NFL MVP watch: Ranking top five candidates, plus under-the-radar stars to watch
Six weeks into the 2022 NFL season, the league’s Most Valuable Player race is starting to come together, highlighted by a host of quarterbacks emerging as candidates. The leader of the AFC’s only one-loss team owns the best Vegas odds and the most first-place votes from our panel, while the QB of the NFL’s only remaining undefeated team has skyrocketed through the first third of the season. Those jockeying for the frontrunner spot have 12 more weeks to make their case.
We asked a group of analysts — Stephania Bell, Matt Bowen, Mike Clay, Courtney Cronin, Jeremy Fowler, Dan Graziano, Matt Miller, Sal Paolantonio, Jason Reid, Mike Tannenbaum, Seth Walder and Field Yates — to vote on the top players in the MVP race right now. Then we used those 12 sets of rankings to give our top five candidates, using Heisman Trophy-esque scaling for each ranking to determine how the field stacks up.
We’ll also look at a few names who have seen their MVP stock either spike or plummet in the early going, and ESPN analytics writer Seth Walder also weighed in on an under-the-radar MVP-caliber player. Here’s a look at where things stand after six weeks.
Note: All odds are via Caesars Sportsbook.
Top five | Just missed
Stock up | Stock down
2022 stats: 1,980 passing yards, 17 TDs, 4 INTs, 75.4 QBR (257 rushing yards, 2 TDs)
Current odds: +125
Early season returns reveal an undisputed truth: Allen is the best quarterback in the NFL, an honor he began wrestling away from top AFC rival Patrick Mahomes in last year’s playoffs. Allen entered the season with the best odds to win the MVP and strengthened his case against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6 by outdueling Mahomes in a 24-20 thriller, which he capped off by leading a 76-yard, come-from-behind scoring drive with a little more than a minute remaining.
That was the second game-winning drive he has led the Bills on this month (the other was in a 23-20 win over the Baltimore Ravens) and his first fourth-quarter comeback since Sept. 27, 2020. Allen is now the first starting quarterback to beat Mahomes twice at Arrowhead Stadium. He leads the league in passing (both in yards and yards per game), and his 753 passing yards over the past two games are the most in a two-game span in Bills franchise history.
2022 stats: 1,514 passing yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs, 59.6 QBR (293 rushing yards, 6 TDs)
Current odds: +450
Hurts’ ascension — where he has seen vast improvement in areas such as completion percentage (66.8%, ranked ninth), passer rating (98.4, fifth), average release time (2.76) and yards per attempt (8.2, second) — has Philadelphia off to its first 6-0 start since 2004. The 24-year-old QB has won nine games in a row dating to 2021, tied for the longest win streak by an Eagles starting quarterback in 22 years, and he is the fifth player in league history to pass for 1,500 yards and rush for 250 through his team’s first six games.
The Eagles boast the most offensive balance of any team in the NFC (394.5 yards per game, ranked third; 26.8 points per game, fourth) with a steady run game and explosive passing attack. Hurts has played a big role in what the Eagles are doing on the ground, with 11 more carries on designed runs (38) than any other quarterback and 16 of those coming in the red zone, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. He’s also completing a career-high plus-2.7% of his passes over expectation, the third highest in the NFL.
2022 stats: 1,736 passing yards, 17 TDs, 4 INTs, 74.2 QBR (113 rushing yards)
Current odds: +500
A lot was made about how the Chiefs offense would function without wide receiver Tyreek Hill. His absence has forced Mahomes to spread the ball around and become a more efficient, patient passer. And through six games, Mahomes and Allen are tied for first with 17 touchdown passes. Mahomes continues to be incredibly effective when under pressure, ranking first in touchdowns per pass attempt and third in first downs per pass attempt, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
But the pressure he faced late in Week 6 determined the outcome for the Chiefs. Against the Bills, Mahomes accounted for 92% of Kansas City’s offense when he threw for 338 yards, two touchdown passes, two interceptions and completed 63% of his passes. While Allen led Buffalo on a touchdown drive to take the lead late, Mahomes responded by throwing an interception while under duress, his third pick on a game-winning drive attempt dating to last year’s AFC Championship game.
2022 stats: 1,277 passing yards, 13 TDs, 6 INTs, 64.1 QBR (451 rushing yards, 2 TDs)
Current odds: +850
Jackson’s MVP candidacy is on hold — for now — after a hot start. He ranks third in touchdown passes and leads all players in yards per rush (8.1) and yards before contact per rush (6.3), becoming the first player to be in the top five in both categories through the first six weeks of the season since the NFL-AFL merger, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Jackson is at his strongest early in games, with 12 of his 13 touchdown passes coming in the first three quarters. On the flip side, four of his six interceptions have occurred in the fourth quarter. His QBR in the first three quarters is better than fellow MVP candidate Hurts, but his QBR in the fourth quarter is worse than Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields.
