The NFL MVP won’t be named until the day before the Super Bowl in February, but it’s safe to assume that a quarterback will win the award. That was the case in nine of the last 10 years with only Adrian Peterson breaking up the monotony when he cracked 2,000 rushing yards in 2012.
With no running back close to numbers like that in 2017, it’ll likely be Tom Brady or Russell Wilson who earns the award. Carson Wentz may have been on the path to an MVP season with the Philadelphia Eagles until he tore his ACL in Week 14. That probably means his chances are toast.
The last time a position other than quarterback or running back won was 1986 when New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor earned the honor.
So here we are, with Brady the favorite to win his third MVP award. Is it incredible that he’s been able to produce at 40? Yep. Is it exciting? Not particularly.
Especially after a week when Wentz went down, Wilson threw three interceptions, and Brady couldn’t do a thing against the Dolphins defense.
Let’s imagine a more compelling MVP race, instead: one where players of every position have a legitimate chance. Here are six candidates we’d choose:
The non-QB with a real shot: Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers
No receiver in NFL history has posted 2,000 yards in a single season. Calvin Johnson came close in 2012 with 1,964 yards receiving. But Brown, who owns two of the top eight seasons in NFL history in terms of receiving yardage, has a chance at chasing the all-time best mark this season.
With three weeks to go, he leads the NFL with 1,509 yards and is averaging 116.1 yards per game. If he sticks to that average, he’ll finish with 1,857 yards — the third-best season ever.
But Brown averaged 156.8 yards in the last four weeks and exploded for 213 yards in Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens. Another huge day like that, and the Steelers receiver will be on the brink of a record-breaking season.
Even if he doesn’t get there, he’s lapping the field and pushing his numbers far out of reach. Other wide receivers have definitely noticed:
@AB84 slow down, I’m trying to catch up sheesh!— Deandre Hopkins (@DeAndreHopkins) December 11, 2017
.@LarryFitzgerald made the case for @AB84 as #MVP today: "I don't think there's anybody as dominant as he is in the game this year. He singlehandedly has won or put his team into position to win three, four games this year..." pic.twitter.com/cdXeSoUGUf— 1580 The Fanatic (@1580TheFanatic) December 14, 2017
Fitzgerald makes a great point, in particular. Just last week, the Steelers were in a 38-36 hole against the Ravens and needed a play on a third down in Pittsburgh territory with just over a minute remaining. Like always, Ben Roethlisberger looked for Brown and found him for a 34-yard play that set up the game-winning field goal:
It’s no coincidence that Brown’s ridiculous play over the last four weeks coincides with the Steelers averaging 33.3 points during that stretch. He’s a spark plug that ignites the Pittsburgh offense, and if he rewrites the record books, Brown deserves more than just a spot on the first-team All-Pro list.
Brady is still the favorite to get the MVP award, and he could hammer that home against the Steelers. But Wilson, Brown, and Wentz are the only other three with better than 10-to-1 odds for the award, and the Steelers receiver is picking up momentum to become the first wide receiver to ever be the AP NFL MVP.
The road grader: Jason Kelce, C, Eagles
Wentz is a huge reason why the Eagles are 11-2. He isn’t the only one responsible for Philadelphia’s resurgent 2017, though.
The Eagles have the tall task of winning without Wentz in the playoffs now, but it helps that they have a top-five defense and are No. 2 in the NFL in rushing yards. If they can keep winning with Nick Foles under center, maybe it’s a different player on the team who deserves some accolades.
Kelce, 30, has been a Pro Bowl center in two of the last three seasons, but 2017 has been his best year yet. While he’s just 295 pounds, Kelce uses his leverage and athleticism to pave the way for Eagles running backs.
His run-blocking grade on Pro Football Focus (subscription required) is an impossibly high 98.0 — well ahead of Brandon Scherff’s 91.5, which is the second-highest mark in the NFL among offensive linemen.
Nine-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jason Peters went down for the year with a knee injury in October, and the Eagles didn’t miss a beat, largely because of the contributions of Kelce.
Offensive linemen don’t get much love in awards season, but Kelce has been an extremely valuable piece for the Eagles and a large reason for the team’s success.
The Swiss Army knife: Harrison Smith, S, Vikings
No Sam Bradford, no Teddy Bridgewater, no problem for the Vikings.
The team is 10-3 with Case Keenum at quarterback, but Minnesota is about to lock up the NFC North title thanks mostly to its consistently tough defense. It’s a top-five unit against both the pass and the run, and it has held two of the most explosive offenses in the NFL — the Falcons’ and the Rams’ — under 10 points.
No player has been more crucial to that success than Smith, a sixth-year safety who will be a shoo-in for a third consecutive Pro Bowl and does a little bit of everything for the Vikings defense. He leads the team with three interceptions, is a force at the line of scrimmage against the run, and he’s a dangerous blitzer:
Vikings FS Harrison Smith rolling down into the box (thread):— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) December 8, 2017
Quarterbacks throwing to receivers covered by Smith have a putrid 26.7 passer rating. He’s as irreplaceable as any defender in the NFL, and while the Vikings have managed to cycle through quarterbacks with success, there’s just no way the defense wouldn’t take a significant step backward without Smith.
The Legion of Boom savior: Bobby Wagner, LB, Seahawks
With Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor both done for the year, the Seattle defense still somehow managed to slow down the Eagles in a crucial Week 13 matchup that saved the Seahawks’ season with a 24-10 win.
That was largely due to Bobby Wagner, who has been unreal for the team in 2017:
The highest graded LBs this season pic.twitter.com/FVsP5ecHad— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) December 14, 2017
Wagner played the first half of a game against the Jaguars in Week 14 that was 3-0 at halftime. It’s no coincidence that the game finished as a 30-24 Jacksonville win after an explosion of scoring once Wagner sidelined for the remainder of the game with a hamstring problem.
It doesn’t bode well for the Seahawks’ chances at stopping the Rams in Week 15 if Wagner is still out of action.
Through 13 games, Wagner has two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, 1 1/2 sacks, one tackle for a safety, and a team-leading 115 tackles. Seattle’s playoff hopes hang in the balance with a few weeks remaining, but Wagner is a big part of why the team has managed to overcome as many defensive injuries as it has.
The dynamic duo: Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, CBs, Jaguars
Co-MVPs has happened a couple of times in NFL history, but those were cases of voting ties. In this case, let’s imagine the two Jaguars cornerbacks as a package deal because it really doesn’t feel right recognizing one, but not the other.
There are a ton of other players on the top-rated Jacksonville defense that deserve accolades — Calais Campbell, Telvin Smith, and Yannick Ngakoue, to name a few — but having a pair of lockdown cornerbacks affects every aspect of the team imposing its will.
Bouye signed a five-year, $67.5 million contract with the Jaguars in the offseason and has been worth every penny. He’s a technician at the position and leads the NFL in interceptions with six, and he has not allowed a single touchdown so far this season.
Ramsey was the No. 5 overall selection in the 2016 NFL draft and has similarly lived up to his billing. He’s a freakish athlete who’s a bully at the position and unafraid to take on the best receivers in the NFL — getting the better of players like A.J. Green, Larry Fitzgerald, and DeAndre Hopkins so far in 2017.
The duo is assisted by a pass rush that leads the league in sacks with 47, but the Jaguars defensive line is also helped by the fact that quarterbacks rarely have anyone to throw to.
There are many reasons why the Jaguars finally shook off a decade of losing to become one of the most fearsome teams in the NFL. Their set of excellent cornerbacks are at the top of that list.