MVP Watch: The NFL's Top Positional Performers (Week 7)

A Challenger Approaches! It's Big Ben! Can Matt Ryan's poor week really kick him out of the top spot?

Most other places use common metrics to tell you who the best player in the NFL is. We're better than that. In order to determine who the best player in the NFL is, we ask one simple question: who gains their team the most points? And to find out, numberFire likes to use a number called Net Expected Points. In a past top performers article, I gave this explanation for NEP:

Every single situation on the football field has an expected point value; that is, how many points an average team would be expected to score in that situation. For example, the Chiefs may be facing the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a third and two on the 50 yard line. That's a ton of variables, but luckily, numberFire has data from the past dozen years of every single play, so most situations have come up at least once. According to our data, an average team may be "expected" to score 1.23 (estimated number) points on that drive. However, Jamaal Charles reels off a 32-yard run to bring the Chiefs into the red zone, increasing the "expected" point value of the next play to 4.23 (still an estimated number) points. Jamaal Charles then gets credit for the difference, in this case 2.96 points, as his NEP total. That's Net Expected Points.

Since passing is often more efficient than running the ball, you'll often see running backs with negative NEP per play scores, meaning that they are losing their team expected points every time they touch the ball. Receivers and tight ends, meanwhile, will usually have high, positive NEP per play scores, since receivers don't touch the ball unless it's a high-yardage completion. Quarterbacks can be in the middle, either positive or negative: completions typically help their score, while incompletions lower it. So when you're looking at NEP, it's important to look at the numbers based on position.

And when you take a look at what the NEP numbers give us this week, Matt Ryan takes another week at the... wait! A challenger approaching!

Top NFL Performances by NEP Through Week 6

Quarterbacks: Ben Roethlisberger - Pittsburgh Steelers
Season Total NEP: 72.83
NEP per Pass: 0.33
Last Week: #4

The Pittsburgh Steelers are at 2-3, are languishing 2.5 game behind the Ravens in the AFC North, and only have a 30.6% chance of making the playoffs this season. And their quarterback deserves to be the MVP.

How can that be? Plain and simple: Ben Roethlisberger has been more efficient with his throws than any other quarterback in the NFL. Although the Steelers have thrown the ball on 61.1% of their offensive plays, Roethlisberger somehow continues to find holes in the secondary. Big Ben's two interceptions are tied with RGIII for the least in the NFL among starting QBs, and his average 2.0 passing TDs per game ranks fifth in the league. Meanwhile, his 1,487 passing yards places him sixth in the NFL, but he has accomplished that mark with the least amount of pass attempts (by a long shot) of anybody in the top nine yardage leaders.

Oh yeah, I might have forgotten to mention that part of his dossier: Ben Roethlisberger has accomplished this high NEP mark in only five games. As such, his NEP per game mark is substantially higher than Ryan's (14.57 vs. 11.64), and his 0.33 NEP per pass is 0.07 points higher every single time he drops back than the next best NFL QB. The rest of the top five have played in at least six; Drew Brees dropped out of the top five this week specifically because of his bye. If the Steelers did not have numberFire's #27 opponent-adjusted defense, you would be seeing a lot more Big Ben love in the MVP race.

Best of the Rest
2. Matt Ryan: 69.86 NEP, 0.26 per pass (Last Week: #1)
3. Tom Brady: 69.19 NEP, 0.25 per pass (Last Week: #3)
4. Robert Griffin III: 68.34 NEP, 0.16 per pass, 0.76 per rush (Last Week: #N/A)
5. Aaron Rodgers: 67.57 NEP, 0.22 per pass (Last Week: #N/A)

Running Backs: Ray Rice - Baltimore Ravens
Season Rushing NEP: 18.15
NEP per Rush: 0.04
Last Week: #2

Finally, after weeks of C.J. Spiller dominance piggybacking off his unreal Weeks 1 and 2, the consistency of Ray Rice has finally taken over. As mentioned above, passing the ball in today's NFL has gotten to be much more efficient than running. As such, it takes a special back to even have a positive NEP per rush value and contribute something worthwhile to his team on the ground.

