Every NFL Team's Biggest Early Surprise This SeasonSeptember 20, 2017
Every NFL Team's Biggest Early Surprise This Season
"Next man up" isn't just a cliche; it's a way of life in the NFL.
Each franchise faces obstacles every week pertaining to its roster. Injuries and poor play often lead to turnover. Someone else's misfortune provides opportunities for others.
This is where some of the league's best stories blossom.
Little-known veterans and rookies develop into household names. Those with no previous expectations realize their potential and emerge as vital parts to their teams' success. Long shots overcome the odds to become contributors.
These surprises occur each season and weave their way into the fabric of the league.
Whether a team is undefeated, winless or .500 after the first two weeks of play, positives emerged everywhere, and Bleacher Report identified one performer from each squad worthy of recognition.
Arizona Cardinals: WR J.J. Nelson
The Arizona Cardinals love the long ball, and wide receiver J.J. Nelson is one of the NFL's most dynamic deep threats. Nelson is the only receiver in the league with 10 or more receptions to average over 16 yards per catch.
"He continuously makes big plays but he can make the easy ones, the second ones, too," quarterback Carson Palmer said, per ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss. "He's just one of those guys that the lights come on and he's right where you need him to be, making tough, contested catches."
The 5'10", 160-pound target leads the Cardinals with 10 receptions and 163 yards.
With Larry Fitzgerald working out of the slot, Nelson will serve as Arizona's top option outside the numbers until John Brown returns from a quadriceps injury. Even when Brown does, defenses must still account for Nelson's speed.
Atlanta Falcons: OG Wes Schweitzer
Patience is necessary for first-time starters. Not everything is going to come easy, and they'll experience ups and downs throughout a season. It's how they respond to adversity that's important.
The Atlanta Falcons needed to replace veteran right guard Chris Chester once he decided to retire this offseason. Instead of signing a free agent, the front office felt secure with second-year blocker Wes Schweitzer taking over the role.
The Chicago Bears defensive front manhandled Schweitzer, but he responded with a strong effort against the Green Bay Packers. According to Pro Football Focus, the right guard graded as the Falcons' most improved performer.
It's easy to write off a player after one performance, but Atlanta stuck with Schweitzer in the lineup, and he rewarded it with a strong effort. As long as he continues this upward trend, the team won't have to worry about the offensive line.
Baltimore Ravens: RB Javorius Allen
The Baltimore Ravens attempted more passes over the last two seasons than any other team. The running game, however, hasn't been the same since Justin Forsett piled up 1,266 yards during the 2014 campaign.
The Ravens drafted Javorius Allen in the fourth round in 2015, and he's slowly worked his way into a feature role.
Allen leads the team with 35 carries and 137 yards and is tied for third with five receptions for 35 yards.
His versatility and shiftiness help Baltimore in two areas. First, he's a threat out of the backfield and helps fill the void left by veteran Danny Woodhead, who's out for at least six weeks with a hamstring injury. Second, he can still make headway even after injuries decimated the Ravens offensive line. Right guard Marshal Yanda was the latest blocker lost for the season, per the team.
Terrance West is a good short-yardage back, but Allen has proved to be a better all-around option.
Buffalo Bills: S Jordan Poyer
A few eyebrows raised when the Buffalo Bills signed free-agent safety Jordan Poyer to a four-year, $13 million contract in March. Poyer's never started more than six games in a season, and he was coming off a year cut short by a lacerated kidney.
He's excelled as a starting safety for the Bills, though.
Poyer provides versatility. He can play along the back line or near the line of scrimmage, cover wide receivers and blitz the quarterback. The fifth-year veteran has already registered a pair of sacks, five defended passes and an interception.
"He's a smart guy, athletic and has gotten some hands on some passes," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said, per Chris Brown of the team site. "Really pleased with the way he's played."
Carolina Panthers: DE Julius Peppers
Julius Peppers' inclusion as a pleasant surprise for the Carolina Panthers defense is relative to expectations placed upon the nine-time Pro Bowler. At 37 years old, his level of play should be expected to decline.
