NFL1000: The Biggest Overachievers of the 2017 Season
When we talk about overachievers in the NFL, there are several different ways to come to that conclusion about a player.
It could be someone who was an afterthought in the draft and had to go through several teams before he found his ideal home. It could be someone who makes everyone around him better when his offense or defense is unspectacular at best. It could be someone who works through injuries, or someone who or lines up at more than one position to excel beyond what most players in his role could accomplish.
Overachievers aren't always appreciated. Their average stats may hide great tape. They may be playing their best in a system that does nothing for them, or they may be playing alongside teammates who bring their efforts down by not doing their own jobs.
The scouts at NFL1000 watch tape throughout the year, and we've come up with 16 overachievers for the 2017 season. You will undoubtedly know some names, while you may be seeing others for the first time. But they're all great players, no matter their name recognition (or lack thereof).
Our team of scouts:
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
Here are the NFL players we've seen do the most with the least in 2017.
Quarterback: Josh McCown, New York Jets
This past summer, the prevailing storyline surrounding the Jets was the prospect of them going 0-16.
A common theme among these stories was that the offense, led by Josh McCown, could not be competitive.
The Jets, however, did not listen. Nor did McCown.
While the Jets did start the season with two straight losses, they were competitive in both games. McCown threw for two touchdown passes in a Week 2 loss to the Oakland Raiders that was closer than the 45-20 score would otherwise suggest.
Then, they started to win. The Jets won three straight games to improve to 3-2, setting up a first-place matchup with the New England Patriots in Week 6 that no one saw coming. During that stretch, McCown threw three touchdowns and two interceptions, and his worst game came against one of the league's best defenses—Jacksonville—in a game that the Jets won by three.
Unfortunately, McCown suffered a broken left hand in Week 14 that will prematurely end his season, but 2017 was still a largely positive campaign for him. The Jets were expected to go nowhere, but their journeyman quarterback helped guide them to five wins. McCown completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 2,926 yards and 18 touchdowns, all of which were career highs. His adjusted net yards per attempt of 6.0 placed him 20th in the league, ahead of Cam Newton, Marcus Mariota, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco.
McCown's future in New York is uncertain, as the Jets will likely draft a quarterback this coming spring. But between his passionate press conference this week and his performance this season, this organization and its fans should be enamored with McCown for the near future.
—NFL1000 QB Scout, Mark Schofield
Running Back: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears haven't tried to disguise their offensive game plans this season. With rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky starting and a lack of pass-catching weapons around him, the Bears rely on their rushing attack to keep them in games. Fortunately, they have Jordan Howard at running back.
Howard is fourth in the league with 1,032 rushing yards and is tied for third with seven rushing touchdowns. He runs for a first down on 23 percent of his carries, according to NFL.com, a higher percentage than any of the other running backs in the top five for rushing yards. He's done all of that while working against eight or more defenders in the box on 42.13 percent of his snaps, per NextGen stats.
There's no big secret behind Howard's success. The Bears aren't running a bunch of exotic looks to try to throw off the defense. For the most part, they run the zone scheme, which Howard excels at executing. He consistently takes the right paths at the right pace, making correct reads that tell him when to make his cut and burst up the field. From there, his power and contact balance enable him to run through arm tackles and fight for extra yards once defenders start to bring him down.
Howard isn't a threat to hit a home run on every play, but he's consistent. Chicago can count on him to carry a big workload and keep it ahead of the chains while tiring out the opposing defense. Once the Bears add some weapons on offense and take pressure off of Howard, he should face lighter boxes, so his production should only go up. He'll then help Trubisky even more since the Bears should have an effective play-action passing game.
Until then, Howard will continue to be the driving force of the Bears offense despite the odds being stacked against him.
—NFL1000 RB Scout, Mark Bullock
Receiver: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Think about what it takes to be one of the NFL's most prolific receivers while playing with subpar quarterbacks. You must have a wider catch radius to make up for your signal-caller's inability to throw into tight windows. You must become a de facto defensive back to deflect potential interceptions on off-target throws. You will have a high rate of contested catches because your quarterback doesn't throw with optimal velocity, touch and arc to hit you in stride.
