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The NFL’s top eight MVP candidates for the 2016 season

Ezekiel Elliott is well positioned for an early run at an MVP award. (Ron Jenkins/AP Photo)

Any discussion related to the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award usually needs to begin with the acknowledgement that in many ways it is a de facto “NFL’s Best Quarterback” award.

So if you were truly calculating odds to win the award, even a player like Washington’s Kirk Cousins – PFF’s No. 15-ranked quarterback last season who plays for a team with a good chance to win its division – would likely have a better shot than Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, the NFL’s best defensive player.

What we’ve done below is present to you the quarterbacks with the strongest candidacies, plus a few non-QBs with the potential to enter the conversation based on true excellence at their positions for teams in the Super Bowl chase.

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Here are our top contenders for the NFL MVP award, entering the 2016 season:

The Vegas favorite (and rightfully so) … 

1. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

A quick spin through internet listings of Las Vegas odds to win the award reveal the Packers’ quarterback as the preseason favorite, and it’s hard to argue with the pick.

Last year was indisputably a down year for Rodgers, who finished ninth in PFF’s QB grades and suffered year-over-year drop-offs in nearly every statistical category. The season-ending injury in August to Jordy Nelson, the No. 2 wide receiver in football in 2014, clearly took a toll on Rodgers’ play. Our PFF game analysts noticed Rodgers’ receivers struggled to gain separation from coverage and had a hard time hauling in passes when they did (Green Bay’s drop rate was fourth-worst in the NFL last season), and Rodgers lost faith in them in a result. Not only did his accuracy take a hit, but he didn’t attempt a lot of throws he usually makes – he threw the ball away a career-high 37 times, which was 12 more than his previous high.

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But with Nelson appearing to be close to full health as 2016 kicks off, and reasonable expectations that slot receiver Randall Cobb and running back Eddie Lacy can bounce back from career-worst seasons a year ago, the outlook is bright for Rodgers and the Packers’ offense this year. In his six full seasons as Green Bay’s starting quarterback (he missed about half of 2013 due to injury) prior to last year, Rodgers earned the following rankings in PFF QB grades:

2008: 6th

2009: 4th

2010: 2nd

2011: 2nd

2012: 2nd

2014: 1st

Assuming Nelson and the other key pieces of Green Bay’s supporting cast stay healthy this season, expect a major rebound out of Rodgers.

The star quarterback who actually might still be underrated …

2. Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

This offseason Wilson ranked sixth in ESPN reporter Mike Sando’s Quarterback Tiers list, and in many lists Wilson finds himself outside the top five. In this sense, Wilson might actually be underrated, as he finished in the top five of PFF quarterback grades last season, at 91.7 on our 0-100 scale, and proved with his play (particularly in the second half of the year) that he is more than just a game manager benefiting from Seattle’s strong running game and defense.

Only Cam Newton and Carson Palmer graded better than Wilson from Week 11 on last season. Wilson led the NFL in adjusted completion rate on deep balls, as he was on target with 61 percent of his throws of 20 or more yards downfield, and he excelled all season despite being under pressure at the second-highest rate among all QBs, on 43 percent of his dropbacks. His escapability and athleticism (he ranked third in PFF rushing grade among QBs) has allowed Seattle to devote fewer financial resources to its offensive line and instead dedicate more toward building one of the best defenses in football.

The Seahawks should again be one of the league’s top Super Bowl contenders, and following Marshawn Lynch’s retirement, Wilson is likely to get the recognition he deserves as one of the very best quarterbacks in the NFL.

The guy who won it last year but has a steep climb ahead of him to repeat …

3. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

While we’re handing out history lessons, it’s worth noting what Newton is up against as he attempts to repeat as MVP. Over the last 30 seasons, there have been just three players to win in back-to-back years: Niners QB Joe Montana in 1989-90, Brett Favre in 1995-97 and Peyton Manning twice, in 2003-04 and 2008-09.

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That’s not a reason to disqualify Newton’s chances in 2016, and he figures to again be an incredibly valuable player for the Panthers. He was on target with 48 percent of his deep passes last year, the fourth-best rate in the league and a huge jump from 2014, when he was on target with 32 percent of deep throws. He is also the centerpiece of the Carolina running game, rushing 102 times on designed runs during last year’s regular season, for 487 yards and nine touchdowns.

The big issue to keep an eye on with Newton this year is how well Carolina’s pass protection holds up. The Panthers graded well as pass-blockers last year, but when Newton was under pressure, his passer rating fell by 40 points, which is much higher than the league-average drop. Right tackle Mike Remmers had a rough year in pass protection a year ago (which was exposed by Broncos edge rusher Von Miller during the Super Bowl), and while left tackle Michael Oher performed well, it was a career-best grade in pass protection for him, meaning some regression to his career mean could be possible in 2016.