Yet the 16-year veteran remains a force off the edge, with a team-leading 2.5 sacks, which ranks in the top 10 overall.
More importantly, he has been a catalyst for the league's No. 1-ranked defense.
"This is the best one I've ever played on," Peppers said, per ESPN.com's David Newton. "I have all the trust and confidence and belief in these guys. We all play for one another."
Chicago Bears: RB Tarik Cohen
Some of the luster faded from Tarik Cohen's shining star during the Chicago Bears' Week 2 performance against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
His talent remains obvious, though.
Cohen still led the team with 13 rushing yards (yikes), and his value in the passing game also showed, as he notched a game-high eight receptions for 55 yards. The rookie leads the Bears with 79 rushing yards and 16 catches.
His abilities to work in space and make defenders miss are special.
Chicago kept Cohen mostly under wraps in the preseason, only to unleash him Week 1. Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains isn't going to stop feeding the fourth-round pick any time soon.
Cincinnati Bengals: DE Jordan Willis
Very little has gone right for the Cincinnati Bengals during their 0-2 start, and the team doesn't have many positives to point to.
There's Geno Atkins and...
Atkins' dominance doesn't come as a surprise, though. He's counted among the league's best. Michael Johnson's concussion, however, opened a door for this year's third-round pick, Jordan Willis.
The defensive end registered five tackles, applied pressure on Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and made two run stops, according to Pro Football Focus.
Willis tied for the league lead with four preseason sacks. He may not have gotten to Watson, but it's only a matter of time before last year's Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is counted among the Bengals' top edge-rushers. He and fellow rookie Carl Lawson have a chance to form a dynamic duo with increased reps.
Cleveland Browns: CB Jason McCourty
An uproar commenced upon Joe Haden's release, but the Cleveland Browns were comfortable moving forward with Jason McCourty as their veteran presence in the secondary. The organization proved to be right in its assessment because McCourty has been one of the NFL's best cornerbacks through two weeks of play.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 30-year-old defensive back ranks fourth in coverage snaps per reception among 102 qualifiers. He didn't allow a single reception against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2 and snagged an interception, too.
The Browns are the NFL's youngest team. McCourty provides a veteran presence at a discount price—compared to Haden, who was due to make $11 million in base salary—and his level of play has been far higher than expected.
Dallas Cowboys: LB Jaylon Smith
Just the fact Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith is on the field again is a pleasant surprise.
Smith's professional career was in question when he suffered a devastating knee injury during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. The linebacker didn't just tear ligaments; he experienced nerve damage, too.
"It's been a long journey back for him, a lot of obstacles," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said, per USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones. "But he's really, really mentally tough. He's got a great spirit, a good attitude, and it's been amazing to see him come back and overcome so many different things and never waver."
Dallas needed Smith to step into the lineup when Anthony Hitchens suffered a fracture in his right knee during the preseason. The second-year linebacker may not yet be playing like he did at Notre Dame, but he's still tied for the team lead with 17 total tackles.
Denver Broncos: QB Trevor Siemian
John Elway is the NFL's version of the Cheshire cat. We may not understand what he's doing all the time, but his smiling face appears out of nowhere when things work out in his favor.
The Denver Broncos' quarterback situation is a perfect example of how everything should have gone wrong but hasn't.
Trevor Siemian was a below-average starter in 2016. The team didn't guarantee him anything this offseason. Yet 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch couldn't take away the starting spot. The Broncos even brought back Brock Osweiler to provide depth.
None of it mattered because Siemian, in his third season, has the look of a franchise quarterback. The 2015 seventh-round pick is tied for the league lead with six touchdown tosses.
"He's smart, and he's super-accurate with the football," cornerback Aqib Talib said, per ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. "He has the poise of an eight- or nine-year veteran. Trev could be a star in this league. If we do what we need to do on defense, Trev is going to be a star this year."
Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay
Everyone needs to pump the brakes on the mini-Megatron comparison with Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay because his performance during the first two weeks displayed the good and bad of a rookie target.
Golladay caught four passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns in his debut against the Arizona Cardinals. The New York Giants locked him down Monday and allowed only one reception for eight yards.
"I doubt the guy gets two touchdowns every week, so if fans are expecting that, it'd be a tall order," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said, per the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett.
Cooter is right because Golladay is the team's third target. He's not going to get as many looks as Golden Tate or Marvin Jones Jr. But he's a 6'4", 213-pound receiver with the ability to highpoint the football. As such, he'll continue to get opportunities on third down and in the red zone.
Some weeks, he'll look unstoppable. He'll disappear during others.
Green Bay Packers: CB Kevin King
The Green Bay Packers needed secondary help in the worst way after last season. The front office used the first pick in the second round of April's draft to select cornerback Kevin King.
The 6'3", 200-pound King is working himself into a prominent role, having not allowed a single reception during Sunday's contest against the Atlanta Falcons, per Pro Football Focus' Nathan Jahnke.
"I think he's in a position where he's done a number of good things with his opportunities," head coach Mike McCarthy said, per Packers News' Ryan Wood, "If anything, he's earned the right to potentially play more. Smooth, confident athlete. He's getting healthy, and he looks comfortable out there.
"I like the progression Kevin's making."
Davon House and Damarious Randall are listed as Green Bay's starting corners, yet King is in position to unseat one of them.
Houston Texans: NT D.J. Reader
Vince Wilfork left massive shoes (and overalls) to fill in the Houston Texans lineup when he retired in August.
The Texans prepared for the inevitable by selecting D.J. Reader in the fifth round of last year's draft. Reader spent a year learning behind the future Hall of Fame nose tackle, and the young defender picked up a thing or two.
Reader may not be as powerful as Wilfork, but his motor never stops. The 6'3", 335-pounder is difficult to move at the point of attack, plus he can be seen trying to run down most plays. The nose tackle set a new career high with six tackles Thursday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"D.J. Reader played a hell of a football game," head coach Bill O'Brien said, per the Houston Chronicle's Aaron Wilson. "I mean, he was all over the place, played tough, ran down plays."
Indianapolis Colts: CB Rashaan Melvin
The Indianapolis Colts need all the help they can get because the franchise may feature the NFL's worst roster.
The secondary is of particular concern since the team is already leaning heavily on two rookies, Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson, while veteran corner Vontae Davis nurses a groin injury.
Rashaan Melvin was named to Pro Football Focus' Week 2 defensive team after his performance against the Arizona Cardinals. The fifth-year corner allowed three receptions on eight targets and didn't surrender a catch when he covered Larry Fitzgerald.
Melvin is also second on the team with 13 total tackles.
Not a lot is going right for the Colts, but they are at least building some depth at cornerback.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Allen Hurns
What a strange trip it's been for Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns. The undrafted free agent burst on the scene as a rookie, posted a 1,000-yard campaign in his second season, had his worst year in his third and signed a four-year, $40.7 million contract extension in June before becoming the subject of trade rumors.
Despite his rollercoaster career to date, Hurns leads Jacksonville with nine receptions for 124 years. His performance is important on two levels.
First, Hurns appears to be in the midst of a bounce-back campaign after he managed only 477 yards on 35 catches last season. Second, the Jaguars needed someone to fill in for Allen Robinson, who suffered a torn ACL in the season opener against the Houston Texans.
Jacksonville may not feature a potent passing attack. Still, the Jags can rely on Hurns to again provide big plays.
Kansas City Chiefs: RB Kareem Hunt
Even the Kansas City Chiefs couldn't have predicted how good running back Kareem Hunt would be after they selected him in the third round of April's draft.
Hunt is the NFL's leading rusher with 229 yards. He is also third on the team with eight receptions and 126 yards. His five touchdowns lead the league lead, too.
What makes him so effective? His elusiveness. Hunt has forced 14 missed tackles so far, per Pro Football Focus (via BJ Kissel of the team site).
