NFL1000: Every Team's Most Improved Player

NFL1000 ScoutsFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2017

NFL1000: Every Team's Most Improved Player

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    There are as many reasons for drastic improvements in player performance from one season to the next as there are players who achieve that feat. Often, it's the case of a rookie or second-year player finally getting himself aligned with the speed and complexity of the NFL game as opposed to a collegiate level of competition. The game slows down, and the player can use all his physical gifts because he's reacting naturally as opposed to overthinking.

    Sometimes, it's a coaching change that does the trick. Players who were schematic misfits, or asked to perform in suboptimal schemes, are liberated to perform at their best in concepts that fit their specific abilities.

    Recovery from injury. The sudden absence of personal issues that may have gotten in the way. Whatever the reason, every NFL season includes the improved efforts of those players who have seen the proverbial light, and they're ready to help their teams at an entirely new level.

    B/R's NFL1000 scouts have been watching every NFL player intently, so here's the one player for every team we think has improved the most this season.

    Our team:

    Lead scout: Doug Farrar
    Quarterbacks: Mark Schofield
    Running backs/fullbacks: Mark Bullock
    Receivers/tight Ends: Marcus Mosher
    Offensive line: Ethan Young
    Defensive line: Justis Mosqueda
    Linebackers: Derrik Klassen
    Secondary: Ian Wharton

Arizona Cardinals: DT Corey Peters

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    While Corey Peters is hardly a new name, he has been the most significant name on the Arizona Cardinals defensive line this year. After losing Calais Campbell in free agency, and with 2016 first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche still working his way into snaps for Bruce Arians, they needed someone on the interior.

    Peters has been that guy. Though he played 86 games in his NFL career before this season, it's hard to remember him ever having this kind of year. In a contract season, the 29-year-old has nine tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. To put that into perspective, that's more than twice as many as any other line-of-scrimmage defender in Arizona other than star pass-rusher Chandler Jones.

    Peters' head-to-head matchup with Dallas Cowboys center Travis Frederick is going to be played over and over this winter when pro scouts and executives sit down to discuss how much he should be offered in unrestricted free agency.

    —Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 defensive line scout

Atlanta Falcons: TE Austin Hooper

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    There hasn't been much to cheer about when it comes to the Atlanta Falcons offense, as the static pre-snap movement in new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian's concepts leaves fewer openings for Matt Ryan than Kyle Shanahan's did. But one uptick has been the development of second-year tight end Austin Hooper, the team's third-round draft pick in 2016 out of Stanford.

    Hooper caught 19 passes on 27 targets for 271 yards and three touchdowns in his first regular season and added six catches on nine targets for 65 yards and a touchdown in the Falcons' playoff run. He's already exceeded those numbers this season, catching 31 passes on 41 targets for 380 yards and three touchdowns.

    Hooper is 23 years old, but he brings a fully developed game to the NFL. He's a fine in-line blocker, and he frequently gets his short receptions after a quick chip at the line of scrimmage to help protect. He's very good at disengaging from defenders quickly and running the designated route, and he's one of the few receivers in Ryan's arsenal who's given his quarterback easy openings on slants, drags and quick vertical routes. Moreover, Atlanta can place Hooper in the formation, and he'll run the seam route to get open for bigger plays on occasion.

    There isn't too much Hooper can't do; his production is more limited at this point by the designs of his coaching staff than anything else.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Baltimore Ravens: CB Brandon Carr

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Through most of the last three seasons, cornerback Brandon Carr was getting beat in one-on-one matchups, and the Dallas Cowboys had to consider whether they'd bring him back for the 2017 season. Carr contemplated retirement, but he signed a four-year, $23.5 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens that didn't make any loud noises in the news cycle.

    Carr had improved over the second half of the 2016 season, and he's carried that into 2017 as one of the better cornerbacks in the game. Last year, he had a seven-game stretch in which he allowed just one catch in four games, per Pro Football Focus, and in 2017 under defensive coordinator Dean Pees, he's been even better.

    The 31-year-old is a perfect fit for the Baltimore defense because there isn't a coverage he hasn't played, and the Ravens task their defensive backs to play disguised coverages in which the entire secondary, or half of the secondary, or a single player, is aligned in a way that gives the look of a different coverage than what it turns out to be. Whether he's playing press-man outside, press-bail to the boundary or curl-flat responsibility in limiting yards after the catch on underneath routes, Carr has enjoyed a great rebound year that was presaged to a point by his 2016 improvement.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Buffalo Bills: S Micah Hyde

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    Throughout his time in Green Bay, Micah Hyde was a sub-package player who rarely played every snap in a game. His trademark was his versatility, which was important in Dom Capers' scheme—Packers defensive backs are often asked to move their positions in-game, and Hyde was able to do that.

