It should be easy to project who will win the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. For the last half-decade, though, identifying the MVP in advance has been a surprisingly difficult task. With the benefit of hindsight, the winners have been easy choices — the races haven’t often been all that close — but none of those players was an obvious choice before the season in which they won.
In 2017, Tom Brady won his third award, but it took a torn ACL in the left knee of second-year quarterback Carson Wentz to clear a path for Brady. Wentz was coming off a rookie season in which he looked, well, like a rookie. Patrick Mahomes had one career start before his stunning 2018 MVP campaign. Lamar Jackson had supposedly been figured out by the Chargers in the playoffs before dominating the league the following season, winning MVP unanimously.
The last two years might have been even more wild in their own way. Aaron Rodgers’ numbers had been declining toward league-average over a three-year span before he dropped 48 touchdown passes on the league in 2020. Then, in a world in which voters almost always prefer to reward breakout stars and players posting career years at the expense of steady greatness, Rodgers won the award again last season.
While the players who won are all quarterbacks, we’re left with a lot to evaluate. Pick the second-year breakout quarterback, or pick the wily veteran who has been left for dead by his own team. Go back a little further and you’ll find the good player who broke out unexpectedly in a Kyle Shanahan offense, and the running back who came off a torn ACL. Oh, and Tom Brady. Pick him, too.
Let’s run through the kinds of MVP seasons we’ve seen from the past, and try to identify a comparable player who could have that sort of year in 2022. I’ll work my way backward, starting in 2021 and hitting 13 different seasons, including the past six:
Jump to an MVP season comp:
2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018
2017 | 2016 | 2013 | 2012
1999 | 1998 | 1995 | 1986 | 1982
The MVP season comp: Rodgers in 2021
The story in 2021: Rodgers was unstoppable, even when the Packers didn’t get him the help everyone expected.
Well, this one is obvious. In the 2020 draft, the Packers passed on a wide receiver to take quarterback Jordan Love and running back AJ Dillon with their first two picks. Rodgers won MVP. In 2021, the Packers passed again on adding a significant wide receiver to play alongside Davante Adams. Rodgers still took home the hardware for the fourth time in his career.
Now, of course, Adams is off to Las Vegas, while deep threat Marquez Valdes-Scantling followed the AFC West train to Kansas City. The Packers made a few modest additions — Sammy Watkins, Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs — but they have on paper one of the least imposing receiving corps in the league. It seems like there’s no way Rodgers has enough around him to win what would be his third consecutive MVP, something only Green Bay predecessor Brett Favre was able to accomplish. (Favre split one of those awards, in 1997, with Barry Sanders.)
It’s foolish to count out Rodgers after his last two campaigns. He gets back two key players from seasons mostly lost to injury in left tackle David Bakhtiari and tight end Robert Tonyan. His only game with a perfect passer rating — a five-touchdown masterpiece against the Raiders in 2019 — came with Adams sidelined by injury. Rodgers would have a better shot at MVP No. 5 with a more imposing top wideout than Allen Lazard, but who’s really going to say the 38-year-old legend can’t do it again?
The MVP season comp: Aaron Rodgers in 2020
The story in 2020: A fading former MVP threw back the years with a vintage season out of his prime.
Since winning MVP during the 2016 season, Ryan’s Total QBR has either declined or stayed stagnant in each of the subsequent five seasons. The “stagnant” season saw him improve narrowly from 59.6 to 59.8 between 2019 and 2020. Ryan was all the way down at 46.1 a year ago, good enough for 21st in the league. He ranked 21st in DVOA and 18th in yards per attempt, passer rating, net yards per attempt and adjusted net yards per attempt. He wasn’t the problem with the Falcons, but Ryan wasn’t able to keep them afloat, either.
Now, of course, things are different. Ryan was traded to Indianapolis, where the Colts can protect him on the interior and rely on heavy doses of running back Jonathan Taylor. Ryan moves from what had been one of the toughest divisions (NFC South) to arguably its weakest (AFC South), and he still gets the benefit of playing in a dome.
Rodgers made his leap back into the elite class during his age-37 season. Can Ryan do the same in his?
The MVP season comp: Lamar Jackson in 2019
The story in 2019: A dual-threat quarterback responded to a disappointing playoff debut by blowing away expectations.
