The NFL prides itself on being unpredictable, where any team can go from worst to first, and a young star can rise from the abyss to take the league by storm.
When it comes to the AP NFL Most Valuable Player award, however, the honor has lost some of its intrigue. It's become an annual quarterback coronation.
The last non-QB to win the award was Adrian Peterson in 2012, and it took a 2,097-yard performance. Signal-callers have won 14 of the past 15 MVPs and 19 of 23 since the turn of the millennium. Zero WRs, TEs, O-linemen, off-ball linebackers or DBs have ever won the award. (We see you, kicker Mark Moseley.)
We need only look at the current odds to see a QB is again expected to take home the hardware next February at NFL Honors. Quarterbacks make up the top 17 favorites to win this year's award, according to FanDuel, with Josh Allen (+700), Tom Brady (+800), Patrick Mahomes (+800), Justin Herbert (+1000) and Aaron Rodgers (+1000) leading the pack.
Look, we get it. It's the most important and challenging position in sports to master. From managing myriad moving parts to evading 300-pound Herculean men coming to rip your head off, it's an arduous job in which to excel. But when Kirk Cousins, Mac Jones and Trey Lance each have better odds (+4000) than Jonathan Taylor and Derrick Henry (+5000), you know it's a lost cause for non-QBs.
It's early July. Training camps don't start for weeks and real games for two months. It's our chance to mix things up and change the rules.
So let's spotlight one MVP candidate for each club in 2022, taking QBs out of the equation. If you want to consider this my take on which non-QB will have the best season for each team, that's an acceptable way to interpret this exercise.
Now onto the part that will undoubtedly upset everyone who didn't read the intro (and probably some who did) ...
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is due for a turn-back-the-clock season. When healthy, Watt is a menace up front who can bully offensive lines and make life miserable for quarterbacks. The 33-year-old might have generated just one sack in 2021, but before he went on the shelf for 10 games, he was a difference-maker. Watt's absence last season wasn't the only reason the Cardinals' defense collapsed down the stretch, but it certainly played a significant role. With Chandler Jones gone without a replacement, Arizona desperately needs a Watt MVP-type season to control the defensive front and generate pressure. And if you're someone who thinks Watt shouldn't be in line for anything other than an AARP membership at this point, you can tell this man to his face (and please record it for the rest of us).
As a rookie, Pitts led the Falcons in targets (110), receptions (68) and receiving yards (1,026). With the dearth of difference-making wide receiver options in ATL in 2022, Pitts could blast those numbers out of the water. He could (should) become the first tight end with 1,000-plus receiving yards in each of his first two seasons and needs only 955 yards to break Mike Ditka's record at the position through that span (1,980 over his first two campaigns). Yes, the QB situation takes a hit post-Matt Ryan, but with Pitts' size, speed and playmaking ability, he has the talent to be a go-to target against any defense. He needs to be a bigger red-zone threat, however, after netting just one touchdown as a rookie.
It's becoming a broken record, but health is the biggest impediment to McCaffrey regaining his title of most versatile weapon in the NFL. After the electric 1,000/1,000 season in 2019, CMC has missed 23 games due to injury. A dual-threat force, McCaffrey owns power and wiggle up the middle, good hands in the passing game and open-field ability to torture whichever linebacker finds himself stuck in coverage. McCaffrey led the NFL with 5,443 scrimmage yards from 2017 through 2019. The Panthers need the dynamic force we saw in '19 to help Baker Mayfield/Sam Darnold/whoever as a pressure-release valve with big-play ability. If his latest plan, to emulate Marshall Faulk's offseason workout regimen, pays off and McCaffrey stays healthy, he's a weapon that could transform a wayward offense.
Mooney is in line to see a heap of targets come his way following a breakout Year 2 after the Bears did little to buffer the burgeoning receiver this offseason. Mooney led the Bears with 81 catches, 1,055 receiving yards and four TD grabs in 2021 -- and 523 of Justin Fields' 1,870 pass yards were to Mooney (28.0%). Mooney displayed the ability to stretch the field, portending a good rapport with Fields' big-arm capabilities. The Fields-Mooney combo finished the season with an average of 13.4 air yards per attempt, 11th-most among all QB-WR duos, per Next Gen Stats, and just a tick ahead of Russell Wilson-DK Metcalf. With Fields the surefire starter entering Year 2, the Bears are counting on Mooney to reach new heights for the offense to flourish under coordinator Luke Getsy. Everything suggests he's ready to meet that challenge.
