Ranking the Best Dark-Horse Super Bowl, MVP Bets Heading into 2021

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 20, 2021

Ranking the Best Dark-Horse Super Bowl, MVP Bets Heading into 2021

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    The NFL season doesn't always end with expected outcomes, and there is always the potential for surprising results. 

    Once in a while, a rising star or an unheralded player puts together an extraordinary run through the regular season and wins the league MVP award.

    In each of the last seven years, a different NFC team has reached the Super Bowl. 

    While most of us expect quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady to remain in contention for individual accolades on Super Bowl-contending squads, we should leave room for new blood and other viable teams within the playoff bubble.

    Based on recent trends in production, offseason moves and projections, we’ll rank the top three dark-horse MVP and Super Bowl picks. For these selections, we used DraftKings’ betting lines to highlight players and teams with odds at +2000 or higher.

3. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    MVP odds: +8000 (Bet $100 to win $8,000)

    With either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill at quarterback, the New Orleans Saints could turn to Alvin Kamara as their go-to playmaker. He's an elite threat on the ground and in the short passing game.

    Kamara is the only NFL player to record at least 500 rushing and receiving yards in each of his first four seasons. Though running back Latavius Murray should have a solid complementary role, head coach Sean Payton will likely give his star running back close to 20 touches per contest. In 2020, Kamara averaged 18 touches per game. 

    The Saints lost wideout Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook in free agency, which opens up more targets for the pass-catching group. Wideout Michael Thomas will probably lead the Saints in targets, and Kamara may rank second because of his reliable hands, logging 326 receptions for 2,824 yards and 15 touchdowns in 60 contests. 

    Typically, league MVP winners play for top-tier teams, so Kamara would need New Orleans to finish with a strong record.

    This offseason, the Saints lost quarterback Drew Brees to retirement as well as their 2020 sack leader, Trey Hendrickson, to free agency. Still, they have a solid offensive line that returns all of its starters and playmakers on each level of the defense in edge-rusher Cameron Jordan, linebacker Demario Davis and cornerback Marshon Lattimore. New Orleans can still make a postseason run and challenge for a division title. 

    Even though Kamara may rack up close to 2,000 yards from scrimmage, he ranks third because a running back hasn't won league MVP since Adrian Peterson in 2012.

2. Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    MVP odds: +3500 

    Don't fall into the lazy argument that Baker Mayfield cannot win league MVP because he plays in a run-heavy offense. When quarterbacks Matt Ryan (2016) and Tom Brady (2017) won the award, their respective clubs ranked fifth and 10th on the ground while listing just outside the top 10 in total carries. 

    Last year, the Cleveland Browns' rushing attack ranked fourth in carries and third in yards, while the passing attack listed 28th in attempts and 24th in yards. This club may field a more balanced attack in the upcoming term with a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. back in the fold.

    In 2020, Beckham missed nine games because of a torn ACL. Though he's had some chemistry issues with Mayfield, logging a 55.1 percent catch rate over the last two campaigns, the quarterback-receiver duo could hit its stride in Year 3 together. 

    Head coach Kevin Stefanski runs an offense that prominently features tight ends in the passing game. Last offseason, the Browns signed two-time Pro Bowler Austin Hooper, and they still have an athletic pass-catcher at the position in David Njoku. As a rookie fourth-rounder, Harrison Bryant caught 24 passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns last year. 

    If two of the three tight ends stay healthy and active in the aerial attack, Mayfield would have solid big-bodied receiving options in addition to Jarvis Landry and Beckham in the passing game. 

    Lastly, Stefanski hopes to see Mayfield grow with a stronger grasp of the offense, which may lead to more passing plays and less emphasis on the run.

    The Browns' offensive continuity gives Mayfield an edge over Alvin Kamara for the No. 2 slot.

1. Carson Wentz, Indianapolis Colts

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    MVP odds: +4000

    Carson Wentz can shine as an MVP candidate thanks in large part to his supporting cast.

    He'll play behind an offensive line that features a three-time All-Pro guard in Quenton Nelson and two-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly. Guard Braden Smith doesn't have any notable accolades on his resume, but the Indianapolis Colts opened extension talks with his representatives this offseason, per The Athletic's Stephen Holder.

    Though the unit lost left tackle Anthony Castonzo to retirement, two-time Pro Bowler Eric Fisher may suit up for the team in October when he's fully recovered from an Achilles injury, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

    Wentz also has a pass-catching group with a savvy veteran receiver in T.Y. Hilton and ton of potential.

    With a big-arm quarterback under center, Hilton could pick up chunk yardage over the top. The four-time Pro Bowler averaged at least 15.9 yards per reception in five consecutive seasons (2014-18). He battled through injuries during the 2019 term and then played in a conservative passing attack with Philip Rivers under center in 2020. 

    Wideout Michael Pittman Jr. could become a reliable big-bodied target (6'4", 223 lbs) in his second year. He caught 40 passes for 503 yards and a touchdown last season.

    Back in March, the Colts re-signed Zach Pascal, an underrated name to watch in the upcoming campaign. He's recorded at least 600 receiving yards and five touchdown receptions in consecutive years.

    Wentz's trio of tight ends—Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox and rookie fourth-rounder Kylen Granson, who caught 78 passes for 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns in his last two collegiate terms at SMU—could help put him over the top for a standout campaign.   

