Each week during the season, NFC West colleague Mike Sando puts together an MVP Watch that assesses the best performances from elite players in anticipation of the annual postseason award. Sando usually asks for suggestions, and unfortunately I sent mine in too late.
At the first-quarter pole of the 2012 season, Minnesota Vikings receiver/running back/kick returner Percy Harvin deserves to be a part of the discussion. Quarterbacks hold overwhelming advantage in MVP debates, and Sando's 10-player list includes eight of them. Harvin doesn't have the eye-popping receiving numbers of Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green, but it would be difficult to find a non-quarterback who has shouldered a bigger responsibility in his team's successful start than Harvin.
Harvin has handled the difficult task of playing three different positions -- receiver, tailback and Wildcat quarterback -- without appearing overwhelmed. As the chart shows, he leads the NFL in all-purpose yards, and his 105-yard return of the opening kickoff last weekend set the initial tone in a 20-13 victory over the Detroit Lions.
Harvin has also helped mitigate the Vikings' relative lack of explosive threats by doing much of the work himself. Of his 299 receiving yards, an NFL-high 234 have come after first contact, according to Pro Football Focus. He also leads the NFL, according to PFF, by causing 10 missed tackles. The next-best performance by a receiver has been six.
That's a statistical illustration of what we can all see: The Vikings get the ball to Harvin on short passes and let him do his thing. That includes 11 carries in the running game, most of which have called for him to hit traditional holes between the tackles.
Vikings coaches deserve credit for managing and maximizing Harvin's playing time, which has added up to about 75 percent of their offensive plays. He has taken nine of the Vikings' 14 kickoff returns for a 38.5 average.
Again, I'm not sure we can make an argument for Harvin as the leading candidate for the NFL MVP at this point. But four games into the season, he has been the best player in the NFC North and one of the most productive in the league. We'll keep you updated.