After Jackson and an exciting Ravens offense were limited to 3 points in the first 54 minutes of a sloppy playoff loss to the Chargers, the naysayers came out in droves. Jackson was a gimmick quarterback, they said. The Chargers had the formula for stopping Baltimore’s run-heavy attack, and every other defense would have all offseason to watch the tape of that game. He might have gotten off to a 6-1 start and revitalized what had been a moribund Ravens offense with Joe Flacco during the regular season, but the league would quickly bottle him up.
Oops. Jackson’s offense was even better the following season, as he threw 36 touchdown passes and racked up more than 1,200 yards on the ground. With Baltimore adding playmakers in Mark Ingram and Marquise Brown, the Ravens rode their offense to a 14-2 record, while Jackson won MVP.
Hurts is in his third season, but after trading time with Carson Wentz as a rookie, 2022 will be Hurts’ second year as his team’s unquestioned starter. The Eagles thrived after building the offense around his rushing ability in midseason, ranking sixth in offensive EPA per play after Week 7. The Bucs then dealt them a harsh reality check in the postseason. Philadelphia was shut out through three quarters of what ended up as a 31-15 defeat in the NFC wild-card round.
Now, Hurts get to prove whether he can follow Jackson in hitting new heights. He’ll have more help after the Eagles used one of their first-round picks to trade for A.J. Brown, netting Hurts one of the league’s most physically imposing wideouts. They will have all offseason to refine their offense around Hurts’ talents and build a more robust version of what they transitioned toward in midseason. If the skeptics are right, Hurts probably will get replaced by a new quarterback next offseason. If they’re wrong and Hurts wins MVP, he probably will get $100 million in guarantees on a contract extension.
The MVP season comp: Patrick Mahomes in 2018
The story in 2018: A prototypical modern quarterback took a redshirt year under an offensive genius before turning into a human highlight reel.
You probably saw this one coming. Mahomes, the No. 10 overall pick, started just one game during his rookie season, taking the reigns for a meaningless Week 17 matchup with the Broncos. He otherwise sat behind Alex Smith for a Chiefs team that featured devastating offensive weapons and legendary playcaller Andy Reid around a solid veteran quarterback. In Year 2, he threw 50 touchdown passes.
Enter Lance, who started two games as an injury replacement for Jimmy Garoppolo last season after being the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. Garoppolo’s future remains uncertain, but Lance is expected to step in as the full-time starter in 2022 after spending a year in Kyle Shanahan’s laboratory. He’ll have George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and the league’s fourth-best rushing offense by DVOA to help the transition.
Mahomes threw for 896 yards and 13 touchdowns across his first three games in 2018 and never looked back. Lance is a different sort of player, but would it really be a surprise if he took the league by storm?
The MVP season comp: Brady in 2017
The story in 2017: The greatest player in NFL history continued to play at an extremely high level and none of the other candidates made it to the end of the year with strong cases.
Brady was excellent in 2017, but his season wasn’t extraordinary by his standards. He was actually better by most measures in 2016, but as a result of his four-game Deflategate suspension at the beginning of the season, he wasn’t really an MVP candidate that season. The then-Patriots starter led the league in passing yards in 2017, but he threw for more yards in 2015 and averaged more yards per game in 2016. Just ho-hum greatness.
For voting purposes, though, nobody else stood out in 2017. Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, who had been the favorite, tore the ACL in his left knee in Week 14 and missed the remainder of the season. Kansas City’s Alex Smith led the league in passer rating. Russell Wilson led in passing touchdowns but played for a 9-7 Seahawks team that missed the playoffs. Todd Gurley looked like a candidate after leading the league in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns, but the Rams held him out in Week 17, which hurt his chances.
Brady has continued to play excellent football, so if the rest of the league isn’t able to serve up a new contender, the 44-year-old could absolutely win his fourth MVP.
The MVP season comp: Matt Ryan in 2016
The story in 2016: A good veteran quarterback took an unexpected leap during his second season in a great offense.
Ryan had never been a first-team All-Pro or received an MVP vote before 2016. After a frustrating first season in Atlanta under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in 2015, though, everything clicked. A quarterback who had never averaged even 8 yards per attempt put up 9.3 yards per attempt and 10.1 adjusted yards per attempt, with the latter mark coming in as the sixth-best figure in NFL history after accounting for era. Ryan led the league in passer rating as his Falcons went 11-5 before coming up just short in Super Bowl LI.
