Picking an MVP in advance of a typical NFL season is difficult. Remember last year? The trendiest candidates heading into the regular season were Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield and Mitchell Trubisky. Not ideal. Wentz had a good season without ever seriously getting in the MVP hunt, and Mayfield and Trubisky collapsed. Nobody was talking about Lamar Jackson, who was 50-1 at the Caesars Sportsbook to take home the trophy. The Ravens' star threw five touchdown passes in the opener in Miami and never looked back.
This year, trying to identify the league MVP before the season begins is even more difficult. Players are going to opt out. We have no idea what the regular season will look like. There's a chance that we will see a 16-game schedule in front of limited fans or an eight-game campaign in front of no fans. A shortened season in 1982 led to the strangest MVP selection in the history of American sports. It could do the same thing in 2020.
Last summer, I suggested that there were 233 players who could win league MVP. One of those players was Jackson. Of course, you should be able to name the MVP if you get 233 choices, but that's not the point. By using history to run through the various MVP options, we get a sense of how much variance the NFL deals with in a season and how much our opinions on players can change in a matter of games. It's also useful to point out what the great non-quarterbacks in the league would need to do to get into MVP consideration and just how unlikely some of the past winners were before they made their star turns.
This year, I've expanded the possibilities. I've nominated 260 players for MVP consideration and split them into nine categories. For each category, I'll pick the player I think has the best and worst chance of winning. I'm pretty sure one of these 260 players is going to win the award. In this year of all years, though, anything is possible.
Group I: The Hall-of-Fame QBs
If you're a quarterback who is already being fitted for a gold jacket, you're perennially in MVP consideration. Older quarterbacks can win. Tom Brady won the MVP as a 40-year-old, and 39-year-old Drew Brees was a hot candidate in 2018 before he slowed down over the final month of the season. I've added one younger candidate to this year's list, and I'll probably need to explain why he's here.
My favorite from this group: Mahomes. Let me be clear: I'm not saying Mahomes is on track to become a Hall of Famer. I'm saying Mahomes already has the résumé he needs to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame right now. Despite the fact that he's 24 and everyone else in this group is 36 or older, he fits alongside this group of legends. Why?
The list of players who have won the AP MVP award and a Super Bowl MVP isn't long: Brady, Rodgers, Mahomes, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Marcus Allen, John Elway, Steve Young, Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis and Kurt Warner are the only ones in that club. All nine of the eligible players on this list are in the Hall of Fame, and Brady, Rodgers and Manning are obvious locks. The only other player on the list is Mahomes, who has one of the greatest passing seasons in league history (2018) on his résumé. If Mahomes decided tomorrow to forgo his contract and retire to become a professional beer pong hustler, he has already done enough to make it into the Hall of Fame.
There are other quarterbacks who I think will make the Hall of Fame, with Russell Wilson one obvious example, but Mahomes is the only one with the sort of airtight accomplishments to be added to this list. Although this is a weird season, Mahomes' talent, continuity with his offensive weapons and coaching staff, and likelihood of improving on his injury-impacted numbers from 2019 make him a clear favorite in the MVP balloting.
My least favorite from this group: Brady. The legendary quarterback declined last season, and though I blamed some of that on a middling supporting cast that isn't following him to Tampa, there will surely be an adjustment period as he works with a totally new coaching staff and new receivers for the first time in his career. He's going to do fine with the Buccaneers, but I don't think voters are likely to give a player with multiple MVP awards another nod unless Brady posts numbers approaching his career bests.
Group II: The starting quarterbacks on rookie deals
This group garners the most hype for MVP awards on an annual basis, and it's understandable why. It's more fun to project a breakthrough than it is to peg a perennial candidate such as Brady for the trophy, and the history of voter fatigue with former winners suggests that these newcomers can win if there's a sudden leap in their level of play. Over the past three years, we've seen Wentz nearly win the award before tearing his ACL in 2017, Mahomes win in his first year as a starter in 2018 and Jackson win in his first full season as a starter in 2019. It's no surprise that one of the trendiest candidates this year fits this group, though he isn't my favorite choice.
