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The Schein Nine

2021 NFL MVP dark horses: Don't sleep on Justin Herbert, Carson Wentz, Jameis Winston

With the free agency frenzy, 2021 NFL Draft and schedule release in the rearview, it's high time to forecast what could transpire in the coming season -- and who could make the most significant individual impact.

The top MVP candidates at this stage of the offseason shouldn't surprise anyone. Names like Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Josh Allen, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Lamar Jackson make sense.

But that's no fun. Let's take a deeper look into the race for the league's top individual award.

Here's my list of dark-horse MVP candidates, Schein Nine style:

Dak Prescott
Dallas Cowboys · QB

Dak's going to be 100 percent healthy for training camp -- and for the first time in his career, he'll have 100 percent contractual stability. Everything's in place for a monster age-28 season.

In an injury-abbreviated 2020 campaign, Prescott provided a taste of what he could accomplish under head coach Mike McCarthy, and it was pretty darn delectable (SEE: 422.5 passing yards per game over the first four weeks). Now the quarterback and coach actually get to spend a full offseason together -- as opposed to last year, when the offseason program was significantly curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic -- giving the offense spectacular potential in 2021. It's hard to find a better receiving trio than Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup (though, admittedly, the defending Super Bowl champions might have something to say about that). And I'm already on record calling for a bounceback from Ezekiel Elliott, who seems quite motivated to put last year's dud of a season well behind him. If the O-line experiences better injury luck, this offense should light up the scoreboard on a weekly basis.

I envision Dak putting up video game numbers while "America's Team" wins the NFC East by several games. That's a recipe for serious MVP consideration.

Justin Herbert
Los Angeles Chargers · QB

It's wild to jog the mental rolodex and recall that Anthony Lynn was riding with Tyrod Taylor before a freak accident pressed the rookie into service in Week 2. That medical misstep launched Herbert's iconic rookie season, arguably the best ever at the quarterback position. So, yeah, while I'm aware the Chargers have a new head coach and offensive coordinator -- changes that could impact a young quarterback's development -- I'm confident in Herbert's adaptability. And let's be honest: This coaching staff is an upgrade. As are multiple additions on the offensive line, including free-agent gem Corey Linsley and first-round pick Rashawn Slater. Herbert provided breathtaking play throughout his rookie season, and everything around him is better heading into Year 2.

Speaking of Year 2, we have two recent examples of sophomore signal-callers making the MVP jump: Patrick Mahomes in 2018 and Lamar Jackson in 2019. Don't be surprised if Herbert joins the club after leading the Bolts to just their third playoff bid in a dozen years.

Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals · QB

Murray is ready for prime time. Having spoken to Steve Keim on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," multiple times this offseason, I can tell you that the Cardinals general manager is bullish on his quarterback taking the next step to greatness. And I get it. It's Year 3 in the NFL for Murray and head coach Kliff Kingsbury. This offseason is returning to normalcy. Murray's chemistry with DeAndre Hopkins will only get better, which is frightening for the rest of the league. Also, I loved the Rondale Moore selection in the draft's second round. The Purdue product's a savvy speedster who can star in the slot and add to Murray's explosive plays. Kingsbury's quarterback-friendly offense is great. And the Cardinals significantly improved the roster in an active free agency period.

The NFC West is extremely competitive at the moment, with four viable playoff teams, but a bunch of marquee matchups might just push Kyler's MVP candidacy over the top. If the Cardinals nab their first postseason bid since 2015, Murray will be right in the mix.

Carson Wentz
Indianapolis Colts · QB

You don't have to guess how Wentz will perform under Frank Reich. We saw it when the pair worked together in Philadelphia. Before ripping up his knee in 2017 -- the quarterback's last season with Reich as his offensive coordinator -- Wentz was well on his way to receiving my AP vote for MVP. And people seem to forget the yeoman's work Wentz did on his own in 2019, when he carried an injury-depleted roster to the playoffs, going 4-0 down the stretch against division rivals.

Now, Wentz was arguably the worst quarterback in the NFL last season, bottoming out with the rest of the Eagles during a disastrous 4-11-1 campaign in the dismal NFC East. But the new year brought a new home for the 28-year-old quarterback. Welcome to Indy, where you get Reich on the headset, Jonathan Taylor in the backfield and a top-10 unit on defense. Oh, and T.Y. Hilton and Michael Pittman out wide, a duo that has to look pretty enticing to Wentz, given some of the receivers he played with during his final years in Philly.

