NFL1000: Unearthing Every NFL Team's Early Hidden Gem
Superstars get all the ink in the NFL, but to build a consistent championship-level roster, franchises must hit on multiple players late in the draft, undrafted players and in free agency. When they do, these players—often underrated parts of the whole—become integral pieces of the bigger picture.
At the NFL1000 scouting project, part of our job is to unearth the players who will form the next wave of franchise cornerstones. Names you may not know yet, but soon will. They play every position, in every scheme and for every team.
Some were overlooked in college and just had to find the right home to make their talents work. Others started with one NFL team and found their best schematic fit when they moved to another. Others stuck with the same franchise, but a new coaching staff saw their potential and put them in the best place to succeed. And of course, there are those stories of players who develop over time and are able to reach their potential.
Through the first two games of the 2017 season, and based on their previous work, here’s our list of hidden gems for every NFL team.
Arizona Cardinals: OLB Markus Golden
Markus Golden shouldn't be a hidden gem at this point, but you don't hear his name nearly enough. Arizona took him in the second round of the 2015 draft out of Missouri after Golden set himself apart on a defensive line featuring Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. He amassed 14.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss in his junior and senior seasons. After a rookie campaign in which he put up four sacks in six starts, Golden once again set himself apart in 2016, putting up 13 sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries.
He already has 11 quarterback pressures through two games this year—only Denver's Von Miller and Shaquil Barrett have more among 3-4 outside linebackers.
Golden gets things done in James Bettcher's hybrid fronts because he's strong enough to create a bull rush at 6'3" and 260 pounds. He's also become good at tricking offensive linemen with stunts and inside counters, and he reads the open gap well, speeding through to take the quarterback as his prize. He's also excellent against the run when backs try to take it around the corner, as his 22 run stops in 2016 prove.
Golden isn't a big name, but he should be.
Atlanta Falcons: CB Brian Poole
The 2016 Falcons showed the value of their draft class when they sent four rookies into starting roles in Super Bowl LI—safety Keanu Neal, linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell, and cornerback Brian Poole. Poole was the only undrafted one among the four, which is a mystery in retrospect given his success in the NFL.
At 5'9" and 213 pounds, Poole didn't impress at his pro day with a 4.49-second 40-yard dash, but his field speed is something else. Poole fit right in as Atlanta's primary slot corner in his rookie season, playing 564 coverage snaps inside, including the postseason—more than any other slot defender last season.
Poole allowed 43 catches on 67 targets for 464 yards and an opponent passer rating of 94.4. He gave up two touchdowns and didn't have an interception, but when you watch the tape, he's better than the numbers might say. Poole has the knack to stick with speedier slot receivers who frequently switch their routes at the line of scrimmage and confound bigger defenders with quick, angular movements.
He also played 239 run snaps last season, racking up 11 tackles and four stops. A versatile player whose star is rising, Poole may have been undrafted, but you'll hear his name more and more.
Baltimore Ravens: DT Michael Pierce
While Brandon Williams is the alpha among Baltimore's defensive tackles—that's what happens when you sign a five-year, $52.5 million contract as Williams did this March—it could be argued that second-year man Michael Pierce has as much potential as any tackle on that line. He's also one of the most intriguing young defensive tackles in the NFL.
Undrafted out of Samford, Pierce had to show out in the 2016 preseason to guarantee himself a roster spot. Then, he became a force multiplier in Baltimore's excellent defensive front, amassing 24 run tackles and 23 run stops on 184 run snaps. You'd expect good run defense out of a 6'0" 340-pound tackle, but it's his pass-rushing numbers that impressed in his rookie season.
In just 164 pass-rushing snaps, Pierce put up two sacks, three quarterback hits and nine hurries, getting good quarterback pressure primarily from a 1-technique position. He has incredible quickness for a guy who looks kind of squatty, and he has the strength and hand movement to knife through double-teams.
The 24-year-old already has a sack and five quarterback pressures in 2017, and you can expect the numbers to keep coming.
