Who wins the NFL MVP every year? Someone really good. Really, really, really good. Someone with crazy statistics.
The problem is, the NFL is about the most unpredictable league we have in North American sports. Trying to figure out, year to year, what teams are going to be really good, and what players project to put up huge statistical games, is very, very difficult. As gamblers or fans, we rarely agree on just about anything. Arguments spawn on social media about which QB’s suck, and which ones are underrated. Everyone is picked apart. It’s all exhausting, to be honest, and doesn’t leave us any closer to a clear picture of the season.
Well, the good news is, the NFL MVP does have a bit of a profile. There are indicators before the season that we can identify in candidates to try to make smart decisions. Unlike with my previous installment on NFL Coach of the Year, the MVP market is actually priced pretty appropriately. This isn’t an upside-down, value-everywhere situation. The “hold” in these markets is also insanely high, and sportsbooks tend to price basically no one as high as they should be priced. They are making money here. But if you know what you’re doing and what you’re looking for, you can still make reasonably good bets. At a minimum, I hope this piece helps you avoid bad bets. Not betting on something is sometimes as good as it gets, especially if that bet had a 0% or near-0% chance of winning.
So what makes an MVP? Well for starters, toss everyone who isn’t a quarterback or a running back, and really with where the league has gone, toss all the running backs too. I think Saquon Barkley and Le’Veon Bell can have MVP-caliber seasons in terms of statistical performances, but that’s about it, and as we’ll soon discover, your stat profile isn’t everything. But yes, basically just the quarterbacks, please.
Also, we’d really like quarterbacks with SOME experience. Patrick Mahomes completely shocked everyone by performing at such a high level and winning the award last year, but that type of success is rare. In the last 20 years, only Kurt Warner in 1999 and Mahomes won the award in their 2nd season. Aside from Warner and Mahomes, the next least-experienced player to win MVP was Cam Newton, in Year 5. These aren’t absolutes. Young players in ideal situations (like the “Greatest Show on Turf” and whatever speedy-players-in-space label you want to give Andy Reid’s offense) can thrive, but it’s just a rarity, that’s all. So when in doubt, avoid very young quarterbacks, because they generally need time to develop and reach their peak performances.
Individual success is the most obvious component, but team success is so often overlooked. And we’ll spend a fair portion of the time involving “indicators” talking about team success. First off, it should come as no surprise that the MVP of the league played for a very, very good team. Usually, the best team, at least in the conference. The MVP played for the 1 seed in their conference in 13 of the last 20 years. The average seed for the winning player’s team the last 20 years is exactly 2. The MVP’s team averaged 12.8 wins in the regular season over that same period of time, and won 11 or more games in 18 of 20 seasons. So you don’t just need to be targeting pretty good or good teams, you need to be targeting teams with a chance to have ridiculously good seasons. And there’s a difference. A lot of people are in on the Jets, for example, as a “sleeper.” Or the Niners. Or the Bucs. But those teams are probably capped at about 10-11 wins as their ceiling with incredible, back-in-the-playoffs type of season. We don’t want a team like that. We want a team that’s better.
Let’s talk about the type of successful team we can identify before the season, though. If I say the MVP’s team won 12-ish games that year, that doesn’t help us a whole lot, after all. We don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t tell you who’s definitely winning 12 games. But 2 things can help us: the market, and the team’s performance the previous season.
Truly elite teams don’t usually come out of nowhere. Some kind of foundation has been laid. Sure, a team can go from 6 to 10 (and back to 6) wins in any short period of time. But the type of really crazy success (12 wins or more, 1 seed) that tends to lead to an MVP award requires some success the year before. That is reflected in this stat: 15 of the last 20 MVP winners won 9 or more games the previous season. 2 more (Aaron Rodgers & Matt Ryan) won 8 games the previous year. And again, these aren’t absolutes. No one saw Kurt Warner coming. Adrian Peterson’s Vikings won 3 games the year before (and only won 10 the year he won, in 2012). But, in general, we know this team is at least capable, and is threatening for the playoffs. An elite season generally comes on the heels of strong performance the year before. And now we can turn to the market for more help.
