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Top 10 MVP candidates: Pat Mahomes is must-see TV

Inimitable Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray once quipped that Rickey Henderson, the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, crouched so deeply at the plate that his strike zone was "smaller than Hitler's heart."

While that image perfectly captures the challenge of sneaking a slider past Henderson's exceptional eye in the batter's box, football scouts and coaches have long preferred a different analogy to measure a quarterback's ability to place pinpoint tosses into tiny, heart-sized boxes.

Every pro passer is expected to possess enough accuracy to throw the prolate spheroid through a door opening. The consistently sharp quarterbacks can even hit the doorknob. The test of a master marksman, though, is whether he can spin it through a keyhole.

Of the mythology surrounding a young Dolphins sensation in January of 1985, Murray passed along contemporary tall tales that Dan Marino could pull off the miraculous feat of completing a pass through two keyholes if necessary.

Fans of the Chiefs and Rams can't be blamed for making similarly outlandish claims about their own pigskin prodigies under center.

Just as inner-circle Hall of Famers Otto Graham and Joe Montana were once disparaged as "system" QBs benefiting from the innovative offensive minds of Paul Brown and Bill Walsh, Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes and Los Angeles' Jared Goff have been unfairly slapped with that label early in the high-flying 2018 season.

As NBC Sports' Peter King pointed out early this week, Pro Football Focus credits Chiefs guru Andy Reid with providing his quarterbacks the most open receivers over the past two years. Rams mastermind Sean McVay isn't far behind.

Each football play is so complex, interwoven and multidimensional that a quarterback's value can never be strictly isolated from his play designer, blockers and receivers, much less the actions of the opposing defenders.

What we've witnessed in Kansas City and Los Angeles this September is the sweet spot where a beautiful mind meets a talented young field general taking advantage of stalwart pass protection and an arsenal full of weapons in the aerial attack.

The coach should make life easier for his on-field avatar. But once the ball is snapped, the quarterback is on his own. Reid can't help Mahomes escape the clutches of Von Miller and improvise a left-handed pass to move the chains in crunch time. McVay can diagnose the defense in his quarterback's ear until the 15-second mark on the play clock, but the coach can't flick his wrist and generate the array of double-keyhole throws that left jaws dropped throughout Goff's magnificent performance on "Thursday Night Football."

At the 2018 season's initial quarter mark, it's Mahomes and Goff leading the race for the NFL's Most Valuable Player award. Let's examine the field:

1) Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs

Because NFL coaches spend 15-to-18 hours a day concocting intricate game plans designed to outsmart their equally tireless defensive counterparts, their conservative philosophies can be at odds with entertainment value. The last thing they want to see on game day is a freelancing quarterback throwing caution -- and their best-laid plans -- to the wind. Any football fan over the age of 35 can recall the sideline antics of Packers coach Mike Holmgren, throwing his hands up in exasperation whenever Brett Favre interrogated the limits of sandlot football in the 1990s.

It just so happens that the quarterback position is at its most visually and viscerally appealing when played in a swashbuckler style with a devil-may-care attitude that rewards creativity and improvisation. Behind Door No. 1, Reid had the platonic ideal of a safe caretaker in Alex Smith, a solid veteran with a limited ceiling and a track record of perennial playoff contention. To Reid's everlasting credit, he opted instead for Door No. 2, which opened to the mystery of a wildly unpredictable young quarterback with the raw talent and stylistic similarities of a young Favre. Now that a precocious Mahomes is deciphering opponents' intentions before the snap and forcing defenses to cover the entire width and length of the 53x100 gridiron, his first four games of 2018 most resemble Tom Brady's 2007 and Peyton Manning's 2013 -- two of the greatest QB seasons in the Super Bowl era.

In other words, the ceiling is lifted. Raise high the roof beam, Andy Reid!

2) Jared Goff, quarterback, Los Angeles Rams

It was fair to question Goff's standing among the league's premier players last season, with McVay programming him before the snap and providing defined reads via play-action and misdirection. The early portion of this season has been a different story, though. Showcasing an unusually high release point with the requisite touch, zip, decision-making and impeccable timing, Goff has become the first QB in NFL history to throw for at least 350 yards with a 75.0 percent completion rate in three consecutive games. He leads the league in yards per attempt (10.5) and passer rating (127.3).

