The NFL prides itself on being unpredictable, where any team can go from worst to first, and a young star can rise from the abyss to take the league by storm.
When it comes to the league’s MVP award, however, the honor has lost some of its intrigue. It’s become an annual quarterback coronation.
The last non-QB to win the award was Adrian Peterson in 2012, and it took a 2,097-yard performance. Signal-callers have won 14 of the past 15 MVPs and 19 of 23 since the turn of the millennium. Zero WRs, TEs, O-linemen, off-ball linebackers or DBs have ever won the award. (We see you, kicker Mark Moseley.)
We need only look at the current odds to see a QB is again expected to take home the hardware next February at NFL Honors. Quarterbacks make up the top 17 favorites to win this year’s award, according to FanDuel, with Josh Allen (+700), Tom Brady (+800), Patrick Mahomes (+800), Justin Herbert (+1000) and Aaron Rodgers (+1000) leading the pack.
Look, we get it. It’s the most important and challenging position in sports to master. From managing myriad moving parts to evading 300-pound herculean men coming to rip your head off, it’s an arduous job in which to excel. But when Kirk Cousins, Mac Jones and Trey Lance each have better odds (+4000) than Jonathan Taylor and Derrick Henry (+5000), you know it’s a lost cause for non-QBs.
It’s early July. Training camps don’t start for weeks and real games for two months. It’s our chance to mix things up and change the rules.
So let’s spotlight one MVP candidate for each club in 2022, taking QBs out of the equation. If you want to consider this my take on which non-QB will have the best season for each team, that’s an acceptable way to interpret this exercise.
Now onto the part that will undoubtedly upset everyone who didn’t read the intro (and probably some who did) …
Zero tight ends in NFL history have won an NFL MVP award. Z-E-R-O. That makes Andrews perfect for our exercise. LET’S MAKE HISTORY. Andrews led all TEs in receptions (107), receiving yards (1,361), and TDs (nine; tied) in 2021. Among all players, he finished tied for fifth in receptions and sixth in yards. And that was before the Ravens whittled their receiver corps to Rashod Bateman and Riddler-level question marks. Andrews is assured of getting a smorgasbord of targets from Lamar Jackson. Not only has the tight end proven to be a good route runner, he also can make contested snags in close quarters. Given the uncertainty at receiver in Baltimore, would it be that much of a stunner if Andrews threatened to lead the NFL in receiving?
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Sure, a predicted Gabriel Davis breakout and the addition of Jamison Crowder could strip Diggs’ potential, but the Pro Bowler remains the alpha. When Josh Allen needs a big play, he’ll look to one of the most dynamic receivers in the NFL. Diggs has four straight 1,000-plus yard seasons (one of three players to do so) with at least six TDs in each campaign. Last year, Diggs only had 103 catches, 1,225 yards, and 10 scores. Since joining Buffalo in 2020, Diggs leads the NFL in targets (330), is third in receptions (230) and fourth in receiving yards (2,760). Talk of Allen spreading the ball around more in Ken Dorsey’s offense has been pervasive, but in what should remain a pass-heavy scheme, Diggs will garner enough targets in critical spots to get back to leading the league.
This argument isn’t even hard to make. Chase set a Super Bowl era rookie record for receiving yards in 2021 with 1,455. So what does he do for an encore? Oh, just bust Calvin Johnson’s all-time single-season receiving yards record (1,964) and hit the 2K mark. Silly, you say? Well, he nearly had 1,500 yards in his first season. That was with six games where he generated fewer than 50 receiving yards — including a 3-yarder in Week 15 vs. Denver. Contrast that with Cooper Kupp, who had one tilt below 92 yards last season. There is still meat on that bone for Chase. With Joe Burrow’s “F- it, Ja’Marr’s down there somewhere” mentality, there is a chance for Chase to go bonkers every week. The second-year stud could put up more consistent numbers as he improves as a route runner with an entire offseason under his belt. With the Bengals’ O-line expected to improve, there will be even more chances for explosive plays in Cincy.