My favorite from this group: Watson. Although Watson will likely graduate to another section by signing an extension before the season begins, the Houston star has the sort of upside I'm looking for in an MVP candidate. The Texans traded away his star receiver when they sent DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals, but Watson's offense is still deep at receiver and should be better along the offensive line now that left tackle Laremy Tunsil will have a full year in this scheme. The Texans also have continuity in their offensive coaching staff and are contenders in a wide-open AFC South.
The obvious candidate I'm passing up here is Murray, who doesn't have some of the benefits I pointed out above. He has coaching continuity and added a critical weapon in Hopkins, but the Cardinals have a below-average offensive line with a history of injury issues across the board. I love Murray as a player and think he could take a big leap forward, but the MVP usually has to win his division and lead his team to one of the best records in football, and the Cardinals have a difficult task in the NFC West. With slightly longer odds, I prefer Watson.
My least favorite from this group: Haskins. Although the second-year quarterback has long odds and should improve in his first full season as a starter, Washington just doesn't have much around its young starter. I ranked Washington last in football when I sorted through each team's weapons, and that was before starting wideout Kelvin Harmon tore his ACL. Left tackle is also a major question for Haskins after the organization traded away Trent Williams during the offseason. I'd like to see Haskins get a chance in a more stable organization with more around him, but it's difficult to imagine him piecing together an MVP-caliber campaign in 2020.
Group III: Established, effective starting quarterbacks
We often underestimate the chances of a quarterback from this group blowing away his expectations and winning league MVP. Although we're fond of saying that we know what Player X is or what his ceiling is after a few years in the league, that just is not borne out by reality. Matt Ryan never garnered serious MVP consideration or posted a passer rating above 100 before 2016, when he led the league at 117.1 and won the trophy.
Two of the leading candidates in 2015 were Andy Dalton (who got injured) and Cam Newton (who won the award); both were veterans in their fifth seasons who delivered outlier seasons relative to the rest of their careers. Russell Wilson might have been a more significant candidate last season if the Seahawks ever trusted him to be the focal point of their offense before the fourth quarter.
Candidates (14): Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, Kirk Cousins, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jared Goff, Cam Newton, Dak Prescott, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Ryan Tannehill, Tyrod Taylor, Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson
My favorite from this group: Prescott. Are the stars aligned for Prescott? He has one of the league's best sets of weapons and continuity with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. He quietly threw for 4,902 yards and 30 touchdowns last season while adding three touchdowns on the ground. The Cowboys had a disappointing season at 8-8, but their 10.7 Pythagorean wins and 0-6 record in games decided by seven points or fewer (after going 8-2 in those games the season prior) make it extremely likely that they'll improve in 2020. Also, though I don't think this matters all that much, Prescott has everything to play for after failing to come to terms on an extension with the Cowboys before the July 15 deadline.
Reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson joins SportsCenter to have his Madden NFL 21 rating revealed, and he's not happy when he finds out.
My least favorite from this group: Carr. Although Carr had a quietly effective 2019 campaign and was an above-average quarterback by most measures, the Raiders responded by giving Marcus Mariota a two-year, $17.6 million deal to come in as their backup. The money involved suggests that the team will give Mariota a meaningful chance to start games in 2020, and Jon Gruden has always had a wandering eye when it comes to quarterbacks. It's also difficult to imagine Las Vegas toppling the Chiefs in the AFC West, which Carr would likely need to do to win MVP.
Group IV: Low-end starting/high-end backup quarterbacks
This is a small group and one unlikely to deliver an MVP, though it has in the past. A 35-year-old John Brodie won league MVP in 1970, five years after his last trip to the Pro Bowl. Likewise, Ken Anderson made it to the Pro Bowl in 1976, was 20-32 with a passer rating of 69.1 over the next four seasons and won the MVP award in 1981. You can never write off any starting quarterback.
