Top 10 NFL MVP candidates in 2020: Aaron Rodgers edges Patrick Mahomes

As we round the final turn toward the regular season's finish line, it's the perfect time to revisit our list of top 10 candidates for NFL Most Valuable Player. I last performed this exercise in early October. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.

There's a clear leader at this point, which we'll get to below, but I first need to address an important factor that goes into this list -- no matter if we agree with it or not. Often, and especially in the last decade and a half, this award has gone to the best-performing quarterback who is also on one of the league's best teams. No. 1 below finds himself checking both of those boxes.

One player who isn't on this list, but has an individual case clearly strong enough to warrant consideration? Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has compiled an excellent campaign even as his team has crawled to a 4-11 record with a game left to play. Houston's struggles have resulted in the firing of its coach and general manager, and have exasperated just about everyone, leaving J.J. Watt to deliver a two-minute monologue on how every Texan needs to realize how much of a privilege it is to play a game for a living. Watson has undoubtedly exceeded Watt's standard, but football is the ultimate team game, and while Houston's quarterback is certainly one of the most valuable players to any franchise in the NFL, he's simply not going to garner enough consideration because of his team's overall performance.

Wins and losses matter in this league more than anything. Houston's struggles aren't the fault of Watson, yet it is a shame he'll be held back by them. There's always next year.

As for this campaign, let's dive into the top 10 MVP candidates.

Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · QB

Rodgers' 2020 offseason met an unexpected fork in the road before the calendar turned to May, when the Packers surprised many by not spending their first-round pick on a new toy for Rodgers in a class deep at receiver, but on his presumptive eventual replacement. Rodgers himself had once been in Jordan Love's shoes, and instead of allowing it to enrage him and affect his play, Rodgers has responded how most champions would: by elevating his play to new heights.

Rodgers has been absolutely stellar in 2020, posting the best passer rating in the NFL (119.4) and a sparkling touchdown-to-interception ratio of 44:5. That TD total comfortably leads the NFL, and Rodgers still has a chance to flirt with the magical number of 50 in the final week of the season.

Rodgers' value only increases when diving into the advanced metrics. Rodgers owns a 150.4 total passing expected points added, the second-most in the NFL, and his passing EPA per dropback of 0.29 is the most in the league. Rodgers benefits from Green Bay's strong backfield stable headlined by Aaron Jones, as proven by Rodgers' excellence on play-action passes, in which he's thrown 19 touchdowns and gone interception-free -- the most touchdowns and the best TD-to-INT ratio in the NFL. 

Rodgers enjoys the luxury of playing behind a line that is allowing the league's second-lowest pressure rate (16.5 percent), but that's not to discount his achievements. As he's done for most of his career, Rodgers is exceeding expectation. His +4.3 completion percentage over expectation is tied for fourth-best in the league.

The combination of the quarterback's numbers and Green Bay's standing as the NFC's No. 1 seed entering the final week of the season is overwhelming. Rodgers will be your MVP in 2020.

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · QB

The reigning Super Bowl MVP was in a dead heat with Rodgers for months, but a recent stretch of less-than-superhuman play has given the Packers signal-caller a slight edge. Mahomes posted his second-lowest Pro Football Focus grade of the entire season in Week 16 (51.2), while Rodgers landed in the elite 90 Club with a 93.5 mark. But we're going well beyond PFF grades here.

There are numbers to back up Mahomes' case. He leads the NFL in total passing EPA with 164.9 (and ranks second in passing EPA per dropback at 0.27), a number that bodes well for his chances, as the leader in total passing EPA has won MVP in every season since the Next Gen Stats era began in 2016. His rushing EPA is also the sixth-most among QBs (superior to Rodgers) and his rushing EPA per rush is the ninth-most among quarterbacks. As we know too well by now, Mahomes is at his best as a runner when trying to get past the sticks, gaining 21 first downs (ninth-most among quarterbacks).

But when it comes to this race, a strong finish might decide it. Mahomes hasn't blown folks away as frequently as usual in recent weeks, and the Chiefs have locked up the No. 1 seed in the AFC and have little to play for in Week 17 -- already announcing they'll rest Mahomes for Kansas City's season-closing game against the Los Angeles Chargers. His recent stretch might have decided things, but if he finishes second, he might be the best to ever end up winning silver, not gold.

Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · RB

We're nearing the end of a regular season, and look, there's Henry at the top of the rushing leaderboard once again. Henry's 2020 has been especially unique and he's truly in a class of his own when it comes to running. Henry leads the NFL in rushing yards by 220, has scored 15 times on the ground and is averaging over 5 yards per carry. A year after needing a monstrous Week 17 to surpass Nick Chubb for the rushing title, Henry lacks a legitimate challenger with the player directly behind him, Dalvin Cooknot playing in Week 17

Henry's Next Gen numbers are even more impressive. Henry has gained 314 yards over expectation, the most in the NFL, and boasts the only RYOE total over 300 in the entire league. Defenses bent on stopping Henry haven't found success, either, with Henry averaging nearly 6 yards per carry (5.9) against stacked boxes (eight-plus defenders) and scoring 10 touchdowns in such scenarios. Those marks are the highest in the NFL.

Henry is again the NFL's best running back, and while this award tends to go to the league's leading quarterback, he has an incredibly strong case for MVP.

Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · QB

2020 has been the year of massive leaps for Allen and the Buffalo Bills, who look like one of the NFL's best teams, with the QB responsible for much of their rise to prominence. Allen ranks third in the NFL in passing yards, fifth in passer rating and owns a 34:9 TD-to-INT ratio. Those searching for reasons for his improvement needn't look any further than the man wearing No. 14, Stefon Diggs, who has teamed with Allen to reset the franchise's single-season catches and receiving yards records, while also ascending to the top of the league in both categories.

For the first time since the days of Jim Kelly, Buffalo has an elite quarterback and a top-tier No. 1 wideout. It's easy to see, then, how Allen has made such a leap, but the numbers make his 2020 even more incredible. Once deemed a risk because of a tendency to risk it all for the big play, Allen has matured as a decision-maker, flipping his completion percentage over expectation from a bottom-third rate in 2018 (-7.7, worst in the NFL) and '19 (-3.7, third-lowest) to +4.4, the third-highest mark in the league.

Allen has improved even when free of pressure, a significant sign of a wiser signal-caller at a still-early stage in his career. His completion percentage of 74.0 when not pressured is the seventh-highest mark in the league, another massive leap from where he was in 2018 (58.3) and '19 (61.7).

The Bills have benefitted from a fantastic confluence of events in 2020. Allen has cut down on taking risks, Diggs has unlocked the passing game and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has demonstrated an intimate understanding of how to direct the offense with Allen at the controls. Their 12-3 mark is no fluke, and neither is Allen's MVP candidacy.

Alvin Kamara
New Orleans Saints · RB

It's entirely fair to wonder where the Saints would stand without Kamara at this point in 2020.

Kamara has gained 101 rushing yards over expectation this season, the 10th-most in the league, and has been excellent against stacked boxes, tying Henry for the league lead with 10 touchdowns in such scenarios. He also leads the league in yards gained after the catch with 757, and while that number tends to be inflated for running backs who catch the ball in space with room to work, Kamara has barreled through that caveat in 2020, with 183 of his 757 YAC coming over expectation (also the most in the NFL).

Kamara is as productive in the passing game as some of the league's top receivers and leads all running backs in one key category: receiving yards gained per route. At 2.3, Kamara is in the top 20 in the league and the only running back to land in the top 30 in the category.

Kamara is doing it all and is a huge reason for why the Saints are in a good spot heading into the playoffs.

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks · QB

Wilson was the leader in MVP discussions during the first half of the season, and while a midseason fall back to reality dropped him from serious consideration, he's again assembled a stellar campaign. Wilson ranks eighth in passing yards, sixth in passer rating and owns a 38:13 TD-to-INT ratio, enjoying the benefits of a receiving corps that features two star pass-catchers in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.

Even with a two-headed monster at receiver, Wilson has built his case on his own achievements. He ranks second in the NFL in completion percentage over expectation (+4.4), leads the league in touchdowns thrown on deep passes (13) and has thrown for the most touchdowns under pressure (eight) in 2020. His passer rating under pressure is similarly excellent at 98.4, the second-highest rating in the league.

