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The Schein Nine

2022 NFL MVP dark horses: Derek Carr, Justin Jefferson, Tua Tagovailoa among sleeper candidates

Free agency's largely behind us. The 2022 NFL Draft is fully in the rearview. The schedule is set. So, it's time for an annual May exercise in this space ...

Ranking dark-horse MVP candidates!

The key component here, friends, is the term dark horse. Everyone knows the MVP favorites. And in case you need a refresher, let's consult the folks over at Caesars Sportsbook. At publishing, they have 11 players with MVP odds of 20-1 or greater:

Eleven great names, and -- surprise, surprise -- they all play quarterback, the position that's claimed 14 of the past 15 MVPs. (Adrian Peterson is the outlier, having earned the honor with his 2,000-yard season in 2012.) I am likely to pick Allen, Rodgers or Herbert when we lock in our awards predictions in a few months. But this piece isn't about them.

Here is my ranking of the dark-horse MVP candidates for the 2022 NFL season, Schein Nine style.

Derek Carr
Las Vegas Raiders · QB

MVP odds: 30-1

As an Associated Press voter, I actually picked Carr as MVP back in 2016, despite the devastating broken leg he suffered on Christmas Eve. I've always been a huge fan of Carr's game and the value he brings to his team, which is what this award's all about. The former second-round pick has been a rock for a franchise that hasn't exactly been a model of stability in recent years. Carr handles all adversity with grace and aplomb while never making excuses. Last year alone, in the span of a month, Las Vegas had to deal with Jon Gruden's shocking resignation, Henry Ruggs III's DUI car crash that killed a 23-year-old woman, and Damon Arnette's release after a video showed him brandishing a gun and threatening to kill someone. Despite all of that, Carr threw for a career-high 4,804 yards and led the Raiders to just their second playoff appearance in the past 19 seasons. Impressive stuff, to say the least.

Now Carr has his college bestie, who just so happens to be the best receiver in the game, as the Raiders brilliantly traded for Davante Adams. Carr and Adams are going to make beautiful music together once again, just like they did back at Fresno State. Especially with new head coach Josh McDaniels running the offense. These additions will lift the 31-year-old passer from great player to certified star. Carr is going to enjoy a monster season, leading the Raiders to the playoffs again. And doing this in the absurdly loaded AFC West will raise his profile even more.

Matt Ryan
Indianapolis Colts · QB

MVP odds: 60-1

Indianapolis missed the playoffs last season with an inexplicable Week 18 loss in Jacksonville, understandably sent Carson Wentz packing to Washington, and traded for the former NFL MVP. Onward and upward, Colts!

Ryan is up in age -- in fact, today is his 37th birthday -- but I believe the four-time Pro Bowler has plenty of gas left in the tank. The fresh start will help. So will having Jonathan Taylor in the backfield, as well as a great offensive line and a fantastic defense. Ryan sorely missed those ingredients last year in Atlanta. Indy had 'em, but lacked leadership and stability at quarterback. Problem solved! Ryan has carved out a Hall of Fame career, and I'll fight anyone who disagrees with that sentiment. I think he leads the Colts back to the postseason via a division title, enjoying a sizzling campaign under center. That's value.

Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · RB

MVP odds: 50-1

I do not believe the Titans are a playoff team in 2022. Heck, I didn't like their chances in the loaded AFC before they shipped A.J. Brown to Philly.

However, I do believe Henry is clearly the best running back in the NFL. If the Titans prove me wrong, it will be because of Henry's special blend of power and speed. And if the workhorse back threatens Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2,105 rushing yards? Well, that kind of historic campaign could be enough to break the QB position's hold on the award.

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · QB

MVP odds: 75-1

My guy Tua is primed for a breakout Year 3. Tyreek Hill is the most explosive wide receiver in the game; putting him in the same receiving corps as Jaylen Waddle is borderline illegal. And I loved the other moves Miami made to prop up the young QB, adding LT Terron Armstead, WR Cedrick Wilson and RBs Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert and Sony Michel. With run-game wizard Mike McDaniel calling plays as the Dolphins' new head coach? Perfection.

