At the end of every season, NFL teams typically select one player who represents their MVP. In today's exercise, we'll do our best to identify who those players might be.
Below, you'll find my picks for each team in the AFC (and you can find my NFC picks here). Bonus fun: One of these 32 players will be the NFL MVP in 2021. I've hit the bull's eye in each of the past two years, and this will happen once again. It has been foretold.
Lamar Jackson's "down" 2020 season would be a dream year for many other quarterbacks. He finished his third pro campaign with 33 total touchdowns, while becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. He didn't reach the dizzying highs of his MVP campaign in 2019, but let's not agonize over a falling star in Baltimore. Spinning forward, there's reason to think Jackson will make the leap as a passer in 2021. The Ravens opened up their checkbook to import eternally 28-year-old veteran Sammy Watkins, then used their first-round pick on Minnesota standout Rashod Bateman. Both were wise moves that should also help Marquise Brown, miscast as a No. 1 receiver in 2020. With superior weapons, Jackson will be back in the league MVP conversation come December.
It only took one season for Stefon Diggs to make a strong case as the centerpiece of the Greatest Trade In Bills History. Diggs was uncoverable in his debut season in Western New York, piling up 127 catches for 1,535 yards (both league bests). You can make an argument that Diggs is football's best wideout, and he returns to an elite offense that brought back its entire core, including fellow MVP candidate Josh Allen. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll loves to air it out, and the unsettled nature of the Bills' backfield all but ensures Diggs will see something close to the 166 targets funneled his way in 2020.
Yeah, yeah, I know. You took Joe Mixon in the first round of your fantasy draft last season and it cost you everything. It's time to forgive, understand that's not why your girlfriend left you and your dog ran away, and trust Mixon again. Joe Burrow is back behind center and No. 5 overall pick Ja'Marr Chase represents a huge upgrade over The Artist Formerly Known As A.J. Green. Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd will form the best WR trio people should be paying more attention to. Which brings us back to Mixon: The passing game is loaded, the offensive line should be better and the exit of Gio Bernard in free agency means Mixon will inherit a greater role as a pass catcher. He's in line to see more than 300 touches if his body allows it. The stage is set for a potential leap into The Superstar Club.
Real talk: Myles Garrett is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year right now if he stayed healthy in the year of COVID-19. He led the league with 9.5 sacks and was tied for first with four forced fumbles before the coronavirus took him out of commission for two weeks in late November. Garrett missed two games, then looked like a compromised version of himself the rest of the way. Garrett says he's finally back to 100 percent, and we're inclined to believe him. We're less sold on the waterfall of notebook ledes explaining how Jadeveon Clowney will have a positive impact on Garrett, but the fifth-year pro will feast on QBs anyway. This could be the year Michael Strahan's bastardized sack record finally falls.
While the Broncos continue to wander through the quarterback wilderness in the post-Manning years, Von Miller continues to be the face of the other side of the ball. The 32-year-old, whose 2020 was wiped out entirely by an ankle injury suffered days before the season opener, has spent the offseason telling reporters he's a hyper-motivated star still at his peak, and he's undoubtedly aware he'll have to show that on the field to keep getting fat paychecks from the Broncos beyond 2021. It's easy to be optimistic about a Denver defense that has Miller and Bradley Chubb on the field at the same time -- something that hasn't happened nearly enough. If his body holds up, Miller should return to All-Pro conversation.
Deshaun Watson is in career limbo, and the troubling allegations in his legal predicament emerged after he demanded a trade out of Houston. None of it seems to point to the star quarterback playing another snap for the Texans, which all but guarantees a painful transition year under first-year coach David Culley. Who will be the MVP of this bewildering team in 2021? It won't be Watson ... or J.J. Watt … or DeAndre Hopkins … or Will Fuller. I'm throwing out David Johnson as the most likely candidate simply because Houston should run the ball a ton -- returning offensive coordinator Tim Kelly has told reporters he wants to improve upon the team's comically poor run-pass balance -- and Johnson is the most likely player to emerge out of a crowded backfield that also includes Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay and Rex Burkhead. Yeah, I'm probably wrong here … but who's your pick?
Yep, I'm on the Wentz Wagon. What's it to you? Wentz was unquestionably a Pretty Bad Quarterback in his final season with the Eagles, but it's overly neat to use that lost year to make a final judgment on the former No. 2 overall pick. Wentz is still just 28, his size and arm strength remain impressive, and I'm completely sold on Frank Reich's ability to fix the one-time cornerstone QB. As you're undoubtedly aware of by now, Reich was offensive coordinator in Philadelphia when Wentz played at a superstar level in 2017. That year was prematurely ended by a knee injury, Reich left for Indy after the Eagles won the Super Bowl with Nick Foles, and Wentz has never really been the same since. But while Wentz has never approached the heights of that 12-game stretch in 2017, it's unfair to act like he was always as bad as his 2020 performance indicated. This was the same Wentz who willed an injury-wracked Eagles team to a playoff spot in 2019! Wentz has a much higher ceiling than late-period Philip Rivers, and a better offensive line and skill players than he had in Philly. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2021 Comeback Player of the Year.
