There are an awful lot of really good players in the NFL. That’s as it should be; after all, professional athletes are supposed to be the very best of the very best.
Still, even at that level of skill there are standout players at every position each year. These are the guys who go above and beyond each and every week to give their all for the team. They’re the guys the team will struggle to win without, often serving as emotional leaders in addition to their tangible roles on the field.
These are the players who should be talked about when it comes to voting for the Most Valuable Player in the league.
There are a few dark-horse MVP favorites on many peoples’ minds: Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning. Aside from those two, though, much of the MVP talk has been dominated by a trio of quarterbacks who are each on pace to break (and in some cases shatter) records this season: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
In many ways, these storylines have eclipsed the jaw-dropping performances of other players around the league. Over the next 12 slides we’ll take a look at some players who deserve to at least be part of the MVP hype based on their 2011 performance.
It may be unfair to start this list with Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots since his outstanding numbers have generated more attention in the past few weeks.
He’s been a force to be reckoned with on offense, bringing In 71 balls for 1,088 yards. He leads the league with 15 touchdowns, separated by a wide margin from his closest competition (Calvin Johnson, 12 touchdowns).
Still, when it comes to talk about winning the MVP, Grownkowski is sitting on the outside looking in. He’s been mostly overlooked thanks to teammates Tom Brady and Wes Welker.
When it comes to putting a team on his back, Marshawn Lynch really takes the prize this season.
He has been a one-man offense, scoring at least one touchdown in every game since Week 4 and reaching the 100-yard mark in all-around yardage in all but one of those games. A league-leading number of those yards have come after initial contact by a defensive player.
Given that he’s playing alongside a quarterback whose right pectoral muscle is injured, Lynch’s performance is even more impressive. The Seattle Seahawks spent most of the season without a realistic passing threat, especially with regards to deep throws.
Lynch posting this type of production despite defenses consistently being stacked against the box is truly MVP-worthy.
It’s a true shame that the Minnesota Vikings haven’t been able to pull themselves together to be competitive in the 2011 season since they have a candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year—and potentially the league MVP—on their roster.
Jared Allen has been a man on a mission this year, emerging as a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. He leads the league in sacks with 17.5, but he’s accomplished much more than that. He has also defended passes, forced fumbles, and even earned a safety.
If not for Allen, the Vikings would have been an even more humiliating team this year than they already are. He has given it his all each and every week despite his team’s poor overall performance.
Over the past few years, Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte has quietly emerged as an elite NFL player.
Despite a shaky offensive line and a quarterback whose performance is like a roller-coaster ride, Forte has been delightfully constant. In addition to powering through defenses for an average of 85 yards per game on the ground (including one 200-yard performance), Forte has also been a reliable receiving option for Jay Cutler.
Despite his pretty good numbers, the real case for an MVP is the way the team plays without him. It has only been in his absence due to injury that his lynchpin role in the Chicago offense has become incredibly clear.
The San Diego Chargers may have been the biggest fools in the league for letting running back Darren Sproles leave for the New Orleans Saints in free agency.
On a Saints offense loaded with potent weapons, Darren Sproles has made a big impact. He doesn’t play the role of an every-down back, but when he does get the ball, he makes his touches count to the tune of an average 6.8 yards per carry.
Sproles is more than just a running back for the Saints. He’s second on the team in catches and third in receiving yards. He’s also a nightmare to defend against on special teams, often gaining excellent field position for the Saints.
Is there a man who is more important to his team than Arian Foster?
The Houston Texans have just locked up the first Division Championship in their franchise history, and Arian Foster played a big role in making that happen.
Despite sitting out for several games at the beginning of the season due to injury and sharing touches with another running back, Foster will likely chalk up a second career 1,000-yard season on the ground. He’s a beast when he gets running, breaking tackles and piling on the yards after first contact.
As if that weren’t enough, he’s also the second overall receiver on the team. He’s on pace for 600 receiving yards, which is an awful lot for a run-first team like Houston.
