For someone who loves both giving awards and pro football, I should love the NFL MVP race. And maybe I would, if it weren’t completely devoid of fun and/or intrigue.
Bill Barnwell wrote about this in detail amid last year’s uncharacteristically murky race, but here’s the gist: The NFL MVP is the Best Quarterback Award, barring a mind-blowing, record-shattering season by a running back. In the past 20 years only seven non-QBs have won the award, and each time, it’s taken an historic effort to do it.
Adrian Peterson needed the seventh 2,000-yard season ever. Barry Sanders and Terrell Davis each needed one too. Shaun Alexander broke the single-season rushing touchdown record during his MVP campaign in 2005. LaDainian Tomlinson broke that record the following year. You get the idea.
This practice isn’t totally objectionable. Most of the time, quarterbacks are the most valuable players in football. The duties of the position dictate that no drop-off is more drastic than the one from a star quarterback to his backup. But we already know that. We know Peyton Manning is the deserved MVP, but what if we took quarterbacks out of that conversation? If Manning and all other quarterbacks were ineligible, who would be the most valuable player in the league? Five weeks into the season may seem like an odd time for this debate, but a rash of injuries and missed games have brought several of the potential candidates into the spotlight.
Before we get into the list, one note: Like the actual MVP race, a team’s record was taken into account here. Unlike the actual MVP race, it was only part of the criteria. This list is an attempt at finding the 10 most irreplaceable players in the league right now. Adrian Peterson isn’t an MVP candidate, because the Vikings are 1-3, but no one is replacing Peterson. In that same vein, if a player is part of a talent-laden offense or defense, a team would be more likely to survive without him. Richard Sherman is great, but so is the rest of the Seahawks’ secondary. With all that in mind, here we go:
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles: It’s great to have Shady back in our lives. McCoy’s 700 yards from scrimmage lead the league, and his 5.2 yards per carry is equal to the career high he set in 2010. I get the temptation to attribute some of McCoy’s success to Chip Kelly’s offense, but in the same system, Bryce Brown has 75 yards on 28 carries. The Eagles’ offensive line is finally healthy, and although it hasn’t been dominant, it’s given McCoy a chance. And that’s all he needs. No one does more with less. McCoy was the toughest omission, but ultimately, I don’t think he’s even the most irreplaceable piece on his own offense.
Name a Chief: Jamaal Charles has been Kansas City’s only useful player on offense, but even if you took him off the roster, the drop-off from mediocre to less mediocre is only so far.
The Chiefs are 5-0 because of what they’re doing on defense, but pinning down the best member of that group isn’t easy. Dontari Poe has emerged, and Brandon Flowers and Derrick Johnson continue to be quietly reliable. Justin Houston is second in the league in sacks, but Tamba Hali has been arguably just as good on the other side. There’s talent everywhere, and the loss of any one player would be mitigated as a result.
Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, Jets: I’m jealous of that person who for the first time watched Wilkerson play last night. It’s the football equivalent to hearing someone admit they’ve never seen The Wire. No judgments — I just wish I could be you.
Wilkerson’s sack total (four in five games, compared to just five all of last season) should finally close most of the gap between his play and his name recognition. He’s the best, most versatile piece of a Jets front that leads the league in run-defense DVOA. The problem, for purposes of this list, is the rest of that group might be playing well enough to withstand Wilkerson going down. Against the run, Sheldon Richardson has been every bit as good.
Cameron Jordan, DE, Saints: I’m starting to think my personal preferences (3-4 defensive ends!) are coming into play here. Jordan was out of place as a defensive end in a 4-3, but getting the chance to bounce around the formation in Rob Ryan’s new defense has turned him into a star. He already has four sacks, and that number doesn’t come close to explaining how good he’s been as a pass-rusher.
Gerald McCoy, DT, Buccaneers: It hasn’t mattered with everything else that’s going on there, but the Bucs’ defense is really good! Tampa’s run defense was historically good a year ago, and that hasn’t really changed. It's third in run-defense DVOA, and McCoy deserves the most credit for that. He’s also the best (read: only) pass-rusher in Tampa’s front four (more than half of the Bucs’ sacks have come from back seven players). He may only have two sacks, but with how often he’s collapsing the pocket and bothering the quarterback, that number should pick up.