Parsons completely transformed the Cowboys' defense as a rookie, showcasing the ability to wreak havoc anywhere along the defensive front seven. As an off-ball linebacker, Parsons displays ridiculous closing speed, hogtying ball carriers, harassing quarterbacks who dare leave the pocket and even making plays in coverage downfield. Even more impressive: When the Cowboys moved him to an edge-rush position after injuries depleted the team's defensive line, Parsons showed a quick first step to burn past offensive tackles. The 23-year-old's versatility makes him a menace for opposing quarterbacks. En route to his Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Parsons finished top six in the NFL in sacks (13) and tackles for loss (20). He crushed the quarterback despite only rushing on 52.9% of opponents' dropbacks (260th in the NFL) -- for comparison, T.J. Watt rushed on 88.3%. After coming up just shy of the rookie sack record (14.5), Parsons set his goal at the all-time record (22.5) in 2022. If he gets enough pass-rush reps, the dynamo has the talent to threaten that mark. If he does, and the Cowboys soar to the best record in the NFL, the Dallas hype machine will be out of control. Out. Of. Control.
A rookie winning MVP? Laughable. Sure. Sure. Sure. But what if the homegrown talent dominates out of the gate, racking up sack after sack for a previously toothless Lions defense? If Detroit is to go worst-to-first in the NFC North, the defense must be better, and that starts with Hutchinson having one of the greatest seasons in club history after setting the single-season Michigan sack record. Suppose the edge rusher blasts past the rookie sack record of 14.5, approaches the 20-sack mark and plays like a man possessed as the Lions stun the football world in Year 2 of a rebuild. Then does it sound so ridiculous?
How does Matt LaFleur replace the production of Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, especially if the young receivers don't sprint out of the gate? By feeding Aaron Jones. The running back is a proven dual-threat force, averaging 5.1 yards per carry in his career and logging at least 47 catches over each of the past three seasons. In seven games in the LaFleur era without Adams, Jones has averaged 122.6 scrimmage yards per game (88.1 with the WR) and scored 10 TDs. AJ Dillon's presence is the only thing keeping Jones from being one of the top workhorses in the NFL, but getting the RB more involved in the passing game would allow him to reach new heights alongside Aaron Rodgers.
It's painful to omit Cooper Kupp after the seismic campaign he put up last season, but when push comes to shove, I'm going with the man many consider the best active NFL player. The man who gives offensive coordinators sleepless nights trying to figure out how they're going to slow him. The man with the three DPOY trophies on his shelf. The man who leads the NFL in sacks (98), QB hits (226) and tackles for loss (150) since he entered the league in 2014. Donald is a walking Hall of Famer and double-digit sack machine who can take over games and bend offenses to his will. Not to mention, he looks like a real-life Marvel character.
Jefferson is poised to continue to re-write the record books. The Vikings wideout already set the mark for most receiving yards in a player's first two seasons (3,016) and became the first player ever with 1,400-plus receiving yards in each of his first two campaigns. He needs just 1,148 yards to pass Randy Moss (4,163) for the most receiving yards in a player's first three seasons. And Jefferson's first two years came in a ground-and-pound offense. So imagine what he can accomplish in Kevin O'Connell's pass-first system. Jefferson is a stellar route runner who can get open versus any coverage, while also boasting speed to burn and sticky hands. Last year, O'Connell was the OC when Cooper Kupp earned the receiving triple crown. That's Jefferson's target in 2022.
While there are health and availability concerns on the offensive side of the ball in New Orleans, there is no question Lattimore sits in the crème-de-la-crème class of NFL corners. With the additions of Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye to help smooth over the losses of safeties Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins, the Saints' D should remain stingy. But Lattimore's still the key to New Orleans continuing to be one of the best pass defenses in the NFL. A bully at the point of attack, the corner leads the NFL with 74 passes defensed since 2017. Turn some of the PDs into INTs, and Lattimore could put up head-turning stats in a pass-happy league.
