David Johnson (RB)
David Johnson has been an explosive athlete since entering the league as a third round pick in 2015. He was the first in NFL history with a rushing touchdown, receiving touchdown and kickoff-return touchdown in his first two games. After his booming start, he won thousands of fantasy players their league championships with 2,118 total yards and 20 total touchdowns in his sophomore season. However, it was his third season that gave his fantasy owners a heart attack. In just the first game of the season DJ hurt his wrist, and later required surgery to fix the sprain. The Cardinals back wore a cast for more than half the season and his outlook did not look good. Although he received news that he may be able to play during the fantasy playoffs, Arizona was already out of playoff contention and ultimately decided to shut him down for the year. Johnson will be entering his fourth season in Arizona, and their offensive production will run through the legs and hands of their All-Pro back. David Johnson will be healthy entering the 2018 season, and with the return of their Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the offense could become as productive as they were during the 2016 season with Johnson’s heroic efforts. The Cardinals will be in a scavenger hunt for a QB (through free agency or the Draft) to get a player to take men out of the box. DJ may run into some trouble until then, but he has the ability to carry an offense through the ground or the air as we have all seen before! Who knows, he may even be the first running back since Marshall Faulk in 1999 to gain 1000 yards as a runner and receiver.
Julio Jones (WR)
In the 2011 NFL Draft, Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff made an unprecedented move in trading two 1st round, one 2nd round, and two 4th round picks to move up and grab a wide receiver named Julio Jones. Needless to say, the decision has paid off: Julio averages the most receiving yards per game in NFL history, and, at just 29 years old, is 1,000 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns away from all-time franchise records. His impact goes far beyond the stat-sheet as well. He is a 6’3”, 220 lb beast who runs a 4.39 40-yard dash, and is often touted as the “perfect receiver.” Since he is such a threat, teams are always forced to double team him, opening the field up for the rest of the team. Mohamed Sanu is a perfect example, as he has had career years in receptions, yards, touchdowns, and yards per game since coming in as the 2nd receiver behind Julio. The only caveat is that Jones has dealt with numerous nagging injuries over his career. Though he’s only missed 3 games in the past 4 seasons, the injuries have visibly hampered his production. However, he is the integral component of the offense- the whole system runs through him. The Falcons should be praising St. Patty this weekend for Julio!
Justin Tucker (K)
Most people expect to see a quarterback, skill position, or even a defender when the mention of a team’s MVP comes up, but that is not the case for the Baltimore Ravens. While some might argue against this, the Ravens are very lucky to have Justin Tucker. Tucker has been the team’s most consistent and productive player since joining the team in their Super Bowl winning 2012 season. There’s a reason Football Outsider’s Aaron Schatz gave Tucker a vote for MVP in 2016 — the guy is a star.
Tucker is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, boasting a career 90.1 FG% and an even more impressive 100% on PATs. That’s right folks, he’s never missed a PAT in his entire career. Tucker has won the Ravens MVP twice in his career, in 2013 and 2016, and has been to two Pro Bowls. In just the last two years Tucker has gone 70 of 74 on FGs; one miss was blocked, another was a 46-yarder, and the other two were longer than 58 yards. It seems as if Tucker is only getting better with age.
While you would be hard pressed to find a person on the Ravens who would disagree that Tucker is the greatest kicker of all time and that he is the team’s MVP, it is still pretty sad to think about. Taking nothing away from Tucker — t’s near impossible not to love him — but you never want your team MVP to be a kicker. It’s gotten to the point where Tucker has become the face of the Baltimore Ravens. Still, you have to appreciate Tucker’s greatness. Hopefully next year the Ravens will be kicking more PATs than field goals so that another name occupies the St. Pattys day list in 2019.
LeSean McCoy (RB)
Since entering the league in 2009, LeSean McCoy has been one of the most consistent running backs to grace the field. Throughout his career he’s averaged 1,121 rushing yards, 375.3 receiving yards, 49 receptions per season, 7.33 rushing touchdowns and 1.33 receiving TDs. To show how consistent McCoy really is, since joining the Bills in 2015 he has averaged 1,100 rushing yards, 365.33 receiving yards, 47 receptions per season, and 7.33 and 1.66 rushing and receiving touchdowns, respectively. McCoy’s 2017 season cemented him as one of the league’s best, and firmly established him as the team’s unchallenged MVP. McCoy scorched the league to the tune of 1,138 yards rushing and 448 receiving, 8 total TDs, and 59 receptions. Shady had his highest attempts and targets in a Bill’s uniform with 287 and 77, respectively.
But how did he do according to some of the advanced statistics? According to PlayerProfiler.com, McCoy was heavily leaned upon in Buffalo’s offense with a 72.5% snap share, 71.7% Opportunity share (The % of total team RB carries + targets), 76.6% catch rate, and 507 yards created (Yards generated after first evaded tackle). Not only was McCoy greatly relied upon in the Bills offense, but he was extremely efficient when called upon.