    But when the Buffalo Bills signed him to a five-year, $30.5 million contract this offseason, they saw him as their full-time free safety, and he's responded marvelously. The most important function Hyde serves in the Buffalo defense is that of the center fielder—the deep safety who allows Cover 1 and Cover 3 concepts to work because he can trail deep seam and post receivers downfield. He will stick like glue to deep receivers, and he has a great sense of the route, which allows him to use more than just speed to keep up with his assignments. And he has the speed and agility to move to either sideline from between the numbers.

    As a tackler in the short to intermediate areas, few deep safeties have Hyde's straight-ahead acceleration to the ball-carrier or short-pass receiver, and he brings a fine sense of angles and tackling technique with his speed—he's not just running around, making mistakes and having to recover. He's already eclipsed his career high with five interceptions, and he's one of the better run-stopping safeties in the league. Given the chance to play every snap, Hyde has taken his versatility and effectiveness to a new level.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Carolina Panthers: DE Julius Peppers

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    Julius Peppers is the NFL's active sack leader and ranks fourth all time with 151. He had as many as 10.5 just two years ago with the Green Bay Packers. But his sack total fell to 7.5 in 2016, and one would have been forgiven for imagining that, at age 36, Peppers had seen his best days.

    He signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal with the Carolina Panthers in March, returning to the franchise that selected him second overall in the 2002 draft. Through 10 games this season as a rotational player, he's already matched last year's tally of 7.5, having been perfectly deployed in Carolina's defensive system.

    Peppers can still beat opposing offensive tackles with speed off the edge, but he mostly uses his upper body strength to get things done. As he bends the edge, he can move a tackle back with a well-placed bull rush or straight-arm, and he comes off the snap so low for his height that he frequently wins the leverage battle from the first step.

    When strength isn't needed, Peppers can still shoot past multiple gaps and sift through blockers until he gets a clear path, and then it's off to the races. The Panthers have one of the best defenses in the NFL, and Peppers' resurgence has been one of the game's best stories this season.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Chicago Bears: S Adrian Amos

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    In the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bears' 27-24 win over the Baltimore Ravens, Joe Flacco tried to fit a sideline pass into Chris Moore. But cornerback Kyle Fuller deflected the pass, and safety Adrian Amos was the beneficiary with a right-time, right-place interception that he returned 90 yards for a touchdown, weaving through several unhappy Ravens.

    It was Amos' first interception in his three-year career, which goes to show you can't always judge a defensive back by his interception totals.

    As the Chicago defense has become one of the league's best in 2017, Amos' improvement has been clear. He's always been a physical and athletic force in the defensive backfield, but the light has really come on for him in 2017 in regards to his placement, taking angles in coverage and turning through routes with both intermediate and deep receivers. He's become an eraser on short passes, refusing to give up yards after the catch, and his increased awareness makes him a versatile and valuable safety.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Cincinnati Bengals: CB William Jackson

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals selected William Jackson in the first round of the 2016 draft, only to lose him for his first season because of a torn pectoral. As he recovered and looked to be ready to start in 2017, the team surely hoped he'd retain the speed and physicality that allowed him to grab five interceptions and return two for touchdowns with Houston in his 2015 collegiate season.

    So far, so good. Jackson has just one interception in his first real NFL season, but it was off Aaron Rodgers on a cross-body throw. He jumped a route on a pass intended for Jordy Nelson, and Jackson returned that pick 75 yards for a touchdown. Might as well enter the league in style by having your first pick come off the NFL's best quarterback on a throw to his favorite receiver.

    When he's not picking off future Hall of Famers, Jackson has shown himself to be a versatile player. He picked up his first NFL sack against Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota in Week 10 on a backside cornerback blitz, and he's been effective against the run when asked to play it.

    Of course, the Bengals want great coverage most of all from their second-year star. Perhaps his most impressive game came in Week 7 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when Jackson shut down Antonio Brown on two deep routes—a deep over from left to right and a vertical route to the end zone. In both cases, Jackson showed the ability to trail a great receiver through all his moves, match him stride for stride and finish the play.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Cleveland Browns: DE Emmanuel Ogbah

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    David Richard/Associated Press

    Selected in the second round of the 2016 draft out of Oklahoma State, Emmanuel Ogbah has been a quiet force as an edge-rusher and run-stopper since his rookie season. This year, he's turned it up a notch on a defense that doesn't get the raves it deserves at some positions because of the fact that in the last two seasons, the franchise has won just one game.

    That's certainly not Ogbah's fault. He amassed 5.5 sacks and 28 solo tackles in his rookie year, and in 2017, he's played even better. He made Matthew Stafford's life miserable in Week 10 with two sacks. The first came when he faked an outside step and then bull-rushed left tackle Taylor Decker out of the play. Then, he beat Decker all the way around the pocket, taking Stafford down on the back side.

