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.
The list continues to fluctuate early in the season, and the biggest change from last week is running backs are starting to enter the fold in ways that make them likely candidates to stay. Here’s what I have through five weeks:
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Last weekend’s loss notwithstanding, Miller has been the most visually dominant player at any position in the NFL this season. He continues to play in the best defense, but it’s much that way because of him. With J.J. Watt out injured, no player has been harder to account for. None receives the added attention and specific play-calls designed to avoid him. And yet with 6.5 sacks, Miller is only half of one off the NFL’s lead through five weeks. Last week’s 23-16 home loss to the red-hot Atlanta Falcons was mostly because of the struggles of rookie quarterback Paxton Lynch. Considering the influx Denver has had at that position, the fact it is 4-1 is a testament to the defense and its undisputed best player.
Chances of an actual MVP: 14 percent. Considering Denver is likely headed to another AFC West title on the backs of Miller and his defense, the Super Bowl MVP could have as legitimate of a case for the MVP as any defensive player in recent memory.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills
The Bills’ season isn’t a dumpster fire, as it turns out. If they can beat Colin Kaepernick on Sunday, it’ll mark their fourth straight win after an 0-2 start. Like with Denver, there’s no question who their best player has been. McCoy has broken out in the three weeks since his former position coach, Anthony Lynn, took over as offensive coordinator. In that span, he has 330 yards and 2 touchdowns on 6.1 yards per carry, all against teams ranked in the top 15 in run defense DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). The Bills banked their season on a new rushing approach with the offensive coordinator change, and so just how high they can climb should ride very much on McCoy’s shoulders.
Chances of an actual MVP: 8 percent. McCoy’s candidacy has come out of nowhere, but it’s worth considering if this production keeps up. The volume and talent in the running game suggests it could as the defenses get lighter. McCoy’s biggest problem will be the Bills are unlikely to unseat the New England Patriots in the AFC East, but the last running back to win the award, Adrian Peterson in 2012, represented a 10-6 wildcard team. He also ran for the second-most yards in NFL history, so McCoy is going to need to be historic to have any chance to unseat a quarterback.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
The rookie is heating up. In the past three games, all wins, the No. 4 overall pick has run for 140, 138 and 134 yards, respectively. His yards per carry have increased in every contest so far this season, topping out at an absurd 8.93 on 15 carries against the Cincinnati Bengals. With as durable as Elliott is and with as committed as Dallas will stay to the running game even if Tony Romo takes his job back, it’s hard not to consider him a threat to lead the league in rushing as a rookie. If that ends up carrying an average defense and a passing game that’s been good but not overwhelming, Elliott’s candidacy would have to be taken seriously.
Chance of an actual MVP: 6 percent. It’s a high bar for a rookie, and first-year players often hit a wall down the stretch of the season. That’s certainly not out of question for a running back carrying the ball the way Elliott is, with a league-high 109 carries through five games. The good news for Elliott is if he’s able to continue to deliver and if Romo comes back, it will be hard to argue for any other Cowboys player representing the success they could have, which seems limitless in a messy NFC. Certainly, his offensive line has plenty to do with this, but that’s a collective effort. Elliott has been the star.
Others to consider: Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons; David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals; Aaron Donald, DT, Los Angeles Rams; Trent Williams, OT, Washington Redskins; Bobby Wagner, ILB, Seattle Seahawks; Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City Chiefs; Khalil Mack, DE, Oakland Raiders; A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals; and Harrison Smith, S, Minnesota Vikings
This week’s tests: Elliott’s matchup against the top-ranked Green Bay Packers rush defense will be one to watch. His offensive line pushed around a Cincinnati Bengals front that wasn’t used to having that done, and the Packers have been just as difficult at the point of attack. … It’ll be hard to continue to consider Green if the Bengals don’t avoid falling to 0-4, which means upsetting the New England Patriots. And that’ll be hard enough. … Peters will have his hands full against the Raiders, regardless of whether he’s matched up with the smooth Amari Cooper or the bulky Michael Crabtree. Both are playing the best they ever have, and Kansas City is still searching for that complementary pass rush. … Regardless of whether or not Carson Palmer is back for Arizona’s Monday night game against the New York Jets, Johnson should remain the focal point. Run defense is the one strength the Jets can bank on this season. The matchup could decide so much of Arizona’s fate since it currently sits at 2-3. … Jones against Richard Sherman in Seattle should be the back-and-forth treat that Sherman vs. Brandon Marshall was the last time the Seahawks took the field.