I could go on and on about why else McCoy is the Bill’s MVP, but the numbers speak for themselves. With the Bills just shipping out their starting QB and without a replacement who resembles a future starter on the roster, the team will continue to lean on McCoy. The Bills rely upon Shady so heavily because they know how lucky they are to have him and they know who their MVP is. He will continue to perform (barring injury) and prove his worth to the Bills and the rest of the league.
Luke Kuechly (LB)
The Panthers are lucky to have Luke Kuechly leading their defense. Since Carolina drafted him in 2012, he has lived up to the expectations of the 9th slot where they took him. In his first season he was named the Defensive Rookie of the Year, becoming the third youngest recipient in history. It only took him one year to become the youngest player to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2013. Since then Luke has led the Carolina to a Super Bowl appearance and has appeared in five straight Pro Bowls. While his concussions are a major concern he is only 26 years old, so he has many years ahead of him for Panthers fans to look forward to. Luke is coming off a great year as he was named to PFF’s All-Pro Team. They had him ranked first in run-stop percentage and allowed a passer rating of 73.5 when he was targeted. The biggest thing he brings besides his play is his leadership — it’s clear that the Panthers’ defense is different when he isn’t on the field. He is a great commander that the rest of the unit leans on. If he can stay healthy, I expect Luke to continue to dominate offenses for a long time and should have a future Defensive Player of the Year award again in his trophy case. Carolina found a four-leaf clover that should be a future Hall of Famer one day.
Jordan Howard (RB)
After being overlooked in a weak running back draft class, Howard’s success on the field came as a surprise to many after being selected 150th overall in the 2016 draft. Coming in as a rookie, he was not looked at as being a starting caliber player, but immediately changed that narrative and had success early on with the Bears. Howard has been a constant workhorse for the Bears the past two seasons, and his 2,400 yards and 15 touchdowns over his first two seasons prove that he’s deserving of the workload. He has a constant motor and is always fighting for the extra yard. Howard is the driving force behind this new Bear’s offense and is the perfect compliment with Tarik Cohen to take pressure of newly acquired quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. He was one of the best steals in the 2016 draft and is proving to every team that passed on him that they made a mistake.
In 2018, I look for Howard to have continued success running the ball, especially after the Bears added some much needed playmakers in the pass game. The Bears added the likes of Trey Burton, Taylor Gabriel, and Allen Robinson to help out Mitchell Trubisky, which will no doubt pull defenses back and make them respect the pass. This means smaller boxes to run in for Howard, and if given even the smallest crease he can break out for a big gain on any play.
AJ Green (WR)
The Cincinnati Bengals are absolutely lucky to have wide receiver AJ Green. The Bengals really struggled this year on offense due to their poor offensive line and the erratic play of Andy Dalton. Green dealt with double teams, safety help, and some of the best corners in the league throughout this past season. Through it all, AJ Green still managed to haul in 75 receptions for 1078 yards and 8 touchdowns. Over his seven seasons in the league, Green has been one of the most durable and dependable wide receivers in the NFL, starting 102 out of a possible 112 regular season games in his career. Green has also developed a solid relationship with Andy Dalton throughout their tenure together in Cincinnati, sporting a career catch percentage of 59%, which is solid considering he also has a yards per catch average of 14.4.
All in all, Green has become one of the best playmakers in the NFL over his seven seasons in the league. At 6’4” he is the prototypical red zone threat. Green also has the speed and athleticism to make plays at each level of the defense. While the 2017 season is considered one of Green’s worst, it was easy for Bengals fans and NFL personnel alike to see that his biggest problem was Andy Dalton. Every week, the opposing team’s defensive meetings most certainly revolve around stopping AJ Green. He is constantly facing adversity in Cincinnati, and through it all, Green is still the team’s most valuable player. The Bengals are very lucky to have AJ Green under contract for the next two seasons.
Christian Kirksey (LB)
The Cleveland Browns had a very tough 2017 season with no wins, making them one of the unluckiest teams in the league. With that being said, Cleveland has many up-and-coming talented young players that could make a big jump going into the 2018 season.
One x-factor that they are very lucky to have is Christian Kirksey. For the average NFL fan, Kirksey is certainly not a household name. He was a third round pick of the Browns in 2014 and has been their team leader on defense for the past several seasons. Fans of the Cleveland Browns know Kirksey as the outside linebacker who flies around the field every play, playing the game like his hair is on fire. Not only does Kirksey give max effort on every play, but he has the stats to back up his X-Factor status as well. According to Pro Football Reference, Kirksey accrued 138 total tackles last season. He also chipped in 3.5 sacks, forced 3 turnovers, and recovered a fumble as well. It also definitely helps that he has started all 16 games the past two seasons.
Simply put, Christian Kirksey was one of the lone bright spots for the Cleveland Browns last season. Next year he will be 26, and Kirksey will more than likely be asked to lead the defense once again. With all of the youthful players in the Cleveland Browns locker room, the Browns are very lucky to have a leader like Christian Kirksey who they can count on to produce on the field weekly.