Buffalo Bills: S Jordan Poyer
The Bills defense has given up just 21 points through two games, and Jordan Poyer has been as big a part of that as anyone. He had 11 tackles against the Panthers in Week 2, tied for the most among all defensive backs, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Poyer has a sack in each of Buffalo's two games, more than any Bills defensive back had throughout 2016. He's also one of two safeties with a sack at all this season—only Oakland's Karl Joseph has one, as well. And in coverage, Poyer has been a stud—he's given up five catches on six targets for just 34 yards.
Not bad for a guy whose 2016 season ended early when he suffered a lacerated kidney last October. Selected in the seventh round of the 2013 draft by the Eagles out of Oregon State, Poyer was converted from cornerback to safety when the Browns picked him up off waivers halfway through his rookie season. He flashed at times throughout his four years in Cleveland, but it wasn't until he landed in Buffalo with a four-year, $13 million contract in March that he found his groove.
Poyer often plays the center field role in Buffalo's single-high safety schemes, but he can also come down for blitzes and run support, shooting through gaps as a free blitzer and force defender. He's found the ideal home in one of the most aggressive defenses in the NFL.
Carolina Panthers: CB James Bradberry
When former Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman let Josh Norman walk in free agency in the 2016 preseason, he managed to land on his feet by selecting James Bradberry in the second round of that draft out of Samford. He was an under-the-radar prospect for most teams, but the Panthers saw his size (6'1", 212 lbs) and ability to play aggressive press coverage at the line and downfield, and effectively made him Norman's replacement as the Panthers defender who trailed the opponent's top receivers.
Bradberry was up to the challenge right away, giving up 51 catches on 84 targets for 541 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions and an opponent passer rating of 85.5. To do that as a rookie against the quality of receivers he faced, coming from a small college, when most first-year cornerbacks struggle, was remarkable.
Part of Bradberry's success was that the Panthers used him ideally for his skill set—he presses well in zone coverage, turns his body quickly to get proper position and has the agility to deal with smaller, quicker receivers on shorter angular routes.
He's given up seven catches on 13 targets for 63 yards in two games this season while facing receivers such as San Francisco's Marquise Goodwin and Buffalo's Zay Jones. He's also a great run defender, as he proved several times against Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor in Week 2 on scrambles.
Bradberry could be one of the NFL's next great cornerbacks.
Chicago Bears: CB Bryce Callahan
The Bears' cornerback situation over the last two seasons has not been a positive. 2014 first-round pick Kyle Fuller has dealt with injuries and coverage breakdowns, though he's playing well in 2017. The rest of the outside cornerback rotation doesn't have the pure talent to stand out, but at least Chicago has an answer in the slot in Bryce Callahan.
A 5'9", 188-pound prospect out of Rice, Callahan went undrafted in 2015 because he had issues against bigger receivers. But the Bears saw him as a potential force in the slot, and when injuries decimated their secondary in 2016, Callahan made the most of his chance.
Last season, he allowed just nine receptions on 18 targets from the slot for 126 yards, nine yards after the catch, no touchdowns and an opponent passer rating of 72.9. Through two games this year, he's allowed three catches on seven slot targets for 18 yards, two yards after the catch and an opponent passer rating of 50.3—the best opponent passer rating of any slot cornerback in the NFL.
Callahan does a tremendous job of breaking to the receiver right from the snap in man coverage, and he's great at zone switches when he's tasked to hand off his receiver and move to another. His improvement in technique makes Callahan one of the best slot corners you'll see.
Cincinnati Bengals: WR Alex Erickson
Alex Erickson was an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin and caught the coaching staff's attention when he popped an 80-yard punt return against the Vikings in the 2016 preseason. That earned him a spot on the Cincinnati roster, and though he caught just six passes on eight targets for 71 yards in his rookie campaign, he showed up on special teams, leading the league with 810 yards on 29 kick returns and adding another 195 yards on 28 punt returns.
Given more of a chance as a receiver in 2017, Erickson has been a rare bright spot in a Bengals passing game that has regressed mightily. He beat Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson for a 37-yard reception Week 1 against Houston when Andy Dalton had to break the pocket, and Erickson followed him all the way across the field.
