Breaking Down the 2019 MVP Dark Horse Candidates: Is Garappolo the Steal at +8000?

Cameron Smith

We're still weeks away from NFL training camp, but the standing odds on the 2019 NFL MVP competition are rounding into form. Yes, reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes is the favorite to repeat with +400 odds, but there are some fascinating contenders much farther down the list, beyond the top-10. No, we're not talking about Aaron Rodgers (who sits second at +800).

First, some basic assumptions:

— The 2019 NFL MVP will be a quarterback, because they virtually always are. In 2012 Adrian Peterson won the award with the Vikings. The six seasons since then? All quarterbacks. In fact, one has to go back to 2005 and 2006 to find the last time two non quarterbacks won the award in back-to-back seasons (Shaun Alexander of the Seahawks and LaDanian Tomlinson of the Chargers, respectively), and that was a very different offensive NFL. Suffice to say, the winner will be a quarterback.

— Only two active quarterbacks have won the MVP award more than once: Tom Brady (three times, most recently in 2017) and Rodgers (twice, most recently in 2014). Cam Newton, Matt Ryan and Mahomes are the other passers who could win for a second time this year.

— Neither Drew Brees or Andrew Luck have won the award yet, which would seem to make them prime contenders, based purely on the number of impressive seasons they've already had without winning the award (eventually they should break through, right?). They don't meet the dark horse criteria we set out here — Luck has the third best odds at +800 while Brees is tied for fourth best at +1,000 — but they're notable candidates to consider when making a wagering decision.

OK, now, on to the names who would bring back a serious return, and why they might have a chance. Note: these candidates are in order of their prospective return should they win the award, not necessarily the likelihood we think they will.

— Jimmy Garappolo, 49ers +8000

Yes, the 49ers have a lot of work to do to be competitive, but getting Garoppolo back under center should be the single biggest factor in their potential success. The former Tom Brady understudy was electric in his first half a season after being acquired in 2018, and he was keeping San Francisco competitive before he was lost with a torn ACL.

There's no doubt that Garappolo's resulting lack of positive statistics are behind his stratospheric odds. His lack of premier receivers on the roster make him a less likely possibility than most of the other potential realistic contenders. 

About those stats: The 49ers ranked 26th in Real Quarterback Rating and 24th in Offensive Passer Rating. Those performances aren't on Garoppolo, who started just the first three games (at which point the 49ers were still struggling at 29th and 18th in the previously discussed stats, respectively). Whats more telling is Garoppolo's Quality Stats from the 2017 season after his trade to San Francisco. Beyond the 4-0 record he posted in the final four weeks of the season, the 49ers ranking in both Real QBR and Offensive Passer Rating jumped significantly after he was acquired. San Francisco entered Week 14 ranked 29th in Real QBR and 30th in Offensive Passer Rating. They finished 25th and 28th, respectively. No, jumping four spots and two spots isn't worth writing a novel about, but it's very difficult to develop positive movement in the rankings independently that late in a season. Garoppolo did that (and then got paid for doing so).

None of these factors are realistic indicators that Garoppolo will make the leap and become an MVP front runner this season, but they highlight why it might be possible, independent of other factors.

— Jared Goff, Rams +6000

OK, hear us out here. Yes, we saw the Super Bowl, too. But Goff's season was much more impressive than one relative dud (which in and of itself was a testament to the Patriots defense more than a commentary about Goff's ability as an NFL quarterback).

Goff has a few ancillary factors that sometimes move voters in MVP discussions. After the Super Bowl loss, a rebound season from Goff would both thwart the recent narrative about non-Tom Brady Super Bowl losing quarterbacks struggling in subsequent seasons. That in itself might stand out for voters. Goff is also entering Year 3 under wunderkind coach Sean McVay, which coincides with the period of time in which he's been truly recognizable. Another solid season will establish him as one of the successful NFL quarterbacks that both the public and analysts consistently talk about.

Then there's the anticipated lighter workload of star running back Todd Gurley and the departure of two stalwarts on the offensive line. Both of those are destabilizing influences that anyone could point to if Goff struggles. If he thrives instead, that's a credit to him.

