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Analyzing 10 dark horse NFL MVP candidates in 2020

Every year, a dark horse comes from the rear and compete for MVP honors. PFN's Lead NFL writer Cole Thompson bets his horses for the MVP come 2020.

RB Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans 

Much like Elliott, Derrick Henry makes the Titans a playoff contender every season. After the success of Ryan Tannehill in 2019, there’s no telling if the former Dolphins starter will be able to create the magic again to begin the decade. 

Henry’s bruising-style of running has made him near impossible to stuff at initial contact. In his first four seasons, the former Heisman has surpassed the 1,000-yard marker twice and finished the past two seasons with double-digit touchdowns. Last year, Henry led the NFL in rushing and tallied over 400 yards in the postseason, leading the Tennessee offense past Baltimore and New England for a chance at the AFC title. 

Pure strength and speed have benefitted Henry early in his career. The offense in the Music City is built around him to be a leader every season and contend for multiple AFC South title. If Tannehill can’t duplicate his 2019 season, the Titans will rely on Henry to salvage the offense and keep them afloat. That should be enough to make him a dark horse in the race for MVP.

WR Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

How Michael Thomas fell out of the first round in 2016 will always be baffling. Instead of becoming a bonafide early pick, he’s been a steal for New Orleans as Drew Brees’ top weapon. Contending for the top receiver spot, expect another big season for the former 47th pick.

The former Ohio State product set an NFL record with 149 receptions. In four brief, yet productive NFL seasons, Thomas has finished each campaign with over 1,000 yards, three seasons of 100 catches, and three years of nine touchdowns. He also stayed on pace with the likes of Brees for five weeks as one of the league’s top targets.

Only one other receiver has taken home the hardware of Offensive Player of the Year. That was the potential G.O.A.T. Jerry Rice in 1987 and ’93. Wide receivers aren’t viewed as league MVPs. However, if the Saints are still rolling into the postseason without Brees barring injury, it’ll be because of Thomas’ consistency and ability to horrify defense. That’s enough to put him into the conversation. 

DE Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns 

The last time a defensive player took home league MVP honors was in 1987 when Lawrence Taylor was destroying offensive lines in the Big Apple. It’s hard to compete with quarterbacks and offensive stars, but honestly, with a healthy offseason, don’t sleep on Myles Garrett to contend for the honors in his fourth year. 

Garrett missed the final six games last season due to a suspension from the Mason Rudolph incident. Before that November night, the former first pick had tallied his second double-digit sack season with 10 quarterback takedowns. Well in the mix for Defensive MVP honors, the Browns frontman has become a staple pass rusher 104 tackles, 32 for loss, and 30.5 sacks over two and half years. 

Garrett is as complete as they come for a defender, making him the only defensive player worthy of the highest honor. He’ll carry a reputation entering the season, but all it will take is another season of dominance early to prove he’s beyond a dirty player. If the Browns offense can’t get it done, the defense should be their saving grace. Garrett could have fought for his chance to take down Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record. The same he or anyone does, they’re an immediate MVP contender. 

QB Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions 

When talking of the top quarterbacks in the game, Mathew Stafford is always an afterthought. A higher upside than Kirk Cousins, but lower than Rodgers, the former first overall pick is somehow in the middle of all pocket passers looking to become the next big name. 

The Lions are in for a rude awakening this season in a do or die season for Matt Patrica. The one positive for the roster will be if their franchise quarterback can come back and be healthy for a full 16-game season. Before missing games due to back and hip injuries, he was on pace for 4,998 yards, 38 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. The Lions star also was building chemistry with first-rounder T.J. Hockenson and shifty slot target Danny Amendola. 

Detroit has quality weapons in Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones as the top options. A healthy Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift should balance the offense and give Stafford more weapons. If the 32-year-old quarterback can stay on his feet, expect monster numbers in the Motor City. Keep in mind the last time Stafford missed eight games, he bounced back and took home Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Who’s to say that MVP isn’t in his future? 

RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants 

If you give two running backs the honors, you have to complete the triangle. Look no further than Saquon Barkley to be the answer to this equation as the future leader of the position. 

Dave Gettleman took plenty of heat when selecting the Penn State product second overall. So far, back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and 23 total touchdowns are a promising way to shut critics up. Even after missing three games, Barkley has yet to miss a beat in the open field and the premier runner on an awful offense. 

Much like Henry, Barkley is the face of the 23rd ranked offense. Daniel Jones will still be developing into a quality starter, but Barkley is already one of the league’s top runners. Should he continue to progress as an impossible force on the ground, how soon will he be leading the league in rushing and touchdowns? Even if the Giants struggle, Barkley could a star and worthy of MVP consideration come April. 

QB Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills 

This was always the top pick. While Josh Allen isn’t a Rodgers or Mahomes, his lighting skills have the chance to strike in the AFC East as the leader of the division — and certainly more than once in the same spot.

Allen’s tenure as the Bills’ leader has been the best for the franchise since the likes of Jim Kelly in the 90s’. After a rocky rookie campaign, the former Wyoming product only improved as a player, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns while enhancing his completion and passer rating. If you throw in the clutch factor with league-leading fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives, Allen is set as the future of the franchise. 

Brandon Beane spent to past two seasons building around Allen to thrive. The team’s wide receiver room improved with the addition of Stefon Diggs, complementing the likes of John Brown and Cole Beasley. Devin Singletary and third-round pick Zack Moss should be one of the more surprising young running duos in the NFL. So long as Allen continues to grow under center, Buffalo is going to be a threat. 

They say the league is deciphered by quarterback play. Tom Brady is out of the division, and the Bills are ready to take over. If Allen explodes, this is your dark horse to take home all the trophies next season — including a Lombardi. 

Cole Thompson is the Lead NFL writer for Pro Football Network. Follow him on Twitter at @MrColeThompson and @PFN365 for all up to date NFL content.

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