Erickson had four catches for 62 yards in that game, and though the receiver didn't have any receptions in the Week 1 loss to the Ravens, new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor would be wise to feature Erickson as a primary slot target.
Cleveland Browns: OG Joel Bitonio
Browns left tackle Joe Thomas is a future Hall of Famer and is getting a ton of praise for recently logging his 10,000th straight snap, an unbelievable testament to Thomas' talent and endurance. The guy to Thomas' right isn't nearly as well-known, but left guard Joel Bitonio has been a force on Cleveland's offensive line since the Browns took him in the second round of the 2014 draft.
Bitonio missed 11 games in 2016 with a sprained foot, but he's back and healthy for the 2017 season. Through two games and 91 snaps, he's given up one sack, no quarterback hits and two quarterback hurries. Moreover, he's one of the better run-blockers at his position in the league, and he's adapted well to multiple offensive systems through the Browns' coaching carousel. When he was healthy last season, Bitonio allowed just one sack and eight total pressures in 192 pass-blocking snaps.
With the addition of former Bengal Kevin Zeitler, the Browns have one of the best guard tandems in the league, but it's Bitonio who has been there for a while and deserves recognition.
Dallas Cowboys: DE Demarcus Lawrence
The Cowboys selected Demarcus Lawrence in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Boise State with the hopes he could replace another guy with the same first name—DeMarcus Ware, who logged 117 sacks for Dallas from 2005 through 2013. Lawrence showed a ton of potential as a pass-rusher in his second season of 2015 with eight sacks, but he had just one sack in 2016 as he struggled with injuries.
So far through 2017, it's clear Lawrence has returned at his best. He has four sacks, and his 13 total quarterback pressures ties him among 4-3 defensive ends with Jacksonville's Calais Campbell and Melvin Ingram of the Chargers.
At 6'3" and 265 pounds, Lawrence can beat offensive tackles with surprising speed off the edge. He can also win with bull rushes, inside counters, a series of pass-rush moves that include a devastating arm-over to put him past any blocker, and a spin move that is hard to beat.
Dallas' defense is still putting its talent together, but as long as Lawrence stays healthy, he's one piece of the puzzle that fits.
Denver Broncos: OLB Shaquil Barrett
An undersized linebacker out of Colorado State, the 6'2", 250-pound Shaquil Barrett went undrafted in 2014 as a too-small/too-slow guy who went about proving his detractors wrong at every turn. He amassed 5.5 sacks in 2015, his second NFL season and his first with serious playing time. He followed that with 1.5 sacks in 2016 in a reserve role. Last season, he upgraded his role in coverage in blitz and drop packages with two receptions allowed in four targets on 61 pass-defending snaps.
Through two games in 2017, Barrett has firmly established himself as an elite pass-rusher with one sack, three quarterback hits and nine quarterback hurries—only Von Miller, Barrett's teammate, has more total pressures among 3-4 outside linebackers with 16. Barrett can bend the edge to add to his speed around offensive tackles, and he knows how to use his hands to get free of blockers.
Moreover, he's still an asset in coverage, with one catch allowed on three targets for six yards. Add in his outstanding run defense, and it's clear Barrett has turned into an every-down defender.
Detroit Lions: CB Quandre Diggs
Quandre Diggs' older brother, Quentin Jammer, played 12 years in the NFL, and the Lions' third-year defender is starting to follow in the family footsteps. He played outside and in the slot at Texas, and Detroit got him in the sixth round of the 2015 draft. He played mostly in the slot for the Lions early on, seeing action in all 16 games in his rookie season and missing four games with a torn pectoral muscle last year.
Through two games in 2017, Diggs has looked like he's put it all together as a pass defender who can line up against receivers all over the field. An aggressive, handsy corner, Diggs has the agility to trail receivers around the field on slants and drag routes, and he's developing a knack for jumping routes to get pass breakups.
In 2017, He has allowed five catches on 10 targets for 35 yards and an opponent passer rating of 58.3, and he looks as though he'll be a major part of Teryl Austin's defense throughout the rest of the season.
