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NFL Preview 2019: Jimmy Garoppolo, three other MVP sleepers in the NFC

NFL Preview 2019: Jimmy Garoppolo, three other MVP sleepers in the NFC

Football fans are beginning to get the itch. As teams post graphics counting down the days to the start of the NFL season, hope for all fans is at its highest point. We've been without college and pro football (sorry AAF fans) since early February, but the dog days of summer are just about over and NFL training camps finally begin starting up next week.

With the NFL's designated enemies Bill Belichick and Tom Brady bringing home their sixth Lombardi trophy with the Patriots in 2018, every team in the NFL has its heart set on dethroning the boys from Foxborough.

When it comes to individual awards, several standouts from the NFC brought home hardware last season. Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald was the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley brought home the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. But when it came to the NFL MVP, there was little debate as to choosing anyone besides Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. 

As we take a look at some of the longshots from the NFC who could grab the throne of NFL MVP, we only considered players who had odds at 80/1 or worse, according to the Westgate Sports Book. With the criteria set, let's examine four potential dark-horse picks for the NFL's most valuable player.

Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers QB

The case for: Garoppolo has shown the ability to quickly adapt to schemes and has won six of his first eight starts with the organization. Several NFL analysts have mentioned Garoppolo as an outside-the-box candidate for MVP, including NBC Sports' NFL Analyst Chris Simms. George Kittle should be even more motivated after a breakout 2018 season, as he can now (hopefully) play an entire season with a franchise QB as opposed to the Nick Mullens/C.J. Beathard experiment the 49ers trotted out last season. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has experience building players into MVP-caliber players, as he was the Falcons' offensive coordinator when Matt Ryan won the MVP in 2016. With one of the NFL's top offensive minds at the helm of the 49ers coaching staff, Garoppolo should be put into plenty of positions to be successful in 2019 and could bring the NFL MVP trophy back to the City by the Bay for the first time since Steve Young won it in 1994.

The case against: Garoppolo has only played eight games under Shanahan, and the lack of proven weapons at the receiver and running back positions could backfire for a QB with limited reps in regular-season action. The team faces the 11th toughest schedule in the NFL this year, and if the defense can't stay healthy, this team will have a hard time staying in games and could force the offense to play from behind frequently. An offensive line that has been hit or miss outside of Joe Staley could regress, all but eliminating Garoppolo's chance at taking home the MVP trophy in February.

Christian McCaffrey, Panthers RB

The case for: One of the best dual-threats in the NFL, the former Stanford standout was dominant both in the run and pass game. McCaffrey had 1,965 scrimmage yards in 2018 with 13 touchdowns, and it is not out of the realm of possibility to see McCaffrey reach the very exclusive 1,000-1,000 club, as he was just 133 receiving yards from it last season. If he were to cross that vaunted threshold with rushing and receiving yards -- and the Panthers return to the form that saw them represent the NFC at Super Bowl 50 -- it would be tough to look past the talented tailback as the NFL's top player.

The case against: A running back hasn't won the MVP since 2012, when Adrian Peterson brought home the honors after rushing for over 2,000 yards. In today's pass-happy NFL, the running back position has become much less valuable and so many teams simply plug and play guys throughout the year. With the Panthers once again having little to no elite options in the receiving core, teams will be stacking the box and focusing much of their attention on McCaffrey on every play, which will limit the chances for him to make big plays out of the backfield. Unless he puts together a record-setting season, it's hard to see a running back hoisting the MVP at season's end.

Aaron Donald, Rams DT

The case for: I know, I know, but just hear me out. Donald was just two sacks shy of the NFL's single-season record for sacks in 2018 and also led the NFL with 27 tackles for loss, which was the eighth-best single-season mark in NFL history. Although opponents likely will continue to deploy double and triple teams on Donald, it hasn't seemed to slow him down much the past few years as he has won back-to-back AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards. A team's overall success often ends up being a significant component of the MVP formula, and if the Rams are among the top two or three teams in the league at the end of the season, it wouldn't be far-fetched to see Donald win the first MVP for a defensive player since Lawrence Taylor in 1986.

The case against: Refer to the last sentence of the above paragraph, as no defender has won the NFL's top crown since LT was prowling the NFL sidelines (which was five years before Donald was even born). In an age of absurd offensive production, the rules and officiating have significantly favored the offenses and that doesn't appear to be changing any time soon. Donald would have to be over-the-top dominant in order to be in the running at season's end.

[RELATED: Why Peter King thinks Jimmy Garoppolo key to 49ers making NFL playoffs]

Dak Prescott, Cowboys QB

The case for: Prescott was gifted one of the NFL's best receivers midseason in 2018 when Amari Cooper was traded to the Cowboys from the Raiders in late October. The Cowboys were a playoff team in 2018, and with most of their offensive weapons returning in 2019, they should be in the thick of the conversation once again in 2019. Dallas also has the second-best offensive line (according to Pro Football Focus) lined up in front of him, which once again will afford Prescott plenty of time in the pocket. If he does take that next step and has a season like the one that earned him the 2016 AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, we could see Prescott accepting another major award come February.