My favorite from this group: Foles. His likelihood of starting Week 1 in Chicago gives him a clear advantage over everybody else in this group besides Fitzpatrick, who is likely to lose his job in Miami to rookie top-five pick Tua Tagovailoa at some point during the season. Although Foles hasn't been able to stay healthy to make more than nine consecutive starts as a pro, we know a hot Foles is capable of producing magic, as he did for the Eagles in the second half of 2013 and during the 2017 playoffs. Even oft-injured quarterbacks can stay healthy for that one big season, as Chad Pennington did for the Dolphins in 2008.
My least favorite from this group: Fitzpatrick. Although Fitzpatrick will likely be the Dolphins' Week 1 starter, they are probably going to turn to Tagovailoa before the end of the season. Fitzpatrick's new offensive coordinator is a familiar face in Chan Gailey, but this team is rebuilding its line on the fly and didn't add any new receivers for the veteran passer. The Dolphins also overperformed their Pythagorean expectation last season and are unlikely to compete for an AFC East title.
Group V: Literally any other active quarterback
Of course, there's one famous example of a quarterback coming out of nowhere to win league MVP. Kurt Warner was a 28-year-old backup with 11 career pass attempts before the 1999 season. His Rams team finished the prior season 4-12 and 24th in points per game. Although they added Marshall Faulk via trade and Torry Holt with their first-round pick, the idea that Warner was about to win league MVP would have been ludicrous. If anything, given the fact that the Rams used a fourth-round pick on Ohio State passer Joe Germaine, it seemed more likely that Warner would fail to make the regular-season roster.
You know what happened next. Trent Green tore his ACL during the preseason, opening an opportunity for Warner. Warner threw for 309 yards and three touchdowns in the opener, had a Week 2 bye and then threw 18 touchdown passes against one pick while posting a passer rating of 136.0 over the next six weeks. Warner eventually finished one of the greatest seasons in NFL history by winning both league MVP and Super Bowl MVP. Imagine if Cooper Rush won MVP this year with the Giants. That's about what Warner accomplished in 1999.
Candidates (88): Kyle Allen, Drew Anderson, Matt Barkley, J.T. Barrett, C.J. Beathard, Kurt Benkert, David Blough, Tim Boyle, Tyler Bray, Jacoby Brissett, Jake Browning, Case Cookus, Andy Dalton, Chase Daniel, Kevin Davidson, Ben DiNucci, Joshua Dobbs, Jacob Dolegala, Jeff Driskel, Jacob Eason, Danny Etling, David Fales, Ryan Finley, Joe Flacco, Jake Fromm, Blaine Gabbert, Garrett Gilbert, Mike Glennon, Anthony Gordon, Will Grier, Robert Griffin, Ryan Griffin, Chad Henne, Justin Herbert, Taysom Hill, Devlin Hodges, Brian Hoyer, Brett Hundley, Tyler Huntley, Jalen Hurts, Chad Kelly, Kyle Lauletta, Brian Lewerke, Jordan Love, Josh Love, Jake Luton, Paxton Lynch, Sean Mannion, AJ McCarron, Colt McCoy, Cole McDonald, Alex McGough, Trace McSorley, Steven Montez, Matt Moore, James Morgan, Jalen Morton, Nick Mullens, Riley Neal, Bryce Perkins, Nathan Peterman, Josh Rosen, Jake Rudock, Mason Rudolph, Cooper Rush, Broc Rutter, Brett Rypien, Matt Schaub, Reid Sinnett, J'Mar Smith, Alex Smith, Geno Smith, Nate Stanley, Tommy Stevens, Easton Stick, Jarrett Stidham, Chris Streveler, Nate Sudfeld, Jordan Ta'amu, Tua Tagovailoa, Alex Tanney, Clayton Thorson, Nick Tiano, P.J. Walker, Davis Webb, Mike White, John Wolford, Logan Woodside
My favorite from this group: Wolford. I'll stick with the Rams and go for the backup behind Goff. Like Warner, Wolford impressed in a lower professional league. Warner was in NFL Europe; Wolford posted a 95.9 passer rating and averaged more than 7.8 yards per attempt in the AAF. Wolford was also solid as Los Angeles' third-string quarterback last preseason, which encouraged the Rams to move on from Blake Bortles in the offseason. The Rams have plenty of talent for Wolford to work with and one of the league's highly regarded offensive minds in coach Sean McVay. If Goff were to go down, Wolford could surprise people.