    Ogbah also slipped inside right tackle Rick Wagner and found a gap to tackle running back Ameer Abdullah for a loss. There aren't too many defensive ends in the league who combine Ogbah's speed and power, and he shouldn't be underestimated just because he plays for a franchise that is still trying to figure it out.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Dallas Cowboys: DE DeMarcus Lawrence

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    Every Dallas Cowboys fan should have known the name DeMarcus Lawrence before the season, but it's doubtful anyone outside of the Lawrence family expected this from the fourth-year pass-rusher. A 2014 second-round pick, Lawrence has been hiding in plain sight over the last year or so.

    After posting an eight-sack season as a 23-year-old, Lawrence was hit with a four-game suspension to start 2016 and finished with just one sack in nine games. In 2017, a contract year, he is chasing a sack title.

    There will be little defensive line talent on the free-agent market, and with the likes of Tim Jernigan signing extensions in-season, Lawrence will be the big fish in the class. He will sign his second NFL contract at 25, which will make him even more enticing in the late winter and early spring. This isn't the last you've heard of him.

    —Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 defensive line scout

Denver Broncos: S Justin Simmons

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    When people talk about the Denver Broncos defense, cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. get most of the headlines along with pass-rusher Von Miller. It's justifiable, but safety Justin Simmons has raised his game of late to become another integral part of a unit that has been dominant for the last few seasons—though recent breakdowns against the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots are cause for concern.

    A third-round pick out of Boston College in 2016, Simmons moved quickly up the depth chart in his rookie season, intercepting two passes and adding a sack and 20 solo tackles. This season, he's been exemplary in coverage, beating Amari Cooper of the Oakland Raiders for his sole interception with a perfectly timed jump on a deep throw. Against the Patriots on Sunday night, Simmons sacked Tom Brady on a red-zone blitz, covered well throughout the formation and proved to be a missile against the run.

    His most valuable asset is his versatility. Whether he's playing deep coverage, roaming the field at the intermediate level or coming to the line to help against the run or blitz the quarterback, he has the athleticism and technique to make a difference.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Detroit Lions: DE Anthony Zettel

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    If you're going to pick one defensive lineman to highlight as the most improved in the league, it has to be the Detroit Lions' Anthony Zettel. As a rookie last year, Zettel didn't offer much as a pass-rusher and handled kick-out blocks poorly. From Week 1 this season, it was clear he had worked on his craft this offseason.

    At the moment, there is an argument about whether he or 2013 first-round pick Ziggy Ansah, who is up for a new contract, is a more important defensive end to the Lions long-term. In 13 games last year, Zettel recorded a single sack, one-sixth of his total in nine starts this season. Between Zettel's improvement this year and Kerry Hyder Jr.'s last year (he made a tackle-to-end move and was a breakout player), Lions defensive line coach Kris Kocurek deserves a lot of credit.

    —Justis Mosqueda, NFL1000 defensive line scout

Green Bay Packers: ILB Blake Martinez

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Inside linebacker has long been a problem for the Green Bay Packers. It's been years since they had someone they could rely on. They tried moving Morgan Burnett, Josh Jones and Clay Matthews to the spot and had varying degrees of success but could not match what one would expect from the position. Blake Martinez is changing that.

    As a rookie last season, Martinez did not look good. He was often out of position and hesitant against the run. Athletically, he did not have the tools to make up for a mental process that was running a tick slow. By all accounts, Martinez looked like any typical fourth-rounder who'd been thrust into a meaningful role out of desperation.

    In 2017, he has bloomed into a reliable two-down player with coverage potential. As a run defender, Martinez is much more confident. He reads the block keys and reacts accordingly without second-guessing himself. He knows how to work to his gap and control it with proper leverage. On occasion, Martinez gets a good jump on the play and makes a stop in the backfield, as illustrated by his five tackles for loss.

    It's going to take time for Martinez to fully develop as a coverage player, but he is getting there. He can carry tight ends up the field and sit in zone coverages more comfortably than he did last season. The goal now is to continue building confidence in recognizing route concepts and closing on catch points earlier. If a player like Telvin Smith can develop immensely in coverage, Martinez can, too.

    Martinez is no star, but he is better than what the Packers have had of late. To have a reliable, even disruptive, two-down linebacker who is growing in coverage is huge for Green Bay.

    —Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 linebackers scout

Houston Texans: DT D.J. Reader

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    With J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus out for the 2017 season because of injuries, it would be easy to deduce the Houston Texans' usually dominant defensive line would turn into Jadeveon Clowney and the Pips. One man who's determined to make sure that doesn't happen is D.J. Reader, the massive second-year tackle from Clemson. As a rookie, Reader started to establish himself as a primary run-stopper in the middle of the defense, amassing seven solo tackles and a sack. He already has 16 solo tackles and a sack this season.

    The Texans have given Reader more opportunities in his second season, and he's taken full advantage. He can play the nose tackle position in both one- and two-gap fronts, knifing through blockers either way. He's great at slipping off blocks to either side when he's playing straight over a center or guard, and he has the quickness and leverage to blast through spaces as a one-gap interior defender.

