Non-quarterback MVP should be a real award in the NFL. Seriously.
I’d love to be a contrarian and bang the keyboard for a safety to win the actual MVP one year, but the boring take — that quarterbacks are the only players deserving of MVP consideration — is also the correct one. The value and variance of the QB position outpaces every other spot on the field by such a wide margin that the most valuable quarterback is almost by definition the most valuable player.
So we need to find a new way to credit the other playmakers on the field. And while it won’t be an award handed out at the NFL Honors, that won’t stop us from filling out a ballet for the NFL’s top five non-QB MVPs through Week 10. And you might notice a certain running back getting actual MVP consideration is missing from the list.
Let’s jump in, starting with a Pittsburgh pass-rusher making his presence felt all over the field.
Had J.J. Watt stayed healthy, this top spot might have come down to a pair of brothers. But T.J. is living up to his last name on his own.
The Steelers’ pass-rusher ranks fifth in the NFL in sacks this season with 9.5, but he leads the league in Pass Rush Win Rate (32%), the rate at which he beats his defender within 2.5 seconds using data from NFL Next Gen Stats. That means he’s causing disruption at a higher rate than anyone else, even if it doesn’t end in a sack.
Watt also ranks second in the NFL in EPA+, in which we credit a positive defensive play’s EPA to the defender that shows up in the play by play (tackle, sack, forced fumble, fumble recovery, pass defensed or interception). He is only behind Jamie Collins Sr., who made three fairly fluky interceptions skewing the numbers. It’s a crude measurement but one indicative of how many valuable plays Watt — who also has forced four fumbles this season — has been involved in.
He is the leader of a Steelers defense that has willed the team into the playoff picture in the absence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And he won’t be the last member of that unit on this list.
He doesn’t have the sacks (5.5) we might normally associate with a top pass-rusher, but Donald has been just as dominant as ever. He ranks first by a mile in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate among qualifying defensive tackles — the next highest behind his 29% is Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett at 21% — despite the fact that Donald is also double-teamed at the second-highest rate.
I’d go on with the numbers and context, but no words can convey how ridiculous Donald is compared to the rest of the defensive tackle field in the way that this plot can. Here’s how his Pass Rush Win Rate looks against the rate at which he is double-teamed. Donald is all by himself in a world of his own.
Double team rate faced as a defensive tackle (x) by pass rush win rate as a defensive tackle (y).
There’s Aaron Donald…and then there’s everyone else.
(ESPN stats, NFL Next Gen Stats data)
The battle for the most valuable wide receiver is a very close three-way race between Thomas, Tyler Lockett and Amari Cooper. Thomas actually ranks fourth in completion percentage over expectation (CPOE), third in completed air yards over expectation and third completed air yards over expectation per team pass play — and he trails Lockett and Cooper in all three instances.
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But all of those stats are measurements of a combination of contributions from the quarterback and wide receiver. While all three have the benefit of an excellent starting quarterback on their teams, Thomas put up his numbers with New Orleans backup Teddy Bridgewater throwing 62 of his 103 targets.
The difference is in the numbers. Consider that Dak Prescott’s CPOE to non-Cooper targets is plus-4.8%. Russell Wilson’s CPOE to non-Lockett targets is plus-3.7%. The Saints quarterbacks’ CPOE to non-Thomas targets is minus-2.2%. It’s a reasonable guess, then, that Thomas actually has been responsible for a higher share of his completed air yards over expectation.
New England has recorded the best defensive efficiency — expected points added per play, with garbage time down-weighted — of any team in the history of the statistic (dating to 2006). And Gilmore is a big reason why.
When the nearest defender to the targeted receiver, no defensive back has allowed a lower completion percentage over expectation than Gilmore’s minus-11.4%, per NFL Next Gen Stats (min. 30 targets). So based on factors such as distance of target, QB pressure and receiver separation, opponents would be expected to have completed 58% of the passes they attempted in Gilmore’s direction but have actually only completed 46%.
Gilmore also ranks third in success rate when in coverage and sixth in yards per attempt allowed.
If there’s a knock against him, it might be the competition the Patriots have faced, although he’s had to battle with Odell Beckham Jr., JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquise Brown. Even if the slate’s been a little easy, Gilmore has been a shutdown corner on a truly elite defense.
I may well be falling for a correlation/causation trap here, but check out these numbers: In the first two weeks of the season, the Steelers ranked 27th in defensive efficiency, but since Week 3 when Pittsburgh acquired Fitzpatrick, it has ranked third only behind the Patriots and 49ers.
Furthermore, the difference in expected points added per play for the Steelers defense with Fitzpatrick on and off the field this season is 0.27. That’s a truly massive number. If we multiply that by a rough estimate of 65 plays per game, we’re talking about a difference of over 17.5 points per game. With-or-without-you analysis in football is inexact and dangerous given how many other variables are in play, and I’m not suggesting anywhere close to 100% of that is due to Fitzpatrick, but if even a fraction could be attributed to him, that’d be substantial. (And that with-or-without difference does not hold up for Miami, which has played better on defense without Fitzpatrick.)
Fitzpatrick is not the only thing that changed in Pittsburgh since a rough start. In those first two weeks Pittsburgh played a league-high 72% man coverage but has since transformed into a 56% zone coverage team (an above-average amount of zone), according to ESPN pass coverage metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats. It’s possible that a schematic shift was the biggest driver of Pittsburgh’s improvement. But we still can’t ignore Fitzpatrick’s contributions, which include five interceptions since joining Pittsburgh, although three came on deflections.
Even if I were to include a running back on this list (shudders), I’m not so sure the Carolina Panthers’ star is even the right one. If we assign the entirety of a play’s expected points added to the rusher or targeted receiver, Dalvin Cook is a mile ahead of McCaffrey atop the running back leaderboard. Cook has rushed for 15 more first downs than McCaffrey, although it has been on 18 more rushes.
And if we make adjustment to level the playing field between run plays and pass plays, the gap only widens. On rushes only, Cook has a slightly higher success rate than McCaffrey, despite the fact that the Minnesota Vikings’ back has also faced a slightly higher rate of eight-plus-man boxes (24% vs. 21%).
Of course, neither Cook nor McCaffrey are responsible for all of the value of these plays, and this measure of accounting involves no division credit. It may well be that McCaffrey’s teammates are substantially worse than Cook’s, and that’s not something I necessarily feel confident about one way or another. But in order for McCaffrey to be the more valuable running back, that has to be the case.