The other obvious candidate from this group is Hill, whose new contract suggests that the Saints see him as a significant piece of their offense. He has the sort of skill set and notability that might lend to outsized MVP consideration. In a shortened season, it isn't difficult to imagine Hill coming up with a handful of key plays on national television and winning a fractured vote.
Group VI: Running backs who could top 2,000 yards or score 25-plus touchdowns
Although it was once common for running backs to win MVP, just six backs have taken home the hardware over the past 25 years. Each of those six topped at least one round number: 2,000 rushing yards or 25 touchdowns. Three of them -- Adrian Peterson in 2012, Terrell Davis in 1998 and Barry Sanders in 1997 -- topped 2,000 yards. Four backs scored 25 or more TDs, including Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006, Shaun Alexander in 2005 and Marshall Faulk in 2000.
To put it another way, since the AP went to its current 50-voter format in 1996, just three backs have topped 2,000 yards or 25 touchdowns in a season without winning MVP. Chris Johnson racked up 2,009 yards in 2009, but the Titans went 8-8 and didn't qualify for the postseason. In 2003, Jamal Lewis ran for 2,066 yards and Priest Holmes scored 27 touchdowns, but they split the vote in a bizarre race in which nobody received more than 16 votes and Peyton Manning tied with Steve McNair.
The days of the workhorse back appear to be numbered, but if anyone gets to one of those round numbers in 2020 while playing for a competitive team, he'll have a shot to win MVP.
Candidates (23): Saquon Barkley, Le'Veon Bell, Chris Carson, Nick Chubb, James Conner, Dalvin Cook, Kenyan Drake, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley II, Derrick Henry, Mark Ingram II, David Johnson, Aaron Jones, Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon, David Montgomery, Miles Sanders, Devin Singletary, Damien Williams
My favorite from this group: Henry. With teams throwing the ball more than ever, any back who wants to have a shot at one of those big, round numbers needs to rack up a ton of touches and/or attract all the goal-line carries. Only a handful of backs on this list seem to fit that criteria, and guys such as McCaffrey, Mixon and Fournette are on teams that are unlikely to contend for the division titles they would need to compete for hardware.
Henry, on the other hand, is the exact sort of back we want. He has a clear path to a significant workload, as the Titans gave him 303 carries across 15 regular-season games last season and added 83 more in three postseason contests. He doesn't get the receiving workload backs typically need to top 25 touchdowns, but nobody in the league has a better shot at carrying the ball 350 times, which is the sort of workload a back needs to have a viable chance at 2,000 yards. Tennessee is also in the thick of things in the AFC South.
My least favorite from this group: Fournette. The Jaguars spent this offseason shopping Fournette, and given that they could save $4.2 million by releasing him before Week 1, there's a chance that the former LSU star won't make the active roster. What's more, even if Fournette sticks around, absorbs a huge workload and tops 2,000 yards, Jacksonville is unlikely to win a division title in the middle of its latest rebuild.
Group VII: Franchise wide receivers
No wide receiver has won the AP version of the MVP award, but if we look at the most recent shortened NFL season, we can get a sense of how a non-quarterback could blitz the league and take home a trophy. In 1987, a strike reduced the season to 15 games, three of which mostly consisted of replacement players. Most of the NFLPA's members could play a maximum of 12 games that season, and in his 12 games, Jerry Rice scored 23 touchdowns, 22 of which came through the air. That was four more receiving touchdowns than had been recorded by any other player in league history at the time, and it was enough for Rice to claim the Pro Football Writers' Association's version of the MVP award.
The only player to top Rice's mark is Randy Moss, who needed 16 games to get to 23 touchdowns in 2007. Asking anyone to top that mark in 12 or 16 games is a big ask, but what about 2,000 receiving yards in a 16-game season? Calvin Johnson came close, with 1,964 yards in 2012, but that was in the service of a 4-12 Lions team. If Johnson had produced like that for a 12-4 team that won its division, he likely would have received serious MVP consideration.
