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2023 NFL season: Predicting each AFC team's non-QB MVP

The last 10 league MVPs (and seven runners-up in that span) have all been quarterbacks. But let's be honest, that's a bit boring -- even taking into account the well-established notion that we are in a "quarterback era."

How about some love for the other 21 guys on the field at any given time? You know, the ones blocking for quarterbacks, catching their passes, putting them in more manageable downs and distances ... and also the players whose job it is to make quarterbacks' lives a living hell.

Let's give some shine to those players. Below, you'll find one non-QB MVP candidate for each AFC team.

Maybe one of these years, one of them will actually win the award again over a quarterback.

Baltimore Ravens
2022 record · 10-7
Kyle Hamilton
S · Year 2

I thought long and hard about Roquan Smith, who, admittedly, is probably the odds-on favorite for this category. However, I'm just fascinated by Hamilton, who was a bit miscast in a heavy nickel role last season but battled admirably and made tangible strides. 

The belief is that he'll be able to showcase more of his playmaking ability in a more complete safety role this coming season -- and don't forget, he's still only 22 years old. I might be a year or two ahead of myself here, but I think the 2022 first-round pick is capable of a five-sack, five-interception type of season.

Facing strong QB competition in the AFC North, along with a few tough late-season games, the Ravens are going to need Pro Bowl-level play from Hamilton, and it says here they'll get that this season.

Buffalo Bills
2022 record · 13-3
Stefon Diggs
WR · Year 9

There seems to have been something going on with Diggs and the Bills that's hard to characterize but impossible to ignore, reflected most recently by a brief and slightly mysterious absence from minicamp. And that wasn't the first instance of potential discord, either; Diggs' frustrations with the team boiled over during and after a 17-point home playoff loss to the Bengals. 

Regardless, if the Bills are going to break their Super Bowl drought, it's almost certainly going to happen with Diggs and Josh Allen making sweet music together. And if Diggs is on board, that's possible. With pass rusher Von Miller coming off an ACL tear, Diggs is by far the clearest non-QB candidate on the roster.

It's a bit simplistic to say the Bills are a Super Bowl contender with Diggs and not a Super Bowl contender without Diggs, but that's where I'm at. By definition, those are team-MVP-caliber credentials.

Cincinnati Bengals
2022 record · 12-4
Ja'Marr Chase
WR · Year 3

I considered defensive end Trey Hendrickson as a very realistic option here. In the end, though, Chase is an elite difference maker.

It's true that the Bengals went 3-1 without Chase last season, but those games came against four non-playoff teams. In the NFL's modern era, only two receivers -- Odell Beckham Jr. and Justin Jefferson -- have averaged more receiving yards per game in their first 29 career contests than Chase's 86.2. Over the past two seasons, Chase has accounted for four more TD catches (22) than Jefferson (18), despite appearing in five fewer games in that span.

The Bengals' AFC North opponents arguably are worse at cornerback now than they've been the past two seasons, and it's possible Cincinnati's offense is even more pass-dependent in 2023 than it has been, depending on how the team feels about the future of Joe Mixon and the other running backs. Joe Burrow could lean on Chase to an even greater degree than he has so far.

Cleveland Browns
2022 record · 7-10
Myles Garrett
DE · Year 7

It's pretty hard to go elsewhere, as Garrett is one of the league's most impactful defenders and one of the Browns' most indispensable players. They need Garrett and Deshaun Watson to dominate this season. Period. I believe the team has a chance to do very well with both operating at peak form.

The dirty little secret is that while Garrett has had dominant streaks since Cleveland selected him first overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, he's never truly had that one transcendent season. It seems as if something fluky or unexpected always keeps him from putting it all together: the Mason Rudolph incident, a COVID-19 bout in 2020, a late-season injury in 2021, a car crash last season. Over the past two seasons, he set and then tied a single-season high with 16 sacks, good for third place on the leaderboard in 2021 and second in '22. At least the dislocated toe he suffered at the Pro Bowl Games in February seems to already be in the rearview.

Assuming the bad breaks are behind him, Garrett could be poised for consistent greatness this season at age 27. With Jim Schwartz being installed as Browns defensive coordinator this offseason, and with Za'Darius Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo being added up front, Garrett could put himself back in the Defensive Player of the Year discussion.

Denver Broncos
2022 record · 5-12
Patrick Surtain II
CB · Year 3

Cornerback is a valuable position, no doubt, but is it a team-MVP-type spot? In Surtain's case, we say yes. Somehow, he seems to be underrated, despite following a terrific rookie season (four picks, one returned for a TD, with 14 passes defensed) with an even better 2022 effort (earning Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors) while also being the son of a darned good NFL player. It doesn't make sense, even if the Broncos have been pretty poor the past two seasons.

The arrival of Sean Payton will help. He will coax more wins out of this team, guaranteed. The TV schedulers seem to agree: They tabbed Denver for four prime-time slots this season.

