The last 10 league MVPs (and seven runners-up in that span) have all been quarterbacks. But let's be honest, that's a bit boring -- even taking into account the well-established notion that we are in a "quarterback era."
How about some love for the other 21 guys on the field at any given time? You know, the ones blocking for quarterbacks, catching their passes, putting them in more manageable downs and distances ... and also the players whose job it is to make quarterbacks' lives a living hell.
Let's give some shine to those players. Below, you'll find one non-QB MVP candidate for each NFC team.
Maybe one of these years, one of them will actually win the award again over a quarterback.
This might have been the toughest assignment of the lot. The Cardinals have stripped down their roster from last season, with the departures including Hall of Fame candidates J.J. Watt, DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green. Even franchise quarterback Kyler Murray might not be healthy to start this season.
But Humphries can play a significant role for a team amid this transition, giving Murray (and whoever else might suit up at quarterback) excellent pass protection at left tackle. Humphries is slated to count against the salary cap at a beefy number starting in 2024, so this season is big for him. And he can help provide leadership for first-round OL Paris Johnson Jr.
The Falcons have quite a few non-QB MVP candidates, including some very reasonable choices on offense. But I’m going to the other side of the ball -- where the Falcons aren’t exactly bare -- and selecting their big free-agent addition of the offseason.
Bates is a quieter assassin, able to come from off the screen to make a play on the ball with his exceptional range and timing. He’s recorded three or more picks in four of his five seasons, including four last season. Atlanta posted just 10 picks total last season.
Safety is a tricky position to pick for impact, and a lot of the talk following the hiring of new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen was about his plan to juice up the pass rush -- a sore subject in Atlanta in recent years. But that pressure might also lead to hurried and off-target passes. That’s where Bates comes in. I predict he has a strong first season in Atlanta.
Burns turned in his best pass-rushing season to date in Year 4 and might be primed for more greatness this year. He figures to be the centerpiece of a defense that features four former first-round picks and four former second-rounders.
The Panthers have a chance to rebound after a tough season because they have a young quarterback in Bryce Young who might be able to have success immediately, but Burns and the defense likely will go a long way toward determining how many games they’ll win in 2023. You’d like to see other pass-rush sources develop alongside Burns, but he’s thrived amid worse talent.
Burns is coming off ankle surgery this offseason, and he has yet to cash in on a big-money extension -- but you figure that’s coming at some point, with a rookie-QB salary on the books. Carolina might be smart to lock Burns up before he registers another double-digit sack season.
The minute the Bears pulled the trigger on the trade down from the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, my instant reaction was that it had a chance to be a home run. Why? A big reason is Moore. He’s arguably shy of the league’s elite-level WR1s, but he’s not far off. And he could end up being the best friend that Justin Fields needs.
Fields is entering a critical third season. Chicago holds two first-rounders in the 2024 NFL Draft that theoretically could be used for his replacement if Fields doesn’t continue making progress, but the Bears have already seen signs of growth this offseason.
I expect Moore to be targeted 10 times a game. He should be even more productive than he’s been the past few seasons with middling QB play in Carolina. He’s also under contract (with reasonable salaries) through the 2025 season and is already established at age 26.
There’s a tiny worry in my head that the Cowboys could mess around too much with Parsons in his apparent quest to be the league’s most well-rounded, diverse defender. But there’s also this: He’s capable of doing it.
Parsons was primarily a pass rusher last season, but he’s shown enough impact in coverage and run stopping -- from multiple alignments -- to prove he’s a unique player. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has done a masterful job not messing up with Parsons the past two seasons, so my level of confidence that he’ll continue getting the most out of him remains high.
The bottom line is that he’s arguably the best defender in football already. As long as Parsons keeps doing a lot of what he’s done so far, he should remain at his elite level.
I wouldn’t gripe with anyone picking, say, Aidan Hutchinson or Penei Sewell here. Each could play crucial roles for the Lions, who will be many folks’ favorites in the NFC North now that Aaron Rodgers has left the division.
But I’ll throw my support behind St. Brown, who somehow remains painfully underrated despite turning in a fine rookie season and an even better sophomore campaign. He’s not big and not a game-breaker, so that might be part of the disconnect. But St. Brown is one of the most consistently reliable slot targets in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the Lions can’t count on 2022 first-rounder Jameson Williams for the start of the season, as he will serve a six-game suspension for violating the league’s gambling policy. The Lions need as many dependable options in the pass game as possible. I expect St. Brown to be very busy once again.
The Packers’ secondary might be the second-biggest question mark on the team, next to how Jordan Love will fare in his first crack as the full-time starting quarterback. That’s why Alexander playing in peak form is critical for the Packers in this season of change.
Safety is a huge mystery, and the CB depth after Alexander and Rasul Douglas appears a tad thin, too. Eric Stokes is working his way back from knee and foot surgeries, and edge rusher Rashan Gary is coming off a torn ACL.
The NFC North has some true No. 1 receivers now, and Alexander will be tasked with covering them quite often. Entering a season where the margin for error has shrunk following the departure of Aaron Rodgers, Alexander is carrying a heavy load defensively, which earns him the nod here.
Donald is the pick here, and it’s not even close. I won’t launch into the millionth paean committed to his greatness. You know about the most destructive interior defender the league has seen, possibly ever.
Frankly, the Rams are lucky they still have him. Donald considered retirement, he said, following the Rams’ Super Bowl victory, and he’s sticking it out after the wicked hangover that was the 2022 season.
