• The MVP race has its early front-runners, but our staff expanded the net to make the argument for a wide range of elite players propelling their teams in 2016.
By SI.com Staff
November 03, 2016

It’s been 29 years since the NFL Most Valuable Player award was awarded to a player that wasn’t a quarterback or a running back (Jerry Rice in 1987), so when it comes to making predictions for the 2016 season, it’s generally not tough to predict. Tom Brady? Probably. Matt Ryan? Potentially. Ezekiel Elliott? Maybe.

In a season full of mediocre teams and underwhelming performances, a few players have stood out from the rest. The obvious choices are included in here, but so are a couple of unexpected players as well, who, despite likely not having a shot, still deserve recognition.

Back in 2011, Aaron Rodgers threw for 4,600 yards, 45 touchdowns (to just six INTs) and posted a 122.5 QB rating, the best ever recorded in a single NFL season. Tom Brady’s quarterback rating through four games this season is 133.

Granted, that measurement can be an imperfect one. So, try any of these on for size: Brady has the league’s highest QBR, well clear of another MVP frontrunner, Matt Ryan. He is leading the NFL in completion percentage (73.1), has thrown a touchdown on a whopping 9% of his attempts thus far—his current career best is 8.7%, during the Patriots’ undefeated regular season of 2007—and he has yet to throw an interception. His yards per attempt (9.8) is the highest since Kurt Warner in 2000. Oh, and he’s on pace to throw for just shy of 4,000 yards this season, despite missing four games.

If all of that is not enough to sell you on a Brady MVP case, then throw the stats out the window and just check the results. New England is averaging 34 points per game with Brady in the lineup this season and has emerged as the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl.

Brady may have missed a quarter of the season, but he has been the best player in football from Week 5 on. — Chris Burke

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My case for Matt Ryan as the NFL’s MVP? Let me direct you to the Atlanta 25 yard line, 3:52 left on the clock, down six points to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers last Sunday. Eleven plays, 75 yards and one game-winning touchdown pass later, Matt Ryan made his own case for the award. To boot: it was Ryan’s 32nd career game-winning drive since he entered the league in 2008, four more than any other quarterback over that same span. I know we like to make fun of Ryan and his Matty Ice nickname (sometimes rightfully so, with the Falcons’ penchant for late-season collapses), but the quarterback has been lights out this year, especially when throwing deep—his 9.45 yards per attempt would be the best season total since Kurt Warner and the Greatest Show on Turf in 2000.

Sure, Tom Brady has put up slightly better numbers in his four starts, but part of being valuable is being on the field and Ryan hasn’t missed a game in seven seasons. Not to mention that Brady’s team went 3–1 in his stead. With the Falcons young and struggling defense, Atlanta would be lucky to win a game without Ryan under center this year. – Ben Baskin

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It feels like so long ago we were arguing about Derek Carr’s hand size and the strength of his opponents in college. Fast forward two-and-a-half years and now he has the Oakland Raiders sitting in first place in the most competitive division in football and squarely in the MVP conversation. A third-year quarterback, Carr is on pace for a second-straight Pro Bowl season where he’s fifth in the league in passing (2,321 yards) with 17 touchdowns to just three interceptions. He has an interception rate of just .9%, which is among the best in the league, and boasts a 5–0 away record. No doubt he’s doing it with some very good wideouts. Amari Cooper is a stud and Michael Crabtree is experiencing a renaissance in his eighth year. But he’s also leading this top-five offense without a consistent running game (Oakland’s leading rusher gets 46.5 yards per game). If Carr keeps up this pace in the second half of the season and Oakland wins the AFC West, the youngster could be the winner. – Jonathan Jones

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Yes, the Cowboys have the best offensive line in football, QB Dak Prescott has played mistake-free football and the defense has played above its talent level. But the main reason why the 6–1 Cowboys boast the best record in the NFC is because of rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott. Without QB Tony Romo and WR Dez Bryant for much of last season, the same line produced a rushing attack that ranked No. 9 in the league as the Cowboys dropped from second (when they had RB DeMarco Murray) to No. 9 in time of possession, which led to a tired defense and a 4–12 record.

Certainly Prescott has been an upgrade, but with Elliott and the Cowboys now leading the league in rushing and time of possession, Dallas is now clicking in all areas again. Elliott and his league-leading 799 rushing yards (he’s on pace for 1,826 yards, which would break Eric Dickerson’s NFL rookie record) has been the straw that has stirred the Cowboys’ drink. Replace him with an average running back, and the Cowboys are .500 or worse. That makes him the most valuable player, at this point, for me. – Greg Bedard

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A.J. Green is as valuable to his team as any player in the NFL—when he doesn’t have a big game, the Bengals lose—but there are caveats that come with choosing the NFL MVP, in that a wide receiver on a losing team typically doesn’t take the award. However, this fictional midseason award is for all of the elite receivers who are overlooked in the MVP conversation. Atlanta’s Julio Jones is right there with Green this season. Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown should’ve been a stronger candidate last season. And if Odell Beckham Jr. could get his head straight, he would be considered the single reason the Giants are a borderline playoff team.