Green Bay Packers: OG Lane Taylor
Losing guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang in the last two years of free agency has put a big hit on Green Bay's offensive line, but that hit would be a lot bigger were it not for the development of Lane Taylor, the 2013 undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State.
2016 was Taylor's first season as a full-time starter, and he responded well, allowing just one sack and two quarterback hits in 803 pass-blocking snaps, including the postseason. The Packers rewarded him with a three-year, $16.5 million contract extension in September.
Like Sitton, who turned himself into a Pro Bowler in Green Bay, Taylor can sometimes get beaten back by more aggressive interior rushers. However, he has the technique and upper-body strength to right himself and push forward with good leverage.
Through two games this season, Taylor has allowed no sacks, no quarterback hits and eight hurries. The hurries are a problem he needs to clean up—he allowed 38 of them last season—but he's become an indispensable part of an offensive line in transition.
Houston Texans: S Andre Hal
The Texans took Andre Hal in the seventh round of the 2014 draft out of Vanderbilt, converting him from cornerback to safety and putting him to work in dime packages. Hal showed an early knack for the ball with two interception returns for touchdowns in his rookie preseason, and he's amassed six interceptions in his career.
Through two games this season, Hal has shown great versatility. He has the quickness and open-field speed to play the single-high safety role, and he can lock down a quarter of the field when Houston moves to its two-deep looks. He's also good in run support for his size (5'10", 190 lbs), and when he's asked to play inside, he does that with aplomb, allowing an opponent passer rating of 48.4 from the slot in 2016.
The Texans require defensive backs who can move all over the field, and Hal fits the profile.
Indianapolis Colts: TE Jack Doyle
It's hard to find standouts on the Colts roster; that's why the team fired former general manager Ryan Grigson in January. But Jack Doyle, an undrafted free agent out of Western Kentucky who made the squad in 2013, has been a pleasant surprise. With Coby Fleener (New Orleans) and Dwayne Allen (New England) out of town, Doyle has become Indianapolis' primary tight end.
He caught 59 passes on 75 targets for 584 yards and five touchdowns in 2016, and he's already up to 10 catches on 11 targets for 120 yards in two games this season. With Andrew Luck (shoulder) out an indefinite period, backup Jacoby Brissett needs targets who can get open early and often, and Doyle can do that.
He's a good blocker as well, but Doyle's primary attribute is he can define openings against close coverage with an ability to cut quickly and a definitive approach to the routes he's supposed to run. Lined up primarily along the formation or in the short slot, Doyle is more an old-school tight end than the new breed of big receiver, but he's proved to be a most valuable part of a Colts offense that needs all the help it can get.
Jacksonville Jaguars: DE Yannick Ngakoue
The Jaguars got Yannick Ngakoue in the third round of the 2016 draft out of Maryland, and he's been a steal. Jacksonville has spent a ton of money in the last two seasons for edge and interior pressure from Malik Jackson and Calais Campbell, but Ngakoue is in the second year of a four-year, $3.48 million contract, and he's more than lived up to it.
Things started well in his rookie year, when he amassed eight sacks, six quarterback hits, 33 quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles and an interception. He's already got two sacks and six quarterback hurries in 2017, and with Campbell on the line as well, you could expect to see Ngakoue's numbers going up.
Ngakoue's primary attribute is he comes off the snap at incredible speed, sometimes getting past an offensive tackle before the blocker can get his hands up. He can also bring a bull rush to knock his opponents back, and he's a force in the run game.
It's past time for Ngakoue to be a household name.
Kansas City Chiefs: DL Chris Jones
The Chiefs took Chris Jones in the second round of the 2016 draft out of Mississippi State because he put up 8.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in three seasons, and he was still putting everything together from a physical perspective. Jones had issues with pad level and anticipating blocking combinations in college, but once he got in Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton's hybrid fronts, the light went on, and he's been a superlative player since.
Jones had just two sacks in his rookie campaign as an interior defender, but he was a great example of how sack numbers don't tell the whole story. He also had eight quarterback hits and 32 hurries, putting him in the top percentile of pass-rushing tackles.
