Dark-Horse NFL MVP Candidates Who Could Steal Spotlight from Mahomes, Lamar

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMay 18, 2020

Dark-Horse NFL MVP Candidates Who Could Steal Spotlight from Mahomes, Lamar

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    The NFL MVP award has been a refreshing point of discussion over the past few seasons. 

    Onlookers have seen the next wave of superstars take over. Past winners like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady have given way to Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson over the last two seasons. 

    So the question is simple: Who's next?

    If the budding trend of unexpected winners continues into 2020, several candidates could steal the crown while pushing aside Mahomes and Jackson. Whether it's another upward-swinging star, returning veteran or a shocking non-quarterback (the last non-QB win was 2012), several players sit in great projected positions on improved teams and could shove their way into the conversation. And none are listed among the nine players with the best odds to win the award at Caesars Palace

    These are the dark-horse candidates to keep in mind. 

Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    All it takes is one great outburst. 

    Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is one of the first names who pops to mind when thinking along such lines. He's always been an eye-popping numbers guy, though he's won more than eight games just twice. 

    Cousins had four-year run with 4,000-plus passing yards end last year. He completed 69.1 percent of his attempts for only 3,603 yards and 26 touchdowns against six interceptions—but his attempts dropped below the 450 mark for the first time since 2014. 

    Over two years in Minnesota, Cousins has put together a 69.7 completion percentage with 7,901 yards and 56 touchdowns against 16 interceptions and a 5.3 touchdown percentage. If his attempts jump, so will his numbers, and if the Vikings are winning games, he's bound to enter the MVP discussion. 

    Cousins did lose Stefon Diggs this offseason, but the Vikings swapped him out with rookie Justin Jefferson. He'll be able to help right away, and the hope is Adam Thielen will be on the field for more than 10 games, his total last season. If so, Cousins could be an unexpected MVP contender.

Philip Rivers, QB, Indianapolis Colts

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Most seem to have written Philip Rivers off. 

    But it was just two seasons ago the new Indianapolis Colts quarterback completed 68.3 percent of his passes with 4,308 yards and 32 touchdowns against 12 interceptions while helping the Los Angeles Chargers to 12 wins. 

    In fact, Rivers just upgraded his surroundings by joining the Colts while the Chargers start over with a rookie under center. 

    The 38-year-old has had 4,200-plus yards every season since 2012—with a peak of 4,792—and 30 or more scores four times over that span. Now he'll get to drum up similar big numbers behind an elite Quenton Nelson-led offensive line while firing the ball to T.Y. Hilton, Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell and tight end Jack Doyle as well as a host of talented receiving backs headed up by second-round pick Jonathan Taylor. 

    These Colts drummed up a 7-9 record last year with a middling quarterback performance, and the AFC South continues to fluctuate (Jacksonville is rebuilding, Houston is doing odd things like trading DeAndre Hopkins). There's a chance Rivers erupts and shoves aside younger MVP contenders. 

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Sleeping on Matthew Stafford isn't advisable. 

    Stafford got in only eight games for the Detroit Lions last year yet completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 2,499 yards and 19 touchdowns with five picks, averaging a career-best 8.6 yards per attempt. He also casually posted two fourth-quarter comebacks and one game-winning drive (he has a stunning 28 and 34, respectively, over the course of his career). 

    The 2009 draft's No. 1 pick returns healthy to an upgraded offensive line via free-agent add Halapoulivaati Vaitai, never mind a better defense with No. 3 pick Jeff Okudah getting the nod at corner, to name a few upgrades. 

    Stafford also has the luxury of playing with a stacked top-four target list with receivers Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr. and Danny Amendola as well as tight end T.J. Hockenson. The first two combined for 20 touchdowns last season, the first three each caught at least 62 passes, and Hockenson was a top-10 pick in 2019 with massive upside. 

    Stafford's statistical resume speaks for itself. If another booming season and better team around him equates to his leading the team to the playoffs for the first time since 2014, he could easily elbow his way into MVP chatter. 

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    It's easy to overlook Ben Roethlisberger, who was largely overshadowed during the Antonio Brown saga for the Pittsburgh Steelers before he suited up for just two games in 2019. 

    But a healthy Big Ben is always a threat. Think back to 2018, the only time he's played a full 16-game season since 2014. He threw for 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns against 16 interceptions. 

    Granted, Big Ben isn't going to have prime AB to hit, nor will his crop of weapons benefit from Brown's commanding presence.

    Pittsburgh has gone to great lengths to mitigate the loss and help Big Ben, though. Smith-Schuster struggled last season but in the interim, 2018 second-round pick James Washington averaged 16.7 yards per catch and 2019 third-round pick Diontae Johnson caught 59 passes with five scores. Now add second-round rookie Chase Claypool and free agent Eric Ebron (13 touchdowns in 2018) to the mix. 

    Armed with speedy wideouts, possession receivers, elite red-zone threats like Ebron and backed by a defense that allowed only 18.9 points per game a season ago en route to an 8-8 record, Big Ben returns to an environment rich in MVP-contention opportunities. 

Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Josh Allen might just be the next wave. 

    The seventh pick in 2018 by the Buffalo Bills was incredibly raw entering the league. But a booming arm and versatility alongside an upswing in efficiency sure makes it seem like a breakout is on the way. 

    Allen went from completing 52.8 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and 12 picks on 320 attempts as a rookie to completing 58.8 with 20 and nine on 461 attempts last year. Last year's numbers, by the way, happened while he suffered 38 sacks and still had to put up 100-plus rushes in a backfield where nobody carried it more than 166 times—he scored nine more times on the ground. 

    Luckily for Allen, the Bills aren't sitting on their hands. The move for Stefon Diggs, owner of 1,130 yards and six scores on just 63 catches last year, gives Allen his first true No. 1 wideout. Don't forget he connected with John Brown for 1,000-plus yards and Cole Beasley for another 778 while both caught six touchdowns apiece last season. 

    This looks like all the puzzle pieces just falling together. Allen is clearly on an upswing, the team around him continues to get better (reminder that the defense allowed just 16.2 points per game), he led the Bills to 10 wins last year, and a transition in the AFC East is underway with Tom Brady gone. 

    If there was a time for Allen to make a serious MVP push, it's now. 

Nick Chubb, RB, Cleveland Browns

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    The lone non-quarterback who isn't a household name like Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley is Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb. Elliott and Barkley contending wouldn't register as a surprise—Chubb seems to be much further under the proverbial radar. 

    Chubb didn't seem to get his due last year while Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffrey occupied the running back spotlight. Which is incredible seeing as Chubb finished second in rushing at 1,494 yards with eight scores on an average of five yards per carry.

    It gets better. Chubb led all running backs with 11 rushes of 20-plus yards. He averaged 93.4 yards per game, second only to Henry. He ran for 62 first downs, fifth among backs. A staggering 882 of his yards came after contact, and he caught 36 of his 49 targets. According to Pro Football Focus, he's the only running back to average more than four yards after contact over the course of his career since 2006.

    Cleveland, by the way, will still force defenses to respect the passing game thanks to Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr. and free-agent add Austin Hooper, giving Chubb plenty of space to work. He probably won't have to earn as many yards after contact either, not after the Browns went all-in on the offensive line by adding Jack Conklin in free agency and Jedrick Wills Jr. in the first round, solidifying the tackle spots. 

    The Browns don't have a good reason to not give Chubb in the range of 300 carries and plenty of targets again, which could create an irresistible performance for MVP voters.