Who deserves 2021 NFL MVP? League sources, PFF analysts chime in

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers takes the field for warm up before the game against the Lions on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022, at Ford Field.

Hub Arkush,  an NFL reporter from Chicago, became the main character on Twitter last week when he told a local radio station he would not give Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers his vote for MVP.

The old axiom goes that, “Each day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.” Arkush, who works for a number of different publications including Pro Football Weekly, said on 670 The Score that he would not vote for Rodgers because he didn’t believe you could be the “biggest jerk in the league” and also be its most valuable player.

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Arkush was sufficiently dragged by many, including but not limited to Rodgers himself.

Arkush apologized for his comments, but it was too late. Ultimately, Arkush did much more harm than good if his goal was for other voters to follow suit and not vote for Rodgers, the heavy betting favorite for the award with -480 odds. If anything, he swayed the opinion that if you don’t vote for Rodgers, it must be for some external or off-field factors.

The reality is this year’s MVP race should cast a wide net of candidates. There is no clear-cut MVP this season based on the available criteria, and many people share Arkush’s opinion that someone other than Rodgers is more deserving of the award.

PFF polled a group of over a dozen NFL executives, coaches and players. Around half said they would cast an MVP vote for Rodgers, who led his Packers to a 13-3 record but missed a game as an unvaccinated player after testing positive for COVID.

“That’s a seven-win team, at best, without him,” one NFL quarterbacks coach said.

An NFL exec cast his unofficial vote for Rodgers but gave Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow — who finished first with a 91.2 PFF passing grade — his due.

“I’m really high on Joe Burrow, too,” the exec said.

Burrow received other mention as well. Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who led the NFL with 145 catches for 1,947 yards and 16 receiving touchdowns, and Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who tied the single-season record with 22.5 sacks in just 15 games played, were non-QBs mentioned by people around the league.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians went public with his vote: Bucs QB Tom Brady.

“If he doesn’t get it, it’s a travesty,” Arians said Monday. “Most completions ever, 5,000 yards, touchdowns, the whole nine yards. To me, it’s not even a close race.”

But Rodgers, who leads qualified QBs in EPA (expected points added) per play, was the most popular MVP candidate inside league circles.

Rodgers played until Week 18 without starting left tackle David Bakhtiari. Bakhtiari’s replacement, Elgton Jenkins, filled in admirably, though, and earned an 82.3 overall PFF grade before tearing his ACL in Week 11. Rodgers also lost starting tight end Robert Tonyan midway through the season with a torn ACL, and Green Bay’s defense played most of the season without two of its best players in edge defender Za'Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander.

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Through it all, Rodgers finished this season with PFF’s fourth-highest overall grade and passing grade among qualified quarterbacks while earning the NFC’s No. 1 seed and a first-round bye.

The race was closer and split between Rodgers, Brady, Burrow and Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, when polling PFF’s analysts.

Here’s how the voting shook out:

  • Rodgers: 45.8%
  • Brady: 41.7%
  • Burrow: 8.3%
  • Herbert: 4.2%
Tom Brady Aaron Rodgers Joe Burrow Justin Herbert
PFF Passing Grade 90.8 87.7 91.2 86.2
Completion % 67.5% 68.9% 70.4% 65.9%
Yards 5,316 4,115 4,611 5,014
TDs 43 37 34 38
INTs 12 4 14 15
Turnover-worthy play rate 1.9% 2.0% 2.4% 1.6%
Big-time throw rate 5.6% 6.4% 6.4% 3.8%

PFF’s Steve Palazzolo laid out the strongest case for Brady.

“The bottom line in the MVP discussion is the entire body of work counts, and Tom Brady has been the most valuable player in the NFL in 2021. From his individual performance outside of his teammates to clutch moments to team success, Brady has added more value to his team by a wide margin and should be voted NFL MVP and first-team All-Pro quarterback.”

Brady, whose Bucs dealt with their own litany of misfortunes, tops the list of qualified quarterbacks with a 92.0 overall PFF grade. He also leads the next most valuable quarterback in PFF’s WAR (wins above replacement) metric by 16.3%. Brady lost wide receiver Chris Godwin and running back Leonard Fournette late in the season, while tight end Rob Gronkowski missed five games and Antonio Brown played less than half of the season before being released. Tampa Bay’s secondary was banged up for much of the season, as well, yet the Buccaneers went 13-4 with Brady under center.

Player PFF WAR Overall PFF Grade
Tom Brady 4.71 92.0
Joe Burrow 4.05 91.7
Justin Herbert 3.92 90.1
Aaron Rodgers 3.14 90.0
Cooper Kupp 0.73 92.3
T.J. Watt 0.32 89.5

Burrow should be in the running for MVP with Rodgers and Brady based on his PFF metrics, and his candidacy is made even more impressive by the fact that he’s coming off of a torn ACL suffered during the 2020 season and playing with a poor offensive line.

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, a popular midseason candidate, didn’t get any votes from league sources or PFF analysts despite an incredible season. He finished his 2021 campaign with 332 carries for 1,811 yards with 18 touchdowns. He registered 1,272 yards after contact. 

Rodgers will most likely win his fourth NFL MVP, pushing him past Brady, Brett Favre, Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas, all of whom have three MVP awards, into sole possession of second place behind Peyton Manning, a five-time winner. Rodgers is the betting favorite and was the most popular pick among NFL sources and PFF analysts. But there’s a case for other players unrelated to anything that occurred off the field before or during the 2021 NFL season.


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