Also, I really like Tua as a player. I'm on board. He was great in college, and he's been better than most people will lead you to believe in the NFL, as evidenced by his 13-8 record as a starter. It's about availability, not ability. If Tua stays healthy, I could see him leading the Dolphins to an 11-6 playoff season. And here's the key: I don't think he will be a hood ornament on the ride to the postseason. Tua is going to be the engine for Miami's success.

Deshaun Watson
Cleveland Browns · QB

MVP odds: 25-1

After last week's schedule release, NFL vice president of broadcast planning Mike North came on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports." I asked him a direct question regarding the uncertain status of Watson, who's facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual assault and misconduct stemming from massage therapy sessions.

My question: "In any way, shape or form, did you factor in availability or ask questions about availability for Deshaun Watson when doing the Cleveland schedule?"

North's answer: "The honest answer to your question is no. None of us know. None of us know if he's gonna be here all year, if he's not gonna be here at all. None of us knows what's gonna happen -- and it might not even happen this year."

For what it's worth, Cleveland was limited to two prime-time games. And the NFL is scheduled to meet with Watson this week in Texas.

Here's what I do know, personal feelings about the entire matter aside: If/when Watson plays, he will thrive under Kevin Stefanski and help the Browns win games. At the completion of the 2020 season, in which Watson earned his third straight Pro Bowl nod, he was universally viewed as a top-tier talent at the game's most important position.

Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · QB

MVP odds: 40-1

I really like Philly this year. And I am a believer in Hurts' smarts, leadership, arm and athleticism. I know he can win. We saw it in college -- and down the stretch last season, as Hurts won five of his final six starts.

With A.J. Brown joining the offense -- and with Haason Reddick, Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean joining the defense -- the Eagles have a real chance to win the NFC East. Hurts' completion percentage needs to rise, and I believe it will. Just quickly get the ball to Brown and let him do the YAC work.

Aaron Donald
Los Angeles Rams · DT

MVP odds: 150-1

I've taken to saying that the league will eventually change the Defensive Player of the Year Award to the Aaron Donald Award. He's that special. And while there was some talk of retirement around Donald during the Super Bowl, I'll believe it when I see it.

Now, at first blush, it's hard to see Donald getting MVP love while playing on a team with Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. But game flow matters. You have to imagine all opponents will give the defending champs their best shot in 2022. If L.A. is in a bunch of close games and Donald serves as a Mariano Rivera-level closer -- remember the deciding play in February's Super Bowl? -- the game-wrecking DT will be impossible to ignore. Especially if the Rams win a challenging NFC West and nab the No. 1 seed.

Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings · WR

MVP odds: 125-1

Perhaps the Vikings receiver doesn't get enough credit for being one of the truly elite offensive players in the game today. If so, that's a shame. I've voted him first-team All-Pro in both of his NFL seasons. I mean, look at this production:

  • Year 1: 88 catches for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns.
  • Year 2: 108 catches for 1,616 yards and 10 touchdowns.

And he's done that with a quarterback who doesn't always play well when the sun goes down and a running back who doesn't always play.

Minnesota can surprise people this year with a great new head coach and a fresh infusion of new energy. Jefferson is an alpha dog. His impact goes beyond even his gaudy numbers.

Trey Lance
San Francisco 49ers · QB

MVP odds: 60-1

I love the 49ers' roster. I love the 49ers' coaching staff. I have no idea if they know what they have in Lance. So, yeah, this is something of a shot in the dark.

But it's Year 2 for the No. 3 overall pick. And while Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster for now, he was pretty open about the awkwardness of last season while appearing on my SiriusXM Radio show last month.

"It was a strange year," Garoppolo told me. "I don't know if I'd wish that on anybody."

There are a lot of ifs here, but if Lance is the quarterback, and if he doesn't have Jimmy G looking over his shoulder, the dual-threat playmaker should be able to dance in Kyle Shanahan's offense.

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