And there's no sophomore slump here—through two games in 2017, Jones already has three sacks, two hurries, two forced fumbles and an interception this year.
Playing primarily at the 4- and 5-tech gaps, Jones still plays with a high pad level, but he's adapted due to his upper-body strength—he can take a guard and just rag-doll him out of the way. And when he moves through gaps, Jones has terrific speed and hand movement.
He's already on his way to status as one of the better interior defenders in the league.
Los Angeles Chargers: OLB Jatavis Brown
During his two seasons in the NFL, Jatavis Brown has played two primary positions for the Chargers. He was an inside linebacker in John Pagano's 3-4 base defense in 2016, and when Gus Bradley took over the defensive coordinator position in 2017, he became the team's starting weak-side linebacker. Brown has been a natural in both spots because he's a true 360-degree player—as adept in coverage as he is in challenging run fits. Mostly, though, Brown covers as much ground as any linebacker in the league, which makes him a huge asset across the board.
Our NFL1000 scouts noticed Brown early in his rookie season, and he ranked 18th among all inside linebackers last year. He had 64 solo tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles as a rookie, and he's already looking strong at his new position, with 17 tackles and 10 run stops.
Brown isn't a big guy at 5'11" and 221 pounds, but he perfectly fits the profile of the modern linebacker: fast, rangy, tough and eminently versatile.
Los Angeles Rams: DB Lamarcus Joyner
The Rams lost cornerback Janoris Jenkins to free agency after the 2015 season, and they had to give Trumaine Johnson, their best cornerback in 2016, the franchise tag to keep him from leaving. Los Angeles' secondary has some holes, and it'll have more if Johnson bails after the season. But Lamarcus Joyner, drafted as a cornerback in 2014 out of Florida State, is helping that secondary with a move to free safety that has him roaming the field with aplomb.
A tape review of his 2017 shows how well he's adapted. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has Joyner near the line of scrimmage as a slot safety a lot of the time, but he has the range and speed to play the deep safety role, as well.
In coverage, Joyner shows loose hips to transition his turn and follow receivers, and when he has to come down from a deeper role to tackle, he aligns himself to the target, squares up well, and delivers the blow. Perhaps most importantly, he has the full-field speed to eventually become one of the better true coverage safeties in the NFL.
The Rams may decide to transition Joyner back to cornerback next season if they need that, but they'd be wise to keep him at safety. Guys with his skill set and good tape at the position are hard to find.
Miami Dolphins: WR Kenny Stills
If there's one thing we know about Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Cutler, it's that he's a great deep-ball thrower—when he's accurate. That makes Kenny Stills, in his third season with the Dolphins after two campaigns with the Saints, as important as any member of the Miami offense.
Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker may be the big names in the team's receiver group, but there's no better deep threat on the squad than Stills. He led the roster in 2016 with 19 targets and nine catches on passes of 20 or more yards for 380 yards and eight touchdowns.
Cutler already knows the benefits of throwing deep to Stills—in the team's first game of the 2017 season, Stills ran a deep over route from left to right and torched Chargers linebacker Jatavis Brown, a talented player, for a 29-yard score.
Stills succeeds as a deep receiver because he has all the attributes for the position—he's great on go, out-and-up, over and post routes, he's strong and persistent to beat press coverage off the line, and he's a fine contested-catch player. The Dolphins may never know what they have week-to-week with Cutler, but in Stills, they know they have one of the NFL's best deep threats.
Minnesota Vikings: OLB Eric Kendricks
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has been building one of the NFL's best defenses over the last few seasons, which fits with his pedigree as a legendary defensive coordinator. And in Zimmer's 4-3 base defense with aggressive coverage, you can't get everything done without a key linebacker who has the versatility to play on every down, doing everything from coverage to run-stopping in nickel packages.
Zimmer has exactly that player in Eric Kendricks. The second-round pick in 2015 out of UCLA has seen his potential slowed a bit due to injuries, but when he's full-go, he can be an absolute monster on the field.
