The MVP is the NFL’s greatest individual honor and is meant to signify the best, most important player to their team across the NFL. Since 2012, that has meant the best quarterback. While that certainly is the best way to reward the most important player on any roster, it does leave us a little bit constrained in terms of options.
But there are multiple ways to look at the question nevertheless, and the diversity of approaches will be particularly important after the news that Jalen Hurts may miss the end of the season with a shoulder injury. We can start by looking at quarterback efficiency.
Which NFL Quarterback Has Produced Like an MVP?
The easiest way to look at the MVP award is to look at which quarterback has had the best production. There are a number of ways to measure this. The simplest way is to look at how many yards per play a quarterback has achieved, including their rushing and sack yards.
Among qualifying quarterbacks, only Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa hold significant leads over the rest of the pack in total yards per play. Tagovailoa places first at 7.58 yards per play, and Mahomes isn’t far behind at 7.41.
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But those aren’t the only things that matter. Quarterbacks score touchdowns, throw interceptions, and fumble the ball. Historically, those actions carry a particular value – interceptions hurt offenses more than touchdowns help them, and fumbles can be somewhat meaningless if the offense recovers them.
Tracking that against historical win rates, we can peg them to certain values and express them in yards; 20 yards for touchdowns, negative 45 yards for interceptions, and negative 22.5 yards for fumbles. When incorporating these into the equation, we can get ‘adjusted yards’ for offensive players.
That allows Tagovailoa to separate himself from Mahomes, earning 7.98 adjusted yards per play to Mahomes’ 7.65 adjusted yards per play. The next closest, Jimmy Garoppolo, generates 7.11 adjusted yards per play. In pure yards per play, Garoppolo is fourth behind Jared Goff and ahead of fifth-place Josh Allen.
All of these plays occur within specific contexts, however. Getting seven yards on 3rd and 8 is not as useful as getting those yards on 2nd and 10. Throwing a 20-yard pass from your own 20-yard line is valuable, but not as valuable as throwing it from your opponent’s 21-yard line.
And a quarterback that throws for 98 yards on their own 1-yard line is providing nearly as much value as the quarterback that threw for 99 yards. But in the “adjusted” formula, the second quarterback is rewarded with the touchdown bonus.
Those bonuses are built off of historical averages and are not sensitive to the specific down and distances. “Expected Points Added” resolves this – it allows us to look into the average points an NFL team scores from a particular down, distance, and field position. Take the expected points from one play to the next play, and we can take the difference — that’s how many expected points were added on that play.
That way, we can reward a two-yard pass on 4th and 1 much more than a two-yard pass on 1st and 10.
From an EPA-per-play perspective, Mahomes laps the field. At 0.326 points added per play, the difference between Mahomes and Tagovailoa at 0.264 points per play is the same as the difference between Tagovailoa and sixth-place Dak Prescott.
|Player||Net Yds/Play||Adj Net Yds/Pl||EPA/Play|
|Patrick Mahomes||7.41 (2)||7.66 (2)||0.326 (1)|
|Jalen Hurts||6.51 (7)||6.89 (4)||0.235 (3)|
|Tua Tagovailoa||7.58 (1)||7.98 (1)||0.264 (2)|
|Josh Allen||6.81 (3)||6.64 (6)||0.228 (5)|
This is all useful, but if teams shy away from using their quarterback or don’t lean on that player as much, they are less valuable. There’s something to be said about looking at pure volume. Efficiency metrics are important — they do a better job predicting performance than volume metrics — but they don’t tell us who made the biggest impact, simply who has the capacity to make the biggest impact.
Not only that, it’s important to remember that Hurts and Allen are a big part of their teams’ rushing offenses. They consume many more “plays” than other quarterbacks because they are called upon for designed runs. It also hurts their efficiency a bit, and this method helps correct that. Both have over 700 rushing yards for their teams — it seems counterintuitive to punish them for that.
