MVP Watch: A Star on the Rise

How good would DeMarco Murray be if he wasn't held back by Jason Garrett?

While other sites and analyses may look at standard statistics like yards per carry and completion percentages to determine the best player in the league - the MVP - we like to dig a little deeper here at numberFire. We like to use our favorite metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), and the various types, depending on the position.

Since common numbers such as yards, completions and touchdowns don't tell the whole story about a player, we can use NEP to truly see who's separating themselves from the pack. We can find the players who actually are contributing the most points for their respective teams, dubbing them the most valuable in the league.

Because this advanced metric alters tremendously depending on the position being analyzed, we'll look at each of the skill positions - not all of them as one group - individually through the first 12 weeks of the season to determine the most valuable player at each position. You will see higher NEP values for quarterbacks and receivers than for running backs due to the nature of their production.

Take a look below.

Top-5 NEP Performers By Position Through Week 15

Quarterbacks: Peyton Manning – Denver Broncos
Season Passing NEP: 236.81
NEP per pass: 0.40
Last week: #1

Since quarterbacks are judged by their won-loss record, we should give the award to Philip Rivers now since he beat Peyton Manning this last week, right?

I’m kidding, of course. But Peyton did struggle against a Chargers team, adding just 8.6 Passing Net Expected Points to his season total. Rivers, on the other hand, contributed 11.63 points to his team’s win. This is the opposite of what happened in their Week 10 matchup, where Peyton contributed 15.36 points to Rivers' 4.82.

The Chargers were able to kill the clock against Denver, contributing to Peyton's middling game, running 74 plays with a 1:2 pass-to-run ratio, their lowest all year. In turn, the Broncos had nearly a 4:1 pass-to-run ratio, mostly to try to get points on the board as they fell behind. The end result was not pretty for Peyton or the Broncos. You can’t judge a player on one game though; with only two games left, Manning has a big enough lead to allow for a bad game (bad game in his context) to get in there. We didn’t expect him to be perfect, did we?

Playing Catch-up
2. Drew Brees: 155.00 Pass NEP, 0.26 per pass
3. Philip Rivers: 151.17 Pass NEP, 0.30 per pass
4. Russell Wilson: 82.59 Pass NEP, 0.21 per pass
5. Matthew Stafford: 72.01 Pass NEP, 0.13 per pass

Running Backs: DeMarco Murray – Dallas Cowboys
Season Rush NEP: 30.35
NEP per rush: 0.17
Last week: #2

Before I get into Murray, let's first talk about Jamaal Charles. While he has improved from strictly a Rushing NEP standpoint, contributing 9.32 points over the last two weeks, he has not been in our top 10 for more than a couple weeks. We haven’t considered him a candidate all year because we have only looked at the rushing metrics in this section. If we included the receiving metrics, we would have a completely different top five, with him being part of it. The reason for only including rushing metrics is because the total contribution can be skewed with receiving numbers, which are almost always higher.

Alright, now onto Murray, who is back on the top after being gone for a week. The preseason was filled with questions regarding his durability, and while it did come into question during a four-week period in October, Murray has rebounded extremely well. His usage is less than desired, almost like he’s on the football version of a pitch count. If he had the workload of say, LeSean McCoy, Marshawn Lynch, or Matt Forte, Murray would be running away (pun intended) with this award.

According to numberFire metrics, Murray’s efficiency is one of the best with a Rushing NEP per Play of 0.17, and that could be higher if not for Jason Garrett's lack of commitment to the running game. Nonetheless, Murray is at the top of the hill right now and doesn’t show signs of slowing down, having contributed 17.36 points to the Cowboys scoring output over the last three weeks.

Playing Catch-up
2. LeSean McCoy: 23.27 Rush NEP, 0.09 per rush (last week: #1)
3. Knowshon Moreno: 15.04 Rush NEP, 0.07 per rush (last week: #3)
4. Fred Jackson: 10.38 Rush NEP, 0.06 per rush (last week: #4)
5. Adrian Peterson: 8.20 Rush NEP, 0.03 per rush (last week: #NR)

Wide Receivers: DeSean Jackson – Philadelphia Eagles
Season Target NEP: 73.14
Reception NEP per target: 0.89
Last week: #3

The first thing to keep in mind with these metrics is that Target NEP shows how many points a receiver is adding for his team on all targets, whereas Reception NEP looks at receptions only. The Reception NEP per target, in essence, shows us efficiency.

Jackson played one of the best games of his season to take a commanding lead in the receiver race. He hauled in 10 receptions for 195 yards on 16 targets, giving him a 10.09 point increase in his Target NEP. With two weeks to go, Jackson may have done enough to keep the lead in this race. While Anquan Boldin and Josh Gordon both received a healthy amount of targets, neither was able to convert many of the opportunities. In fact, if not for the 43-yard touchdown pass late in the game, Gordon may have missed the top five completely.

While he is not in our top five this week, I have to point out the rise in Keenan Allen's play over the last few weeks. For a rookie receiver to be on the cusp of the top five at the position is outstanding, as he has contributed nearly 28 points to his Target NEP since Week 11, a clip of 5.14 per game. If he keeps up his efficiency numbers, a 0.97 Reception NEP per Target (better than anyone in the top 5), Keenan is one big game away from vaulting into top receiver discussion.

Playing Catch-up
2. Anquan Boldin: 70.37 Target NEP, 0.89 Reception NEP per target (last week: #1)
3. Josh Gordon: 69.96 Target NEP, 0.94 Reception NEP per target (last week: #2)
4. Antonio Brown: 66.09 Target NEP, 0.78 Reception NEP per target (last week: #5)
5. Demaryius Thoms: 65.81 Target NEP, 0.90 Reception NEP per target (last week: #4)

Tight Ends: Jimmy Graham – New Orleans Saints
Season Target NEP: 52.02
Reception NEP per target: 0.86
Last week: #1

One step forward and two steps back.

Graham and Julius Thomas get going one week, and then lose some ground on everyone the next, yet they still maintain the top two spots in our tight end rankings. Graham faces a stout pass defense in Carolina this week, third in our Defensive Passing NEP rankings. And it happens to be on the road.

Why is the location important for Graham? His home/road splits are quite striking. In seven home games, Graham has contributed 32.29 expected points to the Saints, averaging 4.6 points per game. On the road, Graham has contributed only 19.72 points to the Saints, an average of 2.8 points per game. If Graham follows his road game trend, he could leave the door wide open for someone else such as Vernon Davis.

Why Davis instead of Thomas? Well, he's the most efficient tight end at 0.96 Reception NEP per Target, and with Michael Crabtree back, Davis is getting less attention from defenses. Throw in the fact they face the worst pass defense in the league when adjusting for schedule this weekend, and you have a recipe for success if Graham flounders against the Panthers.

Playing Catch-up
2. Julius Thomas: 48.92 Target NEP, 0.90 Reception NEP per target
3. Vernon Davis: 46.65 Target NEP, 0.96 Reception NEP per target
4. Tony Gonzalez: 46.23 Target NEP, 0.75 Reception NEP per target
5. Jason Witten: 43.34 Target NEP, 0.75 Reception NEP per target