Under-the-Radar 2017 NFL MVP Candidates

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystMay 31, 2017

Under-the-Radar 2017 NFL MVP Candidates

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Anyone who doesn't throw passes for a living has a monstrous climb in their quest for the NFL's most coveted individual honor. But that mountain could be eroding just a touch as we look toward the 2017 season.

    The league has named an MVP 60 times, and a non-quarterback has won it 21 times. It was a running back in nearly all of the years when a pivot didn't get the grand prize. A running back has won the MVP award 18 times, while a defensive player has been named the MVP twice and a kicker once. (Two awards were shared, so there's actually been 62 MVPs.)

    However, the league has changed dramatically in the past decade or so, shifting toward a hyper-focus on passing.

    Sure, a pass-heavy league benefits quarterbacks. Remember, Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record stood for 27 years, but his mark of 5,084 yards has been passed six times since 2011.

    On the other end of all those throws to make the passing yards possible, however, are often dazzling, acrobatic displays. The league is overflowing with impossibly athletic receivers who, at the very least, are pumping out numbers yearly that warrant MVP consideration.

    Some year in the not-so-distant future, a receiver has to win the MVP award for the first time. But will it be 2017? There are a couple of contenders on our early list of under-the-radar MVP candidates.

David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson is an under-the-radar candidate only because, well, he's a running back.

    Over the past 20 years, only six running backs have been named MVP. And when it happens, the running back has generally done something exceptional.

    For example, in 2012, Adrian Peterson came within just a few yards of breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record. In 2005, Shaun Alexander set the single-season touchdowns record, and a year later, LaDainian Tomlinson broke it.

    Does David Johnson have similar heroics in him? Judging by his 879 receiving yards in 2016, I'd say yes.

    Johnson has already registered a top-10 all-time receiving yards season among running backs, according to Pro Football Reference. He did that in only his second NFL campaign, and in the process, the 25-year-old finished with a league-leading 2,118 yards from scrimmage.

    Johnson has already talked about the milestone he wants to reach in 2017. In February, he told PFT Live (via Pro Football Talk) that 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards are in his crosshairs. Only two running backs in league history have reached the double 1,000 mark in a season.

    And ridiculously, there's no reason to laugh or think Johnson has unrealistic expectations. Because after what he did in 2016, his goal is attainable, as he came only 121 receiving yards short.

    The seeds have been planted for Johnson to break a few records in his career, and he'll likely explode one season. It could be 2017 since he hasn't yet accumulated the dings associated with older running backs.

Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota is quickly rising up the list of young NFL passers who require appointment viewing. But it wasn't long ago when the opposite was true.

    In 2015, watching Mariota was at times a form of cruel and unusual punishment. He showed flashes of promise, but the 23-year-old also went through a little more than just the standard rookie growing pains. Most notably, his deep throws were a fatal flaw. As a rookie, Mariota completed only 20.4 percent of his attempts that traveled 20 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Then in 2016, Mariota's accuracy on those long, difficult throws went from being a crippling road block to what drove his success. His completion percentage spiked to 41.9 percent on deep throws, per PFF, and that made his passing touchdown total soar, too. Mariota finished in the top 10 in the league with 26 touchdown tosses in 2016 after throwing only 19 in 2015.

    So when you watch Mariota trot onto the field for the first time in 2017 to lead his rising Titans, remember how much he's developed in just a short period of time. Then also remember that in 2016 he made a drastic improvement with Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe as his top targets.

    Now, rookie receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor will supply the ideal deep speed to complement Mariota's deep arm. And one of the league's best offensive lines is still in front of Mariota, along with a strong, bulldozing backfield led by running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry.

    Throw it all together, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Mariota at least enter the MVP conversation in his third year, just as the Raiders' Derek Carr did in 2016.

Kirk Cousins, QB, Washington Redskins

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    There are few teams that could lose two wide receivers like Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in one offseason and still be able to supply their quarterback with a stable of athletically gifted pass-catchers.

    But few teams are as loaded at that position as the Washington Redskins, which is why quarterback Kirk Cousins will be a dark-horse MVP candidate.

    The Redskins signed wide receiver Terrelle Pryor to a cheap one-year contract during free agency. His blend of speed and leaping ability will effectively replace Jackson's. But beyond him, Washington looked to internal options, and it has plenty.

    First up is Josh Doctson, a first-round pick in 2016 whose rookie season was limited to just two receptions in two games because of an Achilles injury. He averaged 17 yards per reception while catching 14 touchdown passes during his final year at TCU.

    There's also Jamison Crowder, the explosive deep threat who finished 2016 with 618 yards from the slot, per Pro Football Focus.

    Those two, along with tight end Jordan Reed, were part of an offensive core that helped to propel Cousins toward a career single-season high average of 307.3 passing yards per game in 2016 and 4,917 yards overall.

    Cousins is familiar with and at ease in head coach Jay Gruden's offense by now, and so are most of his key offensive contributors. Which means everything is lined up for him to take yet another step forward.

Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    When we look back on Jameis Winston's 2016 season, it doesn't seem that impressive. That's because a chunk of it wasn't impressive.

    But then when you remember what he did, and who he did it with, thinking of Winston as a sleeper MVP candidate now—when he's surrounded by much more talent—comes a lot easier.

    Winston's rookie-year turbulence followed him into the first four games of 2016, otherwise known as a quarter of the season. Of the 18 interceptions he threw in 2016—the league's second-highest total—nearly half (eight) came in the first four games.

    Then he settled down. After a well-timed Week 6 bye, Winston posted a solid touchdown-to-interception ratio of 19-to-10. And he did that with few reliable downfield targets, which forced him to target wide receiver Mike Evans an astronomical 173 times.

    Now Winston can build upon his improved decision-making with the help of newly signed wide receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end O.J. Howard, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-round pick in the 2017 draft. Jackson has a career per-catch average of 17.7 yards because of his blazing speed, and in 2016, Howard recorded 595 yards on 45 catches in a limited role at Alabama.

    The pieces are in place then for both Winston and the Bucs to climb more than a few rungs in 2017.

Jay Ajayi, RB, Miami Dolphins

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    Jay Ajayi established himself as a top-tier running back during a breakout season in 2016—a year highlighted by three games in which he rushed for 200-plus yards.

    But though his overall production was impressive, what stands out even more is that the 1,272 rushing yards Ajayi gained at an average of 4.9 yards per carry tell only part of the story.

    Ajayi ranked fourth in the league in rushing yards, and he did that while playing behind Arian Foster early in the season. Ajayi was even a healthy scratch in Week 1, and his workload didn't hit the 20-carry mark until Week 6.

    Yet he still scored eight touchdowns, and he still finished with 1,423 yards from scrimmage.

    He laid the foundation to do something special during a full season in 2017, when the 23-year-old Londoner will continue to grow in the youth-filled offense assembled by the Miami Dolphins.

Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    If a running back needs to do something historic to even earn MVP consideration, then a wide receiver has to perform several Herculean feats of strength while smashing records.

    Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones is already in the business of threatening records.

    He's one year removed from a 136-catch season, which left him just seven receptions shy of the single-season record set by Marvin Harrison in 2002. Also in 2015, Jones came within 93 yards of matching Calvin Johnson's single-season receiving yards record.

    He's totaled 4,873 receiving yards over the past three seasons, averaging an incredible 108.3 yards per game during that stretch. And with the reigning MVP—his quarterback, Matt Ryan—Jones forms half the battery of a stacked offense that shouldn't slow down any time soon.

    The other core pieces of an offense that averaged 415.8 yards per game in 2016, which ranked second in the league, will return. The Falcons' young and promising defense should also keep improving, especially with the addition of first-round pick Takkarist McKinley at defensive end.

    Jones will have a solid complementary cast around him then as he continues to redefine what it means to be a modern NFL receiver.

Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Antonio Brown was right there with Julio Jones during the 2015 season, finishing with the same number of receptions and just 37 fewer yards.

    The 28-year-old has recorded 1,600-plus receiving yards in two of the past three seasons. And beyond that, since 2013, he's averaged 1,579 yards per year. If that's not the ultimate sign that Brown is a receiver talented enough to break through the barrier to MVP, then here's another one: His 1,284 yards on 106 catches in 2016 felt like a "down" year by comparison.

    Oh, and Brown has also finished with double-digit touchdowns in each of the past three years. He's efficient, too, averaging 2.3 yards per route run in 2016, per Pro Football Focus.

    At some point, the gifted receivers of this generation will produce enough eye-popping numbers that they'll force MVP voters to change their attitude toward the position. In 2017, Brown will keep leading that charge.

Honorable Mentions

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    Frank Victores/Associated Press

    Here are a few deep sleepers if you have a "friend" who enjoys betting on the MVP race:

    Odell Beckham Jr.: Beckham nearly made the main list because of his go-go gadget catches. But again, the first receiver to be named MVP would have to do something historic. And with Brandon Marshall also in the New York Giants' huddle now, there are too many sets of hands for quarterback Eli Manning to satisfy.

    Ryan Tannehill: Tannehill got more comfortable in new head coach Adam Gase's offense as 2016 went along. He threw 11 touchdown passes with five interceptions over his last five games prior to a late-season knee injury.

    Andy Dalton: It feels like Dalton will go kaboom either in a good way or a bad way in 2016. There are concerns about the protection in front of him after the free-agency departures of tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler. But the additions of wide receiver John Ross and running back Joe Mixon gave Dalton plenty of weapons.

    Mike Evans: Evans has already recorded 3,578 receiving yards in just three NFL seasons. And now he has DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard to draw coverage away from his side of the field.

    LeSean McCoy: McCoy is 28 and still has prime years left. But even if he improves on his 2016 season (five games with 120-plus rushing yards, 1,623 yards from scrimmage), McCoy will be the centerpiece of a team likely to hover around the .500 mark and miss the playoffs.

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