He didn't take long to prove that in 2017, nearly picking off a pass from Drew Brees to Coby Fleener early in the first quarter of Minnesota's opening-week win over the Saints. As a run defender, Kendricks has a great feel for open gaps, and he has the speed to turn through blockers and make stops. As a pass defender, he can drop well in coverage and has the range to create stops all over the field.
If Kendricks has the breakout year it looks like he's about to have, Minnesota's defense could go from good to great.
New England Patriots: OG Shaq Mason
Under offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, New England's offensive linemen must incorporate everything from old-school counter and trap plays to zone slides and combo pass protection. It's a tough set of schemes, but there's no denying how well that line works when Coach Scar is in charge.
The Patriots got Shaq Mason out of Georgia Tech in the fourth round of the 2015 draft, and Bill Belichick said at the time that Mason was "probably the best run-blocker in the entire draft," per Mike Loyko of NEPatriotsDraft.com. He's proved his ability to fire out in the run game, using his 6'1", 310-pound frame to move defensive tackles back in run-blocking and run-action pass plays.
Where Mason has improved in the NFL is in his pass blocking, which is impressive given that his college passing game was quite basic and the Patriots' passing game is one of the most complex you'll ever see.
Mason has learned to not only deal with his own blocking assignment, but to also peel off quickly and help the center and tackle in zone situations. He did give up six sacks last season in 702 pass-blocking snaps, including the postseason, and quicker rushers can beat him to either side at times. But Mason brings a necessary attitude and physicality to the Patriots offensive line that it otherwise wouldn't have.
New Orleans Saints: WR Tommylee Lewis
People didn't think much of Tommylee Lewis before he joined the Saints in 2016. The undrafted rookie out of Northern Illinois was NFLDraftScout.com's 142nd-ranked receiver despite the fact that he amassed 2,258 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns as a rusher and pass-catcher. At 5'7" and 168 pounds, he gave the impression to some that he wouldn't hold up against NFL's physical rigors.
But as a deep threat and slot receiver in Sean Payton's offense, Lewis has shown potential, especially in his second season. He tied for the NFL lead in the preseason with 14 receptions for 165 yards and a touchdown, and in the regular-season opener against the Vikings, he caught a 52-yard bomb from Drew Brees on which he stutter-stepped Minnesota cornerback Trae Waynes out of his shoes on a vertical route. And in Week 2 against the Patriots, he sped out of a stack release to catch a quick out route, galloping up the field for a 16-yard gain.
Given Brees' accuracy with the deep ball, having a speed receiver such as Lewis on the roster could pay great dividends. All he needs is more reps to make that happen consistently.
New York Giants: C Weston Richburg
From left to right, it's clear the Giants offensive line is a disaster. Through two games, Big Blue has allowed seven sacks and 29 total pressures, and the entire offense seems to be falling part. But there's one exception—center Weston Richburg—and he's been a high-quality player throughout New York's offensive line decline.
This season, Richburg has allowed no sacks, no quarterback hits and just one hurry. Last season, while the entire Giants line allowed 15 sacks and 169 total pressures, Richburg allowed just two sacks and 11 total pressures.
Richburg, the Giants' second-round pick in 2014 out of Colorado State, isn't just a great pass protector; he's also strong in the run game. Hw uses his hands and understanding of leverage to create gaps even as they're closing all around him.
It's hard to be the only guy on your line who's doing his job on a consistent basis, but without Richburg's efforts, the Giants' front five would be even worse, if you can imagine.
New York Jets: OLB Jordan Jenkins
In the last few seasons, the Jets have gone from having one of the more talented rosters in the NFL to a group of players so inept, the franchise is often accused of tanking. That's mostly on general manager Mike Maccagnan, but occasionally through Maccagnan's tenure, the team has hit on a player with potential. Jordan Jenkins, taken in the third round of the 2016 draft out of Georgia, appears to be such a player.
Jenkins got more and more playing time as his rookie season went along, amassing all three of his sacks and 10 total pressures in the last quarter of the season. He then worked with performance coach Chuck Smith in the offseason to develop his pass-rushing moves. He's also worked hard to become a good force run defender from the edge and an adept coverage defender. Jenkins uses his hands well to dislodge blocks, and he's quick to the pocket.
