The NFL’s MVP race remains wide open midway through the season

The NFL season crossed into the second half of the season without one team that has distinguished itself as significantly better than the rest. The league’s most valuable player conversation is equally muddled, as early-season favorites have come back to the pack.

That means it’s even possible the door could open for a non-quarterback to win this year’s award, which would be a historic anomaly. For the past decade, every NFL MVP has been a quarterback. Since the award’s inception in 1957, the MVP award has gone to a quarterback 46 times, more than two-thirds of the time. The last season a non-passer was named the MVP was in 2012, when Adrian Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards, nearly breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season mark. And the last defensive player to win the award was New York Giants Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor, in 1986. But in a season marked by unpredictable outcomes — and without a truly standout quarterback thus far — every option should be considered.

Let’s start with the quarterbacks. Betting markets have Kansas City Chiefs star Patrick Mahomes as the favorite to win what would be his third MVP. But by the numbers, the reigning most valuable player hardly has an overwhelming case. Mahomes ranks third in ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (behind Josh Allen and Brock Purdy) and sixth per the game charters at Pro Football Focus. He ranked first and second, respectively, in those metrics at the end of the 2022 regular season, when he also led the league in passing yards, passing touchdowns and touchdown rate. This season, he leads in none of those categories. And while his team is a hearty 7-2, that’s what we would expect based on its talent, efficiency and strength of schedule.

The other passers with short odds relative to the field include Jalen Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow and Allen. None stand out in any particular category with the exception of Tagovailoa, who leads the league in passing yards, passing touchdowns and passer rating. But his team is 3-3 in its last six games, and Miami’s offense has not looked as strong against better opponents. Hurts, meanwhile, ranks seventh in QBR, ninth in PFF rating and 10th in traditional passer rating, despite leading the NFL’s only one-loss team. After adjusting the Eagles’ passing game for strength of schedule, they have the eighth-best passing offense this season. Kansas City was ranked No. 1 last season when Mahomes was named MVP.

Tagovailoa’s candidacy is perhaps complicated by one of his teammates, wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Hill leads the league in receiving yards (1,076) and receiving touchdowns (eight) after nine games. He’s on pace for 2,032 yards and 15 touchdowns, which would be on par with Cooper Kupp’s historic campaign in 2021. Kupp caught 145 of 191 targets that season for a league-high 1,947 receiving yards and a league-high 16 touchdowns. Still, he finished third in MVP voting that year behind quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady.

Among running backs, Christian McCaffrey of the San Francisco 49ers was a popular choice early in the season, but his case appeared flimsy to start and has only lost momentum with the team’s current three-game losing streak. Miami’s Raheem Mostert leads the league with 11 rushing touchdowns and is fourth in rushing yards, but he stands in the shadows of Tagovailoa and Hill, making his case a non-starter.

One leading indicator of the eventual most valuable player has been expected points added, a metric used to quantify a player’s or team’s impact on a game’s outcome. It calculates the difference in expected points before and after every play, considering factors such as down, distance, field position and time remaining. The eventual MVP has either led the league or finished second in expected points added in 16 of the past 21 seasons.

Tua Tagovailoa’s future is in Miami, but at what price?

We can make an educated guess of how likely a player is to win the MVP award based on how many expected points added they accumulate by using logistic regression, a mathematical method that helps us make predictions based on existing data. This can help us calculate the probability of a player winning the MVP award, given their past performance. Think of it as making an educated guess about a player’s MVP chances based solely on their stats, and ignoring their specific roles and usage.

By this method — which doesn’t account for the possibility of injury or a dramatic change in performance — the front-runner for the MVP award is the Bills’ Allen, although he is given just a 15 percent chance of winning the award per this prognostication tool. And with the Bills an underwhelming 5-4, Allen is around the seventh choice to win the award in betting markets, at prices of around 20-1.

With such lackluster options on the offensive side of the ball, perhaps it’s finally time to consider the top defensive players, specifically edge rushers T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Maxx Crosby of the Las Vegas Raiders. Watt has 9.5 sacks (tied for second) and 29 total pressures (tied for seventh most among edge rushers) in nine games. (He was also tabbed as an outrageous (but not impossible) MVP candidate earlier this season.) Watt has the highest expected points added among defensive players (58), a total higher than all quarterbacks save for Allen, Purdy and Tagovailoa. Crosby also has 9.5 sacks and leads the NFL with 53 total quarterback pressures, per TruMedia — 37 more than anyone else on his team. He’s been credited with 53 expected points added, a total that would tie for the fifth best among quarterbacks.

But Watt and Crosby are nowhere near the top of the betting markets, nor are Allen and Purdy, which underscores my point. A tried and true tool to estimate the future MVP winner isn’t in sync at all with the betting markets, indicating this is a wide-open race. And that, in turn, suggests that voters should look at all possible contenders, including those on the defensive side of the ball.

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