We “finished” our first NFL Thursday miniseries a long time ago, and before the 2022 season ends, we must go back and do our NFL MVP assessment of the 2021 season—so this is somewhat overdue. And, of course, this miniseries will continue as each subsequent season ends, but for now, let’s go back to last season and see what reality turns up for us, shall we? Onward!
2021 MVP: Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay (original); T.J. Watt, LB, Pittsburgh (revised)
Despite lying to his team and the league about his Covid vaccination status, the NFL never suspended Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers—and he still ended up winning the MVP Award vote after missing one game due to testing positive for the virus. This doesn’t lower Rodgers to Tom Brady status, but it does show he’s an idiot who endangered all those around him with his selfish and uninformed opinions.
That being said, it has nothing to do with our analysis here for on-field performance. Rodgers put up another stunning season: league-best 111.9 QB rating, 37 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and over 4,100 yards passing. He led the Packers to the top seed in the NFC playoffs as well. Who is the competition in his own positional category? Eight QBs, including Rodgers, topped the 100-point mark in QB efficiency, and four of them also led their respective teams to the postseason.
Cincinnati Bengals youngster Joe Burrow (108.3), Dallas Cowboys star Dak Prescott (104.2), Los Angeles Rams acquisition Matthew Stafford (102.9), Tampa Bay Buccaneers veteran Brady (102.1), and Arizona Cardinals phenom Kyler Murray (100.6) are possibilities. But … Burrow, Murray, and Stafford finished in the “Bottom 5” for turnovers, and both the Bucs and the Packers won their divisions in a walk—Green Bay by 5 games and Tampa Bay by 4 games. That dings the value of all respective QBs.
Moving on to running backs, Indianapolis Colts star Jonathan Taylor led the NFL in yards by 560 yards, an incredible margin, as he totaled 2,171 scrimmage yards to lead the NFL in that category, too, while adding 20 total TDs (tied for the league lead). However, the Colts missed the postseason by half a game in the AFC, so his value takes a hit there. Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp won the receiving Triple Crown with 145 catches for 1,947 yards with 16 TDs.
The Rams won the competitive NFC West by 1 game over the Cardinals and 2 games over the San Francisco 49ers, so Kupp’s efforts made a huge difference—especially since his QB, Stafford, led the NFL in interceptions. He also finished second to Taylor in scrimmage yards (1,965), so he’s atop our list right now after he finished third in the MVP vote itself. Any other offensive players we want to look at? We think 49ers WR Deebo Samuel, third in scrimmage yards, deserves consideration, too (see below).
On defense, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt tied the NFL record with 22.5 sacks for a team that barely made the playoffs (by that half game over the Colts), and he also forced five fumbles and notched 7 PDs. That’s an all-around impressive performance from a defender, and the Steelers probably would have missed the postseason without him—which is true value. Also, Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs led the league with 11 INTs, while adding 52 tackles and 21 PDs.
But Diggs’ team won its division by 3 games, so his value takes a hit like it did for Brady and Rodgers. That leaves us with Kupp, Samuel, and Watt as our top choices here for the MVP. Kupp’s stats are better than Samuel’s stats (1,770 scrimmage yards and 14 TDs), but with S.F. making the playoffs by just 1 game, there is an argument to be made about value there. But if we go with that logic, then Watt wins all comparisons there, in addition to his NFL-record effort on defense.
Going straight by Approximate Value (AV), something we’ve avoided using except in close debates, Kupp (18) takes the day over Watt (15) and Samuel (14). We’re going to reduce this debate to just Kupp and Watt now, based on that sabermetric measurement. The Rams didn’t have another player over 1,000 scrimmage yards, so the argument is valid that L.A. doesn’t make the playoffs without Kupp, and we know that’s the same case for Watt. So, what about the other side of the ball?
The Steelers offense scored only 343 points as the team was outscored on the season by 55 points—yet still made the postseason with a 9-7-1 record. Meanwhile, the Rams defense was the worst one in the NFC West Division … but by only a handful points, as all four teams finished within 6 points of each other in points allowed. Yet Pittsburgh’s offense scored the fewest amount of points among all 14 postseason qualifiers, by 31 points. The Rams defense was good enough that four other playoff teams were worse.
In the end, due to these peripheral details and the fact his team only made the postseason by a half game, we’re going with Watt here as our MVP pick for 2021. He also led the NFL in TFLs (21) among his 64 total tackles. His versatility is also quite valuable with the broad width of his defensive impact. We think Kupp was outstanding, but he still had a much-better supporting cast than Watt did, despite the AV numbers above. We would not argue hard against any reader who thinks Kupp was most deserving.