The case against: Prescott clearly has not blown away Jerry Jones and the Cowboys' front office, as he is still awaiting a long-term extension with the team. And if Ezekiel Elliott ends up continuing his contentious negotiations with the team into the regular season, it could affect the locker room and generate problems for the 'Boys in 2019. Prescott also reportedly has been tweaking his mechanics in the offseason, which could end up being more of a detriment than a positive. If Elliott ends up still being the focal point of the offense in 2019, Prescott will not even be the top MVP candidate on his own team.

49ers' Kwon Alexander excited to get back on field, return to Tampa Bay

49ers' Kwon Alexander excited to get back on field, return to Tampa Bay

SANTA CLARA -- Linebacker Kwon Alexander is finally ready for his preseason debut with the 49ers, but he’s finding it difficult to not look ahead to returning to Tampa Bay in Week 1. 

“It’s hard, it’s hard,” Alexander confessed. “But you know, I take it one day at a time. Try to make sure my team is straight and I’m straight so once we get there it’s time."

The 49ers' player-performance staff has been limiting Alexander’s time on the field, moving gradually from individual drills to 11-on-11s, and now finally a game. Alexander has tried not to compare his progress to other player’s recovery timetables. 

“Everybody is different so I’ve been working hard, been working my butt off so it’s time to go,” Alexander said. 

Alexander detailed how it's been a long road back, but also how he knew exactly when he was ready. 

"Once I got my speed,” Alexander explained. “Once I could hit it going really fast, being able to cut and everything, and being able to adjust. Now I’m ready to go.” 

Alexander is excited to get on the field after nearly a year away from the game after tearing his ACL late October 2018. He believes it’s a necessary step in getting ready for the regular season. 

“It’s a big thing for me,” Alexander said. “I haven’t played since a minute now so I’m happy to be back out there. I just think playing instead of practicing, playing in a real game, you know it’s better to be ready for the first game, so you get your feet wet, since I ain’t played so I’m ready to go out there and show what I can do.” 

Being away from the game has made the fifth-year linebacker appreciate it even more. 

“I put a lot on it,” Alexander said, “Just for me, ball can be gone away from you very fast. So it just made me be more humble, and just work harder and harder, and now I’m here.” 

One thing that Alexander has been able to do while being kept off the field is influence fellow linebacker Fred Warner and his leadership style. Alexander had nothing but compliments for his partner on the field. 

“He’s just been doing great,” Alexander said of Warner. “He’s very smart, intelligent, he’s going to be nice. I need to keep his name out there alive, he’s going to be a great middle linebacker.”

Alexander sees Warner’s potential even after only a few months together during the offseason. 

“I’ve already seen it,” Alexander said. “This is his second year, too. I remember my first two years and he’s way ahead of me so he’s going to be a great player.” 

[RELATED: 49ers being cautious with Ford, others during short week]

Along with the excitement of his return, Alexander almost seems a little relieved to have this final hurdle just a few days in front of him. 

“I’m back man, I’m back. When we’ve been practicing, I’ve been working on everything. Now it’s just time to take it to the game. It’s time. I’m ready.”

49ers' DeForest Buckner motivated by being left off NFL top players list

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USATSI

49ers' DeForest Buckner motivated by being left off NFL top players list

SANTA CLARA -- DeForest Bucker says getting snubbed from the NFL’s top 100 players list is only more motivation for him. 

Throughout joint practices in Denver, Buckner was a huge challenge for the Broncos offensive linemen. He disrupted the pocket enough for Broncos offensive coordinator and former 49ers quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello to make a comment. 

“He’s one of probably the three or four best interior players in this league,” Scangarello said. "So yeah, he’s always going to be tough to block and if you’re not planning around him, he’s going to cause problems.”

Buckner being left off the list was a surprise to many 49ers fans, players and even to Buckner himself. 

“Yeah, I know, it’s crazy, right?" Buckner said. “You know, it is what is. Honestly at the end of the day, if I’m doing my job and contributing to my team, it’s all that matters to me, and the respect will come. 

Buckner will use the omission as reason make a bigger impression on the league.

"I mean it’s just more fuel to the fire, you know what I’m saying?” 

Buckner, who will make his preseason debut in Kansas City on Saturday, is excited to finally see the field after nearly eight months. He has been impressed with what he has seen from the defense thus far especially in Denver.

“I saw guys were flying around, playing physical,” Buckner said. “I thought the defense looked really good as a whole. Obviously, there are some parts we can fix up on all ends of the field, but I know overall the guys played hard.” 

Much has been noted about the increased speed of the defensive line with the addition of free-agent pass rusher Dee Ford and first-round pick Nick Bosa. Even without the pair of edge rushers playing in Denver, Bucker said the evolution is apparent. 

[RELATED: 49ers backup QB decision won't be made until final cut]

“Most definitely,” Buckner said. “I see a lot more guys confident in their ability and their assignments. Guys are just flying around and hitting anything moving and it’s exciting to see.” 

Buckner plans on playing through the first half of the team's third preseason game in Kansas City. Kick-off is at 5 p.m. PT.