What is left for Donald to accomplish? Well, if he can continue dominating on a rebuilding defense, it could vault him to even loftier greatness. The man is likely to see even more tricked-up blocking schemes designed to neutralize him.
I could get cute and pick someone such as Harrison Smith, but that would mean being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. Jefferson is the no-doubt pick here, as he’s already clearly defined his greatness.
There’s even more pressure on Jefferson now with the Vikings moving on from Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook, taking some teeth out of what was a good offense a year ago. And from my vantage point, the defense -- which ranked second to last in yards allowed in 2022 -- has not tangibly improved this offseason.
In all likelihood, Jefferson will have a very hard time coming close to matching his league-best 128 catches and 1,809 receiving yards from a year ago. But anyone dismissing his impact on this team is foolhardy.
Well, for one, I thought Jordan and Davis were less impactful last season than they had consistently been previously. Perhaps that changes in 2023. But both have logged a lot of mileage as they sit in their mid-30s.
Mathieu took a while to get settled in the Saints’ scheme a year ago, as did fellow safety Marcus Maye. But once they were comfortable, the results were far more appealing. The more time Mathieu spent on the field, the more he moved around -- playing deep, covering the slot, blitzing -- and the more of an impact he made. Mathieu is no spring chicken at age 31, but we still should see the best of him in New Orleans going forward.
There are just two running backs on this list, as few backs carry enough weight on their respective teams to warrant such an honor. But Barkley has an excellent chance to earn that title with the Giants in 2023. He arguably was the team’s non-QB MVP last season, although Andrew Thomas and Dexter Lawrence might have something to say on that topic.
Coming off a year in which he set a career high in rush yards (1,312), Barkley is currently in line to play on the franchise tag in 2023 -- he and the Giants have until July 17 to work out a multi-year deal. We'll soon see where those negotiations go, but I expect he’ll be highly motivated to prove his worth and stack back-to-back healthy seasons for the first time in his NFL career.
Expecting good health for a second year in a row is risky, though, and the NFC East is loaded with defensive talent. There’s also the acquisition of Darren Waller and some new players at receiver, which could change the offensive picture a bit. But Barkley is the most impactful non-QB on the team.
The Eagles might have half a dozen reasonable options here, but Brown proved just how valuable he was last season after coming over in a trade from Tennessee. The price Philly paid looks well worth it after he put up career bests in nearly every major category a season ago.
The depth at receiver remains a bit on the thin side, one of the few positions you can say that about in Philadelphia, and DeVonta Smith is at his best when Brown is drawing attention. So, for this offense to truly reach its full potential again, they’ll need another healthy, high-volume season from Brown.
There really are five or six worthy candidates here, including Nick Bosa, Christian McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel. But if Williams can play a whole season (or close to it), he arguably would have provided some serious value for an offense whose biggest question -- outside of the unusual QB situation -- might be on the offensive line.
Williams remains one of the best NFL blockers, regardless of position, when he's out there, even as he gets set to turn 35. He missed three full games and part of one last season, and the 49ers lost two of those. Right tackle is the biggest concern heading into camp, but if Williams were to go down, it would spell big trouble for the Niners. They set their pass protections and get on the move in the run game in a way that his impact likely couldn't be replicated by whoever would replace him.
This is not a legacy pick, or a feel-good one, I promise. The return of Wagner, even at age 33, could be a massive development for a Seattle team that improved in a lot of ways last season but struggled badly to contain opponents' run games.
Wagner can't do it himself, and he is on the back nine of his career. But the Seahawks added other defensive pieces up front alongside Wagner, seemingly determined not to let the Achilles heel of 2022 swell up again this coming season.
You can't be blamed for not tuning in to Rams games regularly after a certain point last season, but trust me when I say that Wagner was amazing during his one-year stint with Los Angeles. Imagine how bad the Rams would have been without him! Now that Wagner is back where he spent the first 10 years of his career, he'll have every chance to once again be a critical cog for a Seattle team that is suddenly an interesting contender out west.
It's a bit of a surprise pick, as there are more talented players on the Bucs' roster, even after the mini-strip-down in the wake of Tom Brady's retirement. But if they're going to be a competitive team this season, it's going to take a fully operational offensive line to make it work. Jensen suffered a knee injury last summer that cost him the entire regular season, a huge blow for Brady and an offense that strained hard on a weekly basis to score points.
Jensen's toughness, smarts and leadership all will be put to the test. In addition to some expected shuffling on the offensive line around him, Jensen also must deal with a new quarterback, likely either Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask. Whoever wins that job will be counting heavily on Jensen up front to help the offense come together and form something of an identity.
Jensen made it back on the field for Tampa's playoff loss in January. Though he missed practice during an OTA session, he did see action in minicamp. For a Bucs team in flux, that's exceptional news this time of year.
The Commanders are pretty strong defensively, it appears, with several candidates for this honor: Jonathan Allen, Montez Sweat, Kam Curl, Daron Payne and even Chase Young among them. But is there a clear-cut separator in that group?
Instead of picking a defender, I went to the other side of the ball, where there are far more questions. If the Commanders are going to contend this season in a tough division, they'll be doing it with a new quarterback. And whether it's Sam Howell or Jacoby Brissett throwing the majority of the passes this season, McLaurin is almost certain to be their most trusted target.
And that's saying something. The Commanders are very top-heavy at receiver with McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel, and all three will get plenty of work. But McLaurin is the best of the bunch for now -- though Dotson could overtake him one of these years -- because of his massive reliability factor and ability to make clutch plays. That quality will be needed at a higher level this season.