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Top 10 MVP candidates: Patrick Mahomes leads field

With one week left in the 2018 NFL season, Chris Wesseling takes stock of the MVP race, assessing his top 10 picks for the award.

1) Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs

Drew Brees has thrown 32 touchdown passes this season. Philip Rivers has tossed 31. Mahomes has 31 -- on the road alone. In his first year as an NFL starter, Mahomes not only has 12 more touchdown passes than the next-closest quarterback (Andrew Luck, 36), he's also finding the end zone at a higher rate (8.6 percent of passes) than Peyton Manning did (8.3 percent) in setting a record with 55 touchdowns in 2013. You'll have to forgive me if I don't hold it against Mahomes when he scores more than 35 points and stakes his team to a fourth-quarter lead, only to see his defense collapse with the game on the line.

As Football Perspective's Chase Stuart recently noted, net passing efficiency remains the simplest statistical measure with which to identify the best teams in a given year. The Chiefs rank first overall despite placing just 20th in defense. Mahomes is flirting with 50 touchdowns and 5,000 yards, has kept his overmatched defense in every game and is the only quarterback yet to lay an egg this season. For all of his statistical prowess, however, Mahomes is my pick for MVP because he aces the eye test. He's been the most impressive player all season long, expanding the possibilities of a given play due to his escapability, creativity and unmatched arm strength. It can no longer be claimed without challenge that Aaron Rodgers is the most talented quarterback in football.

2) Drew Brees, quarterback, New Orleans Saints

Brees has the bonafides. He is 6-1 against teams with winning records at the time of their games against New Orleans and leads the NFL in passer rating (115.7), completion percentage (74.4), game-winning drives (7) and fourth-quarter comebacks (6). He joins Peyton Manning (2013), Aaron Rodgers (2011) and Tom Brady (2007) as the only quarterbacks in history to win at least 13 games and post a passer rating of at least 115. Each of those previous three won the MVP award that season. Based purely on his stretch of play from late September through Thanksgiving -- when he converted an improbable string of third and fourth downs to take down a series of playoff contenders -- Brees would topple Mahomes for the honor. But the season didn't end at Thanksgiving. The Saints' underrated defense has carried Brees' previously high-octane offense for the past month. Over their last four games, the Saints have averaged 20.3 points, 16.9 less than they'd averaged in the games heading into Week 13 (37.2).

3) Philip Rivers, quarterback, Los Angeles Chargers

The Bolts are finally playing up to their vast potential, vying with the division-rival Chiefs for the AFC's top playoff seed entering the season finale. The difference this time around is Rivers' penchant for orchestrating dramatic come-from-behind victories, as evidenced by the extraordinary comebacks in enemy territory at Pittsburghand Kansas City. One of the smartest quarterbacks of his generation, Rivers has a mind meld with his receivers. It often seems like he could throw a crossing route to Keenan Allen, a back-shoulder dart to Mike Williams or a post route to Tyrell Williams in his sleep. Is this truly a career year for Rivers? He led the league in passer rating in 2008, finished first in passing yards and yards per attempt in 2010 and placed third in Gregg Rosenthal's 2013 QB Index. It's the luck and the supporting cast that have changed, not Rivers.

4) Aaron Donald, defensive lineman, Los Angeles Rams

I wrote last week about Donald as the obvious choice for a second consecutive Defensive Player of the Year award. Pro Football Journal, the foremost authority on pass rushers and their history, recently noted that Donald is enjoying the finest season ever for an interior lineman. Here's where it gets crazy: Donald was elected first-team All-Pro in 2016 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2017. He has more sacks this year than he did in those previous two superlative seasons combined. What is the quarterback equivalent of that accomplishment?

