Handicapping the NFL MVP Race: Aaron Rodgers, Dalvin Cook, and more

Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes are the clear frontrunners in the race for the NFL MVP award. But what happens if Wilson has a few more four-turnover games like he had in Sunday’s Seattle Seahawks loss to the Buffalo Bills? What if Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs stumble down the stretch? There’s roughly half a season left to be played, which means there is plenty of time for some MVP dark horses like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, or even non-quarterbacks like Dalvin Cook or Derrick Henry to climb into the race. 

Wilson currently leads the NFL MVP race with a +125 money line to win at most books. Mahomes is at +200. For the sake of argument, let’s assume they both fall back to the pack just a bit as we comb through recent stats, future schedules, voting habits, and public perceptions to handicap the field in search of some longshot MVP dark horses who might be worth a wager.

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Tracking the NFL MVP Race and Dark Horses | Dalvin Cook, Lamar Jackson, & more

Josh Allen, QB, Buffalo Bills: +2200

Allen’s MVP campaign appeared to fall off the rails after losses to the Tennessee Titans and Kansas City Chiefs, and lackluster passing performances in wins over the New England Patriots and New York Jets. But the Bills have won three straight games, and Allen is still third in the NFL with 2,587 passing yards, tied for fifth with 19 touchdowns, and has five rushing touchdowns to help his case. A few more games like Sunday’s 415-passing yard, four total touchdown effort to beat the Seahawks could help Allen climb back into the race.

Unfortunately, the upcoming Bills schedule includes the Pittsburgh Steelers (vicious defense), Denver Broncos (stingy defense), Miami Dolphins (constantly-improving defense), San Francisco 49ers (great defense when anyone is healthy), and New England Patriots (they still give the Bills the willies). Allen will be fortunate to power through that gauntlet with his status as a playoff-caliber franchise quarterback intact. The MVP award will almost certainly have to wait until he takes another step forward.

Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: +3300

Brady and the Buccaneers could very well run the table and finish 13-3, with Brady clocking in at around 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns: his best numbers since he won the MVP award in 2017. 

That said, his five interceptions in two losses to a division rival will linger in voter’s minds: No one will forget Brady getting mad and trying to chuck the ball into the yard with the mean dog anytime soon. Brady’s success might also be attributed to his mercenary supporting cast. Given a virtual tie between several worthy quarterbacks, voters could opt for a long-time snub like Wilson or the next guy on our list over someone with a full trophy case.

Put it all together, and it’s never a good idea to wager on someone to win the NFL MVP race when voters may look for reasons to give it to someone else.

Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: +6000

Brees started the season slowly but has completed 79.6% of his passes for 8 touchdowns and 0 interceptions over the last three games, two of which came against the tough Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defenses. He now has Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders back and a pair of wins over Brady on his resume. 

Brees has never won an MVP award, and it’s possible that voters could hand one to him for lifetime achievements if the Saints finish around 13-3 again, and he’s in the same statistical ballpark as the other candidates. Of course, that has been true for the last three years or so, and Brees never quite gets the votes. From an ROI standpoint, however, taking a flyer on Brees at 60-to-1 makes more sense than betting on most of the other quarterbacks in the field. 

Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings: +3300

The last non-quarterback to win the MVP award was Adrian Peterson when he rushed for 2,097 yards for the 2012 Vikings, who finished 10-6 with Christian Ponder as their starting quarterback. So there’s recent precedent for a running back like Dalvin Cook winning the award by dragging the Vikings to a Wild Card berth. 

Dalvin Cook leads the NFL in rushing yards (858) and total touchdowns (13), and he’s averaging a league-high 122.6 rushing yards per game. That puts him on pace for 1,834 rushing yards and well over 20 touchdowns (a whopping 28 if you do the math, though that seems far-fetched). The Vikings have won two straight games and could claw their way past .500 by beating the patsies (Jacksonville Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys) and some of the welterweights (two games against the Chicago Bears, etc.) on their upcoming schedule.