Ezekiel Elliott (RB)
Seeing as how Dallas’s entire offensive line can’t be listed, we can settle for one of the best running backs in the NFL. Ezekiel Elliott’s impact was on display this year as he fought off a 6 game suspension until finally accepting his fate in week 10. Before Zeke left for Mexico to enjoy his time off, the Dallas Cowboys were 5–3 and well in the playoff mix, averaging just over 28 points and a staggering 433 yards per game. The 3 weeks following Zeke’s absence resulted in a winless record, 24 total points scored and an average of 235 yards per game. Need more evidence of Elliott’s impact? His suspension had a massive effect on quarterback Dak Prescott. The QB’s Passer Rating went from averaging a respectable 102.7 to a measly 57.7, along with throwing 0 touchdowns and 5 interceptions during that span. Though Dallas was able to finally adjust during the remainder of Zeke’s suspension, the quality of the opponents (WSH, OAK, NYG) likely contributed to those improved results.
Elliott is one of the most dominant and talented RB’s the league has seen in the past decade. Zeke’s a third-down back who runs with power, finesse, can catch the ball, and block with the best of them, but can he stay on the field? That is a question that will have to wait to be answered. If he’s available for 16 games, expect another near 2000 yard season from the Cowboy’s star running back, similar to his breakout rookie year.
Matt Paradis ©
The ONLY bright spot on the Offensive Line for the Broncos, Paradis has been a solid starter for the past 3 seasons. He is a 16 game starter each year, and with issues all along the line he is the anchor. Paradis has dealt with multiple serious injuries since winning the starting job after Kubiak came on as head coach and brought the Zone Blocking System, but the ZBS allowed Paradis to become a star on a team with names like Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and Von Miller! After the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, Paradis showed his mental and physical toughness, playing injured all through 2016. He had double hip surgery — yes, that is surgery on both hips — during the off-season and still started all 16 games in 2017 at center. The Denver Broncos just placed a second round tender on him, and it would benefit him to come back to Denver where they are slowly getting that offensive line set. Paradis will be the X-Factor on a newly shaped offensive line in Denver.
Matthew Stafford (QB)
As I was searching the Lions roster for a potential X-Factor, my mind kept going back to the obvious one in Matthew Stafford. I say this because two major Lions Hall-of-Famers have retired throughout the team’s history because they felt the Lions were not doing enough to turn them into serious contenders. After Barry Sanders retired in ’98 and Calvin Johnson in 2016, Matthew Stafford becomes the Lions’ X-Factor. If Stafford goes to any other team, like the Jaguars, Rams, or Broncos, those teams become automatic playoff contenders. Unfortunately, the Lions have a losing history rivaled only by the Browns. Between Sanders retiring and drafting Stafford in 2009, the Lions never finished better than 3rd place in the old NFC Central division. Since 2009, the Lions have had four 2nd place finishes, and all four of those teams had one thing in common: Stafford as the starting QB! The Lions are very lucky that he is still the franchise QB for the foreseeable future. Now, are they going to spend the money and bring in the talent he needs around him, or will his history be like another HOFer’s in John Elway, who carried Denver for 13 seasons before they finally built a team to carry him. It’s your call Detroit — you have to spend money to win championships.
Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers (QB)
There is one quarterback that has set himself above the rest in the league when it comes to pure talent and skills. Aaron Rodgers may not have the accolades to back his status as the #1 QB in the NFL, but his play sure does. Rodgers is a dynamic playmaker that can truly make any throw on the field with pinpoint accuracy. Unlike most of the young QBs in the league now he did not have the chance to show what he could do right away, instead sitting behind the great Brett Favre for 3 years and waiting patiently for his chance to show everyone what he could do. When he got that chance he took the league by storm, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 28 touchdowns in his first season as a starter in 2008. Since then, Rodgers has been statistically amazing, having seasons with almost an 8:1 touchdown to interception ratio, and throwing 40 touchdowns in 2016 while only having 7 interceptions all year. Rodgers is a player whose stats don’t do his play justice. His ability to extend plays outside the pocket and find open receivers is unlike that of anyone we have ever seen before. Having Rodgers under center immediately makes the Packers perennial contenders solely because of his playmaking ability and his pure arm talent.
After being stripped of the majority of his 2017 season (thanks Anthony Barr), I expect Rodgers to come out in 2018 and absolutely light it up. It seems as if the Packers found a couple running backs that they like and now have a run game to take the pressure off of Rodgers throughout the season. The main concern for the Packers is their offensive line, but they have never really had a great line except for in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl. The Packers will undoubtedly again be seen as contenders and with Rodgers under center, I’d feel pretty confident.
