Sean Pendergast

Choosing the Best NFL MVP Dark Horse Candidate

Josh Allen's 2020 season provides the template for picking an MVP dark horse in 2021.
Josh Allen's 2020 season provides the template for picking an MVP dark horse in 2021. Photo by Eric Sauseda
One fun way to bet on the NFL, if you're not into the acute stress of betting week to week is to find an MVP candidate and throw a sawbuck or two down on a futures bet for said candidate to take home MVP hardware. It's a long play that can have a nice payoff, if you deploy some analysis into recent trends.

Indeed, anyone can bet on favorites like Patrick Mahomes (6/1), reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers (11/1), or Tom Brady (14/1) to win the MVP. We've seen those movies before. However, if you want to get the BIG money payout, look at some recent trends over the last four seasons, and the answers to this are right there.

In each of the last four seasons, a preseason long shot, typically a second or third year quarterback on a Super Bowl contender, has either won the MVP or has been right on the cusp of winning it. Consider the following:

2017: CARSON WENTZ, PHI
Wentz was on his way to winning the award in 2017, with an 11-2 record through 13 games. However, a knee injury suffered in that 13th game knocked him out for the season. Brady would go on to win the award, but perhaps more damaging to Wentz's reputation as an MVP candidate was his backup, Nick Foles, going on to beat Brady in the Super Bowl. The Eagles didn't even need Wentz to win their first Super Bowl title.


2018: PATRICK MAHOMES, KC
Other than a late season start in Week 17 of his 2017 rookie year, Mahomes sat for his entire rookie campaign. He took over in 2018 in grand fashion, tossing 50 touchdown passes, winning the MVP, and winning the Super Bowl.

2019: LAMAR JACKSON, BAL
Jackson took over as the starter in Baltimore hallway through his 2018 rookie campaign, going 6-1 down the stretch. In 2019, he set the league on fire, going 14-2, rushing for 1,200 yards, and leading the league in TD passes with 36. He won the MVP award in a landslide.

2020: JOSH ALLEN, BUF
Allen entered his third year coming off a 2019 season in which he improved greatly, and took the Bills to a wild card berth. In his third year, he took about ten steps forward, with 37 touchdown passes, a division title, and a berth in the AFC title game. A 60/1 shot for MVP before the season, he finished as runner-up to Rodgers.

So, based on the trend outlined above, who are the candidates this season, and what's the feasibility argument for each one?

JUSTIN HERBERT, LAC (Year 2, odds 22-1)
Herbert was the Offensive rookie of the Year for 2020. The Chargers fired head coach Anthony Lynn after going 7-9, so we will see what a new staff does to help Herbert build on 2020. The inherent advantage Herbert has in chasing an MVP is that if he has a big season and wins the division, he will have gone through Mahomes to do it.

KYLER MURRAY, ARZ (Year 3, odds 25-1)
It would seem Murray is destine to put up numbers, at the very least. Now he needs to win. Acquiring J.J. Watt should help the defense. Winning the NFC West, the toughest division in football, would look pretty nice on an MVP resume.

TUA TAGOVAILOA, MIA (Year 2, odds 50-1)
The Dolphins were a borderline playoff team in 2020, at 10-6. Perhaps a healthy Tua can take them to the next level. Dealing with the looming trade rumors of Deshaun Watson to the Dolphins adds a degree of difficulty that would be noteworthy when handing out the MVP.

JOE BURROW, CIN (Year 2, odds 66/1)
Burrow is 66/1 for a reason, but coming off a season ending knee injury and navigating a division with three of the best six teams in the AFC (coming into the season) give Burrow plenty to shoot for. When he won the Heisman in 2019, he was a much longer shot to do THAT than he is now to win MVP of the league.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts afternoon drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the post game show for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast