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An altered NFL landscape is reflected in certain areas of our initial MVP Meter for the 2012 season.
Not at the top of the list, though.
The last two regular-season MVPs and the last three Super Bowl MVPs are in our top four, including Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, the most recent recipient of the league’s highest individual honor. We do not see any reason to move him off his perch before a game of consequence is played, and we are all very familiar with his top competition. Drew Brees and Tom Brady are still the biggest threats to Rodgers’ bid at repeating, in our early estimation.
Quarterbacks dominate the list, owning eight of the top 10 slots — two more signalcallers than made last year’s initial list — and while the presence of a superstar defender can make a major impact in games, it most often pales in comparison to the value of having a stud quarterback.
That being said, the greatest opportunity for fluctuation is in the next month or so, when our preseason suspicions are either confirmed or proven wrong. We aim to be consistent, but not stubborn as the action on Thursdays, Sundays and Mondays dictates the shape of the race as we see it and share it each Tuesday through the end of the regular season.
1. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers — He is the best and most valuable player in the league right now, and he’s in his prime. Rodgers was masterful last season, and there is no reason to expect anything less than another MVP-caliber campaign as Green Bay looks to bounce back after bowing out of the playoffs in what was Rodgers’ worst game of the 2011 season.
2. Saints QB Drew Brees — The only quarterback in league history with multiple 5,000-yard passing seasons returns with a new contract and as heavy a burden as he’s carried. Brees is charged with keeping the Saints on top in a tough division following a turbulent offseason. How will he fare without head coach Sean Payton around? Our guess is very well.
3. Patriots QB Tom Brady — At 35, Brady is the elder statesman of the Meter, but he is more than capable of keeping up — or surpassing — the younger MVP candidates. We expect him to carve up defenses once a week as long as the Patriots’ protection issues do not persist.
4. Giants QB Eli Manning — He has yet to have the jaw-dropping statistical season that is required of a top MVP candidate in this era of off-the-charts production, but do not forget that Manning was only 67 yards away from becoming the league’s fourth 5,000-yard passer in 2011. The two-time Super Bowl MVP’s most impressive regular season could be right in front of him.
5. Panthers QB Cam Newton — A team’s record plays a role in the outcome of MVP voting, and Carolina is going to need at least a few more wins than it had last season (6-10) for Newton to be a viable candidate. If he takes another step after his remarkable rookie season and the Panthers are contending for the postseason, he will be in the conversation. We are guilty of factoring in upside here more than anywhere else, but it makes sense, given Newton’s youth and ability.
6. Broncos QB Peyton Manning — We saw what happened to the Colts as soon as Manning went away. It was not pretty, but it did reaffirm his value. After a year off, will he return to the form that made him a perennial MVP candidate with his new team? If he’s anywhere close to the Manning of old, he could quickly close the gap between him and his little brother on the Meter.
7. Lions WR Calvin Johnson — It speaks to Johnson’s unique ability to change games that we have him listed ahead of a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback and the player responsible for getting him the ball. He is the best receiver in a passing league and defenses have yet to figure out how to stop him.
8. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger — Aside from Peyton Manning, who did not play a down for the Colts last season, this is our first candidate that did not play for a top-10 offense last season. Roethlisberger’s credentials as a winning quarterback speak for themselves, but there is room for increased production from him in his first year working with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Pittsburgh ranked tied for 21st in points per game last season and we expect that number to improve.
9. Lions QB Matthew Stafford — Yes, Stafford outproduced the player ahead of him on the Meter by leaps and bounds last season. He threw almost twice as many touchdowns and about 1,000 more yards than Roethlisberger. If statistics alone dictated where we placed players, we would not really be analyzing value and Stafford would be much higher on the list. Stafford, like Newton, still has to prove he’s a consistent winner before he makes a big jump on the Meter.
10. Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul — If any defensive player can put together the kind of season it would take to be considered alongside the likes of epically productive quarterbacks for MVP, it’s Pierre-Paul. He’s capable of making 100 tackles and 20 sacks. He almost did it last season in his first as a starter.
On the cusp (in alphabetical order): Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, Texans RB Arian Foster, Eagles RB LeSean McCoy, Ravens DT Haloti Ngata, Jets CB Darrelle Revis Ravens RB Ray Rice, Chargers QB Philip Rivers, Falcons QB Matt Ryan, Eagles QB Michael Vick, Cowboys OLB DeMarcus Ware.