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NFL MVP dark horses: History for Justin Jefferson? Plus, Sauce Gardner's skill, Kadarius Toney's rebirth

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:

But first, a look at three dynamic players who could make an MVP push down the stretch ...

At the beginning of this month, Josh Allen was a solid favorite for MVP, but a sloppy stretch of play from the Bills quarterback has opened up the race again. Patrick Mahomes is doing his usual damage in Kansas City, Jalen Hurts is enjoying a breakout season for the 8-1 Eagles, and Tua Tagovailoa has Dolphins fans showering him with "M-V-P" chants.

At publishing, those quarterbacks are the Caesars Sportsbook's top four favorites for league MVP: Mahomes (+120), Allen (+500), Tagovailoa (+500) and Hurts (+550). But what if there's more chaos to come? Which overlooked candidate at the moment could swoop in and take home the hardware with a rollicking finish down the stretch?

With eight more Sundays in the 2022 regular season, here are three MVP dark horses to keep an eye on.

NOTE: MVP odds, provided by Caesars Sportsbook, are current as of 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday, Nov. 18.

Lamar Jackson
Baltimore Ravens · QB

Current MVP odds: +1200

It is hard to view a former MVP as a true dark-horse candidate, but Jackson's heroics have mostly flown under the radar this season. The fifth-year pro has accounted for 2,403 passing/rushing yards and 18 total touchdowns as the premier dual-threat quarterback in a league that is undergoing a revolution at the position. Jackson's speed, quickness and explosiveness torment defenders unable to match his athleticism in space.

Baltimore maximizes Lamar's talents by utilizing an option-based scheme that enables him to run between the tackles or along the edges on a variety of designed quarterback runs and option plays that keep defenders in conflict. With the Ravens also adding a mix of complementary play passes, Jackson is an absolute nightmare to defend.

Now, the numbers have dipped since Jackson's sizzling start:

  • Weeks 1-3: 330.7 pass/rush yards per game, 12 pass/rush TDs, 119.0 passer rating.
  • Weeks 4-9: 235.2 pass/rush yards per game, 6 pass/rush TDs, 80.5 passer rating.

But Jackson could finish the season with a bang, especially considering the Ravens' remaining schedule:

Yup, one opponent that currently owns a winning record (5-4 Cincy in the regular-season finale). Think Lamar could put up some numbers in this cake walk?

Baltimore sits alone in first place of the AFC North at 6-3. If the Ravens earn a high seed in the AFC playoffs with an impressive record, Jackson's production and impact as a dual-threat playmaker could earn him a second MVP award.

Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings · WR

Current MVP odds: +8000

The spectacular pass catcher is on track to post the first 2,000-yard receiving season. At the moment, he ranks second in the NFL with 1,060 receiving yards, but he's played one fewer game than the league leader, Tyreek Hill (1,148 yards). Jefferson's current pace would give him 2,002 yards, which would break Calvin Johnson's single-season record of 1,964 yards. The Vikings star has put up six 100-yard games and amassed the most receiving yards against man coverage (424), per Next Gen Stats.

Not coincidentally, the 8-1 Vikings are tied for the best record in the NFL with the Eagles. Minnesota heads into the weekend sitting comfortably in the NFC North throne, boasting a whopping five-game lead in the loss column.

Given Jefferson's consistent dominance over his first three seasons (SEE: 4,076 receiving yards in 42 games), the Vikings star should already be in the conversation for best player in the league. Yes, I'm well aware that a wide receiver has never won MVP. But Jefferson has emerged as the WR1 in a pass-happy league -- and he's compiled quite a highlight reel along the way, full of jaw-dropping grabs and electric runs. Of course, nothing stands out more than the mind-boggling, one-handed contested catch he just authored in Minnesota's stirring win over Buffalo last week. That was the play of the game in the game of the year. That kind of moment sticks with everyone, including MVP voters.

The splash plays, the video game numbers and the team success all add up to Jefferson being one of the definitive players in the 2022 season. Sounds like an MVP candidacy to me.

Saquon Barkley
New York Giants · RB

Current MVP odds: +20000

Running backs aren't exactly celebrated like they used to be in today's NFL, but Barkley is reviving interest in the position. The 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year has not only catapulted the 7-2 Giants into serious contention as a "one-man show" on offense, but he has reminded the football world of his greatness as a multi-faceted playmaker after three injury-riddled seasons.

Through Week 10, Barkley led the NFL in touches (227) and rushing yards (931), while ranking second in scrimmage yards (1,128). The fifth-year pro is close to matching the production posted by Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders through the first nine games of his MVP campaign in 1997: 1,193 scrimmage yards (998 rushing and 195 receiving).