5) Khalil Mack, linebacker, Chicago Bears

What a difference a blockbuster trade makes. The Bears have boasted the league's most dominant defense since the early September day when Raiders coach Jon Gruden gift-wrapped the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year for Chicago. The Bears are the first team since the 2006 Ravens with at least 45 sacks and 25 interceptions in a season. They are also the only team this season to have held a second-half lead in every game. If not for an ankle injury sustained by Mack in the first half of Chicago's overtime loss at Miami in Week 6, we'd be singing sea poems about this defense. With Mack hobbled at midseason, the Bears would go on to allow 69 points in back-to-back losses to the Dolphinsand Patriots. The Bears have won eight of nine since then, falling only to a Giants team that needed a trick-play touchdown toss from Odell Beckham to pull off an unlikely victory against backup QB Chase Daniel.

6) DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver, Houston Texans

Over the past decade, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (106) and DeAndre Hopkins (103) have the most receptions in a season without a drop. Here's the key contextual disparity: McCaffrey averages 0.9 air yards per target compared to Hopkins' 12.5, per Next Gen Stats. A sideline and end-zone contortionist with vise-grip hands, Hopkins is a worthy successor to Larry Fitzgerald as a pro's pro and the master of the impossible catch. Hopkins and quarterback Deshaun Watson are carrying an offense that has allowed the most sacks (56), can no longer run the ball and doesn't have another active receiver or tight end with more than 300 receiving yards.

7) Andrew Luck, quarterback, Indianapolis Colts

We ask the same question of top-tier quarterbacks that we demand of generational basketball stars: Does he make his teammates better? With a healthy Luck at the helm, Eric Ebron has gone from Lions cast-off to breaking Dallas Clark's franchise record for touchdowns in a season by a tight end. Dontrelle Inman was sitting on his couch into October. Now Luck is throwing him open for 30-yard, back-shoulder catches that catapult the Colts to thrilling fourth-quarter comebacks. Luck is second only to Mahomes with 36 touchdown passes, tossing to the likes of Mo Alie-Cox, Zach Pascal, Chester Rogers and Nyheim Hines for a wild-card contender that has won eight of its last nine games.

8) Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks were left for dead in September, a burned-out husk missing Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril and still haunted by Marshawn Lynch's absence. The offensive line was a mess, the ground attack had no teeth and Wilson was running himself into sacks at an aberrant rate. In the wake of the "Monday Night Football" loss to Chicago, the coaching staff rallied the troops, created an identity around the run-heaviest offense in football and asked Wilson to carry out run-pass fakes and hit big plays downfield. Mission accomplished. Wilson remains one of the most efficient downfield passers in football, unfurling Jeff Blake-like rainbow bombs that allow Tyler Lockett, Doug Baldwin and David Moore to make plays at the catch point. The Seahawks have spurted to the NFC's No. 5 seed with a 7-4 record over the past 11 games, bolstered by Wilson's NFL-best 120.6 passer rating over that span.

9) Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys

The Amari Cooper trade was a godsend, but Elliott has been the engine that makes this machine go since the day he first donned the Cowboys' star three years ago. He leads the league in carries (304), touches (381), rushing yards (1,434) and yards from scrimmage (2,001). Becoming a bigger factor in the aerial attack, he also leads Dallas in targets (95) and receptions (77), demolishing previous career highs in receiving numbers. Stopping Elliott in short-yardage situations is one of the toughest tasks a defense faces. He's a bigger, more physically gifted version of an early-career Frank Gore, making himself skinny to get through tight spaces. While other great backs offer similar size, power and agility, they simply don't have Elliott's vision and uncanny instincts. He's about to join Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson as the only players to lead the league in rushing yards per game for three straight seasons, per NFL Research.

10) Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs

Going back to the beginning of the 2017 season, it has long been my contention that no skill-position player is more important to his team's offense than Hill. Saints luminaries Brees and Sean Payton agree, telling NBC Sports' Peter King in mid-November that Hill is the most dangerous player in football right now. Like Randy Moss in his prime, Hill allows the rest of the offense to feast, creating large tracts of open land with rare, game-breaking speed that depletes the defensive resources needed to stop the rest of Mahomes' weapons.


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