Ranking the NFL's Early Front-Runners for 2021 MVP

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystSeptember 25, 2021

Ranking the NFL's Early Front-Runners for 2021 MVP

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    Turn on any NFL game. The smiling faces on your TV are often quarterbacks playing well and helping lead their respective squads to victory. 

    The onset of another season creates a sense of euphoria, much like CM Punk's return to professional wrestling after a seven-year absence. 

    The excitement can wear off in an instant with a disappointing performance, though. In the case of the league's top quarterbacks and Punk, the early returns on their current runs are promising. 

    Can they continue to deliver? Those who do will find themselves counted among the league's best and worthy of being named Most Valuable Player. 

    Some may find an early MVP tally silly after only two weeks of play, yet certain players already established themselves as tone-setters. Their recent play on what looks like successful teams (i.e., legitimate playoff contenders) portend long-term sustainability. 

    Quarterbacks lead the way, of course. After all, Adrian Peterson is the last position player to win the award nine years ago. Otherwise, the hardware went to quarterbacks in 13 of the last 14 seasons. 

    They're everything other players aspire to be.

5. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

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    Maybe...finally...Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will garner at least one MVP vote, if not more. 

    Wilson burst out of the gate in 2020 with an exceptional first-half performance. To be fair, the quarterback had to shoulder the load since the Seahawks defense was historically bad to open the season. Improvement on the other side of the ball, a recommitment to the ground game and, frankly, Wilson just not playing quite as well derailed an opportunity at his first MVP nod. 

    Once again, Wilson looks great at the start of another season. 

    The 10-year veteran is cooking with a 146.9 quarterback rating thanks to a six-to-zero touchdown-to-interception ratio. He's first with 11.1 yards per pass attempt. Wilson also ranks among the top eight quarterbacks in completion percentage (74.1), passing yards (597) and touchdown passes. 

    Some might expect a decline in performance after a few weeks based on the previous year's outcome. The Seahawks have a new offensive coordinator in Shane Waldron, though.

    "I've never seen this kind of chemistry be so obvious between the caller and the quarterback and I hope this is just the first step of a great march together," head coach Pete Carroll told reporters after Seattle's Week 1 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. 

    The Seahawks faltered in Week 2 against the Tennessee Titans, but Wilson threw for 343 yards and two touchdowns in the overtime loss. The defense, particularly against the run, ruined Seattle's chances. 

    As long as Wilson doesn't experience any letdowns, he'll be counted among the very best at the game's most important position. Ergo, he'll be in the MVP mix by default.

4. Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams

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    Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay are a match made in heaven, and the head coach couldn't contain himself after the Los Angeles Rams traded for the 33-year-old signal-caller this offseason. 

    "I think I've been very happy," McVay told reporters in June. "Everybody says, 'Man, you just seem like you're in a better mood this offseason,' and I said, 'You're damn right I am.'"

    Jared Goff was a capable quarterback. However, he presented certain limitations that Stafford doesn't. 

    "He can make every throw from every angle," Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians said Wednesday. "He's just so talented, and I love watching really talented guys."

    Stafford's natural arm talent is exceptional. He can threaten a defense at all three levels and has done so in the first two contests as a member of the Rams. 

    From a performance standpoint, Los Angeles' new quarterback ranks first in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), second in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) and air yards per attempt, third with a 127.0 quarterback rating, fourth in QBR, sixth in touchdown percentage and seventh on Pro Football Focus' grading scale, according to Rams broadcaster J.B. Long

    The Rams have a brutal schedule with the Bucs next on the docket while also playing in the NFL's best division, the NFC West. If the team emerges successfully on the other side, Stafford will receive plenty of recognition for his efforts. 

    Los Angeles bet big by sinking a pair of first-round picks, a third-round selection and Goff into acquiring Stafford. The pressure on him to perform well is immense. If he does, he'll have reignited the franchise and placed it in the national conversation among other top contenders.

3. Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders

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    The book seemed to be out on Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr after seven years in the league. 

    The three-time Pro Bowl selection was a competent quarterback and viable starter who benefited from a conservative approach within Jon Gruden's passing attack. 

    Carr has always been a quality signal-caller, but he suffered from a poor supporting cast at times and had to take on too much during those years. More often than not, the Raiders got off to a strong start to the season only to fade down the stretch. 