Broadcast analyst Troy Aikman's TNF commentary was telling, as he openly wondered if Goff would "have enough arm" to pull off high-risk passes against the Vikings on separate touchdowns to Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks. Arm talent isn't limited to the radar gun. It also incorporates the skill to change speeds and loft as required, the accuracy and willingness to squeeze throws into tight windows and the ability to throw from different angles and platforms. Goff showed those traits the previous week with a sideline rope to Woods late in the second quarter and the subtle pocket movement to give himself space for a throw on the run to Cooper Kupp down the sideline early in the third quarter. Goff is certainly lucky to have McVay in his corner, but the inverse is true, as well.

3) Khalil Mack, linebacker, Chicago Bears

The vaunted 1985 Bears defense was notorious for sending quarterbacks to the hospital. This year's swaggering Mack-led iteration simply sends them to the bench. If your mind's eye conjures up images of Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas while watching Mack, you're not alone. The 2016 Defensive Player of the Year has tied a modern-day NFL record with a strip-sack in four consecutive games. For good measure, he's thrown in a pick-six and a QB hit that caused an interception.

Against all odds, Mack has managed to exceed lofty expectations in the wake of a blockbuster trade that netted him the richest contract for a defensive player in history. An upstart team with a puncher's chance to make waves has suddenly morphed into a legitimate contender. Just how legitimate? Despite blitzing less than any other defense, the Bears have become one of just seven teams this century to amass at least 18 sacks in the first four games. The other six, per "The Ringer NFL Show," made it to the second round of the playoffs. The Monsters of the Midway have won three straight games for the first time since 2013. If not for Aaron Rodgers' uncanny ability to walk on water, they'd be one of three remaining undefeated outfits.

4) Alvin Kamara, running back, New Orleans Saints

As a dual-purpose runner/receiver hybrid threatening to make linebackers extinct, Kamara was born for his era, just as pile-driving Larry Csonka was perfectly suited for 1970s smashmouth football. When he went a full quarter without touching the ball against Cleveland in Week 2, the Saints' high-octane offense suddenly turned pedestrian -- just as it was early last season before Kamara emerged on the scene.

The 2017 third-round steal is the first player in NFL history with at least 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards through his first 20 career games. His 35 receptions this year are the most ever by a running back at the season's first-quarter mark. Without Mark Ingram to shoulder the load in September, Kamara has surged out to a pace that puts him on track for 2,444 yards from scrimmage -- a number that would be good for second-place all time.

5) Drew Brees, quarterback, New Orleans Saints

Brees hasn't been perfect. As the offense went long stretches without scoring versus the Browns, he underthrew a wide-open Ted Ginn on a potential long touchdown and overthrew Ben Watson in the end zone. This is quibbling, however, with a master craftsman in his customary groove, completing nearly 76 percent of his passes. Brees is enjoying a stretch out of milestone heaven. Two weeks after leapfrogging Brett Favre to become the all-time leader in completions, he's poised to do the same to Peyton Manning this week in career passing yards.

"This is what I know," former Saints tackle Zach Strief told The MMQB this week. "All the QBs in the NFL go on the field, and they play against professional players, and try and complete every pass they throw. And nobody in the history of football has done that better than Drew Brees." What better way to cap off a historic season than collecting his first MVP award in the 18th year of a brilliant career?

6) Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay Packers

After giving the sporting world memorable catchphrases such as "R-E-L-A-X" and "run the table" in previous playoff runs, Rodgers unveiled "seven times three" for his Willis Reed moment in the thrilling season opener. On the wrong end of a scoreboard that read 20-0, Rodgers did the quick math and dragged his bum knee on touchdown drives of 81, 75 and 75 yards to lead the largest fourth-quarter comeback in the storied, 98-year history of the Packers.