Deshaun Watson (QB)
Though the man may have only 6 starts in a Houston Texans uniform, he’s unquestionably the team’s MVP moving forward. After a 15-year search that started with David Carr, the Texans’ first pick as an expansion team, and witnessed countless journeyman at quarterback, FINALLY, Houston has found its starting QB in Deshaun Watson. Blitzalytics’ #1 rated QB by per game metrics, he topped the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady with a score of 124.5, while the rest of the names listed ranged from 107.52–103.21. Watson was able to put up a ridiculous 21 total touchdowns, 1968 total yards and a 61.8% completion percentage in just 6 ½ games. Week 7 in Seattle he totaled 469 yards, the most the (now former) Legion of Boom had ever surrendered at home, and somehow Houston still lost. A few days later, Deshaun tore his ACL in practice, sadly resulting in an end to a historic rookie season. The Houston Texans had to trade the house to move up and take the Clemson product at #12 in the 2017 NFL Draft. By my standard it was worth every pick and penny they gave up, injury included. Deshaun Watson will return to form this season to terrorize the AFC South for the next decade!
His college coach, Dabo Swinney, compared him to none other than the great Michael Jordan, indicating his discipline, decision making, and killer instinct as to why Cleveland would have been wise to take him at #1. Cleveland didn’t listen, and neither did the scouts, analysts or any of the other QB needy teams of last year. It was one of the most significant consensus misreads in Draft history, as the majority of names in the NFL community simply wrote him off as another mobile college quarterback, whose game wouldn’t translate… sound familiar? With the returns of Deshaun Watson, J.J. Watt, and Whitney Mercilus from injured reserve, the Texans have a legitimate chance to be contenders in the AFC. If Houston can shore up the secondary and the offensive line and stay healthy in 2018, they’ll go as far as the sophomore quarterback will take them.
T.Y. Hilton (WR)
It would be easy to say that the MVP of the Colts is their franchise QB Andrew Luck, but instead I chose someone else. The unsung hero of the team and one of the most underrated players in my opinion, T.Y. Hilton. Coming out of Florida International Hilton was a 3rd round pick in the 2012 draft. He came in along with Andrew Luck and they immediately formed a connection and became one of the deadliest duos in the league. Hilton’s ability to seemingly disappear from defenders and make guys look silly earned him the nickname “The Ghost”. Standing at only 5’9” and weighing 180 lbs, Hilton is not someone who will physical outwork you for the football but instead uses his quickness and footwork to get open and make plays. The Colts are lucky to have Hilton because he is a humble, hard working, talented individual who performs at a high level on a very consistent basis.
I look for his 2018 season to be a bounce back year after not having his franchise quarterback under center all of 2017. Hilton had a bit of a down year this year without his quarterback, having the second least amount of catches only before his rookie year. With Andrew Luck set to return, I look for the Luck to Hilton connection to be rekindled and for them to set fire to the league. The Colts are a very young and talented team that has a lot of holes to fill this offseason, but one thing is for sure — they have one of the most underrated players at WR in the league.
Leonard Fournette (RB)
Since he was in high school, Fournette has been dominating his competition and not looking back. He continued his domination on the field at LSU and then moved on to the NFL, where he was quoted after week one of the season saying the NFL is “easy”. Only a man-child like Fournette would have the ability to say that after playing against the best football players in the world. Fournette is a complete back, as he can play on all three downs and find success wherever he is on the field. He is a powerful, downhill runner who is not afraid of contact, running people over without batting an eye. Fournette’s rookie campaign went as well as expected, totalling a little over 1,000 yards on the ground and adding another 300+ through the air. Although only having played one season in the NFL, Fournette has already put himself above the majority of the other running backs in the league and in the conversation for top 10, if not top 5, running backs.
I look for Fournette to build on his success in 2017 and to continue to grow in 2018. This offseason, the Jaguars went out and made Andrew Norwell the highest paid guard in the league, and no one should be happier than Fournette. The line he ran behind in 2017 was not the worst but adding a player like Norwell to any line instantly makes them better. I expect Norwell to open up lanes for Fournette and help propel him to even more success.
Kansas City Chiefs
Travis Kelce (TE)
Since entering the NFL in 2014, Travis Kelce ranks 1st amongst tight ends in receptions, 2nd in receiving yards, and 5th in touchdowns, all while holding an impressive 71.6% catch rate and averaging an 83.95 Pro Football Focus grade throughout his career. Numbers aside, he’s currently on Gronk’s heels as the best tight end in the league, though it might be hard to surpass the standards set by one of, if not the most dominant TE of all time. Kelce is certainly the most talented player on his team by positional rank and is the focal point of Kansas City’s offense. It showed this year in the playoffs against the Tennessee Titans when the star tight end had 4 receptions for 66 yards and a touchdown before exiting the game due to a concussion with minutes left in the first half. The Chiefs were up by 11 points when he went down and did not score on a drive that Kelce wasn’t at least part of. The Chiefs wound up blowing an 18 point lead as the offense became completely stagnant without Kelce on the field and Alex Smith not being able to move the sticks, which eventually led to a 22–21 loss.
