ESPN's NFL MVP Poll: Derek Carr takes top spot

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Some years, the NFL most valuable player vote is easy. This is not such a year.

Strong candidates abound, and no one's case is clear-cut. The best player missed four games. The Dallas Cowboys have not one, but two rookies who can make a claim. And good luck trying to sort out the relative value of what Derek Carr is doing in Oakland compared to what Matt Ryan is doing in Atlanta or what Matthew Stafford is doing in Detroit.

Our panel of 12 ESPN experts took a shot. Did we get it right? Odds are, most of you won't think so. But with five very valuable weeks still to play, here is how we see the NFL's MVP race -- guaranteed to change:

1. Derek Carr, QB | Oakland Raiders

Regular-season passing: 281-for-423 (66.4 percent); 3,115 yards; 22 TDs; 5 INTs; 66.7 Total QBR

Case for Carr: This season the Raiders have won five games in which they've trailed in the fourth quarter. Carr has a 122.5 passer rating with 10 touchdown passes and one interception in fourth quarters and overtimes this year. Oakland is also 5-0 on the road, where Carr has passed for 11 touchdowns and one interception this season. The quarterback has come through at a high level in the toughest of situations for the Raiders all year.

Case against Carr: His numbers overall don't stand out among the other quarterbacks competing for this award. Carr is ninth in completion percentage, 14th in yards per attempt and 14th in Total QBR. He's aces in the fourth quarter, but if you're looking for a reason to downgrade him, it seems there are other candidates performing better in the first three periods.

2. Matt Ryan, QB | Atlanta Falcons

Regular-season passing: 262-for-380 (68.9 percent); 3,516 yards; 26 TDs; 6 INTs; 82.5 Total QBR

Case for Ryan: The numbers absolutely sparkle. Third in yards, third in touchdowns, third in Total QBR, third in completion percentage, second in passer rating and first in yards per attempt at 9.25. Ryan is performing at an elite level on a first-place team. And he has erased his biggest issue from 2015: He doesn't have a single game this year with more than one interception.

Case against Ryan: The Falcons are 7-4, which is a nice record, but it's not the 9-2 or 10-1 that the other candidates on this list can claim. In a year with a lot of strong MVP candidates such as this, odds are the eventual winner will come from one of the elite teams at the top. Atlanta hasn't proved to be that just yet.

3. Tom Brady, QB | New England Patriots

Regular-season passing: 175-for-256 (68.4 percent); 2,201 yards; 18 TDs; 1 INTs; 85.0 Total QBR

Case for Brady: I mean, it's Tom Brady. He belongs in the discussion every year. And since his return from his four-game suspension, he has been as good as or better than anyone else in the league. Eighteen touchdowns and one interception? 6-1 with a banged-up Rob Gronkowski and an underachieving defense? You can argue that Brady is the most valuable commodity in the entire NFL, in a vacuum.

Case against Brady: We're not in a vacuum. We're in an NFL season, and Brady has played in 64 percent as many games as the other candidates on our list have. If you're going to give the MVP to a guy who has played seven games over a collection of guys who've played 11, the former's performance needs to have been considerably better than those of the latter. It hasn't. The Patriots went 3-1 without him. Could the Falcons have gone 3-1 without Ryan? Could the Raiders have gone 3-1 without Carr? Participation carries value. For 36 percent of the season that has been played so far, Brady was of no value to the Patriots whatsoever.

4. Ezekiel Elliott, RB | Dallas Cowboys

Regular-season rushing: 243 carries; 1,199 yards; 11 TDs
Regular-season receiving: 24 receptions; 303 yards; 1 TD

Case for Elliott: The Dallas offense works only if it has a dominant running game. Elliott is leading the league in rushing yardage with a 156-yard margin over former Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray, who has played one more game than Elliott has this season. Elliott has 71 rushing first downs, which is 18 more than anyone else in the league. He averages 4.9 yards per carry and is the only player in the league with at least 10 runs of 20 or more yards. He also can help as a receiver and a blocker. Elliott makes the most efficient offense in the league go.

Case against Elliott: There's a case to be made that anybody could have success running behind the Cowboys' all-world offensive line. Darren McFadden had more than 1,000 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry last year in Dallas. The season Murray had in Dallas in 2014 earned him a free-agent fortune. The offensive line, as a group, could be more valuable than the back running behind it, in which case, how can he win?

5. Dak Prescott, QB | Dallas Cowboys

Regular-season passing: 231-for-340 (67.9 percent); 2,835 yards; 18 TDs; 2 INTs; 86.0 Total QBR
Regular-season rushing: 180 yards; 5 rushing TDs

Case for Prescott: He's the starting quarterback on the league's best team. Not only is he a nimble decision-maker who protects the ball and manages the game responsibly, but he also has shown the ability to hit a big throw down the field in a big spot. After the Cowboys went 1-11 without Tony Romo last season, there'd have been value in any replacement who could even be competent. Prescott has been much more, to the point of taking Romo's job.

Case against Prescott: As with fellow rookie Elliott, Prescott benefits from the brilliance of his offensive line. Add in Elliott and wide receiver Dez Bryant as big-time playmakers at vital positions, and there are few quarterbacks in the league whose surrounding cast puts them in a better position to succeed.