The veteran QBs who could sneak up on people …

4. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

He missed four games due to injury last season, but quietly posted the third-best PFF grade among all quarterbacks, behind only Tom Brady and Cam Newton. His adjusted completion rate on deep balls of 51 percent was the best in the NFL. It’s easy to look at Roethlisberger’s relatively extensive career injury history and consider him a long shot to win based on health alone, but it’s worth noting that he’s just one season removed from playing the entire season – and that year, in 2014, he finished third in PFF grades, as well.

He has at his disposal the top wide receiver in Antonio Brown (a sneaky MVP candidate in his own right) and top running back (once he returns from his three-game suspension) in Le’Veon Bell. Don’t overlook Roethlisberger’s chances.

5. Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals

Following the regular season, we at PFF argued that Palmer had a legitimate MVP case, perhaps even better than those of Newton and Brady. He certainly didn’t play up to that level in Arizona’s blowout NFC Championship loss to Carolina, but the fact remains 2015 was far and away the best season of Palmer’s career. He didn’t earn a negative game grade all season long until his two playoff performances, executing head coach Bruce Arians’ vertical passing attack to perfection.

There’s reason to believe Palmer could return closer to his previous career form this year, but the Cardinals might have even gotten better this offseason. They added PFF’s No. 1 run-blocking guard in free agency in Evan Mathis, skill-position weapons like RB David Johnson and WR John Brown have another year of experience, and they added a pair of talented pass-rushers in Robert Nkemdiche (second-round draft pick) and Chandler Jones (trade with Patriots). Don’t be surprised if Palmer stays in the mix this year.

The one defensive player who might actually have a chance of winning it …

6. J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans

There are several elite, young defensive players in today’s NFL, including guys like Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack and Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, but realistically speaking, there’s one defensive player who could enter the MVP discussion, and that’s Watt.

That said, 2015 was a relative “down” year for Watt, as he battled through injuries which included a broken hand – and he still earned an elite PFF grade of 93.8, which ranked second at his position group. He also led the NFL with a whopping 90 quarterback pressures while transitioning to more of an edge-rushing role.

Health remains a concern for Watt entering 2016, following back surgery that has made his Week 1 status a little murky, but assuming he is even close to full health, it’s reasonable to expect another dominant season. The key for Watt’s MVP candidacy will be whether the offseason additions the Texans made on offense – signing QB Brock Osweiler and RB Lamar Miller in free agency, and drafting WRs Will Fuller and Braxton Miller – will keep them as the team to beat in the AFC South.

The one pass-catcher who might actually have a chance of winning it …

7. Rob Gronkowski, TE, New England Patriots

Tom Brady is notably absent from this list, which is merely a product of his four-game suspension creating an insurmountable deficit in the MVP race. Brady actually earned the No. 1 grade among all quarterbacks last season, at 94.3, while executing New England’s short passing game at an expert level and overcoming poor pass protection all year long.

But Brady’s absence for the opening four games gives his teammate Gronkowski a chance at making an MVP run. Colleague Sam Monson recently named Gronk the most dominant offensive force in all of football — not only is Gronk the owner of the No. 1 receiving grade among tight ends, but he is also the top-graded run-blocker at the position. This excellence in both aspects of the game creates matchup advantages for the Patriots’ offense, allowing them to exploit run-heavy defensive formations with the pass, or punish opponents with the run if they line up with five or more defensive backs.

That should be even more important in the first four games with inexperienced Jimmy Garoppolo starting, and if Gronk plays at his usual elite level for all 16 games and the Patriots are again a Super Bowl contender, he’ll have a legitimate claim to the award.

The rookie who is probably the most important player on his (very popular) team …

8. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys’ defense is a very legitimate concern entering this season, most notably their pass rush, and it has been suggested that perhaps the most important defensive improvement of the offseason came via the drafting at No. 4 overall of running back Ezekiel Elliott. If the Cowboys can establish the successful ball-control, run-heavy offensive approach they did during their successful 2014 season, it should put less strain on the defense and again make them a contender in the NFC East.

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Can Elliott make that kind of positive impact in his first season? That’s a tall order for any rookie, but the evidence is very positive in Elliott’s favor. He’ll be running behind the No. 1-graded run-blocking offensive line (it ranks first in pass-blocking, too), and he proved at Ohio State he is capable of producing plenty on his own, ranking first in the 2016 draft class in yards after contact per attempt. He was also very reliable in pass protection, allowing just one pressure on 102 pass-blocking snaps, which is a skill that should keep him on the field for all three downs.

There’s also the Cowboys factor at work for Elliott – Dallas owns the NFL’s largest fan base by a good margin, which means there will be no shortage of people talking about Elliott if he can drive the team’s success, particularly with quarterback Tony Romo starting the season on the sidelines due to injury.