Dark-Horse 2021 NFL MVP Candidates Who Could Challenge Mahomes, Rodgers

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2021

Dark-Horse 2021 NFL MVP Candidates Who Could Challenge Mahomes, Rodgers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The NFL's Most Valuable Player has become a quarterback award, and that isn't likely to change in 2021. The last non-QB to be named MVP was Adrian Peterson in 2012. Before that, it was LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.

    However, while we can assume the 2021 MVP will likely be a quarterback, we don't know which player will take home the award. Many of the recent winners—including Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Aaron Rodgers—will probably be in the running. There's no guarantee, though, that a dark horse won't emerge to claim it, as Mahomes did in 2018.

    Here, we'll examine six dark-horse candidates who could surprise in 2021 and lay claim to the ultimate in regular-season bragging rights. These players aren't favorites heading into the season, but we'll examine exactly why they can't be counted out.

    Factors like proven production, supporting talent and team expectations will be considered. Before we dig into our dark horses, which we are considering those with 50-1 odds or longer, let's take a look at the early betting favorites.

The Favorites

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs, 9-2

    Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers, 9-1

    Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills, 11-1

    Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 15-1

    Matthew Stafford, QB, Los Angeles Rams, 15-1

    Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens, 16-1

    Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks, 16-1

    Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys, 17-1

    Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers, 20-1

    Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals, 20-1

    Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns, 33-1

    Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons, 40-1

    Ryan Tannehill, QB, Tennessee Titans, 40-1

    Carson Wentz, QB, Indianapolis Colts, 40-1

    *Odds via DraftKings Sportsbook and current as of May 24

Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Odds: 50-1

    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is a long shot because NFL MVP candidates typically reside on playoff-caliber teams. The Bengals, who won just four games in 2020, are not widely expected to be contenders.

    However, Cincinnati could surprise and reach the postseason under the new 14-team format. If so—and if Burrow returns to 100 percent after last year's ACL tear—there are plenty of reasons to believe he could vie for the award.

    For starters, Burrow's numbers before the devastating knee injury were impressive. Prorated over 16 games, he was on pace for 4,300 passing yards, 21 passing touchdowns, eight interceptions and five rushing touchdowns. While those aren't MVP-level stats, they came with one of the league's least talented rosters.

    This offseason, Cincinnati drafted Burrow's former LSU teammate and 1,780-yard collegiate receiver (in 2019) Ja'Marr Chase. It also revamped the offensive line by signing Riley Reiff and drafting Jackson Carman in Round 2.

    With better protection, a legitimate No. 1 receiver, a host of quality complementary receivers like Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, and a premium running back in Joe Mixon, Burrow could see a dramatic jump in statistical production.

    And if the Bengals do surprise and claim a playoff spot, it will likely be because of Burrow's play. Turning an also-ran into a contender certainly looks good on a player's MVP resume.

Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Odds: 50-1

    One could argue that Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry was the league's most valuable player last year. Though it's hard to argue with what Rodgers accomplished for the Green Bay Packers, Henry was the Titans offense and had himself a season for the ages.

    The 27-year-old rushed for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns while adding 114 receiving yards. He led the league in rushing for the second straight campaign and was named the 2020 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

    Over the last two seasons, Henry has compiled a combined 3,887 scrimmage yards and 35 total touchdowns.

    Would the Titans have made back-to-back playoff appearances without Henry leading the offense? Probably not, and it's hard to think that they'll be a playoff team in 2021 if Henry doesn't again perform at an MVP level.

    If he does carry Tennessee back to the postseason while leading the league in rushing for a third straight season, it'll be hard not to consider him the MVP and not just the OPOY.

    Yes, the MVP is a quarterback-centric award, but there are always exceptions. With a rare blend of power, breakaway speed, production and durability, Henry can be that exception in 2021.

Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    Odds: 50-1

    Expectations for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2021 probably fall somewhere between those for the Titans and Bengals. Philly missed the playoffs in 2020 but plays in a weak NFC East. The Eagles also dealt with multiple injuries along the offensive line and some putrid play from quarterback Carson Wentz.

    Wentz has moved to Indianapolis, and this team belongs to second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. The dual-threat former Alabama and Oklahoma star could make an MVP case because he potentially represents something fresh and unexpected.

    In his three full games last season, Hurts passed for 847 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed for 238 yards and a score. That's a small sample size, but prorated over a 17-game season like the one he'll play in 2021, that would put Hurts on pace for roughly 4,800 passing yards, 23 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions, 1,349 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns.