Not that there's a ton of things for Jets fans to be excited about in 2017, but Jenkins' ascent might be something to think about for the future.
Oakland Raiders: OG Gabe Jackson
The Raiders spent a ton of free-agent money on their offensive line over the last few years, having made wise investments in left tackle Donald Penn, center Rodney Hudson and right guard Kelechi Osemele. But from a run-blocking perspective, their best offensive lineman may be the one they got in the draft.
Jackson, who the Raiders selected in the third round of the 2014 draft out of Mississippi State, came to the NFL with a reputation as a pure power-blocker who struggled at times in space and with more advanced pass-protection concepts. But in Oakland's system, he has become a well-rounded guard.
Jackson is one of the top run-blockers in the NFL, and his pass protection has improved to the point where he's given up zero pressures through two games in the 2017 season. He allowed no sacks throughout the 2016 season in 676 pass-blocking snaps, so this isn't a fluke.
As a run-blocker, Jackson isn't just a stay-at-home guy. He can get to the second level with outstanding technique, beating up on linebackers as well as he takes care of defensive tackles. Jackson is a testament to great coaching and a player's persistence to be the best he can be.
Philadelphia Eagles: WR Nelson Agholor
Through his first two seasons in the NFL, 2015 first-round pick Nelson Agholor struggled to stay healthy and play well against the league's more aggressive outside cornerbacks. He was clearly built for a slot role with his 6'0", 198-pound frame and impressive short-area quickness, but Jordan Matthews was already there. Agholor attempted to do his best outside, but it wasn't good enough.
Fast-forward to 2017, and Agholor has finally established himself as the team's primary inside receiver following Matthews' trade to the Bills. He's paid dividends already, grabbing seven catches on 11 targets for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Seeing as he never exceeded 36 catches, 365 yards and two touchdowns in either of his first two seasons, his prorated 2017 numbers are stunning.
Agholor's two touchdowns this season have been impressive as well. He ran a nice curl route to the back of the end zone in Week 2 against Kansas City's dime defense, and he followed a scrambling Carson Wentz around the field in Week 1 for a 58-yard touchdown. Best used inside and in trips and bunch packages, Agholor has finally found his ideal position.
Pittsburgh Steelers: DL Cameron Heyward
Heyward is far from anonymous among NFL insiders—every coach and player knows how good he is, which is why the Steelers gave him a six-year, $59.2 million contract extension in 2015. But he isn't commonly thought of as one of the league's best interior defenders, and that's a shame.
In 2017, Heyward might be playing his best football. No interior defender in the league has more total quarterback pressures than Heyward's 13, and only Minnesota's Linval Joseph has more run stops than Heyward's seven.
Heyward has never made a Pro Bowl, which is ridiculous because he's anything but a short-term talent. He has 26 sacks over his seven-year career, which is impressive for a guy who must ply his trade from multiple gaps and is often double-teamed.
This season, you'll Heyward playing at the one-tech, three-tech and five-tech positions—often in the same drive—and blowing up opposing offensive linemen no matter where he lines up. He has the strength and hand movement to win those types of battles, and his closing speed in space makes him great when he needs to close ground to a ball-carrier. If you leave a gap open, watch out, because he'll burst through it to the quarterback in a hurry.
If he keeps playing at this rate, forget about a Pro Bowl nod. Heyward should be in consideration for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
San Francisco 49ers: S Jaquiski Tartt
Through his first two NFL seasons, San Francisco used Jaquiski Tartt as a bit of a hybrid defender—some deep coverage, some slot, some blitzing and run support closer to the line of scrimmage. But new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, a former Seahawks assistant, apparently intends to put Tartt in the Earl Thomas role for a majority of his snaps. There, he can use his speed and aggressiveness to split the field from a single-high position, offering support on deeper throws and coming down with authority to tackle receivers on short and intermediate passes.