This all applies to Houston receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who has 88 catches for 1.233 yards and 11 touchdowns even though Tom Savage was his opening-day starter at quarterback. He only had dazzling rookie Deshaun Watson for a handful of games before Watson suffered a season-ending ACL tear in late October.
The schism at quarterback doesn't matter to Hopkins, the NFL's best contested-catch receiver today. He can take any cornerback for a ride downfield and break away with astounding speed. He's one of the league's best route-runners, and he's shown that when his quarterback can't consistently throw to routes correctly, he can make necessary adjustments in stride. Moreover, Hopkins is Savage's top target just about every week since he needs a bailout receiver.
You can argue Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the NFL right now, and you might be right. But when you take a handful of the NFL's top pass-catchers and adjust their performances for the guys who throw the balls to them, it's just as easy—perhaps easier—to make the case for Hopkins.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
Receiver: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
When Aaron Rodgers went down with a collarbone injury in Week 6, Davante Adams' statistical production appeared likely to take a massive hit. However, that hasn't been the case.
In fact, Rodgers' absence might have been the best thing to happen to Adams this season.
Adams is scheduled to hit free agency in 2018. The soon-to-be 25-year-old the size to be a prototypical No. 1 receiver in the NFL. He has made big play after big play for the Green Bay Packers and has only gotten better each year. But the biggest question surrounding him and his play was how much did Rodgers "make him" what he is? Is he just a product of Green Bay's system?
As we are seeing this season, that's hardly the case.
Over the last five games without Rodgers, Adams has 424 yards and four touchdowns on 32 catches. He's been sensational with Brett Hundley, and he's a big reason why the Packers have stayed alive in the playoff hunt despite being without their franchise quarterback. On Sunday, Adams made the play of the game, catching the game-winning touchdown in overtime. On 3rd-and-6, Adams took a screen to the house to keep Green Bay's playoff hopes alive.
With three games left in the regular season, Adams is only 172 yards short of 1,000 receiving yards. He already has nine scores, and with Rodgers perhaps returning to the lineup this week, Adams has the potential to end the year with a bang. Despite circumstances that should have drastically hurt his production, he's making more money each week.
Adams is an emerging star at the receiver position.
—NFL1000 WR Scout, Marcus Mosher
Offensive Lineman: Josh Sitton, Chicago Bears
Long a stalwart on a series of Green Bay offensive lines that struggled to live up to his greatness, Josh Sitton is one of the best guards of the last decade. Though he dealt with injuries during his first season with the Chicago Bears in 2016, he proved when he was on the field that he was worth every bit of the three-year, $21 million contract he signed in September of that year after the Packers inexplicably released him.
This season, despite fellow guard Kyle Long suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, sometimes subpar play from second-year center Cody Whitehair and iffy performances from tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie, Sitton has retained his own personal standard of performance. He's the primary reason running back Jordan Howard can find holes despite facing stacked boxes on 42.13 percent of his carries, and he's still one of the best pass-blockers in the business, capable of taking on a charging defensive tackle or flaring out to help with screen-blocking.
Chicago's coaching staff hasn't done the offense many favors as Mitchell Trubisky grows into an NFL quarterback, but the Bears have relied heavily on Sitton's excellence, and he's responded at a Pro Bowl level.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
Offensive Lineman: Ryan Jensen, C, Baltimore Ravens
Ryan Jensen has quietly ascended into a top-10 center in the league this year. He has been a key to what the Baltimore Ravens want to do offensively, and to their playoff hopes as a result.
Jensen has become the heart and soul of this Ravens run-blocking group, a unit that has flourished ever since offensive assistant Greg Roman came to town. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg deserves some credit as well, since he has allowed Roman to blend in his concepts and integrate his style into this offensive attack. Jensen's play in this creative system has helped pave the way for the emergence of Alex Collins, who has seemingly become the engine that makes the Ravens offense go.
Jensen isn't the biggest or the most dynamic center, but his body positioning and ability to create leverage allows him to keep opponents at bay just enough on the Ravens' long-developing runs. His scrappiness, upper-body strength and well-placed hand positioning allow him to do the same in pass protection.
