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Dark-Horse Candidates Who Could Emerge in 2014 NFL MVP Race

Andrew GardaFeatured ColumnistJune 12, 2014

Dark-Horse Candidates Who Could Emerge in 2014 NFL MVP Race

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    Who will join Manning and AP as the next NFL MVP?
    Who will join Manning and AP as the next NFL MVP?Cheryl Gerber/Associated Press

    Is it ever too early to talk NFL MVP? Well, as NFL.com is already discussing 2015 NFL draft locations, I'm going to go ahead and say no.

    It's no fun to talk about the obvious pretty boys who always get the attention, though—your Mannings, your Bradys, your Brees...Breeses...Breeseses...that guy in New Orleans.

    No, we're going to take the road less traveled and talk about guys who aren't front-runners. They're the other guys, players who absolutely deserve a shot but don't easily get one usually because of positional bias.

    If you look at all the winners listed on Wikipedia, the majority are running backs and quarterbacks, with the signal-callers getting an edge overall. Only one non-quarterback has won more than one MVP (running back Jim Brown in 1957, 1958 and 1965), and the last defensive player to win was Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

    We're taking the award back, so there are no running backs or quarterbacks on this list. Which leaves out dark-horse candidates like Tony Romo, Philip Rivers, LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch.

    The pretty boys have had their day.

J.J. Watt

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Why it Should Happen

    In the last two years, there has been a bit of a groundswell of support for Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, and with good reason.

    Even when the team was imploding around him last season, Watt was producing and ended up rated as Pro Football Focus' top 3-4 defensive end (subscription required), with the only triple-digit rating the site gave to anyone on the defensive line.

    The impact Watt has goes beyond statistics, as he changes the landscape for an offense when he walks onto the field. There is only one player who impacts offensive game plans the way that he does (for very different reasons), but we'll get to him in a moment.

    Watt is set up for a big season in 2014, with Brian Cushing back from injury and new defensive pass-rushing force Jadeveon Clowney lining up in the front seven.

    It will be hard to stop Watt—and even when you slow him down, he'll bat a pass out of the air with those massive paws anyway.

     

    Why It Won't Happen

    Remember that institutional bias we talked about in the introduction?

    Defensive players don't win the NFL MVP, and a defensive end has never won (according to Wikipedia).

    Watt is a rare breed of player, but is that enough?

Darrelle Revis

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    David Seelig/Associated Press

    Why it Should Happen

    Nobody plays corner like Darrelle Revis does. Maybe nobody ever will again.

    Like Watt, Revis impacts an offense's game plan in ways no other corner does.

    While Richard Sherman—probably the closest competition to Revis—locks down a single side of the field, his scheme doesn't ask him to move around, so sometimes he's not on that primary big-play receiver. That's a limitation of scheme, not Sherman, but you can scheme away from him in a way that you can't from Revis (assuming the defensive coordinator uses him correctly).

    In a league where people prepare themselves in freakishly thorough ways, Revis is on a whole other level, and his diligence and work ethic helped him rebound from a brutal knee injury with an incredibly good season.

    Revis can and does give up yards and the odd big play—like any corner does. But teams and quarterbacks avoid him like the plague, a sign of respect very few corners in the NFL get.

    Now that he's in New England with the Patriots, he could be as devastating as he was in Rex Ryan's New York Jets defense. It's an incredible spectacle, one we are very fortunate to witness.

     

    Why It Won't Happen

    Like with Watt, Revis would be a trailblazer by being the first defensive back to win an NFL MVP. Unlike Watt, though, he has never had the buzz to even begin the momentum. And when you don't have guys throw at you, people tend to underestimate how good you are.

    There is also the argument that Sherman or Patrick Peterson or Joe Haden could be as effective as Revis is in the right scheme (again, Sherman's limitations are imposed on him, not because of him), which could make Revis look less special than he is.

Brandon Marshall

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Why it Should Happen

    While his off-field issues were an anchor around his neck for a long time, the move to Chicago and a very supportive Bears franchise has been nothing but good for Brandon Marshall and has helped him shed the troublemaker image.

    Over the course of his eight-year career, Marshall has failed to top 1,000 yards just once (his rookie season). And in the past two seasons as a Bear, he has totaled 218 catches for 2,803 yards and 23 touchdowns.

