Finally, after the long wait, the NFL season has begun. All of the rosters have been cut down, most fantasy teams have been drafted and thanks to the Broncos' come from behind opening night victory over the Panthers, the 2016 season is already proving to be as unpredictable as any.
Figuring out who the dominate teams and expected Super Bowl contenders are is a fun past time for all fans and surely, as the season rushes by (which it will), those answers will reveal themselves quickly. Hand in hand with that, trying to figure out what players will come to define this season takes a good amount of research, guesswork and let's be frank, luck. Some might be obvious, especially as the NFL more than ever is an offensive league. Yet, some great players might be in line for down seasons and likewise, perhaps some upstarts might get to truly shine in 2016.
Here now is a breakdown of 8 unlikely players who could make a push for NFL MVP this coming season along with 7 players who have either won or contended for the award in the past that might find a repeat performance hard to come by. While the NFL is of course a team sport, the play from these chosen few could go a long way to deciding the collective outcome of the season. As always, QBs dominate this list, but they might not hold all the cards. Just most of them.
15 Philip Rivers - COULD WIN MVP
In many ways, Philip Rivers's only bad luck involves timing. He was drafted in the same class that produced multiple super bowl winning QB's Eli Manning and Big Ben and that lack of playoff success has made him appear slightly diminished when compared not just to his draft mates but to the other elite QB's in the league during his tenure. Yet Rivers has shown an ability to grip it and rip it with the best and in 2016, he may finally have enough weapons to return the Chargers to respectability. A healthy Keenan Allen will certainly help, as well as actual depth beyond that at wide receiver and running back. With a good deal of uncertainty still swirling around whether the Chargers even stay in San Diego, if Rivers can get time and his teammates stay off IR, he might be able to trump both Ben and Eli in one category: a regular season MVP.
14 J.J. Watt - WON'T WIN MVP
J.J. Watt is a one man wrecking crew. The type of generational defensive talent who COULD in fact win an MVP with his play. However, despite proving year after year that he can dominate all aspects of defense, Watt enters 2016 at less than full strength. Though sufficiently recovered enough to start week 1, the past offseason saw him undergo both abdominal and back surgeries serious enough to make Watt question whether he'd even be able to play football again. Tasked once again with being the defensive leader, one worries that all the burdens mixed with the mounting injuries might just prove Watt to be merely a demigod this year instead of a full blown superhero. Either way, even a down year by Watt's standards would beat almost any other player's career year. It just might not be enough to get the Texans where they want to go this season.
13 Eddie Lacy - COULD WIN MVP
Aaron Rodgers is what makes the Packers offense hum. On more than a few polls, he seems to be the best bet to win this year's MVP. With Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb both healthy, he should be able to rebound. However, what can move the Packers offense in to true dominance would be a career year from Lacy. Much was made about his offseason weight loss and Lacy looks set to rebound from a down year where he failed to crack 800 yards rushing. A balanced attack with a lethal QB could mean plenty of running lanes for Lacy and more than ample opportunity to show why he was once considered a top back in the league. If he can get the ball plenty in the red zone, his TD's could soar and with it, both the Packers and his own fortunes.
12 Adrian Peterson - WON'T WIN MVP
The last running back to win the award and quite one of the last of a dying breed: the true workhorse running back. The Vikings still essentially base their offense around Peterson, which is why a second MVP doesn't look likely. With Teddy Bridgewater out with a gruesome injury, defenses will key on Peterson even more than ever, stacking the box and daring Sam Bradford or whomever ends up at QB to beat them deep, which is not the Vikings strength. Peterson is enough of a beast that he'll still get his, and don't be surprised if he still cracks 1000+ yards and double digit TD's but a truly MVP caliber season would be just about impossible when the running lanes will always be clogged.
11 Rob Gronkowski - COULD WIN MVP
Gronk has already been setting records left and right. Already 3rd on the list all time in touchdowns scored by a Tight End, health is the only thing that can stop him. Expected to play week 1, Gronk is the focal point for the Pats offense regardless of who is under center. Essentially unblockable in the red zone, with size, strength and strong hands, if Gronk is able to suit it up, he'll be thrown to A LOT. The addition of Bennett as a second pass-catching TE should only open things up further for him and while his number of catches might decrease slightly, his TD rate might soar. If he finds a way to get to 20 TD's and helps keep the Pats afloat while Brady is suspended, he could make history as the first TE to win the MVP.
10 Earl Thomas - WON'T WIN MVP
Earl Thomas is the brains of the Seahawks defense. Essentially a centerfielder in the back of their Cover 3 setup, his job is to clean up any and all messes that come his way. He's so good, as are his teammates, that trying to pick out who is most valuable is nearly impossible. Playing the role of free-roaming safety likewise means much of his contributions don't come up in the glamour categories. He's most likely not going to get double digit sacks or many interceptions since his job is to help his teammates with their assignments but make no mistake, he is what keeps the Seahawks humming. In many ways, a silent assassin, by the time you notice him, it's too late, the game is over and Seattle has probably won. It won't get him much MVP attention but that won't matter to him if it leads to another Super Bowl.
9 Blake Bortles - COULD WIN MVP
Bortles took a gigantic leap forward in his second year in charge of the Jaguars huddle, more than tripling his TD's from 11 to 35 and throwing for almost 4500 yards. Coupled with breakout performances from receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, if Bortles is able to build upon or even improve his 2015 performance, he could hep the Jaguars finally return to respectability after several years out in the wilderness. Bortles and company like to throw it deep and if he can cut back on his interceptions this year, he could force his way in to the MVP discussion if the Jaguars make a surprise playoff push.