But forget all that and look at the numbers. The reason to like Goff's odds is that he's a quarterback (box checked) for a winning team (box checked) who could still improve on his prior statistical figures.

In 2018, the Rams finished 11th in Real QBR and eighth in Offensive Passer Rating. Those are fine, but not earth shattering, and both actually should improve in 2019. Goff will return the same corps of receivers, and there's no reason why his 13 interceptions from 2018 shouldn't shrink. Duplicate all his other numbers while cutting that total to seven — something achieved by Brees, Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan — and the Rams (ergo Goff's) ranking would be right there in the top-four in Offensive Passer Rating. There's a similar storyline behind the team's Offensive Passer Rating position: Goff simply threw too many INTs (13) and fumbled the ball too many times (11!!). Cut down on those, and the Rams are right at the top of the Real QBR rankings, too.

The case for Goff is essentially that simple: Same wins + same receivers + fewer turnovers = MVP candidate. Executing the plan isn't as easy as developing it, but Goff may very well be driven to get it done after that performance the first Sunday in February. 

— Cam Newton, Panthers +6000

First things first: To buy in to Cam Newton's MVP candidacy, one must recognize and agree on two factors:

1) Newton's effectiveness is directly tied to his health. He was healthy for most of the 2017 season and the Panthers made the playoffs, despite some struggles through the air. He wasn't healthy through a stretch of 2018, and Carolina missed out. Yes, there were other factors, but Newton's health and ability and willingness to attack both through the air and on the ground are paramount for the Panthers.

2) The new throwing motion that Newton has developed — and which he debuted at the team's minicamp this month — is not a gimmick.

That second factor is actually more important than the first. As we've detailed here, Newton went through the same process as Luck prior to his 2018, at Tom House and Adam Dedeaux at the 3DQB center in California. That bore tremendous fruit for Luck, both in terms of his efficiency and his ability to remain healthy.

Despite the final results from 2018, Newton's numbers were actually trending in a positive direction. The Panthers finished just 19th in Offensive Passer Rating, but that was up from 24th in 2017, largely due to a significant improvement in Newton's completion percentage (58.48 to 67.1 percent). And just like the aforementioned Rams, who finished just above them at 11th in Real QBR, turnovers were realistically the lone factor keeping the Panthers from challenging the top of those rankings. Like Goff, if Newton can cut down on a few more errant pass interceptions and limit his fumbles (six in 2018), his statistics should fall in line with what voters would want to see in an MVP candidate.

Of course, his personal progress is just one part of the battle. To actually win the award, the Panthers will have to win. Looking for good news there? Not only is Newton apparently fully healthy, but the Panthers missed the playoffs in 2016 after their Super Bowl 50 debacle, then returned in 2017. They missed out in 2018. Perhaps 2019 is their year back in? Carolina fans — and Newton's bettors — can only hope.

Deshaun Watson, Texans +6000

There's no debating how impressive Watson's 2018 regular season was. There's also no debating the stinkbomb he let off in the Divisional Playoffs. His MVP candidacy in 2019 rests on replicating what went right, positioning himself for playoff success, and hoping that slight statistical improvements and an NFL that readily embraces new age quarterbacks like Mahomes and Watson as its most exciting athletes is enough to win the top award.

As for the stats, there's no question that they were nearly there in 2018 already. The Texans finished sixth in Offensive Passer Rating and eighth in Real QBR. Cut down on three turnovers and the Texans would have flip-flopped with the Patriots for sixth in Real QBR. A couple more touchdowns to the good, and Houston should be competing for the top of both rankings in 2019.

That in turn should make Watson an intriguing candidate. Add in a slightly more forgiving schedule, and perhaps the Texans can finish in front of the Chiefs or Patriots for home field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Would that be enough to sway voters to Watson's side?

That's where the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or, in this case, the voter. Obviously, much would depend on the kinds of campaigns that the other contenders put forward. If Watson can author a slight improvement on the season he had in 2018, he should be in the 2019 MVP mix. Getting there would be a heck of a place for his bettors if they buy in now at +6000.