It's a testament to Jensen's work ethic, as his technical skill and his deep schematic understanding have helped turn him from a little-known prospect at Colorado State-Pueblo to a galvanizing force in the NFL.
—NFL1000 OL Scout, Ethan Young
Defensive Tackle: David Irving, Dallas Cowboys
While DeMarcus Lawrence is stealing the shine in Dallas, David Irving has likewise had a breakout season on the Cowboys' defensive line. Last year, Irving was primarily a defensive end, but he moved to a defensive tackle role this season.
In 584 snaps, Lawrence has recorded 22 tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage (3.79 tackles every 100 snaps), according to Football Outsiders. In 337 snaps, Irving has recorded 13 tackles at or behind the line (3.86 tackles every 100 snaps.) When given the opportunity, the 24-year-old former undrafted free agent is every bit as disruptive as Lawrence, who will likely sign a contract worth north of $80 million or be franchise tagged this offseason.
No other Cowboys lineman has more than five tackles at or behind the line this year—nearly a third of Irving's production—and Irving has played in only eight of Dallas' 13 games due to suspension and a concussion. He hasn't been able to put it together for a 16-game stretch yet, but going from a flashy 23-year-old to finding a full-time role (when healthy and eligible) is a massive step for one of the league's young stars in the trenches.
—NFL1000 DL Scout, Justis Mosqueda
Defensive Tackle: Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears had one of the NFL's best bargains in 2016, as free-agent defensive tackle Akiem Hicks put up seven sacks, a ton of pressures and outstanding run support in the first year of a two-year, $10 million contract. The Bears rewarded him this September with a four-year, $48 million extension that included $30 million guaranteed, and Hicks responded by playing even better this year.
He has already matched his 2016 sack total with seven this season, and he's one solo tackle shy of his 36-tackle total from last season with three games left to go.
Hicks performs at a high level on a defense that doesn't get a ton of pass rush around him because he combines strength and quickness in a package that's just about impossible to block. At 6'5" and 332 pounds, he's able to transcend any leverage issues around his height because he comes off the snap low and with a ton of power.
As a run-stopper, he's an expert at flipping gaps and charging into the backfield. In particular, his step quickness right off the snap is a sight to behold. He can bull-rush his way past a guard from the three-tech position, or he can sift through blockers on a double-team.
Hicks is even more of a force as a pass-rusher, with an arm-over move that allows him to enhance his quickness past the blocker, and he's strong enough to split blockers through the middle and get to the pocket. Hicks is playing for a bad team, which is why he doesn't get as many name-checks as he deserves, but those unlucky souls who have to face him know how dominant he can be.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
EDGE: Lorenzo Alexander, Buffalo Bills
If you look at Lorenzo Alexander's raw stats and see he has dropped from 12.5 sacks in 2016 to just three this season, you may wonder why he's being featured on a list of overachievers. Perhaps the NFL1000 list of underachievers—coming later this week—would be more suitable?
But when you turn on the tape and have an understanding of how much Buffalo's defense has regressed this season, you'll see Alexander still getting pressures and making plays even though he doesn't have nearly as many opportunities to get to the quarterback as he did last season.
Though he's classified as an edge-rusher, Alexander gets pressure from everywhere. He can do so from the outside of the defensive end to inside the tackles, from linebacker depth as a second-level blitzer in base formations to a stand-up interior pass-rusher right over the guards. And when you're coming at an offensive line from inside the tackles, you need the defensive front to get penetration and open gaps for you to move through.
Alexander can still get through blockers as a pure edge-rusher, and he's quick enough to move to the edge from the middle when he needs to. In a more expansive and efficient defense, he'd be a plus-level blitz player from multiple gaps and a fine edge-rusher with excellent technique. But in Buffalo's system, he's a great player who is often shut out of pressure opportunities by the average play around him.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
EDGE: Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints
While the Jacksonville Jaguars have the breakout defense of the 2017 season, the New Orleans Saints boast the biggest defensive improvement in the NFC. Last year, New Orleans ranked 27th in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed, but one season later, the Saints are now more than respectable.
