NFL Picks: Best Dark Horse Candidates to Win MVP Award

Rivers McCown

Friday, July 31, 2015 9:21 PM UTC

Friday, Jul. 31, 2015 9:21 PM UTC

We use some historic criteria to single out the most intriguing dark horse candidates to win the NFL Most Valuable Player award this season.

Forecasting the NFL Most Valuable Player Award shouldn’t be a particularly difficult exercise. After all, only three players—Aaron RodgersPeyton Manning and Tom Brady—have combined to win seven of the past eight MVPs. And given the NFL odds against any individual player beating the field in the MVP race, even placing money on a chalk selection could deliver a solid return. For instance, the reigning MVP Rodgers is this year’s favorite at +300 from 5Dimes.

However, if you’re looking at an individual vs. the field type of futures prop, where every selection is a longshot, it makes more sense to try and really cash in on a lottery ticket. That doesn’t mean you should blindly place your faith in Andy Dalton’s +5000 odds, but using some historic criteria, we can narrow down the list of candidates to single out the most intriguing MVP darkhorse bets:


Pick a Quarterback: Running backs have won the award 18 times, but in a league that has marginalized the ground game, it’s almost impossible for a running back to accrue the necessary stats and impact to wedge himself in the MVP conversation. In general, non-quarterbacks need to reach a historic benchmark—think Adrian Peterson’s 2,000-yard 2012 campaign, or LaDainian Tomlinson’s 31-touchdown season in 2006. And by the way, not even the great Jerry Rice was able to bring home an MVP for the wide receivers, so feel free to ignore the likes of Antonio Brown (+1500) and Odell Beckham Jr. (+2000).


Pick a First Timer: The Rodgers-Manning-Brady triumvirate might actually be facing an uphill battle due to “Michael Jordan Syndrome.” Fair or not, MVP voters have traditionally shown deference to excellent players who have yet to win an MVP award, which famously led NBA voters to pick Karl Malone and Charles Barkley in the 90s. Andrew Luck is 2015’s obvious candidate because of this rule, but as the second favorite at +500, you can find better value than the Colts quarterback.


Must Play on a 10+ Win Team: An MVP doesn’t have to play on a 14-win juggernaut, but anything less than 10 wins and a postseason berth probably disqualifies a player from contention. No player has won MVP on a team winning fewer than 10 games since Barry Sanders in 1997. And Sanders, who split the AP award with Brett Favre that year, was a first-time winner who ran for over 2,000 yards, helping him check off all the other boxes necessary for an MVP resume. Quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Cam Newton hold intriguing statistical upside, but uncertainty surrounding their supporting cast make both players shaky bets to fit this criteria.

So with these ideas in mind, three players stand out with particularly intriguing cases for an MVP ticket from bettors this preseason:


Russell Wilson (+800): The narrative factor might particularly fall in Wilson’s favor. The biggest detractors of the Seattle Seahawks quarterback have been eager to dole out credit to his impeccable supporting cast via Marshawn Lynch and Seattle’s defense. With Wilson embroiled in a contract dispute that could have him playing out the final year of his rookie deal at $1.5 million, perhaps MVP voters would be more inclined to throw votes his way if Wilson’s gamble on himself pays off. In truth, it’s not fair to penalize Wilson simply because the mainstream’s preconceived preference for a steady pocket quarterback. Based on Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value metric, Wilson was actually the second-most valuable quarterback in the game last season, behind only Rodgers. While that’s likely an overstatement of his value, an uptick in Wilson’s passing stats following Jimmy Graham’s arrival isn’t impossible to imagine. If the Seahawks remain a Super Bowl contending outfit, all while the offense shifts to a more Wilson-centric identity, that might vault him into serious MVP consideration.


Ben Roethlisberger (+1000): Unlike Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger has absolutely nothing to prove statistically. Big Ben is coming off a career-best year that saw him set or match career-highs in passing yardage (4,952), passing touchdowns (32) and total QBR (72.48). For the analytics inclined, Roethlisberger finished atop the league in Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) metric. Peyton, Brady or Drew Brees had won the passing DYAR title every single season since 2002, when Rich Gannon captured the title. Yet strangely, Roethlisberger didn’t receive a single first-place MVP vote last year, even though Bobby Wagner received one. Continuity should help Roethlisberger post similar numbers in 2015, as the Steelers have brought back all 11 offensive starters from last season. The biggest key might be getting Pittsburgh into first-round bye territory, as the Steelers have been second-class AFC citizens to the Patriots, Colts, Broncos and Ravens over the past three years. If Roethlisberger posts league-leading numbers while leading Pittsburgh to the top of an ubercompetitive AFC North for the second straight season, you can bet voters will start to take stronger notice.


Tony Romo (+1500): Here’s where the narrative factor absolutely anchors down a seemingly worthy MVP candidate. Tony Romo still isn’t taken seriously by a large crowd of detractors who will point to his single career postseason victory and penchant for critical turnovers in high-leverage situations (though that story has never really been true). But even his most irascible critics would concede that Romo thrived in an offense centered around DeMarco Murray last season, as he set career-highs in completion percentage (69.9), touchdown percentage (7.9), yards per attempt (8.5) and total QBR (82.75). The question now is whether Romo can sustain those lofty numbers with Murray off to Philadelphia, and that’s where the skepticism comes into play. One factor in Romo’s favor, though, is the offensive line. According to Football Outsiders’ charting, Romo thrived when he didn’t face pass pressure, ranking third overall in yards per play. And he only faced pressure on 21.2 percent of his dropbacks, the ninth-lowest rate in the league. If the offensive line can keep Romo clean even as he drops back more often, perhaps the general public will give Romo the credit they’ve always begrudged him, creating a terrific redemption narrative for MVP voters to chew on.

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