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2024 NFL MVP dark horses: Jared Goff, Tyreek Hill, Christian McCaffrey among potential candidates

If each NFL season were not full of odd twists, freak injuries and Cinderella stories, you could probably make a pretty safe forecast of the surest candidates for Most Valuable Player every year. In fact, despite all those variable, you can still make a pretty safe forecast. The top quarterbacks in the league are always the frontrunners -- Patrick Mahomes, who won in 2022 and 2018, and Lamar Jackson, the defending MVP, will probably top any list for years to come. Dak Prescott, who finished second to Jackson last season, and Josh Allen, who got the only first-place MVP vote that did not go to Jackson, are also favorites.

But every season also presents a compelling case for a few dark horses to at least merit some consideration, albeit often for just a few weeks at a time. They might be quarterbacks, but maybe not the ones we expect. They might even be -- gasp! -- a non-quarterback. The last one of those to win MVP was running back Adrian Peterson, all the way back in 2012. And before Peterson, the last non-quarterback to win was another running back, LaDainian Tomlinson, in 2006.

Has the era of the non-quarterback MVP passed forever? Maybe, and any projection of even long-shot MVP candidates has to be realistic and include a few quarterbacks of the non-Mahomes vintage. But we want to keep hope alive for everyone else on the field, too.

So, with the NFL in full summer-vacation mode, here's an early look at dark horse MVP candidates, in alphabetical order.

Jared Goff
Detroit Lions · QB

The Lions broke through in 2023, winning the NFC North and getting thisclose to winning the NFC Championship Game and going to the Super Bowl, in large part because Goff has ascended into the top level of quarterbacks. He had the best completion percentage of his career (67.3) and threw 30 touchdown passes to just 12 interceptions. What gives Goff, who just signed a four-year, $212 million extension, a real chance to sneak into the MVP race, though, is what 诲颈诲苍鈥檛 happen this offseason: His offensive coordinator did not leave. Ben Johnson was the hottest of hot head-coaching candidates, but he decided to stick around for another year, giving the Lions and Goff rare continuity for a top-five offense -- teams in that stratosphere usually watch play-callers go through the revolving door on their way to the top job. With receiver Jameson Williams poised to make a big leap after an offseason free of injury recovery or gambling suspension, and with Amon-Ra St. Brown locked in with a new contract, Goff could finally put himself in the conversation as among the game鈥檚 very best. 

Tyreek Hill
Miami Dolphins · WR

Calvin Johnson has predicted that his single-season receiving record of 1,964 yards will eventually fall, and Hill was ahead of Johnson's pace for most of 2023, until a late-season ankle injury limited him to 1,799 yards, which still led the league. For a wide receiver to win MVP -- it鈥檚 never happened -- will require a truly extraordinary season, but Hill is capable of it, thanks to his electrifying run-after-catch-ability and his chemistry with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Staying healthy through 17 games is the challenge for Hill, and it would help if the Dolphins' offense -- which finished first in offensive yardage last season -- does not fade down the stretch as it did in 2023. Miami did not clear 20 points in either of the final two regular-season games, opening the door for the Bills to win the AFC East. 

Christian McCaffrey
San Francisco 49ers · RB

The reigning Offensive Player of the Year finished third in MVP voting in 2023 and probably has the best chance of any current player to break the quarterback stranglehold on the award. Depending on how you define "MVP," you could make a pretty strong case that McCaffrey should be no dark horse. In 2023, the 49ers superstar led the NFL in touches (339), scrimmage yards (2,023) and scrimmage touchdowns (21), and in his career, he averages 115.4 scrimmage yards per game, which is third all-time behind Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. It won鈥檛 hurt his chances that he is on a contending team that will almost certainly be playing meaningful games down the stretch, when voters are deciding their votes. Running backs have been devalued in the NFL, but McCaffrey is special enough to stand out. 

