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The Sharp Edge

Analyzing the 2020 NFL MVP Race

by Warren Sharp
Updated On: September 10, 2020, 6:33 pm ET

Having seen massive success in last year’s MVP market, I wanted to weigh in on the 2020 race. Last year I was super-high on Lamar Jackson. And the Ravens. That second part is key, as we’ll discuss momentarily below.

Jackson was a player not many wanted to believe in. Everyone saw him struggle mightily against the Chargers in the 2018 Wild Card game, and a lot of people suddenly formed opinions (not based in facts but only in their eyeballs) that Jackson isn’t a good passer and can only cut it by running the ball.

Being a contrarian by nature, I wanted to find something in my offseason research to rebut their belief. And I did. I uncovered that everyone was wrong about Lamar Jackson. Jackson posted the best passing season we’ve seen from a 21-year-old passer in NFL history.

I also believed in what the Ravens were going to do with him. So I saw an edge in betting on Lamar to win MVP and on the Ravens. Jackson opened at +8000 to win the MVP last offseason. And the Ravens were forecast to finish in 3rd place in the AFC North.

Needless to say, with Jackson winning the MVP in a 50-0 vote and the Ravens posting the NFL’s best record at 14-2, it was quite a good offseason.

So let’s dive into the 2020 MVP race, but first, we have to understand timing and results.

MVP voting doesn’t occur until early January each year, after the regular season concludes. Take a look at the last 10 winners, and something will be exceedingly surprising:

2019: Lamar Jackson (QB) - Ravens 14-2 - #1 seed
2018: Patrick Mahomes (QB) - Chiefs 12-4 - #1 seed
2017: Tom Brady (QB) - Patriots 13-3 - #1 seed
2016: Matt Ryan (QB) - Falcons 11-5 - #2 seed
2015: Cam Newton (QB) - Panthers 15-1 - #1 seed
2014: Aaron Rodgers (QB) - Packers 12-4 - #2 seed
2013: Peyton Manning (QB) - Broncos 13-3 - #1 seed
2012: Adrian Peterson (RB) - Vikings 10-6 - #6 seed
2011: Aaron Rodgers (QB) - Packers 15-1 - #1 seed
2010: Tom Brady (QB) - Patriots 14-2 - #1 seed

The player to win the MVP was a quarterback in 9-of-10 seasons, which is not surprising. But what is surprising is the team to produce that QB MVP had a playoff bye every single season. 9/9, 100%. In other words, the voters don’t look at who IS playing the first week of the playoffs, they look at the team that is NOT.

Obviously, all of these teams had great seasons, and a large part of “why” they were great was because of the outstanding play from the quarterback position.  

If we want to approach the 2020 MVP betting market, we should be looking for a quarterback in a situation to excel coupled with a team that could make a legitimate run to a first-round bye. Teams that are most likely to produce MVP candidates are playoff teams projected to do something special in January, and not just Wild Card teams, but the best teams of the entire season.

This year, Lamar is only +700 and Patrick Mahomes is way down at +400. Now that Tom Brady is in the NFC, along with Russell Wilson, Drew Brees, Dak Prescott, Kyler Murray and Carson Wentz, the single only other QB forecast to finish in the top-9 in MVP voting odds is the Texans' Deshaun Watson, with his team’s 7.5 win total.

I don’t believe the 2020 Texans make a run to the AFC’s No. 1 or No. 2 seed, so I have no desire to tie up a future on Watson.

And looking at the landscape of the AFC in general, I really think the two best teams in the entire NFL are the Chiefs and Ravens. But +400 or +700 to tie up money for four months is not lucrative enough on something as fickle as the MVP in my opinion.  

I will add that part of the reason Mahomes won it in 2018 and Jackson won it in 2019 was how they exceeded all possible expectations anyone had of them in those seasons.

Because of how we now view both QBs, there is almost nothing they could do that would blow away all expectations. And, as such, there simply isn’t enough value there. I do think it’s more likely that Mahomes delivers the MVP in 2020 than Jackson, but the odds already reflect that.  

If it were not for the strength of the Chiefs and Ravens, two teams I would look at are ironically both starting quarterbacks from the 2004 draft class who did not play full seasons for their current teams in 2019 -- the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger at +4000 and the Colts with Philip Rivers at +6000. I think both are playoff teams, so that is a definite qualifier.  

But I absolutely have injury concerns for both. Roethlisberger off an elbow surgery and Rivers with what doesn’t seem like the most in-shape arm to carry through the entire season. I don’t like Ryan Tannehill at +8000 simply because I think the team will run the ball too much and won’t require enough passing production, which is a concern I have about Rivers as well. I’ll only mention Josh Allen at +6000 because, while his team is likely to make the postseason, I don’t envision him doing enough statistically, particularly as a passer, to merit true consideration. Conversely, I believe Baker Mayfield at +5000 will put up much better numbers than he did last year, and while I believe in the Browns to make the playoffs (and bet on them to do so), I don’t see this team being a strong enough contender in a top-heavy AFC (Chiefs, Ravens) to be in contention for a first-round bye. And since that’s such a qualifier in recent seasons, while I did consider Mayfield, I’m not sold.

As such, if there is value to be had, it likely comes from the NFC side of the ledger. Teams not forecast to secure the No. 1 seed that I think have a shot at doing so, which is where you find value, include the Cowboys, Seahawks and Eagles. I think all three of those teams have underrated quarterbacks. Russell Wilson doesn’t receive enough appreciation, even though he is viewed as upper echelon. Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz both are underappreciated as well, but neither are viewed league-wide like Wilson in my opinion. That’s irrelevant from a MVP perspective; all we need is a shot at the No. 1 seed and a great passing performance.  

The problem is that Wilson is only +800 and Prescott is +1400, the No. 3 and No. 4 lowest odds in the market. And I don’t see as much inherent value in players among the top in consideration for the award pre-flop. I would be spending more time lobbying for Wentz if he didn’t lose his RG and his LT before the season even started, along with his No. 1 and No. 3 WR. He’ll get his receivers back with plenty of time to do damage, but the offensive line itself is still compromised.

I absolutely considered Matthew Stafford at +3300 to have a nice season, but that would put him into contention for Comeback Player of the Year, rather than winning the MVP, because I don’t trust the Lions Defense enough to believe they are vying for a first-round bye.

Being unable to find enough value from a longer shot, and in a season of potential coronavirus issues, being unwilling to back a shorter favorite to tie up my money for months, I’m sitting out the 2020 MVP race. I’ll look to repeat my 2019 Lamar Jackson success in 2021.

In the meantime, for those of you looking to get involved, I’ll remind you of two tenets: you’re better off backing a quarterback and one that you think has a shot to land homefield advantage in the playoffs. Additionally, you should also look to bet their team’s futures. I’d recommend betting the “yes” for their team to make the playoffs and bet the over in their win total. That’s the best way to ensure that even if you’re right on a quarterback having a good season but he is eclipsed by another candidate, you’re still making money. And that’s the goal of the process at the end of the day.
 

Warren Sharp

Warren Sharp is a football and betting analyst for NBC Sports. As a leading voice in football analytics, Warren writes a yearly book previewing the upcoming season from all angles at his Sharp Football Analysis website. You can follow Warren Sharp on Twitter @SharpFootball.