Where does the MVP race stand at the quarter mark of the 2019 NFL season? Yes, it's wildly premature to ask such a question, but Chris Wesseling's up for the challenge nonetheless. Here are the top 10 candidates for the league's top individual award, a mix of established superstars, breakthrough players and one veteran renaissance tale:
When Tom Brady has a bad game by his own standards, we wonder if Father Time is up off the mat and finally landing blows. When Aaron Rodgers has a disappointing showing by his own standards, we wonder how long the Packers' offense is going to stay stale before No. 12's magic wand spins a new spell. When Kirk Cousins has a dismal clunker by his own standards, we place every Vikings play under a microscope to see how much blame should be apportioned to the quarterback versus the offensive line, receiving corps, play-callers, head coach, beer vendors and podcasters. When Patrick Mahomes has an off day by his own standards, he still finds a way to negate the absence of both his No. 1 receiver as well as his left tackle, put his weekly allotment of 30-40 points on the scoreboard and walk away with a win. And verily we praise thee, football gods, for the gift of the chosen one with nary a need for a Monday morning alibi.
Someday we'll invent a defensive metric capable of capturing Mack's impact on a football game. Until that golden hour, alas, we'll have to endure the hard times of actuarial obfuscation: This sport's preeminent money-down game wrecker will get credit for a mere sack when he leaves the left tackle in cement shoes on his way to an explosive blind-side strip-sack that calls to mind a great white shark breeching 15 feet out of the water to play beach ball with a seal. The box score will tally one paltry sack when he thwarts a guard-tackle double-team and brushes off their joint holding penalty en route to knocking the field general out of field-goal range via third-down takedown. Browns defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi will be awarded the same measure of statistical success for falling on top of Lamar Jackson at the tail end of a figure-eight scramble that stops a foot shy of the line of scrimmage. How is that a fair and reasonable representation of the play's outcome? Every Mack disruption doesn't force a turnover or toss a potential playmaker backwards for a game-changing loss. It just seems that way.
Every self-respecting modern offense needs a consistent linebacker beater out of the backfield for mismatch purposes on crucial downs. See: New England's Week 1 undressing of Pittsburgh for a quintessential demonstration of that NFL reality check. Kamara was sent from the future to make linebackers look like a lower football species, as if 2013 Jamaal Charles got his hands on a Black Panther Vibranium weave suit and is now suiting up every Sunday for a Saints outfit that has otherwise masqueraded through the league as a sheep in wolves clothing since last Thanksgiving. Football Outsiders' advanced metrics rate New Orleans 18th in offense, 24th in defense and 21st in team efficiency through four games, yet the Drew Brees-less NFC South leaders knocked Seattle and Dallas from the ranks of the unbeaten -- largely on the strength of Kamara's super heroics.
As Power Rankings czar Dan Hanzus put it so well, McCaffrey showed up this past offseason looking like the He-Man action-figure answer to Kamara's comic-book inspired skill set. The arm tackles that once brought McCaffrey to his knees, casting serious doubt as to his ability to shoulder a full workload in the trenches, have been reduced to mile markers en route to pay dirt. With face of the franchise Cam Newton on the shelf and head coach Ron Rivera on the hot seat, McCaffrey has become the first, second and third option in Norv Turner's offense. After touching the ball a career-high 37 times for 60.3 percent of Carolina's total-yardage output in last week's victory at Houston, he joined inner-circle Hall of Famer Jim Brown as the only players in NFL history with three games of at least 175 yards and one score in the season's first four weeks. The dual-threat dynamo is on pace to break Chris Johnson's 2009 record of 2,509 yards from scrimmage, a feat which would draw attention to previous MVP award winners who also wore the scrimmage-yards crown: Marcus Allen (1985), Barry Sanders (1997) and Adrian Peterson (2012).
In an especially cruel knife twist, forlorn Broncos fans were treated to highlights of Barrett sealing Tampa Bay's upset victory over the Rams as they were processing the pangs of regret that Bradley Chubb's 2018 backup is no longer around to pinch-hit for injured stars in Denver. More of a godsend than a generic offseason acquisition, Barrett keeps topping his own exploits each week in an attacking Buccaneers defense that has rebounded from last year's No. 32 performance to this year's surprising No. 6 spot in Football Outsiders' efficiency ratings. After registering one QB takedown in his Bucs debut, Barrett picked up Defensive Player of the Week honors for a three-sack breakout in the Thursday night win at Carolina. That high-water mark was quickly surpassed when Barrett donned the black hat as the four-sack antagonist dialing up the drama in Daniel Jones' euphoric star turn, doubling as a gentle euthanasia for the Giants' Eli era. Just when it seemed Barrett's bag of tricks might be empty, he swung the balance in the Bucs' favor with a tackle for loss in the run game, two passes defensed, an interception, a QB hurry that prevented an easy walk-in touchdown for Brandin Cooks, a QB hit that led to Jordan Whitehead's interception and the game-clinching forced fumble that Rams quarterback Jared Goff and right tackle Rob Havenstein will see on a running nightmare loop. Through four games under coordinator Todd Bowles, Barrett leads the NFL in pressures (28), pressure rate (18.8 percent), disruption rate (20.8 percent), sacks (nine) and turnovers caused by pressure (four), per NFL Research.
Boy genius Kellen Moore may have had his lunch money stolen by Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen this past Sunday night, but that shouldn't detract from Prescott's sterling September. Banking on himself like Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco, the Cowboys' QB1 leads a suddenly potent Dallas attack that ranks second in yards per play (6.9), passing yards per attempt (9.0) and big plays (33, as defined by runs of 10 or more yards and receptions of at least 20 yards). Prescott has turned the second half into his own personal showcase, misfiring on just one third-quarter pass in the first three games. He's seeing the field with a clarity that was missing prior to last November. </content:power-ranking>
Let the Dak vs. Wentz debates resume atop the NFC East! If not for the December 2017 knee injury that ultimately propelled backup Nick Foles to gridiron immortality during the Eagles' enchanted Super Bowl LII run, Wentz might already have an MVP trophy on his mantel. While injuries continued to haunt Philadelphia's franchise QB last year, he has more closely resembled the 2017 sensation, as evidenced by a leaping volleyball spike of a batted pass and a mad red-zone dash to the goal line in a narrow loss to the Lions. If not for a series of egregious drops by his depleted receiving corps, Wentz could have pulled off the comeback victory in Detroit. As it is now, he's Pro Football Focus' top-graded quarterback through four weeks, compensating for a defense that failed to hold up its end of the bargain in September. I'm excited to watch Wentz's high-flying aerial show at full capacity when deep threat DeSean Jackson returns from his core muscle strain in the coming weeks.
On pace for the second-highest completion rate in NFL history (72.9), Wilson is off to best start of his career, elevating rookie deep threat D.K. Metcalf and savvy tight end Will Dissly in the vacuum created by trusty target Doug Baldwin's retirement. Baldwin's forced absence isn't the only adversity Wilson has overcome while posting the league's second-highest passer rating (118.7). A blocking unit that paved the way for last year's top ground attack has regressed to 27th in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards, precipitating a massive drop in run frequency (from a league-high 52.8 percent to 43.4) and rushing yards per game (from 160 to 111.5). Barring a turnaround up front, this team is going nowhere without Wilson's sexy deep ball and uncanny instincts as a swashbuckling scrambler.
Brady divulged to NBC's Cris Collinsworth that he was entering the season harboring serious doubts about New England's offense after doing battle with the league's stingiest defense throughout training camp. He quickly put those doubts to rest with impeccable ball placement and timing in a season-opening dismantling of the Steelers defense. After stomping the twin AFC East doormats of Miami and New York with equally impressive outings, the great aging outlier entered last week's showdown with the unabashed Bills as perhaps the No. 1 contender for Mahomes' MVP crown. In any four-game sample size, one gutter-ball performance like the doozy that Brady unfurled in Buffalo necessarily carries inordinate weight. Those struggles against a stout, fundamentally sound defense add perspective to the frustration that Brady expressed publicly over the release of four-time All-Pro Antonio Brown, a playmaker who wasted the potential to make the kind of sweet quarterback-to-receiver music missing since Randy Moss was shipped out of town a decade ago.
Consider Collins a stand-in for the entire veteran-laden Patriots defense that has scored more points than it has allowed. Safety Devin McCourty is the first player since 2003 to record an interception in each of the season's first four games. His twin brother, Jason, was among Pro Football Focus' top-graded cornerbacks in September, quite an accomplishment considering teammate Stephon Gilmore is widely considered the gold standard at the position since the start of last season. It's Collins, though, who deserves recognition as the do-everything disrupter at the heart of a stingy unit with designs on the Patriots record books. The only NFL player to generate two sacks and two interceptions in the season's first three weeks, Collins added one more of each in the hard-fought victory at Buffalo. As if that wasn't enough, his pressure forced Stephen Hauschka to hook a field-goal attempt going into halftime on an afternoon where points were at a premium.
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