Sports

The Best Player on Every N.F.L. Team Who Doesn’t Play Quarterback

Entire offseasons are dedicated to dissecting, praising and dismissing NFL quarterbacks.

It’s understandable. Only four times in the last 25 years has a quarterback not won league MVP. There have been 33 Super Bowl MVPs at quarterback, with the next closest position group being the wide receivers at eight. Not to mention the market for quarterbacks approaching astronomical levels of wealth.

But while quarterbacks get all the attention, a team’s season is made on much more than what happens behind center. Which non-quarterbacks are the MVPs for their respective NFL team in 2024? The Athletic’s beat writers compiled their picks and explain how those players could make a significant difference this season.


Marvin Harrison Jr., wide receiver

Running back James Conner is coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season and is among the more underrated backs in the league. Defensively, safety Budda Baker is a difference-maker and a great example of how the game should be played. But if the Cardinals are to make a jump — as many expect they will — it will be because of Harrison, their talented first-round selection. Is it fair to pick a rookie as non-QB MVP? Probably not. But during summer workouts, almost everyone agreed Harrison is not your typical NFL rookie. Expectations are high. All he has to do is deliver. — Doug Haller

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Drake London, wide receiver

In London’s two years in the NFL, the Falcons quarterbacks (a rotating combination of Marcus Mariota, Desmond Ridder and Taylor Heinicke) ranked 28th in the league in completion percentage (61.8), 27th in passing touchdowns (34), 22nd in passer rating (83.7) and 21st in EPA per dropback. London has led Atlanta in receiving each year since being drafted eighth overall in 2022, but he hasn’t topped 1,000 yards in a season yet, maxing out at 905 yards. He only has six career touchdown catches, too. London is hopeful the addition of Kirk Cousins can help him change all that. “Let’s just say I have a bad taste in my mouth,” London said. “I have to go out there and ball, that’s it. I know what I can do.” — Josh Kendall

Derrick Henry, running back

Lamar Jackson has never had a dynamic force in the backfield like Henry, the 30-year-old who comes to Baltimore with a penchant for inflicting punishment on defenders and breaking long runs. Assuming Henry has a seamless transition into the Ravens offense, he should open up space for Jackson and create favorable matchups for the team’s wide receivers and tight ends. Like Roquan Smith on the defensive side, Henry is a force multiplier. If he becomes the piece that helps the Ravens get past Kansas City and to the Super Bowl, he’ll go down as one of the better free-agent signings in team history. — Jeff Zrebiec

Terrel Bernard, linebacker

Oh, who on the 2023 roster could possibly replace Tremaine Edmunds? Still just 19 years old when the Bills drafted him 16th overall in 2018, Edmunds wore the green dot that opening day, started all 82 games he played and eventually became a captain before joining the Chicago Bears as a free agent. Then came Bernard, who didn’t just fill the void but overflowed it with splash plays. After starting once as a rookie, his sophomore campaign led the Bills with 143 tackles, along with three interceptions, three fumble recoveries, 6 1/2 sacks and 10 tackles for losses. But his value was most realized in his absence. An ankle injury kept him from dressing for the narrow playoff loss to Kansas City in the playoffs. Had Bernard been on the field instead of A.J. Klein, Buffalo probably wins. — Tim Graham

Derrick Brown, defensive end

The first-round pick from 2020 piled up a record 103 tackles in 2023, the most by a defensive lineman since 1994 when the stat was first tracked. The breakout season led to a Pro Bowl berth and a lucrative extension for the former Auburn star. However, for Brown to be considered one of the league’s truly elite defenders, some believe he has to become more of a pass-rushing force (after eight sacks in his first four seasons). “You can look at the sacks. You can look at the pressures. I don’t really care,” Brown said in December. “If you don’t see I’m a game-wrecker, then I don’t know what to tell you.” — Joseph Person

