It is easy to sit back in August and proclaim Peyton Manning as the favorite to win the 2014 NFL MVP, but he is sure to be challenged by a number of competitors.
Some are more obvious—think Drew Brees, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson or even Adrian Peterson—but there are a number of under-the-radar candidates who could seize the award. After all, the NFL prides itself on its parity, so there figures to be at least one sleeper to upset the natural order of things.
With that in mind, let’s look at three players in particular who could surprise in the MVP race.
QB Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
It doesn’t get much better than that in terms of a one-two punch at wide receiver. White has been one of the most consistent receivers in the league throughout his career and actually topped 1,000 yards receiving six straight seasons before missing time last year. Jones is the dynamic young playmaker who tallied 1,198 yards in 2012 and 580 yards in only five games before getting hurt last year.
Ryan threw for 4,515 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2013 even though his two top targets on the outside missed a combined 14 games.
Just having those two guys out there will help Ryan cut down on the 17 interceptions he posted a year ago as well because they both catch nearly anything within their vicinity. Ryan actually commented on the possibility of Jones and White becoming the first teammates in NFL history to post 1,500-yard seasons, via Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk:
I think it’s possible, absolutely. When you look at what Roddy has done historically here, he’s always been consistent. I think everybody knows what he’s capable of doing. Julio has had three really good years when he has been healthy. Last year through five games, certainly he was on pace to do that. I’m lucky to have two of the best guys and the best tandem in the NFL. I think they’re both going to have big years.
We know Ryan will post eye-popping numbers with White and Jones as targets, but the fact that Atlanta’s defense ranked 31st in the league in opposing rushing yards allowed and 21st in opposing passing yards allowed last year means there could be some shootouts in store for the Falcons.
Shootouts lead to more throws, more throws lead to more yards and touchdowns and more yards and touchdowns could lead to MVP votes for Mr. Ryan.
QB Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears
Speaking of quarterbacks who will benefit from a plethora of offensive weapons, Jay Cutler should thrive in his second season under Marc Trestman.
Only the Denver Broncos scored more total points than the Chicago Bears last season, and Cutler posted a career-best passer rating of 89.2. What’s more, his 63.1 completion percentage was second-best in Chicago history.
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Those numbers should get even better as the signal-caller grows more comfortable in Trestman’s system.
Of course, having Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett as receiving options doesn’t hurt either. Marshall and Jeffery are both physical receivers who snag the ball in traffic, go up and get it at its highest point and fight for yards after the catch. Bennett is a dangerous option in the red zone who will be a security blanket for Cutler when his two outside receivers are double-teamed.
Oh, and then there’s Matt Forte, who ranked third among all running backs last year with 74 catches and fourth with 594 receiving yards.
All Cutler has to do is get the ball in his playmakers’ hands and let them do the work. If he racks up the stats by doing just that and Chicago reaches the postseason, don’t be surprised if some MVP votes come his way.
QB Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles
All Nick Foles did last season was learn an entirely new offensive system, take over the starting quarterback spot from Michael Vick and put up 2,891 passing yards and 27 touchdowns along the way. What’s more, he did it in 13 games and only threw two interceptions.
Foles even finished with the NFL’s best passer rating of 119.2 and led the Philadelphia Eagles to the playoffs.
Sure, there could be some reason for concern after he threw two interceptions in his first 2014 preseason game, but let’s not jump to conclusions. After all, it was just the preseason, where strange things happen, as Chris B. Brown of Smart Football noted:
Preseason football: Where Nick Foles looks shaky and Mark Sanchez is throwing lasers.— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) August 9, 2014
Foles will have a year of experience in Chip Kelly’s high-octane attack under his belt and an entirely new set of weapons. Yes, the loss of DeSean Jackson could hurt, but Jeremy Maclin returns from injury and the team drafted Jordan Matthews from Vanderbilt. Remember, Matthews set all-time SEC records with 262 catches and 3,759 receiving yards and will likely contribute immediately.
Throw in Riley Cooper, who had a breakout campaign with 835 receiving yards a year ago, and LeSean McCoy, who tallied 539 receiving yards in 2013, and the Eagles are set in the playmaker category. Much like Ryan and Cutler, Foles simply has to get them the ball and let the stats take care of themselves.
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