By Zac Wassink | Last updated 2/15/19 10-12
The 2018 NFL MVP race unsurprisingly proved to be a two-man competition in name only. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes earned that trophy at the NFL Honors show held the day before Super Bowl LIII, and it turned out the 23-year-old had no reason to sweat before hearing his name called. As John Breech of CBS Sports explained, Mahomes earned 41 of the possible 50 votes. New Orleans Saints signal-caller Drew Brees received the other nine.
Both Mahomes and Brees enjoyed spectacular campaigns en route to coming up a game short of a Super Sunday showdown. In his second NFL season, Mahomes tossed a league-leading 50 touchdowns, while Brees, who turned 40 in January, matched 32 TDs with only five interceptions, and he led the NFL in passer rating (115.7). Mahomes finished second (113.8) in that category.
Brees' age and concerns about Father Time aside, neither he nor Mahomes can realistically be considered dark horse candidates to win MVP next season as of the second month of 2019. The same can be said about Jared Goff and Tom Brady, regardless of their personal numbers, because quarterbacks more often than not win MVP anymore, and it's likely both will again guide their teams to the playoffs and division titles.
True dark horse 2019 NFL MVP candidates as of the start of the offseason have histories of producing trophy-worthy numbers in the league but also either underwhelmed during the 2018 campaign, were overshadowed by others or simply failed to feature for playoff teams in January. Could the two best rookies from the 2018 draft class follow in Mahomes' footsteps and win additional personal honors their second pro seasons? It's not as big a stretch as some may imagine.
10. Saquon Barkley Those who believed Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield should've been a lock to win Rookie of the Year may not realize just how much Saquon Barkley meant to the New York Giants his first pro season. The 21-year-old led the entire league in yards from scrimmage and in carries over 20 yards. He tallied 11 rushing scores and 15 total touchdowns, and he finished second in rushing behind only Ezekiel Elliott. Unlike Elliott, Barkley produced a historic rookie campaign playing behind a sieve-like offensive line that finished 21st overall in final Pro Football Focus rankings only because it rebounded after an atrocious opening half of the campaign. Unless Barkley is slowed by a sophomore slump, and/or the Giants don't return to winning ways this fall, he could earn more than a few MVP votes.
9. Odell Beckham Jr. Wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. absolutely should have been an MVP candidate when the 2016 Giants improved from 6-10 the season before to 11-5. Dan Schneier of 247Sports and Jeff Eisenband of The Post-game touched upon this subject that December, while ESPN Stats & Information spotlighted Beckham's importance to the New York offense a couple of weeks before Christmas of that year. Obviously, the 26-year-old can't miss a quarter of the season because of injuries if he wishes to compete for MVP, nor can he play burdened by the fear of another physical setback. Perhaps the outspoken, albeit sometimes controversial, wideout realizing he's no longer the star of the Big Blue offense due to Barkley's emergence will lead to OBJ returning to form this year.
8. Russell Wilson Here's maybe the hottest take of the piece: Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is the most underappreciated offensive player in the NFL today. Seriously, did you know Wilson finished the year tied for third in touchdown passes (35) with Matt Ryan? No disrespect meant to those in Seattle's aerial attack, but Wilson isn't gifted with Julio Jones, DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown or Adam Thielen as targets. The 30-year-old who guided the Seahawks to the playoffs at a time when it seemed the front office was rebuilding the club's defense on the fly was referred to as "one of the deadliest deep-ball passers in the league" by The Ringer's Danny Kelly in January. Imagine the chip on Wilson's shoulder if the Seahawks let him play out the final year of his contract en route to potentially using the franchise tag to retain his services for 2020.
7. Aaron Rodgers Talent obviously isn't an issue for Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He tossed 25 touchdowns and a pair of picks last season, after all (a record-low 0.3 percent of his passes were intercepted, per Pro-Football-Reference), and he reminded everyone multiple times during the year that he is, physically speaking, still arguably the best in the business. Per Forbes' Rob Reischel, former Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley recently voiced concerns about Rodgers' coachability and about the QB's future relationship with new head coach Matt LaFleur. Add in that the Packers have multiple roster holes heading into free agency and the draft, and the 35-year-old is currently a dark horse MVP candidate even though he's won the award twice.