Listen, if you tell me the boy is a once-in-a-generation talent enough, I have no choice but to believe you. Reports out of Jaguars camp have been encouraging, with Lawrence picking up the nuances of Urban Meyer's offense while correcting mistakes expected with any first-year passer immediately thrust into a starting role. Growing pains are inevitable, but don't be surprised when Lawrence moves this offense and puts up points right out of the gate. Jacksonville will pair 2020 sleeper stud James Robinson with first-round pick Travis Etienne in the backfield and have -- in D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault Jr. and trusty newcomer Marvin Jones -- a dynamic receiver group with high upside. The boy king will thrive.
I refuse to overthink this one. I can wax poetic about the consistent greatness of Travis Kelce, or the peerless big-play ability of Tyreek Hill, or the infectious spirit of Tyrann Mathieu. But Patrick Mahomes is the best quarterback on Earth and will be treated with the respect the designation demands. The former MVP is coming off a ho-hum season that included 40 total touchdowns, over 4,700 passing yards and a 14-1 regular season record. Kansas City doesn't boast the same depth at wide receiver it's had in the past, but the offensive line is unquestionably better after a series of upgrades. Mahomes with better protection means absolute death for the rest of football. Mahomes is more than just my pick for Chiefs MVP -- I believe he'll get the NFL honor, too.
Darren Waller is a baller. The sixth-year tight end had a steady start for the Raiders in 2020 before going nuclear in the season's final five games (43/654/4!). He finished the year with career-high production in catches, yards and touchdowns, and there's reason to believe he can be even better in 2021. A lot of that goes back to Henry Ruggs, the Raiders' 2020 first-round pick who's widely expected to take a big step forward in his second season. Ruggs' home-run ability should give space to Waller to do his thing in the middle of the field while avoiding constant double-teams. Waller could be pushing Travis Kelce for the title of most productive tight end in football by season's end.
The obvious safe pick here is Justin Herbert, the young franchise quarterback coming off a record-breaking rookie season. But I'm not ready to give up the ghost of Derwin James as a generational talent in the back end of the Chargers' defense. Lower-body injuries have cost James 27 of 32 games in the past two seasons, a profound bummer that blurs the memory of a rookie debut in 2018 that was as good as any we've seen at the safety position. Still just 24, James will have to prove his body is all the way back and up to the task of playing professional football, but a new partnership with defensive wunderkind Brandon Staley could make beautiful music. The world needs more famous Derwins.
The Dolphins will be over the moon if this season ends with Tua Tagovailoa earning team MVP honors, but we simply didn't see enough from the 2020 No. 5 overall pick to get on that train right now. So we'll look to the other side of the ball and tab All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard, fresh off a season in which he led football with 10 interceptions -- the first double-digit-pick output by an NFL player in 12 seasons. Howard is a legit lockdown corner who can make an entire defense better even in the games where he isn't stuffing the stat sheet with turnovers.
It's difficult to convey just how much the Patriots missed Dont'a Hightower last season. The 2019 Pro Bowl linebacker opted out of 2020 over COVID-19 concerns, and New England never found a way to fill his shoes. The Pats overhauled their front seven this offseason, and having Hightower holding it together in the center of everything will be a huge help to the Belichicks. If New England stays healthy, it could field the best defense in football. Hightower is a major reason why. He's a one-of-one kind of guy for the Pats.
In 2019, the Jets gave C.J. Mosley one of the richest free-agent contracts in team history. Mosley was signed to be the heartbeat of New York's defense, but his first season was ruined by a Week 1 groin injury and his second year never happened after a COVID-19 opt-out. After nearly two full seasons off the field, will Mosley still be an elite player when he returns to action? Well, he's still just 29 and feels like the type of guy who will thrive playing under a defensive wizard like Robert Saleh. The Jets have major questions in their secondary, but there's legitimate promise in a front seven that includes Mosley, Quinnen Williams, and newcomers Carl Lawson and Sheldon Rankins. Mosley's return to excellence is the necessary glue to hold everything together.
The Steelers' offense stumbled mightily down the stretch last year, and the lack of a dynamic, trustworthy presence in the backfield played a major role in the collapse. Ben Roethlisberger isn't the guy who should be trying to put the offense on his back anymore, so why not hand that task to a 23-year-old, first-round pick bursting with potential? Harris is a bruising, born-for-the-AFC-North type of runner with the accompanying receiving skills necessary to keep him on the field for three downs. Pittsburgh's offense needs to head in a fresh, new direction, and it's Harris who will likely lead the way.
Call it a hunch. Julio Jones has the feel of a veteran player who will absolutely be rejuvenated by a fresh start on a contender. The future Hall of Famer remained a game-changing playmaker when on the field in his final season with the Falcons, and the presence of A.J. Brown across the field and 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry in the backfield means Jones will be in an outstanding position to tear up opposing defenses with his unique skill set. Sometimes a trade just makes too much sense, and this was one of those cases. Half the league will be kicking themselves when Jones is at 1,000 yards by Week 12.