by Rob Joyce
In the thick of bye weeks, about half of the league has reached the midway point of their season in the NFL, and if we’ve learned anything, it’s that we know almost nothing. Thirty-one of 32 teams have multiple losses, 14 are either 4-3 or 3-4, and the only teams more than two wins out of a playoff spot are the Colts, Browns, Buccaneers, Giants and 49ers.
Parity reigns supreme, as every team has at least one significant flaw. So through eight weeks, which players have hidden those flaws and worked their way into the race for Most Valuable Player? Here are the six that as of today are the front-runners:
6) Kareem Hunt, Chiefs:
In the NFL of a decade ago he’d probably be higher on this list, but it’s a pass-happy league now, and the stud rookie isn’t even the top MVP candidate on his own team. The third-round pick out of Toledo opened his career with a 246-yard, three touchdown performance against the Patriots and he has barely slowed since. Monday night’s win over the Broncos was the first time this year Hunt failed to reach 100 yards from scrimmage.
The league leader in rushing (763 yards) and scrimmage yards per game (133.8) the running back is a threat both running and passing as the Chiefs are off to a 6-2 start.
5) Drew Brees, Saints:
Brees isn’t posting his usual gaudy passing numbers this season. Yes, he leads the league in completion percentage (70.6) but is eighth in yards and 13th in touchdown passes. So why is he on the list? Simple: his defense. New Orleans has missed the playoffs in four of the last five years despite Brees averaging 5,074 yards and 37 touchdowns per season. The key: those four non-playoff years the Saints’ defense finished 31st or 32nd in total defense, and 10th when they made the postseason.
In other words, wins matter in the MVP race, and Brees finally has a decent defense to help out the explosive offense. The result, after an 0-2 start, is a five-game win streak and first place in the NFC South. So, no, the 38-year-old may not throw for 5,000 yards and 45 touchdowns, but it’s still his offense and he’s playing New Orleans to the playoffs, and himself into the MVP race.
4) Russell Wilson, Seahawks:
Without being overly hyperbolic, Wilson spends much of his Sunday running for his life. With arguably the league’s worst offensive line the Seattle quarterback has to constantly extend plays outside the pocket and improvise, and it seems to be working. He has the Seahawks at 5-2 after Sunday’s 41-38 thriller over the Texans that provided the 28-year-old with a marquee moment of the season.
Down 38-34, Wilson and the offense took the field with 1:39 to play and no timeouts. Completions of 48, 19 and 18 yards later, Seattle found the end zone for what became the winning score. On pace for career-highs in attempts, yards and touchdowns, the signal-caller is posting MVP-type numbers as he tries to lead Seattle to 10-or-more wins for six times in six seasons.
3) Tom Brady, Patriots:
It’s getting better, but the Patriots’ defense was a hot mess the first six weeks, allowing six straight 300-yard passers to start the year. On the offensive side there’s no Julian Edelman and the offensive line has allowed the quarterback to get hit far more than in the past. Yet, the defending champs are 6-2 and in first place in the AFC East, and it’s almost solely because Tom Brady is a robot. At 40 the five-time Super Bowl champion is showing no signs of slowing down. He leads the league in passing (2,541 yards) is third in touchdowns (16) and has thrown just two picks.
And in case you were hoping he’d eventually retire, the Patriots have traded away the future in Jacoby Brissett and, in a Monday night shocker, Jimmy Garoppolo. You might want to hold off on that retirement party.
2) Alex Smith, Chiefs:
At 33 and entering a 12th year in the league, the general consensus is that you are who you are. Whether it’s the addition of Tyrek Hill and Kareem Hunt, a draft-night trade for quarterback Pat Mahomes lighting a fire under him or some combination, Smith looks like an entirely new player this season. A high-percentage, low-risk football player for years and years, he’s all of a sudden become a downfield threat while maintaining his trademark control.
Already with 2,181 yards and 16 touchdowns, he’s on pace to shatter his career-bests in both categories (3,502 and 23, respectively), his average per completion leads all qualified starters, and he’s yet to throw an interception. The former No. 1 pick is showing that yes, he can lead a team to new heights.
1) Carson Wentz, Eagles:
In a league chock full of young quarterbacks Wentz is shining brighter than anyone. Philadelphia is a league-best 7-1 and the former No. 2 pick is progressing like a franchise quarterback in his second season. He leads the league with 19 touchdown passes, already passing his rookie total, while cutting his interception rate by 20 percent. His stat line against the Redskins last Monday, featuring 268 yards, four touchdowns and a couple of mind-boggling plays, is the kind of national TV performance that make MVP seasons. As long as the Eagles are the best team in the league, Wentz will likely be the MVP front-runner.