As the focal point of a Giants offense that is pummeling opponents with relentless body blows from the running game, Barkley has displayed a combination of explosiveness, toughness and grit that matches the brand established by Brian Daboll and his coaching staff. Moreover, Barkley's consistency as a runner (four 100-yard games) despite being the only blue-chip talent in the offensive lineup is a testament to his excellence as a dynamic playmaker.

Is Sauce the NFL's new shutdown corner?

When the New York Jets selected Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner with the fourth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, they hoped the University of Cincinnati standout would blossom into a Darrelle Revis-like cover corner on the perimeter. So far, so good.

Nine games into his NFL career, the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has been as good as advertised. In fact, he's been even better -- particularly when it comes to the lockdown aspect of the position. Gardner leads the league with 13 passes defensed. And in man coverage, Gardner ranks first in fewest yards allowed (26), receiving TDs allowed (0), yards per reception allowed (4.3), yards per target allowed (1.6) and yards per snap allowed (0.24) -- all according to PFF, among 107 players with at least 10 man-coverage targets.

In Robert Saleh's hybrid Cover 3 scheme, Gardner is a perfect fit at corner as a long, rangy defender with outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills. The rookie not only displays the discipline and patience to shadow receivers at the line of scrimmage, but he also flashes the diagnostic skills to read routes on the fly. With the Jets' defensive backs instructed to play with top-down leverage -- in which defenders keep receivers in front of them on all routes -- Gardner has effectively taken away the deep ball while making plays on underneath throws.

After taking a few weeks to fully understand the nuances of the scheme, the 22-year-old has flourished as a lockdown corner on the island. In fact, since Week 4, Gardner has allowed a grand total of three receptions for 2 yards in 81 man-coverage targets, per PFF.

My NFL Media colleague Brian Baldinger has broken down Gardner's stellar game throughout the season, highlighting some of his talents as a versatile defender with A+ skills. While the first-year phenom has been extraordinary in man coverage, he has also shown outstanding awareness as a zone defender. From his superb utilization of press-bail technique to his ability to jam-and-sink in two-deep zones, Gardner plays with the maturity of a 10-year veteran. In related news, the Jets have gone from finishing dead last in scoring and total defense last season to ranking in the top 10 in both categories in 2022.

Although Gardner is not quite ready to take the mantle from Revis as the greatest corner to wear a Jets uniform, the rookie certainly has established himself as a premier cover corner right off the bat in the NFL. There's no limit on his potential going forward.

Toney + Chiefs = Nightmare for opponents

When the Kansas City Chiefs acquired Kadarius Toney from the New York Giants in exchange for a 2023 third-round compensatory pick and a 2023 sixth-round a few days before the trade deadline, the deal wasn't exactly viewed as a blockbuster.

The 2021 first-rounder was viewed as a major disappointment with the Giants, totaling 420 yards on 41 receptions (10.2 yards per catch) and zero scores in 12 total games. Despite flashing big-play ability as a catch-and-run specialist with electric running skills -- particularly in a breakout performance (10 catches for 189 yards) against the Cowboys in Week 5 of the 2021 season -- Toney's Big Blue tenure was marred by inconsistencies, injuries and concerns about his cultural fit with the team under two different regimes.

With the second-year pro failing to fit into Brian Daboll's plans, the Chiefs made a move to add a dynamic player with the speed, explosiveness and big-play ability -- the type of weapon that had been missing from this attack since Tyreek Hill's offseason departure. Although Toney had essentially been a one-game wonder prior to being shopped on the trade market, he'd been a coveted prospect coming out of Florida due to his game-breaking skills in space.

Andy Reid's system routinely transforms speedy playmakers into stars. As a catch-and-run dynamo with return skills in his background, Toney fits the profile of home run hitters DeSean Jackson and Hill, both of whom shined in Reid's offense. We saw this in Toney's second game with the Chiefs last Sunday. In the 27-17 win over the Jaguars, Toney provided a number of splash plays: a hopscotching touchdown, a 32-yard jet sweep, a 23-yard tackle-breaking catch-and-run and a 22-yard highpoint gem. The second-year pro totaled 90 scrimmage yards and a score on six touches, adding another wrinkle to the league's top scoring offense.

As Toney settles into a role that should expand once he becomes more comfortable with the system, the Chiefs have reshaped their offense into a more balanced attack while retaining their explosive potential. If the former first-rounder continues to add the splash element in Kansas City, it will be hard to keep the Chiefs from making another deep postseason run.

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