A quarterback has won the NFL's MVP Award every year since 2012, and there hasn't been an MVP that wasn't a quarterback or running back since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. This year, however, there could (and should) be a stop to both trends.
There is a list of four players who could win MVP without being a quarterback: Tyreek Hill, Christian McCaffrey, AJ Brown, and T.J. Watt. Hill and McCaffrey have been viewed recently as outside MVP candidates, while Brown and Watt may seem like somewhat surprising additions to the conversation.
First, let's start with Hill's case. Through nine games, Hill has 1,076 receiving yards and is on pace for 2,032 yards, which would shatter Calvin Johnson's record of 1,964 yards that he set in 2012. On top of potentially being the first to ever reach 2,000 yards in a season, Hill also leads the league in receiving touchdowns, with eight, and is on pace for 15.
The problem for Hill is that no wide receiver, including Jerry Rice, has ever won MVP. Among those who arguably should have won it is Cooper Kupp, who had arguably the greatest season by a wide receiver ever in 2021, when he had the second-most yards in a season and won both Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP.
Now, let's look at McCaffrey's resume. This season, McCaffrey is on pace for 1,411 rushing yards and 640 receiving yards, which would put him at over 2,000 all-purpose yards, as well as 24 total touchdowns. Out of the five players with 25 total touchdowns in a season, three won MVP; Marshall Faulk in 2000, Shaun Alexander in 2005, and LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 all won MVP, while Emmitt Smith in 1995 and Priest Holmes in 2003 fell short. If McCaffrey can manage to get to 25 touchdowns on the season, he would stand a pretty good chance at winning the award.
AJ Brown's case is different from Hill, McCaffrey, and even Watt, who we will talk about later, because Brown might not even be the best player on his team. Brown is somewhat overshadowed by his teammate, Jalen Hurts, who has potentially been the best quarterback in the league this year.
This season, Brown is averaging 111.7 receiving yards per game, and he is currently on track for 1,899 yards and 11 touchdowns. His stats may not seem as impressive as Hill's, but Hill plays in a much more pass-heavy offense than Brown, and Brown’s Eagles have a much better all-around receiving core than Hill's Dolphins do.
The Eagles have Brown, Devonta Smith, Dallas Goedert, and a very good pass-catching running back in D'Andre Swift, while the Dolphins only have Hill and Jaylen Waddle (who has not been as good this year as he has been in seasons past), so Hill sees a greater percentage of his team's overall offensive targets than Brown does. This isn't meant to downplay Hill's success, as it is merely meant to explain the difference in their respective stat-lines and to explain why, even though he is lower than Hill in every offensive metric, he should still be firmly in the MVP conversation.
Lastly, we have Watt, who has probably been the most impactful player toward his team's success out of every player in the league at any position this season, and probably over the last three years, as well, with the exception of maybe Patrick Mahomes. The 2021 Defensive Player of the Year, Watt has been playing at a similar level to that season this year, as he is on pace for 19.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, and 11 passes deflected; he is on pace to finish second in sacks, fourth in forced fumbles, first in fumble recoveries, and first in passes deflected among edge rushers.
For the past three years, Watt has been the difference between the Steelers finishing with winning records and finishing with less than five wins. In two of the Steelers’ three losses this season, specifically against the Jaguars and Texans, Watt hasn't shown up at all (in the loss against the 49ers, he played well, with three sacks, a fumble recovery, and five hits on Brock Purdy).
Additionally, unlike the players who are ahead of him in sacks and forced fumbles (including Myles Garrett, who is considered to be the favorite to win DPOY), Watt has not been on a consistently great defense this season. The other frontrunners for DPOY, including Garrett, Micah Parsons, and Nick Bosa, all have great supporting casts around them, so if they have an off game, it doesn't throw off the entire defense.
Watt doesn't have that luxury, as out of the other three players who have been consistently great for the Steelers’ defense in recent years, those being Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cameron Heyward, and Alex Highsmith, only Highsmith has been playing at his traditional level. Heyward has been injured all season, and Fitzpatrick has suffered multiple smaller injuries that have kept him out of several games. The Steelers are 6-3 at the time of writing, but if they didn't have Watt, it is fairly easy to see them being ~2-7 with no chance of making the playoffs.
If someone were to ask me who I think should be MVP based on the first half of the season, I would either say Hill or Watt. However, there are eight people I could see winning the award: Hill, McCaffrey, Brown, Watt, Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mahomes, and Garrett. Hopefully, this is the year where a non-quarterback wins MVP, because there are four players who are more deserving than any quarterback.