Kelce’s impact on his team can be summed up in that one half of playoff football: he’s a true mismatch nightmare for defensive coordinators. Travis is very athletic for a 6’5 260 lb tight end, as he’s too big for a defensive back, too fast for a linebacker, and just a killer in between the hash marks. Kansas City is lucky to have the 3rd round pick out of the University of Cincinnati; he’ll be a tremendous help in the growth process of newly crowned QB Patrick Mahomes. With Mahomes’ cannon of an arm, I expect Kelce not only to pick up where he left off with Smith but to improve on an already impressive season that saw number 84 put up a career-high 8 touchdowns, along with 83 receptions, and 1038 receiving yards.
Los Angeles Chargers
Casey Hayward (CB)
Free Agency can be boom or bust for teams, and the Chargers found a boom in signing Casey Hayward two years ago after he left the Green Bay Packers. After being considered a nickel guy, Hayward has blossomed into one of the best cornerbacks in the league. The team realized this by giving him a three-year extension this offseason worth up to $36 million, which includes $20 million in guaranteed money. Since joining the Chargers, he has made the Pro Bowl the past two seasons and was voted second-team All-Pro for his performance in 2017. He finished with four interceptions and 26 pass breakups. Since 2016, he is tied with Marcus Peters for the most interceptions in that period. Pro Football Focus had him rated as their 5th overall player in 2017 with a grade of 96.4. Casey allowed 42.7 percent of balls thrown his way to be caught, which was the best mark among cornerbacks according to PFF. They also had him graded with the single best game by a cornerback in 2017. With players like Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the front line, the Chargers are lucky to have a cornerback in Hayward backing them up to help solidify one of the better defenses in the league.
Los Angeles Rams
Sean McVay (HC)
The Rams have players like Todd Gurley, Aaron Donald, Jared Goff, and newly acquired Marcus Peters, but it is their head coach Sean McVay that they are lucky have. He became the youngest head coach in modern NFL history at 30 years old. In just one season he was able to turn a team that was 4–12 to 12–4, and won the NFC West to help make the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. Jared Goff made significant progress from his rookie year, and if McVay continues to help develop him as a quarterback they could potentially be paired longer than Belichick and Brady one day. Prior to McVay taking over the Rams in 2016 they had the worst offense in in the league, averaging 262.7 YPG (32nd) and 14 PPG (32nd). Enter the young offensive guru, and out comes one of the best offenses in the league that averaged 361.5 YPG (10th) and 29.9 PPG (1st), which, rightfully so, earned them the nickname “The Greatest Show on Surf.” The team had such a great year under his leadership that McVay won NFL Coach of the Year, and the Rams are now being recognized as one of the best teams in the league. General Manager Les Snead has shown that he fully believes in McVay with the moves that he has made this offseason, and the Rams should be pushing for a Lombardi Trophy for years to come.
Xavien Howard (CB)
The Miami Dolphins were a team many thought would compete for a playoff spot during the 2017 season. Adam Gase was coming into his second season as head coach, and the prevailing perception was that his offense would take the next step into becoming one of the better ones in the league. Soon after training camp started, starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill went down for the season with a torn ACL. The Dolphins’ bad luck continued throughout the season, and they ultimately finished well outside the playoffs for the 2017 season.
One positive for the Dolphins this season was the emergence of X-Factor cornerback Xavien Howard in their defensive secondary. Howard was drafted in the second round by the Miami Dolphins during the 2016 NFL Draft, and made a major jump during his second season in the league. During the 2017 campaign, Howard accumulated 48 total tackles along with a single sack. While Howard has proven himself to be a cornerback that is willing to come up and be physical in the run game, he is better known for his ability to hinder opposing wide receivers in coverage. This past season Howard had 4 interceptions, including a pick-six. His ability to play the ball on down-the-field throws helped him gain recognition around the league as one of the bright young up-and-comers at the cornerback position. Going into his third season, the Dolphins will be looking to Howard to anchor their defensive backfield. Having a young corner with Howard’s abilities helps the Dolphins build elsewhere in free agency and the Draft. His skills are especially important for the Dolphins due to the fact that they have to play the Patriots twice a year. In fact, Howard won AFC Defensive Player of the Week after his brilliant performance against the Patriots during Week 14 of last season. In that game, he picked Tom Brady off twice to go along with three pass deflections. Although he still needs to be more consistent on a weekly basis, the Miami Dolphins are very fortunate to have cornerback Xavien Howard in their secondary.
Harrison Smith (S)
Minnesota had the best defense in the 2017 season and Harrison Smith was a big reason for that. While some of the other defenders get the publicity, it is Smith who does a lot of the small things that matter for their unit. He finished with 61 tackles and tied a career-high with five interceptions. Pro Football Focus had him graded as the best player in 2017 and he was their highest graded safety in their history. Smith allowed a historically low passer rating of 22.0 this past season, which is ridiculous if you think about it. Mike Zimmer knows Harrison is a pocket knife for his defense because he can depend on him in pass coverage, pass rushing, run stuffing, and everything you can ask out of a safety. He can cover someone in the slot while being able to come into the box as if he was a linebacker. If you watch him play you will notice how much command he has of the defense, as he will coach up players on what they should be doing prior to the snap. He will be an anchor for their defense for the next four years (as per his current contract), and the Vikings are lucky to have this caliber of a safety on their team.