Not bad for a rookie who wasn't even expected to start. If not for Spencer Ware's knee injury, Hunt would have been relegated to a backup role. Instead, he was forced into the lineup, and he's taken the NFL by storm as its best running back through one-eighth of the campaign.
Los Angeles Chargers: LB Jatavis Brown
Quick. Name the NFL's leading tackler. Don't look. That's cheating.
The Los Angeles Chargers' Jatavis Brown leads the league with 26 total tackles through two games.
Brown is a dynamic athlete. The 5'11", 221-pound linebacker has 4.4-second 40-yard-dash speed, and he came into the league with the ability drop into coverage and rush the quarterback, having played numerous positions at the University of Akron.
The 23-year-old flashed during his seven starts last season. He should be even better this year because he's in an ideal system that will allow him to run and chase as a weak-side linebacker.
Los Angeles Rams: WR Cooper Kupp
Calling Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp a surprise performer is a bit of a stretch. He left Eastern Washington University as college football's all-time leading receiver, with 6,464 receiving yards, before the Rams picked him in the third round of April's draft.
He's quickly developed a rapport with quarterback Jared Goff. Goff has spread the ball among all his targets, but Kupp is clearly his preferred option. When things are breaking down, the quarterback looks for the rookie.
Kupp leads all rookie receivers with 109 yards and is tied for the lead with seven receptions.
"He's a great player; made some big-time catches for us," head coach Sean McVay said, per the Los Angeles Times' Lindsey Thiry and Gary Klein.
Miami Dolphins: QB Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler is who he is, and he is the perfect quarterback for the Miami Dolphins at this point in time.
A month after coming out of retirement and signing with the team, Cutler completed 72.2 percent of his passes for 230 yards and a touchdown in a 19-17 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Cutler wasn't perfect, but he already showed he's better than Ryan Tannehill. The 12-year veteran's arm talent and willingness to throw the ball downfield are superior even if he's still not on the same page as his targets.
"We just have to clean a few things up, but we are right there at the edge of blowing the doors off," Cutler said, per ESPN.com's James Walker. "We have a lot of talent. I think that one of the things we have to work through is being able to distribute the ball to everybody and keep everyone happy. That is a good thing."
The Dolphins offense is built around running back Jay Ajayi, yet head coach Adam Gase should get the most out of the unit because of Cutler.
Minnesota Vikings: WR Adam Thielen
The Minnesota Vikings' Adam Thielen is a good, reliable target. No one would place him among the league's best wide receivers, though.
The former undrafted free agent led the Vikings a year ago with 967 receiving yards, but his skill set is now being maximized by working primarily out of the slot.
Thielen currently resides among the NFL's top receivers with 201 yards. His production is second only to Antonio Brown's 244 yards. Thielen is well on his way to becoming the first Vikings receiver with 1,000 or more yards since 2009 when Sidney Rice accomplished the feat.
Whether it's Sam Bradford or Case Keenum behind center, the 27-year-old target serves as their security blanket in the passing game. He should post news career highs in receptions and yards.
New England Patriots: DE Deatrich Wise
The New England Patriots appear to have found the edge-rusher they desperately needed in rookie fourth-round pick Deatrich Wise.
Wise didn't see much playing time in the first contest yet managed two pressures, including a sack, while playing only nine snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
The coaching staff provided Wise with more playing time in the second contest. He responded with a sack, two tackles for loss and five quarterback hits.
He became the first Patriots rookie to record a sack in his first two games since Chandler Jones, according to ESPN.com's Mike Reiss.
Wise isn't an every-down defensive end at this juncture, but he provides a much-needed pass-rushing presence the Patriots lacked after losing Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long in free agency.
New Orleans Saints: CB Marshon Lattimore
At this point, it's a surprise if any New Orleans Saints defender is playing well.
The entire secondary struggled Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings, yet rookie Marshon Lattimore responded with a strong effort against the New England Patriots.
According to Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner, Lattimore surrendered only 28 of the 447 yards Tom Brady provided. The rookie did so opposite the Patriots' top target, Brandin Cooks. Cooks only caught one pass in Lattimore's coverage, per PFF's Jeff Ratcliffe.