    Reader is not to be underestimated as a pass-rusher, either—he showed his pursuit ability and surprising athleticism for his 6'3", 335-pound frame with a sack of Cleveland Browns quarterback Kevin Hogan in Week 6. Reader manhandled left guard Joel Bitonio at the line of scrimmage and then peeled off as Hogan ran to his left to escape pressure. Reader followed him all the way to the sideline for the takedown. He's one of the better young interior defenders in the NFL.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Indianapolis Colts: QB Jacoby Brissett

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    Heading into the 2017 season, the Indianapolis Colts faced a dilemma at quarterback. Starter Andrew Luck remained on the shelf as he continued to recover from offseason shoulder surgery. Backup Scott Tolzien was the only other quarterback on the roster with NFL experience, while rookie Philip Walker and journeyman Stephen Morris filled out their QB room. So at the start of September, the Colts acquired second-year quarterback Jacoby Brissett from the New England Patriots in a trade.

    Brissett has been the bright spot in an otherwise dismal season for the Colts. After appearing in mop-up duty in Indianapolis' season-opening loss to the Rams, he has started nine games, completing 60.9 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns against five interceptions. He did have two starts for the Patriots last season, but he was largely limited in terms of what the offense asked him to do. But now the training wheels are off, and Brissett has been effective at times. In a Week 3 win over the Browns, Brissett completed 17 of 24 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown. Two weeks ago, he completed 20 of 30 passes for a pair of touchdowns in a victory over the Houston Texans.

    Brissett is adept at shrugging off potential sacks in the pocket and keeping his eyes downfield to look for outlets or receivers streaking open. But he is also developing in the mental aspect of the position. Brissett is making better decisions with the football and is getting faster and faster each week at working through his reads and getting the ball out of his hands. It is unclear how the organization will handle Luck moving forward, but if nothing else, the Colts finally have their Luck insurance policy in Brissett.

    —Mark Schofield, NFL1000 quarterbacks scout

Jacksonville Jaguars: CB Jalen Ramsey

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    When Ramsey came out of Florida State for the 2016 draft, I opined he was the best player in his draft class regardless of position, and that he could one day be used all over the field at multiple positions, similar to Charles Woodson. He had played cornerback, safety and a linebacker-depth position called "STAR"
    for the Seminoles, and cornerback was the position at which he had the least amount of experience.

    So when the Jaguars selected Ramsey with the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft and made him a full-time cornerback, he was bound to encounter growing pains. Aggressive to a fault as a college defensive back, Ramsey took that style into the NFL and found himself with a few needless penalties and coverage lapses in his rookie campaign. Still, he showed a rare combination of size, straight-line speed and recovery ability, picking off two passes and adding 55 solo tackles.

    The difference on tape between his first and second year in the NFL has been astonishing. At this point, it's hard to argue Ramsey isn't the best cornerback in the league.

    Always a natural for press coverage because of his physical style of play, Ramsey has also learned how to be a part of an integrated secondary. He's not only physically dominating receivers, but he's also running their routes with them, jumping routes with excellent timing and executing advanced coverage principles seamlessly. He has already matched last year's interception total, and his tape reveals what a difference he's made in Jacksonville's defense, especially after the team went out and gave him the ideal bookend in former Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye. 

    Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Kansas City Chiefs: QB Alex Smith

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    We may be on the cusp of a new offensive revolution in the NFL, and Alex Smith might be the prime reason why.

    This past offseason the Kansas City Chiefs made waves when they traded up in the first round to select Patrick Mahomes II, a strong-armed quarterback out of Texas Tech University. That was largely viewed as an indictment of Smith, who has played well for in Kansas City but hasn't been able to get the Chiefs over the hump in the playoffs. Detractors pointed to his conservative nature and his reluctance to challenge defenses downfield as a big negative.

    But this year, the veteran quarterback has been a revelation and is playing the best football of his life. To his credit, Smith has been more willing to take risks downfield, and his ability in scramble-drill situations has translated to some big plays in the passing game. But head coach Andy Reid deserves some credit as well. While Kansas City had already incorporated spread concepts into its playbook—such as those run by Smith in college under Urban Meyer—Reid and Smith have taken them to a different level this season.

    Shovel passes, speed-option plays, inverted veer designs and more are all critical components of what the Chiefs are doing on offense. Familiarity breeds success, and Smith is currently running an offense with which he is familiar.

    The results speak for themselves.

    It's made Smith one of the headline stories of the 2017 season, and the Chiefs a Super Bowl contender.