Chubb finished second in rushing with 1,259 yards in 2021 despite missing three games. The bruising back who cuts through the second level like a hot knife through butter has averaged 5.3 yards per carry in his career — currently second all-time behind underrated Jamaal Charles (5.4). Chubb is the first running back in NFL history to average 5-plus yards per carry in each of his first four seasons. In addition, he has averaged 85-plus rush yards per game in three consecutive seasons — HOFer and three-time MVP Jim Brown is the only other Browns player ever with consecutive such seasons (four-season streak in 1958-61 and three-season streak from 1963-65). Behind a nasty offensive line, if he stays healthy, Chubb can finally lead the NFL in rushing in Kevin Stefanski’s ground-first scheme.
With the Denver offense sharing the wealth behind Russell Wilson, Simmons owns the tools to stand out and cement his status as the top safety in the NFL. With speed to track the entire field, Simmons is a ballhawk, finishing 2021 tied for the most interceptions by a safety (5). Few can close with receivers like Simmons on the move. His instincts with the ball in the air are complemented by an increased ability to step up versus the run, netting 25-plus tackles each of the past three seasons, per Pro Football Focus. The free safety also added 1.5 sacks last season. Playing in an AFC West that is sure to throw the ball a ton in 2022, Simmons will have a load of opportunities to tally INTs and create splash plays on big stages.
Who will be more vital to the Year 2 growth of quarterback Davis Mills than a stalwart left tackle shielding the blindside? Sure, offensive linemen get zero love when it comes to offseason awards — let alone the MVP — but for the rebuilding Texans, Tunsil’s presence makes the operation go. The behemoth left tackle earned back-to-back Pro Bowls before missing most of 2021 due to a thumb injury. When healthy, he’s one of the best pass protectors in the NFL. If the Texans are to make a miraculous turnaround after a four-win season, it’ll start with keeping Mills upright. And that begins with Tunsil. Give the big guys some love!
Taylor’s 1,811 rushing yards not only led the NFL by 552 yards in 2021, but he also generated more yards after contact (1,272) than any other player had total rush yards (Nick Chubb: 1,259). Taylor led the NFL in scrimmage yards and scrimmage TDs, accounting for 36.8 percent of the Colts’ offense last season. He’s a workhorse’s workhorse with the power to generate tough yards and breakaway speed to leave DBs eating dust. Might Indy want to curtail his carries after a 332-tote season? Perhaps it would be wise. But Taylor should see an uptick in his receiving opportunities with Matt Ryan entering the picture. Ryan’s willingness to check the ball down in space should allow Taylor to generate more explosive plays in the passing game. Getting the All-Pro the ball in space more would keep the NFL’s top back fresher and create just as many big Sundays.
James Robinson would have been my choice here if it weren’t for an Achilles injury late last season. But it’s possible the stud RB won’t be full speed to open the season. Travis Etienne’s return could also siphon some of Robinson’s touches as well. So, the Jags’ best returning defender is the pick. Allen earned a Pro Bowl bid as a rookie in 2019, when he generated 10.5 sacks before a knee injury derailed his 2020 season. With little help in Jacksonville, Allen has struggled to regain consistent form but has the most potential to bounce back under defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell. The addition of No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker could help to free up Allen to harass the quarterback with a quick first step that can blow past single blocks. If the Jags did the improbable and went from worst to first under Doug Pederson, Allen would have as big a role to play as anyone not named Trevor Lawrence.
With the offense breaking in new faces, let’s look at the defensive side of the ball. Jones is the keystone player for the Chiefs’ D. After the failed experiment with the DT on the edge last season, Jones proved how vital he is in wrecking opposing offenses from the interior down the stretch as the K.C. defense coalesced. Since 2018, Jones ranks second among all interior linemen with 41.0 sacks and 257 pressures, behind only Aaron Donald. The Chiefs continue to have questions at edge rusher, making Jones’ presence much more vital. The 27-year-old owns the potential to be a game-wrecking difference-maker in a rugged AFC West.
Adams can unlock the Raiders’ offense in Josh McDaniels’ first season in Vegas. The wideout is a matchup nightmare for corners, by beating them off the line of scrimmage, creating quick separation or burning past DBs with quick cuts. Adams leads the NFL in receptions (432) receiving yards (5,310) and receiving TDs (47) since 2018 — that’s despite missing at least one game each season. His relationship with Derek Carr will make for flowery narratives throughout the season — and boy, do MVP voters love narratives — but it’s the on-field chemistry that will light up the scoreboards. Adams is nearly unguardable in the red zone and should gobble up oodles of touchdowns — it’s time defenders finally attempt the Megatron defense on him at the goal line. Going from MVP Aaron Rodgers to Carr might be a QB downgrade, but Adams’ production won’t dip at all.