Nevertheless, if we translate these into volume metrics, Mahomes runs away with it.
|Player||Net Yards||Adj Net Yards||Total EPA|
|Patrick Mahomes||4646 (1)||4799 (1)||213.5 (1)|
|Jalen Hurts||4010 (3)||4283 (3)||148.8 (3)|
|Tua Tagovailoa||3161 (12)||3326 (11)||112.7 (5)|
|Josh Allen||4417 (2)||4372 (2)||151.6 (2)|
Without any close competitor, it seems like this measure tells us that Mahomes is the best candidate for MVP. That approach seems to run too far in the other direction, however. A quarterback would rocket up the rankings simply by throwing the ball more than others without demonstrating the kind of game-winning talent embodied by the MVP award.
But there’s a way to account for both problems. Instead of just looking at those who compile value less efficiently or those who can be efficient in small volumes, we can just look at the value over average and multiply that by the volume.
Expected points already does something close to this, but given that the league changes every year, we can adjust for each year’s specific averages. Doing this, we know that quarterbacks near or below average won’t be able to move up the charts simply by participating in more plays, while limited but efficient quarterbacks don’t take the top spot by only participating in certain moments.
The average quarterback play resulted in 5.66 adjusted net yards. By subtracting the adjusted net yards per play of each individual quarterback from that mark, we can get their value over average and multiply that by the number of plays to truly get an understanding of what their production can provide.
|Player||Net Yds vs Avg||Adj Net Yds vs Avg||EPA vs Avg|
|Patrick Mahomes||892 (1)||1250 (1)||170.0 (1)|
|Jalen Hurts||322 (5)||796 (3)||106.7 (3)|
|Tua Tagovailoa||664 (2)||966 (2)||84.4 (4)|
|Josh Allen||531 (3)||699 (4)||107.4 (2)|
By this accounting, Mahomes’s production separates him even further from the other candidates. But there is another element to take into account.
Which NFL Quarterback Has Exceeded His Supporting Cast?
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that these quarterbacks often have tremendous supporting casts. Mahomes has an all-world tight end in Travis Kelce, and Tagovailoa benefits from one of the best — if not the best receiver in the NFL (Tyreek Hill). Hurts works with one of the best offensive lines in the league and some top-tier receivers, while Allen gets to throw to another top-tier receiver in Stefon Diggs.
It’s perhaps no accident that three of the four quarterbacks mentioned have one of their receivers in the top four of our Wide Receiver Power Rankings, while the other quarterback has Kelce. In order to get a sense of which players might have benefited most from their supporting cast, we can take a look at perhaps the closest measurements available that separate the supporting cast from their quarterback.
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The Next Gen Stats team and ESPN have worked together to produce position scores for wide receivers and offensive line win rates in both the passing and running games. The offensive line grades correlate to offensive output and wins better than pressure rate does in part because quarterbacks can control pressure and sacks — if they get rid of the ball quickly, then no pressure arrives, even if the linemen in front of them lost their rep.
ESPN receiver grades use tracking data to determine how consistently receivers get open, how well they catch passes given the context (depth of target, distance to nearest defender, distance to sideline, etc.), and how well they generate yards after the catch given the context.
These aren’t definitive rankings, but they can get us in the ballpark. We can also include Pro Football Network’s power rankings for offensive lines, wide receivers, and tight ends to calibrate those results. For the receiver score and power rankings, we used the average score of the top two receivers and the top tight end to get a general receiving supporting cast rank.
|Player||PB Win %||OL Rank||Avg Rec Score||Rec Rank|
|Patrick Mahomes||74% (1)||3rd||53.7 (18)||28.6 (20)|
|Jalen Hurts||64% (7)||1st||72.0 (1)||7.0 (1)|
|Tua Tagovailoa||54% (27)||27th||62.3 (7)||12.7 (3)|
|Josh Allen||65% (5)||14th||58.7 (13)||18.0 (8)|
The evidence here suggests that the Eagles have, by far, the best supporting cast for their quarterback. That’s not a huge shock. Throw in the excellent Eagles defense, and we can fairly safely conclude that they require less of Hurts than other teams do of their quarterbacks. The Chiefs and Bills provide similar supporting casts, and the Dolphins aren’t too far behind.