McCoy is one of the two superstars on that defense, and if Greg Schiano were willing to use Darrelle Revis the same way the Jets did, Revis would be near the top of this list. He’s been his old self when allowed to shadow the opposing team’s no. 1 receiver, and Tampa Bay has gone from 26th in pass-defense DVOA last season to third this year.
10. Alterraun Verner, CB, Titans
Tennessee’s defensive turnaround will probably go down as the Redemption of Gregg Williams, but among the players, no one’s been more responsible than Verner. He's tied for the league lead with four interceptions, and although that’s occasionally a misleading stat, it isn’t here. Verner is getting to a ton of passes, and he’s added 11 pass defenses to those interceptions. Verner is in his fourth year, but he’s still only 24 years old. And right now, he looks like one of the better corners in the entire league.
9. Robert Mathis, OLB, Colts
Count me among those who were dead wrong about the Colts. Pep Hamilton’s power running game, an improved offensive line, and Andrew Luck being Andrew Luck have all helped, but I didn’t expect Indy’s defense to hold up like this. Defensive tackle Cory Redding has been great inside, but given the rest of their personnel, Mathis is the one player the Colts can’t live without.
His 9.5 sacks are more impressive on paper (several came as quarterbacks ducked out of bounds or pulled the ball down with nowhere to throw), but even half that total would be a fine start. The more important sack number is 5.5, which is how many the rest of the Colts’ defense has managed in five games. And three of those have come from inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. Indy doesn’t have the talent on the back end to survive without a pass rush, and with first-round pick Bjoern Werner out for at least the next month, Mathis is all they’ve got.
8. Joe Thomas, LT, Browns
Thomas has his peers at the position, but as we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks, the value of a left tackle is sometimes dependent on situation. The Browns would suffer far more from losing Thomas than the Broncos did from losing Ryan Clady, and the same goes for some of the other top-tier tackles around the league. Joe Staley and Duane Brown are both just one piece of a good line on a run-first offense. Given the Browns’ offensive approach and how often their quarterbacks have been sacked with Thomas, I think his absence would be the most glaring of any left tackle in the league.
7. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles
Jackson is the reason McCoy could lead the league in rushing and still not be the most important member of his own offense. The Eagles’ game against Kansas City was a reminder that outside of Jackson, their receiving options are bleak. Jackson’s 525 receiving yards are 210 more than the rest of Philly’s receivers have combined.
Ideally, teams would combat the Eagles’ offense the same way the Chiefs did — by challenging the wide receivers with press man coverage and cramming the box to stop McCoy and the running game. Without Jackson on the outside, defenses could pull this off without much trouble, and the entire Eagles’ offense would short-circuit. Brown may not be McCoy, but the Eagles could at least survive with him at running back. The same can’t be said about whoever would replace Jackson.
6. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
Try imagining the Vikings’ offense without Peterson. Seriously, think about it. It’s horrifying.
Teams have done everything they can to slow Peterson down this year, and actually, they’ve done a decent job. At first glance, Peterson’s numbers — 421 yards and five touchdowns on 92 carries — are good, even if they aren’t the superhuman ones he put up last year. But those numbers are a bit skewed. If you take away the longest run from each of Peterson’s games this year, his average yards per carry drops from 4.6 to 2.7. For comparison’s sake, if you did the same for McCoy, his average would still be 3.87. On a per-carry basis, Peterson has actually been very average.
There are a couple of different ways to look at that. While the constant eight- and nine-man boxes have slowed Peterson down on most plays, they also lead to more big plays than might happen otherwise. Because they’re a product of how he’s defended, those long runs probably aren’t as fluky with Peterson as they are with most running backs.
The point here is that even when Peterson’s production looks pedestrian, he isn’t. He’s a transcendent talent at a position lacking it, and without him, the Vikings would look Jaguars-esque.
5. Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
Before the season started, Atlanta probably would’ve qualified as a team with enough firepower to survive the loss of any non–Matt Ryan pieces. Through five games, that hasn’t been the case. Atlanta hasn’t looked like a team that can survive the loss of Julio Jones, and now we’ll find out if they can.
Some of the Falcons’ concerns shouldn’t be surprising. Steven Jackson is 30 and has had trouble staying healthy for years, and everyone knew their offensive line was a problem. It’s been Roddy White’s injury issues that are new. White hasn’t missed a game his entire career, and although he’s been on the field for each one this season, he’s clearly been hampered by that high ankle sprain. Now, he’s got a hamstring strain to deal with too.
The ever-reliable Tony Gonzalez has been just that again, but the hope for Atlanta’s rested with Jones. He leads all players with 41 catches, leads all wide receivers with 580 yards, and is second in yards after the catch with 231. Whether it was with a deep ball down the sideline or getting him the ball in open space, the Falcons’ offense went through Jones.
4. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Lions
I can’t remember an athlete whose on-field accomplishments have been so tainted by everyone thinking he’s an asshole. Because aside from Geno Atkins, no defensive tackle has played better than Suh over the past few seasons. And although Atkins has been undeniably great, he plays with one of the better pairs of pass-rushing ends in the NFL. Suh has far less help.
Like Gerald McCoy (taken one spot after Suh in the 2010 draft), Suh is a defensive tackle who's by far his team’s best option as a pass-rusher. His sack totals have dipped since his double-digit rookie season, but through the first five games of this year, he’s been a constant presence in opposing backfields. The Lions have been creative in moving him around — both as a stand-up player in the middle of the line and at defensive end — but he’s managed to get pressure no matter where he lines up. A healthy Louis Delmas and the addition of Glover Quin have the Lions’ secondary playing better than it has in a long time, but Suh’s ability to get after quarterbacks is still the most important component of Detroit’s pass defense.
3. Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints
Few players are so dominant that we need a rule change to reset the balance of power, but I think we’ve gotten there with Graham and fantasy football. How is it fair that people get to trot Graham out as their fantasy tight end? If Graham ever was a tight end, he isn’t anymore. His slot and split-out plays outnumber his inline plays significantly, and if that isn’t convincing, the numbers should be. Graham hasn’t just been the best tight end in the NFL this year — he’s been the best receiver. At his current pace, Graham would finish the year with 118 catches for 1,897 yards and 19 touchdowns. Ya know, just the best wide receiver season ever.
The fantasy football complaint is (sort of) a joke, but that distinction actually is going to be important. Graham is in the final season of his contract, and if the Saints did try to franchise tag him, the difference between the tight end and wide receiver tags is about $4.9 million. If he keeps this up, the Saints aren’t going to have much leverage.
If there’s an argument against Graham belonging on this list, it’s that Drew Brees is going to make a lot of people look good. I’d contend that right now, Graham is the one making Brees look even better. On throws to every other Saint this year, Brees has a passer rating of 99.56. On throws to Graham, that jumps to 134.25.
2. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans
I wrote my full love letter to Watt in anticipation of Sunday’s matchup against the best offensive line in the league, and he rewarded me by adding another three tackles for loss in the run game. Watt was the best player in the league last season, and if Manning weren’t destroying cities like a kaiju every week, he might be again.
1. Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions
There were two moments on Sunday that solidified who belongs at the top of this list. The first was when the line shifted 2.5 points the minute it was announced that Johnson wouldn’t play against the Packers. The second came early in the broadcast of that game, when this graphic flashed on the screen:
Since the start of the 2011 season, Detroit has been held to single-digits twice: against the Bears last season and in Green Bay on Sunday. Everything about the Lions’ offense was out of sorts. Reggie Bush managed only 44 yards on 13 carries, Matthew Stafford averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt, and the Lions gave up five sacks — two more than they’d surrendered in the first four games combined.
In a way, Johnson missing Sunday’s game was a good thing. If any of us had forgotten just how good he is, we won’t be doing it again any time soon.