6. Cam Newton The Carolina Panthers thoroughly failed quarterback Cam Newton last fall, particularly during the second half of the season when it was clear to fans watching him from their couches that something was wrong with his throwing shoulder. Newton had surgery on that shoulder in January, and ESPN's Adam Schefter reported in early February that the 29-year-old could be ready to go by training camp. That story is well and good with springtime still far off into the distance, but one can't help but worry Newton may miss more time than expected similar to what happened with Andrew Luck in 2017. Questions about the one-time MVP's availability moving forward make him a dark horse candidate for the award in 2019.
5. Carson Wentz There are multiple reasons to be worried about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, the least of which are whispers he may not have been the best teammate over the past year, a story Wentz didn't vociferously refute, per ESPN's Tim McManus. After working to return from the torn ACL he suffered in December 2017, an injury that kept him from winning MVP, he was shut down in the middle of last December because of his back. Add in that the Eagles currently don't have a ton of cap space, and Wentz playing as well as he did two seasons ago seems a long shot. Nick Foles is headed out of town, though, and his departure could be addition by subtraction for the 26-year-old Philly signal-caller who completed 69.6 percent of his attempts, a career best, and who posted a career-high passer rating of 102.2 in 11 appearances last season.
4. Matt Ryan It's no secret the Atlanta Falcons need to give quarterback Matt Ryan a better offensive line. Fox Sports analyst Mark Schlereth recently spoke on this subject, per Will McFadden of AtlantaFalcons.com, and Matthew Tabeek of the team's official website explained the club must get better and healthier up front to contend for a playoff spot in 2019. Just how bad was Atlanta's O-line? Only seven QBs were sacked more times than Matty Ice (42) in 2018. With Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley set to again feature in the passing attack, and running back Devonta Freeman potentially in danger of being cut next offseason if he disappoints this fall, Ryan has all the weapons he should need. If the Atlanta front office fails to give him adequate production, similar to how the Giants let Eli Manning down last offseason, there will be no MVP award in Ryan's foreseeable future.
3. Deshaun Watson From September through the end of the season, the Houston Texans offensive line repeatedly betrayed quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson was not only sacked 62 times, more than any other QB in 2018, but he also suffered the most QB take-downs in a season since Jon Kitna was sacked 63 times in 2006, as explained by Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle. Also, he was pressured on over 47 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus. Regardless, the 23-year-old returned from the torn ACL he suffered in November 2017 and finished seventh in overall completion percentage (68.3) and sixth (103.1) in passer rating while tallying 26 touchdown passes and 4,165 passing yards with nine interceptions. Get Watson some protection, Houston, and let him chase MVP next fall.
2. J.J. Watt Defensive players don't win MVP in the modern NFL dominated by fantasy football and passing statistics — like it or not, that's just the nature of the game in 2019 — but Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald would probably be a "favorite" to earn the award next fall among guys on that side of the football. How about J.J. Watt as a dark horse candidate? The 29-year-old finished behind only Darnold in sacks with 16, and he tied with Kansas City's Dee Ford for the league lead in forced fumbles (seven). More importantly for the Texans, Watt showed he could remain on the field from Week 1 through the playoffs. Looking at Watt's contract: He could become a cap casualty as soon as next offseason since that deal has no dead money attached to its final two years. Winning MVP would be a tremendous way to earn those future paychecks.
1. Baker Mayfield Just how fine is the line that separates "dark horse" from "wishful thinking?" Let's find out together. Potential Cleveland Browns savior Baker Mayfield set the NFL rookie record for passing touchdowns when he tallied his 27th score in the season finale, and that mark becomes more impressive upon remembering he started only 13 games, appeared in 14 total contests and had to deal with the Hue Jackson fiasco from the start of rookie minicamp through late October. All 10 QBs who posted more touchdown tosses in 2018 were full-time starters last summer. According to Spotrac, the Browns sit third in available cap space ahead of free agency, meaning the franchise can, and should, improve on both sides of the ball. Additional experience, better protection and one more big-time weapon could help Mayfield shock the football world and win MVP his second year in the league.