    —Mark Schofield, NFL1000 quarterbacks scout

Los Angeles Chargers: CB Trevor Williams

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    A long shot ever to stick on an NFL roster after being an undrafted free agent, Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Trevor Williams has blossomed into a legitimate starter in 2017 when the opportunity came. Williams was a rotational third corner for most of 2016, earning snaps at the end of the season in both the nickel and as an outside corner. After star corner Jason Verrett went down, Williams was called upon to start, and he may not give the job up in the future.

    Williams has good length, play strength and speed, allowing him to play in both press and off-man coverages without being physically overwhelmed. His pairing with Casey Hayward has allowed the Chargers to be aggressive with secondary alignments and play-calling. It isn't uncommon to see their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, putting faith into the corners to protect against deep passes.

    In man coverage, Williams has been an above-average option. Per my own charting, he has allowed just 10 receptions, 105 yards and one touchdown on 21 targets this season. Teams aren't finding consistent separation by his assignments. While Williams isn't yet dangerous enough as a playmaker to be considered a budding star, he's at least proving to be a viable starter and an excellent value for a team that likely had low expectations for him at this time last season.

    —Ian Wharton, NFL1000 defensive backs scout

Los Angeles Rams: QB Jared Goff

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    Goff had one of the worst rookie seasons of any quarterback in NFL history under then-head coach Jeff Fisher and offensive coordinator Rob Boras. The Rams put their rookie behind a porous offensive line, gave him disadvantageous route concepts to decipher and wondered why it didn't work out.

    Under new head coach and play-designer Sean McVay, and with upgrades to both the offensive line and receiver corps, Goff is in the middle of perhaps the most astonishing second-year bump we've ever seen. His quarterback rating has jumped from 63.6 to 101.5, his yards per attempt from 5.3 to a league-high 8.5, and he's already thrown 16 touchdowns this season to just five last year.

    The main reason for this improvement, though, is what McVay has done for him. Goff's new coach immediately gave his quarterback a new sense of calm and the ability to throw with timing and rhythm by making his first read presentable and frequently open. And over the season, McVay has thrown more advanced route concepts into the game plans, with receivers running routes that further illustrate the progressions for Goff and make things easier even as they're more expansive.

    Goff's 94-yard touchdown pass to Robert Woods last Sunday against the Houston Texans was a perfect example. Cooper Kupp ran an out route to give Woods one-on-one coverage with cornerback Johnathan Joseph, and Goff made the perfectly timed deep pass as Woods ran past his defender. That play helped Goff move into the top position in this week's NFL1000 QB rankings, which is no fluke.  

    Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Miami Dolphins: CB Bobby McCain

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    There isn't much to write home about regarding to the Miami Dolphins right now. Between a passing game that seems to be regressing, a rushing attack that had to pick up too much of the slack and a defense that is falling apart from the line back, head coach Adam Gase appears to have lost control of the team.

    Regardless, there are bright spots on any imploding franchise, and cornerback Bobby McCain has been one for Miami. He's alternated between the slot and outside since the Dolphins took him in the fifth round of the 2015 draft out of Memphis, and this season has been his best.

    As the Dolphins' primary slot defender, McCain is a perfect example of how that particular position has grown in complexity and importance in recent years.

    A decade ago, the slot was primarily the place for aging cornerbacks who had lost a step, or young players who were still getting their technique together. But with three-receiver sets the norm in the modern NFL, slot defenders have to do everything from running down running backs to playing curl/flat responsibility and chasing speed slot receivers on deep seam routes. Not only does McCain do all those things, he's also great at knowing when to break off of his own assignment and help in coverage to the outside. 

    Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Minnesota Vikings: OLB Anthony Barr

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    Anthony Barr was uncharacteristically mediocre last season. After a breakout sophomore campaign in 2015, he was skittish and unwilling to make contact. He lost his aggressive nature. Barr was no longer a gap-shooting menace—he was just trying to not mess up.

    It was uncomfortable to see from a player of his caliber, and it gave reason to question whether he would ever get back to his elite state. Thankfully, he has returned to that level in 2017.

    Through nine games, Barr has eight tackles for loss, which ranks among the best for off-ball linebackers and already tops his total from last season. He has returned to being a one-man wrecking ball in the run game. Barr is back to reacting immediately, flying downhill and cruising through the offensive line to disrupt rushing plays before they even have a chance. At his peak, few can do that the way he can.

    Barr's range and comfort in coverage has returned, too. Barr has six passes defended this season, one of which was nearly an interception against Detroit. If Barr slaps down one more pass, he will tie his career high of seven from 2015.

    It's been encouraging to see Barr regain his confidence and tenacity. Players of his caliber are a treat to watch, and it was a shame he was a non-factor in 2016. Hopefully Barr can remain healthy, both now and in the future, and continue to be one of the NFL's best linebackers.

    —Derrik Klassen, NFL1000 linebackers scout

New England Patriots: WR Chris Hogan

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    Despite a shoulder injury that may keep him out for a few weeks, Chris Hogan has been a pleasant surprise this season in the New England Patriots' offense.

