Under-the-Radar 2018 NFL MVP Candidates

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 29, 2018

Under-the-Radar 2018 NFL MVP Candidates

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    For those tired of hearing about the usual candidates for NFL MVP—tier-one quarterbacks Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan—it's time to dig a little deeper for some under-the-radar bids.

    Last year, Brady claimed his third league MVP honor—yawn. Nonetheless, the NFL has a new crop of stars on the rise. Perhaps a quarterback below the top tier will win the award for the first time.

    The five players below have something in common: They're projected to lead their offensive units as focal points, but this list also includes two running backs.

    A running back hasn't won regular-season MVP honors since Adrian Peterson did so for the Minnesota Vikings in 2012. Will a ball-carrier break the quarterbacks' five-year streak? Who's primed for their best season at age 37? Which second-year signal-caller has the best opportunity to seize the award?

       

RB Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars loaded their wide receiver corps over the offseason. Marqise Lee re-signed, Donte Moncrief joined the group, and the front office drafted second-rounder D.J. Chark Jr. The additions will help running back Leonard Fournette toward stardom more than quarterback Blake Bortles.

    Despite Allen Robinson's absence for all but one game, Bortles had three or four capable wide receivers on the field on a weekly basis, including Lee, Keelan Cole, Allen Hurns and Dede Westbrook.

    Still, Bortles threw 102 fewer passes than he did in 2016. Fournette's arrival shifted the Jaguars' focus toward a power ground attack. The LSU product logged 268 carries, which ranked seventh in the league, in 13 games.

    Assuming Fournette remains healthy, expect his touches to increase. ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco tweeted last week that the second-year running back was "looking a bit slimmer" during organized team activities. Jacksonville's plethora of weapons at wide receiver should also force defensive coordinators to reconsider moving an extra defender into the box to stop the run.

    Fournette caught only 41 passes in three years at the collegiate level, but he flashed his ability to contribute as a receiving option out of the backfield with 36 catches for 302 yards and a touchdown in 2017.

    Fournette's svelte figure and dual-threat capability should put him in the MVP conversation if he's on the field for 15-16 games and the Jaguars win another AFC South title.

QB Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams

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    Quarterback Jared Goff made a noteworthy jump between the 2016 and 2017 campaigns.

    As a rookie, the No. 1 overall pick from the 2016 draft didn't complete 55 percent of his passes. In 2017, he resembled a skilled maestro leading a symphony. Goff tossed 28 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions. The California product moved the ball downfield in chunks, leading the league with 12.9 yards per completion.

    If not for running back Todd Gurley II's stellar season, for which he earned Offensive Player of the Year, Goff would have more hype as an MVP candidate. He lost wideout Sammy Watkins, who signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, but welcomed Brandin Cooks—a speedy receiver capable of stretching the field. The fifth-year pass-catcher has three consecutive campaigns with 1,000 yards.

    Gurley deserves consideration. He's been a workhorse over the past two seasons, logging the third-most rushing attempts in that span with 557. The Georgia product will continue to produce at a high level, but it's difficult to tote the ball at that rate for three consecutive terms. It shouldn't surprise anyone if backup Malcolm Brown or rookie John Kelly lighten the fourth-year pro's workload.

    And head coach Sean McVay can go full-throttle with a stacked passing offense. Goff has a solid trio of receivers in Cooks, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. He also has two talented young tight ends few people speak about in Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett.

QB Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

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    An ACL injury during practice cut quarterback Deshaun Watson's season short—but not before he showed what he can do on the field. In seven appearances, the Clemson product threw 19 touchdown passes against eight interceptions and accumulated 1,699 yards through the air. Don't discount the 269 yards and two scores he added on the ground behind a poor offensive line.

    The Houston Texans made an effort to upgrade the talent around Watson. The front office selected offensive tackle Martinas Rankin in the third round, and Julien Davenport, a 2017 fourth-rounder, will push for the starting spot at left tackle.

    Rookie wideout Keke Coutee led Texas Tech with 1,429 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2017. As a playmaker in open space, he could fill the No. 3 spot on the depth chart behind DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller V. First-year tight end Jordan Akins could provide a big target (6'3", 250 lbs) down the seam.

    Watson's ability to pick up first downs with his legs should compensate for any breakdowns by the revamped offensive line. And that added production could elevate him into the conversation for league MVP if he maintains his status as a prolific passer over a full season.

RB Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Dallas Cowboys will turn to a new chapter without wideout Dez Bryant, but his absence will shine a brighter light on running back Ezekiel Elliott. Don't expect Hurns, Terrance Williams, Deonte Thompson or rookie Michael Gallup to immediately lift the passing offense as a go-to option.

    Hurns, Thompson and Gallup have never caught a pass from quarterback Dak Prescott, so it'll take time to build chemistry. Williams has been a No. 2-type wideout with ups and downs over the past five seasons.

    Furthermore, Prescott still needs to develop as a consistent pocket passer. He'll progress with new assets in the wide receiver corps, but Elliott is a high-caliber playmaker and workhorse. He's led the league in rushing yards per game over the past two years—his first in the NFL.

    Behind a top-notch offensive line, expect the Cowboys to continue feeding Elliott at a rate close to his career average of 22.6 carries per game. Familiarity with Prescott should also boost his production as a receiver.

    As the focal point of the offense, Elliott will stand out for another highly productive year similar to his rookie season in which he accumulated 1,994 yards from scrimmage and scored 16 touchdowns.

    Assuming Elliott plays all 16 games, the Ohio State product should lead the league in rushing yards and push for the top spot in yards from scrimmage.

QB Eli Manning, New York Giants

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    Last year, then-New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo benched Eli Manning for Geno Smith in Week 13 against the Oakland Raiders to end Manning's regular-season starts streak of 210 games. Manning returned under center in Week 14, but after the season, many wondered about his future under a new regime that held the No. 2 pick in the draft. Well, the 37-year-old will be the guy to lead a stacked offense.

    The Giants' aerial attack features wideout Odell Beckham Jr. as an elite asset and Sterling Shepard as a solid No. 2 option. Despite Big Blue's tumultuous 2017, tight end Evan Engram emerged as a reliable pass-catcher. He logged 722 yards and led the team in touchdown receptions with six. His rapport with Manning should yield solid production.

    General manager Dave Gettleman added an exceptional receiver out of the backfield in rookie Saquon Barkley, who caught 102 passes for 1,195 yards and eight touchdowns at Penn State. For those counting, Manning will have four receiving threats in a fully healthy offense.

    The Giants front office also signed left tackle Nate Solder and drafted second-round guard Will Hernandez to help keep Manning upright.

    Manning isn't known for producing gaudy regular-season numbers comparable to those of Brady, Rodgers, Ryan or Drew Brees, but he's thrown 16 or fewer interceptions in each of the last four seasons. This year, with the weapons around him, he'll shatter his single-season high of 35 touchdown passes.