Top 10 first-time MVP candidates: Dak Prescott one of two Cowboys in the running

We’re one month into the 2021 NFL season, which means we have enough film to make some early MVP projections.

As we all know, the award skews heavily toward quarterbacks. No position is more important, so most of this list will be comprised of signal-callers who have been ultra productive through the first four games.

Some QBs you won’t find on this list, however, include guys like Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes, because I wanted to focus only on players who have yet to win the award.

There’s nothing more enticing than envisioning a prosperous future for budding stars, including those who don’t touch the ball on every down. With that in mind, here are the top 10 first-time MVP candidates after the first quarter of the season.

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Murray had the Cardinals positioned for a run to the playoffs last season before the wheels — including one of his own — gradually came off. Now healthy, Murray is lighting up the defenses he’s faced through four games. Arizona has scored 31 or more points in each of its four wins and is the only undefeated team in the NFL after a month of football. Murray is a major reason for that success. The small-but-mighty quarterback ranks third in the league in passing yards (1,273), owns a 115 passer rating (fifth-best in the league), 9:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and is gaining 4.7 yards per rush. His mobility makes him difficult to defend, and he’s even more of a threat because of his sandlot-style playmaking that has dropped the jaws of fans around the country watching him with the ball in his hands. In addition, no one has defied the odds through the air at a higher rate than Murray, who leads the league in completion percentage over expectation at +9.2 percent, per Next Gen Stats.

Conventional defensive wisdom might say blitz Murray to get him out of his comfort zone, but the NGS metrics advise against that: Murray is averaging 13.1 yards per attempt (best in the NFL) and has a 153.8 passer rating (second best in the league) against the blitz this season. Zero blitzes (leaving no safety back deep) are especially unwise, as they’ve twice prompted Murray to lob back-foot bombs to open receivers for game-changing completions. Murray accounts for the third-highest total expected points added (a metric used to quantify how much a player’s performance benefits a team’s scoring output) at 35.5, so it’s no surprise Arizona’s offense is the league’s highest-scoring unit. And if none of this convinces you, just put a Cardinals game on your TV or mobile streaming device. Murray will sell you on his candidacy before the fourth quarter arrives.

Prescott’s rest-and-rehab preseason seems to be just what the doctor ordered. After missing the entire exhibition slate, Prescott stormed out of the gate, leading the Cowboys to offensive outputs of 29, 20, 41 and 36 points in their first four games. Dallas owns the NFL’s No. 3 offense in terms of total yards and much of the credit belongs to Prescott, who is making magic by getting the ball out quickly this season. Prescott is posting career-high marks in completion percentage (87), TD-INT ratio (4-0) and passer rating (117.5) on quick passes, and that’s before we’ve even discussed his downfield passing and scrambling abilities. Prescott’s totals might not be as astronomical as they were at this time last year, but that’s because his effectiveness is allowing his running backs to pick up their share of the load. And Prescott still accounts for the fifth-highest total EPA (31) and second-highest completion percentage over expectation (+7.3%). It helps to have a premier stable of horses surrounding you, but make no mistake: Prescott is the real deal and was worth every cent of that four-year, $160 million deal he signed in the offseason.

Herbert might have been the third quarterback off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft, but he’s playing like the best choice of the entire group. Herbert has changed the dynamics around the Chargers franchise, a club that became all too familiar with failing to live up to its promise. They’re certainly seen as a real threat with Herbert at the controls, with his blend of arm strength, intelligence and moxie producing a quarterback who delivers in the clutch time and time again. There are few quarterbacks we’d rather give the ball to convert a key third-and-long — Herbert ranks fourth in total EPA on third-and-long passes (11.1) — and that’s just the beginning of what makes him special. Herbert ranks fourth in total EPA at 33.3, owns a 100.1 passer rating and is making up for any concerns related to Los Angeles’ revamped offensive line. Herbert boasts a perfect 6:0 in TD-INT ratio (best in the NFL) and a 109.9 passer rating on passes of fewer than 10 air yards, and he’s certainly not afraid to let it rip downfield. The Chargers couldn’t have dreamed of a better scenario for their first years of life after Philip Rivers. If Los Angeles ends up surprising most everyone by winning the AFC West, Herbert will certainly be in the MVP conversation.

Until Las Vegas’ underwhelming performance in a Monday night loss to the Chargers, Carr was on absolute fire, and he still leads the league with 1,399 passing yards through four games. Carr has made his money by letting it fly, racking up 349 yards on deep passes, the second-most in the league. He’s gotten there in part by establishing a sought-after connection with Henry Ruggs III in the receiver’s second NFL season and riding it to a game-sealing touchdown pass in Week 2. It’s not just about finding Ruggs downfield, either: Carr has spread the wealth in 2021, connecting with five different pass catchers 11 or more times, pushing receiving yardage totals past 200 for four of them (Ruggs, Darren Waller, Hunter Renfrow and Bryan Edwards). Las Vegas’ offense has taken off as a result, and Carr has entered the MVP conversation.