    Marshall has helped turn the Bears offense into a dynamic passing attack and plays a physical, brutal brand of receiving that helps wear teams down. All quarterback Jay Cutler needs to do is get it near him and he will make a play.

    The offense will continue to throw the ball a ton, and with Alshon Jeffery maturing across from him, Marshall gets more single coverage than a player of his caliber should.

    He should have another huge season this year and will be one of the top-producing receivers in the NFL.

     

    Why It Won't Happen

    Stop me if you've heard this before: No wide receiver has ever won an NFL MVP.

    Receivers may also be pretty-boy skill guys like quarterbacks and running backs, but they don't get the measure of respect the other two positions do. They are too often schemed for, and if they don't have a second receiver to draw the defense, it's hard for them to make an impact.

    Even when they do, the perception is that they cannot will wins the way a quarterback can.

    Not to mention, if Jerry Rice didn't win an NFL MVP, well, can you imagine Marshall winning it?

Joe Thomas

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Why it Should Happen

    Every coach and player in the NFL knows how vital a left tackle is. So it shouldn't be a shock that one made the list, especially a guy who has been as good at his position as Joe Thomas has.

    Thomas has been among the best tackles in the league for the entirety of his career, and this year, he could have the offense to help showcase it. Ben Tate is potentially the best running back the Cleveland Browns have had in a very long time, he has some decent receivers (even with Josh Gordon out) and either quarterback he ends up with will be an improvement on virtually every signal-caller the Browns have had since Vinny Testaverde.

    Leading the way and locking down the left side will be Thomas, quietly plying his trade and making sure the quarterback isn't smashed and the running back has a lane to run through.

    Thomas is a fantastic talent and one of the most dominant linemen in the NFL today, and this season will be another notch in his belt.

     

    Why It Won't Happen

    Tackles are hogs in the mud, doing all the dirty work and gaining little glory. The only time you notice a tackle (unless you go looking for him) is when he screws up. As Thomas rarely screws up, don't expect to hear his name often.

    And if you don't hear his name shouted as loudly as Brady's or Manning's, chances are that nobody will think of him come voting time.

    On top of all that, there are some very good tackles around the league. You can argue for many of them to own the term "best in the NFL," and while Thomas is my choice, there are likely way too many voters who will argue for their guy, which splits a vote.

    At this rate, you would need Superman to come in and play tackle, and, frankly, he probably would still get overlooked.

Calvin Johnson

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Why it Should Happen

    As much as I like Marshall, there is no denying the talent that Calvin Johnson possesses.

    Not long ago, he broke Jerry Rice's single-season yards receiving mark, and he has been the single most dominant receiver in the NFL. Covered by two, sometimes three, defenders, Megatron is unstoppable and will snag most balls coming his way.

    When the rest of the offense has faltered, Johnson continues to churn along, regardless of score or situation.

    This year he has a great supporting cast. He finally has a solid No. 2 in Golden Tate, a dynamic vertical tight end in rookie Eric Ebron and, of course, the one-two punch in the backfield of Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. He also has one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the last decade, Matthew Stafford.

    Johnson is absolutely the best receiver in the NFL and should be in the conversation every year.

     

    Why It Won't Happen

    Johnson should be in the conversation, but he rarely is. In part, it's because of the lack of success his team has had.

    Like Marshall, you can make the argument that for all his yards, his impact in the game is somewhat limited. He doesn't win games. During his record-breaking season, the Detroit Lions went 4-12.

    While we can imagine it would have been worse without Johnson, the argument can be made that no matter what he does he will never impact a season enough.

    We don't give awards to guys on losing or non-playoff teams. If the Lions don't make the playoffs—or, worse, have another sub-.500 year—there's no way Johnson wins it. If Megatron couldn't win it the year he broke Rice's record, what are the chances that anything less than a magical, superhuman season will do it? And even if he shatters every record, will he win?

    Heck, Adrian Peterson won in part because he broke 2,000 yards less than a year after ripping his knee apart.

    Johnson has the talent, but in the end, voters could point to the rest of his team and all the losses as a reason he doesn't deserve it.

     

     Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him @andrew_garda on Twitter.

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