Kyler Murray
Arizona Cardinals · QB

He鈥檚 healthy and thinks he鈥檚 had one of the best offseasons of his career, and he鈥檚 building off a very strong finish to 2023. Murray returned from his 2022 ACL injury in Week 10 last season, but he and the Cardinals offense really took off in the final four games of the campaign -- he completed 70.3 percent of his passes for 935 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. In that span, the Cardinals led the league in total offense, with 414.3 yards per game. And now rookie receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. -- who has earned raves in the offseason -- is added to the mix. When Murray is healthy, he鈥檚 one of the most thrilling players in football. The Cardinals will have to win a lot more games for Murray to catch voters鈥 eyes, but if Murray can pick up where he left off last year, and if Harrison explodes in his rookie season, Murray could at least position himself for future MVP consideration. 

Micah Parsons
Dallas Cowboys · LB

He's the longest of long shots, because the last time a defensive player won MVP it was 1986, nearly 40 years ago, and the one to do it was Lawrence Taylor, merely the greatest defensive player in history. That's a pretty high bar to reach, and Parsons is much more likely to secure a Defensive Player of the Year award. But Parsons is also a star, a disruptive and productive game wrecker on the league's most high-profile team. In 2023, he had 14 sacks, 18 tackles for a loss, 33 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and two pass breakups. The X-factor for Parsons is how new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer deploys him -- if he sets Parsons loose, and the Cowboys are a dominant team, we'll hear Parsons' name a lot, and that should at least include a few mentions as an MVP-level player.

C.J. Stroud
Houston Texans · QB

Stroud likely won't be a dark horse much longer, if he even counts as one at all now following a dynamic rookie season in which he overcame a shuffled offensive line and absences from each member of a superb group of pass catchers. How could Stroud make the leap from 2023 Offensive Rookie of the Year to MVP in just one season? The addition of Stefon Diggs to the cast of weapons will help. Diggs has had six straight 1,000 yard receiving seasons. He scored eight touchdowns in a diminished role in Buffalo in 2023, but he still has the route-running ability and the hands to give Stroud the big-moment security that only a veteran like him can bring. Stroud is already on the MVP radar. Big play in the Texans' slate of prime-time games will elevate him into the conversation quickly, and he will probably stay there for years to come. 

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · QB

Tagovailoa has been in the MVP conversation in previous seasons, only to have injuries -- to himself or others -- quiet the chatter. This season could be different. For one thing, Tagovailoa stayed healthy in 2023, and, not surprisingly, that led him to post career highs in completion percentage (69.3), yardage and touchdown passes. He led the league in passing yards (4,624) and tied for fifth in touchdown passes (29). Now, Tyreek Hill (already mentioned above) is back. Jaylen Waddle just signed a new contract. And importantly, Tagovailoa -- who previously packed on weight in an effort to avoid injury last season -- has slimmed down again in hopes of regaining the mobility that was clearly compromised by the added pounds. If Tagovailoa can manage the delicate balancing act between being mobile and being healthy while still delivering the ball to two of the best receivers in the game, the numbers should get him back in the mix for the highest playing honor. For him to stay in the conversation, though, the Dolphins will have to avoid the late-season scoring difficulties that ultimately doomed them in '23.

Bonus pick

Jordan Love
Green Bay Packers · QB

Love's ascension in 2023 amid the Packers' second half and playoff performance makes him and his team early darlings for the 2024 season. Green Bay boasts a cast of young receivers who should continue to develop, and the running game should be improved with the addition of Josh Jacobs. A higher-scoring offense (the Packers ranked 12th in points last year) would boost Love's profile even more. Love is certainly on the star track, with an eye-popping 32 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions in his first season as the starter for one of the league's most high-profile teams. The only thing that could get in his way is that the Packers would probably have to topple the Lions and Jared Goff at the top of the NFC North for Love to get serious consideration. He, like Stroud, will not be a dark horse for very long, though.  

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