But it’s important to note that Green, who entered Week 9 leading the NFL with 896 receiving yards, has elevated his game in 2016. No receiver has better body control, as evidenced by his Hail Mary catch against the Browns. If he played in a bigger market or had Beckham’s personality, he’d be a much bigger star (ditto for Jones). — Andrew Perloff

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Matthew Stafford’s candidacy as 2016 MVP weakened with Sunday’s 13-point offensive showing in a loss to Houston, but it still exists. Halfway through the year, only one other QB (Matt Ryan) has completed over 65% of his passes with more than 15 touchdowns and fewer than five interceptions. And Ryan has done so with Pro Football Focus’ No. 2 ranked wideout, Julio Jones. Meanwhile, with Calvin Johnson now Dancing With The Stars, Stafford’s best option has been Marvin Jones, who PFF ranks at No. 28. Stafford has also managed to keep his team afloat despite a defense that ranks last in the league in Football Outsiders’ all-encompassing DVOA metric.

The 28-year-old signal-caller has played with more patience and smarts than he has in the past, but he’s improved his ability to crank up the aggression when the situation requires so. All four Lions victories have come after fourth quarter comebacks led by Stafford—a tally no other QB can match. If the 28-year-old can keep up the heroics long enough to maneuver Detroit through a crowded NFC North to a Wild Card berth (potentially by outdueling Aaron Rodgers in Week 17), his MVP bona fides will be impossible to ignore. – Jacob Feldman

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Von Miller deserves to be NFL MVP because of this Madden commercial. A dozen Von Miller’s dancing in sync is a hypnotizing and glorious thing to watch.

Still not convinced? O.K. fine. I had to think outside the box, as Miller would be the first defensive player to win league MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. Well, Miller should at least be considered for the award if only because the Broncos lost Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan—two key starters from their dominant Super Bowl defense last year—and are somehow allowing less points per game this season (17.0 compared to 18.5). They have also suffered various injuries to Demarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Brandon Marshall—hell, even defensive coordinator Wade Phillips—yet they keep winning games. Oh yeah, and their quarterback is some guy named Trevor Siemian.

Miller is far and away the best edge rusher in the NFL, putting up 8.5 sacks through eight games and consistently pressuring opposing quarterbacks, despite facing constant double teams. Miller also weakened the Broncos biggest AFC competition (the Patriots), when Jamie Collins reportedly asked for “Von Miller money” and the team promptly traded him. Plus, he dressed up as Dr. Evil for Halloween, and if that doesn’t make an MVP than I don’t know what does. – Ben Baskin

The Cardinals’ second-year running back is not special just because of what he’s doing on the field, but when he is doing it. Johnson arrived in an era where teams are ceaseless in their worry over running back workloads. How many touches is too many? Will a No. 1 back burn out before big games late in the year? What’s the shelf life of a player at that position.

Arizona doesn’t seem all that concerned, nor should it be. With his team’s quarterback, Carson Palmer, struggling to find his footing in 2016, Johnson has been the player upon which the Cardinals’ offense has leaned. He has carried the ball 156 times and caught 35 passes out of the backfield.

And what has he done with those 191 touches? Posted 1,191 yards from scrimmage, the most in the NFL by a substantial margin—Tennessee RB DeMarco Murray is next, with 951.

Johnson is magic with the ball in his hands, just as capable of turning the corner and bursting beyond the second level as he is of fighting for extra yardage between the tackles. Maybe Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott has been a better pure runner this season, but no offensive player has been more electrifying as an all-around threat. — Chris Burke 

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Despite two losses in Minnesota’s last two games—in which Sam Bradford has been sacked 11 times—I’m sticking with Sammy Sleeves as my MVP. When you’re treading water in the middle of ocean, as the Vikings were after losing Teddy Bridgewater in late August, the vessel that rescues you is extremely valuable, whether it’s a five-star cruise ship or something less glamorous. In his six starts, Bradford has completed 66.5% of his passes, and thrown eight touchdowns against a single pick. He’s displayed a deep-ball accuracy Bridgewater lacks, and defibrillated the career of kick returner/wideout Cordarelle Patterson. He’s done all this despite shoddy protection and feeble production from a rushing attack that has lacked Adrian Peterson since Week 2. A.P. should be back in the lineup by late-December, by which time the Vikings will surely have figured out a way to protect Bradford—fewer deep drops? Crank up the tempo?—who along with a gnarly defense will guide them on a voyage deep into the postseason. – Austin Murphy

The Raiders’ literal most valuable player is Derek Carr, just as the QB is the MVP on 20–25 teams every year. But if we look at players who have shown up in big ways in big spots, Michael Crabtree has had an enormous impact on the season.

His game-winning two-point conversion with 23 seconds left against the Saints in Week 1, on a tough play in coverage, practically swung an entire game. He also had an outsized impact in a one-point win over the Ravens, with three touchdowns (including two in the fourth quarter, including the toe-tapping 23-yard game-winner with 2:12 left). His 47 catches and 569 yards are behind teammate Amari Cooper’s 52 for 787. But his great season has helped open things up for the whole offense, his six receiving TDs are tied for the league lead and he’s a key reason the Raiders are 6–2 with one of the highest-scoring offenses in the game.

I know Crabtree is not actually going to get any MVP consideration, but he is having a year worthy of being recognized, so I wanted to show him some love. — Mitch Goldich

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