At the end of every season, NFL teams typically select one player who represents their MVP. In today's exercise, we'll do our best to identify who those players might be.
I unveiled my predictions for team MVPs in the AFC on Tuesday. Now it's the NFC's turn. These will all be right.
DeAndre Hopkins might end up with more targets than any other wide receiver in football, and J.J. Watt feels like the type of generational star who could deliver a vintage season in his debut in the desert, but Kyler Murray has to be the pick here. The former No. 1 overall pick was an MVP candidate before a shoulder injury curtailed his play and sent Arizona's season off the rails. A fully healthy Murray should be back to his old ways come September, delivering big strikes with his arm and causing major havoc with his legs. Prediction: Murray will approach 40 total TDs and become the first player in NFL history to deliver a 4,000/1,000 season.
There's been much talk about how the exit of Julio Jones will lead to a bump to superstar production for Calvin Ridley. Newsflash: Ridley's already there. The former first-round pick ended his third season with career highs in targets (143) catches (90) and yards (1,374). He also continued to find the end zone with consistency (10, seven and nine scores in his first three years). Ridley obviously benefited from having a teammate as special as Jones commanding the attention of defenses, but Ridley is an impossible cover who will continue to give open looks to Matt Ryan with his combination of speed, burst and route-running ability. Now Atlanta's unquestioned No. 1 WR, don't be surprised if he's the NFL's top-producing wideout in 2021.
The Panthers hope Sam Darnold will bring the stability to the quarterback position that Teddy Bridgewater couldn't, but it's Christian McCaffrey who will act as the centerpiece in Charlotte. McCaffrey followed his 2,392-yard(!) masterpiece in 2019 with an injury-marred 2020 in which he appeared in just three games. It's important to note that McCaffrey still looked very much like his dominant self when on the field for Matt Rhule. The only real question is whether offensive coordinator Joe Brady plans to load up CMC with the massive workload Ron Rivera put on his plate in his first three seasons. McCaffrey is just 25 and in his prime, but it wouldn't be stunning to see Carolina try to limit his touches after last year's injury woes. Then again, when Christian McCaffrey is your running back, you're going to find ways to get the ball in his hands. Another 1,000/1,000 season is not out of the question.
Justin Fields is an exciting prospect, Khalil Mack is a perennial Pro Bowler and David Montgomery performed like a star down the stretch last season, but Allen Robinson is the player most likely to deliver an MVP season for the Bears in 2021. The eighth-year veteran signed his franchise tag in March and will be playing for a new contract this season. The man is QB-proof -- perhaps the most valuable trait any wideout can possess. Playing with a coterie of ham-and-eggers behind center, Robinson has averaged 100 receptions for 1,200 yards the past two years with 13 total touchdowns. Andy Dalton is a capable hold-the-fort QB who provides higher upside than former Bear Mitchell Trubisky or current backup Nick Foles. Fields is a wild card with monster upside. With typical Bears QB play, Robinson will continue to deliver like a star. But with a legit QB throwing him the ball? Robinson can go to the next level.
Dak Prescott was on pace to shatter the NFL's passing yardage record before suffering the ghastly ankle injury that ended his 2020 season in October, and while I feel bullish about Dak's return and the Cowboys' offense in general, I'm putting my MVP vote behind a former first-round pick who looks ready to Make The Leap. CeeDee Lamb jumped off the screen at times during his rookie season, and offseason reports of Lamb playing four different receiver spots make sense for a player who's too dynamic to park in the slot on a near full-time basis. Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup have the skill set and opportunity to gobble up targets from Prescott, but call it a hunch that Lamb uses this season to rise above his brethren and establish himself as the alpha dog in Big D.
Hockenson's rookie year in 2019 was a frustrating, injury-plagued affair. The former No. 8 overall pick made significant strides in Year 2, earning a Pro Bowl nod for his efforts. Hockenson has the ability to become one of the top playmaking tight ends in football if he can find chemistry with new QB Jared Goff. The 24-year-old authored an impressive close to Lions minicamp, and the unimpressive nature of Detroit's wide receiver corps means Hockenson is set up to be a high-volume contributor in Dan Campbell's offense. The Lions badly need core players to emerge in what figures to be a rebuilding year for the franchise. Hock fits the mold.
I'm aware of the current dilemma confronting the franchise, but I refuse to entertain any other option here because it's simply too depressing to imagine the Packers stumbling into the abyss with Rodgers off in the AFC on a "revenge tour" built on a soggy foundation. I'm sticking with the reality that Rodgers will remain The Man in Lambeau piloting one of the best offenses in the league. Green Bay remains set up with elite blocking, a stud running back in Aaron Jones and one of the best wideouts in football in Davante Adams. In other words, Rodgers can look for a fresh start elsewhere if he chooses, but it's unlikely the 37-year-old will find a setup more conducive to success than what he has in Green Bay right now. Rodgers played football last season like he had mastered the sport -- you'd love to see what he could do as an encore.
