NFL Players, Teams Surpassing Expectations Early in the 2022 Season
As we enter Week 5 of the season, the volatility and unpredictability of the NFL are starting to show through.
Every year fans and analysts spend the offseason coming up with predictions and expectations for teams and players throughout the league. For teams, it's based on a mix of offseason moves and previous success or failure. It isn't much different for players.
The problem is it's all hypothetical until the pads come on and the games are played.
That's when there are inevitably the players and teams that prove they were being overlooked, underappreciated and slept on.
These four players and four teams have proven that expectations are not limitations.
Edge Alex Highsmith, Pittsburgh Steelers
A quick glance at the sack leaders through four weeks of the season doesn't elicit many surprises. Nick Bosa, Rashan Gary, Khalil Mack and Maxx Crosby are among the top five.
But Alex Highsmith is ranked ahead of all of them but Bosa.
Entering his third year, the Steelers edge rusher was a candidate to see a boost in his stats. Rushing opposite of T.J. Watt was supposed to set him up with the opportunity to see an uptick in stats.
Instead, he's become a bonafide threat to offensive lines all by himself. Watt hasn't played since Week 1 due to a chest injury, but Highsmith has continued to produce.
He racked up three sacks in the team's opening game, but he has 2.5 over the last two weeks. He's on pace to wind up with more than 20 sacks and 20 tackles for loss.
Obviously, that's a product of a small sample size, but Highsmith's above-expectations performance has flown under the radar because the Steelers are 1-3. When he gets a chance to play with Watt again he could start getting more recognition.
S Talanoa Hufanga, San Francisco 49ers
You'd be excused for never having heard of Talanoa Hufanga up until Week 4. The second-year safety didn't light the world on fire as a rookie in 2021, but is making his presence felt already in 2022.
Hufanga—who was a fifth-round draft pick out of USC—only played in 41 percent of the team's defensive snaps last season and certainly didn't look like a potential top safety. He surrendered a passer rating of 114.1 which included two touchdowns.
This year, he's already drawing major praise.
Pro Football Focus named him to their Early NFL All-Pro Team. Their group of analysts cited Hufanga's propensity for winding up around the ball to make big plays. The most impressive highlight thus far was a pick-six on an attempted Cooper Kupp screen that sealed the win against the Los Angeles Rams.
49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans intimated the same idea when talking up his burgeoning defender.
"Huf is not a robot on the field. That's what allows him to stick out... That's what allows him to be one of the best safeties in the league," he said, per David Lombardi of The Athletic.
The Niners are a franchise that has generated plenty of defensive stars. With 25 tackles, two interceptions, four passes defended and a touchdown through four games, it isn't hyperbole to say the 23-year-old is on that track.
Doug Pederson was brought in to bring credibility to the Jacksonville Jaguars. It was just supposed to take a little longer than one offseason.
Yet, four weeks into the season they have already done a lot to command respect. Their win total has already gone from 6.5 at the beginning of the season to eight on DraftKings Sportsbook right now.
A 2-2 record might not be all that impressive, but when you consider both losses were in one-possession games and the two wins were blowout wins over the Los Angeles Chargers and Indianapolis Colts, it's a fairly strong record.
The key has been building an offense that has allowed Trevor Lawrence to grow in an offense where he is taking care of the football (only two interceptions in four games) and is well-protected (six sacks).
The defense ranking third in takeaways per game means the Jags are consistently winning the turnover battle and have the ability to beat anyone in a given week.
Not bad for a franchise that won four games total in the previous two seasons.
There were legitimate reasons to wonder what Mike McDaniel would bring to the table as an NFL head coach.
He only held the title of offensive coordinator in San Francisco for one season, the Niners still relied on Kyle Shanahan to influence the offense and McDaniel is not your typical NFL head coach.
There were also valid reasons to question the Dolphins roster heading into the season. It was unclear whether Terron Armstead and Connor Williams would be enough to make the offensive line functional. It was fair to wonder if Tyreek Hill would be the same player without Patrick Mahomes.
The Dolphins have silenced a lot of those doubts. The offense is ninth in scoring offense and second in yards per play. McDaniel has orchestrated a passing game with Hill and Jaylen Waddle that has been nearly impossible to stop and Tua Tagovailoa has been highly efficient running it.
The southpaw quarterback will be out for Week 5 as he goes through concussion protocol.
Before the loss to the Bengals on Thursday Night Football, the Dolphins had a brief stay atop the Bleacher Report Power Rankings. Of course, that was fresh off a win over the vaunted Buffalo Bills.