If Big Blue is going to stun prognosticators, Barkley will be at the forefront of that effort. Since his dynamic rookie season (NFL-best 2,028 scrimmage yards), the running back has missed 21 games and never looked fully back from his ACL tear last season. But if he can return to form in 2022, Barkley is a dual-threat weapon who can control games and be the ideal security blanket for Daniel Jones. We haven't seen the real Saquon in years -- the man with the Barry Sanders-type moves in the open field who can burn past DBs. In what amounts to a make-or-break campaign, here's betting Barkley can get back on track.
Philly acquired Brown as the big-bodied target who can win over the middle that the offense was sorely missing. The wideout generated 1,000-plus yards in two of his three seasons in Tennessee (only injuries kept him shy of that mark in 2021). Philly hasn't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Jeremy Maclin in 2014. That streak ends in 2022, with Brown becoming a go-to threat who makes life easier on Jalen Hurts. Brown's ability to pick up yards after catch (6.0 YAC per reception since 2019, second-most in the NFL) will give the Eagles extra yards. He should be a dynamo in the RPO game with the ability to win off the line of scrimmage and present a big target. On an Eagles team with talent up and down the roster, Brown's addition makes the most significant difference as he blasts past his previous career highs and hits pay dirt week after week with Philly sprinting back to the postseason.
OMG, he skipped over Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Nick Bosa and even Kyle Juszczyk to pick an offensive lineman?!! You're darn skippy. It's my list, and it's high time we start recognizing dominant offensive linemen for their vital role. Williams is a wall on the left side with the mobility to get in space and wipe out petrified defenders. No left tackle has been as dominant as Williams in recent years. He's the crux behind which Kyle Shanahan's offense moves. That could be even more evident with Trey Lance under center in 2022. If you don't believe me (or your own eyes), note this: Pro Football Focus has graded Williams a 96.8 since 2020, six points higher than any other OT in the NFL (min. 1,000 snaps), and his 97.8 PFF grade in 2021 was a single-season record. Perhaps if Shanahan gives Big Trent some Refrigerator Perry-type carries, the average Joe might take more notice.
Quarterback questions loom in Seattle, but you know what could wipe out most of that consternation? An otherworldly season by the ultra-talented Metcalf. DK has 3,485 receiving yards and 32 receiving TDs in his career (including playoffs) -- one of five players in the Super Bowl era with 3,000-plus receiving yards and 30-plus receiving TDs over his first three seasons. (The others: Randy Moss, Jerry Rice, John Jefferson and Odell Beckham Jr.) With speed to burn and a big body, Metcalf is a matchup nightmare for smaller defenders with the potential to take any pass to the house. In the three games Geno Smith started last season, Metcalf's numbers didn't fall off a cliff despite the more restricted pass attack (197 yards, three TDs), highlighting his ability to be productive no matter who is under center.
With Rob Gronkowski retiring (for now, at least), Chris Godwin coming off an ACL tear and Russell Gage dealing with an injury ahead of training camp, Evans is Tom Brady's most trustworthy target heading toward the 2022 season. Evans has surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in all eight of his seasons, the longest such streak to begin a player's career. He caught 14 TDs last season, second-most behind only Cooper Kupp. Turning 29 years old this year, Evans still has the juice to hit even higher heights. With Brady slinging the pigskin like he's 30 years old and Evans' penchant for big plays, the duo could put up wacky numbers -- think Randy Moss in his first year in New England. With Evans' red-zone acumen and no Gronk, the wideout could see enough end zone targets to threaten Moss' single-season TD record (23).
Fresh off inking a fat new contract, McLaurin is in a prime position to dominate in 2022. The Commanders' best weapon feasts on all coverages and his vice-grip hands make the toughest catches seem routine. In his first three NFL seasons, he compiled 222 catches, 3,090 receiving yards and 16 TDs. He did so despite being the main focus of defenses and playing with a cornucopia of middling quarterbacks. I'm not the biggest Carson Wentz fan, but if McLaurin can put up 1K yards catching passes from Taylor Heinicke, Garrett Gilbert, Kyle Allen, Dwayne Haskins and a weakened Alex Smith, he can soar with Wentz. McLaurin is one of the most underrated dominant receivers in the NFL. It's time for the general public to take notice.