    The 22-year-old will have a better team around him in 2021. Offensive tackles Andre Dillard and Lane Johnson are expected to be back from a torn biceps and an ankle injury, respectively, and the Eagles used their first-round pick on former Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith.

    According to Hurts, the Eagles are getting a consummate professional in their new wideout.

    "He's self-driven, and bringing someone in like that, it helps. Just the presence of him being here," he told reporters.

    It's possible Hurts can make the sort of second-year leap we saw from Lamar Jackson during his MVP campaign.

Jameis Winston, QB, New Orleans Saints

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Odds: 60-1

    Jameis Winston faces the tough task of trying to replace Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints. Winston is expected to compete with Taysom Hill for the starting gig, and the former Florida State star is the early betting favorite.

    If Winston does win the job, he can be a surprise MVP candidate. The talent has always been there, and it was on full display with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If not for a major interception issue, Winston would have had an MVP-caliber season in 2019.

    That year, he led the league with 5,109 passing yards and posted 33 touchdowns. Of course, he also had a league-high 30 interceptions. If Winston can fix his turnover tendency under the tutelage of Sean Payton, though, watch out.

    The Saints are loaded, even without Brees. They have an elite receiver in Michael Thomas, arguably the league's best dual-threat running back in Alvin Kamara and an offensive line that allowed only 29 sacks in 2020.

    Yes, Winston will have to cut back on his interceptions, and he'll have to first win the starting job out of camp. However, he's already shown he can throw 30-plus touchdown passes while leading the league in passing yards.

    At just 27 years old, the best of Winston could be yet to come.

Sam Darnold, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Odds: 100-1

    Winston isn't the only young quarterback with impressive physical tools and an underwhelming NFL resume. Sam Darnold, the No. 3 pick in 2018, was considered a blue-chip prospect coming out of USC but never got a fair shake with the New York Jets.

    "He's still the most complete quarterback in this draft with the best makeup to be a good pro," one AFC executive said of Darnold in 2018, per NFL media's Lance Zierlein.

    With an unreliable head coach and a talent-starved supporting cast, Darnold never really grew beyond what he was as a rookie.

    However, the 23-year-old will get a fresh start with the Carolina Panthers. He'll be coached by a bright offensive mind in coordinator Joe Brady—the same offensive wizard who turned Joe Burrow into a Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick. Darnold's receiving corps blows away anything he had with the Jets.

    Between DJ Moore, Robby Anderson, David Moore and rookie Terrace Marshall Jr., Darnold shouldn't want for quality wideouts. He'll also benefit from the presence of dual-threat running back Christian McCaffrey—who missed the bulk of the 2020 season with various injuries.

    When McCaffrey was last healthy in 2019, he racked up 1,387 rushing yards, 1,005 receiving yards and 19 total touchdowns.

    All of the pieces are in place for Darnold to have the sort of success that eluded him in New York. If the fourth-year quarterback can capitalize, it should make for one of the best storylines of 2021, which should be a great draw for MVP voters.

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    Odds: 100-1

    If MVP voters are swayed by a good story, the potential last ride of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger should get their attention. The 39-year-old gunslinger faded down the stretch in 2020 but still had respectable numbers. He finished with 3,803 passing yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

    It's important to remember, though, that Big Ben was working his way back from a season lost to elbow surgery. He'll be two years removed from the injury and perhaps in better physical shape to go the distance in 2021.

    The bulk of Roethlisberger's 2020 receiving corps will be back, and Pittsburgh added dual-threat running back Najee Harris in the draft. Roethlisberger got no favors from Pittsburgh's 32nd-ranked rushing attack last season—teams essentially sat back and dared the Steelers to run late in the year. If Harris can fix that, Roethlisberger could be difficult to stop.

    "Ben's still got the goods. Anyone that tells you otherwise, they haven't really looked at football," defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said, per NFL.com's Kevin Patra.

    We've seen aging quarterbacks earn the league MVP before—Tom Brady in 2017 (age 40 season), Peyton Manning in 2013 (37)—and it would be foolish to count out Roethlisberger.

    Will Big Ben have to be better than he was late last season? Absolutely, and while Roethlisberger has twice led the league in passing, he has never won the MVP award. If the 2021 season goes as the Steelers hope, however, this could finally be Roethlisberger's year.


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