Fresh off an absolutely dominant performance against the Miami Dolphins to clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed in the NFL playoffs, Lamar Jackson has seized full control of the 2023 NFL MVP race. 

Sportsbooks have Jackson far and away the MVP favorite entering NFL Week 18, putting the sixth-year QB in prime position to join the late Jim Brown as the only players in NFL history to win multiple MVP awards in their age-26 season or earlier.

But has Jackson’s surge to the highest NFL MVP odds been driven by Baltimore’s 13-3 record, or has he indeed been far and away the league’s best player?

Using a combination of traditional statistics and advanced metrics, here’s who should be at the top of the ballots as it stands now.

Note: The NFL’s definition of a qualified passer is a player who has averaged at least 14 attempts per team game (in this case, 224 attempts for the season, since every team has played 16 games).

1. Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers QB

Say all you want about the elite coaching and skill position talent around him. Those things are extremely true, after all – San Francisco’s “Avengers” group of Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle just might be among the best ever assembled.

But many other quarterbacks over the course of NFL history have benefitted from playing alongside legendary play-callers or receivers, and when those quarterbacks have put up numbers even resembling what Purdy has done this season, they typically have ended the season with some hardware.

As a formality, we can start out with the basic stats. Purdy’s 113.0 passer rating is comfortably pacing the NFL, as is his 72.7 mark in ESPN’s QBR. With 9.6 passing yards per attempt, he is not only blowing all other qualified passers out of the water in 2023 (Tagovailoa is second at 8.4), but that mark is also on pace to be the highest in NFL history by any QB with at least 400 attempts in a season.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the current record holder in that regard is another Kyle Shanahan protege: Matt Ryan of the 2016 Atlanta Falcons.

And as the metrics get more advanced, Purdy continues to largely lap the field. His 72.3 true completion percentage (attempts without spikes and throwaways) leads the NFL, and that comes despite having the sixth-highest air yards per attempt (8.6) among qualifiers.

In EVE (our efficiency vs. expected model that measures a team’s or player’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average, based on situation and opponent), Purdy’s total of 1,001.7 passing yards over expected is 300 more than any other player (Tagovailoa is second at 699.9). 

Via Pro Football Reference’s adjusted net yards per attempt (a modification of pass yards per attempt that gives bonuses for touchdowns while deducting for sacks and interceptions), Purdy’s 9.0 mark is the fourth highest in NFL history (min. 400 attempts).

Of the rest of the top 10 in that all-time list, every single one won MVP that season, with the exception of 2016 Tom Brady of the New England Patriots (because 2016 MVP Matt Ryan was even further ahead of him on said list). 

While Vegas odds suggest that Purdy is likely to join Brady in coming up short of the award, metrics across the board suggest that his season is up there with the great ones – no matter how much help he may be getting along the way.

2. Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins QB

Another QB who is no stranger to being helped by elite skill position talent, Tagovailoa has nonetheless put up some dominant numbers as he’s continued to improve year-by-year. 

When any football coach or analyst brings up Tagovailoa’s name, the two traits that pop up right away are his stellar processing and accuracy. The advanced metrics back up these claims.

On “true” attempts, Tagovailoa has averaged only 2.31 seconds time to throw – the fastest among the 31 qualified QBs. Likewise, while he’s gotten the ball out quickly, he’s also put it where it needs to be. He’s thrown a well-thrown pass on 84.1% of his attempts, third among qualifiers behind Kirk Cousins of the Minnesota Vikings and Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Combine these characteristics and you have the ingredients of a breakout season. In addition to ranking second in EVE as mentioned above, the fourth-year passer also leads the NFL with 4,451 passing yards. He ranks second behind Purdy in both true completion percentage (72.0) and passing yards per attempt (8.4).

And he’s one win away from piloting the Dolphins to their first AFC East title in 15 years.

3. Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys QB

Despite their storied history, the Cowboys only have one MVP to their name (Emmitt Smith in 1993). But thanks to a breakout year in his eighth NFL season, Prescott has an outside chance to become the second for a Dallas team that’s battling the Eagles atop the NFC East.

freshly analytically-inclined Mike McCarthy has leaned on Prescott more than ever this season, and the Mississippi State product has answered the call with flying colors.

Prescott leads the NFL with 32 passing touchdowns, also ranking fourth with 4,237 passing yards. In both traditional passer rating (104.2) and ESPN’s QBR (70.5), Prescott ranks second in the NFL behind only Purdy. Notably, one year after having an NFL-high 15 interceptions, Prescott has only had 1.4% of his attempts intercepted in 2023 – the third-lowest rate among qualifiers.