Get ready for a Wentz renaissance, with the Colts taking the AFC South for the first time since 2014.

Matt Ryan
Atlanta Falcons · QB

I talked to head coach Arthur Smith on SiriusXM Radio after Atlanta hired him, and then again after the Falcons deftly navigated the NFL draft. I'm blown away by Smith's intelligence. I've always been blown away by his offense, given what he accomplished with Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry and Co. in Tennessee. Can't wait to see what he does with this talented group in Atlanta. Smith was the right hire at the right time for this franchise, bringing a winning attitude adjustment in addition to his play-calling savvy.

Having just turned 36 on Monday, Matty Ice has a ton of great football left. He certainly wasn't the problem in last year's 4-12 debacle. In fact, the fine folks over at Pro Football Focus gave him a top-10 grade among qualified quarterbacks. And now Atlanta has given him a unicorn weapon in the form of rookie tight end Kyle Pitts. I think Ryan and the Falcons will surprise some folks this year with how great this offense ends up being.

Derek Carr
Las Vegas Raiders · QB

Seemingly every year, I'm high on the Raiders. This is not one of those years. BUT, if Las Vegas is going to surprise people, it will be because the team has a great quarterback, whether certain people want to believe that or not.

I'll never understand why Carr doesn't get more love. Last year marked the third straight season in which he eclipsed 4,000 yards passing and 67 percent completions. Jon Gruden was singing the quarterback's praises in a recent interview for the team's in-house show, Raiders Report.

"Derek is very underestimated," Gruden told former Raider Eric Allen. "He doesn't get much credit for how good he's playing, but he completes a lot of passes. He changes plays at the line of scrimmage. He's starting to make more and more plays with his legs now. We've put some pretty good players around Derek. I think it shows."

Myles Garrett
Cleveland Browns · DE

Yup, I know this is highly unlikely. Only two defensive players in history have earned AP MVP honors: Vikings DT Alan Page in 1971 and Giants OLB Lawrence Taylor in 1986. But this is a list of dark-horse candidates, after all, so let's dream the impossible dream!

If the Browns beat out Baltimore for the AFC North crown, Garrett will be the reason why. Fresh off a first-team All-Pro campaign, the 25-year-old's a bona fide star. He's the most important -- and best -- player on an emerging great team that is rightly thinking Super Bowl. And given the surrounding talent GM Andrew Berry has compiled on all three levels of Cleveland's defense, I won't be surprised if/when the former No. 1 overall pick posts a BIG sack number.

Jameis Winston
New Orleans Saints · QB

Another outside-the-box candidate, no doubt about that. I considered Alvin Kamara, but it is just so tough for running backs to win this award. And I still have Sean Payton's comments ringing in my ear from earlier this year, when he told me on SiriusXM Radio that Winston can be a star in his offense. I believe that to be true. Payton is that special. And hey, Winston was a No. 1 overall pick, with the raw arm talent never in question. The QB learned the offense last year. This year, it's time to take off. I think Jameis can live up to his potential in New Orleans.

I don't want to hear the name Taysom Hill. I expect Winston to win the job, throw a ton of touchdown passes, substantially cut down on the picks and be an upgrade in the passing attack from the 2020 version of Drew Brees.

Russell Wilson
Seattle Seahawks · QB

Too low? Does the seven-time Pro Bowler belong on any dark-horse list in the first place? I mean, the guy's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. No one would be shocked if he were to finally net that elusive MVP vote. And that's kind of why I placed him at the tail end of this list -- I didn't want him omitted, even if I wasn't absolutely sure he belonged. Furthermore, there are two reasons why Wilson could face an uphill battle for this individual honor.

First of all, Russ' marriage with the Seahawks is indeed rocky, as I touched on in this space a couple months ago. I now believe this will be Wilson's final year in Seattle, mainly because he wants that to be the case. So that's not exactly ideal. That said, I think he will go out with a bang and play sensational ball.

But the biggest problem for Wilson could be this hyper-competitive NFC West, something I hit on in the Kyler Murray blurb above. Unlike the Cardinals, though, I just don't believe in the Seahawks this year. They could finish in last in the NFL's toughest division and still be over .500. But still, I wouldn't bat an eye if Wilson threw for 38-40 touchdowns while once again squeezing every last ounce out of a flawed Seattle roster.

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