PFF’s Most Valuable Player of 2015

Analyst Mike Renner reveals Pro Football Focus' choice for MVP, as well as four runners-up to the honor.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Michael Perez)

(AP Photo/Michael Perez)

PFF’s Most Valuable Player of 2015

MVP is always one of the most hotly-contested awards, due to the simple fact that there’s no working definition of “value” across all voters. So, we’ll start off with how the PFF team defined value.

Pro Football Focus selected players based on their total impact above a replacement level player for every single snap they played this season, obviously using our grades as a guideline. The quarterback position has, by far, the lowest replacement level of of any position we’ve calculated. A QB also can significantly impact a high percentage of plays, so naturally, they are our first choices for MVP. Wins and losses are not factored in, as we are looking solely at the individual. It’s also important to note that these decisions were made irrespective to supporting casts.


Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals

No one was even close to being as consistent as Palmer game in and game out. It was a truly dominant season, nearly on par with those we saw from Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in the “Year of the Quarterback” back in 2011. Palmer didn’t have a single game graded negatively, and only three of his games earned a grade lower than +2.0 (0.0 for a game is average). The reason? Downfield accuracy and efficiency, the likes of which we haven’t seen in the PFF era.

It’s easy to look at Palmer’s 63.6 completion percentage and declare him inaccurate, but that disregards the fact that his average depth of target was the deepest in the NFL this year (11.3 yards downfield). The average completion percentage in the NFL on throws targeted between 10-20 yards downfield was 54.6 percent—Palmer’s completion percentage on those same throws was a ludicrous 62.6 percent.

It follows naturally that Palmer would have a ton of his yards come before the catch. He was only fourth overall in total yards passing (4,671), but in terms of air yardage, Palmer had the most in NFL by almost 200 yards (2,923). His 5.4 yards in the air per attempt was the highest we’ve seen in our nine seasons of charting, and over half a yard better than Cam Newton’s.

Maybe the most amazing part of it all is that it came seemingly out of nowhere. The highest Palmer had ever previously finished in PFF’s QB rankings for a season was 10th, and that was all the way back in our first year of grading, 2007. At 36 years old, Palmer had an all-time season in him.

First runner-up

Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers

Newton showed this season that when you put him behind a competent offensive line, he can make magic. PFF has always graded Newton out well as a passer in the past, despite having bland stats, but this year he took it to the next level, as he cleaned up the issues with his decision-making that hampered him in the past. In his first four seasons, his turnover-worthy throw rate was at 3.7 percent—that dropped to 3.1 percent this season. This also coincided with a jump in his big-time throw rate going from 6.1 percent of his attempts to 7.0 percent. That’s a fancy way of saying he was throwing to more open guys down the field than covered guys.

What really bumps Newton up is his work in the run game. His running grade was the highest of any quarterback in the league this year, but it’s still difficult to quantify all the ways his mobility impacts a defense. Newton had 92 designed runs this season, averaging 4.75 yards per attempt on those carries, scoring nine touchdowns, and converting 30 first downs.

The biggest thing keeping Newton from the top spot? His stretches of inaccuracy. His 71.9 accuracy percentage was good for only 20th in the NFL. That’s to be expected to some degree, having the second-highest depth of target in the league (10.9 yards downfield), but he had by far the most throws graded at -0.5 (simple misses) of anyone on this list.

Second runner-up

Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

After a scintillating start to the season, Brady limped into the barn a bit without Julian Edelman or any semblance of an offensive line. It was still easily the best football we’ve seen Tom Brady play since 2011, and would have been MVP-worthy in most other years.

Third runner-up

Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks

He wasn’t even in the conversation through the first half of the season, but closing out the year with the third-highest grade over his last seven games nudged him into the conversation. His 78.4 accuracy percentage was the third-highest in the league.

Fourth runner-up

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Roethlisberger played as well as anyone else in the league when healthy this year, but missing four games ruins any serious MVP consideration. Roethlisberger couldn’t provide the same impact that others could in only 12 starts. He still finished with five games graded higher than +5.0 (0.0 is average), the most of any QB.


For more PFF awards, visit the following pages:

All 2015 PFF Awards

Dwight Stephenson Award (best player in NFL)

Offensive Player of the Year

Rookie of the Year

Comeback Player of the Year

Breakout Player of the Year

Most Improved Player of the Year

Best Pass Rusher

Best Run Defender

Best Coverage Defender

Best Offensive Lineman


Thanks to the support from the Ohio Film Office.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • dlund6cutler

    All Qb’s… I thought Aaron Donald would be on this list.

