Under-the-Radar 2019 NFL MVP Candidates

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 13, 2019

Under-the-Radar 2019 NFL MVP Candidates

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    Six different quarterbacks have won the last six NFL MVP awards, and the league hasn't had a repeat MVP this decade. 

    That doesn't bode well for reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, or the soon-to-be 42-year-old Tom Brady, both of whom rank among the top five early favorites for the award at FanDuel. Also among that group are two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers, 2018's highest-rated passer Drew Brees and Andrew Luck, who looks destined for a big year after he resurged into his prime. 

    Nobody else has odds better than +1500, which essentially leaves them all under the radar. 

    Which MVP underdogs have the best chance to rise up, impact the league and win the award in 2019? Considering that, this time last year, Mahomes wasn't even viewed as a peripheral candidate—these 10 might be worth some of your spare change on a legally-placed futures bet. 

Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Could Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield do in his second season what Mahomes did as a sophomore with the Chiefs in 2018? The support is there now, especially now that the Browns added superstar-caliber skill-position players Odell Beckham Jr. and Kareem Hunt. 

    And unlike Mahomes, Mayfield crushed it as a rookie. There's really no questioning his readiness after the 2018 No. 1 overall pick completed 68.3 percent of his passes and posted a 108.4 passer rating while winning five of his last seven starts. 

    Mayfield's had a full offseason to build on that, and he's got more to work with now. If the 24-year-old can string together similar numbers over the course of a full season, he might become the second sophomore MVP in a row. 

Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    It seems like every year, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is overlooked in MVP conversations. And every year, at or around Thanksgiving, we look at his stats and his circumstances and realize he's a top-five candidate. 

    Why should that be any different in Wilson's age-31 season? 

    The five-time Pro Bowler always finds a way to make his Seahawks competitive, regardless of how much support he's getting. This year he might not have top receiver Doug Baldwin, and his offensive line remains a liability, but the game's best improviser will undoubtedly get the job done and give Seattle a chance when it matters most. 

    Wilson's the only player in NFL history to post four triple-digit passer ratings in his first seven pro seasons. He's the second-highest-rated passer in NFL history, but he's yet to capture a major individual award.

    That might have changed last year had Wilson not started slow, because from the start of October on he was the highest-rated passer in the league—thanks in part to a silly 28-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio during that span.

Atlanta Falcons QB Matt Ryan

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    It's possible Matt Ryan's 2016 MVP season was an anomaly, because he's been a Pro Bowler only three other times over the course of his 11-year career and his Atlanta Falcons offense wasn't nearly as dangerous under Steve Sarkisian's tutelage in 2017 and 2018. 

    But Ryan still quietly ranked among the league's top four quarterbacks in terms of completion percentage (69.4), touchdown-to-interception ratio (35-to-7) and passer rating (108.1) during what was undoubtedly the second-best season of his career in 2018. 

    Ryan's still got Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, emerging 2018 first-round receiver Calvin Ridley and an offensive line that looks stronger after an offseason retool. Rounding things out, the familiar Dirk Koetter (Ryan's offensive coordinator in Atlanta during two of his Pro Bowl years) has been hired to replace Sarkisian. 

    Under those circumstances, there's no reason Ryan can't get hot and pull off another 2016. 

Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Back in 2017, Deshaun Watson was playing well enough to be on the fringe of MVP conversations before a torn ACL ended his rookie season at the start of November. Pro athletes often struggle to completely get back on track in the season following a recovery from ACL surgery, but the Houston Texans quarterback actually improved on his rate-based numbers in 2018. His completion percentage rose by nearly seven points, he sliced his interception rate in half and his touchdown-to-pick ratio shot up—all while he guided his flawed team to a division title. 

    And the 23-year-old did that despite the fact he was sacked a league-high 62 times behind arguably the worst offensive line in the NFL. 

    Now, that lack of pass protection could hurt Watson's MVP chances in 2019. But Houston has attempted to revamp the line, and the reality is that lack of support could also help Watson's case if he's able to again stay healthy and put up big numbers for a playoff team. 

    Coming off the first full, healthy offseason of his career, the 2017 No. 12 overall pick could easily become an MVP candidate in his third NFL campaign. 

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

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    For a running back to realistically have a shot at MVP in this pass-driven age, he's gotta take priority over his team's quarterback as the go-to guy in the offense (sorry, Alvin Kamara), and he has to put together a historically productive campaign. 

    Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys is one of those backs who isn't overshadowed by his quarterback. Dak Prescott has always been somewhat of a second fiddle to Elliott, and the 2016 fourth-round pick hasn't really lived up to the hype he created as a standout rookie. 

