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5 non-QB MVP candidates, John Elway talks Peyton Manning's value

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

The MVP is the highest-possible honor awarded to anyone in the NFL. Unfortunately, it's devolved from the "most valuable player" to the "most valuable quarterback on the team with the most wins."

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are often some pretty phenomenal quarterback performances from quarterbacks in the NFL each year and we're seeing a pair of them from the Patriots Tom Brady and the Broncos Peyton Manning, two guys routinely on the list of worthy MVP candidates over the last decade or so.

But since 1990, just six non-quarterbacks have won the MVP, with Barry Sanders also tying Brett Favre in 1997. So when Sportsbook.ag released MVP odds this week, it wasn't surprising at all to see Adrian Peterson -- a man with a reasonable shot at breaking Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record -- listed far behind the quarterbacks. Manning is the favorite at 2-7 odds, Tom Brady is listed at 5-2, Matt Ryan is 6-1 and then Peterson checks in at 8-1.

The argument for quarterbacks sounds sensible: take Manning or Brady off their respective teams and what happens? Obviously a two-win season ... right? Not exactly; Matt Cassel filled in for Brady on the Patriots in 2008 (in between Brady MVP awards) and won 11 games. Manning missed 2011 and the Colts stunk, but they're right back in the playoffs with Andrew Luck.

Few people have a better first-hand understanding of what it means to have a team with -- and without -- Manning than Broncos VP of Operations (and 1987 NFL MVP) John Elway, who brought Peyton to Denver this offseason.

When I spoke with Elway, who's working with Dove as part of their "Journey to Comfort" campaign, he wholeheartedly stumped for Manning as the MVP this season, pointing out that Peyton changed the culture in Denver while producing one of the most dominant seasons of his career.

"You know, there's no question [he deserves MVP consideration] if you look at Peyton's numbers this year, I think he leads the league in passing yards," Elway said after laughing if could objectively analyze at the MVP race. "And I think we've won eight in a row now, so there's no question. Obviously I can't be objective but from the outside, I think you have to look at what he's done, not just on the field but off the field as well in bringing everyone together. And we talked about that mentality of 'We're now competing for Super Bowls' it just makes it that much better for everyone else."

But is Peyton definitely more deserving of the award than, say, Adrian Peterson during a 2,000-yard rushing season? Or Calvin Johnson if he breaks Jerry Rice's record?

The inherent problem is that "MVP" doesn't tell the whole story when it comes to the award because, simply based on the impact they have on the game, quarterbacks are inherently more valuable, something Elway echoed when asked about other big seasons from non-quarterbacks around the NFL in 2012.

"It depends on how you're looking at it. I'm not sure it's named right," Elway said. "It should be 'Player of the Year,' not 'MVP.' If you're strictly talking MVP, obviously the quarterback is the guy who touches the ball every single down. So the quarterback is automatically more valuable. The importance of the quarterback is so important in the game. So if you don't have 'that guy,' it's very difficult for you to compete. So that's what I'm saying -- it's different if you're talking about Player of the Year and you're talking about Johnson and Peterson up in Minnesota and Peyton's in that conversation and now you're looking at who's having the best year.

"But if you're really truly talking about an MVP, I don't think anyone can beat a Peyton Manning because of the value he brings to the table. And that's what you're talking about is most valuable, and sitting at 10-3, there's a lot of value there."

He's right: Denver has Baltimore, Cleveland and Kansas City on the schedule to close out the season. If they finish with 13 wins -- not that unlikely with the way they've played this year and the quality of opponent -- it's quite an indication of how much Manning is worth. The Broncos won eight games in 2011, but it required a number miraculous finishes and a Chargers/Raiders/Chiefs collapse to pull off.

And unlike baseball, we don't have a true way to determine exactly how many wins a single football player is worth.

What happens if you take All Day away from the Vikings this year? Manning could take the Broncos to a 13-win team this season, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's "worth five wins." Gauging Peterson's value is even more difficult: this is a seven-win Vikings team with a quarterback who's averaging 184.3 yards per game and six yards per attempt. They won two games last year and Peterson played in 12 of them. The Minnesota passing game ceased to exist when Percy Harvin went down. Have then been dominant at any point in time? Not really, no. But the one-legged man has carried them throughout this year, averaging an impossible 165 yards per game over the past four games.

We can't just imagine what the Patriots would look like without Brady or the Vikings without Peterson. Presumably both teams would do a decent job of filling their position and, presumably, it wouldn't involve Ryan Lindley or Beanie Wells.

So let's take a list of running backs in the NFL with at least 50 carries this season and plug in a couple of names for Peterson. We get 64 running backs, with the "average" back in terms of yardage gained this season being Alex Green. He's below guys like Bryce Brown but above guys like Mark Ingram and Donald Brown. Five times this season, the Vikings have more rushing yards than passing yards. You give Ponder and the Vikings one of those guys and they win, at best, two games this year.