Montez Sweat, defensive end

This would be a best-case scenario. Sweat is the highest-paid player on the team and tasked with sparking its biggest weakness from last season — rushing the passer. Even though he joined midseason, Sweat still led the Bears with six sacks. He would benefit from more help along the line, but he’s now familiar with the system, and Matt Eberflus knows how to best employ him. That should be a concern for opposing QBs. What the Bears need to do a better job of is finishing opponents after three disastrous blown leads in 2023. Sweat can be that closer. — Kevin Fishbain

Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver

The re-calibration of Joe Burrow’s weapons didn’t just add versatility to the new pieces offensive coordinator Dan Pitcher can play with; they also augment the one he’s played with the longest. The position-less nature of the rest of the receiver and tight end group allows the Bengals to move Chase around more and dial up more explosive plays from different alignments. While his overall usage might not go up, the aggressiveness of his targets should and sets up for the three-time Pro Bowler and 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year to enjoy his best season yet. — Paul Dehner Jr.

Myles Garrett, defensive end

This is an obvious one, regarding Garrett’s talent level and what the Browns need from him. It’s been hard to put real expectations on the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year because Garrett makes the difficult look easy — and because anything short of 15 sacks and multiple games wrecked would qualify as a disappointment. 2023 was probably Garrett’s best season because it was his most complete, and sometimes he dominated when it didn’t show up in the box score. The Browns need more of that, and Garrett seems capable of delivering. — Zac Jackson

Micah Parsons, linebacker

Some might suggest CeeDee Lamb, but this one is really not up for debate. Since Parsons put on a Cowboys helmet, only the Kansas City Chiefs have had more regular-season success. Dallas has won 12 games each of those three seasons. Parsons is arguably the NFL’s best defender. But like many others on the team, he hasn’t played his best when it has mattered most in January. If Parsons can stay healthy and be at his best late in the season, he has the talent to be the difference-maker in Dallas finally making a deep playoff run. Most believe the Cowboys go as Dak Prescott goes, but a case could be made for Parsons actually being the driving force. — Jon Machota

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Pat Surtain II, cornerback

There is no questioning Surtain’s talent. In just three NFL seasons, he’s been named to two Pro Bowls, was a unanimous first-team All-Pro selection in 2022, and was named an all-rookie performer the season prior. The real question for the Broncos is whether they can create the kind of pressure on quarterbacks that forces teams to test Surtain more often. Surtain has been everything the Broncos have asked and more since taking him with the No. 9 overall selection in 2021, and he has a chance to become the league’s highest-paid corner sometime within the next year. — Nick Kosmider

Frank Ragnow, center

You could throw a dart at this Lions roster and your odds of it landing on a quality non-QB MVP would be high. Some obvious answers include Amon-Ra St. Brown, Aidan Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, Alex Anzalone, Brian Branch, Sam LaPorta, Penei Sewell, Detroit’s running backs — all worthy candidates. But I’m going with Ragnow. He’s arguably the best center in the league and Detroit’s offense simply isn’t the same without him. He’s highly knowledgeable, helps Jared Goff navigate defenses at the line of scrimmage, keeps him upright and creates interior lanes for David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. That’s value across the board. — Colton Pouncy

Jaire Alexander, cornerback

Alexander has made two All-Pro second teams and is still only 27 entering his seventh year in the league. After a rocky 2023 campaign that saw him miss nine games to injury and one to suspension after a string of incidents both in the private and public eye, he appears locked in with a new staff around him. If defensive back specialist and new coordinator Jeff Hafley can get Alexander to stay on the right track, there’s no reason why he can’t make another All-Pro team while leading Green Bay’s defense. — Matt Schneidman

Will Anderson, defensive end

The Texans have several candidates worthy of consideration: Left tackle Laremy Tunsil’s production is vital for C.J. Stroud’s success. Stefon Diggs could help elevate the offense, and another new face — running back Joe Mixon — also could prove extremely valuable and ease pressure on the quarterback. But Anderson has a slight edge heading into his second year. As a rookie, Anderson proved highly disruptive, racking up 22 quarterback hits and seven sacks. Look for that sack total to spike in 2024 as he becomes an even greater tone-setter for Houston’s defense. — Mike Jones

