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5 way-too-early 2017 NFL MVP favorites

FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2017, file photo, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady celebrates a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons during Super Bowl 51 in Houston. Tom Brady's missing jersey from the Super Bowl has been found in the possession of a member of the international media. The NFL said in a statement Monday, March 20, 2017 that his jersey was found through the "cooperation of the NFL and New England Patriots' security teams, the FBI and other law enforcement authorities." (AP Photo/Gregory Payan, File)
AP Photo/Gregory Payan, File

Training camp has yet to start, so speculating on MVP favorites may seem like an exercise in clickbait and content filling. You’re not wrong about that, but the odds for the 2017 MVP winner are out. What else are you really going to do? Click refresh on Twitter … again?

To no one’s surprise, the top six candidates are all quarterbacks.

Tom Brady leads the field at 4-to-1, with Aaron Rodgers (10-to-1), Russell Wilson (10-to-1), Dak Prescott (11-to-1), Ben Roethlisberger (11-to-1), and Matt Ryan (12-to-1) rounding out the top group, though in fairness, Ryan is tied with Ezekiel Elliott in odds according to Odds Shark.

We can’t have this discussion without mentioning some of those names, but 2017 is shaping up to be an outstanding season, with signature franchises loaded for bear with elite talent. A few games here or there could swing the MVP race as teams and players go head to head. Record or playoff seeding could be critical in determining the outcome of the race.

5. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants 

For much of last season, the Giants’ offense appeared entirely incapable of scoring unless its transcendently talented receiver made every play and scored every touchdown.

That won’t be true in 2017 after New York signed Brandon Marshall and drafted Evan Engram. Couple that with Year 2 progress from Sterling Shepard and it’s reasonable to expect OBJ’s numbers to dip.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JUNE 14: New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham (13) makes a catch during Giants Mini Camp on June 14, 2017 at the Quest Diagnostics Training Center in East Rutherford, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire)

I expect the opposite.

Defenses bracketed Beckham constantly last year, and even then he was able to beat double-coverage. With more attention necessarily being paid to his compatriots, Beckham could have a monster season and make the case he’s the best receiver in the game.

Receivers never win this award, and Beckham has almost no chance to finish first, but for a player who has put up numbers from Day 1 in the NFL, 2017 could be his biggest yet.

4. Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans

Let’s start this way:

QB A: 15 games, 7.6 YPA, 61.2 percent, 26 TDs, 9 INTs, 95.6 rating

QB B: 15 games, 7.0 YPA, 63.8 percent, 28 TDs, 6 INTs, 96.7 rating

Player A is Marcus Mariota. Player B is Derek Carr, a player many thought should have been an MVP candidate a year ago. Of the two, I prefer Mariota’s chances of having a breakout season in 2017.

Somehow, Mariota’s 2016 season flew under the radar. He finished 10th in passer rating, ahead of players like Wilson and Big Ben. The 9-7 Titans just missed a playoff berth in the AFC.

In the offseason, the Titans drafted Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, and just signed Eric Decker on a one-year deal, a possible allusion to a shift toward more responsibility in the passing game for Mariota, who doesn’t turn 24 until nearly Halloween.

Tennessee revamped its secondary, bringing in at least two new starters in the defensive backfield, and likely three if first-round corner Adoree Jackson plays in sub-package, making him a de facto starter. That will take the pressure off Mariota, but also could mean the Titans win more games, a prerequisite for an MVP candidate.

Given the current constitution of the AFC South, the Titans look like the favorites. If they win 10 or 11 games, Mariota plays all 16, and takes this team to the playoffs with even a modest increase in his numbers — say 3,800 yards and 30+ TDs — he will absolutely belong in this discussion.

3. David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals 

Speaking of players whose 2016 went almost completely unnoticed for its greatness, Johnson led the league in total yards with 2,118. To put that in perspective, he was seventh in rushing yards, 20th in catches, and 24th in targets in the passing game.

David Johnson, a running back, had more targets than Brandin Cooks, a 1,000-yard receiver.

Le’Veon Bell is the best running back in football until further notice, but Johnson plays with less help, fewer marquee names, and in an offense that makes DeAngelo Williams looks like a Pro Bowl back. Johnson drives his offense, the engine that must fire or the Cardinals can’t effectively score.

As Carson Palmer ages — he was downright awful at times in 2016 — expect the Cardinals to lean even more on their 24-year-old stud back. Another 2,000-yard season coupled with the Cardinals making a playoff run could get Johnson in the MVP race, a place he deserved to be a year ago.

2. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers

We’ve reached the “duh” portion of the program. By now, everyone has heard about “run the table” and the tear Rodgers went on in the second half of last season, so no need to rehash.

Rodgers belongs in these discussions every year until he shows some signs of being an actual human, rather than a robot sent from the future to destroy defenses.

Ted Thompson got aggressive in the offseason, bringing in tight ends Lance Kendricks and Martellus Bennett to give the Packers’ offense more flexibility. Not only could that improve the run game, but it gives Rodgers two more monster targets to play with in the passing game.

GREEN BAY, WI - JUNE 06: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) gives directions during Organized Team Activities practice on June 6, 2017 at Clarke Hinkle Field in Green Bay, WI. (Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire)

Already in OTAs there have been reports of more two-tight end sets, particularly with Bennett on the line and Kendricks in the slot. Good luck defending that.

Jordy Nelson will be another year removed from ACL surgery. Randall Cobb will be healthy. Davante Adams, still just 24, can get even better after a breakout 2016.

If Rodgers comes out swinging instead of a repeat of his ’16 rope-a-dope, he could put up crazy numbers and lead the Packers to a top-two seed in the playoffs.

1. Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots

At some point Tom Brady will show his age, right? Asking for a friend (well, the whole AFC really).

Despite missing the first four games due to a dubious suspension, Brady lit the NFL on fire, going on arguably the best run of his career in 2016. Now, the Patriots add Brandin Cooks, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead to an offense that already features Julian Edelman and the monster known as Rob Gronkowski.

Given the state of defenses in the AFC East, Brady should once again torch his schedule, take the Patriots to 12 or 13 wins, and the top seed in the AFC. At the top of this list, it will likely come down to voter fatigue and optics. If the Patriots don’t look like “the Patriots” but win a bunch of games, it could give Rodgers a slight edge.

On the other hand, if Brady puts on a vintage performance, New England wins 14 or 15 games, and no one can cover Cooks/Edelman/Gronk, then Brady could add one more trophy to his already-overflowing case.

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