    After the Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks in March, it begged the question of where Hogan was going to fit into this offense. But after Julian Edelman went down with a torn ACL in the preseason, Hogan became the team's primary slot receiver.

    Hogan doesn't fit the traditional mold of a Patriots slot receiver, as he's significantly bigger than Edelman or Danny Amendola. He doesn't have the quickness that those two players possess, so he is forced to win out of the slot in different ways.

    Hogan is an elite athlete, and it shows. Over his last 11 games (including the playoffs), Hogan is averaging over 15 yards per catch on 50 receptions, per Pro Football Reference. His versatility and ability to win against any type of defense from any receiver position makes him a perfect fit in the Patriots offense.

    Once Hogan returns to the lineup, the Patriots offense will once again flourish since he can fill so many voids. Hogan may never make a Pro Bowl while with the Patriots, but he's a big reason as to why their offense can still thrive without Edelman.

    —Marcus Mosher, NFL1000 receivers/tight ends scout

New Orleans Saints: CB Ken Crawley

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    One of the biggest leapers from 2016 to 2017 among secondary players is New Orleans Saints corner Ken Crawley. His 6'1" frame is an asset despite shorter arms than his height indicates, and he has massively improved in several areas. The Saints have heavily relied on their young corners, and Crawley's emergence as a starter is a notable factor.

    His ability to stay balanced in his backpedal as he mirrors receivers off the line of scrimmage in press has drastically improved. This was a weakness of his in college and as a rookie, when he'd allow receivers to cross his face and he'd panic by grabbing them instead of recovering with efficient movement. This led to penalties and blown coverages. 

    Crawley has consistently been in position to challenge receivers at the catch point. Like many young corners, his eye for the ball in zone can improve, but his jump in confidence and technique bodes well for other areas of his game to grow as well.

    —Ian Wharton, NFL1000 defensive backs scout

New York Giants: RB Orleans Darkwa

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    The New York Giants fell to 1-8 with a loss to the previously winless San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. While there isn't much going right for the team this season, one positive is the improvement of running back Orleans Darkwa.

    Up until this season, Darkwa has only been a backup. He had just 36 carries in 16 games for the Giants in 2015 and 30 carries in 10 games in 2016. This season, however, Darkwa has managed to take snaps away from Shane Vereen and Wayne Gallman, taking advantage of Paul Perkins' rib injury that has held him out since Week 5. Darkwa already has a career high in carries (81) and yards (415) this season. He's also averaging 5.1 yards per carry, up from his 3.8 yards per carry average before this season.

    It's no coincidence that the Giants' lone win of the season came in the only game they gave Darkwa more than 20 carries. While Eli Manning struggled against the Broncos in Week 6, Darkwa carried the offense with 21 carries for 117 yards. He ran with a good pad level and displayed vision to find the hole when the Broncos didn't give him much room to work with. He was able to keep the chains moving in a positive direction and give the Giants a foundation to build from on offense.

    Darkwa fits in well with the Giants' power scheme, where they've been able to pull guards and tackles to kick out defenders while Darkwa runs behind them and breaks through arm tackles. Against the Seahawks in Week 7, the Giants were backed up on their own goal line. They handed the ball off to Darkwa, who was met by safety Kam Chancellor at the line of scrimmage, but Darkwa played with great leverage and kept his feet churning and was able to drag Chancellor seven yards down the field to give the Giants some breathing room.

    While the Giants' season is lost and big changes within the front office and coaching staff are likely, there could even be a change at quarterback. But if Darkwa continues to show he can shoulder the workload of a starting running back, that's one less area the Giants need to address in the offseason.

    —Mark Bullock, NFL1000 running backs scout

New York Jets: WR Robby Anderson

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    After losing Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker in the offseason, the New York Jets receiving corps looked like one of the worst positional groups in the league. It took an even bigger hit when Quincy Enunwa suffered a neck injury before the season even began. Most thought the Jets passing game would be a disaster, but instead, it's been pleasantly surprising. And a big reason why is because of second-year wide receiver Robby Anderson.

    Anderson was an undrafted free agent out of Temple in 2016, and he found his way into the starting lineup by Week 5. In 2017, Anderson has been tasked with being New York's No. 1 receiver. He's fared remarkably well considering the circumstances. He has just 35 receptions this season, but he's averaging over 16 yards per catch and has already scored five times.

    At 6'3", 190 pounds, Anderson is a deep threat. He ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at his pro day but still has a long way to go before he is considered a well-rounded receiver, though his size and speed will allow him to thrive on the outside. He would benefit immensely from another threat opposite him.

    However, he's producing with his somewhat limited skill set and should only improve the more he plays. For a passing game that had such a bleak outlook before the season began, Anderson's development and play are reasons for optimism.

    —Marcus Mosher, NFL1000 receivers/tight ends scout

Oakland Raiders: DE Mario Edwards, Jr.

