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 started to seriously consider the top running backs in the league, but they started to take a dip since then. Meanwhile, one and only one defensive player continues to make his case as a legit contender for the real award.
Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos
Shame on me for falling in love with some running backs on some good but not great teams, at least in the way it forced the reigning Super Bowl MVP into the background. After two straight losses in which Miller was everything but the problem, the Broncos got back on track against the Houston Texans mostly because of what Miller could do in tandem with his top-notch secondary. Miller harassed his former quarterback, Brock Osweiler, all night to the point where the giant passer really had no chance to deliver the kind of throws to will his team back. It wasn’t a statistically dominant performance, as he finished with 3 tackles and no sacks, but it was certainly one of the more impactful performances Miller has had in what has been a stunning first half of the season. Denver is becoming a team that’s close to impossible to beat through the air, and no player is affecting that more than No. 58.
Chances of an actual MVP: 15 percent. Miller is probably going to need to produce better stats to grab some people’s attention, as he ranks second in the league with 7.5 sacks, but his name carries enough weight. He’s one of the few defensive players who truly jumps off the screen on a consistent basis, and he’s doing it for one of the AFC’s best teams that wins so much more through its defense than anything else. He’ll need Matt Ryan to fall off a little, but certain other breaks — like Ben Roethlisberger’s injury, Tom Brady’s suspension and Andrew Luck’s bad team — are keeping him in the conversation with the quarterbacks.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Elliott had a bye this week, which let the rest of the league try to catch up to the rookie running back’s lead in rushing yards. He still leads by 24. Dallas has been riding Elliott, who has at least 20 carries in five of six games this year, so the bye week should have provided a nice rest. Elliott came out of college as tested and durable as they come, and he’s going to need to hold up to stay in this conversation.
Chances of an actual MVP: 8 percent. Theoretically, Elliott’s case works. He’s producing the bulk of the production for a team built around him that is 5-1 in a conference that is murky at the top. His ability to improve with each passing week increases the likelihood of him having the numbers to prove his point. But expecting him to do it this way for 16 games without slowing down some is to put a load on the shoulders of a rookie, as first-year players notoriously hit a wall around the final month of the season. We’ll see if he can sustain this.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Sunday night’s 6-6 overtime tie between the Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks was one of the strangest games in recent memory, mostly because of how physical and low-scoring it was in a league built around finesse offense. The only offensive player who made an impact was Johnson, who finished with 33 carries for 113 yards and added 8 catches for 58 yards. The second-year back has become the focal point of the Cardinals offense, which is stunning to think after how they’ve operated in recent years. That’s his best argument — beyond the obvious domination he’s showing with three straight weeks of at least 100 rushing yards.
Chances of an actual MVP: 6 percent. The problem for Johnson is his team is now 3-3-1. The Cardinals are as likely as any .500 team to go on a big run, and yes, Adrian Peterson won the award on a wildcard team in 2011. But that was historic production. Like any back to consider here, Johnson will have to prove he can carry that kind of load, which he obviously hasn’t come close to yet in his young career.
Others to consider: LeSean McCoy, RB, Buffalo Bills; DeMarco Murray, RB, Tennessee Titans; Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons; Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers; Bobby Wagner, ILB, Seattle Seahawks; Trent Williams, OT, Washington Redskins.
This week’s tests: The Bills don’t just need McCoy to go this week, but to carry the load against the New England Patriots, who could start to run away with the division if Buffalo can’t pull a second upset. … Miller dominated against the San Diego Chargers’ running game two weeks ago, but the Broncos came up on the losing end. His pass rush will again be challenged by the instantaneous release of Philip Rivers. … Murray had a lighter load of practice during this short week as the Titans prepare for a Thursday night game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 28-year-old running back has to be wearing down some after recording at least 21 carries in four straight games, but the Titans might need to still rely on him if Thursday’s matchup is as sloppy as it feels like it could be.