6 Under-the-Radar NFL MVP Candidates

By Vincent Frank

The Likes of Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and even Russell Wilson will be the most talked about MVP candidates heading into the 2015 season. Heck, if Tom Brady’s suspension is overturned, he will be in the conversation as well. Such is the nature of the beast in a NFL that seems to value quarterback more than any other position.

And while it’s likely one of those four signal callers listed above will take home the hardware, what about potential under-the-radar candidates for the award? Some say a certain quarterback in Texas was deserving of the nod last year. Could he potentially surprise many by putting up a MVP-caliber season? What about defensive players not named J.J. Watt? Are there any decent candidates there?

Here’s a look at six under-the-radar MVP candidates heading into the 2015 NFL season.

1. Tony Romo, Quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

Most people attributed the Cowboys surprising 12-win 2014 season to what was a record-breaking performance from DeMarco Murray and a dominating offensive line. When not asked to do everything, Romo can be an effective quarterback. At least, that was the played-out narrative surrounding Dallas in 2014.

What people fail to realize is that Romo put up the best season of what is quickly becoming a Hall of Fame-worthy career. He led the league with a 69.9 completion percentage and a 113.2 quarterback rating. He threw for over 3,700 yards with 25 more touchdowns (34) than interceptions (nine). Heck, Romo has compiled a 20-10 record with 65 touchdowns compared to 19 interceptions over the past two years.

What’s to stop the Pro Bowl quarterback from getting MVP votes this season should he lead Dallas to the NFC East title without Murray in the backfield? What if he throws the narrative of being a mistake-prone quarterback out the window once and for all? No one would be able to discount Romo’s value to the Cowboys franchise should he lead the team to the same success it saw during the 2014 regular season.

2. Justin Houston, Linebacker, Kansas City Chiefs

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Justin Houston could break some records in 2015.

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Justin Houston could break some records in 2015.

Let’s get this out of the way. J.J. Watt should have been the MVP last season, so he’s not necessarily an under-the-radar candidate for the award heading into 2015. Instead, that distinction goes to this recently extended monster of a pass rusher.

Basic stats will tell us a story of a player that almost broke Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record with 22 last season. These same stats will tell us a story that includes 43 sacks over the past three seasons. As consistently dominating as it gets from the outside linebacker position, the 26-year-old Houston still has time to develop into an even more awe-inspiring defensive force.

Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Houston out as the best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. And it really wasn’t even close. The former second-round pick finished with a +51.1 grade, nearly doubling up the second player at that position.¬†Overall, Houston finished with 56 quarterback hurries to go with those 22 sacks. An equal overall performance while breaking the all-time single-season sack record and leading the Chiefs to the division title could see Houston earn some MVP votes in 2015.

3. Luke Kuechly, Linebacker, Carolina Panthers

All this former Boston College standout has done in three NFL seasons is earn two First-Team All-Pro honors and win the Defensive Player of the Year award. This past season saw Kuechly record 160-plus tackles for the third straight year. He also added three sacks, a whopping 13 passes defended and an interception.

A key force on one of the most underrated defenses in the NFL, the Panthers let Kuechly roam free from the inside linebacker position. He will stick his nose in there against the run, rush the passer and even drop back into coverage. Consider this: The 24-year-old linebacker allowed just three touchdowns while being targeted nearly 90 times in the passing game last season. With what will¬†be improved secondary play from the middle in 2015, Kuechly should be able to centrally focus on maintaining the line and stopping the running game sideline-to-sideline. If that happens, his presence on the Panthers’ defense will increase even more.

Considering the NFC South is up for grabs once again in 2015, a dominating performance from this studly linebacker could lead to a division title. If that happens, he will potentially receive some MVP play.

4. Philip Rivers, Quarterback, San Diego Chargers

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Rivers is someone to keep a close eye on this year.

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Rivers is someone to keep a close eye on this year.

Rivers is coming off a solid two-year stretch after struggling in the previous couple campaigns. Despite tying for the league high in interceptions with 18 last season, the Pro Bowler still put up nearly 4,300 yards with 31 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Rivers, a lack of a running game really hurt the team. San Diego ranked 31st in the NFL in yards per rush at 3.3 and 30th at 80.4 yards per game. Now that the Chargers added Melvin Gordon in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, Rivers should have a much better running game to work with.

While some will say that a true MVP doesn’t need a running game to lead his team to the playoffs, it’s important to note that both Russell Wilson and Tom Brady relied a great deal on their ground attacks during their postseason run to the Super Bowl. Of the supposedly elite signal callers in the NFL, each had a solid running game backing him up last season.

If Rivers can find that type of balance on offense, he might be on the verge of putting up a career season in San Diego. The team has a plethora of weapons in the passing game and one of the most underrated offensive lines in the NFL. Imagine Rivers leading San Diego past Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos in the AFC West. That alone, would enable him to receive some MVP consideration.

5. Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings are one of the teams I am going to be watching intently this season. Despite playing in an ultra-competitive NFC North, this is squad that has a chance to do some damage in the NFC. Remember, the Vikings lost four of their nine games last season by a combined eight points. With Peterson now back in the fold and additions on both sides of the ball, Minnesota could make some noise in one of the toughest divisions in football.

Some will point to Peterson’s somewhat advanced age of 30 and the fact that he has nearly 2,300 total touches under his belt. However, let’s look at the fact that he took an entire season off and was able to potentially re-energize himself. If the future Hall of Fame running back comes back invigorated, there’s no reason to believe he’s not going to have a tremendous season. Here’s a guy that averaged nearly 1,700 total yards and 13 touchdowns in his first seven NFL seasons. Numbers similar to that with a NFC North crown, and you better believe Peterson will get some MVP consideration. Though, some writers may thumb their nose up at him out of pure “principle.”

6. Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers

Brown would likely have to break every single-season receiving record to even be considered an MVP candidate. After all, he didn’t receive a single vote after putting up a near historical 2014 campaign. That 2014 season in an of itself is reason enough to believe Brown could very well challenge for some NFL records in 2015.

His 129 receptions were second-most in league history, only to Marvin Harrison’s 143 back in 2002. The 1,698 receiving yards Brown put up sixth in league history, about 270 less than Calvin Johnson’s 2012 campaign. If Brown were to break both of these records while leading Pittsburgh to a division title in the ultra-competitive AFC North, he could very well be a dark horse candidate for the award.

Photo: USA Today Sports