I’d love for the NFL to split the MVP award into two honors: one for quarterbacks, and one for everyone else. Ten of the last 11 MVPs have been QBs, which is fair given how much more valuable the position has become in today’s NFL.
But the quarterback’s rise doesn’t mean other positions don’t have value. Below are the 10 most valuable non-quarterback players through the first half of this season. “Valuable,” in this exercise, does not mean “best” or “most productive”—think of it more in terms of “wins above replacement.” If you replaced a star with an average player, how much would it hurt that star’s team?
10. Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles
Ertz has kept Philly’s injury-ravaged receiving corps above water. He aligns all over the formation, including by himself on the weak side, and is focalized in many of the high-low route combinations the Eagles use for beating zone coverage and the crossing patterns for beating man-to-man. Aside from maybe Travis Kelce, no tight end in football is better at uncovering over the middle of the field. Ertz gets the nod because the Eagles are more dependent on him than the Chiefs are on Kelce.
9. Terron Armstead, LT, Saints
You could argue Alvin Kamara belongs on this list, but it’s tough to say a man who has played only 70% of the snaps (and just over 50% since running back Mark Ingram’s return from suspension) is one of the league’s 10 most valuable players, even among non-quarterbacks. Armstead has played 100% of the snaps, and at the highest of levels. He has blossomed into the most athletic left tackle in football, which makes him a weapon in space in the Saints’ expansive backfield screen game. One reason Drew Brees has been brilliant with his pocket movement is he doesn’t have to worry about the protection on his blind side.
8. Luke Kuechly, LB, Panthers
Kuechly has mastered the Cover 3 and Tampa 2 zones that define Carolina’s defense, and his improvements in matchup coverage have allowed for more expansive blitz packages. When the Panthers blitz and play zone, it’s usually with Thomas Davis (a sneakily impactful pass-rusher) off the edge and Kuechly matching up in coverage inside. On blitzes in man coverage, Kuechly is usually the designated blitzer, where he has developed a keen sense for timing and interior paths to the quarterback.
7. Michael Thomas, WR, Saints
It’s simple, really: throw him the ball and he’ll catch it. Or, he’ll catch it an astounding 88.6% of the time, anyway. The third-year wideout has become the best possession target in the game, thanks to strong hands and an acute feel for setting up his breaks on inside routes. The Saints, when you look closely, are almost a ball-control offense—two of their best three weapons are running backs (Kamara and Mark Ingram), and they don’t have great depth or speed at wide receiver. Their “ball control” passing game goes through Thomas, who has been targeted 23 more times than the rest of New Orleans’s wide receivers combined.
6. Tyreek Hill, WR, Chiefs
The adage is true: You can’t teach speed. But you can teach route running and, to a certain degree, pass-catching—two areas in which Hill has grown tremendously. Andy Reid’s misdirection-heavy offense features Hill in myriad ways, and the spread passing game that Patrick Mahomes loves is so potent because defenses rarely have answers for speed receivers who align inside (which Hill does in most of Kansas City’s empty sets).
5. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Texans
Maybe we spoke too soon on Michael Thomas; it’s hard to argue that Hopkins isn’t football’s best possession target. He’s certainly the game’s best contested-catch artist. Hopkins is not fast, quick or refined, and yet, no one can cover him. Remove Thomas and New Orleans’s offense takes a big step back. Remove Hopkins and Houston’s offense almost ceases to exist.
4. Todd Gurley, RB, Rams
We examined Gurley’s MVP case in-depth a few weeks ago. He’s the league’s best downhill runner, which fits the Rams’ masterfully schooled outside zone running game. More importantly, Gurley is a weapon in the passing game, both out of the backfield and, to a certain degree lately, when split out. L.A.’s high-powered offense is built around two things: detailed wide receiver play (which is a three-man effort between Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp) and its stud tailback.
3. Aaron Donald, DT, Rams
He’s the best defensive player in football, not only drawing double-teams and protection slides, but beating them regularly. If not for Donald’s destructiveness against the run and especially the pass, we’d be talking about whether the defense that plays opposite L.A.’s high-powered offense is good enough for this club to play late into January.
2. Adam Thielen, WR, Vikings
You’re not wrong to argue that because of Stefon Diggs, Thielen is less important to the Vikings than Hopkins is to the Texans. But while Houston’s offense runs through Hopkins, Minnesota’s offense is built around Thielen. That’s a slight but notable difference. Thielen’s precise route running has allowed Kirk Cousins to become the gutsy anticipation thrower that Minnesota spent $84 million in hopes of getting. Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo can scheme plays under the assumption that Cousins will be making those anticipation throws. Without Thielen, Minnesota’s so-so offensive line and not-yet-fully-defined ground game would be real problems.
1. J.J Watt, DL, Texans
He looks like his old self playing all over Houston’s formidable defensive line. True, Aaron Donald at this point might be better than Watt, but Watt, because of how his versatility and dominance have offset some of the injuries in Houston’s secondary, is more valuable to his team’s defense.
Yes, Cordarrelle Patterson has played some tailback before (mainly in Oakland) and yes, the Patriots are employing mostly straight downhill runs with him. But still. Patterson is aligning behind a lead-blocking fullback (James Develin), which means he’s being asked to set up his blocks and read multiple run defenders on the fly. He looked a little clunky doing it in Week 8 at Buffalo, but then looked very sharp doing it in Week 9 versus Green Bay. A theory worth monitoring: You can plug in a guy at running back and have success as long as he has reasonable vision and good quickness. Think the Phillip Lindsay and Matt Breida types—undrafted backs (in 2018 and ’17, respectively) who are top-10 rushers this season. I’m not saying this theory is valid (I’m still deciding) but it’s certainly worth pondering.
JAMES CONNER ROLLS ON
There are probably people who think James Conner should have been mentioned in the first two sections of this column. What the data—and more importantly the film—show is that Pittsburgh’s offense is just as good, if not better, with Conner than it was with Le’Veon Bell. That’s a testament to Conner, but also to Pittsburgh’s scheme. On the ground, it’s great at creating gaps and outside rushing lanes with pull-blockers, namely guard David DeCastro and center Maurkice Pouncey. In the passing game, the scheme creatively attacks underneath defenders with multiple routes, which lifts those defenders, leaving more space for checkdowns. Conner has consistently gobbled up those yards.
CABLE PROBLEMS IN OAKLAND
It’s hard to evaluate assistant coaches, as so much of their work occurs behind the scenes. But something guys like Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer say privately is: If you’re an assistant coach, you are what your players’ film says you are. That doesn’t bode well for Raiders O-line coach Tom Cable. Not only have Oakland’s rookie tackles Kolton Miller and Brandon Parker struggled mightily (in Miller’s case, against bull rushers), but the Raiders’ interior O-line isn’t playing up to its usual standard. More damning is that Cable’s old Seahawks O-line has gone from being one of the league’s worst to one of the league’s best in its first year under Mike Solari.
NON-FOOTBALL THING ON MY MIND
When there’s a house for sale that’s ugly and deteriorating, every realtor says it “needs some love” but has “good bones.” “Good bones” are to a house what “great personality” is to a blind date. I propose we either ban the euphemism altogether or merge it with other euphemisms, turning it into a catch-all to cut down on the unbearable number of clichéd euphemisms we must already navigate. Imagine how much time we’d save telling our friends “no thanks” to their blind date suggestion if that friend, instead of elaborating on the blind date’s personality, had to admit that he or she had “good bones.”
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