Like a seasoned bullfighter out of a Hemingway novel, Rodgers is a grizzled veteran playing 21st-century America's most iconic athletic position with style and flair. Some of the prettiest passes in football this season have been dropped by Green Bay's receivers, including a pair of perfect teardrop wrist flicks off one foot and out of the hands of Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison last week. Now that his knee is allowing him to scramble in and out of trouble once again, Rodgers is poised for a move up this list.

7) Todd Gurley, running back, Los Angeles Rams

Ask Vikings edge rusher Danielle Hunter how hard it is to corral the reigning Offensive Player of the Year. Overshadowed by Goff's scintillating performance was a two-play sequence in the middle of the third quarter in which Gurley's jump cut left Hunter grasping for air on a 9-yard run and a 56-yard screen pass that left Hunter face-down in the grass after catching a stiff arm. After leading the NFL with 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns last season, Gurley is making another run at "NFL Honors" hardware with a current pace that'd give him 2,128 yards and 24 scores by year's end.

8) Tyreek Hill, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs

Why would the Chiefs trade Alex Smith, a mainstay in the MVP discussion throughout last season? Sure, they had Mahomes ready and able to take the offensive reins. Perhaps it was also because Reid realized Hill was truly his team's most valuable performer. In terms of functional football speed, Hill is the league's fastest player, combining an early-career Chris Johnson's incredible lateral agility with Steve Smith's jump-ball ferocity and run-after-catch prowess. The result is a Randy Moss-like effect on his quarterbacks, generating aberrant career years by forcing defenses to play on their heels and surrender sizable swaths of the gridiron, thereby enhancing the spacing in Reid's ever-open passing game. Hill is the straw that stirs the drink in Kansas City.

9) Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys' formula for success is similar to that of the Jaguars: Jump out to an early lead, control the ball with a chain-moving ground attack and unleash hell on opposing quarterbacks forced to play catchup. It's much more difficult to pull off in Dallas with a slumping a quarterback, overmatched wideouts, inexperienced tight ends and an offensive line that is a shadow of its once-dominant self.

Defenses know the plan. Since entering the league in 2016, Elliott has faced more stacked boxes than any other running back. That hasn't stopped him from leading the league in rushing yards (3,040) and 100-yard rushing games (14) over the past three years. The finest of those performances might have come last week when Elliott amassed 240 yards as the team's leading rusher and receiver in a last-minute victory over the Lions. Take away the NFL's most well-rounded running back, and this team might be in the hunt for the No. 1 overall draft pick.

10) Jurrell Casey, defensive lineman, Tennessee Titans

The Week 1 loss was not just the longest contest in NFL history and the hottest game-time temperature in Titans history. With the loss of Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker and the uncertainty surrounding the injuries to quarterback Marcus Mariota and star left tackle Taylor Lewan, it loomed as a season-stabbing, worst-case scenario back-breaker. Not so fast. Mike Vrabel's staff coached the next two games as if they were the team's Super Bowl, pulling off fake punts, going for fourth downs deep in their own territory and running Derrick Henry out of the Wildcat to compensate for a backup quarterback and third-string tackles.

While Matt LaFleur's offense struggled to overcome disadvantages in personnel, Casey keyed a stingy defense that surprised the Texans and stifled the Jaguars in the next two weeks. By time the reigning Super Bowl champs landed in Nashville, Casey had the front seven swarming, leading a ravenous unit that racked up 11 QB hits and nine tackles for loss in an upset victory over the Eagles. It's time for the NFL's most unsung star to garner a fair share of recognition as a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage.

HONORABLE MENTION:Aaron Donald, defensive lineman, Los Angeles Rams; Geno Atkins, defensive lineman, Cincinnati Bengals; Fletcher Cox, defensive lineman, Philadelphia Eagles; J.J. Watt, defensive lineman, Houston Texans; Michael Thomas, wide receiver, New Orleans Saints; Joe Flacco, quarterback, Baltimore Ravens; Philip Rivers, quarterback, Los Angeles Chargers; Melvin Gordon, running back, Los Angeles Chargers; Von Miller, linebacker, Denver Broncos; Ryan Fitzpatrick, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.

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