After New Orleans lost defensive tackle Nick Fairley to a heart issue in June, it seemed like Cameron Jordan was going to have to hold the defense down by himself this year. Despite a brief emergence from defensive end Alex Okafor, who is now on injured reserve, that has basically come to fruition. Along with rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, Jordan has helped propel the Saints to a 9-2 record over the last 12 weeks.
Per Pro Football Reference, Jordan has 10 sacks and nine tackles for loss this season. Only Arizona's Chandler Jones, Denver's Von Miller, Jacksonville's Calais Campbell and Baltimore's Terrelle Suggs can match those numbers. It's hard to think of a defensive end who is more versatile and indispensable than Jordan has been this season.
—NFL1000 DE Scout, Justis Mosqueda
Linebacker: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It has been tough sledding for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense in 2017. After a surprisingly successful 2016 season, their defense has significantly backslid. The pass rush is nonexistent, while the secondary appears to be a shell of itself.
Throughout the sudden downfall, only a few Buccaneers players have remained consistent threats. Linebacker Lavonte David falls in that group.
In fact, David may be having one of his best seasons yet.
The collapse of the defense around him has forced David to make an impact on nearly every play. While it doesn't always show up in the box score, he has done just that.
David predicates his game on a quick trigger and blazing speed. He is the type of linebacker who can gash through an offensive line if given the slightest crease. With a mediocre defensive line in front of him, David has had no choice this season other than to constantly shoot gaps and hope he is right. When he gets it right, as he so often does, he disrupts the normal path of a running play and forces the play to stall or bounce. The slight moment of hesitation or redirection can be enough for fellow Bucs defenders to flow over the top of David and shut plays down.
Without David constantly wrecking plays the way he does, the Bucs defense would be in the running for worst in the league. That he can perform at his current level in a substandard defense is exceptional, especially for a position like linebacker that tends to require adequate defensive line play. Hopefully the Buccaneers will have the foresight to retool the defense around David heading into this offseason.
—NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen
Linebacker: Reuben Foster, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers defense has a rock-solid foundation.
Up front, young defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Solomon Thomas set the tone and allow for schematic versatility. Rookie defensive backs Adrian Colbert and Ahkello Witherspoon both appear to be blossoming starters. However, it is not the defensive line or secondary that completes this defense.
It is rookie linebacker Reuben Foster.
A star middle linebacker can ease pressure off of everyone around them, as the Carolina Panthers have found to be the case with Luke Kuechly. Like Kuechly, Foster is both an eraser and an enforcer in the run game. He understands the flow of certain blocking schemes and knows how to properly approach them. When diagnosing the play on the fly, Foster can quickly adjust his path or angle if he knows there is a gap exchange or breakdown in the structure of the run in front of him.
Likewise, Foster is a wrecking ball when he sees the right opportunity. He wastes no time triggering toward the ball and engaging blockers correctly. He can flow to his landmark, stack and shed a blocker and forcefully take command of his assignment gap. Linebackers rarely step into the league and attack blocks the way Foster does. His long arms allow him to engage first, enabling him to make full use of the menacing power he builds up on the way to the point of attack.
Foster unlocks the 49ers defense as a third-down specialist, too. He can drop deep into coverage on Tampa 2 and certain pattern-matching zone looks. If need be, Foster can also be a blitzer or a true edge-rusher in special packages.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh could ask Foster to do almost anything, and he would be able to make an impact doing it. A presence like that at linebacker does not come around often.
—NFL1000 LB Scout, Derrik Klassen
Cornerback: Ken Crawley, New Orleans Saints
An undrafted free agent out of Colorado who signed with the Saints before the 2016 season, Ken Crawley was a bit player on a bad defense in his rookie campaign. It wasn't until the Saints selected Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore in the first round of the 2017 draft and gave Crawley a bigger role that their defense started to undergo the amazing turnaround we've seen this season.
With Lattimore and Crawley as their outside starters, the Saints added two lockdown cornerbacks to a defense in desperate need, and both players fit defensive coordinator Dennis Allen's preference for aggressive pass defense.