You would have to be Jersey Shore-level crazy to think Ray Rice has not been one of those special backs. So far this season, only three backs with at least 10 carries per game have averaged a positive NEP per rush: Frank Gore (0.05), Ray Rice (0.04), and Stevan Ridley (0.01). That's it. Not Arian Foster (-0.10), not Marshawn Lynch (-0.08), and certainly not Chris Johnson (-0.34... and that's an improvement!) have contributed points to their team on average this season through rushing the ball. If the Ravens can continue their multifaceted attack, combining Rice's positive rushing figure with Joe Flacco's 0.15 NEP gained per pass, the Ravens will continue to be one of the league's best offensive units.

Best of the Rest
2. C.J. Spiller: 17.75 NEP, 0.24 per rush, 0.19 per catch (Last Week: #1)
3. Matt Forte: 6.75 NEP, -0.04 per rush, 0.57 per catch (Last Week: #4)
4. Frank Gore: 5.08 NEP, 0.05 per rush, 0.03 per catch (Last Week: #5)
5. Willis McGahee: 3.86 NEP, -0.02 per rush, 0.26 per catch (Last Week: #N/A)

Wide Receivers: Roddy White - Atlanta Falcons
Season Total NEP (based on targets): 44.22
NEP per Catch: 1.07
Last Week: #1

I would say this lead is insurmountable, but we all saw how well that worked for Matt Ryan. Instead, I'll simply say that Roddy White has been as excellent as a receiver can be so far this season. He has now hung on to the top receiver's slot for a solid three weeks, and his 7.89 NEP lead on Percy Harvin should be enough to keep him here for another week during his bye.

The question for White, then, becomes how his current season would stack up historically. Projecting his out his stats, White's current Usain Bolt-esque pace would give him 117.92 targets-based NEP on the season. The record for receiving NEP since 2000 isn't even held by a receiver; it's Rob Gronkowski's 110.69 NEP from last season. His teammate Wes Welker followed right behind him with 110.69 NEP last year, then Randy Moss comes in third with 109.42 NEP from his monster 2003 season. Could Roddy White's year end up being better than The Fiesta, Welkaaah, and the Moon Man? The statistics tend to think so.

Best of the Rest
2. Percy Harvin: 36.33 NEP, 0.81 per catch (Last Week: #4)
3. Wes Welker: 34.47 NEP, 0.79 per catch (Last Week: #3)
4. Marques Colston: 33.42 NEP, 1.01 per catch (Last Week: #2)
5. Randall Cobb: 31.19 NEP, 1.02 per catch (Last Week: #N/A)

Tight Ends: Tony Gonzalez - Atlanta Falcons
Season Total NEP (based on targets): 32.67
NEP per Catch: 0.88
Last Week: #1

The absolutely dreadful week for tight ends reflects in our rankings as well. Of our top three tight ends, only Owen Daniels had a positive NEP output on the game, and he did not even gain a full point of value for the Texans. But they can each thank their lucky stars that they had enough of a lead to maintain the same 1-2-3 positioning, especially Old Man Gonzalez at the top.

For the first time all season, Tony Gonzalez lost NEP during this past week's game. After maintaining a record-breaking 83% catch rate through the season's first five games, Gonzalez could only haul in four of the seven passes Matt Ryan threw his way on Sunday. That lowers Gonzalez's catch rate to *gasp* 80% on the year. For reference, if he was able to maintain that rate for the entire season, it would break the catch rate record for tight ends with at least 50 catches in a season since 2000. That would currently be Pittsburgh's Heath Miller, who put up a 77.6% catch rate in 2009.

Best of the Rest
2. Owen Daniels: 27.08 NEP, 0.96 per catch (Last Week: #2)
3. Vernon Davis: 24.81 NEP, 0.98 per catch (Last Week: #3)
4. Heath Miller: 23.78 NEP, 0.91 per catch (Last Week: #5)
5. Brandon Myers: 23.56 NEP, 1.08 per catch (Last Week: #4)