Normally we would be a quarter of the way through the NFL season right now. But with the addition of the 17th regular season game this year, we are technically only 23.5% of the way through the 2021 season. Despite being just short of that quarter-mark, it is not too early to start discussing the game’s most prestigious individual award: Most Valuable Player.
MVP is no longer an award that is simply handed out to the best player at the end of the year. It is a constant conversation throughout the entire season. Every game-winning drive or unfortunate loss impacts a player’s chance to take home the hardware in February.
With a month of professional football already under our belts, it is time to begin the conversation on who is best positioned right now to be named the Most Valuable Player in the NFL for the 2021 season.
1. Kyler Murray
A recurring theme in my MVP rankings, as well as the overall conversation, is big wins. That is something I will mention a lot when discussing who deserves to win the award. There may not be a bigger win this year than the Cardinals’ recent 37-20 win over the Rams. Both Murray and Matthew Stafford were very much involved in the MVP discussion and Murray went out and outdueled Stafford and the Rams for a convincing win. One more thing about that win, it took the Cardinals to 4-0 making them the only undefeated team left in the league.
That win certainly helped Murray earn his MVP candidacy from a narrative standpoint, but he also has a very good statistical case. He has the third-most passing yards (1273) and tied for fifth in passing touchdowns (9). He also has the highest completion percentage among starters with 76.1 percent which demonstrates his efficiency at the game’s most important position. Throw in his 109 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns and you have a clear MVP leader in the clubhouse.
2. Matthew Stafford
Despite losing to Murray last week, Stafford is still one of the best MVP candidates out there. He was the biggest acquisition over the offseason and football fans widely debated if he was actually good enough to improve a Los Angeles Rams team looking to get back to the Super Bowl. That answer has been an emphatic yes over the first four games of the season. That was never more evident than in week three when the Rams beat the defending Super Bowl champs from Tampa Bay behind 343 yards and four touchdowns from Stafford.
Stafford has shown a great ability to get the ball into the endzone, throwing for 11 touchdowns in four games which puts him at second in the league. He also has thrown for 1222 yards, which is good enough to be in the top five league-wide. As long as he keeps up the on-field performance, Stafford will be a fixture in the MVP conversation. As long as the Stafford-McVay honeymoon period doesn’t prove to be a fleeting thing, Stafford is poised for the best season of his productive career.
3. Patrick Mahomes
A 2-2 record is the only thing holding Mahomes back right now, which moves him down to just third on this list. Mahomes bears no blame for the Chiefs’ lackluster start though, as he has thrown a league-leading 14 touchdown passes along with running in another one to bring his total to 15. He is coming off a game against Philadelphia in which he threw five touchdown passes, so he may still be heating up. The former MVP also has a comfortable lead in QBR, posting an 82.9 rating, with the next closest mark being 76.6.
Despite being only 26 years old, we may already be experiencing some fatigue when it comes to valuing Mahomes. He threw for 50 touchdowns in his first season as a starter, becoming the third player to reach that mark on his way to winning an MVP trophy. That means he does not have as much room to make a leap like Murray and Stafford, and he may have to post another unmatched season in order to win another award. With all that being said, Mahomes is still one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in the game. As long as he is playing at an average Mahomes-level, he will be a consistent factor in the MVP conversation.
4. Justin Herbert
Speaking of players making huge leaps, Herbert may be the next quarterback to make the vaunted second-year leap to superstardom. Remember that whole thing about big wins playing a huge role in MVP candidacy? Well, Herbert notched another one of the biggest wins of the young season when he beat Mahomes and the Chiefs in week three. He threw four touchdowns and 281 yards in that game as well as leading a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minutes to beat Kansas City. He also just took down another stealthy MVP candidate in Derek Carr when the Chargers handed the Raiders their first loss in week four.
Herbert’s stats are not blowing anybody away right now, but he is still playing like a top-tier signal-caller. He is eighth in passing yards with 1178 and tied for fifth in passing touchdowns with nine. It is the 23-year-old’s clutch ability that is supporting his MVP validity at the moment. He is one of six quarterbacks right now with two game-winning drives, including the aforementioned one against the Chiefs. Three of his nine touchdown passes have come in the game’s final quarter and two of those were the deciding scores in the game. MVP voters love a young player becoming one of the league’s best, it happened in both 2018 and 2019 with Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. If Herbert continues his impressive start to the season, we may see another coronation of a superstar quarterback ending with an MVP award.
5. Tom Brady
On the exact opposite end of the spectrum, you have the 44-year-old Brady defying the laws of nature by playing the quarterback at the level he is in his 21st season of professional football. He already pulled off the nearly impossible by winning his seventh Super Bowl last year but is it possible that he could pull another rabbit out of his hat with this time the rabbit being an MVP award. He started out the season in the league’s opening game by leading a drive for a game-winning field goal against Dallas, and he has continued that into a 3-1 record. Maybe the biggest win of those three was when Brady went back into Foxboro and beat the Patriots in one of the most anticipated matchups of the season.
Brady is also having a great season throwing the ball, as he is one of the four quarterbacks with double-digit touchdown passes. He has slowed down in recent weeks against tougher defenses, but he was leading the league with nine touchdown passes through the first two games of the season and is still sitting at an impressive 10 touchdowns. He is second in passing yards with 1356 yards and also leads the league with 72 passes going for first downs. Perhaps the most impressive number of Brady’s season so far is 184. That is the number of passes he has attempted, which is leading the league. That would put him on pace for 736 pass attempts in a 16 game season (782 this season) which would be the most of his career by 99 attempts. If Brady can keep up this level of production with this much volume, it would be an unprecedented season for him at this age and would no doubt lead to some serious MVP buzz come the end of the season.
