Ranking the top 5 NFL MVP candidates

Senior Analyst Mike Renner identifies the top candidates for the NFL's 2016 season MVP award.

| 5 months ago
Matt Ryan

(Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Ranking the top 5 NFL MVP candidates

As we approach the reveal of the NFL MVP award, the time-old debate of “How does one measure value on a football field?” is alive and well. It’s generally accepted that the quarterback position is easily the most valuable on the field. It’s also generally accepted that one cannot provide any value in games they don’t play in.

The difficult question, then, becomes, when does a player actually begin providing value once on the field? Is it once they cross replacement level? Once they’re considered above-average? Once they outplay their backup? It’s a lengthy conversation, and frankly, one that’s been beaten to death already. So, without further ado, let’s examine the five players deserving to be in the discussion for NFL MVP this season.

[Editor’s note: PFF will be revealing the winner of its Best Player award on Jan. 23, 2017. The Best Player award recognizes the best overall performance by an individual player in the NFL for one particular season, regardless of position. For more on PFF’s awards, visit our awards page.]

1. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

The argument against Matt Ryan for MVP usually revolves around one of three things:

  1. Tom Brady’s level of play was higher.
  2. Ryan had a lot of help.
  3. He threw a game-losing pick-two versus the Chiefs.

The first argument we’ll address later. The second seems silly, considering few thought highly of Atlanta’s receiving corps (outside of Julio Jones) before the season. And the final one is a singular game where he made two awful throws and still nearly hit 300 yards. No quarterback in the NFL recorded 15 games this season that can come close to matching Ryan’s best 15.

By almost any advanced statistical measure, Ryan is the obvious choice for MVP. His 4.99 air yards per attempt were tops in the league. His 136.1 passer rating on deep passes (throws traveling 20-plus yards downfield) is the highest we’ve ever seen in our 11 seasons of collecting data, thanks in part to an 11:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio on those throws. Ryan was also the only quarterback this season not to throw a single interception under pressure. When Ryan is putting up numbers the likes of which we’ve never seen in the PFF era (since the 2006 season), it’s hard to keep him out of the top spot.

2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

It was a tale of two seasons for the Packers quarterback. Through the first nine weeks of the season, Rodgers was the 14th-highest-graded quarterback in the league. Over the next nine weeks, though, no QB earned a higher grade. Rodgers finished the regular season with a league-high 40 touchdowns and an NFL-leading 93.8 passer rating under pressure. Over the second half of the season, he had an unbelievable 9:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio under pressure.

Even Rodgers’ first-half struggles, though, come down to three ugly games against the Vikings, Giants, and Cowboys. Outside of those matchups, he recorded a 111.4 quarterback rating and 36 touchdowns, compared to three interceptions.

3. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

When it comes right down to it, Tom Brady missed four games due to suspension. That said, no one player recorded a higher average level of play this season—or arguably in the last 10. But at the same time, Brady provided exactly zero value in a quarter of the Patriots’ games this season. His 0.8 percent turnover-worthy throw rate was the lowest of any quarterback in the past 11 seasons, and his four turnover-worthy throws were fewer than half that of the second-fewest (Tyrod Taylor’s 9). At 39 years old, Brady only seems to keep getting better.

4. Derek Carr, QB, Oakland Raiders

Carr’s MVP campaign took two drastic hits late in the season. The first was one of the ugliest performances all year on a Thursday night game in Kansas City. The second was a leg injury that ended his—and effectively the Raiders’—season in Week 16. What happened prior to that, however, shouldn’t be overlooked.

Through the first 13 weeks of the season, no quarterback had a higher passing grade than Carr. Carr’s season is even more impressive when you consider the fact that no one quarterback suffered more dropped passes by his receivers than Carr’s 37. That’s over three times more than Marcus Mariota had this season in Tennessee (12). In only his third pro season, the Raiders quarterback looks poised to join the elite.

5. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts

If there is a “lack of help” argument to be made anywhere around the NFL, it’s with Andrew Luck and the Colts. On his side of the ball, Luck was given a tattered offensive line with one of the league’s least-dynamic rushing attacks. Defensively, Indianapolis routinely put Luck behind the eight-ball early in games, with few redeeming qualities to speak of.