8 Odell Beckham Jr - WON'T WIN MVP
Hard as it is to believe, a Wide Receiver has never won the league MVP. Not even Jerry Rice. Beckham is one of the very few who could have an outside chance at breaking that streak. The game time he missed last season only magnified his value to the Giants offense as it sputtered without its star cog. Yet, with some new off season additions and injured players returning, the burden on Beckham might lessen just a little bit. This could prove to be excellent news for the Giants overall, but it might cut a bit in to Beckham's numbers and as such give him good and bad news. The good: the Giants might finally return to the postseason. The bad: his case for league MVP will be harder to prove.
7 Antonio Brown - COULD WIN MVP
Brown though may just prove the exception to everything that was just written about Beckham. His last few seasons have been truly historic and if Big Ben continues to feed his star wideout as expected, he could make a push for several regular season records, specifically looking to set the record for most catches and most receiving yards in a year. He's been close already but with Le'veon Bell opening the season suspended, expect the Steelers to air it out even more with Brown pushing for 200+ targets. Brown is one of the players who even if double or triple covered still seems to be open and should he have a truly record setting year while helping the Steelers to the playoffs, the long MVP draught for his position might finally come to an end.
6 Andrew Luck - WON'T WIN MVP
From the very moment he entered the league, greatness was expected for Andrew Luck. That he's essentially come through so far is both his biggest blessing and curse. When he has time and is healthy, he has the look of a league MVP. Able to make every throw and surprisingly mobile, up until last season, he had led the Colts to 11 wins every year of his career. Yet, the talent of Luck has papered over the rest of a roster that is very underwhelming. Instead of truly investing in a strong offensive line or more dominate weapons, the Colts are instead asking Luck to rise above and make do almost solely on his arm alone. Last year this came back to bite them, as Luck was battered by defenses and spent more than half the year out injured. If the Colts truly want him and the team to reach their full potential, goal number one must be protecting their young asset.
5 Jameis Winston - COULD WIN MVP
Year two under center in Tampa could prove to be the breakout for Winston and the Bucs. Though he made more than a few bad throws and rookie mistakes, the ability and game-reading also started to blossom. Now with more time under his belt and with a healthy Mike Evans opposite Vincent Jackson, Winston has two tall, physical receivers who can go up and get the throws Winston wants to make. So long as Evans works on lessening his drops, the Bucs offense could prove to be like the Jaguars were a year ago and rise up. If that happens, Tampa could likewise make a strong push toward the playoffs and Winston figures to be right in the middle of it all.
4 Cam Newton - WON'T WIN MVP
Cam Newton might be the most physically gifted player in the NFL. He has all the skills and ability to repeat as league MVP. However, after what happened to him in the season opener on Thursday, the biggest hurdle became very clear: Newton takes a lot of hard shots. Some might even call them cheap shots. The Broncos seemed at times to be almost head-hunting Newton and unless the refs protect Newton, any one of these hits could knock the star man out. Many of his teammates point out that Newton's uncanny physicality can sometimes act as a detriment here, since refs might look at Newton as less fragile than other QB's and a hit that might get penalized on others is seen as less severe since Cam seems to take it. However, if they start to add up, it will effect Newton and the Panthers greatly and this season might bare witness to that tipping point.
3 Patrick Peterson - COULD WIN MVP
The Arizona Cardinals are a very trendy Super Bowl pick and with good reason. They return what could be a truly dominate versatile offense mixed with what might be a top 3 defense. By finally adding in a push rusher in Chandler Jones, the Cardinals seem to have all the tools needed to make a deep, sustained run in 2016. Much like Earl Thomas, Patrick Peterson is the key to everything the Cards look to do on defense. His nose for the ball and speed on the outside allows him to lockdown opposing wide receivers like few others in the game. Yet what Peterson brings to the table beyond that is he contributes on special teams as a lethal return man. That two-way ability mixed with what hopefully in Arizona is a big season for the Cardinals makes him a very interesting MVP candidate. If he were able to pick off a few passes, continue his usual blanket coverage and return some kicks or punts to the house, he'd have quite an argument in his favor.
2 Tom Brady - WON'T WIN MVP
When Tom Brady returns from his suspension, the consensus is that he and the Pats will be angry. That usually means a scorched earth policy on offense. They aren't against running up the score, throwing TDs when a game is already well in hand and just making a general mockery of opposing defenses. Though he's only slated to play in the final 12 games of the Pats regular season, he could still put up numbers that approach MVP level. However, missing those first 4 games mean he will be behind the 8 ball in terms of stats that usually dictate MVP arguments. Likewise, after all his battles with the NFL, the conspiracy theorist may note that it's very unlikely the league would want to reward him with any sort of individual trophy. Still, if the Pats do struggle while Brady sits, his value will be, as always, beyond question.
1 Khalil Mack - COULD WIN MVP
Khalil Mack was so utterly dominant last season he became the first player to ever make the All-Pro team at TWO positions. Chosen at both defensive end and linebacker, it echoes just how amazing Mack was last year as he racked up nearly 16 sacks and almost 100 total tackles. If the Raiders make the leap as many are predicting, Mack's profile will be raised along with the team's. Able to do virtually anything on the defensive side of the ball and capable of single-handedly wrecking a game, as witnessed by his 5 sack performance last year against the rival Broncos, Mack could force his way in to the MVP discussion along the lines of the last great defensive player to win it: LT in 1986. Having any player in the same sentence as LT is usually blasphemy but Mack may prove to be the rare one capable of living up to that lofty status.