The Bills also have an excellent defense, and the Dolphins’ defense hasn’t been disappointing either. For the most part, the supporting cast factor seems to impact Hurts the most. With the lead that Mahomes has as a producer, it may be best to give him the award.
Still, something is off.
Which NFL Quarterback Returns the Most Value?
The reason the Eagles can surround Jalen Hurts with such an excellent supporting cast — despite missing, famously, on their first-round receiver pick in 2020 — is because Hurts costs so little against the Eagles’ salary cap.
Hurts costs $1.6 million against the cap, while Tagovailoa costs $8.3 million against the cap. Those represent bargains. At the other end of the spectrum are Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, who cost $16.4 million and $35.8 million, respectively. Further, neither provides much cap flexibility. Allen will incur a cap charge of $39.8 million next year, while Mahomes’ cap charge is $46.8 million in 2023.
Hurts and Tagovailoa increase their cap charge by $0.3 million and $1.3 million in the next year, meaning that they preserve their teams’ relative cap flexibility.
From this perspective, Hurts is more valuable to the Eagles this year than Mahomes is to the Chiefs. That’s not to say that Mahomes isn’t one of the most valuable players in football or that the Chiefs would swap these players and contracts straight up, but rather that one player is producing as expected from his contract, and the other one is wildly exceeding his contract’s demands.
Most MVP voters don’t take into account contracts when awarding the honor, which makes sense — in spirit, many vote for the best or most important player in the NFL rather than the one who provides the most return on investment.
But if there’s supposed to be fidelity to the name of the award, the most valuable might be Hurts, who benefits from a supporting cast that is made possible in the first place by his contract. Taking advantage of that isn’t easy, or teams would never pay quarterbacks as much as they do and opt in for second-round players every year.
If one wanted to reward more high-end play with a nod to cap hit, then Tagovailoa would be the choice. His contract is very team-friendly for the production and allowed Miami to bring in Tyreek Hill, the biggest element of their offense aside from Tagovailoa himself.
Ultimately, there are a number of ways to select the Most Valuable Player. Hurts is leading the team with the best record in the NFL, costs the least in terms of cap hit, and has enabled his team both with very high-level play and the extra salary room his contract provides. He also takes on an enormous burden as a runner, something that other quarterbacks don’t do.
Further, it wouldn’t make much sense to punish Hurts for missing a few games to end the year. After all, Tagovailoa’s low usage rate has, in part, to do with some missed games. It doesn’t make sense to punish one but not the other.
Mahomes has added the most on the field among the quarterbacks. His usage rate is even higher than the part-time runners, and his efficiency is still extremely high. Being one of the two most-efficient quarterbacks in the NFL while also being the highest-usage quarterback in the NFL makes for an easy value proposition.
Some film-watchers strongly prefer Mahomes to Tagovailoa because there is a fuller range of options with him at quarterback than with the Dolphins passer, who many feel needs to be schemed around. It feels odd to account for contract considerations for the MVP award, and many would prefer to restrict the voting criteria to on-field play.
Miami’s passing game is more explosive than even Kansas City’s, and Tagovailoa’s play is a big reason why. The most efficient passer by a number of metrics, Tagovailoa is doing more when he’s on the field from down to down than even Mahomes is.
Many might ask the question, “based on this year’s play, who do I want on the field playing for me if I need to win a game tomorrow?” The answer to that might be the most efficient quarterback, not the most voluminously productive.
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Many might diminish Tagovailoa for benefitting from his supporting cast, but most point to Mahomes instead. They ultimately have similar supporting casts, with both having a high-end passing option and Mahomes’ substantially better pass protection perhaps making up for Tagovailoa’s better tertiary receivers. And it’s tough to argue that Andy Reid is a downgrade from Mike McDaniel from a play design perspective.
It’s not as if Josh Allen is an afterthought in this process, either. His cap hit is between those of Mahomes and Tagovailoa, he has a similar supporting cast in terms of quality to Mahomes, and he ranks ahead of Tagovailoa and Hurts in total value provided regardless of the measure used. By producing similar value to Mahomes at half the price, Allen has a strong case.
Of course, voters could circumvent this process entirely and vote for Justin Jefferson or Tyreek Hill.