    And Elliott could certainly have an epic statistical season in him. The reigning rushing champion amassed a career-high 2,001 scrimmage yards in his third season, averaging a strong 4.7 yards per attempt despite being a centerpiece in a shorthanded offense that lacked continuity and consistency from a usually dominant offensive line. 

    However, with elite center Travis Frederick on track to return from a lost season, Elliott should have more support in his age-24 season.

    And he won't need extra inspiration. Entering his fourth year, the Pro Bowl back is surely thinking about his next contract. 

Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton

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    Mike McCarn/Associated Press

    Like Ryan, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton won this award a few years ago but was never really an MVP candidate before then and hasn't been since. Unlike Ryan, Newton's balky throwing shoulder was a major impediment last season, and now he's undergone surgery to fix that lingering injury. 

    Although he's yet to be cleared to throw while rehabbing, Newton told ESPN.com's David Newton this month that he's "feeling great now." And if indeed he can remain on track for a full recovery before the 2019 season arrives, he could have a chance to put together a monster year in the middle of what should be his prime. 

    The soon-to-be 30-year-old has two particularly tantalizing young weapons in running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver DJ Moore, both of whom shined last year despite Newton's noodle arm. 

    Throw in the return of offensive tackle Daryl Williams from injury and Carolina's signal-caller has got a path to an MVP-level bounce-back campaign in 2019. 

Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford

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    Could this finally be the year for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford? It's a long shot, but Stafford should be in his prime at age 31, and Ryan's MVP season came about just as suddenly and at that very age. 

    We know the 2009 No. 1 overall pick has the ability to dominate in the right environment. And now he has full health, a talented offensive line and two enticing young pass-catchers in Kenny Golladay and T.J. Hockenson. Further, the presence of 2018 rookie sensation Kerryon Johnson means Stafford finally has the support of what should be a strong running game.

    Stafford has always lacked consistency, but he's also always had a knack for coming up big in critical moments (he tied an NFL record with eight fourth-quarter comebacks in 2016). If he can work that magic and it all comes together for both him and his talented team in 2019, the 11-year veteran could be a sneaky MVP candidate.

Los Angeles Rams DL Aaron Donald

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    A defensive player hasn't won MVP since Lawrence Taylor did so in 1986, but if anyone's going to buck that trend, it's Aaron Donald. 

    The dominant Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman just became only the third player in NFL history to win back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards. And if he aligns himself for a third in 2019, voters could be compelled to finally toss him MVP ballots. 

    That would still require a down year at the quarterback position, which is a possibility albeit unlikely. And it would help if Donald were to break the league's single-season sack record of 22.5, which is absolutely within the realm of possibility for a 28-year-old coming off a 20.5-sack campaign. 

Jacksonville Jaguars QB Nick Foles

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Never count out Nick Foles, who, as a sophomore third-round pick, made the Pro Bowl while posting the third-highest passer rating in NFL history, and then, as a seemingly washed up retread, led the Philadelphia Eagles to their first-ever Super Bowl victory in 2017. 

    The Arizona product hasn't been consistent, but he's got a hell of a resume and a reputation for killing it in clutch moments. And now, at the age of 30, he's finally the undisputed No. 1 quarterback from the get-go. 

    His new team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, is loaded with talent and just 16 months removed from the AFC Championship Game. 

    So if it all comes together for Foles in Jacksonville in 2019, an MVP run can't be ruled out for a dude who has already proved himself as a Super Bowl MVP.

Oakland Raiders QB Derek Carr

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    It's a crime that, at least at FanDuel, Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr has lower MVP odds than running backs Melvin Gordon, David Johnson and Derrick Henry, as well as quarterbacks Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Sam Darnold. 

    Have we all forgotten that the three-time Pro Bowler is just a couple years removed from an outstanding season in which he earned a half-dozen MVP votes? Carr hasn't been quite the same since that 2016 campaign, but injuries and the transition to a new system and coaching staff certainly didn't help. 

    Besides, the 28-year-old quietly posted the highest completion percentage (68.9) and yards-per-attempt average (7.3) of his career last year. His passer rating was 97.2 from mid-October on, and he threw just two interceptions in the final 11 games of the regular season.

    And that was with a putrid supporting cast. Now, the Raiders look a lot better on paper and Carr has some experience working with Jon Gruden.

    It's easy to lose sight of Carr's potential in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, especially considering all of the offseason chatter about Oakland's potential interest in members of the 2019 quarterback draft class. But the Raiders ultimately stuck with Carr, who is a tremendous, well-accomplished veteran quarterback on the verge of his prime.

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