The only thing holding Luck back from the volume stats he put up in the past was the team’s play-calling. He dropped back to pass over 100 fewer times than he did in his last full season (2014). It was probably for the best, though, as no quarterback was under pressure at a higher rate than Luck (44.4 percent of dropbacks) in 2016. With all that in mind, Luck still earned the week’s highest game grade among quarterbacks in three separate weeks this season.

| 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.

  • Pyrex

    Am I the only one that finds fault with Aaron Rodgers being included in the MVP conversation? ure, his ascendency the last half of the season was epic. His “run the table” comment was a great bit of provocative show business which the media feasts on. Let’s get down to brass tax here. Hows does a player which played like garbage for nearly half the season end up as the most valuable player?

    • James Winslow

      Dude rodgers just trashed the giants great defense. I understand if you want to judge the mvp by his yearly performance, but right now he is clearly the best player in the league.

      • Pyrex

        MVP is judged by yearly performance by definition. The fact you immediately dismissed his performance for the entirety of the season is precisely the basis for the comment.

        • Joe Doe

          The articles suggests Aaron had three ugly performances, and with those included was the 14th QB through 9 weeks. Let’s keep in mind the defense allowed almost 40 points per game over the four game losing streak. To suggest he shouldn’t be the MVP is fine, to call him being in the conversation fraudulent is taking it too far.

          • Pyrex

            Fair enough. With his early season performances included, he averages out to be the 14th best quarterback through nine weeks. What does he average out through the full 16?

          • Joe Doe


        • James Winslow

          Rodgers is the best player right now he should be mvp.

          • Pyrex

            Technically, by that reasoning, all quarterbacks not in the playoffs should be eliminated, right? They can’t even play right now?

          • James Winslow

            Based on the candidates we have at moment, yes they should be.

          • James Winslow

            Yes they should be, its kind of hard to put of mvp performace and not make the playoffs.

    • crosseyedlemon

      I think the fact the Packers struggled so much when Rodger’s play was garbage only goes to emphasize how much they rely on him and that is the basic criteria that determines whether a player is MVP worthy.

    • WhyYouGottaHate

      Because without him they’d be trash. Unlike a certain Tom

      • Pyrex

        Very true. I also concur that MVP, but definition, should be based on value – which is not necessarily talent. Take the Cardinals for instance. Clearly, the MVP would be DJ, right? Unfortunately I have difficulty drawing comparisons between the literal meaning of MVP, and whatever the league is voting on.

        • WhyYouGottaHate

          DJ put in a lot of work for sure and was defintely the Cards MVP. Unfortunately they didn’t win enough for him to be considered overall.

      • dlund6cutler

        Yeah Rodgers is a top 3 quarterback that makes that team win year in and year out. 2013 is the perfect example of when they almost missed the playoffs because Rodgers was out for some time.

        • WhyYouGottaHate

          The fact that they even won four of their first ten was mostly because of him. Even when he was off he was still one of the best.

      • Sam Serra

        Errr…Without “a certain Tom” the Patriots got shut down at home for the first time since 1993. Based on your comment you probably wasn’t alive when the Patriots had to play without “a certain Tom”, but they were mediocre at best back then.

        • WhyYouGottaHate

          Lol one game lost but they won three. Did you know Brady also lost this season?

        • JT

          yeah it took their 3rd string QB playing injured to lose that game….not too mention the Pats basically played Buffalo without McCoy or Alexander when they came back who were the best players on their respective side of the ball for the Bills..everyone in your division swept the Bills.

    • Brian M

      Did he really play like garbage his first 10 games? I’ll admit he did not play to the standard that he set for himself, but he was still pretty damn good. 25:7 TD:INT, 96 passer rating, about 270 yds/game.

      Matt Stafford was in the running for MVP for a long time, what did he do? 94 passer rating, 270 yds/game, 24:10 TD:INT ratio. Pretty similar right? Only difference is those are Stafford’s numbers through 16 games.

      Do I think Rodgers deserves the MVP over Matt Ryan? Probably not. Does he deserve to be in the conversation? Absolutely.

    • ChiTownMike

      Barry Sanders played very medicore early in his MVP season til he carried his crappy team to the playoffs w/most of his 2,000 yards coming in the 2nd half.

      Peyton Manning in 08 started bad til he carried that awful Colt’s team to the playoffs.

