The highest individual honor in the NFL is being named "Most Valuable Player" by the Associated Press.
In a sport where every team goes into the season with 53 active players and a hard salary cap figured down to the dollar, it's no wonder that the top award goes to the player who helps his team win games more than anyone else.
Everything is set for 2013.
Every team has a new crop of rookies. Every team has more or less filled its 90 roster spots and spent as much of its $123 million in salary cap space as it's going to. Every team has the coaches, the systems and the players they're going to have for the rest of the year.
Springtime in the NFL is the annual season of optimism and hope. Everything is growing, and everything is new again. Which teams will take advantage of the fresh start and dominate in 2013? Which young, dynamic players will help them take the next step? Which up-and-coming players will ascend to the rarefied air of the truly elite?
Which rising stars will approach MVP status in 2013?
Cam Newton had a spectacular rookie season, breaking production records from his very first game. After throwing for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushing 126 times for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns, Newton made his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Things didn't go quite so swimmingly in Newton's sophomore year. After the first seven games, the Panthers were sitting at 1-6, and Newton had thrown only five touchdown passes to eight interceptions.
Then, Newton got back on track.
Over the last nine games, Newton threw 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions, rallying the Panthers to a 7-9 record.
Every NFL team relies on its quarterback, but if Newton plays like he did in the back half of 2012, the Panthers are elevated from an also-ran to a playoff team—and Newton goes from a big bundle of potential to an MVP candidate.
Colin Kaepernick began the 2012 season as a backup, project quarterback with his own little "running quarterback" package. But in the span of a few short weeks, he replaced an injured starter, was the "hot hand" and then became an unstoppable force shredding NFL playoff teams to bits by air and by land.
After a furious Super Bowl rally fell short, Kaepernick enters his third season—and first as a starter—with very little left to accomplish. As the quarterback of a Super Bowl favorite that improved in the offseason, Kaepernick has every opportunity to take home football's highest individual honor.
If Kaepernick can be 80 percent of what he was in the 2012 playoffs each week in 2013, he'll be a very strong MVP candidate.
The phrase "shocked the world" is more than overused, and it's hard to shock anyone over the course of an entire NFL season.
But when third-round draft pick Russell Wilson and his 5'11" frame beat out Matt Flynn and his three-year, $26 million contract in the 2012 preseason, it piqued interest. When he then led the Seattle Seahawks to an 11-5 record and the second round of the playoffs, it shocked everyone who cares about NFL football.
Wilson, who combined outstanding athleticism with an uncanny knack for making plays downfield, put up veteran numbers as a rookie. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes, threw 26 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions and gained an average of 7.9 yards per attempt.
If Wilson can keep his play at the same level, the new additions (like wide receiver Percy Harvin) could help Seattle reach the latest stages of the playoffs—while potentially earning Wilson the MVP award.
Only two defensive players have won the Associated Press NFL MVP award in the 55 years it's been awarded: linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986 and defensive tackle Alan Page in 1971.
The play of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, though, has been nothing short of incredible. From the 3-4 defensive end spot—a position where it's difficult to generate big numbers—Watt led the NFL in sacks with 20.5. He also racked up 69 solo tackles.
Incredibly, his knack for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage meant he finished in a tie for ninth in the NFL in passes defensed, with 16—just behind then-Eagles cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Watt's Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grade of 101.6 was more than double that of the next-highest 3-4 defensive end. Pro-Football-Reference's approximate value, a stat that calculates total production relative to each player's team, shows Watt was the NFL's most valuable player in 2012.
If he turns in another performance like that in 2013—and the Texans dominate the AFC—Watt could be the Most Valuable Player in 2013.
It's easy to think of running backs as disposable these days. As a four-year veteran who made the Pro Bowl in his third season then struggled to stay healthy during a disastrous 2012 season, it's easy to think of LeSean McCoy as "past it."
McCoy, though, is only 24—and one whole-team implosion removed from rushing for 1,309 yards and a league-leading 17 touchdowns.
As new head coach Chip Kelly transforms the Philadelphia Eagles offense into something the NFL likely hasn't ever seen before, McCoy's role will change too.
Old head coach Andy Reid was notoriously run-averse, but at Oregon, Kelly's offense took old-school power run-blocking and added modern wrinkles to make it devastatingly effective. McCoy is the perfect grown-up, every-down NFL version of the home-run-hitting jitterbugs Kelly recruited at Oregon.
With elite talent and a system that maximizes it, the necessary elements are there for McCoy to have a splendid year. All that's left is for the Eagles to prove they can win games.
However, the addition of Luck—and little else, save the replacement of the coaching staff—turned the Colts around from the worst record in the NFL (2-14) to an 11-5 playoff team. It's hard to imagine any player being more valuable.
Is it true that the Colts had a lot of "luck," as well as a lot of Luck? Absolutely; teams don't often get outscored by their opponents 357-387 and win six more games than they lose.
Luck, though, was responsible for a lot of that luck; Pro-Football-Reference credits him with four fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives. Those two numbers were tied for second-best and best in the NFL, respectively.
Even after the Colts went on a free-agency spending spree and drafted to fill immediate needs, they'll still need Luck on MVP form to get back to the playoffs. But he has already proven he has what it takes in that department.
If J.J. Watt's 2012 season didn't get him on the shortlist, Von Miller likely has no shot in 2013. He really has no shot if teammate Peyton Manning turns in a 2013 performance anything like his 2012 season.
Miller, though, has been truly incredible.
Outside linebackers in 4-3 defenses typically have a very hard time making an impact on the game. They don't rush the passer anywhere near as often as their 3-4 contemporaries, and in the modern game they have more coverage responsibilities than ever.
Despite this, Miller put up incredible numbers in 2012—just his second year in the NFL. He recorded 18.5 sacks, 55 solo tackles, 13 assists and an interception (which he returned for a touchdown).
Pro-Football-Reference's approximate value stat slotted Miller 10th—again, from a position that more or less prevents elite production. If Miller gets any better, he'll at least be a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year on a team that's a strong Super Bowl contender.
If Calvin Johnson can't get a sniff of the MVP award after the Lions' 2011 season, Green likely can't this season either.
Green, though, has been every bit the "one-man offense" Johnson has been at times in Detroit, and the Bengals have now made the playoffs two seasons in a row. As the 24-year-old Green gets better and better, the Bengals should have no qualms about feeding him a steady diet of passes.
If explosive tailback Giovani Bernard and versatile athletic tight end Tyler Eifert have the rookie impact many expect, the Bengals could finally have a balanced offense to go with their stingy defense—and the they could start dominating, instead of just winning.
Robert Griffin III was the NFL's best story of 2012.
He single-handedly transformed the Washington Redskins from a perennially overpaid, overhyped squad with too many "names" and too few playmakers into one of the most dynamic, aggressive, fun-to-watch teams in football.
With head coach Mike Shanahan's willingness to use him in modern, creative ways, Griffin captured the NFL world's attention with his incredible passing talent and veteran production—not to mention his blazing speed and sparkling athleticism.
Griffin was devastating through the air in his rookie season, completing 65.6 percent of his passes for 3,200 yards, 20 touchdowns and just five interceptions. And with 120 rushing attempts for 815 yards and seven touchdowns, he was also lethal on the ground.
Then, in the playoffs, Griffin was felled to the ground.
If Griffin can recover from the knee injury that had the whole football world wincing last January, be the player he was in 2012 and lead the Redskins back to the playoffs, he'll be the NFL's best story of 2013—and perhaps its Most Valuable Player.