If we get a full season and a receiver tops 2,000 yards for the first time for a playoff team, he can win MVP. The guy who I think has the best shot of doing that is probably pretty obvious.
Candidates (32): Davante Adams, Keenan Allen, Odell Beckham Jr., A.J. Brown, DJ Chark, Amari Cooper, Stefon Diggs, Julian Edelman, Mike Evans, Will Fuller V, Michael Gallup, Chris Godwin, Kenny Golladay, A.J. Green, Tyreek Hill, T.Y. Hilton, DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, Cooper Kupp, Jarvis Landry, Tyler Lockett, Terry McLaurin, DK Metcalf, DJ Moore, DeVante Parker, Allen Robinson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Courtland Sutton, Golden Tate, Adam Thielen, Michael Thomas, Robert Woods
My favorite from this group: Thomas. He sat out a chunk of Week 17 and still managed to lead the league in receptions (149), targets (185) and receiving yards (1,725) in 2019. The Saints star finished the season with 29 more targets than any other player, but if New Orleans took a step backward and were forced to throw the ball more in the second halves of games, could Thomas' target share rise? He averaged 9.3 yards per target a year ago, so he would need 215 targets at that rate to top 2,000 yards. Megatron had 202 targets in his 1,964-yard season, and Rob Moore was targeted a record 208 times in 1997 with the Cardinals. There's definitely a scenario in which Thomas gets that sort of target share and keeps up his production.
My least favorite from this group: Landry. Although he is unquestionably a talented receiver, his style of play makes a 2,000-yard season virtually impossible. Landry would need 278 targets at his historic yards per target rate to get to 2K. The former LSU standout is coming off hip surgery, which brings into question his Week 1 availability in Cleveland. Landry is also going to be part of an offense that is likely to be run-heavy, and he has to split targets with a more productive wideout in Beckham.
Group VIII: Superstar pass-rushers
No pass-rusher has won league MVP since Lawrence Taylor racked up 20.5 sacks for the Giants in 1986. That New York team was 14-2 and allowed the second-fewest points per game of any team in league history to date, which illuminates how hard this is: Not only do you need to rack up a lot of sacks, but you also need to be part of an uncommonly great defense that wins a ton of games.
My guess is that to win MVP, a pass-rusher in a 16-game season would need to blow away the current record of 22.5 sacks. While players such as Khalil Mack and Von Miller have argued in the past that they could get to 30 sacks in a full season, I laid out just how unlikely a 30-sack campaign is under current conditions. There might be a scenario in which an edge rusher on a dominant defense could win MVP with a 25-sack campaign, but that likely wouldn't be enough.
In 2020, though, another possibility could open up. What if somebody set the sack record in a 10-game season? The record for most sacks in a 10-game stretch since the league started officially tracking them in 1982 is Reggie White's 18.5-sack run in 1987. That gets us in the ballpark of 22.5 sacks, but it's not quite where we need to go.
Let's look at it another way. During J.J. Watt's four-year run between 2012 and '15 as arguably the most devastating pass-rusher of his generation, the Texans star racked up 69 sacks across 64 games. Watt's 10 most productive games in that stretch produced 26 sacks. Those games weren't consecutive, of course, but there's a plausible universe in which a dominant pass-rusher could stack together 10 dominant games and top 22.5 sacks.
