MVP Watch: The NFL's Top Positional Performers (Week 14)

Tom Brady may have already clinched the MVP, and there's still three weeks left.

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, we don't think Tom Brady can even lose at this point.

Top NFL Performances by NEP Through Week 14

Quarterbacks: Tom Brady - New England Patriots
Season Total NEP: 197.42
NEP per Pass: 0.36
Last Week: #1

Chalk up another three touchdown's worth of NEP to Tom Brady, and he now has averaged 15.2 NEP per game so far this season. His demolishing of the Texans looked positively effortless, and it wouldn't surprise me if most of the national media joined the numberFire train in calling Brady the MVP front-runner. As it stands, he could end his season today and already have the 11th best NEP total in a season since 2000. It would also be his own personal third-best ever, behind 2011's 235.29 NEP and his record-holding 2007 with 269.72 NEP.

But just a hypothetical: is it even possible anyone to catch him? Even if he sat out the rest of the season - or made every play a league-average play - his closest competitor Matt Ryan remains 53.53 NEP behind Brady. That would be an average of 17.84 NEP per game over the Falcons' final three contests against the Giants, Lions, and Bucs. On the season, Ryan averages just 11.1 NEP per game. No other NFL player is even above 11 NEP per game. It might be that Tom Brady already has the MVP trophy in his grasp.

Best of the Rest
2. Matt Ryan: 143.89 NEP, 0.25 per pass (Last Week: #4)
3. Robert Griffin III: 142.08 NEP, 0.22 per pass, 0.54 per rush (Last Week: #3)
4. Peyton Manning: 134.17 NEP, 0.27 per pass (Last Week: #5)
5. Aaron Rodgers: 133.98 NEP, 0.23 per pass (Last Week: #2)

Running Backs: C.J. Spiller - Buffalo Bills
Season Total NEP: 33.78
NEP per Rush: 0.12
Last Week: #1

Another week, more NEP gained for C.J. Spiller. This time, he gained 0.81 NEP rushing and 2.66 NEP receiving on the day. He isn't putting up the big stats - seven rushes for 37 yards and one reception for 15 yards wows absolutely nobody - but he's converting in key situations. His reception, for instance, came on a 3rd-and-13 from Buffalo's own 43 yard line which turned into a 1st-and-10 on the St. Louis 42. There was a 2.66 point difference between the expected value of those two situations, which gave Spiller the majority increase of his points. The Bills would later score a field goal on the drive.

Ray Rice is likely too far behind to catch Spiller at this point, but his steadily increasing NEP remains impressive. Rice added 2.18 NEP to his total this past week with a 121 rushing yard, 15 receiving yard, 1 TD performance against the Redskins. Since passing is more efficient than running, Rice gains most of his NEP through the air rather than on the ground. But that's true for most running backs: the only two "pure runners" (aka, not known as pass catchers) in the top five are Peterson and Gore.

Best of the Rest
2. Ray Rice: 20.28 NEP, -0.04 per rush, 0.42 per catch (Last Week: #2)
3. Adrian Peterson: 15.79 NEP, 0.04 per rush, 0.11 per catch (Last Week: #3)
4. Doug Martin: 8.30 NEP, -0.05 per rush, 0.43 per catch (Last Week: #4)
5. Frank Gore: 8.20 NEP, 0.00 per rush, 0.30 per catch (Last Week: #3)

Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson - Detroit Lions
Season Total NEP (based on targets): 91.46
NEP per Catch: 0.93
Last Week: #1

If there's somebody who can challenge Tom Brady for the numberFire MVP, it might not even be a quarterback at all. All season, I've been judging wide receivers based on NEP when factoring in targets. That means that if there is an incompletion thrown a receiver's way, that receiver also receives the corresponding NEP loss for that play. To me, it's the fairest way to judge receivers: if your receiver can't get open or catch the ball, why should that be ignored? It's the main reason Vincent Jackson hasn't been leading the wide receiver rankings for the majority of the season, at least.

But if you ignore the targets and just focus on the NEP based on catches a receiver actually made, then Calvin Johnson is good. Scary good. His 146.62 NEP based on catches would actually rank second in the entire NFL, ahead of Matt Ryan or RGIII or Peyton Manning or anybody else with a case for MVP. Even without the next three weeks' games, that mark would already be 15th best since 2000, right ahead of (ready for this?) 2001 David Boston of the Arizona Cardinals. It would also be Megatron's second-best total ever, only behind last year's seventh-place campaign by 8.45 NEP with three games remaining.

Best of the Rest
2. Demaryius Thomas: 76.59 NEP, 0.95 per catch (Last Week: #2)
3. Vincent Jackson: 67.31 NEP, 1.09 per catch (Last Week: #7)
4. Andre Johnson: 65.60 NEP, 0.86 per catch (Last Week: #3)
5. Roddy White: 63.05 NEP, 0.93 per catch (Last Week: #9)

Tight Ends: Tony Gonzalez - Atlanta Falcons
Season Total NEP (based on targets): 58.40
NEP per Catch: 0.90
Last Week: #1

While tight ends might not be reliving their 2011 Renaissance, Tony Gonzalez has done his best to make sure that they're actually coming pretty close. Averaging 4.49 NEP per game based on targets, Gonzalez is currently on pace for 71.87 NEP by the end of the season. Seeing as how Gronk remains injured, nobody's likely to catch that Gonzalez figure.

In fact, the only person that Tony Gonzalez might be fighting with is Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons tight end's best season in terms of NEP by targets came in 2006, when he gained the Chiefs 73.76 points of expected value. That's good for fifth among all tight ends since the 2000 season; only Gronkowski (2011), Antonio Gates (2009 and 2004), and Dallas Clark (2006) have done better. For Gonzalez's 2012 season to crack that top five, he'll need to perform a little bit better than his average so far this season. Atlanta's final three games are against the Giants, Lions, and Bucs, two of which are below No. 20 in numberFire's opponent-adjusted defensive rankings.

Best of the Rest
2. Rob Gronkowski: 57.71 NEP, 1.00 per catch (Last Week: #2)
3. Heath Miller: 43.97 NEP, 0.89 per catch (Last Week: #3)
4. Jason Witten: 40.17 NEP, 0.65 per catch (Last Week: #4)
5. Jermaine Gresham: 39.91 NEP, 0.75 per catch (Last Week: #6)