Donald is one of the greatest players in NFL history and putting anyone else as the top MVP candidate for the Rams is utter hogwash. The 30-year-old interior lineman was once again a terror for opposing offensive lines, racking up a league-high 98 pressures while grading out as the NFL's No. 1 interior defender against the run, according to PFF. This is every-year production for Donald, who has enjoyed a sustained peak that will one day put him in Canton. I'm on board the hype train rolling for Matthew Stafford and Sean McVay, but Donald is the heart and soul of Rams football and will continue to be so in 2021.
You cannot tackle Dalvin Cook. The Vikings star has averaged 3.1 yards after contact per carry over his NFL career, per PFF. That's Hall of Fame level of elusiveness for the 25-year-old, who piled up huge numbers in 2020 behind an offensive line that struggled to create running lanes for its star running back. New offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak knows it's Cook, not Kirk Cousins, who acts as the straw that stirs the drink for the Vikings' offense, and a 400-touch season is not out of the question for Cook in the league's first 17-game season. If his body holds up, Cook could produce yards and touchdowns at a level no other running back will match in 2021.
The 2021 Saints will go as far as Alvin Kamara can take them. The Pro Bowl RB led the NFL with 21 touchdowns last season, rendering his injury-marred 2019 a distant memory. If the injury bug comes back for Kamara, the Saints could very well be picking in the top 10 of next year's draft. That's how important he is to this offense in the first year of the post-Drew Brees era. Sean Payton will have to find ways to keep Kamara in the passing game plan with Jameis Winston and/or Taysom Hill on the field: Kamara was rarely targeted as a receiver when Brees was injured and out of the lineup in 2020. Kamara must remain the centerpiece.
Blake Martinez was one of the most unfortunate Pro Bowl snubs of 2020. The Giants signed the former Packer to a three-year deal in March of last year and he played a major role in New York's defensive turnaround under Joe Judge. The middle linebacker played 97 percent of the defensive snaps and finished the season with 151 total tackles (third in the NFL), three sacks, nine tackles for loss, six QB hits, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception and five passes defended. Martinez also earned rave reviews for his leadership of a defense that kept an otherwise mediocre Giants team in the NFC East race until the final day of the season. Martinez is Big Blue's Glue Guy.
Each season seems to bring us one rookie wide receiver who becomes an immediate star, so we'll go ahead and predict DeVonta Smith as the 2021 version of Vikings prodigy Justin Jefferson. Smith won the Heisman Trophy for a reason: Hall of Fame wide receiver Isaac Bruce believes the comparisons between Smith and another Hall of Famer, Colts great Marvin Harrison, are legit. Smith clearly has the skill set to thrive at the highest level, and a look at the Philly depth chart all but ensures the former Alabama star will get a huge target share as a rookie. The Eagles are not a franchise known for producing superstar receivers -- that could soon change.
There are few football things more depressing than George Kittle in street clothes during a football game. The man was born to be a rampaging pigskin maniac, trucking would-be tacklers and pulverizing linebackers and safeties foolish enough to assume he's just another tight end who doesn't like to block. Knee and foot injuries cost Kittle half a season in 2020, but he still finished third on the Niners in receiving yards. The arrival of Trey Lance adds a fun wrinkle when attempting to project the tight end's productivity going forward: If Kittle is an all-world level producer with Jimmy G. and a coterie of backups, what would happen if he was paired with a truly dynamic young star behind center? We might find out.
Russell Wilson needn't strain to find motivation this offseason. Criticism was everywhere around the franchise star after a second-half slump and first-round playoff exit prefaced a fairly clunky bit of star versus team gamesmanship in the media this spring. Wilson's long-term future in Seattle still seems like it could be up in the air, making the 2021 season a massive one for both Wilson and the Seahawks as an organization. Wilson was reportedly involved in the decision-making process that led to Shane Waldron being selected to replace dismissed offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. I expect Wilson to return with a vengeance, lighting up the scoreboard while reigniting the TIME FOR RUSSELL WILSON TO WIN MVP media narrative.
Don't overthink it. And don't bother scrutinizing Brady's advancing age (no need to look it up, he's 68), because common human metrics don't apply. The facts are the facts: Brady is coming off his seventh Super Bowl title in a season in which he threw 50 touchdowns when you include Tampa Bay's four playoff conquests. You can get cute with this exercise and pick one of the talented playmakers that surround the QB – Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Gronk, et al. -- but it's more likely Brady distributes the ball in a way that keeps everyone happy even if it doesn't lead to All-Pro level statistical output for any one player. The Bucs are locked and loaded for another championship push, and it's the old man out front. End of story.
Chase Young entered the league as the most hyped defensive prospect since Jadeveon Clowney, and the No. 2 overall pick of the 2020 draft pretty much lived up to expectations in Year 1. A lingering groin injury acted as a bump in the road, but Young won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with impact play that hints at a massive breakout in his second season. Given his outrageous skill set, it's not a stretch to project Young doubling the 7.5 sacks he delivered as a rookie with a couple more for good measure. Washington's front seven is loaded with difference-makers, but Young is a one-of-one type of talent. Consider the charismatic young star one of the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year.