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    As much as Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie has been tremendous at finding young offensive talent over the last few years, he has lagged behind with the defense, especially in the secondary. Khalil Mack is the star, and there are a few quality role players, but before this team can attain the success it did eras ago, the defense will have to be built as a more complete entity.

    One young player who stands out is defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr., the Florida State product selected in the second round of the 2015 draft. After a strong rookie season, Edwards missed all but two games in 2016 with a hip injury. He's returned with aplomb in 2017, amassing a career-high 3.5 sacks in nine games.

    But as is the case with many multigap defensive linemen, Edwards is about far more than his sack totals. At 6'3" and 280 pounds, he has amazing quickness off the snap. This allows him to bend the edge from outside, sift through gaps as a 3-tech tackle and knife through double-teams no matter where he's aligned. And as a run-stopper at the line of scrimmage, Edwards has an impressive understanding of how to disengage from his blocker just in time to take a running back down.

    He may have hit a detour in his second NFL season, but Edwards is back.

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Philadelphia Eagles: WR Nelson Agholor

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    Heading into the 2017 season, Nelson Agholor was the punchline to many jokes in NFL circles. After being overdrafted in the first round in 2015, Agholor couldn't have been a bigger disappointment in his first two years in the NFL. He started 26 games for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015 and 2016, but recorded just 59 catches on 113 targets. In 2016, he finished as the 97th-ranked receiver in the NFL1000.    

    Agholor struggled to win outside, but his biggest problem was his hands. He had eight dropped passes in his first two years in the league, according to Fox Sports.

    In 2017, Agholor seems to have put the drops issue behind him and is playing at the best level of his career. In just nine games, Agholor has nearly doubled his career touchdown total with five this season, and he has become a weapon in the slot for the Eagles. He's averaging nearly 15 yards per catch and is starting to become Carson Wentz's favorite target in the red zone.

    Agholor will likely never be a No. 1 receiver in the NFL and probably will never justify his first-round selection, but he's an integral part to the Philly offense. For someone who was considered a bust by nearly everyone in the football community, it's been quite the breakout season for the third-year USC product.

    —Marcus Mosher, NFL1000 receivers/tight ends scout

Pittsburgh Steelers: DL Cameron Heyward

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    It's not that Cameron Heyward has been under the radar throughout his NFL career—the 2011 first-round pick out of Ohio State has been a stalwart performer in Pittsburgh's defensive line since his rookie season, and he's been snubbed for a couple of Pro Bowls based on performance. But when you watch Heyward in 2017, it's clear that you'll see a defensive lineman who is playing at an entirely different level.

    Heyward has five sacks already, but his game is about more than sack totals. The most impressive thing about his 2017 season is how dominant he's been in every single gap—I would opine that he's played at an Aaron Donald- or J.J. Watt-level as a multi-gap defender.

    As a 3-tech or 4-tech tackle, he makes double-teams a requirement—you don't want just a guard or a center on Heyward alone, because a quarterback sack or pressure, or a tackle for loss, is sure to result. As a 1-tech tackle between the guard and the center, he can either bull through the interior line or stunt multiple gaps around his blockers. And his speed in open space to close on quarterbacks is a sight to behold. He can also hit the center at an angle and simply demolish the interior line with his freakish upper-body strength. No matter where he lines up, if you try to break the pocket or run to the edge, Heyward has the change-of-direction ability and lateral quickness to catch up to you.

    Put simply, Cameron Heyward has always been a great player, but he's now performing at a level that should have him in consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award. 

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

San Francisco 49ers: CB Dontae Johnson

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    A former fourth-round pick, cornerback Dontae Johnson was buried on a depth chart that hasn't been inspiring with talented options in recent seasons. The 6'2", 200-pounder couldn't earn much playing time in 2016 despite the team's sinking to the second-worst record in the league, which was an ideal time to play a young corner as evaluations began for the following year. But a new coaching staff opened the competition, and Johnson beat out a younger, more athletic option in Ahkello Witherspoon.

    Johnson is showing solid growth this year, especially over the last month of games, which was part of the reason cornerback Rashard Robinson—who opened the season as a starter—was jettisoned for a Day 3 draft pick. Per my own charting, Johnson allowed an average of three receptions on five targets for 46 yards a game just in man coverage in the first five weeks. Since Week 6, those numbers have dropped dramatically, as he's allowed only six receptions for 64 yards and a touchdown.

    He's improved because he's finally getting reps on a weekly basis, allowing him to learn from his mistakes, and his reaction time is notably better. Johnson doesn't seem to have a high ceiling as he struggles finding the ball, but he's able to be in position to force a difficult catch, and that's valuable enough to be at least a rotational starter or more on a playoff-caliber roster. As the 49ers prepare to enter free agency this offseason with more money than they can spend, they'll have to consider Johnson's growth as he can be extended as either a starting option or high-end depth piece.

