Ranking the NFL's Non-QB MVP Candidates in Bizarre 2021 Race

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistDecember 1, 2021

Ranking the NFL's Non-QB MVP Candidates in Bizarre 2021 Race

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    The 2021 NFL season has been even more unpredictable than usual.

    While we're finally starting to get an idea of who the top teams are, the playoff race is very much unsettled. If the season ended today, the Washington Football Team and San Francisco 49ers would both be in the postseason. Three weeks ago, these two teams were a combined 5-11.

    The race for MVP has been just as unpredictable. Though it usually goes to a quarterback, no signal-caller has truly separated himself from the pack.

    Patrick Mahomes has already tossed 11 interceptions, Lamar Jackson threw four picks on Sunday night alone, and Josh Allen has thrown seven picks over the last month. Even Tom Brady has struggled with turnovers lately, throwing six interceptions over his last four games.

    Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers might be the current MVP front-runner at quarterback, due in part to the fact that the Green Bay Packers stumbled through a 13-7 loss when he was on the reserve/COVID-19 list. However, the door might be open to a non-quarterback winning league MVP for the first time since 2012.

    Running back Adrian Peterson won that year, becoming only the fourth non-quarterback (along with LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander and Marshall Faulk) to win the award this century.

    It's unlikely that a non-quarterback will take home the award this year, but it isn't impossible. Here, we'll dive into six potential candidates and weigh their chances based on factors like production to date, rest-of-season outlook and their importance to their respective teams.

6. Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Pittsburg Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris is admittedly an MVP long shot. The MVP usually comes from a playoff squad, and at 5-5-1, the reeling Pittsburgh Steelers will need to go on a serious run to be one.

    If Pittsburgh does somehow storm its way into the postseason, though, Harris may be the force dragging it. He's been the centerpiece of the Steelers offense and arguably the biggest centerpiece of any offense.

    While Harris hasn't been dominant as a runner—he's averaging only 3.6 yards per carry—he's been reliable as an outlet receiver. He has rushed for 708 yards and five touchdowns and has 52 receptions for 351 yards and two scores.

    Although Harris leads the NFL in offensive touches with 248, he probably isn't even the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year. New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones and Cincinnati Bengals wideout Ja'Marr Chase have both been fantastic and are playing for stronger contenders.

    However, Harris is easily the most valuable member of the Steelers offense, and it's highly unlikely that his role will shrink down the stretch. The Alabama product is on pace for a whopping 383 combined rushes and receptions, and if those touches help yield a playoff berth, he will at least deserve MVP consideration.

5. Davante Adams, WR, Green Bay Packers

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Green Bay Packers wideout Davante Adams ranks relatively low on this list because he'll be competing with his teammate, Aaron Rodgers, for MVP honors. However, Adams is such a prolific piece of the Packers passing attack that he deserves a mention in MVP conversations as well.

    Despite missing one game on the reserve/COVID-19 list, Adams has already amassed 1,083 yards and five touchdowns on 80 receptions. He's been responsible for 34.5 percent of Green Bay's total receiving yards.

    Adams' 115 targets represent 29.3 percent of the team's total. That's a huge target share for any receiver, and Adams is providing a passer rating of 102.9 when targeted.

    In other words, Rodgers has no reason to stop targeting Adams early and often down the stretch, even as opponents look to take him out of the game plan.

    "We're not a better team without him, that's for sure," Rodgers said of Adams heading into the Week 8 game that the wideout missed, per NFL.com's Chase Goodbread.

    Adams is the most valuable member of Green Bay's offense other than Rodgers. If Rodgers makes a few mistakes or misses time down the stretch but the Packers still secure the NFC's No. 1 seed, Adams could conceivably snag MVP honors.

4. Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    With 906 receiving yards and eight touchdowns, Cincinnati Bengals wideout Ja'Marr Chase is having a tremendous rookie campaign. He and quarterback Joe Burrow were the talk of the early Bengals season and have helped forge a passing attack ranked sixth in net yards per attempt (7.2) and seventh in touchdowns (23).

    However, running back Joe Mixon has been the driving force behind the offense in recent weeks.

