jacksonville, Allen will likely keep cruising as a top candidate for MVP honors. He is +500 at the moment, tying with Murray atop the board.
4. Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2021 stats: 1,767 passing yards, 16 total TDs, 2 INTs, 65.6 Total QBR
The 44-year-old quarterback continues to do MVP-like things on a weekly basis -- he is +600 to win his fourth award -- and he has a new achievement to add to a lengthy list. Brady recorded his first career game with 400-plus yards passing and five touchdowns in a 45-17 win over the Dolphins. Those 45 points scored in Week 5 marked the sixth time Tampa Bay has notched at least 44 points since Brady, who leads the league in passing yards (1,767) and completions (149) this season, took over in 2020.
With the help of an additional game this season, Brady's 353.4 passing yards per game puts him on pace to become the first quarterback to throw for over 6,000 yards in a season. And he is also on pace to eclipse a career high in touchdowns with 51, which would be the second time he breaks 50 in his career.
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5. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
2021 stats: 1,386 passing yards, 13 total TDs, 3 INTs, 56.6 Total QBR
Dallas is 4-1 for the first time since Prescott's rookie year in 2016 and establishing itself as one of the top teams in the NFC. The quarterback is surrounded by a host of talented players, which have allowed the Cowboys to field an explosive, diversified attack and score 170 points in their four-game winning streak. Prescott has thrown at least three touchdown passes four times this season, most recently in a 44-20 defeat of the NFC East rival Giants. He's a huge part of why Dallas is firing on all cylinders, ranking second in completion percentage (73.9%), tied for third in passing touchdowns (13) and sitting 10th in passing yards (1,386).
Not only is Prescott in the thick of an MVP race (+700) crowded with elite quarterback performances, he's also the front-runner for the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award after missing most of the 2020 season due to a severe ankle injury.
Jackson's heroic efforts against Indianapolis nearly pushed him into the top five. The 2019 NFL MVP has spent the first five weeks of the season dispelling every notion about his growth and the limitations of his game in his third year as a starting quarterback. In a Week 5 win over the Colts, Jackson overcame the largest deficit of his NFL career (19 points) and set the NFL record for completion percentage (86%) in both 400-passing-yard and 40-passing-attempt games. On top of proving he can be an elite passer, Jackson is also showing he can play from behind and win. The 31-25 overtime victory vs. Indianapolis was the second time since Week 2 that Jackson had to come back from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter. His previous resulted in a 36-35 victory over reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City.
Stafford never came close to winning the MVP in 12 seasons with Detroit but is making his case for the award after leading the Rams to a 4-1 start. He has career-high marks in completion percentage (68%), yards per attempt (9.2) and yards per completion (13.6, tied for first in the NFL), and he has the best TD-INT ratio (12-3) of his career through the first five games of a season. It's too early to call Stafford the savior of the Rams, given how well everything else is structured around him, including the offensive line, his receivers and his fit in this scheme, but Stafford's play has Los Angeles squarely in the mix as early-season Super Bowl contenders.
The reigning MVP quickly returned to form after opening the season with one of the worst performances of his career. A blowout win over Detroit certainly helped him get the critics off his back, but it was Rodgers' MVP-level performance in Week 3 that reminded folks why he's one of the greatest to ever do it. The San Francisco 49ers left the quarterback 37 seconds to drive down the field and put the Packers in position for a walk-off victory. The two touchdowns he threw at Cincinnati in Week 5 pushed Rodgers ahead of Philip Rivers for the fifth-most passing touchdowns of all time with 422.
Also received top-10 votes: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, Titans RB Derrick Henry, Rams DT Aaron Donald, Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs, Packers WR Davante Adams, Browns DE Myles Garrett and Raiders QB Derek Carr
Arguably no other defensive player has had a better start to the season than Diggs, whose six interceptions are twice as many as anyone else. The 23-year-old cornerback is the third player since the NFL merger with at least one interception in each of his team's first five games and is playing a major role in turning around Dallas' defense a year after it set a franchise record for points allowed.
Garrett leads the NFL in sacks (7.0) and is beginning to separate himself from Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who has won Defensive Player of the Year honors in three of the past four seasons. The Browns' edge rusher launched himself into the MVP mix with his 4.5 sacks of Chicago quarterback Justin Fields and is tied for second with 30 total pressures.
The Chiefs' 2-3 start has them in unfamiliar territory. For the first time since the 2019 divisional playoffs, Kansas City is not favored to win the Super Bowl. And for the first time since Week 1 of 2018, it is not the favorite in the AFC West. The Chiefs' struggles continue to revolve around their defense, but Mahomes has been outshined by Herbert, Jackson and Allen in all three of Kansas City's losses. It doesn't help that the superstar quarterback has thrown the third-most interceptions (six) in five games -- as many as he threw all of last season.
Walder's under-the-radar MVP candidate
On plays when opponents have targeted Diggs as the nearest defender, the Dallas defense has accrued 29 total EPA, according to NFL Next Gen Stats -- or 31 EPA over average for an outside corner this year. Let's compare that to quarterback production. If we add together offensive EPA on plays in which a quarterback either dropped back to pass or ran the ball, only five quarterbacks recorded 31 EPA over average for the position. Moreover, it's also much easier to find a QB with that kind of EPA production than a corner, and the rarity of Diggs' production at his position increases its value. That's why Diggs is a top-10 lock.
Kezirian's MVP value bet
This is an extremely competitive race right now, and it's hard to justify single-digit odds in this one-way betting market. However, I believe the Rams have positioned themselves pretty well to finish with the No. 1 seed in the NFC, so Stafford presents the most value on the board at +1100.