The average win-total of the MVP winner entering that season is 9.5. 17 of the last 20 MVP winners had preseason win totals of 8.5 or more. This isn’t a “come out of nowhere” award, for the most part. Warner, Peterson and Matt Ryan (Falcons had a win total of 7 that year) are the only 3 who really did.
After seeing the history of the award, it might seem like we’ve gotten nowhere at all. OK, we want a quarterback who is going to play for the 1 seed and who the market has identified as good (via their win total). Aren’t all of those players the favorites? Well, yes and no. They may all be the favorites in order, but their prices may not match the likelihood they can win the award. And also, like I said before, I think I can prevent you from making a lot of bad bets, which is also a big help.
Let’s go through some of the candidates I think can win the award. We’ll start with those who can win, but those who I am not betting (for a variety of reasons). Then we’ll move on to my list of bets.
Honorable Mention (They can win, but I’m not betting on it)
Baker Mayfield (12/1): The Browns have been the hot team all offseason, and Mayfield was impressive for parts of his rookie season. He will have weapons to work with. But I’m just not sure the team can make THAT big of a leap in his 2nd year. They won 7 games last year, and their win total this year is 9. I think Mayfield is an MVP candidate, eventually. I’m just not sure it’s right now. He’s the kind of player I’d love to bet after the team takes another step forwards this season. But this year, is this team the 1 or 2 seed in the AFC?
Philip Rivers (25/1): I mean…if he hasn’t won one by now…is it ever happening? This is Year 15. Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are more than capable on the outside. They won 12 games last year and their win total is 9.5. I’m not sure he can, at this age, put up a statistical profile better than his past ones, in such a way that finally gets him the votes. I just really prefer others, to be honest.
Ben Roethlisberger (17/1): A bit of the same thing. They won 9 games last year and have a win total of 9. He had one of his better season yards-wise last year. Still, this is Year 16, and I would describe Big Ben as someone the voters will not be dying to give the award to, and leave it at that. He has some baggage. It’s also easy for everyone to say “Antonio Brown’s not there, he’ll stink” and while I generally don’t buy into those dumbed-down narratives and there are some high-upside receivers, sometimes the popular opinion is the correct one. Yeah, it’s gonna be worse without Brown there. It just is. Also, Ben throws a lot of interceptions basically every single season, which hurts his statistical profile.
Drew Brees (15/1): If it wasn’t for Patrick Mahomes, Brees very well could have won last year. He was excellent, and despite entering Year 19(!) there is no evidence he will fade statistically. His team won 13 games last year and has a win total of 10.5. I actually think there are some big regression factors with the Saints though as a team after having such success last season. I think they’ll make the playoffs, but again, prefer others for the 1 seed and the MVP narrative that follows it. Wouldn’t begrudge you at all for betting him.
Russell Wilson (33/1): I don’t trust OC Brian Schottenheimer whatsoever. That may actually just be it for this topic. Also I don’t think Seattle can realistically be the 1 seed. So even though Wilson is in his prime, I don’t see this happening.
Marcus Mariota (125/1): An intriguing price, but Tennessee basically never throws the ball…ever. Going to be tough to win an award when you have no statistics that are compelling. Still, they won 9 games last year.
DeShaun Watson (20/1): Scary. They won 11 games last year and have a win-total of 8.5. But I really think a lot of last year’s performance was predicated on opponent, and I don’t think this team can ever realistically improve to an elite level. I think it’s much more likely they go back down towards 7-8 wins. Still, looking at Watson’s improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, coming off the injury, the ceiling is incredibly high for him as a quarterback. As a future MVP candidate, he’s a fantastic option. This year? I prefer others, again.