Wilson is back in the MVP conversation yet again, which means you’re going to hear plenty of folks citing the fact that he’s never received a vote for the award. This season, Wilson is garnering MVP consideration by being more efficient than any other passer in the league. The Seahawks star is the best in the league in yards per attempt (9.6) and passer rating (129.9), which is inevitably boosted by his 9:0 TD-INT ratio. Efficiency doesn’t mean Wilson isn’t being aggressive, of course. The quarterback owns the best TD-INT ratio (4:0) and boasts a 130.2 passer rating (second-best in the league) on deep passes, using his diversely talented pass catchers to strike downfield. Wilson is still getting hit too much — he’s taken the sixth-most sacks in the league with 11 — but he has not turned the ball over. There’s a reason Seattle ranks 10th in points per game: look no further than the quarterback wearing No. 3.

The Bills are not solely dependent on the mind-boggling performances of Allen — they have the No. 1 defense in the league. However, that doesn’t diminish the QB’s value. Allen is keeping the Bills moving through the air, but he’s taking the in-between opportunities more often in 2021. Adding Emmanuel Sanders to the mix certainly helped produce this result and assists in explaining Allen’s 5:0 TD-INT ratio (the best mark in the league) and 126.1 passer rating on intermediate throws (10-19 air yards). He’s once again making a difference with his legs, too, gaining 5.4 yards per attempt and scoring one touchdown on 24 rushes. The numbers aren’t quite as gaudy as they were last season, but Allen’s Bills are 3-1 and one second-half meltdown in Week 1 away from being 4-0. As we all know, team success matters a whole lot when it comes to determining the league MVP, and Allen’s Bills are showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

The strategy to beat the Titans usually boils down to one variable: Can you limit Derrick Henry? Henry is certainly the most valuable running back in the NFL, and he’s worthy of consideration for league MVP. That said, he didn’t receive a single vote for the honor after breaking 2,000 rushing yards last season, so it’s unlikely he’ll ever take home the award in the QB-leaning modern NFL. He still deserves a place on this list. Henry is up to his old tricks again in 2021, entering Week 5 as the league leader in rushing yards (510) and attempts (113), producing a per-carry average of 4.5 yards. He’s also added an interesting element to his game this season: catching passes out of the backfield. Henry has never reached 20 receptions in a season, but he’s already at 14 through four games in 2021. It seems as if all rules of workload don’t apply to Henry, the unstoppable engine that drives Tennessee’s offense. And for those trying to answer the question I asked at the beginning of this paragraph in the affirmative, well, good luck: Henry leads the league in rush yards over expected against stacked boxes (eight or more defenders) at +54. Load the box with defenders — heck, throw all 11 at him. It isn’t going to make the going any easier against Henry. Long live the king.

Had we tackled this subject a week earlier, Stafford would likely have landed in the top five. But Los Angeles’ Week 4 misstep against the Cardinals — a game in which Stafford struggled for the first time as a Ram — still burns brightly in our memories. Other than that outing, one in which Stafford still threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns (one interception), the quarterback has been a revelation for the Rams, who upgraded from Jared Goff to a highly capable veteran thirsty to contend for a division title. Stafford ranks fourth in the NFL in passing yards (1,222), third in passer rating (117.6), and lays claim to an 11:2 TD-INT ratio through four games. If you thought Murray’s total EPA was impressive, Stafford’s is even better at 55.2, which is the second-highest total in the league behind only Patrick Mahomes (58.1). Stafford has the Rams cooking, teaming with Cooper Kupp to concoct a delicious meal (Kupp leads the league in TD receptions with five). The only downside: Stafford has developed a bit of a reliance on Kupp, which became a glaring issue in the Week 4 loss when Kupp saw more than twice as many targets (13) as any other Rams pass catcher, but caught just five of them. Spreading the ball around more will help the Rams fulfill their potential, and if that produces a division title, we’ll likely see Stafford end up much higher in the MVP vote totals.

Diggs is only in his second NFL season, but he’s quickly become a shutdown corner with the numbers to prove it. He leads the league in targeted EPA, taking away -24.8 points with his play when considered the nearest defender to a targeted receiver. He’s shutting down expected completions at a rate of -18.4 percent (fifth in the league), and among corners with at least 10 targets, no one owns a higher ballhawk rate (a target in which a defender either intercepts the pass or records a pass defensed) than Diggs (32%). The last stat is certainly buoyed by his five interceptions, the most in the NFL through four weeks. Diggs is changing the complexion of games more than any other defensive back in the NFL right now and is quickly establishing his area of the field as a no-fly zone — especially on short passes (fewer than 10 air yards), where Diggs has recorded three of his interceptions. The nature of Diggs’ position means he’s unlikely to win MVP, but he certainly deserves recognition for his lights-out play to this point.

Garrett leads the league in sacks (6) and might also lead the NFL in drawing offsides penalties because of his blindingly quick get-off. Only Yannick Ngakoue has a faster average get-off speed (0.75 seconds) than Garrett’s 0.76, per NGS, and when you add in the former No. 1 pick’s hulking stature, you have a nightmare for opposing tackles. Just ask Jason Peters how difficult it is to try to stop Garrett. That not enough? Ask Rashod Hill how the roof of U.S. Bank Stadium looked when he was left lying on his back after Garrett barreled directly through his torso in Week 4. Garrett ranks outside the top 10 in QB pressures, but he’s getting home at a higher rate than all but one defender (last season’s sack leader, T.J. Watt). Add in Garrett’s 13 run stops and you have a game-changing edge rusher just entering his prime as part of the league’s best pressure-producing defense.

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