If Dalvin Cook cracks 2,000 yards OR 20 touchdowns AND the Vikings squeak into a Wild Card berth, he could very well sway voters in the NFL MVP race. The odds are steep, but the payout is definitely enticing.

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More NFL dark horses 

Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans: +6600

Henry can make the same argument for MVP as Cook, only much weaker. He’s on pace for 1,686 yards and 16 touchdowns, making him a fine candidate for Offensive Player of the Year or one of those “air and ground” awards that no one but their sponsors really cares about. 

Henry needed more 94-yard touchdown runs, toss-the-cowboy-out-of-the-saloon stiff arms, or games where he carried the Titans on his shoulders to victory to merit serious consideration. Instead, he’s just another workhorse for a second-tier contender.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens: +5000

Jackson has fewer touchdown passes (12) than Gardner Minshew right now and fewer yards (1,513) than Ryan Fitzpatrick or Nick Foles. He’s on the board because he’s the reigning 2019 MVP and started the season as a promising dark horse candidate. He’s soaking up sucker’s action at this point in the NFL MVP race.

Alvin Kamara, RB, New Orleans Saints: +5000

Kamara has a strong case for Offensive Player of the Year, which is often awarded to the best non-quarterback in the league (Saints teammate Thomas won it last year). Kamara leads the NFL with 1,036 scrimmage yards, averages 7.5 receptions per game, and spent several weeks as the only reliable offensive weapon for a team that’s currently in first place in a tough division. 

The last “all-purpose” type running back to win an MVP award was Marshall Faulk in 2000: 1,359 rushing yards, 81 receptions for 830 yards, and (most importantly) 26 scrimmage touchdowns. Kamara would have to come close to those numbers to merit serious consideration. He won’t.

Are there any other QBs that could win the NFL MVP race? 

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals: +3300

Murray has done just enough this season to merit consideration as a candidate for the 2021 MVP award.

Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers: +350

Rodgers has the Tom Brady problem, but with a far lower payout. Rodgers has thrown 11 touchdowns and no interceptions in his last three games, has thrown for four touchdowns four times this season, and currently leads the NFL in efficiency rating (87.6) for a first-place 6-2 Packers team. Yet no one is really impressed. Rodgers won the award in 2011 and 2014, and voters have since shrugged at some phenomenal statistical seasons (like his 40-touchdown effort in 2016), because a) Rodgers has set expectations so high, and b) his ever-so-charming personality may persuade voters to give other candidates a second look. 

Rodgers is likely to end this season with over 4,000 yards, over 40 touchdowns, less than five interceptions, an 11-5 record because the Packers tripped over a few second-fiddle opponents, and at least one passive-aggressive press conference or radio appearance where he throws shade at the run defense, receiving corps or coaching staff. That could be enough to win the MVP award. But if I’m wagering on a heel to win the Battle Royale, I’m taking the one with the +3300 payout.

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: +3300

Another interesting name in the NFL MVP race is Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger is battling knee injuries, is in isolation at press time (which could force him to miss Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals), isn’t playing all that well if you are paying close attention, and deservedly gets mentioned behind the Steelers defense, his receiving corps and head coach Mike Tomlin when we dole out credit for the Steelers 9-0 record. He’s on the board because there are a lot of Steelers fans out there, and some of them are willing to squander a little money on their fandom.

Nick Foles, Chicago Bears +50000

That’s right: You can wager on Nick Foles to win the MVP award on DraftKings for a 500-to-1 payout. In November of 2020. Legally, in many states. And you won’t automatically be put on a mailing list full of people who also fall for pyramid schemes or donate money to rescue foreign princes or anything. What a strange, wonderful world we live in. 

But seriously: There are other fun dark horses in the NFL MVP race that are in the +10000 or higher wage, some of whom are not quite as absurd as Foles. But wager your money on a serious contender instead. Or donate it to a charity. Or invest it. Or buy some tasty roast pork sandwiches. Do anything but squander it this way, which is just one step removed from lighting it on fire. 

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