    Mixon has rushed for 288 yards in his past two games and has scored two touchdowns in each of his past four. He's the first player to score multiple touchdowns in four straight games since Steven Jackson did it in 2006, according to The Athletic's Jay Morrison

    Mixon has scored in eight straight games, which is two short of Carl Pickens' franchise record, and he's four touchdowns away from Pickens' franchise record for a season, per Morrison. He also ranks fourth in the NFL in touches with 234, and he's hitting his stride as a runner at exactly the right time.

    The 7-4 Bengals are likely to make it to the playoffs, and they might even claim the AFC North title. They're a game behind the Baltimore Ravens, but they already have one one-head-to-head victory.

    If Cincinnati winds up hosting a playoff game, Mixon—who is on pace for 1,428 rushing yards, 297 receiving yards and 20 combined touchdowns—will warrant serious MVP consideration.

3. Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    It might take a record-setting campaign for a non-quarterback to win MVP this season. Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp might accomplish that.

    With 92 receptions, 1,237 yards and 10 touchdowns already in the books, Kupp is in the midst of a historic season regardless. At his current pace, he will finish with 142 receptions, 1,912 yards and 16 touchdowns.

    Calvin Johnson holds the NFL single-season receiving record with 1,964 yards, while Michael Thomas holds the single-season receptions record with 149 catches. Both are in sight for Kupp, even if it takes a concerted effort from the Rams to get him those numbers.

    Forcing a few extra passes to Kupp wouldn't necessarily change L.A.'s offensive philosophy As former Rams safety John Johnson III noted (h/t Hayden Grove of Cleveland.com), the offense already runs through him.

    Kupp is getting an extra regular-season game to reach these marks. However, that doesn't change the fact that he might finish with arguably the greatest receiving season in NFL history.

    The Rams' ongoing three-game losing streak could hurt Kupp's MVP chances. His resume will be a lot more impressive if they win the NFC West, but they now need a lot of help to catch the 9-2 Arizona Cardinals.

2. Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    At 6-5, the San Francisco 49ers probably aren't catching the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West. However, they have stormed back from a 3-5 record and controls their own path to the postseason.

    If the Niners keep rolling and get into the playoffs, wideout Deebo Samuel is likely to get a lot of the credit.

    What gives Samuel an edge over wideouts like Davante Adams and Cooper Kupp is the fact that he's started contributing heavily as a runner. Over the past three weeks, Samuel has carried the ball 19 times for 181 yards and four touchdowns.

    On Sunday, Samuel became the first wide receiver in NFL history with 1,000 receiving yards, five receiving touchdowns and five rushing touchdowns in the same season, according to ESPN. He's up to 1,006 receiving yards, 203 rushing yards and 10 combined touchdowns on the year.

    As an all-around weapon, Samuel might be the most important member of San Francisco's offense, including the quarterback. However, he suffered a groin injury Sunday and is expected to miss one or two weeks.

    Even if Samuel does miss two weeks, he could still finish with around 1,300 receiving yards, 500 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns. Given his dual-threat role from the receiver position—something we see far less frequently than dual-threat running backs—that might be enough to earn him MVP honors.

1. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    If there's a non-quarterback who can be considered an early MVP favorite, it's Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor.

    "Taylor has a shot because none of the quarterbacks are having a scorched-earth type of year like Rodgers had last year," NFL Network's Kay Adams said last week on Good Morning Football.

    Taylor had only 16 carries in the Colts' Week 12 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, yet he still finished with 97 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown. That's how productive he's been this season.

    To date, Taylor ranks second in the NFL with 245 touches. He leads the NFL with 1,205 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. He has the longest run of the season (83 yards) and is tied with Nick Chubb with a league-high 5.8 yards per carry among qualified players.

    With Derrick Henry on injured reserve (foot) and the Tennessee Titans flailing, Taylor has a good chance to be the rushing champion, while the Colts have a solid shot at winning the AFC South. If both of those things happen, Taylor could become the first non-quarterback to win MVP since Adrian Peterson in 2012. 

    Taylor is on pace for 1,707 rushing yards, 476 receiving yards and 23 combined touchdowns. In a year that has yet to feature a dominant quarterback, those numbers could make Taylor the NFL's Most Valuable Player.

    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.