Seattle has needed the middle and late portions of the season to grow into what appears to be its final form, but it's nowhere near this stage without Wilson involved. He's again proven to be the franchise quarterback few saw him becoming when he was selected in the third round out of Wisconsin a decade ago.

Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB

Brady's trip south grabbed the league's headlines for most of the offseason, and while a cast of past and present stars have followed him to Tampa, the Buccaneers are headed back to the playoffs primarily because of the play of the ageless wonder who owns six Super Bowl rings.

Brady is responsible for 101.3 total passing expected points added in 2020, the fourth-most in the NFL, while also ranking 10th in the league in passer rating (101.0). He's fifth in passing yards and has again put together quite an impressive TD-to-INT ratio at 36:11 by taking advantage of Tampa Bay's emphasis on throwing downfield, averaging 9.2 air yards per attempt this season (second-most in the league). He's also been effective in play-action, throwing 13 touchdowns and posting a 126.5 passer rating on such plays, with each mark ranking third or better.

A late-season surge has the Buccaneers primed for a deep playoff run. Since Week 12, Brady has turned around his deep-passing performance, completing 14 of 22 attempts for 493 yards and five touchdowns -- the most completions, yards and touchdowns on deep passes in that span. It took much of the season to get there, but Brady is finally nearing his peak in Bruce Arians' ball-pushing offense, and it's creating exactly the scenario most envisioned for these Buccaneers back in March.

T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers · OLB

Watt no longer needs his older brother to sell his value to the rest of the league via social media, because J.J. is now far from the last to consider T.J. for Defensive Player of the Year. The younger Watt leapt back to the top of the league in sacks (15) in Week 16, and he's also made an impact in pass coverage with seven passes defensed.

Watt's greatest strength is, of course, getting after the quarterback. Watt leads the NFL in quarterback pressures with 71 and in pressure percentage at 16.3, while also landing in a tie for second in the league with 44 QB hurries. The only thing Watt hasn't doesn't exceptionally well in is causing turnovers with his pressures, registering just two on the season, well below Myles Garrett's league-leading seven.

While most peg Watt as an edge-rushing specialist, Pittsburgh has found additional success by moving Watt around. The defender averages a pass-rush get-off of 0.87 seconds from interior defensive alignments, the fastest in the entire league -- even better than Aaron Donald, who typically dominates the category from his defensive tackle position.

Watt is doing just about everything to make a difference defensively, and while he won't win MVP, he very well could be the Defensive Player of the Year as the top dog on the AFC North champion Steelers.

Aaron Donald
Los Angeles Rams · DT

Right behind Watt on the sacks leaderboard is Donald, who frequently fights through multiple blockers to cause complete havoc for opposing offenses. Donald has 13.5 sacks, four forced fumbles (one recovery) and 10 run stuffs in 2020. He ranks second in the NFL in total disruptions (73), trailing only Watt (80) in the category, while also causing three turnovers with QB pressure.

Donald's position isn't glamorous, but he's also never been a pretty sight for opposing linemen. On a yearly basis, Donald makes a huge difference for the Rams, who are on the cusp of returning to the playoffs with a Week 17 win.

Davante Adams
Green Bay Packers · WR

Rodgers is in the catbird seat for MVP because of his passing prowess, but he wouldn't be there without Adams. The receiver is the best route runner in the NFL, and you can look to one game -- a Week 16 win over Tennessee played on a snowy Lambeau Field -- for his excellence in footwork. Adams didn't lose any of his rare advantage off the line despite considerable snowfall covering the playing surface.

That same footwork is what has allowed Adams to win in a variety of fashions, and Green Bay is well aware of his value all over the field. Adams leads the NFL with 10-plus targets on eight different types of routes run, and also ranks No. 1 in receiving yards gained per route (3.2), with all routes considered. His best threat comes when he's lined up on the perimeter -- capable of running any route asked of him from that alignment, but ultimately headed for the boundary -- as evidenced by his 13 touchdown receptions on targets outside the numbers this season.

Adams' 1,328 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns more than prove his worth, and if his quarterback ends up winning the league's top individual award, he'll have No. 17 to thank plenty.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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