Hill? Watt? Bland? Why this could be the year to crown an unusual NFL MVP
Few things are inevitable in the NFL, but watching the Eagles play brings two to mind. When they need to gain a yard, they'll shove quarterback Jalen Hurts beyond the chains. And when a season ends, someone at Hurts' position will be named Most Valuable Player.
Hurts is the MVP favorite as Week 13 gets going. The pilot of the tush push has already led Philadelphia to 10 wins. The complication with his candidacy is that Hurts' stats were more impressive last season, when Patrick Mahomes edged him in the voting.
No quarterback's 2023 MVP case is bulletproof. Seven of them - Hurts, Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, Brock Purdy, Tua Tagovailoa, and C.J. Stroud - headline theScore Bet's oddsboard anyway.
Their preeminence is no surprise. QBs have won 15 of the last 16 MVP awards. Voters tend to disregard the other players on the field.
In rare instances, they've picked an unusual winner. This might be the right year to deviate from the norm again. For the first time since 2017, no quarterback is on track to average 300 passing yards. No running back - the MVP electorate's second-favorite position - is rushing at a 1,500-yard pace.
Unconventional contenders have surged to victory before. Two legendary defenders and a placekicker on a hot streak triumphed in the 1970s and '80s by being uniquely spectacular in their roles. Players currently doing that include Tyreek Hill, the NFL's least guardable wideout, and DaRon Bland, an unparalleled defensive scoring threat.
They're shining in a drab passing year. No QB has put up massive numbers yet. None has consistently wowed viewers, though several front-runners have offset lackluster spells with awesome stretches.
The league's average passer rating (88.7) is at a six-year low, per Pro Football Reference. Fewer QBs are elevating their respective offenses.
Two standout running backs - Christian McCaffrey and Raheem Mostert - have scored at will, combining to record 31 touchdowns from scrimmage. But both are gaining fewer yards than 2022 rushing champ Josh Jacobs, whose 1,653-yard season garnered no MVP support.
That opens the door for voters to get creative. At least four long-shot candidates deserve consideration, provided they remain dominant in December.
Hill is on pace to become the first 2,000-yard receiver. He would break Calvin Johnson's single-year record - 1,964 yards in 2012 - in the process. Hill's 1,324 yards in the turbocharged Dolphins offense are nearly double what sidekick Jaylen Waddle has managed. He's almost seven times as productive as Miami's No. 3 receiver, Braxton Berrios.
Hill's 93.3 PFF player grade is the best at any position. He leads the NFL in yards before the catch (800), yards after the catch (524), receiving touchdowns (10), first downs (62), and receptions for 40-plus yards (seven). He has four 150-yard outings and scored in nine of Miami’s 11 games.
Any of his touches can devastate a defense. Hill authored one of the season's fastest plays when the Dolphins beat the Giants in October, sprinting 22.01 mph on a slippery 64-yard screen route, as tracked by Next Gen Stats. Later in the game, this ruthless step fake sprung him for a 69-yard score:
Bland, the superb sophomore Cowboys cornerback and NFL interceptions leader, has returned a record five of his eight picks to the end zone. He jumped routes, made lunging grabs, and dodged helpless tacklers to set a new pick-6 mark by Thanksgiving. He's scored as many touchdowns as Saquon Barkley, Travis Kelce, George Kittle, Calvin Ridley, DeVonta Smith, Amon-Ra St. Brown, D'Andre Swift, and Jonathan Taylor.
While Bland struggled in coverage against the Seahawks on Thursday night, he still ranks fourth in completion rate allowed (54.3%) among 20 cornerbacks to be targeted 60-plus times, per PFF. Guarding the pass is the Cowboys’ defensive strength - they rank fifth in yards against and EPA/dropback, per Ben Baldwin’s database - even though All-Pro corner Trevon Diggs tore his ACL in September.
In the AFC North, unstoppable edge rushers have put flawed teams into playoff contention. The Steelers rank 28th in scoring but are fifth in defense thanks partly to T.J. Watt's NFL-high 13.5 sacks.
Watt, the only edge with an interception and three forced fumbles, ran back one of his three fumble recoveries for the decisive score in a crucial win over the Browns.
In Cleveland, Myles Garrett's 13 sacks have come on 97 fewer pass-rush snaps than Watt, per PFF. Beyond forcing four fumbles, Garrett tops the NFL in pass-rush win rate (24.9%) despite frequently being double-teamed. His closest teammate only has 3.5 sacks, but the Browns still rank first in sack rate (10.6%) and defensive efficiency (-0.181 EPA/play).
Cleveland's offense constantly squanders possession (league-worst 2.1 giveaways per game). Being outgained in 10 straight weeks got Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Matt Canada fired. That Garrett and Watt have a shot to topple the season sack record - 22.5, shared by Watt and Michael Strahan - proves they're immensely valuable.
The NFL crowned three offbeat MVPs in the distant past. Two were the linchpins of destructive defenses. The other, pedestrian veteran kicker Mark Moseley, randomly caught fire in a strike-shortened year.
Moseley's accuracy in an erratic era immortalized his age-34 season. His 95.2% field-goal hit rate over nine games, a league record at the time, was miles better than the 1982 NFL average (68.2%) and his previous career high (75.8%). The last straight-on kicker, Moseley's 20 makes in a row from as far as 48 yards out included two winners at the buzzer or in overtime.
Somehow, Moseley missed three of 19 extra-point tries. Washington won Super Bowl XVII despite his rocky postseason (4-for-8 on field goals). He heated up for exactly long enough to upset Dan Fouts, the Chargers gunslinger who got two fewer MVP votes than Moseley after passing at a 5,100-yard pace.
Like Moseley, the defensive MVPs starred for No. 1 playoff seeds. Fronted by the fearsome "Purple People Eaters" pass rush, Alan Page's 1971 Vikings pitched three shutouts and averaged 9.9 points allowed, one of the stingiest totals ever. When Lawrence Taylor led the NFL with 20.5 sacks in 1986, he tallied 13 of them in four Giants divisional wins over Washington and Philadelphia.
Circumstances favored Page and Taylor when each Hall of Famer triumphed. No quarterback electrified MVP voters. Roger Staubach of Dallas, a runner-up in '71, threw for 144.8 yards per game. Dan Marino, the passing yards and TDs leader in '86, tossed a career-worst 23 picks as Miami missed the playoffs.
This year's QB cohort will be hard to beat. Some voters will reward Tagovailoa for feeding dimes to Hill. Hurts and Prescott have been clutch or explosive in recent wins. Stroud's production is exquisite for a rookie. Mahomes' track record, Jackson's versatile skill set, and Purdy's No. 1 rank in EPA/play will keep them in the conversation.
Making history is the way to shake up the race. For Hill, that means gaining 2,000 yards for the NFL's top offense. Bland has to add to his pick-6 record, not merely break it. Watt and Garrett need to reset the sacks mark while powering their teams to the playoffs despite each offense's ineptitude.
Each feat is in reach with six weeks to go. These special players have that much time to stop the inevitable from happening.
Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.