All this will put a bigger spotlight on just how good Surtain is. He also could earn more elite-CB assignments; the new coaching staff has even tinkered with using Surtain as a punt returner. It appears they have big plans for him this season, and it's easy to see why.

Houston Texans
2022 record · 3-13-1
Laremy Tunsil
OT · Year 8

Even amid a roster refresh, the Texans made sure not to ship Tunsil out, inking him to a three-year, $75 million extension in March, and it might have been the best decision of the offseason.

Tunsil is expected to play a very important role for the Texans for this rebuilt offense. Second overall pick C.J. Stroud was afforded strong pass protection on the edges most of the time at Ohio State, operating in a timing-based passing game. Making him comfortable in the NFL -- whenever he wins the starting quarterback job -- will be key in this system, as well.

The Texans have labored to get the O-line right for years now, and Tunsil also must serve another important role: mentoring left guard Kenyon Green, who is coming off a challenging rookie season. If Tunsil can keep blocking at a high level, keep Stroud and the QBs clean and help advance Green's progression, he could be the most valuable player on the Houston roster.

Indianapolis Colts
2022 record · 4-12-1
Jonathan Taylor
RB · Year 4

There are cases to be made for DeForest Buckner on defense or possibly Quenton Nelson on offense. But Taylor is arguably one of the two or three best backs in football, and his value to the Colts was made clear in 2022, when a Week 4 ankle injury helped start the ball rolling on a nightmare season. With Indy expected to make a major change at quarterback, having such a typically reliable playmaker in the backfield seems critical.

No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson has all the physical tools to be a great QB in time, but there are holes in his game. If opponents need to worry about Taylor as a run threat, as well as his improved skill as a pass catcher, that will theoretically make Richardson's life easier whenever he's inserted into the lineup. 

Taylor appears poised for a bounce-back season -- the Colts' ability to play at a respectable level once again might hinge on Taylor following through.

Jacksonville Jaguars
2022 record · 9-8
Josh Allen
OLB · Year 5

I really did ponder Calvin Ridley here. We might end up looking back on that trade-deadline acquisition of the veteran receiver as one of the savvier moves general manager Trent Baalke has pulled off recently. But for a team whose biggest questions lie on defense, Allen might end up being the better choice for this piece.

Would the Jaguars be contenders without Allen? I don't think that's an outrageous question. They didn't really upgrade the pass rush this offseason specifically, although the continued development of 2022 No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker certainly is expected. That might make Allen even more valuable to this defense than impressive young CB Tyson Campbell.

Allen is a better player than his seven-sack 2022 season might suggest. Look at the tape, and you see a top-tier edge rusher with a nearly complete game all around. He supplied four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries (one returned for a TD), 22 QB hits and 11 tackles for loss. If the Jaguars are to be true postseason players, they will need him to put up his finest season yet.

Kansas City Chiefs
2022 record · 14-3
Travis Kelce
TE · Year 11

There aren't many bigger Chris Jones fans out there than myself, but let's be honest. Kelce is arguably the best tight end in NFL history, and he's inarguably coming off one of his best two or three seasons. He's the team MVP's MVP, and anything that makes Patrick Mahomes better also makes the Chiefs the most challenging offense to slow down.

As he approaches age 34, perhaps Kelce will cease to do the heavy lifting he once did. But no one is expecting him to suddenly become an afterthought in this offense. There's a chance we could see Kadarius Toney evolve into a borderline WR1 this season, but Kelce remains Mahomes' meal ticket more often than not.

Consider: In Kelce's last nine playoff games, over the past three seasons, he has 81 catches (on 98 targets) for 916 yards and 10 TDs, along with a TD pass. In big moments, there are few better in the history of the NFL.

Las Vegas Raiders
2022 record · 6-11
Maxx Crosby
DE · Year 5

There's absolutely a strong case to be made for either receiver Davante Adams or running back Josh Jacobs in this spot. Jacobs arguably was the Raiders' overall MVP last season when you consider just how much he did, and with Jimmy Garoppolo already coming in as an injury risk at quarterback, Jacobs figures to be plenty busy again.

But Crosby is pretty special, too, and the Raiders have more questions on the defensive side of the ball again. He's not good enough to clean up everyone else's mistakes, but that won't stop him from trying. There aren't 10 players in the league who play with a hotter motor and arguably not that many who make more of an impact on their defense.

Chandler Jones fell off significantly last season, especially early on, and 2023 first-rounder Tyree Wilson might come in a bit behind, given that he has not yet practiced while continuing to rehab from foot surgery. That puts an enormous burden on Crosby, but he's been up to the challenge almost since the day he set foot on an NFL field.