    • Mike R

      All Playoff QBs, Aaron Donald is a beast but his position doesn’t hold as much value. Plus, the Rams defense was pathetic.

    • NAJ

      His exceptional play didn’t get his team into the playoffs though. These Qb’s did. It’s why QB play is valued so highly because they are often the difference between success and failure. The QB’s whose teams didn’t progress this week compared to the 4 that did should show you that. Hoyer, McCarron & Cousins specifically were just awful. The only QB that progressed who wasn’t very good on the weekend was Wilson, but he still made a great play for the only TD of that game.

      • dlund6cutler

        Yeah makes sense

    • Chris B

      It’s the “Value” portion. While he is the best player this year, a DL can’t match the value of a QB. They should just change the name from MVP to MVQB.

  • tn05

    I wonder how good Carson Palmer would look if you gave him Ted Ginn, Jericho Cotchery, and Philly Brown instead of Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown. If his Raiders years are any indication: not very good.

    • Richard

      Funny how you didn’t name Greg Olsen. Just because you don’t know who the receivers are doesn’t mean they weren’t any good. Jericho Cotchery had 7 seasons better than he did this season and his best years were with Chad Pennington. He is a better receiver than people want to give him credit for. He was a 3rd down machine with the Jets. Ted Ginn is fast and does a good job of getting open. His only weakness is that he is inconsistent in catching the ball, which is why he never got a starting job. The fact is he was a great college player and a first round pick. His lack of success in the NFL is because of his catching ability, which was still a problem this year. Newton didn’t make him a better receiver, the Panthers just didn’t give up on him. Greg Olsen has always been a good tight end.

      • Jeremy Kellar

        I think the point is Ted Ginn, Jericho Cotchery, Philly Brown, and even throw in Greg Olsen aren’t even in the same conversation with Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Micheal Floyd, and David Johnson. Not even close

        • Jra

          Cardinals also played a much tougher schedule, lost CJ for the season when DJ wasn’t playing well (yet) and had issues with the offensive line (Cooper was benched, Massie was suspended first two games). The line gave up a ton of pressures this season. Also AZs run game isn’t near the level of Carolinas. Arizona really struggled in short yardage situations until DJ finally got going, look at the loses to StL and Pitt as an example. Not apples and oranges.

        • Richard

          I don’t think it’s as far off as you think. Ted Ginn and John Brown are similar players. They’re small receivers with speed. Brown probably has better hands. Brown was a 3rd round pick out of Pittsburg state and Ginn was a 1st round pick from Ohio State. Maybe, Brown’s success is because of Palmer. Greg Olsen and Larry Fitzgerald are both great players and are basically the threats in the middle of the field. Since Olsen is a tight end, he may get easier matchups to exploit than Fitzgerald does by facing linebackers more often. Michael Floyd is a better athlete than Cotchery and more of a deep threat. Cotchery is probably a better route runner and underneath threat. I would still give the edge to Floyd because of his big play capabilities. David Johnson is a 3rd round rookie. Jonathon Stewart was a 1st round pick. You’re looking at the production of the players and automatically saying the Cardinals players are better, but maybe they’re stats are better because they play with a quarterback who is more accurate and reads the field better. Cam also plays with a much better offensive line.

          • etyb

            Are you really comparing Greg Olsen, a pretty good catch-first TE, with future Hall of Famer Larry “Nice Hands” Fitzgerald? Come on now.

            Ted Ginn is a drop machine.

            Jericho Cotchery would be, at best, a #4/5 receiver on virtually any other team. Corey Brown wouldn’t even BE on any other team, but Carolina’s WR depth chart is so poor that they had to play him.

            Past years’ draft positions mean nothing now. Ryan Leaf was a first rounder. I think he’s in jail. Tom Brady was a sixth rounder. He may well win his fifth Super Bowl ring.

          • Richard

            Does it matter how much better Fitzgerald is than Olsen? Does Olsen get open and does he catch the ball? That’s what matters. Olsen averaged 3.2 yards more per catch than Fitzgerald did. So it’s not like Fitzgerald is a bigger play threat.

            Yes, Ginn is a drop machine, but he makes big plays when he doesn’t drop the ball. So he may hurt Newtons stats with drops, but PFF accounts for that.

            Cotchery was the 3rd receiver for the Steelers in 2013, prior to going to the Panthers. He was the #2 or #1 receiver for the Jets from 2006 – 2009 and the #3 in 2010. So you’re wrong to say he would be that low for any other team. He has been a productive receiver since 2006 outside of his first 2 years with the Steelers who had Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders both years and Hines Ward for 1 of those years.