    —Ian Wharton, NFL1000 defensive backs scout

Seattle Seahawks: WR Paul Richardson

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    When the Seattle Seahawks selected Paul Richardson in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft, they believed he could have a DeSean Jackson-like impact on their roster. With their elite running game (at the time) and their multi-dimensional quarterback, Richardson was brought in to back safeties off the line of scrimmage.

    Coming out of Colorado, Richardson was one of the best deep threat receivers in the entire class. His 4.40 40-yard dash time and his ability to track the ball in the air allowed him to be a top-50 selection, despite having just one season of over 40 catches.

    But for most of his career in Seattle, he's been considered a bust. After his first three seasons, Richardson caught just 51 passes for 599 yards and two scores. He missed a lot of time because of injuries, but the most discouraging thing about the beginning of his career was that he averaged just 11.7 yards per catch. He just wasn't the deep threat that the deep threat that the Seahawks thought they were getting.

    However, the Seahawks were patient with Richardson, and that patience is paying dividends in his fourth season. In nine games, Richardson has 458 yards receiving and five touchdowns, but that's just the start. He's averaging nearly 18 yards per catch, and each week, he's making a spectacular catch on a deep pass. Richardson already has 10 receptions of over 20 yards this season, per Pro Football Reference. As he continues to get more comfortable in this offense, that number should only grow.

    Richardson is scheduled to hit free agency after the season, and if he continues to play at this level, he will be one of the most sought-after wide receivers in free agency. At 25, Richardson's career is just getting started.

    —Marcus Mosher, NFL1000 receivers/tight ends scout

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: OT Demar Dotson

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    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense was supposed to be far better than it's been. The acquisition of speed receiver DeSean Jackson to pair with Mike Evans, and the draft pick of Alabama tight O.J. Howard to go with red-zone specialist Cameron Brate, were supposed to turn head coach Dirk Koetter's team into one that enemy defenses dreaded. It hasn't worked out that way—between scheme fit issues and the injuries and inconsistency issues suffered by quarterback Jameis Winston, the Bucs find themselves unexpectedly in the middle of the pack.

    One player who has exceeded expectations in Tampa Bay's offense this season is right tackle Demar Dotson. The eighth-year man from Southern Miss has played 98 games for the Buccaneers, starting 74, but not generally at an All-Pro level. Dotson was always a good player, but when you watch him in 2017, there's a power and agility that weren't always there before.

    Dotson has allowed just a handful of pressures all season, whether it's Winston or backup Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, and he gets it done with a teaching-tape level of kick-step, quick hands, ability to mirror his defender and power to take bull rushes by holding at the point of attack with a strong foundation. He's one of the better and more underrated right tackles in the NFL. 

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Tennessee Titans: S Kevin Byard

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    It's not often that a second-year safety from a small school will find himself leading the NFL in interceptions, but that's exactly what the Tennessee Titans have on their hands with Kevin Byard, the team's third-round draft pick in 2016 out of Middle Tennessee State. After a pick-free rookie season in which he started just seven games, Byard now leads the league with six picks for 100 return yards in just nine games.

    Byard has excelled not only as the Titans' deep safety, but also as a force-level defender who can emerge from linebacker depth and trail a slot or outside receiver up the seam or along the boundary. He has a smooth backpedal and excellent recovery speed, but more than that, it's his field vision that makes him special. Watch Byard on tape and see how many times he starts the play lurking in the middle of the field, only to tear off to one side or the other in perfect position to deflect or intercept a pass. And his awareness of technique allows him to stick and stay with receivers at a cornerback level, no matter how the receiver tries to shake him off.

    In Byard, the Titans have found a top-tier player at one of the modern NFL's most important positions—the legitimate center-field safety who can ply his trade at a Pro Bowl level all around the field. 

    —Doug Farrar, NFL1000 lead scout

Washington Redskins: CB Kendall Fuller

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    One of the reasons the Washington Redskins finished 25th in passing defense in 2016 was the disappointing play of their second and third cornerbacks. Neither Kendall Fuller nor Bashaud Breeland was effective in the slot, and the defense was gashed up the middle repeatedly. After Week 10, the Redskins are in the middle of the pack as a passing defense, a notable improvement from last year, in large part because of Fuller's development into a high-end slot defender.

    The bar for Fuller was low as a rookie, as he failed to look physically quick enough to stick as an inside corner. Besides his performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7, he's been playing markedly better on a play-to-play basis, including snagging three interceptions. His consistency against the run has been a notable improvement as well.

    In man assignments, Fuller has been targeted 20 times, allowing only seven receptions for 58 yards. His route recognition and comfort in space have been key differences this year. As the Redskins have been rotating through corners because of injuries, Fuller has been a constant presence after being overwhelmed as a rookie.

    —Ian Wharton, NFL1000 defensive backs scout