      That’s what MVPs do, Matt Ryan has done decent (piggybacking on that run game, healthy and loaded roster, Julio) while Aaron has carried an awful team w/no d, no one healthy and mcCarthy coaching to the playoffs.

  • codered5

    I felt that the “Aaron Rodgers is having a bad year” narratime was pretty overblown. Even when he was “bad” he was alright. I thought they missed on one of the main arguments against ryan. Them nigga in Atlanta was pretty schemed up. A lot of play action from similar or slightly different looks, boots and even the deep passing was wide open and often times not even timely. He also threw into a lot of base defense (at least from what I saw) because of the running game and on field personnel (21 and what not)

    • Woody Mahan

      The best is the best. Rodgers was OK for half the season is an argument AGAINST his MVP candidacy, not for it. There’s no denying how great his 6 games were. But that the award is for the season, not the last 6 games. Despite the racial slurs regarding my city, it is clear that you haven’t watched Atlanta play. Ryan was toying with defenses this year. In 4 games he was so far ahead he sat out the 4th quarter and still put up numbers that lead the league everywhere.

      • SeattleSteve

        How’d Matt Ryan look if his team was wiped out w/injuries, he’d be lucky to look “ok” for half a season w/o Julio and that run game carrying him.

        • BCEagle

          Matt has been there and done that. Made Harry Douglas a 1000 yard reciever while throwing to nobodies for a season behind an Oline that makes the current Seattle line look good. This season he broke a NFL record by throwing TD’s to 13 different players.

        • Woody Mahan

          Well his QB rating without Julio this season is 135.5 so….I don’t know what your point is there. And no QB is mvp quality with his team wiped out with injuries. Rodgers being awesome in general doesn’t change the fact that Ryan was better this year.

  • Conrad Dane Hanson

    I believe Tom Brady is playing like the best player in the league, however, I think anybody in the New England system would have lots of success. Brady rarely has issues with his offensive line and he was suspended for 4 games. I would give it to Derek Carr. Oakland looked like a bottom 10 team to me without Carr.

  • themocc

    Carr’s struggles in KC likely had a lot to do with an injured hand/finger. It’s hard to argue that because the Raiders stunk without him, Carr should be the MVP, as I imagine if Rodgers or Ryan went out you’d see largely the same thing. That being said, he was great in 4th quarters and I think he was arguably the most valuable player to his own team.

    • Joe Doe

      I understand Carr had the injured finger, but I felt his performance was more due to Andy Reid. I felt he just had Carr figured out in that game. Not having Osmele was an issue in limiting their run game as well though.

      I’m not suggesting you’re doing this but I fundamentally disagree with any subjective analysis of player injuries in making decisions for player awards. Just takes you down a rabbit hole of “but ifs.”

      • themocc

        I can’t disagree with you regarding the Chiefs game. Carr struggled in the first match up as well, and has had trouble in general with them. As for the rabbit hole, I think that’s correct. Have to make MVP decision based on performance, and I think Carr should be 4th behind Ryan, Rodgers and Brady. I think it can be argued that no player was more important to his team, however.

    • codestorm

      One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked with this game is the unfavorable circumstance for the Raiders. Those who follow west coast teams understand the disadvantage. Teams lose 2 or 3 hours traveling East. Most TNF games are divisional and in a neighboring or same time zone, or West which gains players 1-3 hours. On a short week, the Raiders had to travel two time zones East to play TNF. TNF games are already mostly duds because teams come out flat due to the short week, even without the travel issue. Del Rio called out the schedulers over this game as soon as the schedule came out. They (and Carr) were put in a disadvantage for their most important game of the year.

  • Stu West

    The Patriots won 3 out of 4 games without Tom Brady, that and the suspension should put him out of the running. Wod the Falcons win without Matt Ryan? I know the Packers wouldn’t win without Aaron Rodgers. O e of these two should be MVP and the other should be Offensive Player of the Year (MVP runner up)

  • bobbyv

    If it’s an MVP award, lights out it’s Carr, the team flamed out without him. Brady may still be the best player, but NE went 3-1 without Brady, and Ryan’s numbers are built in a very weak division.

    • Cash GreenlineEnt

      You realize that Matt Ryan played Carr’s division this year, right?

    • Nathan Akey

      Brady’s career is built in a very weak division.