Marcus Spears discusses Lamar Jackson’s fourth-quarter struggles and how he can fix them.
2022 stats: 6 sacks, 26 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 2 passes defended
Current odds: +12500
A quarterback or running back has won the MVP every year since 1987, but Parsons deserves consideration after a strong start to the season, as he is tied for first in total pressures (31) and second in sacks. Aside from a 26-17 loss to the Eagles where Parsons was largely contained, Dallas has won games this season due to a dominant defense. The Cowboys went 4-1 during a stretch where quarterback Dak Prescott was injured thanks in large part to the defense, which leads the league in sacks (24) and is third in points allowed (98).
Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers (+2500)
Herbert set a record for the most passes thrown (57) without a touchdown in the Chargers’ 19-16 OT win over the Denver Broncos on Monday, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He’s still in the MVP conversation thanks to where he ranks in passing yards (fourth), touchdowns (sixth), interception percentage (fifth), passing first downs (eighth) and QBR (eighth), but he’ll have to go on a run over the next 11 games to be in contention with the frontrunners.
Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants (+10000)
For the first time in the Super Bowl era, the Giants have posted four upset wins in their first six games of a season in large part due to the identity they’ve established with Barkley, who looks like the best running back in the league. He leads the NFL with 771 yards from scrimmage, and his four touchdowns this season are two more than he had in the combined 15 games he played in 2020-21. At minimum, he’s a frontrunner for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award.
Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings (+4000)
Cousins broke the Vikings’ franchise record for consecutive completions when he started 17-of-17 in a Week 5 win over the Bears and followed that up by throwing for two touchdown passes in a win over the Miami Dolphins. Coming off his third Pro Bowl season, the 34-year-old has yet to throw for 300 yards in a game, but his efficient play has the Vikings off to a 5-1 start.
Geno Smith, QB, Seattle Seahawks (not listed)
Smith leads the NFL in completion percentage over expectation (plus-9.6%), according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and leads the NFL in completion percentage (73.4%) through six weeks. He has thrown for 1,502 yards and nine touchdown passes, which rank ninth and eighth, respectively, among qualified starting quarterbacks. The Seahawks would be nowhere close to a .500 record without Smith, which is why the franchise should consider him as an option at QB beyond this season.
Also received top-10 votes: Bengals QB Joe Burrow, Vikings WR Justin Jefferson, Bills OLB Von Miller, Rams WR Cooper Kupp, Chiefs TE Travis Kelce, Dolphins WR Tyreek Hill, Bills WR Stefon Diggs, Browns RB Nick Chubb, Eagles CB James Bradberry, Rams DT Aaron Donald, Rams QB Matthew Stafford, Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence, Falcons QB Marcus Mariota, 49ers DE Nick Bosa, Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Burrow bounced back after the Bengals got off to an 0-2 start, and he has completed more than 62% of his passes in each of his first six games. In a come-from-behind win over the New Orleans Saints, the Bengals’ QB completed 28 of 37 passes for 300 yards and three touchdown passes and didn’t turn the ball over. With Atlanta, Cleveland and Carolina coming up, Burrow could work his way into the MVP mix.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
Rodgers is struggling to compensate for a diminished supporting cast. He had a total QBR of 17.0 in a loss to the New York Jets, which was his second worst of the season (10.8 vs. Minnesota in Week 1). Last year’s MVP has six turnovers through six games after turning the ball over four times all of last season. He has lost three fumbles this season after losing two in the previous two seasons combined.
Field Yates breaks down Aaron Rodgers’ dismal fantasy season.
Walder’s under-the-radar MVP candidate
James Bradberry, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Bradberry is worthy of a top-10 MVP vote, in my view. His nearest defender numbers from NFL Next Gen Stats are outrageous. Among outside corners with 125 coverage snaps, Bradberry ranks:
Second in yards per coverage snap (0.5)
First in targeted expected points added by a wide margin (minus-25.8)
Second in completion percentage over expectation (minus-20%)
First in receptions allowed over expectation (minus-8.0)
To put the second number in context, the Bengals have recorded plus-28.7 EPA on Joe Burrow dropbacks this season (I’m mixing between NGS and ESPN EPA models here — not ideal, but you get the point). To record a level of production as a corner that’s in the same ballpark as a higher-end QB is incredibly valuable. Yes, a bunch of that was generated on a deflection that he turned into a pick-six off Jared Goff, but it was hardly a one-off; Bradberry has been superb the whole year.