            I won’t argue about Brown, since I never mentioned him in the first place.

            The point about draft position was to reference the players physical ability which is where a QB’s ability can overcome the deficiencies of a teammate. There is nothing a QB can do about a receiver that drops the ball. So, Newton doesn’t make Ginn a better receiver since Ginn’s weakness is the ability to catch the ball consistently. All Newton can do is continue to throw him the ball and hope he catches it.

          • bigtrip

            Actually Ginn played with Palmer last year and was pretty much benched because Brown was better, this year with Cam he had 10 of his 21 career TD catches over his 9 years in the league. Yep, 1 year with Cam he has half of his career TD catches.

          • Richard

            Brown is better because he is better at catching the ball, there is no argument there. Outside of the drops they are similar players. The point is, Cam is not the one responsible for Ginn having his best season ever because Ginn’s weakness is not physical. It is catching the ball, something Cam can have no effect on. The reason Ginn had his best season with Cam has everything to do with opportunity. All other teams gave up on him because of his drops. The Panthers did not. That is all it is. It is true that Cam’s numbers are lower because of Ginn’s drops but I’m sure that PFF has credited Cam with all of those drops and Cam still doesn’t measure up to Palmer.

          • bigtrip

            I think you fail to realize that the threat of Cam running helps his WRs. Even when he doesn’t run he can extend the plays, which helps his WRs. Ignoring those facts, is why you fail to see the value of Cam over Palmer.

          • Richard

            If it helps the receivers to get open because the defense has to focus a defender to Cam’s mobility then it helps Cam in having open receivers. The thing is, Palmer was still more productive than Cam was (by 222 yards) when you add in rushing yards and Palmer had 66 less attempts (passing and rushing combined). Cam’s rushing TD’s is the only aspect that pushes him above Palmer. How many of those were inside the 5 yard line and not necessarily the only way the Panthers could have gotten the TD’s? How much does Newton’s poor accuracy hurt his receiver’s stat lines or force them to make tougher than necessary catches. How often does Cam run for a short gain when a bigger play could have been made through the passing game? Mobility doesn’t always help receivers. Sometimes teams will play coverage and try to keep a mobile QB in the pocket. That doesn’t help a receiver’s ability to get open. It does help the line but that also helps Newton because he doesn’t have as much pressure to face. There are so many factors involved.

  • Michael Sullivan

    I wonder how good Carson would’ve with no running game no OL lafell Martin ands banged up amendola as WRs?
    Thought so.

  • bigtrip

    Cam wins the real MVP in a landslide. Way too much value placed on deep throws by PFF. Don’t you think having the receivers that Palmer has makes his deep throws a little easier than Cam’s.

    • Cyteria Knight


    • Yas

      Still takes skill to throw it down the field to the correct position that the wide receiver can make a play on it. All these athletes are more than adequate to catch a ball that is accurately thrown. Like the article says the main reason Cam doesn’t win is because overall he has missed his target completely with no external influence.

      • bigtrip

        Well, the article will be wrong because Cam will win and win with ease. I’m not even a Cam fan, but I know Carson couldn’t do what Cam did with the Panthers but I think Cam would still have the Cards in great shape.

  • Chris B

    People think Cam deserves it for primarily 3 reasons:
    1: Wide Receives- People, if Ginn dropped a perfect dime from Cam, PFF gives Cam the grade as if Ginn caught it. This WR argument is pointless. If you read the article rather than skimmed it, you’d notice that Cam by far the “most misses” of any one on the list.
    2: Carson couldn’t win with Carolina but Cam could with Arizona- What does this even mean? This thinking makes no sense. By this logic, pick any QB in the league and insert them into the discussion. Brian Hoyer could win with Carolina’s OL and run game, with Arizona’s receivers and (pick a Defense).
    3: QB wins- QB’s are the most important position on the field, hands down. But 46 players suit up on game day. One player getting credit for the win, regardless of position, is stupid. Bridgewater is 0-1 in the playoffs because his kicker choked. But people just see the 0 wins. That’s silly.

    • Roary Pouges-Smith

      I understand your position, but give me the QB responsible for getting the ball into the endzone more than any other player in the league. Points win football games, PERIOD…Besides Cam was 80% of the Panthers offense, while Palmer was 63%, that’s a huge difference and a clear indication of whose the most valuable player.

  • The1WhoKnocks

    Hahahahahahahaha…Seriously, Carson Palmer???????