2011 NFL MVP Race: The Early Front-Runners

Brian LevensonContributor ISeptember 1, 2011

2011 NFL MVP Race: The Early Front-Runners

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    The NFL's 2011 season kicks off on September 11th this year in what is sure to be a wonderful show of solidarity and ceremony. When that day arrives, all teams will be 0-0, all fans will be hopeful, and all players will be equal for a moment in time.

    Of course, once the season begins, players will quickly begin to separate themselves. The best players will rise to the top and the rest will...settle out to their respective places in the league. Who will rise to the top? That's what this article will be about. I'll be ranking the best players in the league based on how likely they are to win the NFL MVP award.

    Get ready for a wild ride through some crazy hypotheticals, I'm predicting the top 30 competitors for the NFL MVP award.

30. Reggie Wayne, WR, Colts

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    I made a list of every irreplaceable player I could name across the league. It had four wide receivers, six defensive stars, seven running backs and 13 quarterbacks. Odds are very good that the MVP will be a quarterback, so obviously those players will settle towards the top, and odds are very low that a wide receiver will be given the MVP award at all.

    That's why Reggie Wayne is No. 30 on this list.

    Wayne is undoubtedly a top five receiver in the NFL. He has one of the greatest quarterbacks ever throwing him the ball, and statistically, he's likely to have another strong, strong year this year. The reason I have him rated 30th is that no matter how well Wayne performs, his success will be very closely tied to Peyton Manning.

    Voters will see Manning as the force behind Wayne's success, so Wayne likely won't even find his way into the conversation. He is, however, this good.

29. Steven Jackson, RB, Rams

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    If the Rams catch a few breaks, they could push for the playoffs. If they do manage that, it would be on the strength of Sam Bradford's arm but mostly on the running of Steven Jackson.

    He's been consistently underrated around the league for the last few years. He's struggled with injuries, but if he can stay healthy, Jackson could put up incredible numbers. He has great strength and enough quickness and burst to make people miss.

    The likelihood that the Rams are relevant is small, however, and all of the love being heaped upon Bradford (which I don't understand, by the way) will likely keep Jackson's name low on the list. Still, the team won't succeed without some serious production from Jackson.

28. Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions

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    Matt Stafford was great when he has been on the field for the Lions. If only he wasn't made so injury-prone. Not only is Stafford made of glass, he's made of candy glass, and he's missed significant time in each of his NFL seasons. Lions fans will make excuses for him, but it's true.

    But this is a hopeful time of year, when anything is possible. Even the Lions making the playoffs is a possibility (as odd as that sounds to say). In fact, it's a legitimate possibility if Stafford performs at the level expected of him this year.

    Stafford is probably a 40 to 1 shot to win the NFL MVP in 2011, but he has to be on the list of potential candidates.

27. Ray Lewis, ILB, Ravens

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    I don't know how well Ray Lewis is going to play this year in reality, but if I'm naming the greatest, most highly-regarded players in the league, the name Ray Lewis comes to mind.

    He's getting older now, but Ray Lewis is a very powerful hitter and still has enough speed to make plays on defense. He also leads a Ravens defense that has the potential to play very well this year.

    If the Ravens can knock off the Steelers in the AFC North, it will probably be by playing superior defense. If they are playing superior defense, it will probably be because of Ray Lewis.

26. DeMarcus Ware, OLB, Cowboys

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    DeMarcus Ware is a sack master. All he's done in his career is get after the quarterback and take him down.

    Defensive players rarely, if ever, garner any serious consideration for NFL MVP awards, but a guy who goes out and gets 15 sacks for a top five defense on a winning team can certainly get his name in the picture. Ware's propensity for causing fumbles doesn't hurt his chances either.

    It's not likely, but it's possible that DeMarcus Ware could be that player.

25. Josh Freeman, QB, Buccaneers

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a good chance of making the playoffs this year. They have a solid core of players on both sides of the ball. Most importantly, they have a young, ascending quarterback in Josh Freeman.

    He earned a lot of respect with his impressive performance last year. He led a Bucs team that no one really considered a contender to a 10-6 record and did so convincingly. Right now, I'm not sure that Freeman can get the kind of numbers he would need to be an MVP candidate, but who knows.