New England Patriots
Tom Brady (QB)
Does one even have to write an excerpt as to why the Patriots are lucky to have Tom Brady? I feel like I could just place his name in the middle of this section with small comment below that says please see career accomplishments and contracts. That wouldn’t be as fun though, would it?
At the ripe age of 40, Tom Brady won his 3rd MVP, the AFC East, an AFC championship, and led the Patriots to his 8th Super Bowl appearance. Although he didn’t win the Super Bowl, it was not for lack of effort on Tom’s part. He threw for 505 yards, 3 TDs, no interceptions, and had a 115.4 passer rating. Brady became the first QB to throw for over 500 yards and 3 TDs and still lose a game. This was all while having one of the lowest cap hits for a QB in the league at $14M in 2017. As one of the best performers in the league with the lowest cap hits relative to position, he is easily the best bargain in the NFL.
The Patriots MVP, X-Factor, the player that they’re lucky to have, whatever you want to call it, is Tom Brady. It will continue to be Tom Brady until he decides to hang up his shoulder pads and walk away from the game. He is the GOAT, and we are all lucky to have him.
New Orleans Saints
Marshon Lattimore (CB)
Drew Brees is a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famer, and yet somehow one of the most underrated quarterbacks of all time. He sadly still doesn’t make the cut for the one player the New Orlean Saints are lucky to have. Bree’s has always been great, but it didn’t translate to a championship until he had a defense that could hold up their end of the bargain on Sundays. That has all changed with the addition of Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore. With the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, not only did the Saints find their starting corner for the next 5 to 10 years, but they got themselves a serious game changer. Lattimore’s superior skills resonated in a New Orleans’ defensive renaissance, catapulting the entire team to being one play away from the NFC Championship.
Marshon’s impact is somewhat subjective, but the stats and accolades don’t lie, with 58 tackles, 5 interceptions, 18 pass breakups, and a defensive touchdown to top it all off. It’s hard to argue he wasn’t one of the main contributing factors to the Saints’ best season since hoisting the Lombardi.
New York Giants
Nate Solder (LT)
As the newest addition to the New York Giants’ roster, Nate Solder is my favorite team’s lucky player for 2018. GM Dave Gettleman sure seems to agree with me, as he shelled out an unprecedented $15 million per year to the 29 year old tackle, making him the highest paid offensive lineman in the league. Despite having promising prospects in Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg, the Giants have had a porous offensive line for years. It featured Ereck Flowers at left tackle, arguably the worst in the league at that position. This had ripple effects to Eli Manning having one of his worst seasons as a pro, a running game that could never really gain traction, and an abysmal 2–15 record for the New York Giants. While I do think Solder may be overpaid, if he can stay healthy and consistent I believe he will have a transformative impact on this team.
Though he had a down year in 2017, Solder has been successful overall in protecting Tom Brady’s blind side since 2011. Aside from the 2015 season, Solder has only missed two games in his career and was a steady presence on the Patriots’ offensive line and in their locker room. With Solder at LT, the rest of the line can fall into place. Brett Jones played well at center last season and Ereck Flowers could find a much more natural fit at guard, as his biggest flaw is his lateral footwork. With high picks in the Draft the Giants could realistically grab both Quenton Nelson and Orlando Brown to fit in at left guard and right tackle, respectively. With a big, mean offensive line the Giants will feature a ground-and-pound running attack, a reborn Eli Manning, and a certain GM praising St. Patty for giving him Nate Solder.
New York Jets
Jamal Adams (S)
While I was watching the 2017 NFL draft and I learned that the Bears had traded up from the 3rd pick to the 2nd pick, I thought for certain the pick was going to be Jamal Adams. It wasn’t. Adams didn’t get drafted until the 6th pick by the New York Jets, and I thought it was the steal of the draft. The Jets committed highway robbery and didn’t have to move up at all. Adams was one of my favorite prospects in 2017 and one of the best overall players in the draft. With 83 total tackles he proved to be a difference maker on the field. Adams is a fast, strong, high IQ safety who flies all over the field and is not afraid to come up and play the run, often setting the tone and letting his presence be felt with his aggressive thumper style of play. He is extremely athletic and can make plays all over the field. He is also more than just a very good player on the field; he is a great teammate and an emotional leader that leads by example. Adams is a true cornerstone piece on this young defense for the Jets.
In 2018, I expect Adams to breakout and have a great year. After having a year to learn the game, adjust to the speed, and have a full offseason to rest and continue to grow physically, I look for him to play like a franchise player on the defensive side of the ball. He has similar characteristics as the great Ed Reed and although he doesn’t have the ball skills of Reed quite yet, he is an outspoken, emotional leader that will let his pads do the talking.
