NFL MVP race: Who's worth a play right now?

Is now the time to buy Patrick Mahomes in the MVP race? Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Sportsbooks are built by inherent edges on straight wagers and gobbling up the losses of shot-takers who chase parlays at inefficient odds. However, the futures book can be a realistic path to healthy scores and achieving that elusive goal of risking a little to win a lot.

Don't get me wrong. One-way betting markets are difficult to monetize, given that oddsmakers have a sizable hold percentage and rarely get caught off-guard. But from time to time, one can find a path to victory -- and sometimes it requires a portfolio of positions. In layman's terms, rather than have only one horse in the race, you can make multiple wagers at their corresponding odds to widen your chances of winning without costing too much of an investment. After all, these are lofty payouts.

The big MVP race

This brings us to the NFL MVP race, which has already seen movement through the season's first two weeks. Patrick Mahomes has remained the betting favorite (+550) at most books, but Kyler Murray (from 25-1 to +600) had an astronomical shift to the second favorite this week, while Tom Brady (16-1 to +700) is right behind his fellow quarterbacks. BetMGM even lists Murray as the favorite now.

Honestly, I inevitably chuckle every year at some prices. Murray is Exhibit A. Do you really think that is a wise wager? His team might not even make the playoffs. I am not questioning his skills or talent, but to make a smart bet, you have to evaluate the criteria that truly matter. Plus, his diminutive stature and desire to run translate to a higher injury risk.

A quarterback award

Over the past 14 seasons, 13 quarterbacks have won the MVP. In 2012, the lone exception, Adrian Peterson shined beyond comprehension, returning just nine months after tearing his ACL and MCL to lead the league in rushing. Additionally, he carried the Vikings to the playoffs, particularly in the season finale, and finished only 8 yards shy of the NFL single-season rushing record. To label it a special case would be an understatement. Make no mistake: This is a QB award.

Of the 13 previous quarterback MVP seasons, nine hailed from the top seed in their conference. Aaron Rodgers (2014) and Matt Ryan (2016) were 2-seeds, while Peyton Manning was a 4-seed in 2013 and a 5-seed in 2008. I think it's fair to classify Manning as an outlier, given his greatness as a passer and pre-snap magician.

This is when you ask yourself: Which team(s) can earn a top-2 seed in 2021? I also believe the 1-seed might carry even more weight nowadays, given only two total byes with the new playoff format. Stellar play late in the season could be a deciding factor.

Let's break it down

I would not waste your money on Murray. He plays in arguably the toughest division (combined 7-1 record) with legitimate contenders in the Rams and 49ers standing firmly in his path. Plus-600 is wild talk when Arizona is +500 to win the NFC West. I also would not bother with Russell Wilson (+1500). He was actually the betting favorite at one point last season and then faded as Seattle hit too many bumps before gaining the 3-seed. Matthew Stafford (10-1) does interest me. However, can the Rams land a top seed while having to play those division opponents six times? Then again, aside from squaring off with the Bucs this weekend, the Rams do face the NFC North and AFC South outside their division. That's not exactly rigorous.

As for other NFC contenders, Green Bay should easily win its division but I highly doubt voters will pull the trigger on a guy who held his franchise hostage during the offseason. Plus, like it or not, ''voter fatigue'' exists. Manning is the only back-to-back recipient since the 1990s, while we have certainly seen numerous teams repeat as a top-2 seed. Rodgers is as valuable as they come, but I don't see it this year.

Dak Prescott will certainly post gaudy stats and the Cowboys look like the only NFC East contender that could flirt with a top seed but that defense and Mike McCarthy's clueless decision-making will prevent that. Pass.

Brady is the only true candidate in the NFC South, and he probably represents the conference's main threat. Yes, it's getting old -- but he is not. Remember when he conceded that he had difficulty grasping the complexities of Bruce Arians' offense? Year two sure looks seamless, and the 44-year-old appears headed for a monster season statistically. He's blessed with three wide receivers who could pass for a No. 1 option on other teams, in addition to an array of skilled tight ends. And Tampa Bay's banged-up secondary is forcing Brady to put up points. The Bucs are the first team ever to win nine straight games while scoring at least 30 points each time. Injury is always a factor in such a long season, but Brady's unparalleled commitment to health and fitness provides comfort for a wager.