Andrew Luck (12/1): Fits every single criteria that can exist. He’s entering Year 7. Peyton Manning won his first MVP in Year 6, Aaron Rodgers in Year 7, and Tom Brady in Year 8. Luck is often regarded as that once-in-a-generation type of talent. The problem is, Luck has an injury and the team doesn’t know how to fix it. He’s had his calf MRI-ed 3 times, and is missing parts of training camp as a result of the mysterious ailment. The season is 3 weeks away, and we don’t even know if he’s going to play. I would say that’s a pretty big problem for someone being lined in the market like the 2nd choice to win the award. If you remove the injury concerns, it all makes sense though. They won 10 last year, their win total is 9.5, and he can put up monster numbers. I just can’t bet on a guy who may not start the season. You tell me he’s fine, and I see him out there in the 3rd preseason game, and it’s a different story obviously. A very news-dependent candidate.
Patrick Mahomes (favorite, 5/1): Of course he can win the award. He just won it last season. His team won 12 games last season, and their win total is 10.5 for this year. He is a year more experienced and can put up insane statistics. The question here is more of price. You basically have a choice if you want any return in this market. You can bet Mahomes, or you can bet a group of other likely candidates. If you take 5/1 with Mahomes, you really box yourself in when it comes to adding other players, because most of the candidates who have any shot to win are priced pretty low. It’s not like you can take Mahomes and add in two 100/1 shots and a 200/1 and cover more permutations. You have to make tough choices here. I also think after he completely lit the world on fire last year, a slightly lesser statistical season, even if coupled with a good team season, would make it tough for him to win. He has set the bar so high. And that sounds a little silly, but this is an award voted on by silly people (the media).
My List Of Bets
Tom Brady (25/1): Easiest bet on the board by a mile. This price is frankly hilarious, and is driven basically by the constant narrative being pushed that he was bad last season. And while it’s true that his statistics were slightly worse than the year before, the drop-off was not nearly as great as the media would have you believe. It’s always possible this is his last season, and if we ever knew that by Week 17, the narrative would be off the charts in his favor. Also, on a much more basic level, they won 11 games last year and have the highest win-total in the market. If the objective is to be the 1 or 2 seed, this team has the best chance, and has an elite quarterback, and he is currently nowhere near the favorites price-wise. That is a mistake, plain and simple. The Patriots have the highest likelihood of being great of any team, and Brady is their candidate.
Aaron Rodgers (12/1): A two-time winner of the award, Rodgers is now in a new system under coach Matt LaFleur which will hopefully unlock him a little more compared to those last few Mike McCarthy seasons. I have the Packers as the most likely team to have the best record in the NFC this year (narrowly) so this is a no-brainer for me also. His team under-performed last year (6 wins), but there are also a ton of excuses for that, and their win total is 9.5 this season.
Carson Wentz (13/1): Another must-play, in my opinion. Wentz was playing at an MVP level in Year 2 before his injury. He had 33 touchdowns and 7 picks, and was completing more than 60% of his passes. Obviously, Nick Foles ended up leading the team to the Super Bowl, and Foles is now in Jacksonville. There is no QB controversy, of course. The Eagles won 9 games last year, and their win total is 10. Wentz is surrounded by a lot of the same weapons (Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz) and a lot of new ones (Philly added Jordan Howard, drafted Miles Sanders, and is kicking the tires on DeSean Jackson late in his career). The Eagles are my 2nd most-likely team to have the #1 seed this year in the NFC. This is easy for me at this price.
Kirk Cousins (33/1): So tragically, we aren’t the only people who bet this market. And this pool of 4 was a whole lot better when Cousins was 72/1 two weeks ago. But alas, other people are paying attention as well. Cousins’ Vikings won 8 games last year and have a win total of 9. He is in Year 8 of his career. They return Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, again. The most optimistic part of Cousins’ candidacy, though, is the scheme. Offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski took over midway through last season, and by all accounts couldn’t really implement an effective system in such a short time with games every week. Now, with an offseason, and with Gary Kubiak on in an advisory role, Cousins has reportedly looked phenomenal in camp so far. If Stefanski can really unlock Cousins and get him back to his “You like that!” days, the numbers will be there. And the Vikings team success may very well be there too.