Jonathan Taylor, running back

Last summer, Taylor’s public contract dispute bled into the season until he finally landed a three-year, $42 million extension that officially kicks in this season. Taylor has missed 13 games combined due to injury over the previous two years, but in his last healthy season in 2021, he took home the league rushing title. If the 25-year-old can get back to playing at an All-Pro level, it would make life much easier on second-year QB Anthony Richardson and significantly increase the Colts’ chance of ending their three-year playoff drought. — James Boyd

Josh Allen, defensive end

Allen became an elite playmaking pass rusher last season with a career-best 17 1/2 sacks, and he’ll need to pace their defense again for the team to take another step forward. If Trevor Lawrence and the offense don’t have to win a track meet every week, it’ll take a lot more pressure off that side of the ball, which would be massive after a mistake-prone 2023 season. Allen can’t do it all by himself — that much was proven last year — but this defense needs him to be its MVP if it will have a chance to be a top-10 unit. — Jeff Howe

Chris Jones, defensive tackle

Even with a roster featuring quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce, Jones is a core reason why the Chiefs are in the midst of a dynasty. At 29, Jones is in the prime of his career and one of the league’s best pass rushers, who can pressure the opposing quarterback from the interior or the edge. In the past two seasons, Jones was double-teamed on 70 percent of his pass rushes as an interior defender, the highest rate in the league, according to Next Gen Stats. He still ranked second in the league in pass rush win rate, trailing only Aaron Donald. This offseason for Jones has been smooth compared to last year when he held out of everything — the offseason program, training camp, and even Week 1 — before rejoining the team on a revised one-year deal. His production should improve from last season — 10 1/2 sacks, 29 quarterback hits and four pass breakups — to ensure the Chiefs’ defense remains a strength. — Nate Taylor

Davante Adams, wide receiver

The obvious answer would have been Maxx Crosby. The defensive end has been the team’s MVP the last three seasons, even beating out league-leading rusher Josh Jacobs in 2022, and he somehow gets better every year. This offseason, the Raiders gave defensive tackle Christian Wilkins $83 million to take some double-teams off of Crosby. But … we’re going with Adams in what is essentially a contract year for him. He will have to carry the offense with quarterbacks Aidan O’Connell and Gardner Minshew scaring no one and Jacobs playing for the Packers now. Adams is still the best route runner in the league, and the Raiders may have enough weapons where he can’t be double-teamed. Of course, the wild card (Vegas … hello) here is rookie tight end Brock Bowers becoming option 1 and the Raiders ultimately deciding to move on without Adams next year. Wait, can I change my answer? — Vic Tafur


Davante Adams (17) is in the third year of a five-year, $140 million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders. (Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

Khalil Mack, linebacker

Mack is coming off, perhaps, the best season of his career. Beyond the career-high 17 sacks, he was a dominant force in the run game. If last year was any indication, Mack has plenty left to give as he enters his age-33 season. He is highly motivated to claim the one NFL achievement that has evaded him: a Super Bowl. His 2023 tape was awe-inspiring in both the superhuman flashes and the consistency of performance. He was the team’s MVP in 2023, quarterback included. And while he might not match his counting-stat production from last season, I think he will impact that game similarly, especially if Joey Bosa stays healthy. — Daniel Popper

Kyren Williams, running back

The significant caveat here is that Williams must stay healthy through an entire season — he could not do so in the first two years of his career. Yet in 2023, despite missing four games to injury, Williams was the second-most productive rusher in the NFL behind Christian McCaffrey. When Williams was on the field, the Rams’ EPA per play shot up into the top 5 in the league, and head coach Sean McVay was able to deploy a wide variety of zone and gap concepts with him. It would be easy to pick veteran receiver Cooper Kupp, who needs a comeback year in a big way, or young star receiver Puka Nacua. But I believe NFL teams will throw the kitchen sink at the duo trying to defend them, where it’s simply hard to stop a punch in the mouth courtesy of Williams and the run game. — Jourdan Rodrigue