That still remains this team's ceiling when Tagovailoa is healthy and things are clicking. That's pretty impressive for a team that just barely missed the playoffs in 2021.
New York Giants
It hasn't always been pretty. And it probably isn't sustainable. But for right now, the New York Giants are 3-1 for the first time since 2011.
Brian Daboll has proven to be a good fit in New York. With limited resources to make sweeping personnel changes, Daboll has simply had to adapt and overcome to put his team in the best position possible.
So far, he's done just that.
The team's Week 4 win over the Chicago Bears was a perfect example. With Daniel Jones and Tyrod Taylor both getting knocked out of the game with injuries, Daboll had to go to a wildcat offense and lean on the run game.
They got a 20-12 win with 262 yards rushing.
The road ahead is tough. Jones is still dealing with the ankle injury that knocked him out of the Bears game and is uncertain for the team's London game against the Green Bay Packers.
The 3-1 Giants kick off a brutal stretch of schedule that includes the Packers, Baltimore Ravens and a suddenly-dangerous Jaguars team. For a team whose three wins have come against the Titans, Panthers and Bears, it could be a run that sees their record come crashing down.
For now, Daboll and the Giants deserve some credit for winning three of their first four games when they only won four games all of last season.
The Philadelphia Eagles weren't exactly a team with low expectations heading into 2022. As Jalen Hurts went into his second year as the starter with A.J. Brown and a reinforced defense, there was an expectation the Eagles could compete with the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East.
They had slightly longer Super Bowl odds and their over/under for regular season wins was set at 9.5 compared to the Cowboys' 10.5. Now, the Eagles over/under has been set at 13.5 wins for the season and they have the third-best odds to lift the Lombardi at the end of the season, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
That's because the Eagles go into Week 5 as the lone team with a chance to join the 1972 Dolphins as the only teams to go undefeated in a season.
Essentially, they've gone from a team that could compete for their division title to one of a few bonafide Super Bowl contenders. Jalen Hurts' ascension is a big factor. The quarterback is on pace to set new career-highs in virtually every category.
What's most impressive is the way they've won games in multiple ways. In Week 1, they won in a shootout against the Detroit Lions. Then they locked it down on defense, giving up 15 points over the next two weeks in wins over the Vikings and Commanders.
In Week 4 they overcame a rough start in the form of a 14-0 deficit in the first quarter.
According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles are the only team that is both in the top five of offensive and defensive DVOA. That's the kind of versatility as a team that could lead to big things.
QB Geno Smith, Seattle Seahawks
In the preseason, it was hard to believe the Seahawks were actually going to roll with Geno Smith at quarterback.
He's made all that speculation seem silly to this point.
Smith has been surgical in running the Seahawks' offense. He leads the league in completion percentage over expectation, per Next Gen Stats. He has completed 77.3 percent of his passes while tossing six touchdowns to just two interceptions. He's fifth in the league in ESPN's total QBR with a 72.4 rating.
It's a fascinating start to the season for a player who hasn't been a full-time starter since 2014 when he threw 13 touchdowns to 13 interceptions while leading the New York Jets to a 3-10 record in his second season.
He was especially mesmerizing against the Lions, completing 23-of-30 pass attempts for 320 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions while adding 49 yards and another score on the ground.
It earned him Player of the Week honors for the first time since 2013.
Smith denied he's playing above his own expectations when talking to the media. All that shows is that his own expectations and those of analysts and media are very different standards.
CB Tariq Woolen, Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks haven't just been fortunate to have one of the most surprising offensive performers in the league right now. They have a surprising defensive star in Tariq Woolen, too.
The expectations are never high for a fifth-round pick. If they make the roster and can contribute on special teams, it's a solid rookie season that can be built on.
Woolen has shattered those expectations just four games into the season.
The 6'4" 205-pound corner leads all defensive backs in passer rating allowed at just 10.7 when targeted this season.
The UTSA product came across as an interesting developmental project prospect. With a rare blend of speed (4.26) and size, his draft stock was an indication that it was going to take time for him to develop into an NFL-caliber corner.
Instead, he's showing the ability to lock down receivers and the ability to hawk down the ball in the secondary, getting his first career pick-six against the Detroit Lions.
Fellow athletic phenom and teammate DK Metcalf has taken note of Woolen's early contributions.
"Tariq is similar to me athletically, except he's a DB. You can't coach that. He's got the perfect mentality, too," he told Jordan Schultz of The Score.
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