This early in the season, the MVP race can seem like an open field, but it’s actually more of a boys club. All the boys are quarterbacks. They’re going to be the ones representing the teams at the top of the standings. It’s not hard to guess who they might be.
So we’re not going to try. Forget the quarterbacks, just for a moment. Let’s expand the field, past the hash marks and beyond the safeties. Let’s take an All-22 look at the top players players who are out there, the ones whose dominance won’t be explained by one award based on value.
On a regular basis, I’ll take a look at the non-quarterbacks who can lay some claim to being the most valuable player. I recognize, in most cases, the guys behind center should win. But in this space, I’m going to look at players who dominate in the crevices.
Last week’s column was all about the emergence of the running backs. That’s in full force now, with a new member to welcome to the top tier. And for once, it’s starting to feel as if these guys could have a legitimate shot at the real MVP trophy if the league continues to shape how it has.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
“Zeke” had been heating up, increasing his yards-per-carry in every week leading into last week’s showdown with the top rushing defense in the NFL, when he faced the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. It was a battle Elliott won with ease. He turned a season-high 28 carries into 157 yards in what was the kind of cruising, clock-bleeding win the Cowboys want with how much they’ve invested in the running game. The rookie now enters his bye week with a monstrous league lead in rushing with 703 yards, 116 more than the next-best competitor. That’s thanks in part to a front five that leads the league in adjusted-line yards, according to Football Outsiders, and the fact he’s carried the ball 12 times more than anyone else. Still, to average 5. 1 yards per carry in an offense without a healthy deep threat and to consistently get better the way he has puts him in a place of dominance few veterans can match at this point.
Chances of an actual MVP: 13 percent. Outside of Matt Ryan, it’s hard to find a quarterback at this point who appears like he’ll have a legitimate argument for the crown, although it’s still early. Elliott is the centerpiece of how the Cowboys want to win, and at 5-1 and first place in the NFC East, he’s producing exactly that. The bye week comes at the right time after a career-high 28 carries, and it’s still very possible he wears down in a 16-game season his body isn’t used to. But for right now, he’d be right near the top in this kind of discussion.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills
He’s become the workhorse for the hottest team in the league, a group that had its back against the wall at 0-2, fired an offensive coordinator and lost its star wide receiver. All he’s done is total 587 yards and 6 touchdowns through 6 games on the best yards-per-carry average you’ll find of a high-volume running back: 5.6. He’s averaging half a yard better than Elliott. The Bills don’t lean on him quite the same way, but they also don’t have Dak Prescott doing what he’s doing either. This current Bills regime is living and dying by the running game, and as long as McCoy is delivering and its winning games, he’ll be near the top of this list.
Chances of an actual MVP: 12 percent. I’m giving him a slight disadvantage to Elliott because while I think McCoy is more instrumental to his team, I also think his team has a bigger road block called the New England Patriots. The last MVP running back, Adrian Peterson, won it on a wild-card team, but those were near-historic numbers. Nonetheless, it’s hard to not think McCoy is going to be in the conversation for awards if he’s able to stay healthy.
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Denver’s two-game skid after the 4-0 start hasn’t been the fault of its best player. Miller was dominant in blowing up the run against the San Diego Chargers. His ability to create havoc in the backfield and at the line of scrimmage is what kept Denver’s sputtering offense within striking distance of a comeback on the road on a short week. Through six weeks, it’s hard to find another defender affecting opposing offenses the way the reigning Super Bowl MVP is.
Chances of an actual MVP: 12 percent. Miller certainly feels in the actual conversation, and if the gap between him and the next most impactful defensive player ends up like what it is now, that’ll be his best argument. That and what it amounted to last postseason, the way that changed, the way we look at the importance of defense in today’s game.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
If Arizona is able to really turn this season back around to being the team everyone thought it would be coming into the year, the past two games will be the crucial stretch to look back on. Those were the games after Carson Palmer’s concussion, where a 1-3 team needed a lift it wasn’t used to and got it from its fast-rising superstar running back. Johnson has largely been the offense in wins against the San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets, totaling 5 touchdowns as well as 268 yards. It’s hard to think of a Bruce Arians offense in run-heavy terms, but that’s what it’s starting to become.
Chances of an actual MVP: 6 percent. It’s a small sample size so far, and if Arizona is to get back to near the 13-3 team it was last season, it’ll need Palmer and the passing game to be the primary reason. That doesn’t mean Johnson won’t play an enormous part in getting Palmer more comfortable and carrying less of a burden on his shoulders, but it does put him a peg lower than the other rushers on this list.
Others to consider: Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings; Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams; Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders; Trent Williams, OT, Washington Redskins; and DeMarco Murray, RB, Tennessee Titans.
This week’s tests: Johnson torched a top-five rushing defense last week in the Jets, and this week, he’ll get one of the only opposing fronts that has been better at that task in recent years in the Seattle Seahawks. … The Rams have lost two straight, so for Donald to stay in this conversation, he’s going to need to have a showing against a New York Giants team that’s becoming incredibly hard to register sacks or blow-up plays against. … Carson Wentz and the Philadelphia Eagles have challenged the readiness of safeties all season, so Smith needs to be up to task coming off a bye week.