This year's 11th overall pick provided a pair of pass breakups and finished second on the team with seven total tackles.
New Orleans' defense may be the team's downfall once again, but it won't be Lattimore's fault.
New York Giants: LB Calvin Munson
Middle linebacker has long been a sore spot within the New York Giants defense. The organization thought it had solved the problem with B.J. Goodson until he injured his shin and missed Monday's contest against the Detroit Lions.
Undrafted rookie Calvin Munson took over for Goodson and may have secured a starting spot. The San Diego State product managed eight total tackles, a sack, tackle for loss and quarterback hit. Munson played all 62 snaps and didn't look overwhelmed, according to the New York Post's Paul Schwartz.
How the first-year defender handled himself is important. As the middle linebacker, it's his responsibility to call the plays and make sure everyone is properly aligned. Munson primarily played on the edge for the Aztecs yet didn't struggle with the added pressure.
Munson is not quite as athletic as Goodson, but he has a good feel for his run fits and a knack for getting into the backfield to pressure the quarterback. Once Goodson is fully healthy, head coach Ben McAdoo will have an interesting decision to make.
New York Jets: WR Jermaine Kearse
Right after the Jets traded Sheldon Richardson for Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick, many suggested the former Seahawks wide receiver could be the Jets' leading receiver.
All insults aside, Kearse has been a welcome addition to the Jets offense in desperate need of a primary target.
Despite being traded on Sept. 1, the 27-year-old receiver leads the team with 11 receptions, 15 targets, 123 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Kearse posted career highs in 2015 with 49 receptions for 685 yards and five touchdowns. He's well on his way to eclipsing each of those marks as the Jets' WR1.
New York's quarterback problems are well-documented. Whoever is behind center can rely on Kearse, though.
Oakland Raiders: RB Jalen Richard
Marshawn Lynch's presence in the Oakland Raiders lineup has the team dancing its way to a 2-0 start. As important as Lynch is to this year's squad, Jalen Richard is just as important to Lynch.
Beast Mode is back, but the 31-year-old runner can't handle a full-time load. Lynch has 30 carries in his first two contests. It's important for offensive coordinator Todd Downing to keep him fresh.
This provides backup Richard with opportunities. So far, he's taken full advantage. Richard provided a 52-yard carry and 39-yard reception during Sunday's 45-20 victory over the New York Jets.
Richard is a speed merchant. He provides the perfect complement to Lynch's bruising running style. The Raiders should continue to mix and match their top backs to keep defenses off balance.
Philadelphia Eagles: WR Nelson Agholor
Preseason hype doesn't always translate to the regular season. In Nelson Agholor's case, he's lived up to expectations after disappointing during his first two seasons.
"A lot of times it's personal," Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said of the 2015 first-round pick this summer, per ESPN.com's Tim McManus. "… You're going through a whole mental thought process and, 'What can I do to get better?' It's just him going out there and just attacking the day, and [wide receivers coach] Mike Groh has done a great job with him, just preparing him."
The Eagles signed both Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith during free agency, and Agholor's time appeared to be over in Philadelphia after a horrific 2016 campaign. Yet the organization traded Jordan Matthews to the Buffalo Bills, which allowed Agholor to become the team's slot receiver.
Agholor provided only one catch in Week 2 after his 86-yard performance the previous week. But that one catch was for a touchdown, giving him two scores on the year.
Pittsburgh Steelers: OLB Anthony Chickillo
Anthony Chickillo opened the 2017 campaign as a surprise starter for the Pittsburgh Steelers because Bud Dupree missed the Cleveland Browns contest with a shoulder injury. Chickillo then took over for an injured T.J. Watt in the second contest.
The third-year linebacker is tied for the team lead with a pair of sacks and tied for second with 11 total tackles.
"I knew Chickillo was going to come in and give us everything he had," linebacker Ryan Shazier said, per Penn Live's Lauren Kirschman. "Even this offseason, he asked about coming to train with him and work out with him when he was in Tampa. I wasn't able to, but when he came into camp, he was in better shape, his body looked better."
