Top Dark-Horse NFL MVP Candidates

Five players who may just shock everyone this upcoming season

While they are two of the biggest superstars today, both Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson were mysteries at the start of their respective MVP campaigns. Mahomes started just one game before his MVP season, while Jackson only started seven. Both of the second year QBs took the league by storm. Neither were close to the betting favorite at the start of the season (+10000 for Mahomes, +8000 for Jackson); which just goes to prove that under-the-radar players are capable of gaining MVP honors.

With the NFL season expected to go on as scheduled despite the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to look at five dark-horse candidates for the MVP award this year. A few stipulations first however. For the player to be a dark-horse candidate, he must be listed outside of the top eight using FanDuel’s MVP odds. Second, I will only be listing quarterbacks, due to the position’s overwhelming stranglehold on the award (since 2007 only one non-quarterback has won the award). So while this is a dark-horse list, it still should hold some possibility of happening. Therefore, the best chance of that happening means selecting just quarterbacks. Let’s go.

Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals

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FanDuel odds: +2300

Kyler Murray falls just outside of the top eight odds on FanDuel; and is the favorite out of all the dark-horse candidates. An impressive rookie campaign has caused Murray to gain some hype for the upcoming season. In his first NFL season, the Arizona QB had 3,722 passing yards, and 20 touchdowns to go with 12 interceptions. He also added 544 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. Those numbers were good enough for Murray to be named the offensive rookie of the year last season. The expectations would already be high for Murray if Arizona didn’t make any moves in the offseason. However, after the addition of superstar receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Murray should be expected to take a huge leap this year. The Cardinals also looked to improve the offensive line by selecting Houston tackle Josh Jones in the draft. Arizona may still have a weak defense, which could both hurt and help Murray’s MVP chances. It’s going to be tough to win the award without making the playoffs; and a bad defense could contribute to that. However, a bad defense will also cause Murray to have to put up big stats in order to keep the Cardinals competitive. If the Cardinals can find a balance between the two, Murray could be taking home some hardware this season.

Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

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FanDuel odds: +3500

When you hear the name Ben Roethlisberger, you may not think of dark-horse MVP candidate right away. That however, is what Pittsburgh’s QB is this upcoming year. After a 2019 season which saw Roethlisberger only appear in two games, questions surround the signal caller. How healthy is he? Can he perform without Antonio Brown? I think there’s a real chance Big Ben shocks everyone this season. If you go back just two years, you can see Roethlisberger is still capable of performing at a very high level. In 2018, Big Ben had 5,129 passing yards (which led the NFL), and 34 touchdowns. All the questions surrounding the 38 year old QB will only provide more motivation. Juju Smith-Schuster is a solid number one receiver; and adding Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool in the draft will only help. Not to mention that Pittsburgh has an offensive line which was ranked ninth at the end of the season by Pro Football Focus, and a defense which allowed the sixth fewest points per game last year. Big Ben is not only poised for a potential MVP season, but also for a probable playoff berth.

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

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FanDuel odds: +4400

Much like with Roethlisberger, dark-horse MVP candidate isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when Matt Ryan is brought up. The odds however, suggest otherwise. After their 2016 Super Bowl loss, the Falcons haven’t been the same, missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons. The blame doesn’t fall on Ryan however, who has still been able to perform at a high level (at least 4,400 yards and 26 touchdowns in each of the past two years). So why are his odds so low? Much like how Kyler Murray’s odds may be damaged by missing the playoffs, so too would Matt Ryan’s. Also, like Arizona, the same problem exists for the Falcons: the defense. However, this offseason Atlanta looked to improve their defense by adding Dante Fowler Jr. in free agency, and by selecting Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell in the first round of the NFL draft. If the defense can improve enough to allow Atlanta to make the playoffs, then Matt Ryan will do the rest. The QB still has Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Ryan also gained Todd Gurley and tight end Hayden Hurst this offseason. Ryan’s going to have the numbers. Now it’s on Atlanta’s defense to hold up.

Drew Lock, Denver Broncos

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FanDuel odds: +6500

If second year quarterbacks have owned the MVP award each of the past two seasons, who’s to say Drew Lock can’t make it a third. His lack of experience (only five starts last season) may cause you to hesitate when considering him an MVP candidate. Just remember that didn’t stop Mahomes or Jackson. In Lock’s five starts last season, he had 1,020 passing yards, seven touchdowns, and three interceptions. Those numbers may not be MVP level impressive, but they are similar to Jackson’s. In his first season, Lamar Jackson started seven games, and accumulated 1,201 passing yards, six touchdowns, and three interceptions. In Patrick Mahomes lone start his rookie year, he had 284 passing yards, zero touchdowns, and one interception. This is about projecting for Drew Lock. Denver added receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J Hamler in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. The Broncos also signed free agent running back Melvin Gordon this offseason. Add those weapons to Pro Bowl receiver Courtland Sutton and promising second year tight end Noah Fant, and you have an offense that’s ready to take off. That’s not all though. Denver’s offensive line was ranked the 12th best at the end of last season, and was named the fourth most improved offensive line unit this offseason according to Pro Football Focus. Lock should have plenty of time to find all of his new weapons this year. Pair that with getting to face weak defenses in his own division (Kansas City, Oakland), and Lock could be ready to take the NFL by storm.

Sam Darnold, New York Jets

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FanDuel odds: +10000

Sam Darnold has had a rough first two years in the NFL. He’s missed six games due to injury/illness, he’s had two head coaches, and he’s had below average talent surrounding him. This season may be very different for the third year QB however. For the first time in his career, New York has focused on giving Darnold a solid offensive line. After drafting Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton in the first round of the NFL draft, and signing tackle George Fant, guard Greg Van Roten, and center Conor McGovern in free agency, New York is considered to have the third most improved offensive line according to Pro Football Focus. The Jets didn’t stop there in their efforts to help Darnold this upcoming season. They drafted Baylor receiver Denzel Mims in the second round, and signed Breshad Perriman who is coming off a career year with the Buccaneers. Darnold also gets to play a season in which he already knows the playbook, due to the Jets retaining coach Adam Gase. Darnold’s MVP chances will also get a boost if he can make the playoffs this season, something which is possible in large part because of the division the Jets play in. While Buffalo made the playoffs last season, questions still surround QB Josh Allen’s talent. New England is going into their first season without Tom Brady in a very long time. Miami is young and unproven, and much of their season hinges on rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa’s health. New York’s defense was above average last year (they allowed the second fewest rushing yards per game), and that was without star linebacker C.J. Mosley for most of the year. If Darnold makes a jump in year three, and leads New York to the playoffs, there’s a chance he earns the MVP trophy as well.

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University at Buffalo ’20 | BA in Communication | Writer for The Sports Scientist

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