Stafford and the Rams already have their Super Bowl, but it would hardly be a surprise if he was better in his second season under coach Sean McVay. Stafford actually got off to an MVP-caliber start last season, as he threw 22 touchdown passes against four picks in the first half of the season, only to struggle with turnovers in the second half. Two more interceptions in Super Bowl LVI didn’t stop the Rams from taking home the hardware.
Now, with wideout Allen Robinson in the mix and running back Cam Akers recovered from his torn Achilles, what if Stafford looks like that guy we saw in the first half over the entire season?
The MVP season comp: Peyton Manning in 2013
The story in 2013: A legendary passer found new life a mile high.
This one’s a stretch, if only because Manning had his spectacular season in his second year with the Broncos, while we’re projecting Wilson to win MVP in his debut campaign with Denver after a blockbuster trade in March. Just as Manning was able to elevate a group with Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas into one of the league’s most devastating passing attacks, though, Wilson will get to throw to Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick.
If we were going to go in a different direction, leave the idea of new digs aside, and just focus on a quarterback who produced massive numbers in his second season after a significant injury, we could also compare Manning to Dak Prescott, who missed most of 2020 after gruesomely dislocating his ankle. Manning, however, had already won four MVP awards in Indianapolis before taking home his fifth and final trophy for the Broncos, while neither Prescott nor Wilson have yet received a single MVP vote.
The MVP season comp: Adrian Peterson in 2012
The story in 2012: A bruising, throwback runner responded to a notable injury with a historic campaign.
The last running back to win MVP had to come back from a torn ACL to get there. Peterson was one of the NFL’s best backs between 2007 and 2010, but after suffering a left high ankle sprain in November 2011, he returned quickly and then tore up his left knee. With Peterson suffering the injury in Week 16, there were serious questions about whether he would even be ready for Week 1 the following season.
Peterson was ready, but after getting off to a slow start by his standards, he simply took over. He put up eight consecutive 100-plus yard games in midseason and finished with a 212-yard performance against the Rams in Week 15 and a 199-yarder against the Packers in Week 17. The latter took Peterson past 2,000 yards for the season and clinched a playoff spot for the Vikings, who were starting Christian Ponder at quarterback and failed to have a single pass-catcher top 700 receiving yards. It was the Peterson show.
Henry is a unique player in his own right, but he has been similarly dramatic for the Titans over the past few years. Even in 2021, when his efficiency numbers were down, the Titans gave him the single largest workload in league history through the first half of the year before he broke his right foot. Henry made it back for the postseason, but he wasn’t his usual self in a disappointing divisional-round loss to the Bengals.
Now, presumably back to 100% for 2022, Henry should be restored as the focal point of the Tennessee offense, especially after the organization shipped A.J. Brown to the Eagles. With a 17th game on the schedule and a coaching staff happy to hand him historic rushing opportunities, Henry could do the one thing Peterson failed to do in 2012: top Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 yards and set the single-season rushing record.
The MVP season comp: Kurt Warner in 1999
The story in 1999: An unknown backup was forced into action by injury and produced one of the greatest seasons in league history.
Kurt Warner might be the most unlikely MVP in modern sports history. An NFL Europe product who had a total of 11 career pass attempts entering his age-28 season, he wasn’t even a lock to take over as his team’s starter once Trent Green tore the ACL in his left knee in 1999. Playing ahead of rookie fourth-round pick Joe Germaine, Warner thrived for what had been the league’s 24th-ranked scoring offense the year prior. Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce all produced huge seasons, and Warner took home an MVP and a Super Bowl ring.
Picking the next Warner is a shot in the dark, but let’s play along. We need someone who has several exciting weapons but whose offense wasn’t good a year ago. The pick needs to be older than the typical projectable backup, but he can’t have much pro experience. Warner was undrafted, so we can’t pick anyone with a significant draft pedigree. If we can find someone who has experience stocking supermarket shelves, all the better.