    Well, the Raiders are 2-0 and Carr is squarely in the MVP conversation with a league-leading 817 passing yards. In fact, his passing production through two contests set a new franchise record. Rich Gannon previously established the mark during the season when he went on to become the league's MVP. 

    The 30-year-old isn't the same dink-and-dunk quarterback he's often made out to be. He's tied for first with the Arizona Cardinals' Kyler Murray (more on him later) with nine big-time throws through two weeks, per Pro Football Focus. His 8.8 yards per attempt ranks eighth overall as well. 

    "I just try and execute it the best possible way I can, and the way coach Gruden designs the play," Carr told reporters. "We've been fortunate that our defense has been playing at such a high level. We've been able to take some shots, take some chances, and it's been nice that some of those have worked out for us."

    Carr's chances are helped by the fact that the Raiders' young receivers—Henry Ruggs III, Bryan Edwards and Hunter Renfrowseem to be developing into consistent threats. Also, Las Vegas finally has a pass rush, which the franchise lacked since trading Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears. These two aspects make the team better as a whole and alleviate the burden on Carr. As such, a late-season collapse is more unlikely than it was during the previous two seasons.

2. Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    A wrongheaded approach tends to be taken with Tom Brady

    "Well, he turned 44 this year. Eventually, his play will decline."

    Brady continues to age gracefully, and his eventual downturn doesn't appear to be anywhere in sight based on three factors. 

    First, the seven-time Super Bowl champion's commitment to his physical well-being and strict dietary and training regimen keep him in top physical shape despite being well past retirement age for most football players. 

    Second, the game is geared toward protecting and benefitting quarterbacks. Brady takes advantage of opposing defenses that can't be as aggressive as they were at the start of his two-plus decades in professional football.

    Lastly, too many overlooked the fact that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a Super Bowl last season despite not having a full offseason together while learning each other's tendencies on the fly and not truly coming together as a complete team until after their Week 13 bye. 

    As a result, Brady is as good or better than ever, and he has the talent around him to make a serious run at a fourth MVP trophy. 

    "I think anytime you have a guy like Tom leading us, I think you're in a good spot," wide receiver Chris Godwin told reporters. "All the skill players around him trust him, and trust is one of the biggest things you can have in this game."

    Currently, Brady leads the league with nine touchdown passes and ranks first among quarterbacks in overall grade, per Pro Football Focus

    Don't expect Brady and the 2-0 Buccaneers to slow down anytime soon.

1. Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals

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    Kyler Murray may not have seen a Star Wars film, but we can't hold that little factoid against him (as astonishing as it is). 

    The 24-year-old Arizona Cardinals quarterback graduated from Padawan status this season into a full-fledged Jedi master. Murray has cut through the opposition like Ahsoka Tano handling her lightsabers. 

    Through the first two contests, the 2019 first overall draft pick ranks second with 689 passing yards and seven passing touchdowns. He's also top-10 in completion percentage (73.5) and quarterback rating (121.5). 

    Murray's ability to scramble and create with his feet makes him a constant threat as well. Currently, he's one of four quarterbacks with two or more rushing touchdowns.

    So far, the Cardinals signal-caller is the league's best against pressure, per Pro Football Focus. He's also tied with the Las Vegas Raiders' Derek Carr with nine big-time throws. In terms of overall grade, he's the league's fourth-best quarterback. 

    The difference lies in what Murray can do as a cog in Kliff Kingsbury's scheme and what happens when he works outside of structure. The Cardinals moved on quickly from Josh Rosen because Murray was an ideal fit for the coach's system. However, Murray continually makes wow throws when he's moved off his spot and forced to improvise.

    "The game has really slowed down for him," Kingsbury said of Murray after the Cardinals' 2-0 start. "You see him doing stuff that he did at the collegiate level. He's very confident in his legs and moving around, and making throws, and extending plays. It's Year 3 and hopefully we can keep it going." 

    Murray added, "It's all reaction, all instincts, getting out of there. We work scramble drills all week, so I'm glad it's starting to pay off."

    This is the way...to claiming the most prestigious individual award the game offers.

    (Seriously, how has Murray never watched any installment of the Star Wars franchise when the force is definitely on his side?)