The 2015 sixth-round pick will likely return to a reserve role once Dupree and Watt are both healthy. Even so, he's proved capable of filling in as a starter in the Steelers' resurgent defense.
San Francisco 49ers: RT Trent Brown
The Denver Broncos' Von Miller may be the NFL's best defensive player. When he speaks about opponents, everyone should listen. The three-time first-team All-Pro showered San Francisco 49ers right tackle Trent Brown with praise after the two butted heads during joint practices and a preseason contest.
"I feel like Trent Brown has a very bright future in the National Football League," Miller said during an interview on NFL Network with former teammate DeMarcus Ware. "He's 6'8", he knows how to use his arms, knows how to use his wingspan, he has length. So I feel like, he's young, and people haven't really seen him, but I feel like he's one of the better tackles in the National Football League."
Brown has lived up to the hype through the first two weeks of regular-season play. The 49ers blocker is one of three offensive tackles to not allow a pressure, per Pro Football Focus' Jeff Deeney. This is notable since the 49ers faced the Carolina Panthers' and Seattle Seahawks' ferocious fronts.
Seattle Seahawks: RB Chris Carson
Chris Carson was an afterthought on the Seattle Seahawks depth chart at the start of preseason. After all, the organization signed Eddie Lacy in free agency, and Thomas Rawls was supposed to be healthy.
How quickly things change.
Head coach Pete Carroll made Lacy a healthy scratch Sunday, while Rawls continues to battle an ankle injury that kept him out of the lineup in Week 1.
Carson capitalized with 20 carries for 93 yards against the San Francisco 49ers. The 218-pound back has forced seven missed tackles during the first two weeks, per Pro Football Focus' Nathan Jahnke.
"He's the real deal. He's the real deal," wide receiver Doug Baldwin said, per ESPN.com's Brady Henderson. "I've been telling you that since training camp. He is the real deal."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LB Kendell Beckwith
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had high expectations for Kendell Beckwith when the organization used a third-round pick in April's draft to select the linebacker. But he was still recovering from a torn ACL at the time.
His recovery took time. Even so, Beckwith found himself in Tampa Bay's starting lineup during Sunday's 29-7 victory over the Chicago Bears.
As a unit, the Buccaneers allowed only 20 rushing yards in their season opener. Beckwith's performance in the passing game was even more impressive. According to Pro Football Focus, the rookie and teammate Lavonte David were targeted every 4.5 snaps in coverage and only surrendered a combined 32 yards after catch.
The Bucs appear to have found another gem of a linebacker.
Tennessee Titans: RB Derrick Henry
Sooner or later, Derrick Henry was going to overtake DeMarco Murray as the Tennessee Titans' lead back. It appears to have happened far sooner than expected.
Murray is coming off a season in which he finished third overall with 1,287 rushing yards, but the veteran runner continues to deal with a hamstring injury and is considered day-to-day, according to Jim Wyatt of the Titans official site.
With Murray out of the lineup, Henry got his chance to shine. The second-year back ran for a career-high 92 yards on 14 carries during Sunday's 37-16 victory over the New York Jets.
"As a running back, you always want to be physical," Henry said, per ESPN.com's Cameron Wolfe. “As the game goes on, I get better and I can see the defense getting tired. That gets me hyped."
Washington Redskins: DE Matt Ioannidis
The Washington Redskins invested heavily in the defensive interior when they chose Jonathan Allen with the 17th overall pick in April's draft. Allen is talented, but Matt Ioannidis is giving Washington more punch.
Ioannidis already has three quarterback pressures in two games, which matched last year's effort, per Pro Football Focus. As a group, Washington ranks ninth in run defense.
"I think Matt Ioannidis had a heck of a game [against the Los Angeles Rams]," head coach Jay Gruden said, per CSN Mid-Atlantic's Rich Tandler.
The 2016 fifth-round pick provides a presence as an interior pass-rusher and depth along an improved defensive front.