Tyreek Hill, wide receiver

I could have made a less obvious choice, but that would have been disingenuous. Hill is arguably the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL, as his other-worldly speed and acceleration command a defense’s attention like no other player in the league. The Dolphins offense runs through Hill. He was one of only three players in the league to earn more than 30 percent of his team’s targets (31.1 percent, trailing only the Raiders’ Davante Adams at 33 percent). And when he’s not getting the ball, he pulls defenders into his orbit and opens huge chunks of space for his teammates. Outside of maybe 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, there is no more valuable non-QB offensive player than Hill. — Jim Ayello

Justin Jefferson, wide receiver

Breaking news: He is a good player. Quick, fast, versatile, dependable, tough … you know. Head coach Kevin O’Connell has, and this is not hyperbole, built an offense around Jefferson’s skill set. He is the primary pass catcher on most downs, and once defenses decide to double (or triple) him, he becomes an essential decoy. The Vikings’ addition of Aaron Jones is an interesting layer to this upcoming season. The more success the Vikings have on the ground, the fewer men defenses can allocate to Jefferson in coverage. And the fewer men defenses can allocate to Jefferson in coverage, the more he can take over a game. The record-breaking extension will not prevent Jefferson from wanting to set reception and receiving yard records, especially after missing nearly half of last season with a hamstring strain. — Alec Lewis

Rhamondre Stevenson, running back

The Patriots are going to run the ball a lot. They hired offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt, who spent the last four years with Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, where the Browns ran at one of the highest clips in the league (and ran it successfully). That offense is coming to New England, where the running game will be even more important, given the potential of a rookie quarterback and the team’s lack of weapons at wide receiver. So if Stevenson stays healthy, he’s in line for a big season. — Chad Graff

Demario Davis, linebacker

The 35-year-old is still one of the best defensive players in football. He’s been a second-team All-Pro selection in each of the last four seasons and seemingly never slows down. There’s no question he’s the stabilizing force for the Saints’ defense and an unquestionable leader within the organization. That said, the Saints would probably rather have an offensive player written about in this space. Davis is such a constant that you expect him to always be great. If an offensive player earns this honor by the end of the season, that probably means an offensive weapon would’ve provided more impact than expected. That would also mean the offense, in general, would be better than expected. — Larry Holder

Malik Nabers, wide receiver

Dexter Lawrence and Brian Burns are also prime candidates for this role, given Lawrence’s dependability and Burns’ potential impact in tandem with Kayvon Thibodeaux after his arrival in New York. But with Saquon Barkley gone, the offensive focus will be dialed in on the rookie Nabers. He’s shone early in spring and has that “it factor” of a top wide receiver. If this Giants offense is successful, it will be part of that QB connection with Nabers. Nabers’ arrival also should allow Jalin Hyatt and Wan’Dale Robinson to be more successful. Nabers relishes the opportunity to prove himself, and there’s no doubt he wants to accomplish big things at the next level. — Charlotte Carroll

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Garrett Wilson, wide receiver

Sauce Gardner or Quinnen Williams would’ve been easy picks, and I even considered left tackle Tyron Smith (if he can stay healthy). But this feels like the season where Wilson truly breaks out into superstardom and becomes a wide receiver mentioned in the same breath as the Jefferson and Chase types. He has the talent to produce like them. He just has been saddled with arguably the worst quarterback situation in the NFL the last two years. Despite that, he’s managed to get at least 80 catches, 1,000 yards and three touchdowns in his first two seasons, making him one of only five wide receivers in NFL history to do that to start a career. Now imagine if he gets even just competent quarterback play from Aaron Rodgers and even Tyrod Taylor if Rodgers can’t stay healthy. — Zack Rosenblatt