6. Derrick Henry
Running backs don’t win the MVP anymore. It hasn’t happened since Adrian Peterson fell eight yards short of the season rushing record in 2012. But Derrick Henry does a lot of things that normal running backs aren’t able to do, so it is feasible to imagine him holding the MVP award this year. It is incredibly difficult for a running back to match the value of a quarterback but the fact that Henry has 148 more rushing yards and 40 more carries than the next best back this year might give him a chance.
Henry is leading running backs in carries, yards, touchdowns, first downs, and yards per game. He also may be unlocking the key to his MVP candidacy: catching the ball. For a long time, Henry was downgraded compared to other running backs because he wasn’t a true three-down back. This year he has already caught 14 passes, which is already just five fewer than his previous career-high of 19 last year. If Henry can add around 50 receptions and a couple hundred yards through the air he could have a legitimate case to win the league’s biggest award. At the end of the day, it is going to come down to rushing yards for Henry, and he is still pretty good at running the ball. He is currently on pace for 2167 yards, which would break Eric Dickerson’s record of 2105. As we have previously seen, if a running back is threatening Dickerson’s record it is a good bet he will be in the MVP discussion so don’t forget Henry’s name this year.
7. Josh Allen
The thing holding Josh Allen back right now is the lack of any consequential wins. After a toss week one loss to the Steelers, the Bills have proceeded to outscore their next three opponents by 97 points in three very easy wins. Alen is guaranteed to play in some big games this season and that starts in week five with a matchup against the Chiefs. Allen’s MVP candidacy will either be solidified or questioned following his performance in that game but for now, his numbers are good enough to keep him in the conversation.
Allen is sitting at 1055 yards and nine touchdowns which puts him at 14th in passing yards and tied for fifth in touchdowns. He also has 129 rushing yards, which is fourth-most out of quarterbacks, and another score on the ground. Allen’s numbers would probably look a lot better if he was playing more competitive games in the fourth quarter so it is hard to judge him solely off those numbers at this moment. The biggest factor in Allen’s MVP hopes is the fact that he finished second for the award last year. He has already proved himself as an MVP-caliber player once, yet people still questioned whether that was a fluke or a sign of things to come. If Allen ends the season with similar numbers to last year and establishes himself as one of the better quarterbacks in the league, he may increase his place in the MVP race by one place.
8. Derek Carr
Early in the season, one win or loss can lead to a huge fluctuation in placement on a list like this. Carr is the perfect example of that. If he would have beat the Chargers in week four he would find himself much higher on these rankings by virtue of an undefeated record. Right now the Raiders are one of the most surprising teams of the season and Carr is a huge reason why they have been able to overachieve.
Carr is leading the league in yards with 1399 and averaging a staggering 349.8 passing yards per game. The most impressive part of all those yards is that he has racked them up throwing to a wide receiver group of Henry Ruggs, Bryan Edwards, and Hunter Renfrow. He also has an exceptional tight end in Darren Waller but the lack of a true superstar wideout is something that Carr has overcome very well. He is probably the one MVP contender that everyone is expecting to fall off at some point and that is incredibly likely given the previous seasons Carr has put together. If Carr avoids the drop-off, similar to 2016 when he was a legitimate MVP candidate before getting injured in December, then he could be a sleeper pick to win the award this year.
9. Ezekiel Elliott
A lot of people might be more likely to put Dak Prescott here but I am taking the road less traveled and going with Elliott instead of his quarterback. There was a lot of intrigue surrounding Elliott this offseason. He had a bit of a letdown season last year, posting career lows in rushing yards, yards per carry, and total touchdowns. There was also the threat of backup running back Tony Pollard, who has performed well even this year and had some fans calling for him to start over the $17 million man.
So far through four games, Elliott has put to rest a lot of those doubters. He has the fourth-most rushing yards (342) and is tied for the lead amongst running backs in rushing touchdowns (4). He has also added seven catches for 53 yards, which is not a lot but is enough to get him tied for seventh in yards from scrimmage. It will be a steep road for Elliott to actually win the MVP award. With a better contender at his position (Henry) and maybe even his own team (Prescott), the likelihood he actually takes home the award is low but if Elliott is the best player on a Dallas team that easily wins the NFC East he will stand a chance.
10. Lamar Jackson
The third former award winner on this list, Jackson takes the last spot in my rankings due to his insane versatility. When he led the Ravens to a win over the Chiefs in week two, Jackson cemented himself as a threat to the MVP award this season, especially with his run on fourth down to clinch the game. Obviously, there is a recipe for Jackson to win the award since he just did it two years ago on the strength of breaking the quarterback single-season rushing record. We may have become numb to the rushing prowess of the 24-year-old but he might have taken the next step toward becoming a perennial MVP candidate.
Jackson is 12th in passing yards through four games this season. He was 22nd in passing yards during his 2019 MVP season. His 1077 yards so far are already over a third of a way toward his 2019 passing total. The touchdowns have not come for Jackson through the air yet, he has just four but would have more without some Marquise Brown drops, but that could easily turn around in the coming weeks. In addition to all that, Jackson is still the most dangerous quarterback with his legs. He has 279 yards on the ground, good for ninth among all players, and has added a rushing touchdown as well. Jackson has already done enough to win MVP before and if he has improved his game since then, all he needs to do is pilot the Ravens to the top of the AFC and he will find himself in the running for the biggest award of the year.