MVP Watch: The NFL's Top Positional Performers (Week 16)

By gaining more than seven TDs over expectation for Atlanta in the past two games, Matt Ryan's made this a race again.

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, you find that Matt Ryan's decided to make this fun again.

Top NFL Performances by NEP Through Week 16

Quarterbacks: Tom Brady - New England Patriots
Season Total NEP: 206.44
NEP per Pass: 0.31
Last Week: #1

I may have spoken too soon when proclaimed Tom Brady the winner over the past three weeks. Matt Ryan's decided that it would be fun to make this a race down to the end. And what a race it will be.

With his absolute dismantling of the "vaunted" Giants defense last week, Ryan gained 24.89 points over expectation for the Falcons offense, his second-highest total in a game all season. Not only did it lock up the No. 1 seed for the Falcons, but it also put Matt Ryan a manageable 10.91 NEP behind Tom Brady heading into Week 17. Considering that Brady has only managed 9.29 NEP over the past two weeks while Ryan has amassed 51.84 NEP over the same span, closing that gap is entirely possible.

The matchups sure lend themselves to some high-flying, massive scoring affairs as well. Ryan's Falcons play Tampa Bay, who sits 25th in the NFL in allowing 107.21 NEP to opposing passing games this season. The Dolphins team set to face Brady is a bit better, but not by much: their 97.86 NEP allowed to opposing passing games is 20th.

Best of the Rest
2. Matt Ryan: 195.53 NEP, 0.31 per pass (Last Week: #2)
3. Aaron Rodgers: 170.81 NEP, 0.27 per pass (Last Week: #3)
4. Drew Brees: 166.61 NEP, 0.25 per pass (Last Week: #--)
5. Peyton Manning: 165.35 NEP, 0.29 per pass (Last Week: #5)

Running Backs: C.J. Spiller - Buffalo Bills
Season Total NEP: 37.75
NEP per Rush: 0.11
Last Week: #1

Well, at least Spiller's getting chances this time. His 22 carries in Week 16 against Miami was only the second time all season that he's topped 17 rush attempts in a game. Think about that for a second. Using standard fantasy league scoring, he's ninth among all running backs. Every single guy ahead of him has rushed the ball at least 20 times in five separate games. Every single other guy in the top 17 backs has topped 20 carries in at least four. Alfred Morris has rushed the ball 20 times in nine separate games; he's only outpacing Spiller by eight fantasy points. That's how efficient Spiller's been.

There's absolutely zero chance of any other back catching Spiller, but there's a nice battle shaping up for second. After all of those nice things I wrote about Adrian Peterson last week, he repaid me by laying a stink bomb. 86 yards on 25 carries lost the Vikings 8.38 expected points when weighted against the average NFL play, not that they needed it against the Texans. Ray Rice simply maintained, only losing 0.34 NEP this week, which is good enough to give him a decent second-place lead heading into Week 17.

Best of the Rest
2. Ray Rice: 15.05 NEP, -0.07 per rush, 0.38 per catch (Last Week: #3)
3. Adrian Peterson: 12.06 NEP, 0.02 per rush, 0.10 per catch (Last Week: #2)
4. Frank Gore: 8.70 NEP, -0.02 per rush, 0.39 per catch (Last Week: #4)
5. Marshawn Lynch: 6.04 NEP, -0.02 per rush, 0.47 per catch (Last Week: #4)

Wide Receivers: Calvin Johnson - Detroit Lions
Season Total NEP (based on targets): 101.73
NEP per Catch: 0.91
Last Week: #1

I went into Week 16 thinking that nobody had a shot at touching Wes Welker's 2011 record of 110.66 NEP for wide receivers. But then Calvin Johnson went out and put up 11 catches, 225 yards, and 10.04 NEP against the Bears. Suddenly, that record doesn't seem so insurmountable. Jerry Rice's record might not be the only one to fall.

But the road to capturing the record is bumpier than the Detroit auto industry. In Week 17, Megatron faces off against the Green Bay Packers. While your initial instinct may be "Oh, that's good for Johnson!", you'd surprisingly be wrong. Green Bay has allowed only 17.69 NEP above expectation to opposing passing games this season, leaving the swiss cheese in the concession stands rather than in the secondary. That figure's good for eighth-best in the NFL. And the last time these two teams faced off, the Packers only allowed 1.10 NEP over expectation to the entire Lions passing game.

Best of the Rest
2. Andre Johnson: 84.02 NEP, 0.88 per catch (Last Week: #2)
3. Roddy White: 81.02 NEP, 0.99 per catch (Last Week: #--)
4. Demaryius Thomas: 75.65 NEP, 0.84 per catch (Last Week: #3)
5. Eric Decker: 73.34 NEP, 0.94 per catch (Last Week: #--)

Tight Ends: Tony Gonzalez - Atlanta Falcons
Season Total NEP (based on targets): 72.17
NEP per Catch: 0.90
Last Week: #1

Well, so much for the record-chasing. If Tony Gonzalez even continued his previous 5.10 NEP per game average through Atlanta's final two contests, he would have finished with the fourth-highest NEP total among tight ends since the year 2000. But he couldn't even keep up that pace; he didn't come close. By virtue of his whopping one catch for nine yards on two targets against the Lions, Gonzalez only gained the Falcons 0.72 expected points. He's still 1.59 NEP behind his own personal season-high (in 2004), which currently sits as the fifth-best tight end total since the 2000 season.

The more interesting numbers for me this week deal with Heath Miller. Sitting at 55.44 NEP last week, the tight end was poised to pass the still-injured Rob Gronkowski for second on the list. However, against the Bengals, Miller actually lost the Steelers 6.87 expected points. It's not too often you see a receiver or tight end lose that many points, but only catching three of the nine targets thrown his way is an extremely effective way to do so. How might the game have changed if Miller had been an average player? A ton: only one of his receptions was for a first down, two of the incompletions thrown his way were on third down, and another was returned for a pick six. The Steelers lost 13-10.

Best of the Rest
2. Rob Gronkowski: 57.71 NEP, 1.00 per catch (Last Week: #2)
3. Jason Witten: 50.19 NEP, 0.65 per catch (Last Week: #4)
4. Heath Miller: 48.57 NEP, 0.84 per catch (Last Week: #3)
5. Jermaine Gresham: 43.62 NEP, 0.76 per catch (Last Week: #5)