Kalil Mack (DE/OLB)
As easy as it would be to pencil in a top-10, Pro Bowl quarterback as the Oakland Raider’s MVP or “luckiest player to have,” when Derek Carr himself openly says he knows why they took Khalil Mack before him, it’s hard to argue with the man. Mack is the only player ever in the modern era to be named 1st Team All-Pro at multiple positions in the same year. Since entering the league, he’s 6th in sacks with 40.5, tied for 4th with 9 forced fumbles, and 3rd in tackles amongst all defenders. As a 3–4 DE/OLB those are godly stats. Let’s not forget that this is also on a defense that has given Mack next to zero help throughout his career. In his first four years in Oakland they’ve produced only one other defensive Pro Bowler — Reggie Nelson in 2016. The same guy the Raiders couldn’t wait to get rid of this year. Mack is double teamed on nearly every drop-back of more than 3 steps, yet he still puts up freakish numbers year in and year out. If the Raiders could pick up a pass rusher to go opposite him, as well as another corner or two which would allow him time to get to the QB, he’d have a serious shot at the sack title. Yes, it’s more than double his sack total from this season, but the man can’t play every position on the field… two is still quite impressive if you ask me. Hopefully, the evil genius named Chucky will add some playmakers to the mix and allow the University of Buffalo product to feast this upcoming season. But with Mack’s soon to be record-setting defensive contract on its way, adding weapons to that side of the ball is much easier said than done.
Carson Wentz (QB)
Wentz is something very special, and in my opinion, is the true MVP of the 2017 season. Wentz was nothing short of spectacular through 13 weeks of 2017 but had his season cut short due to an ACL and LCL tear in his right knee. Wentz finished 2nd in the league in passing touchdowns with 33, even while not playing the last four weeks of the season, and was only eclipsed by Russell Wilson’s 34 touchdowns. The Philadelphia Eagles traded up in the 2016 draft to select Wentz 2nd overall and their gamble is starting to pay off. Getting “your guy” at the quarterback position is something that can never be overvalued or underestimated — teams will and should always do whatever it takes to go out and get their franchise quarterback, and the Eagles did just that. Wentz is a 6’5”, 240 lb athletic freak who has the talent and ability to not only make every throw on the field with extreme accuracy but also create plays outside the pocket. Wentz is not someone that is looked at as someone with great running ability but he can make plays with his legs if the situation requires it. He is an electric playmaker that is going to have a lot of success with this Eagles for many years to come.
I am beyond excited to see Wentz back in the saddle in 2018 and to see what he will do this coming season with the majority of his supporting cast around him. There is not full certainty that Wentz will be ready by the beginning of the season, let alone training camp, but if he returns to be even half the player he was in 2017 the Eagles will be in a very good spot to return to the Super Bowl.
Antonio Brown (WR)
An argument could be made for any of Pittsburgh’s dynamic offensive trio of Big Ben, Antonio Brown, or Le’Veon Bell. Heck, had Ryan Shazier not suffered that scary back injury, which will keep him out at least for all of 2018, he would be in the conversation too based on what he means to the Steelers’ defense (just look at the numbers with/without Shazier on the field). But the nod ultimately goes to Antonio Brown for how consistently dominant he has been for the last five seasons. During this span, Brown has averaged 116 receptions, 1,570 yards, and 10.4 TDs per season. He’s been a 1st-team All-Pro for four consecutive years and a Pro Bowler the last 6/7 years, only missing out in 2012 when he missed multiple games due to injury.
Football Outsiders’ DYAR (Defense-adjusted Value over Average), which essentially measures the total value of a wide receiver, further points to the rare value Brown brings to the Steelers (read a more detailed explanation of DYAR here). Brown has finished in the top 7 in DYAR each year going back to 2013, including leading the NFL three different times. Brown’s elite production, playmaking ability, and fun-loving personality make him a fan favorite in the Steel City. Pittsburgh is certainly lucky to have such a rare player.
San Francisco 49ers-
Jimmy Garoppolo (QB)
If you had asked me before week 12 of this past season who the 49ers MVP was, I would have had a hard time finding an answer. At that point, the 49ers had lost 10 of their 11 games by an average of 10.7 ppg. They had their close battles but they were also getting blown out left and right, with no apparent solution to the onslaught in the near future. That is, until a handsome fellow with a movie star smile, who the team acquired from the Patriots at the trade deadline, stepped in as a starter.
While Jimmy G’s numbers from his 5 games as a starter don’t jump off the page — 118 of 176 with a 66.83 completion %, 308.4 ypg, and a 6:5 TD/INT ratio — the wins do. He was 5–0 as a starter for the 49ers, with three out of those five wins coming against playoff teams! There are no raw numbers to prove this and there is no metric that can really give this statement justice, but Jimmy G’s presence revitalized a slumping and downright sad San Francisco team. A team that, at the time, had a ship without a captain. That is why they are so lucky to have him. For just the small cost of a second round pick (and a very large contract), the 49ers have now locked up their future. They have secured the captain of the ship and are now on their voyage towards a Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm.