Crawley has just one interception on the season, so you have to go to the tape to see how well he's playing. There, you'll see a defender who's unafraid to line up right at the line of scrimmage against receivers who may be a half-foot taller than him and outweigh him by 30-40 pounds. At 6'1" and 180 pounds, Crawley gets by with a fluid response to routes run against him rather than jamming receivers off the snap, and he's adept at getting and keeping inside position down the boundary. Moreover, he's an expert at timing his jumps to cause deflections and incompletions, and he has the quick feet and recovery speed to track receivers all the way through their routes.
Lattimore may get more of the praise and credit for New Orleans' defensive resurgence, but make no mistake—it wouldn't be happening without Crawley's efforts, too.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
Cornerback:Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Cleveland Browns
One of the handful of quality young players former Cleveland Browns executive vice president Sashi Brown unearthed as he churned the roster was cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun.
The versatile defensive piece has been a tremendous undrafted free-agent pickup, as he quickly earned a starting nickel corner spot. This season, he's gone from an afterthought acquisition to the upper tier of slot defenders leaguewide.
Boddy-Calhoun has a great feel for the game and a knack for disrupting passing lanes. He hasn't been used in man-coverage assignments as much this season, which helps explain his decrease in interceptions and pass breakups. But he's been reliably in position in zone and is a stout run defender as the Browns move him between safety and the slot.
His ability to drop into both a slot safety and single-high alignment on occasion highlights his natural football talent. He isn't the flashiest athlete, but he's a consistent role player for a unit that has played well when healthy.
Boddy-Calhoun has overcome the odds to be an unquestionable starter, and a solid one at that.
—NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton
Safety: Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills
When a team's defensive front struggles to get pressure, it makes life more difficult for a safety. And if its front can't stop the run for anything, it forces the safety to split his responsibilities between intermediate and deep coverage and clean up the damage in run support.
That's been the case for the Buffalo Bills safeties this season, but because of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, it hasn't affected coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, the Bills have allowed an opposing quarterback rating of 86.2 over the middle, the 10th-best mark in the league.
Buffalo's safeties are a big part of that equation.
The Eagles selected Poyer in the seventh round of the 2013 draft, and after the Browns picked him up off waivers halfway through his rookie season, they converted him from cornerback to safety. The Oregon State product flashed at times in Cleveland, but it wasn't until he signed a four-year, $13 million contract with Buffalo in March that he found his NFL home.
Poyer and Hyde alternate the center field role when Buffalo plays single-high coverage, and they can play back together in two-high looks. Poyer adds to his value by blitzing off the edge—he has two sacks this season—and by showing excellent toughness and technique against the run.
He's a savvy pass defender (nine this season) who waits until the last second before the snap to move to his spot in Buffalo's disguised coverages, and he's quick enough to follow a receiver down the seam or to run to jump a route.
The Bills defense has been a disappointment this season, but the safeties certainly haven't.
—NFL1000 Lead Scout, Doug Farrar
Safety: Lamarcus Joyner, Los Angeles Rams
Much of the praise for the Los Angeles Rams' turnaround under head coach Sean McVay has landed on the revamped and dangerous offense, but defensive mastermind Wade Phillips has proved once again why he's an elite coordinator. The Rams defense is fast, aggressive and produces turnovers despite not being the most talented unit in the league.
One of the few players Phillips has overachieving is safety Lamarcus Joyner.
A star from Florida State and a 2014 second-round pick, Joyner was in and out of the lineup until his fourth season. He's already at a career-high 10 starts this year. Though he isn't the most durable player, the 5'8", 190-pounder has been excellent when he's on the field. His play is reminiscent of Tyrann Mathieu's first-team All-Pro campaign in 2015.
Joyner is a fluid and fast player in coverage, proving to be a problem for offenses when he's a deep, roaming safety or when he's in the slot against receivers. With three interceptions, nine pass breakups and 39 combined tackles, Joyner is looking like an overachiever considering his surrounding cast features a rookie in John Johnson and two journeymen in Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman. His playmaking ability has been a key factor for a transformed team.
—NFL1000 DB Scout, Ian Wharton
All statistics via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.