Even on this list, Beanie Wells is a bit of a dark horse candidate. Still, his name deserves mention after the season he has put in for the Arizona Cardinals.
After the running back who was meant to back up Wells suffered a season-ending injury in the preseason, things looked grim for Arizona’s running game. After all, Beanie Wells had always played second-fiddle to Tim Hightower and was prone to injury. No one knew what to expect.
Despite suffering an injury that kept him out of a game early in the season and limited his touches for most of the year, Wells has revived the Cardinals running game. He has single-handedly helped the team overcome a dismal situation at quarterback by acting as a consistent and real threat on the ground. Thanks in large part to his efforts, the Cardinals still have an outside chance at a playoff spot.
It should also be noted that Wells set a Cardinals franchise record for running yards in a single game by running for 228 yards against the St. Louis Rams in Week 12.
The Baltimore Ravens are currently in competition for the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and it’s in no small part thanks to the effort that has been put in by running back Ray Rice this season.
Although he’s not terrible, Joe Flacco is a serviceable quarterback at best. He does an OK job of managing the offense, but he isn’t the true leader on that side of the ball.
The leadership and the spark that really gets the Ravens going each week is Ray Rice. During a season when many big name players are vocally adamant that it’s time they get paid, Rice has simply put his head down and demonstrated to the Ravens why they should keep him around.
He’s clocked 12 touchdowns and 1,600 all-around yards so far for the offense, and has been an incredibly steady overall part of the offense every week. As the winter months set in at the end of the season, Rice’s role to the Ravens will become even more valuable.
Boy did the Philadelphia Eagles flub up this season. The whole team has turned into a clash of the stars, with many players clearly following their own agenda on the field instead of playing as part of a team.
None of that really describes LeSean McCoy.
Even while McCoy has watched the so-called Dream Team collapse around him, he has brought his A-game to the field each and every week.
He has made it into the end zone 17 times this season (that’s more than once each game on average), which is more than every other player on the Eagles combined.
If it weren’t for McCoy, the Eagles would have likely been an even more disappointing team in 2011 than they have been in reality.
All of the haters and doubters out there can skip this slide, but it’s time to show the younger Manning brother a little bit of love.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same Eli Manning that we’ve seen leading the New York Giants offense in seasons past. He has a confidence and awareness on the field that we’ve never seen before.
More importantly, though, he’s passing like a maniac. He’s not one of the top three “elite” quarterbacks in the league, but he’s nipping at the heels of two of them. With three games to go, Manning has already thrown for over 4,000 yards and 25 touchdowns compared to just 12 interceptions.
He has an average passer rating of 95.5, which is impressive. What’s more impressive is that he hasn’t dipped below a passer rating of 70 this year, even when his team has lost. He’s helping to keep the offense competitive in games, which is something brand new that we haven’t really seen from him in the past.
Welcome to the upper echelon of quarterbacks, Eli.
Frank Gore is another running back who is having a monster year.
He’s topped 1,000 yards for the season, and has added another 100 receiving yards. That’s pretty impressive given that the 49ers offense is generally a pass-first effort.
Gore’s MVP case is a little bit stronger than many others on this list since his team is playoff-bound. In fact, that’s pretty much the first time in his career with the San Francisco 49ers that all of his effort is really paying off.
Who would have thought that the running back who leads the league in rushing yards would be on a 4-10 team whose playoff hopes died weeks ago?
There you have it, though. Maurice Jones-Drew leads the league in rushing yards by a significant margin, even considering that he’s played a game more than most of the other teams as of the writing of this article.
Add in Jones-Drew’s passing yards (he’s second on his team in receptions), and he’s accounted for 1,725 all-around yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
Jones-Drew is the only player on the Jacksonville Jaguars that shows up mentally and physically for every down in every game. He has been single-handedly responsible for over half of the team’s offensive production this season.
That is the definition of a player a team can’t compete without.