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The Schein Nine

2023 NFL MVP dark horses: Derek Carr, Justin Jefferson and Jared Goff among sleeper candidates

Patrick Mahomes just produced a Super Bowl-winning season for the ages. Despite losing all-world WR Tyreek Hill last offseason, Kansas City's quarterback led the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns, guided the Chiefs to a seventh consecutive AFC West title and ultimately won his second league MVP award. Despite suffering a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of K.C.'s playoff opener, Mahomes carried the top-seeded Chiefs to wins over Trevor Lawrence's Jaguars, Joe Burrow's Bengals and Jalen Hurts' Eagles, posted sparkling postseason numbers (7:0 TD-to-INT ratio, 114.7 passer rating) and ultimately won his second Super Bowl MVP award.

In related news, Mahomes heads into the 2023 season as the odds-on favorite to win MVP. Shocker. The next seven most likely MVPs in the coming season, per Caesars Sportsbook & Casino: Josh Allen, Burrow, Hurts, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Lawrence and Aaron Rodgers. No surprises here. Basically the eight best quarterbacks in the game today.

But who are the sleeper candidates for the league's top individual award? That's what I'm here to explore! It's become an annual offseason undertaking in this space.

So, with less than three months until the 2023 season kicks off, here are my dark-horse candidates for MVP, Schein Nine style.

NOTE: The lines provided by Caesars Sportsbook & Casino are current as of 5 p.m. ET on Wednesday, June 14.

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

MVP odds: +2500

Mike McCarthy knows what an MVP quarterback looks like, having worked with Joe Montana, Rich Gannon, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers over the course of his coaching career. And with the Cowboys' head man taking the play-calling reins, I think Prescott is in line for his finest season yet. In McCarthy's 12 years as Green Bay's play-caller, the Packers finished as a top-five scoring offense seven times. The man knows what he's doing with a playbook.

Another positive development for Dak: Trade acquisition Brandin Cooks giving Dallas a much-needed boost in the receiving corps. The Cowboys' severely lacked a secondary WR threat last season to complement Pro Bowler CeeDee Lamb. Now they have a certified field stretcher with six 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. Having yet to turn 30 years old, Cooks should have plenty left in the tank. Add in the fact that former 1,000-yard wideout Michael Gallup is now a full season removed from his ACL tear, and Dallas could be cooking with gas at the position.

With McCarthy at the controls and better options out wide, Dak won't come anywhere close to last season's league-high 15 interceptions. I think he sizzles all year long. Supported by a ferocious, Micah Parson-led defense, Prescott should have the 2023 Cowboys squarely in the Super Bowl conversation. And if you're the reason why "America's Team" is a top-notch title contender, well, you're a top-notch MVP candidate.

Derek Carr
New Orleans Saints · QB

MVP odds: +4000

As an Associated Press voter, I've already placed a vote for Carr as MVP -- back in 2016, when his season tragically ended with a broken leg on Christmas Eve, thus dooming a promising Raiders campaign. Since then, the Raiders have relocated to Las Vegas and Carr has relocated to New Orleans. And yet, I can imagine myself going back to the same well six months from now and placing another MVP vote for the criminally underrated quarterback.

Regular readers already know how bullish I am on the 2023 Saints. Back in March, I picked New Orleans as my Cinderella team for 2023. In a BOLD PREDICTIONS piece last month, I posited that the Saints could earn the NFC's No. 1 seed. This franchise has missed the playoffs in both seasons since Drew Brees' retirement; Carr re-raises the ceiling in the Big Easy. After being unceremoniously dumped by the Raiders in February, Carr has to be a man on a mission. With a franchise that believes in him -- SEE: four-year, $150 million contract -- Carr is poised to rampage through a lackluster NFC South and quite possibly do major postseason damage in a top-heavy conference.

A healthy Michael Thomas would obviously be huge. Regardless, I see Carr making sweet music with second-year stud Chris Olave. And more crucially, in terms of overall team success -- which is a big driver of MVP candidacy -- Carr will be supported by a legit defense for the first time in his career. In Carr's nine seasons with the Raiders, the D never finished higher than 20th in points allowed, ranking dead last twice. The Saints, on the other hand, have ranked in the top 10 in scoring and total defense in each of the past three seasons.

The Saints are going places in 2023 with Carr steering the ship.

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · QB

MVP odds: +2200

Loaded with electric playmakers on both sides of the football, Miami's a team that oozes sex appeal. The Dolphins' biggest question mark could also be the guy who brings everything together: Tua Tagovailoa.

IF the fourth-year signal-caller can stay healthy -- big "if," given his injury history -- Miami could be the most watchable team in football. Sounds like a pretty good platform to launch an MVP campaign, no?

In Year 1 under Mike McDaniel's watchful eye, Tagovailoa led the league in passer rating (105.5) and yards per attempt (8.9), while Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle emerged as one of the most devastating receiver duos in NFL history. What happens in Year 2?! I need to see. So, inherently, I need Tua to remain upright.

Deshaun Watson
Cleveland Browns · QB

MVP odds: +4000

In his last full season back in 2020, Watson led the league in passing yards (4,823) and yards per attempt (8.9) while completing over 70 percent of his passes. Earning his third straight Pro Bowl nod, he'd established himself as one of the best quarterbacks on the planet.

Everyone knows what happened next: Watson was accused of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions by more than 20 women, a development which sidelined him for the entire 2021 season and ultimately -- following a trade from Houston to Cleveland -- led to an 11-game suspension in 2022. Upon return for the final six games of last season, Watson looked like a shell of his former self, completing just 58.2 percent of throws while posting a 7:5 TD-to-INT ratio and 79.1 passer rating.

