Why Cowboys guard Zack Martin is the one NFL MVP candidate no one's talking about

The Dallas Cowboys running game took off in 2016 with the addition of Ezekiel Elliott in the backfield and Dak Prescott under center, helping Dallas claim the No. 1 seed in the NFC and prompting furious, weekly debates about what player from Dallas should be the MVP.

Reality is, there isn't one single selection and quarterbacks ultimately rule the day when it comes to the award. But right guard Zack Martin, the Cowboys' first-round pick in 2014, is a name no one mentions enough.

Here are three reasons he is the 2016 NFL MVP candidate no one is talking about.

1. Martin's skill set

Everyone should be able to agree that Martin is a dominant offensive lineman. Coming out of Notre Dame, Martin was considered a pretty strong bet to go in the first round, but he fell because the guard position isn't always valued as highly as other positions. He's a perfect fit for the Cowboys at right guard, though, and one of the main reasons the offensive line is so destructive.

Martin is capable of knocking down stud defensive tackles like Fletcher Cox with one arm while still getting to the next level and opening up a hole for Elliott.

For every epic Elliott highlight, there's usually an equally impressive play being made by one or multiple offensive linemen for the Cowboys.

When Elliott busted out a 60-yard touchdown run against the Bengals -- going untouched -- Martin was pushing Cincy defensive tackle Geno Atkins right where he wanted, opening up the cutback lane for Elliott to burst into the open field.

Martin is strong, quick, smart and technically proficient, not to mention capable of moving quickly in a space the size of a phone booth.Look at the blow he delivers on this linebacker trying to burst through the hole.

He can lift a 225-pound human being pretty easily.

Martin is nimble as all get out, and works fantastically as a pulling guard, opening up holes and opening up the playbook for what the Cowboys can do.

Elliott gets the highlights ...

... but look where Martin (70) is in the second level, clearing out holes when Elliott (21) is about to make his cut up field.

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via NFL Game Rewind

You won't see Martin in this shot of an Elliott touchdown run against the Steelers ...

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via NFL Game Rewind

But that's because he has already evaporated his defender (and maybe someone else).

Martin is one of football's finest pancake purveyors.

It's simply not up for debate that he's one of the best offensive linemen in the league.

2. Martin's value

Here's the interesting thing about Martin: He's part of a group that excels at everything you would want an offensive line to excel at, but the Cowboys didn't really take off as a dominant run team until they acquired him in 2014.

As a rookie, Martin posted an Approximate Value (AV) of 14, the same score he registered at Pro-Football-Reference in 2016.

There have been 12 seasons by an offensive lineman in the past three years with an AV of 14 or higher. Martin has two of them and he is the only lineman with more than one.

Pro Football Focus graded Martin as the second-best guard in the NFL in 2016, behind only Marshal Yanda, which was also the case in 2014.

Martin was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three years in the NFL and made the first-team All-Pro in two of those years, nabbing a second-team honor in the other one. His impact was immediate on the Cowboys offensive line.

Just like the rest of the team, the Cowboys offense is a sum of its parts. It's hard to discern one specific player that stands out. The Cowboys need Prescott, they need Elliott, they need center Travis Frederick and they need left tackle Tyron Smith, the latter two of whom also registered on the list of players with high AV seasons over the past three years.

The Cowboys offensive line is a carefully constructed unit comprised of first-round picks who dominate at their respective positions. But there's one more thing that gives Martin the edge on everyone else ...

3. Martin's what-if scenario

Martin almost didn't become a member of the Cowboys. In what became a well-documented and yet-still-barely-believable story from the 2014 NFL Draft, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was smitten with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Jones believed Manziel could be the future at quarterback for the Cowboys in a post-Tony Romo life and also saw Manziel as a marketing boon for Dallas. He wanted to take Manziel with the No. 16 pick, eschewing need and talent in order to acquire a celebrity as his backup quarterback.

In Jones' own words, he was "that close" (we assume he held up a circumcised mosquito at this point) to taking the former Heisman winner.

"I want you to know that almost as I was handing in the card, it was that close to putting that Manziel card in. It was that close," Jones said in 2014. "I looked over to my son, Stephen, our chief executive officer, and I said 'I took the right pick.' ... He was the top player by three players on our board at the time that we were sitting there looking at him."

The lore of that night is a little lost on Jones himself. According to author Jim Dent, there was a card with Manziel's name on it "snatched" out of Jerry's hands by son Stephen Jones.

And according to this Austin Murphy profile of the younger Jones at Sports Illustrated from earlier this month (which somehow flew under the radar), Jerry was absolutely trying to wrangle support for Manziel.

"So there we were, staring at Johnny and Zack Martin," Stephen says. Jerry went around the table trying to wrangle support for Manziel, but he came up empty. "Lonely is the right word," Jerry says. "I don't think there was another soul in the room" who shared the owner's enthusiasm for Johnny Football. Instead, Jerry suggested his team trade out of the pick. "But no one was calling to trade," explains Stephen. By this time the boss "was not happy," says the son. Exasperated, Jerry finally asked, "So no one in this room wants to take Johnny Manziel?"

"There wasn't a peep," says Stephen, who told his old man, "Dad, we need to take Zack."

The rest is, of course, history. Manziel flamed out of the NFL and Martin went on to become a key part of a dominant offensive line and looks set to receive a huge contract and spend a long time playing with a really young and talented Cowboys team.

But don't just think about the 1-for-1 trade of Manziel and Martin. Think about the ripple effect of all this. The Cowboys probably don't give up on Manziel as quickly as the Browns -- who knows how he would have looked in 2015 for them. But they probably aren't drafting Prescott.

Maybe DeMarco Murray has a good year, but not good enough to win Offensive Player of the Year, in 2014, and the Cowboys re-sign him for market value when he isn't as heavily pursued by other teams. That could've led to Zeke never being taken either.

Without the Martin draft selection, the Cowboys as we know them heading into 2017 -- young and stacked for the future -- don't exist at the same level.

Martin shifted the course of the Cowboys franchise both on and off the field. If that's not the true sign of a player's value, I don't know what is.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Will Brinson joined CBS Sports in 2010 and enters his seventh season covering the NFL for CBS. He previously wrote for FanHouse along with myriad other Internet sites. A North Carolina native who lives... Full Bio

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