    Anything is possible in the NFL.

24. Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions

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    If Larry Fitzgerald is the No. 1 receiver in the NFL, Calvin Johnson is 1A. Megatron, as he is called, is the kind of receiver who makes plays you would never expect to see in your life. He's a three-ring-circus catch machine, and this year promises more of the same from one of the most acrobatic receivers in the league.

    The Lions will be competing for the division title this year, which will give Johnson an opportunity to show his skill on the biggest stage. Given the chance, Johnson will have an incredible year.

    Wide receiver is usually a position I don't put much stock in, but Calvin Johnson is invaluable to the Lions and is worth mentioning in terms of the MVP race in 2011.

23. Jamaal Charles, RB, Chiefs

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    The Chiefs have one of the best running backs in the league in Jamaal Charles.

    He is a big play waiting to happen and is the heart and soul of the Chiefs offense. If the Chiefs retain their division title, it won't be because of Matt Cassel running the offense, it will have everything to do with the running game and everything to do with Charles.

    He's not exactly a workhorse back, but Charles is a very effective player.

    There is a possibility that Charles could find himself in the MVP discussion by the end of the year.

22. Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys

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    Romo is coming off of a serious injury in 2010, but his absence shouldn't make you forget the kind of player he is.

    Romo is a great talent at the quarterback position, and he has a great history of success in the regular season. His postseason stats are a different subject, but that doesn't have much to do with MVP voting.

    The Cowboys are America's team, so everyone will be talking about the Cowboys whether they fully deserve it or not. Out of everyone on the Cowboys, most of the focus will be on the man under center. If Romo can thrive under the brightest of lights, he may play his way into an MVP year.

21. Matt Forte, RB, Bears

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    I'm not sure who will end up being a more viable option as an MVP candidate: Jay Cutler or Matt Forte. Still, both should be mentioned.

    The Bears offense has the potential to deliver big numbers, and considering that they have a capable defense, this team could be a serious contender in the NFC North.

    Forte is a back who can catch the ball out of the backfield just as well as he can run with it. Forte is considered a top five running back in the league, and not without reason. He's an extremely effective player.

20. John Abraham, DE, Falcons

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    Another pass rusher makes it on the list in John Abraham. For a team that I personally think will under-perform, there are some legitimate MVP candidates on the Falcons.

    The NFL, in recent years, has gone absolutely nutty for sacks and QB hurries. If a player can deliver those sacks and hurries, he'll get a lot of recognition. Abraham has been very effective with the Falcons at doing exactly that.

    Give this guy 15 sacks on a team that goes deep into the playoffs, and a defensive player might actually have a whisper of a chance at the MVP award.

19. Arian Foster, RB, Texans

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    Arian Foster had a great year last year. He rushed for over 1,600 yards and caught 66 passes for another 600. I'm starting to think that his success was a combination of one part talent and two parts the situation and the offense he played in.

    For that reason, I have Arian Foster ranked down at No. 19 on this list.

    He's been a very effective player, but he's only done it for one year, so I don't totally believe it yet. If he can do it again this year, then I'd probably have to believe that Arian Foster is a star player and a potential MVP candidate.

18. Jay Cutler, QB, Bears

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    Jay Cutler may not win any popularity contests around the NFL, but he is certainly worth mentioning as a top quarterback in the league.

    He's your stereotypical "gunslinger" quarterback: he'll have lots of throws, lots of yards, lots of TDs and lots of interceptions. If he can keep the interceptions down, however, he'd be worth mentioning as an MVP candidate.

    After all, he's playing on a team with overrated WRs and a bad offensive line. If he can still be effective, well, I'd be very impressed.

17. Tamba Hali, OLB, Chiefs

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    Tamba Hali led the league in sacks last year. He was a player that quarterbacks had to be constantly on the lookout for. He's been a valuable QB hunter for the Chiefs, who look to have one of the best defenses in the NFL.

    If Hali can get a repeat performance in 2011, he'd at least be considered a Pro Bowl lock and a name worth mentioning in the MVP discussion.

16. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans

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    Chris Johnson is, without a doubt, the most explosive running back in the NFL. He's had an extremely productive career and is the centerpiece of the Titans offense.