As for what he has done well to achieve these numbers, it’s been a little bit of everything. Prescott is one of three qualified QBs to have a pickable pass percentage below 3.0, while averaging at least 8.0 air yards per attempt and having a well-thrown rate of at least 80% (joining Jalen Hurts of the Philadelphia Eagles and Derek Carr of the New Orleans Saints).

As a result, he ranks fourth in total EVE (trailing the aforementioned Purdy and Tua, along with C.J. Stroud of the Houston Texans), demonstrating that he’s been at his best when Dallas has relied on him the most.

4. Tyreek Hill, Miami Dolphins WR

A few weeks ago, it seemed that the speedster had a more realistic chance to be the first wide receiver named MVP. Through 12 games, he was on pace for 2,098 receiving yards, which would’ve made him the first receiver to hit the 2K mark.

The injury bug has slowed him somewhat since then, but even his current full-season numbers still are a sight to behold.

With an NFL-high 1,717 receiving yards, Hill became the first player in NFL history to reach 1,700 in two consecutive seasons, and he also ranks in the top two in receptions (112) and receiving TDs (12). His 114.5 receiving yards per game are the seventh-highest single-season total in the Super Bowl era (min. 10 games), and his 10.9 yards per target are the highest by any player with 150 or more targets in a season since the metric began being tracked in 1992.

Indeed, what truly makes Hill stand out is his uncanny ability to combine elite efficiency with a very high usage rate – opponents know the Dolphins are going to him, and they can’t stop him anyway.

Hill has been targeted on 37.4% of his routes this season, the highest rate in the NFL among those with at least 250 routes. As shown in the below chart, that hasn’t stopped him from getting open.

(Burn rate is a metric that evaluates when a receiver “wins” his matchup against a defender on a play that he is targeted, regardless of whether the pass was catchable or not.)

burn percentage vs targets

In terms of EVE, Hill’s 622.9 receiving yards over expected comfortably pace the league (Brandon Aiyuk is second at 498.0). Similarly, according to Sumer Sports, Hill leads the NFL with a preposterous 4.57 yards per route run – way ahead of second-place Aiyuk’s 3.17.

No matter how one looks at it, “Cheetah” is running circles around everyone.

5. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens QB

Jackson may not rank quite as high as a few of his colleagues in some of our advanced metrics, but the former Heisman and NFL MVP winner has still had a very strong season.

For Jackson, the athleticism and arm strength have always been there, but what has made 2023 specifically stand out is his pristine decision-making ability. Perhaps partially due to reinforcements like rookie Zay Flowers and free-agent signing Odell Beckham Jr., Jackson has targeted open receivers on an impressive 82.5% of his attempts – third among qualifiers (trailing Russell Wilson of the Denver Broncos and Jared Goff of the Detroit Lions).

As a result, Jackson has thrown a pickable pass on only 2.0% of his attempts, which is the lowest rate among all qualified passers.

Pickable pass percentage vs air yards per attempt

This ability to take what the defense gives him has led to a career year for Jackson by several metrics, as the Louisville product has career highs in completion percentage (67.2) and pass yards per attempt (8.0), while his passer rating of 102.7 is his highest since his prior MVP season in 2019 (113.3).

Consequently, Jackson ranks fourth in the NFL in ESPN’s QBR (65.3), while ranking tied for fourth in EVE per attempt (0.5). 

And, in case you forgot, he can still move too. Jackson is having a somewhat down year on the ground, as his 51.3 rushing yards per game are his lowest in his five seasons as a full-time starter. But, of course, a down year for him still means a career year for anyone else. Jackson leads the NFL with 5.5 rushing yards per attempt (min. 100 carries) and his 821 yards are the most among quarterbacks. 

Because we have seen the last of Jackson this regular season (he will not play this weekend, given that the No. 1 seed is secure), it’s safe to say that 2023 was a thorough reminder that the rest of the league was foolish to pass up on his services this offseason.

6. Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers RB

McCaffrey has become only the 14th player in NFL history with 2,000+ scrimmage yards and 20+ total TDs in a season. And oddsmakers have given him right around the fifth-best MVP odds, depending on where you look. However, he’s in a similar situation as Tyreek Hill.

Thanks to the devaluing of the running back position that has occurred in recent decades, it’s not likely that a back wins the MVP. In fact, no running back has won it since Adrian Peterson in 2012.

Other MVP Candidates:

  • C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans QB: Ranks third with 311.5 total passing EVE, behind Purdy and Tagovailoa
  • Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills QB: Sacked on 3.7% of drop backs, lowest rate among qualified passers
  • Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams QB: Ranks seventh with 177.4 total passing EVE
  • Jared Goff, Detroit Lions QB: 2.2% pickable pass rate, third lowest among qualified passers (behind Jackson and Hurts)

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