      • Felton51

        According to Football Outsiders, Ryan faced teams averaging 14th in defense, Brady faced an average of 17th and Carr faced an average of 15th. So any claims of feasting on a weak schedule in 2016 are not true. As far as the claims of Brady feasting on a weak division, I averaged Football Outsiders DVOA ratings from 2002-2016. New England’s average rank is 4th and their average strength of schedule during that times is 15th. The average ranking of their divisional foes in that time span are Jets (15th), Miami (17th) and Buffalo (19th). That’s not really weak, it’s more like mediocre.

        • Nathan Akey

          Brady played against San Fran, St. Louis, Cleveland, Jets x2, Buffalo, Miami x2. That’s 2/3 of his starts this year against junk defenses.

        • Nathan Akey

          Brady faced 3 playoff teams in his 12 starts. Steelers, Dolphins, and Seahawks. Seattle game was home, and Pittsburgh and Miami played backup QBs.
          He also faced the four worst teams in the league Cleveland, San Fran, Jets x2, and LA Rams in 5 of his 12 starts. He played against 6 of the top 10 teams picking in the draft first next year in 7 of his 12 starts. That’s about an easy a schedule as one can possibly get in the NFL.

  • Kevin B. Randolph

    being a 50 year analyst of the game, [was playing fantasy Football in the 60’s, Strat-o-matic ] I think I’m qualified To judge the MVP of the NFL. 1. Brady… If not for the suspension I would give it to him In a razor fine margin. But You don’t reward someone who was suspended with a award for that particular year. 2. Rodgers ….he was God Awful for a period of time in which It hurt his team Dramatically, and barely made the playoff’s. I do understand his running game was hampered by the loss of lacy, but this award doesn’t put that much weight on who was hurt and who wasn’t. 3. Ryan….I am from Atlanta, but In no way am I Bias to Ryan. I am his biggest critique, As he does a few bone headed play’s every year. What Really Impressed me about Ryan this year was his 1 full yard average per pass play advantage over both Brady and Rodgers, it was historically high. Also Ryan was 16 games strong this year, with the exception of a couple off games. If I were to vote the top 5 for MVP In the NFL it would be these player’s In this order. 1. Matt Ryan 2. Tom Brady [ If Not suspended #1 ] 3. Aaron Rodgers 4. LeVeon Bell 5. Zeke Elliot Believe it or not it pained me to select home boy Ryan, as he has disappointed Falcon fans In playoffs for so many years. But he did deserve it, As I see it currently, before playoff game against Seattle!

  • T.O

    So how is it that Tom Brady can have more wins than Aaron Rogers playing 4 less games and grading out as a better QB than him and still end up behind him in this grading. How is it that playing and still losing better value if the goal is to win? If they lose isn’t his value the same as Tom Brady’s? Again how is it that Tom Brady can play four less games and still win the same amount of games as Matt Ryan? You can say Tom has a better team but the PFF rankings also bare out that Tom is also much better than Matt Ryan this year and if they were to have switched teams he would have elevated the falcons and Green Bay to at least one or two more wins (and put up better stats since both teams have better weapons than Tom’s teams).

    • JT

      Pretty sure Brady doesn’t win a majority of those games where their D was hurt and basically a dumpster fire for any QB to tear apart look at how bad they played against the Redskins despite Rodgers tearing them up.

  • Rufus

    Ok, I’m a Raiders fan, so there’s my bias…including not having a fondness for Brady. MVP is 1. Ryan 2. Rogers 3. Carr 4. Brady 5. Elliott. Ryan simply had a great 16 games with 1 blemish to a quality team. Rogers delivered his team to the playoffs despite no run game and suspect defense. Carr made a team more than just relevant after missing playoffs since 2002. Brady was maddeningly great and the suspension, whether you agree with it or not probably robbed him of the MVP. And, I think Elliott made the Cowboys defense better by running the ball so well, which made Prescott look great and yeah that offensive line deserves its’ due, but after Romo went down nobody predicted their season.

  • Stringmaster

    Everyone likes to point out the Brady missed 4 games. He was 11-1 in his 12 games. If he actually played all 16 games then to match Ryan he would have to lose all four of those other games. To match Rodgers he’d have to ….oh wait……he’d have to lose all four games, plus give back one of the wins he already had.