    He hasn't reported to camp yet, and personally, I think he'll be willing to hold out for a long while, although there are reports out that CJ2K and the Titans are getting closer in contract talks.

    If he's with the team in time and makes enough spectacular plays, he could catch the eyes of some voters. He'd have to have an incredible season as a non-QB to win the NFL MVP, but CJ has a lot of talent.

15. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jaguars

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    The truth in Jacksonville is that Maurice Jones-Drew has put the entire city on his 5'8" shoulders and carried them for the last three years.

    He can do it all. At his best, he fights for extra yardage like a power back, has breakaway speed and can handle the ball as many times as you need him to. Let's not forget that the little man can block, too. I'm guessing Shawne Merriman still hasn't forgotten the time MJD put "Lights Out"s lights out.

    David Garrard is a competent but not great quarterback, and MJD will be counted on immensely by the Jaguars in the upcoming season. If the team makes a playoff run, it will be 100% due to Jones-Drew's effort. That would be enough to put MJD at the No. 15 spot in my preseason MVP race.

14. Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Cardinals

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    For the most part, I believe wide receivers are replaceable pieces. The No. 1 exception to that rule is Larry Fitzgerald. There truly is no wide receiver as talented as Fitzgerald.

    Fitzgerald has been one of the top three most effective receivers in the league every year for the past few years. Even last year with terrible quarterbacks throwing to him, Fitzgerald managed to have a good year and snag some incredible deep balls.

    No one stretches the field and demands a double team more than Fitzgerald. The guy is untouchable.

    He's the best player at his position and the most valuable player on his team. Could he be the most valuable player in the league? It's possible.

13. Drew Brees, QB, Saints

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    Drew Brees is another player who probably should be higher on this list than I can in all good conscience put him. He's a definite threat to win the MVP.

    In terms of quarterback awareness, Drew Brees is top three in the league. As far as sharing the ball, no one spreads the ball more effectively than Brees, which makes him incredibly difficult to stop. To stop the Saints, you either need a strong pass rush, or you need to cover every one of his receivers so that they are not even slightly open. That's nearly impossible.

    The Saints' success is closely tied to Brees' arm. If both do well, Brees could wind up the 2011 NFL MVP.

12. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons

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    The Falcons, in spite of their talent in the passing game, are essentially a ball-control, running team. That's why Michael Turner is such a vital part of the Falcons' success. Turner is a big, punishing back who has been extremely productive since leaving out of LaDainian Tomlinson's shadow years ago.

    Turner is the kind of player you can expect to get 100 yards a game from, and if the Falcons can perform up to their actual level of talent, the team and by extension Turner, will have a great year.

11. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings

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    Adrian Peterson is the best running back in the league. There are still some who have reservations about making that statement. I'm not one of them.

    The Vikings really don't have much of a chance of being relevant to the playoff picture this year. They're lacking a lot in talent. Still, Peterson is likely to have another great year running the ball.

    For those who don't get to see Peterson play, take it from me: no one in the league has the combination of strength, agility and speed that Peterson has at the RB position. No one gets more yardage after contact than AP, and if he ever gets an open lane, he's gone.

    He hasn't had many holes in the last few years, but if he can get some help up front, he's in line for a great season. Maybe even an MVP season...

10. Matt Schaub, QB, Texans

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    OK, maybe this is not such a surprise. Matt Schaub has been a prolific passer with the Texans but was negatively affected by the team's poor defense. If the Texans defense plays well (and that's a big if in my opinion), Schaub could go from an underrated QB to a great leader on a strong, playoff team.

    As hard as it is for me to imagine the Texans in the playoffs (it's never happened in the entire history of the franchise), it would be harder to imagine Schaub not getting the bulk of the credit for the team's success. That would make him a long shot but still a viable option for the MVP award.

9. Phillip Rivers, QB, Chargers

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    No. 9 is probably lower than I should have put Phillip Rivers, but this is just the way this article worked out. If you ask me, I'd say Rivers has a pretty good shot at the MVP this year.

    He's been an elite QB for years now on a team with a struggling running game. The Chargers already have a lot of hype going, so if Rivers performs as well as he is capable, he would have an airtight case for being the Most Valuable Player in the NFL.

8. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers

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    Yeah, I know, Troy Polamalu, how original. Well, there's no points for originality here, just accuracy. And to put it in simplest terms, Polamalu is the heart of the most talented defense in the league.

    He makes plays all over the field. He can come down into the box and hit and he can intercept passes in the secondary. He runs around more than any other safety in the league, and he has full reign to play however he wants in that secondary. Polamalu is an incredible player who deserves to be near the top of this list.

7. Darrelle Revis, CB, Jets

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    Everyone knows the Jets aren't winning all the games they win because of Mark Sanchez. It's all about the defense. And the Jets defense is all about one man: Darrelle Revis.

    Revis earned his title as a shutdown corner a few years ago and cemented himself as the No. 1 cornerback in the league with his performance last year. In terms of value to his team, Revis is the most valuable non-quarterback out there.

    That's why Darrelle Revis comes in at No. 7 on my list.

6. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers

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    Get used to seeing quarterback names here, because from this point forward, that's all you're gonna see.

    Ben Roethlisberger is at No. 6 on this list because he's an incredible quarterback. The numbers don't show it as much as they should, but most other quarterbacks playing behind the Steelers offensive line would end the season as a pile of mush on the floor with 25 to 30 interceptions.

    The fact that Roethlisberger performs as well as he does for his team is nothing short of miraculous, and if he can get to over 30 touchdowns and under 13 interceptions on a (hypothetical) 13-3 Steelers team, I'd put him up with Manning and Brady as a strong MVP candidate.

5. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons

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    Matt Ryan has had a great career for himself so far. He's a young, talented, star player on a powerful team in the NFC. I'm not ready to claim that Ryan is an elite quarterback yet, but a 4,000 yard season and 13 more wins might easily change my mind.

    The Falcons are a running team, but Ryan's value to them is still huge. Given the talent the Falcons have on their roster and Ryan's past play, he has to be a top five choice for the early MVP race.

4. Michael Vick, QB, Eagles

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    I hate to say it, but all this hype around the Eagles could very well be justified by the end of the season. They have good receiver talent in DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, running backs that can move the offense effectively and what should be a killer secondary.

    Oh yeah, the guy at quarterback also had an insane year in 2010. Vick did it running and throwing the ball last season and with the Eagles' talent, it wouldn't surprise me if they made a deep playoff run. To do that, they'll need Vick to perform at the level he did last year.

    If Vick puts up the kind of numbers he's capable of, (3,200 yards passing, 800 rushing, and 30 or more total TDs) there's no reason why he couldn't win the MVP award for his $100 million self.

3. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts

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    How many times have you heard analysts say this: "Without Peyton Manning the Colts would be a three-to-five win team."

    Honestly, it's true. The Colts' entire team is predicated on the passing game and Peyton Manning. They sacrifice size for pass blocking speed on the O-line and run stopping for pass defense on the defensive side of the ball. All this because the team knows that when Peyton Manning is on the field, the team scores points. No question about it, they do.

    The only reason I have Manning at No. 3 is because the chance of the Colts being relevant in January is lessened by Manning's preseason injury struggles. If this team winds up 12-4 or 13-3 though, you can be sure that Peyton will be a strong candidate to win the MVP award.

2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers

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    You gotta give credit where credit is due.

    Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl win last year, and I haven't forgotten that. He played incredibly well, throwing lasers all over the field. It seemed like he threw on almost every play due to the Packers' anemic rush offense. Still, Rodgers played well enough to come up big for his team.

    Rodgers has Packers fans saying, "Brett who?" and the city of Green Bay is behind him 100%. If the Packers have 12 or 13 wins this season, which I would say is likely given who they're returning, Rodgers will have a real trophy to go with his imaginary championship belt.

    Oh yeah, and his real championship ring.

1. Tom Brady, QB, Patriots

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    I'd have to be crazy not to have Brady No. 1. He has incredible weapons all around him on offense, and the Patriots have shown incredible depth of talent this preseason. No matter who is contributing for the Pats, the credit will go to Brady, and it's hard for me to imagine a scenario where this team doesn't go deep in the playoffs.

    Well, there is one scenario: an injury to Tom Brady. Right now, he is the most valuable player in the NFL, so why wouldn't that still be true at the end of the season as well?