A.J. Brown, wide receiver

It’s arguable that Brown’s been the MVP for the Eagles in the last two seasons. He secured both the No. 1 and No. 2 spot in the franchise’s record book for single-season receiving yards in those years, and he’s totaled 18 receiving touchdowns since the Eagles acquired him from the Tennessee Titans in 2022 for a first- and third-round pick. The franchise signed the three-time Pro Bowler to a three-year, $96 million extension in April, briefly making him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL. He’ll earn that in his age-27 season within new OC Kellen Moore’s offense, which should feature him heavily. — Brooks Kubena

T.J. Watt, linebacker

How can’t it be Watt? He’s averaging just a tad under a sack per game in his career and had seasons of 22 1/2 and 19 1/2 sacks in two of his last three seasons. He will reach 100 career sacks early in the season and has yet to turn 30. Watt should benefit from a defense that got better in the offseason with the acquisition of Patrick Queen in the middle to go along with a healthy Minkah Fitzpatrick, who would be a close second in terms of MVP. In terms of Watt, he was named team MVP in four of the past five years. The only time he didn’t was when he missed half the season with a torn pectoral. — Mark Kaboly

Christian McCaffrey, running back

This one is easy. The 49ers already call McCaffrey their MVP, as his impact in both the run and pass games unlocks the full potency of their offense. Adaptability is catching on as a league-wide offensive trend, but McCaffrey is the pioneer in this regard, and remains the most dangerous two-way weapon the NFL has to offer. — David Lombardi

Devon Witherspoon, cornerback

Witherspoon’s elite traits stood out during a solid rookie season that saw him earn Pro Bowl honors while ranking fourth in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. His rare combination of cover skills and violence near the line of scrimmage separates him from other cornerbacks. The thinking here is that Witherspoon will make a jump in his second season and that Seattle’s scheme shift on defense will maximize his abilities from the nickel position, including as a blitzer. — Mike Sando


Seattle Seahawks cornerback Devon Witherspoon (21) earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie in 2023. (Steven Bisig / USA Today)

Chris Godwin, wide receiver

Mike Evans gets most of the attention, but Godwin remains one of football’s better receivers. He had more receptions than Evans in four of the last five seasons, including the last three. The Bucs believe he will have more yards this year because they intend to use him more in the slot and less outside. At 28, Godwin is at the height of his abilities and he should be at the height of his desire — his contract is up after this season. — Dan Pompei

L’Jarius Sneed, cornerback

Sneed’s knees are an offseason story again and likely will be a question for the rest of his career — especially if he continues to miss practices as a precaution. But people were talking about those knees before last season, then watched Sneed answer with high-level cornerback play Sunday after Sunday. For as long as he’s at his best, he should be the Titans’ best corner in many years, and his style of play in Dennard Wilson’s defense should provide dynamic results. With Chidobe Awuzie signed and on the other side, the Titans have the answers outside they’ve been seeking for a long time. — Joe Rexrode

Frankie Luvu, linebacker

Micah Parsons wasn’t one of the several familiar faces head coach Dan Quinn brought over from his three-year stint with the Cowboys. Bummer. However, the three-time All-Pro is mentioned frequently in Washington because his linebacker/edge rusher role did travel with Quinn and defensive coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. Luvu, one of the Commanders’ primary free-agent signings this offseason, arrived with the versatility required to play multiple spots. At 27, Luvu is an ascending talent coming off back-to-back 100-tackle seasons with 12 1/2 combined sacks. He will play every down, and the defensive personnel will shift depending on where the coaches deploy this aggressive playmaker. — Ben Standig

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; Top photos of T.J. Watt, Ja’Marr Chase and Chris Jones: Jeff Dean, Patrick Smith and Perry Knotts / Getty Images)

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