Los Angeles Chargers
2022 record · 10-7
Rashawn Slater
OT · Year 3

It's pretty hard to go against pass rusher Joey Bosa here, but Slater returning to health after missing most of 2022 with a torn biceps could be huge for Justin Herbert and the passing game. Jamaree Salyer, who did yeoman's work in Slater's left tackle spot last season, is now expected to shift to right guard.

With plenty of assets allocated to the offensive line the past few years, the Chargers could be in the best blocking shape they've been in since Herbert arrived. Could Herbert be a league MVP candidate? I'm not at all ruling that one out. If that comes to pass, there's an excellent chance it meant Slater has returned to his brilliant rookie-season form.

Miami Dolphins
2022 record · 9-8
Jalen Ramsey
CB · Year 8

Tyreek Hill would be an easy choice, but his recent off-field issue does complicate the matter. We'll pivot instead to Ramsey, the team's marquee addition this offseason. There actually is some question as to whether Ramsey remains an elite corner, and he's coming off shoulder surgery, but he could be exactly what they need.

Miami had only eight interceptions and allowed the second-most receptions in the league last season. The Dolphins' pass rush has promise, but more was needed to slow down opposing passers. That becomes especially important in light of the slew of talented quarterbacks dotting their schedule this season.

Ramsey believes he and Xavien Howard are the best CB duo, and Kader Kohou is a promising third option. If the players buy in on new coordinator Vic Fangio's vision and absorb the complex scheme, this defense can take a step up this season.

New England Patriots
2022 record · 8-9
Matt Judon
OLB · Year 8

The Patriots must know they can't survive in 2023 winning shootouts. Even if the career of third-year pro Mac Jones is revived by Bill O'Brien, returning to call plays in New England after 11 seasons away, this offense -- as it's currently constructed -- reads as a middling group. At best.

So that puts an outsized responsibility on the defense in a tough division. If the Patriots are to win this season, it will be because this veteran unit thrives as it did a few years ago, making game-changing plays on the regular.

Judon was the Patriots' best defender the past two seasons. He's been a bit streaky from time to time, but he's explosive, aggressive and instinctive. His pass-rush effectiveness was at an all-time high last season, but even if he doesn't rack up 15.5 sacks again, Judon can impact games in a number of ways and must be accounted for by opposing offenses every game.

New York Jets
2022 record · 7-10
Quinnen Williams
DT · Year 5

Message for the Sauce Gardner fan club: Yes, we love your boy. It's just that Year 2 might not be quite as smooth as Gardner's Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign was, as receivers (and referees) adjust to him. Gardner remains one of the better young corners in the game, but the Jets have a consistently more impactful defender from a snap-to-snap basis. 

If Williams, who is set to play on the fifth-year option in 2023, doesn't receive a contract extension prior to the start of this season, the price tag for the Jets might go up. He doubled his sack production last season (12.0) from 2021 (6.0) and more than doubled his QB hits (28) from the year before (12). What's most impressive is how Williams did that last season without a ton around him. The Jets have added more bodies inside this year, and they spent a first-round pick on pass rusher Will McDonald IV. In theory, that should help free Williams up even more -- with or without a new deal.

EDITOR'S UPDATE: The Jets and Williams have agreed to terms on a four-year, $96 million extension, per NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Tom Pelissero.

Pittsburgh Steelers
2022 record · 9-8
T.J. Watt
OLB · Year 7

I love Cameron Heyward, but Watt is the no-brainer choice here. The Steelers found out how tough it is to win without Watt when he got hurt in Week 1 last season. 

With Watt in the lineup, Pittsburgh went 8-2, allowing 20 or fewer points in nine of those 10 games. Without Watt from Week 2 to Week 8, the Steelers were 1-6, got rolled by the Bills and Eagles and allowed 29 points to the Jacoby Brissett-led Browns. There aren't many more impactful defenders in the league than Watt, who has six interceptions, 77.5 sacks and an absurd 23 forced fumbles in 87 career games.

The Steelers should be improved offensively, but the path to success this season almost certainly includes collecting their share of narrow wins. Watt always seems to make his presence felt multiple times per game, especially in close contests.

Tennessee Titans
2022 record · 7-10
Jeffery Simmons
DT · Year 5

The Titans are in a strange spot as a team right now, hanging on to past pillars such as Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill while also starting to refresh other elements of the roster. But one other team strength lies on the defensive line, and it's a good enough crew to keep Tennessee competitive in the AFC South, which has something of a mixed bag of offensive-line talent.

The group is led by Simmons, arguably one of the two or three best at his position. He wasn't quite as impactful in 2022 as he was in 2021, fading a bit down the stretch as he was slowed by knee and ankle injuries. The Titans also lost a little bit of their depth via the departures of DeMarcus Walker and Mario Edwards.

But Simmons, Denico Autry and Teair Tart comprise a truly underrated trio inside. And while the Titans didn't spend a single draft pick to help the defense, a healthy Harold Landry returning outside certainly will help Simmons and that group.

Follow Eric Edholm on Twitter.

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