I’m not sure Rypien has worked at a grocery story, but the former Boise State quarterback has been on and off the Broncos roster the last three seasons. The 26-year-old former undrafted free agent has more experience than Warner, with one start and 42 pass attempts under his belt, but he has stuck around through what will now be three offensive coordinators.
The Broncos, who ranked 23rd in scoring offense a year ago, obviously don’t want to depend on Rypien. Nobody wants to see Russell Wilson get hurt, particularly the organization that just went and spent multiple first-rounders to acquire their new quarterback. If something did happen to Wilson, though, Rypien and journeyman Josh Johnson are the only other quarterbacks on the roster. I imagine they would add someone if Wilson suffered a long-term injury, but the Rams moved forward with Warner as their starter, and you saw how that went.
Now, I know what you’re saying: It’s preposterous to suggest Rypien could win MVP. So many things would have to happen (and not happen) to clear a path for a guy who looks like he probably isn’t an NFL-caliber starting quarterback. And yet, Warner was older, less experienced at the NFL level and had stiffer competition for the would-be starting job in terms of a midround pick. Put that in context and you understand just how remarkable his 1999 season was in the moment.
The MVP season comp: Terrell Davis in 1998
The story in 1998: The “system back” went supernova.
You know the story about the running backs in the offense Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs ran in Denver. Plug in any late-round pick, undrafted guy or journeyman and you would get a 1,200-yard season. Mike Anderson. Olandis Gary. Reuben Droughns. When the Broncos actually used a second-round pick on Clinton Portis in 2002, he looked good enough that Washington felt the need to trade future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round pick to acquire him.
Davis was a sixth-round pick in 1995 — and I have no doubt he landed in the best possible offense for his skill set — but history tells us he wasn’t just some replacement-level runner. Davis’ numbers stand out in comparison to all the other backs Shanahan and his successors have used in their offenses over the past 25 years. He had a three-year run as the best back in football, culminating in 1998, when he ran for 2,008 yards and 21 touchdowns. He only carried the ball 312 times more as a pro over three injury-hit seasons, but his peak was good enough to justify a trip to Canton in 2017.
Now, virtually half the league runs some semblance of the Shanahan offense, so we have plenty of possible candidates for a transcendent season. The guy I’ll pick is Chubb, who routinely posts otherworldly numbers in situations in which other backs struggle.
Take running into loaded boxes, when the other team has more defenders in the box than would-be blockers. The average running back averaged 3.7 yards per carry in those situations a year ago. Chubb carried the ball 63 times in those situations for 435 yards, good for nearly 7 yards per carry. He ran for 153 yards over the expectations of the NFL Next Gen Stats’ Model and eight additional first downs over what an average back would have expected to do in those spots. And if you think that’s a fluke, he had 69 carries for 453 yards in those same spots in 2021, with 173 rush yards and nine first downs more than the model expected.
If quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has been accused in civil lawsuits by 25 women of actions ranging from sexual assault to inappropriate behavior during massage sessions, gets suspended for the 2022 season, the Cleveland offense will fall on Chubb’s shoulders. We already know what Chubb is capable of executing, although he has only managed to make it through 16 games once as a pro. If the Browns run their offense through him for the sort of massive workload Davis saw in 1998, and Chubb stays healthy for the entire 17-game season, one Georgia back could follow in the footsteps of another.
The MVP season comp: Brett Favre in 1995
The story in 1995: A budding young star quarterback took the leap.
After being traded by the Falcons to the Packers before the 1992 season, Favre wasn’t an instant success. He was a little better than league-average in 1992 and led the NFL in interceptions during a disappointing 1993 before getting back on track in 1994. The future Hall of Famer threw 33 touchdown passes against 14 picks, so while the 9-7 Packers were dropped comfortably by the Cowboys in the divisional round, Favre looked like he was one step away from competing with Troy Aikman and Steve Young in the NFC.
In 1995, he took about four steps forward. He led the league for the first time in passing yards, jumping a full yard per attempt over his mark in 1994. The Packers hit double-digit wins for the first of 10 times under their young quarterback. He won the first of three consecutive MVP awards. Green Bay still came up short against the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game, but it would break through for a Super Bowl victory the following season.
Jeremy Fowler details the reasons Justin Herbert could be a top-three quarterback by the end of the season.