Tartt doesn't have Thomas' on-field smarts yet, but it took Thomas a few seasons before his brain caught up with his feet, and Tartt has made some impressive plays among the occasional blunders. So far this season, he has allowed just three catches in seven targets for 34 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
The pick in Week 1 against the Panthers showed both Tartt's impressive athleticism and the fact that he still needs some work on the little things. He broke late on a deep pass from Cam Newton to Kelvin Benjamin, but he made up the difference with his straight-line speed and made a gorgeous jumping catch for the interception. Tartt is a player to watch throughout the 2017 season.
Seattle Seahawks: CB Shaquill Griffin
With Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor in the fold for years, the Legion of Boom has always been a group three-quarters full. The Seahawks have tried bookending Sherman with several different cornerbacks from Brandon Browner to Byron Maxwell to Jeremy Lane, but nobody has matched the talent in that secondary over time.
Seattle selected four defensive backs in the 2017 draft, which was smart given that this was the strongest class among all positions in at least a decade. In third-round pick Shaquill Griffin from Central Florida, the Seahawks finally may have found the fourth member of their defensive supergroup.
Griffin certainly fits the profile. Seattle likes its cornerbacks big and aggressive, and Griffin stands at 6'0" and 194 pounds. He was known in college as a player who was unafraid to press receivers at the line, and he's continued that in the NFL.
Through two regular-season games, Griffin has allowed seven receptions on 10 targets for 74 yards, no touchdowns and an opponent passer rating of 84.2. He got a little lost against the Packers in Week 1 when they tested him with quick-breaking comeback routes, but he adjusted and has been a high-quality player ever since.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: S Keith Tandy
Tandy didn't get many starting reps in the 2016 season until safety Chris Conte was hurt, which was a curious decision on the part of the Buccaneers staff. Conte has been one of the NFL's weaker coverage safeties for a long time, and Tandy showed out once he did have a chance to start.
Whatever it took, the sixth-year man from West Virginia, who Tampa Bay selected in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, shored up his team's pass defense with range and toughness. He picked off four passes in five starts and allowed just one touchdown on 224 pass defense snaps.
Tandy is a quick Cover 2 safety who covers a ton of ground to the receiver and arrives with the intention to get the ball by any means necessary—jumping the route, fighting the receiver or reading the quarterback's eyes. He's developed an excellent sense of deciphering the targeted receiver out of route combinations, and he's confident enough to break off his assignment if the ball is going elsewhere.
With Bradley McDougald off to Seattle in free agency, Tandy has earned a starting spot all season.
Tennessee Titans: S Kevin Byard
Byard played his college ball in Conference USA at Middle Tennessee State, but he was no one's idea of a draft sleeper. The Titans took him in the third round of the 2016 draft despite his small-school status, and he rewarded Tennessee's faith with an outstanding rookie season. Byard started the last seven games of the year and allowed 13 catches on 25 targets for 90 yards and no touchdowns.
Through two games this season, Byard has taken his role as a full-time starter to heart. He has allowed just five catches on seven targets for 36 yards.
When you watch Byard on tape, it's easy to see why he's successful. He isn't just a high-quality coverage player; he's also strong against the run when playing at linebacker. When he plays intermediate and deep coverage, Byard turns quickly to his receiver, and he has the short-area body control to match route concepts.
Tennessee's defense isn't a hot topic, so guys like Byard tend to get overlooked. But there's no question his star is on the rise.
Washington Redskins: OLB Preston Smith
When the Redskins selected Smith in the second round of the 2015 draft out of Mississippi State, it looked like they had an ideal pass-rushing bookend for Ryan Kerrigan right away. Smith had eight sacks in his rookie year. He wasn't quite as prolific in 2016, when he amassed five sacks, seven hits and 22 quarterback hurries, but he has gotten back on track this season with two sacks and six total pressures after two games.
Smith is a real problem for any offensive tackle. At 6'5" and 270 pounds, he has the upper-body strength common to pass-rushing defensive tackles, but he also has unusual quickness to the pocket for his size. Putting a tight end on him is a mistake because he can bull-rush an opponent his size out of the way, and he's too quick with stunts and inside counters for most tackles to deal with.
Washington's defensive line has played at a high level through two games, and Smith looks to be a major part of that equation.
Advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.