The AFC is where we must be decisive and weed out the pretenders from the contenders. From my perspective, the Patriots, Dolphins, Steelers, Ravens, Browns, Titans, Colts, Broncos and Chargers are potential playoff teams without a realistic chance for a 1-seed and/or a QB who could sustain an MVP narrative from voters. Yes, you must handicap voters as much as you do the players and teams. From that group, writing off Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield and Justin Herbert gives me some pause. However, I doubt the Ravens have enough defense to earn a top seed. The Browns do not throw the ball enough for Mayfield to get the credit. And I doubt voters will single out Herbert as the MVP even if the Chargers somehow land a top-2 seed. Frankly, voters will probably find someone more established.

So in my eyes, this comes down to Mahomes, Brady, Stafford, Josh Allen (14-1) ... or Derek Carr (25-1). I am as shocked to write Carr as you are to read it. However, he finished third in 2016 and could have won it if not for breaking his fibula in Week 16. We will never know, but my point is that he is at least in the realm of possibility, although Jon Gruden is more likely to win the Coach of the Year award if the Raiders somehow maintain this quality play. Yes Carr is far-fetched, but I am just trying to cover my bases.

Building a portfolio

Even in Week 3, I am relatively comfortable saying the 2021 NFL MVP will hail from that group of five quarterbacks. In fact, you could place a wager on all five and distribute the bet size in a way to secure profit, assuming one of them wins. In essence, this is how to create your own prop bet -- akin to what derivative traders do on Wall Street. You take multiple positions and compute the overall risk and payout.

Specifically, let's say you spend $400 and make these five wagers:

  • $130 on Mahomes (+550) -- Wins $715 ($445 net after subtracting all bets)

  • $110 on Brady (+700) -- Wins $770 ($480 net)

  • $75 on Stafford (+1000) -- Wins $750 ($425 net)

  • $55 on Allen (+1400) -- Wins $770 ($425 net)

  • $30 on Carr (+2500) -- Wins $750 ($380 net)

So that's a total of $400 wagered for an average net of $431, which is roughly +108. You can also tweak the bet size further to level the net win. Plus, you obviously do not have to place all your wagers at the same book. For example, you might be able to find Stafford at 12-1 somewhere else. That changes the math and increases your odds significantly.

With all that being said, doing this for +108 is annoying and illogical. The sweat of injuries, surprise teams, etc., is not worth +108. I just wanted to present the concept of building a portfolio. It's much more fun to build one with long odds. Sadly, this year's MVP race does not seem to provide huge payouts, although five of the past six winners did enter the season with odds of 25-1 or longer.

Fire away

I am on record with a Mahomes ticket at +550. Sunday night's Clyde Edwards-Helaire fumble and Kansas City's subsequent loss prevented the quarterback's odds from dipping to about +400. If you haven't, I would snag +550 now and also fire on Stafford at 10-1. The Rams' schedule is quite favorable in October and November, so if they emerge victorious from this Sunday's showdown at home against Brady and the Bucs (spread is PK) his odds will crash.

I feel I can wait on Brady. Famous last words, right? However, after traveling to L.A., the Bucs head to New England in Brady's Foxborough return. Then it's home against Miami before a trip to Philly, which represents Tampa's third road game in four weeks. In fact, the Bucs do not have back-to-back home games again until mid-December. More than anything, this feels like a team that's playing the long game, while the Rams are full speed ahead.

As for the rest, don't get too caught up with long shots because you can just pull a thread and never stop. I am grabbing Mahomes because I doubt his odds will ever go higher. He's just so gifted and always finds a way. Plus, outside the division, Kansas City's toughest remaining opponents (Bills, Packers, Cowboys and Steelers) all must come to Arrowhead, while the Chiefs travel only to Philadelphia, Washington, Tennessee and Cincinnati. I anticipate plenty of wins and the top seed. The division does appear tougher than in recent years, but Mahomes is the ultimate magician.

With all that being said, Wednesday is only the first day of fall. The regular season ends in 2022. It's very early.