The quarterback most often compared to Favre is Josh Allen, and the only reason I don’t have him here is that he’s already a star. We know Herbert’s capable of the spectacular — just watch his string of fourth-down conversions against the Raiders in Week 18 — but he hasn’t yet produced a full season like Favre in 1995 or Allen in 2020. Allen posted a 120 ANY/A+ that season (100 is league-average), while Favre got up to 130 during his first MVP season. Herbert has been solidly above-average over his first two seasons, with a 108 ANY/A+ mark as a rookie and 109 last season.
With the Chargers retaining wideout Mike Williams and using a first-round pick on lineman Zion Johnson, there aren’t many weak spots on the Los Angeles offense. The organization seems committed to letting Herbert throw at one of the league’s highest rates in neutral situations. Everything you would want to have in place for an MVP campaign is here. In the crucible of the 2022 AFC West, it’s not difficult to imagine Herbert thriving.
The MVP season comp: Lawrence Taylor in 1986
The story in 1986: A generational pass-rusher challenged the single-season sack record on a dominant defense.
Taylor was hardly a secret by 1986. The Giants legend had already started his career by winning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, and as he entered his sixth season, he had been a first-team All-Pro in each of his first five campaigns. The 1986 season, though, was his magnum opus. Taylor topped what had been his career high of 13 sacks by making it all the way to 20.5, marking the second-best official mark in league history. The Giants were the league’s second-best scoring defense, going 14-2 en route to a Super Bowl XXI victory.
You can throw T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons into the mix as candidates, but I’m going to nominate the most dominant defender in the league. Donald took over in the Super Bowl for the Rams. He has been a first-team All-Pro seven consecutive times. The only thing left for him to do as a pro, really, is challenge for the single-season sack record. He came close with 20.5 sacks in 2018 but hasn’t topped 13.5 otherwise.
Like so many others on this list, we know Donald is capable of putting together something otherworldly over 17 games. If he were to become the first player in league history to hit 25 sacks and the Rams field one of the best defenses in football, he would engender serious MVP consideration.
The MVP season comp: Mark Moseley in 1982
The story in 1982: A kicker got white-hot, and everyone was in awe.
This was a strange year. A players’ strike limited the season to nine games, which created an opportunity that likely wouldn’t exist otherwise. Moseley, who had hit 62% of his field goals over what was already a lengthy career, went 20-of-21. Several were game winners for an 8-1 Washington team. The small sample helped Moseley (who surely would have regressed to the mean over a larger sample) and hurt all the usual candidates (whose numbers looked puny relative to the usual 14- or 16-game totals).
Moseley won a narrow race, 35 votes to 33, over quarterback Dan Fouts. I wrote about this race a few years ago and found that Moseley’s kicks weren’t as impactful as he might have suggested. In fact, he probably wasn’t even the league’s most valuable kicker that year, given three missed extra points and a lack of kickoff duties. In a universe in which television coverage and analysis weren’t anywhere near as comprehensive as they are now, though, his season pulled off what would seem impossible in 2022.
It almost goes without saying that Tucker would be the candidate if we were picking one kicker to win MVP. The more interesting question is figuring out what it might take to win. He hit on nearly 95% of his field goals last season, including a record-setting 66-yarder to win a game against the Lions. Of course, the Ravens faded badly in the second half, and Tucker was never really under MVP consideration.
He would need something virtually unprecedented. The Ravens would need to win at least 14 games. He would need to be perfect (or come close) and hit at least five game-winners, preferably from long distance and in games Baltimore was losing. Even then, Lamar Jackson would be more likely to win MVP than his kicker, but that’s the sort of difference Tucker would have to make to get in the conversation.
Is that possible? I think so. Gary Anderson and Mike Vanderjagt both produced perfect field goal seasons during the 16-game era. And last season, Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson hit nine field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime which gave his team a lead, three more than we’ve seen from any other kicker since 2000, Tucker included. Getting both those things to happen in the same season without your team’s quarterback playing well enough to win MVP might be an impossible needle to thread, but Moseley managed to pull it off just over 40 years ago.
I’m not bringing up these comparables to say that they’re the only players who could win MVP. In looking at the past, though, we can get a sense of what has happened to lead players to the sport’s biggest individual honor. After a few years of MVP chaos, I wouldn’t blame you for arguing anything is possible.