    Wentz ranks ahead of Baker Mayfield because we know he's capable of posting big numbers on a Super Bowl-caliber squad. In 2017, Wentz threw 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions before he tore his ACL in Week 14 for the Philadelphia Eagles, who won the title that year.

3. Dallas Cowboys

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    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott
    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak PrescottLM Otero/Associated Press

    Super Bowl odds: +3000

    As America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys typically have buzz around them, but that excitement feels a little different this year. 

    Quarterback Dak Prescott will return from an ankle injury that cost him 11 games last season. He'll have one of the best wide receiver groups in the league, assuming Amari Cooper doesn't miss much time after offseason foot/ankle surgery.

    If Cooper is slow to recover, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup could fill the void. As a rookie, the former caught 74 passes for 935 yards and five touchdowns. The latter racked up 1,107 receiving yards and six scores in 2019.

    The Athletic's Jon Machota noted that Ezekiel Elliott is in "excellent shape" and projects "at least 1,000 yards on the ground" for the All-Pro running back. In 2020, the two-time rushing champion finished with a career-low 979 rushing yards, but he seems primed for a bounce-back year.

    The Cowboys have also changed their defensive plan. This offseason, they hired Dan Quinn to replace Mike Nolan at defensive coordinator after Nolan's unit allowed the fifth-most points in the league in 2020.

    As the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Quinn's defenses ranked 19th or worse in four out of six seasons, but he's earned the benefit of the doubt as a coordinator because of his top-ranked groups with the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 and 2014.

    Quinn will have a talented unit that includes two-time Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, Pro Bowl linebacker Jaylon Smith, rookie first-rounder Micah Parsons and a promising second-year cornerback in Trevon Diggs, who recorded 14 pass breakups and three interceptions last season.

    If the Cowboys defense makes moderate strides, the offense should put up enough points to win games. In a wide-open division that sent a 7-9 squad to the playoffs for a home game last year, Dallas has a realistic pathway to the postseason. However, the club's defensive question marks raise some concerns, which is why it ranks third.

2. Indianapolis Colts

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    Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor
    Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan TaylorZach Bolinger/Associated Press

    Super Bowl odds: +2800

    As mentioned above, quarterback Carson Wentz has shown he's capable of leading an offense with high-end passing numbers, and the Philadelphia Eagles traded Wentz to a ready-made contender.

    In 2020, the Indianapolis Colts went 11-5 and clinched a playoff spot with a top-10 offense and defense. Though the 28-year-old signal-caller can provide a significant offensive boost with his playmaking ability, he doesn't have to carry the well-balanced roster. Indianapolis can beat its opponents with a strong ground attack that features running backs Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack.

    Defensively, the Colts lost versatile lineman Denico Autry, and they haven't re-signed edge-rusher Justin Houston, who ranked second on the team in sacks last year, but DeForest Buckner can still generate pocket pressure up front. All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard can do a little bit of everything from rushing the quarterback to covering pass-catchers, and rookie first-rounder Kwity Paye could fill the pass-rushing void as well.

    If Wentz avoids turnovers, he'll steer this club toward another double-digit win season. With some strong performances, the sixth-year veteran can lead this squad to the biggest stage for a title.

    The Colts rank ahead of the Dallas Cowboys because they're already a playoff contender that appears to have upgraded at the most important position, replacing now-retired Philip Rivers with Wentz.

1. Seattle Seahawks

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    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson
    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell WilsonTed S. Warren/Associated Press

    Super Bowl odds: +2500

    After an impressive start to the 2020 season with quarterback Russell Wilson in the MVP discussion, the Seattle Seahawks had a disappointing finish. The offense accumulated 302 yards or fewer in each of the team's last four outings, including a playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams.

    The Seahawks hired offensive coordinator Shane Waldron to replace Brian Schottenheimer, and head coach Pete Carroll hopes to establish an efficient run game in a balanced attack. 

    Seattle has the playmakers to scorch defenses through the air and a solid offensive line that can open lanes for ball-carriers on the ground.

    In two seasons, wideout DK Metcalf has averaged 15.6 yards per catch. While racking up 28 touchdown receptions over the last three terms, Tyler Lockett has become a reliable receiver with a 72.6 percent career catch rate

    Settle acquired guard Gabe Jackson from the Las Vegas Raiders this offseason. He's a stout run-blocker with the ability to create space for running back Chris Carson between the tackles. Seattle also has multiple pass-rushers who can make up for the loss of defensive tackle Jarran Reed, whom the team released in March. 

    The Seahawks re-signed Carlos Dunlap, whom they acquired from the Cincinnati Bengals before last year's trade deadline. He logged five sacks after Week 8 of the 2020 season. The club also added Kerry Hyder Jr., who logged a career-high 8.5 sacks with the San Francisco 49ers in 2020. Coming off a six-sack campaign, Benson Mayowa remains on the roster as a rotational edge-rusher.

    As a rookie, Alton Robinson recorded 11 quarterback pressures and four sacks. If he takes another step forward in his development, the defense will have a solid pass-rushing group. And don't forget safety Jamal Adams, who led the team in sacks (9.5) last year.

    In 2020, Seattle won the NFC West. With a few offensive tweaks and a couple of consistent pass-rushers, this squad can win the Super Bowl. As a top-tier quarterback, Wilson pushes the Seahawks ahead of the Indianapolis Colts for the No. 1 spot.

         

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