On the other hand, let's take all the quarterbacks with 50 passing attempts this season. We get a list of 42 quarterbacks, with Ryan Tannehill checking in at the "average." Below Tannehill are Jay Cutler, Ben Roethlisberger and Russell Wilson. Robert Griffin III is 18th.

I don't want to ask whether you'd rather have Brady/Green versus Cutler/Peterson, because most people will scoff and say the Patriots win with below-average backs. But that's looking at things in the wrong way. It's assuming you have Bill Belichick and all that comes along with New England, not to mention an offensive line that doesn't routinely put Cutler's life at risk.

That's not a luxury you'd have building a team; but if you're going from scratch and want to maximize talent, it's not as big a lock. Additionally, think about how far Peterson's performing against the base level of competition right now, not to mention historically.

There's a fun meme about Greg Jennings putting the team on his back -- that's literally what AP's done, and he's done it on a reconstructed leg.

He won't win MVP, and there's no chance that any of the guys below will either. I agree with Elway (and many other people) that quarterbacks are more valuable to teams in the NFL. But the following five guys deserve MVP consideration, even if they don't play quarterback for a team with a pile of wins.

5. Calvin Johnson, WR, Lions

If you want to extend the "what would the Lions be doing with an average receiver in place of Megatron" argument, well, don't bother. Because an average receiver is human, unlike Calvin Johnson, a cyborg sent to Earth in order to destroy receiving records.

Johnson needs 303 yards to break Jerry Rice's single-season receiving record of 1,848 yards that he set in 1995. And Johnson is gunning for it too.

"It's definitely something that I take joy in that my teammates are right behind me on this thing," Johnson said. "They want me to get it as much as I want to get it."

Johnson might break Rice's record and that could garner him Offensive Player of the Year consideration, but he won't sniff MVP because the Lions won't finish better than 4-9. (And with five-straight losses heading into Week 15, that would be impressive.)

4. Von Miller, LB, Broncos

I asked Elway about Miller as well and, obviously, the Broncos VP was effusive in his praise of the potential Defensive Player of the Year.

"He's been unbelievable. It's a real credit to him to be able to bounce back -- he was Defensive Rookie of the Year last year -- but broke one hand last year so he played the second half of the season with one hand and he still won Rookie of the Year," Elway said. "And to come back and have the year he's having -- he's just so disruptive, not only with the sacks but with his tackles for a loss. He's got an interception for a touchdown and he just plays with great intensity.

"He's just a guy who brings that special thing on the defensive side of the ball for us that you can't coach and very, very few people have and that's the athleticism that he's able to take to the field."

Elway also pointed out how "much more well-rounded" Miller's game become in his second year -- the bespectacled linebacker is dropping into coverage more often, disrupting the run game, spying on running quarterbacks like Cam Newton, piling up sacks and just generally destroying defenses.

Manning is the big difference on the Broncos, but Miller's contributions on the defensive end shouldn't be ignored either.

3. Aldon Smith, DE, 49ers

Do you know how many sacks Smith has coming into Week 15? Because you might think it's a lot, but it's actually 19.5. That's not "a lot." That's "on pace to shatter the single-season record."

In fact, Smith has the ninth-most sacks in a single season in NFL history right now. He needs just three more sacks to tie the record set by Michael Strahan in 2001 and he gets to play the Cardinals one more time. The last time out against Arizona, Smith recorded two sacks and he picked up another against the Seahawks the first time the 49ers matched up against Seattle. Smith will get a shot at Russell Wilson again in Week 16 after trying to take down Tom Brady on Sunday night this week.

It's easy to dismiss records like passing yards and receiving yards as a byproduct of a league that's pass-happy. Maybe you could make the case that more dropbacks equate to more sacks. But it's irrelevant -- Smith's having a major impact on one of the best defenses in the NFL and making life hell on quarterbacks right now.

2. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans

You could say that Watt's "slowed down" since the midseason hype propelled him to be our clear-cut choice for Defensive Player of the Year at the halfway mark. But that's not really true: Watt has six sacks in his last four games, despite being shutout against the Patriots on Monday night in Week 14.

He's an absolute defensive playmaker from the 3-4 defensive-end position, where players aren't supposed to make plays like he does. Watt has 15 pass deflections, two forced fumbles, 16.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries.

The Wisconsin product's become a force in every facet of the game, and is only left out of the MVP discussion because of what side of the ball he plays on. Oh, and he started off too hot, so people aren't enamored with discussing what he's doing right now. Smith and Miller coming on strong at different points in the year don't exactly help him out publicly either.

But with two games against a porous Colts offensive line and a quarterback in Andrew Luck who likes to hold the ball for a long time, don't sleep on Watt making a run at Strahan's record either.

1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings

I've already talked enough about Peterson, but what happens if AP manages to break Dickerson's record and the Vikings get into the playoffs at either 9-7 or 10-6? It's not a likely scenario at all, but if it happens, it means that Peterson put the team on his back and carried them into the postseason.

And that's the very definition of valuable.

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