Russell Wilson (QB)
If I was asked last year to pick the MVP of the Seattle Seahawks I may have had trouble coming to an answer. In just the past few months, Seattle’s Legion of Boom has disbanded and other Pro-Bowlers or role players seemed to follow suit. Michael Bennett was traded; Richard Sherman and Jeremy Lane were released; Kam Chancellor, the enforcer of the Legion, hurt his neck and his future is still in doubt; and the rock of the defense, Earl Thomas, wants to book a flight to Dallas. Bobby Wagner can be considered, but the All-Pro linebacker didn’t carry the Seahawks all year. The point of this article is to find the MVP of each of the thirty-two teams, and it would be too easy to name each of their quarterbacks; however, it is almost impossible to come up with a player more impactful than Russell Wilson.
At the beginning of his career Wilson was making splashy plays, but his arm was not the reason the Seahawks won the Superbowl in 2013 against one of the greatest offenses to grace a football field. Along with Wilson, the Legion of Boom was also in their second year of playing as a unit. Let’s put this into perspective; throughout the 2011–12 NFL drafts, the Hawks drafted KJ Wright (4th round), Richard Sherman (5th round), Byron Maxwell (6th round), Bruce Irvin (1st round), Bobby Wagner (2nd round), Russell Wilson (3rd round), Marshawn Lynch (trade for 5th round), and Jeremy Lane (6th round) in back-to-back years. In each of the past two seasons, Wilson has improved his game and their offensive scheme has revolved around him. The team has shifted from a defensive force to the athletic ability of their QB. This past season he took his game to new heights, and he inserted himself in the all exclusive ELITE category. Russell Wilson accounted for 86% of Seattle’s total yards and touchdowns throughout the 2017 season, accumulating 4569 total yards and 37 total touchdowns. Although I took the easy route by using Wilson in this article, the Seattle Seahawks are lucky to have the Pro-Bowler as their leader and quarterback.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Lavonte David (LB)
The Bucs defense struggled throughout the 2017 season, but it was not at the hands of Lavonte David. Their defensive captain gave his all as he recovered a league-best five fumbles, along with leading the team in both combined (101) and solo tackles (76). After this year he now has 11 career fumble recoveries, which places him right behind Ronde Barber for the most in team history. While leading his unit, he also surpassed the 500-career solo tackle mark as well. Not only did he lead the league in fumble recoveries, but Lavonte also came in second for forced fumbles as well. Keep in mind, he did all this in only 14 games since he had to miss two games due to injury. He has been one of the most consistent players in Tampa Bay since they drafted him in 2012, which is why they can rely on him every Sunday. He is one of the leaders in the locker room, and you can tell he just wants to win every game. Lavonte is the type of player that every team would love to have commanding the middle of the field, which is why the Buccaneers are lucky to have him.
Jurrell Casey (DT)
Jurrell Casey may not be able to throw a touchdown pass to himself like his quarterback can, but the Tennessee Titans’ 3-technique lineman is the anchor of that team’s defense. Since entering the league in 2011, Casey ranks 3rd in tackles, 11th in sacks, and most importantly, 3rd in games played. In his 7-year NFL career the man has only missed a total of two games due to injury, which is typically unheard of when talking about interior defensive linemen. The saying goes “the best ability is availability,” and Jurrell has been nothing short of an iron man for the Titans. At 6'1" 305 lbs he isn’t the prototypical DT size, but don’t let that fool you. He’s as quick as he is strong, and the three-time Pro Bowler and two-time 2nd Team All-Pro is going to continue to wreak havoc in the AFC South for years to come. With the addition of Malcolm Butler to the secondary, Casey should see an increased amount of time to get to the quarterback in 2018, which should add up to an improvement on his 6 sack, 41 tackle 2017 season.
Alex Smith (QB)
After the drama between Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins’ ownership the past couple of seasons, there was legitimate concern in Washington over who would be their quarterback in 2018. Nobody thought it was worth the $34 million it would have cost to franchise tag Cousins a third consecutive year, but that meant the Redskins would be in search of their next franchise quarterback assuming a long-term deal would not be reached. The price of rising CB Kendall Fuller plus this year’s 3rd round pick is pretty fair when you consider what teams have given up in the draft to go select their next franchise QBs (Eagles, Rams, etc.). Regardless of what anyone else thinks about Cousins as a player, the front office didn’t overpay or make a long-term commitment to someone they clearly didn’t believe was worth such an investment.
Instead, they quickly turned their doubt into security by acquiring (and locking up) a 3x Pro Bowler and one of the top performing quarterbacks of 2017. Last year alone, Smith threw for 4,000 yards with 26 TDs (5 INTs) and completed 68% of his passes. He won’t have the weapons he had in Kansas City such as Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, or Kareem Hunt, but Washington can offer a poor man’s version of those skill sets in Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder, and Chris Thompson, respectively. The addition of free agent WR Paul Richardson will help stretch the field and open things up underneath (where Smith likes to do most of his work). However, the two major factors that will determine Smith’s success in his first season in the capital city are Jordan Reed’s health and Josh Doctson’s development. Bottom line: Washington is paying less for an equal (or perhaps slightly better) player and has some security at the position moving forward.