NFL’s most valuable player talk includes Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray

Mark Maske (c) 2014, The Washington Post.

The NFL regular season will be more than 40 percent done with the conclusion of Week 7′s games, and no clear-cut choice has emerged yet for the league’s most valuable player honors.

But there are some front-runners, and that group is an intriguing mix, though one dominated by quarterbacks as usual.

There is Denver’s Peyton Manning, the only five-time MVP in league history. There is the virtuoso who replaced Manning in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck. There is another former MVP, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, and a consistently productive veteran who nevertheless is a relative newcomer to MVP discussions, San Diego’s Philip Rivers.

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But there also are some non-quarterbacks in the MVP conversation, making things even more interesting.

Dallas running back DeMarco Murray has keyed the Cowboys’ surprising success. Houston’s J.J. Watt has further cemented his status as the league’s top defensive player with the sort of versatile, offense-disrupting performance that practically defies listing him at any particular position. He simply plays defense, lining up all over the place and doing virtually everything.

A solid MVP case could be made at this point for each of the six players, and any could pull ahead of the others as the season progresses.

Here’s how one ballot would look, in order of preference, at this point:

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1. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers

The Chargers are 5-1 and lead Manning’s Broncos in the AFC West, and Rivers probably has been the league’s best and most consistent performer so far.

He has completed 69.3 percent of his passes. He has 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. He has an NFL-best passer rating of 117.6. Rivers’s passer rating has been above 120 in five straight games, a first in league history. His worst single-game passer rating during the five-game stretch of brilliance is the 123.8 that he posted in last Sunday’s victory over the Oakland Raiders in which he threw for 313 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

The 11th-year pro has been a very good quarterback for a very long time in San Diego, though he lacks the postseason success of his two fellow headliners in the 2004 NFL draft. Eli Manning, for whom Rivers was traded on draft day, is a two-time Super Bowl winner for the New York Giants and Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl winner for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Could this be Rivers’s turn to grab the spotlight?

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“I’d say Watt is the best player,” former NFL quarterback Babe Laufenberg said this week. “But he was probably the best player last year, too, and they [the Texans] only won two games. If your quarterback is the best player in the league, you’re not winning only two games. I’d have to say it’s one of those two guys in the AFC West, either Rivers or Manning.”

2. Andrew Luck, QB, Colts

Luck leads the league in passing yards and touchdown passes, and he has the Colts in first place in the AFC South at 4-2, riding a four-game winning streak.

Luck was a solid quarterback from the moment he first stepped on an NFL field. But he continues to get better. His passer rating went from 76.5 as a rookie in 2012 to 87.0 last season; now it’s 99.6. He cut his interceptions from 18 as a rookie to nine last season. They’re back up this season, with seven in six games. But to complain too much about that seems a little bit like nitpicking for a quarterback on pace to throw for 5,299 yards and 45 touchdowns.

Manning won last season’s MVP award in Denver and could be en route to another. It is perhaps the greatest testament to just how good Luck is that neither the Colts nor their followers seem to have any second thoughts whatsoever about the decision to release Manning and draft Luck in 2012.

3. Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos

Manning is on course to throw for 4,896 yards and 48 touchdowns this season. He is two touchdown passes shy of Brett Favre’s NFL career record of 508.

What else is new? He is the greatest regular-season quarterback in NFL history. That is almost undeniable after he set single-season league records last year with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns and extended his record for most career MVP awards.

What matters at this point is securing a second career Super Bowl triumph. That would do far more for Manning’s legacy than a sixth MVP award would.

The Broncos came close last season but were overrun by the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. The defense of the Seahawks is experiencing some growing pains this season following some modest offseason retooling, and Manning and the Broncos were far more competitive when they lost in overtime in Seattle earlier this season. Denver is back in the mix for a possible Super Bowl run, and Manning is playing at his customary high level.

4. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers

Rodgers was the NFL’s MVP in the 2011 season when he had a passer rating of 122.5 on the strength of a 68.3 completion percentage, 45 touchdown passes and only six interceptions. It was among the greatest seasons ever for a quarterback.

He is having another remarkable season, with 15 touchdown passes and only one interception through six games for the Packers. He has connected on 64.6 percent of his passes — actually relatively low by his standards — and has a passer rating of 111.4.

Rodgers doesn’t have a great running game or defense on which to lean. The Packers rank 24th in the league in rushing offense and 19th in total defense. Yet he regularly has been able to elevate previous Green Bay teams with deficiencies on defense, in the running game or along the offensive line, and he’s doing it again. The Packers are 4-2 and tied for the NFC North lead after Rodgers worked some late-game magic to beat the Miami Dolphins last Sunday.

The award is about being valuable, and Rodgers means as much to his team as any player in the league.

5. DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys

There are several reasons for the Cowboys’ stunning 5-1 start. The dominance of their offensive line, the contributions of quarterback Tony Romo and the surprisingly decent play of their defense have been key factors.

But nothing has been more important than the production the Cowboys get when Romo turns and hands the ball to Murray and he runs behind his talented blockers.

Murray leads the NFL with 785 rushing yards. That is 243 more than the league’s No. 2 rusher, Pittsburgh’s Le’Veon Bell. Murray is on pace to run for 2,093 yards this year, which would be the third-best single-season total in NFL history. He also is on course to have 424 carries, which would be the most ever in a season.

Murray has joined Jim Brown as the only runners ever to have six straight 100-yard rushing games to open an NFL season.

“I think he’s got to be in the [MVP] discussion,” said Laufenberg, who played for the Cowboys and other NFL teams and now is a broadcaster in Dallas. “He’s doing things that only Jim Brown has done when you talk about running for 100 yards in the first six games. The Cowboys are definitely totally surprising and he’s a big part of why they’re winning. There are other reasons, the offensive line and all of that. But he’s definitely in the discussion.”

6. J.J. Watt, DE, Texans

Defensive players rarely are factors in the MVP race. But merely giving Watt the defensive player of the year award doesn’t seem like enough.

He does it all. He lines up in the middle of the defensive line. He lines up outside. He pressures the quarterback. He knocks down passes. He has an interception. He puts points on the scoreboard, with two touchdowns on defense and one as a receiver this season.

“I think J.J. Watt is the best player in the league,” Laufenberg said. “I watched tape to get ready for that [Week 5 Cowboys-Texans] game and, I mean, I knew he was good, but maybe I didn’t know how good. Houston is not really a national team and you don’t see him as much. But he’s as good as I’ve ever seen. He pretty much just wrecks your offense. He goes inside and he goes outside. He’s like a combination of Randy White and Reggie White.”