Bosa was already a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before the Chargers traded for Khalil Mack this offseason. Adding the former DPOY should allow Bosa more opportunities to go one-on-one and get to the quarterback. With a high motor and an array of pass-rush moves, Bosa is a demon off the edge. The 26-year-old ranks in the top six in sacks (58), QB hits (129) and tackles for loss (73) since entering the NFL in 2016. In 2021, he put up 10.5 sacks, 20 QB hits and seven forced fumbles (tied for second-most in NFL), and that was without lining up across from another star. Bringing in Mack opens up endless options for Brandon Staley’s defense, and Bosa will be the beneficiary stuffing the stat sheet.
I wanted to shoehorn my guy Emmanuel Ogbah here, as he remains underrated even after getting paid. But let’s be honest, if the Dolphins dominate in 2022, it’s thanks to the added dimensions Hill brings to the offense. Yes, we’re all well aware of the consternation surrounding Tua Tagovailoa’s deep passing. For our purposes in this exercise, we can suppose that’s an overblown narrative that becomes unfounded, and Hill continues to be the most explosive deep player in the NFL. Added to that, the wideout joins an offense under Mike McDaniel that should excel at getting the speedster the ball in space. Hill leads the league with 3.4 yards of separation per route since 2016. I’m imagining Tyreek catching a bevy of short slants and using his breakneck speed to bust DB angles and scamper to the house. After leaving K.C., Hill lamented there were games he felt he wasn’t used enough. He will see the ball a ton in 2022.
The Patriots are an interesting makeup. They have no obviously dominant players, but the roster is stellar. Picking one non-QB from this group who could break out is a crapshoot, particularly given how the Pats spread the ball on offense. I’ll go with Judon as the most likely stud to turn heads on a defense that got leaky down the stretch in 2021. In his first season in New England, Judon collected a career-high 12.5 sacks, and there was potential for more. PFF credited him with 64 total pressures last season — just three fewer than T.J. Watt, who tied the all-time sack record with 22.5. It’s not crazy to think Judon could have another career year in Belichick’s system.
Here’s a curveball for you. Sure, I could have picked Elijah Moore or C.J. Mosley — both probably safer picks. But where’s the fun in that? Lawson hasn’t yet played a down for Robert Saleh in New York, losing his entire first season with the Jets after tearing his Achilles in August. But the fit is there. If he comes back healthy, Lawson provides a motor off the edge. Sure, he has just 20 total sacks in four seasons on the field, but he was super disruptive when we last saw him, ranking fourth in pressures and second in QB hits among edge rushers in 2020. So imagine Lawson leading the league in sacks in Saleh’s system, as the Jets’ defense soars to new heights. That’s the train I’m jumping aboard.
Watt tied the single-season sack record with 22.5 in 15 games in 2021. What if he blasts past that benchmark to lead the league in sacks for a third straight season? No player has ever paced the NFL in sacks in back-to-back-to-back campaigns. Watt averaged 1.5 sacks per game in 2021, second all-time only to Hall of Famer Reggie White’s 1.75 mark set in 1987 (min. five games). If Watt breaks the record while dragging the Steelers to the postseason again, he’d be a shoo-in for back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards. But he’d deserve more, like becoming the first defensive MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.
The motor of the Titans’ offense will be asked to shoulder the load once again. Despite missing nine games in 2021, Henry finished ninth in the league in rushing (937 yards). That’s the most missed games by a player finishing a season in the top-10 in rushing in NFL history. In his eight games played, Henry earned a whopping 27.4 carries per tilt (most in the NFL), which would have worked out to a ridonkulous 465 totes if he’d maintained that pace over the entire season. He led the league with 117.1 rushing yards per game, becoming just the third player in NFL history to lead the league in rush yards per game and carries per game for three straight seasons. That’s all to say, expect The King, who’s healthy and motivated, to get a hefty workload again. With the Titans receiver corps in flux, leaning on Henry will be even more vital in 2022. A repeat performance of his 2K 2020 season would make him a worthy MVP candidate.
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