Last year's struggles weren't unexpected, as Watson had gone 23 months without playing in a real game. Now he's back to a normal routine, preparing for Year 2 in Cleveland. And this Browns roster is pretty damn stout. Don't be surprised if Watson returns to form and swiftly guides Cleveland back into AFC-contender status.

Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings · WR

MVP odds: +10000

I know: No wide receiver has ever won MVP. Shoot, the position rarely draws many votes. But Jefferson is clearly no ordinary wideout. Look at his first three years of NFL production:

  • 2020: 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns.
  • 2021: 108 catches for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns.
  • 2022: 128 catches for 1,809 yards and eight touchdowns.

Good grief -- what a baller! And if that yardage trend continues, Jefferson could become the league's first 2,000-yard receiver. I could see it happening, as I wrote a couple weeks ago. With star RB Dalvin Cook gone and Pro Bowl QB Kirk Cousins in a contract year, Minnesota could really let it fly through the air -- especially with this being Cousins' second year under head coach/play-caller Kevin O'Connell.

"Kirk and I have had a ton of dialogue throughout the offseason, just really in anticipation and excitement of his Year 2 in our offense," O'Connell said at the Annual League Meeting back in March. "He actually brought this up to me, the last time he had the same voice calling plays in the same system in his ear was Sean McVay, 2015 to 2016. This'll be really cool for him to be in the same system, call the same formations, the same plays. I'm just excited to see him in Year 2 and my goal is that 2023 is one of the best seasons Kirk Cousins has had playing quarterback in the NFL."

If Cousins enjoys one of his best seasons, Jefferson could produce one of the greatest wideout campaigns ever. And if the Vikings make the playoffs again, that could be enough for Jefferson to make MVP history.

Matthew Stafford
Los Angeles Rams · QB

MVP odds: +5000

The Rams are going to be better than you think. 2022 was a humbling season, to say the least, with Los Angeles going from Super Bowl champion to 5-12 bottom-dweller. And it was a painful season for Stafford, who missed eight games due to injury. Now Stafford is healthy and fired up during this offseason program.

"I think when you look at some of the things that [Stafford] had to navigate through last year, he's motivated to come back and respond and lead," Rams coach Sean McVay said on SiriusXM NFL Radio in April. "That's what he's done for such a long period of time. He certainly elevates everybody that he's around. I think this is the first offseason in a long time that he's actually feeling good. He's been able to throw. He's been able to kind of start his rhythm and routine a little bit earlier than previous years. He's got a good look in his eye, and I'm glad he's leading the way for us."

A future Hall of Famer in my book, Stafford should still be ready to rock in his age-35 season. Especially with Cooper Kupp poised to bounce back from an injury-abbreviated season of his own.

McVay's an elite coach. He'll have this team poised to rebound in a major way. When the Rams exceed expectations, Stafford will get a lot of earned love.

Geno Smith
Seattle Seahawks · QB

MVP odds: +3500

Just prior to the 2013 NFL Draft, I wrote that Geno was a franchise quarterback worthy of a first-round pick. That take got so cold that Fred Segal featured it in his Freezing Cold Takes book Football Media's Most Inaccurate Predictions -- and the Fascinating Stories Behind Them. When I had Fred on my Rise and Schein podcast last offseason, I told him that he'd need to retract it when Geno became a star. Less than a year later, Smith is the reigning Comeback Player of the Year, fresh off a Pro Bowl season, having just signed a three-year, $105 million extension.

Where's my retraction, Fred?!

OK, being fair, I did kind of give up on my own take by last August ...

Seahawks GM John Schneider had some fun with that when he appeared on my Podcast in May, and rightfully so. Schneider really believes in Geno. So does Pete Carroll. Last year was not a fluke. And Schneider just gave his FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK a juicy first-round receiver in Jaxon Smith-Njigba. I expect Geno to be even better in 2023, maximizing the Seahawks.

Sam Darnold
San Francisco 49ers · QB

MVP odds: +10000

A list of dark-horse MVP candidates with back-to-back quarterbacks who busted on the Jets? Every day brings new surprises in this mad, mad world!

I know we're hearing a lot of good news around Brock Purdy's rehab process, and that's great. But the guy underwent elbow surgery on his throwing arm a few months ago, so until I see it, I have trouble just accepting that everything is hunky-dory and the former seventh-round selection will pick up right where he left off last January.

With Darnold in the starting lineup, I firmly believe Kyle Shanahan's 49ers can win 11-to-13 games and be bona fide Super Bowl contenders. I touched on this a couple weeks ago, and I'm not kidding. So let's ride!

Jared Goff
Detroit Lions · QB

MVP odds: +4000

I'm a Goff fan and 2023 Lions believer. Goff was the second-best quarterback in the NFC last year, behind only Jalen Hurts. That's not an outlandish opinion at all. It's the truth. Just ask my colleague Marc Sessler, who watched all the QBs VERY closely in 2022 and ranked Goff as such himself.

Now, while I believe the Lions can break through into the playoffs, I don't think they'll be true Super Bowl contenders. And while I like Goff to enjoy another fine season under brilliant young offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, I don't think he'll rank among the NFC's top two quarterbacks again this fall. Partially because it appears Dan Campbell's team could be looking to run teams over with a road-grading O-line and overhauled backfield.

Long story short: Goff deserves a spot on this ranking, but he's the darkest dark horse here.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

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