Candidates (44): Josh Allen, Arik Armstead, Geno Atkins, Derek Barnett, Shaq Barrett, Joey Bosa, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Brian Burns, Bradley Chubb, Frank Clark, Jadeveon Clowney, Fletcher Cox, Maxx Crosby, Aaron Donald, Carlos Dunlap, Bud Dupree, Trey Flowers, Dee Ford, Dante Fowler Jr., Myles Garrett, Justin Houston, Jerry Hughes, Danielle Hunter, Melvin Ingram, Grady Jarrett, Chris Jones, Chandler Jones, Cameron Jordan, Matthew Judon, Harold Landry III, DeMarcus Lawrence, Khalil Mack, Whitney Mercilus, Von Miller, Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Quinn, Kawann Short, Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Olivier Vernon, T.J. Watt, J.J. Watt, Chase Young
My favorite from this group: Donald. The best predictor of sacks is quarterback knockdowns, and over the past three years, Donald has 92 knockdowns, 14 more than any other player. He plays in a division in which the three opposing starting quarterbacks -- Jimmy Garoppolo, Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson -- all posted sack rates worse than league average last season. The Rams also replaced Dante Fowler Jr. with the less-imposing Leonard Floyd, which means there's a smaller chance of Donald being beaten to the quarterback by another Rams defender, whereas guys such as Joey Bosa, Za'Darius Smith and Khalil Mack have to compete with a second productive rusher for sacks.
My least favorite from this group: Atkins. The undersized Bengals defensive tackle has long deserved more credit as one of the league's best interior disruptors, but his production fell to 4.5 sacks and 10 knockdowns last season. I wouldn't be surprised to see a bounce-back season from him in 2020, but except for cases such as Donald, it's tougher for defensive tackles to produce the sort of gaudy sack numbers that we associate with the league's best edge rushers.
Group IX: Kickers
Yes, kickers. Although you might not be willing to imagine a world in which a kicker wins league MVP, it happened during the nine-game season in 1982, when Washington kicker Mark Moseley topped Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts 35 to 33. To put this in context, the 34-year-old Moseley was a good but not great longtime kicker who hit 63.3% of his field goals the prior season. Imagine if, say, Stephen Hauschka topped Mahomes in a tight race for MVP this season.
I wrote about this back in 2015 and found that Moseley probably wasn't even the best kicker in the league. Although he went 20-of-21 on field goals in an era in which kickers converted about 66% of the time, he missed three extra points and didn't handle kickoffs. Moseley made the case that his kicks were crucial in winning the first five games of the season, but on closer inspection, those kicks won his team the game only in Week 1. His was a very good season for a kicker, but it was really the product of a smaller than usual sample. Moseley missed four of his eight kicks in the postseason and never topped 80% in a season again.
A shortened season plays to kickers, who can post more impressive numbers and win a higher percentage of games with critical kicks in a small sample. Since 2001, no kicker has hit more than four game-winning kicks in the final minute of regulation. Do that in 16 games, and it's impressive, but it gets lost in the shuffle. If someone could manage four or five of those kicks in nine games, though ...
Candidates (37): Michael Badgley, Dan Bailey, Tyler Bass, Rodrigo Blankenship, Chris Boswell, Randy Bullock, Harrison Butker, Daniel Carlson, Mason Crosby, Jake Elliott, Ka'imi Fairbairn, Sam Ficken, Kai Forbath, Graham Gano, Matt Gay, Zane Gonzalez, Robbie Gould, Stephen Hauschka, Dustin Hopkins, Greg Joseph, Younghoe Koo, Josh Lambo, Wil Lutz, Brett Maher, Chase McLaughlin, Brandon McManus, Jason Myers, Eddy Pineiro, Matt Prater, Justin Rohrwasser, Aldrick Rosas, Jason Sanders, Austin Seibert, Sam Sloman, Joey Slye, Justin Tucker, Greg Zuerlein
My favorite from this group: Tucker. The brilliant Ravens kicker wasn't as important last season, given how effective Lamar Jackson was in leading the Baltimore offense to touchdowns, but Tucker is the perennial favorite to lead the league in field goal percentage. Nobody is rooting for Jackson to get hurt or decline, but if the Ravens were great in a short season and Tucker won them five games with late kicks, he would get meaningful MVP consideration.
My least favorite from this group: Blankenship. The former Georgia kicker could be a cult hero and could have a lengthy NFL career, but after going undrafted, he's in a competition with McLaughlin for the starting job in Indianapolis. With his not having a clear path to a starting job or any NFL track record, an MVP campaign from Blankenship would be an absolute shock. Of the 260 NFL players mentioned here, Blankenship is No. 260.