Early NFL Season Breakout Stars We Didn't See Coming

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorSeptember 26, 2018

Early NFL Season Breakout Stars We Didn't See Coming

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    The NFL's most notable early-season breakout star no one saw coming was quarterback Kurt Warner, who went undrafted out of Northern Iowa in 1994.

    After bouncing around the NFL, Arena Football League and NFL Europe for five years, Warner landed as the Rams' backup quarterback in 1999. However, he was thrust into the spotlight after No. 1 signal-caller Trent Green suffered a preseason knee injury that ended his campaign before it began.

    Warner responded by leading the Greatest Show on Turf to a 13-3 record and a Super Bowl title. The 28-year-old won the regular-season MVP (and Super Bowl MVP), leading the NFL in completion percentage, touchdowns, touchdown rate, yards per attempt and quarterback rating.

    We haven't seen any player come out of nowhere and immediately dominate at the level Warner did in 1999, and this year is no exception.

    However, some unheralded players have broken out. Some were undrafted. Others received few on-field opportunities before this year. A couple were backups leading into the season. All have impressed so far.

    Before we review eight players who fit that bill, a note that the following list analyzes those who came into 2018 under the radar. In other words, the focus is more on a player's precipitous and unexpected rise from the lower depths of a roster.

    For example, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes (13 touchdowns through three games) isn't here because he was a highly touted first-round pick in 2017 with plenty of hype (this throw alone had NFL fans talking for weeks) entering this year.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has started his season with three straight 400-yard passing games, which no one could have imagined, but he's been an NFL starter for the better part of the last 10 years and didn't appear out of thin air.

    Here's a look at that aforementioned list, starting with a linebacker who arguably posted Week 3's best individual defensive performance.

          

Buffalo Bills LB Matt Milano

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    No. 58
    No. 58Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

    In 2017, Buffalo Bills weakside linebacker Matt Milano started five of 16 games and played just 40.61 percent of snaps. He did amass 43 tackles and a 40-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown, but the rookie lost most of his playing time at weakside linebacker to Ramon Humber.

    Milano was listed as the starting weakside linebacker on the initial depth chart and got most of the first-team looks in training camp, but Humber and Keenan Robinson also saw some time with the first team, per Bills Insider Chris Brown.

    He ended up as the Week 1 starter, but he lost some playing time in Week 2 when Humber took over for a few series against the Los Angeles Chargers.

    However, the second-year pro is clearly the No. 1 option at his position following a dominant Week 3 performance in which he had eight tackles, a sack and an interception off numerous deflections, including his own foot. The Bills pulled off a massive upset over the Minnesota Vikings in a 27-6 win, and Ryan Talbot of NYup.com called Milano the team's defensive MVP.

    Overall, Milano has played on 81.68 percent of snaps and amassed 21 tackles, two fumble recoveries, two passes defended, a sack and an interception.

    Joe Buscaglia of WKBW called Milano a "rock star" this season, and it's hard to argue with that after watching him lead his team Sunday.

Carolina Panthers OT Taylor Moton

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    A second-round pick out of Western Michigan in 2017, Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Taylor Moton didn't see much playing time during his rookie year, playing on just 5.91 percent of snaps.

    He was initially pegged to be the team's backup right tackle in the preseason, but starting right tackle Daryl Williams suffered a knee injury in training camp, which put Moton in the starting lineup.

    He showed excellent potential in the preseason and was ranked as of one Pro Football Focus' top five offensive tackles. But when left tackle Matt Kalil suffered a knee injury that put him on injured reserve,  Moton was forced to protect quarterback Cam Newton's blind side in Week 1 versus the Dallas Cowboys, who are second in the league with 11 sacks through three weeks.

    Moton met the challenge head on, as PFF noted he allowed just one pressure in 36 pass-block snaps. He's since moved back to right tackle after the team picked up free agent Chris Clark to man the blind side, and he's been part of a front that has helped protect Newton (just three sacks allowed in Weeks 2 and 3) and open rushing lanes (351 rushing yards in two games).

    That's helped the Panthers score 55 points in Weeks 2 and 3 en route to a 2-1 record.

    Not only has Moton done everything asked of him and then some, but he's also one of the team's most important players as the Panthers look to return to the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.

Cleveland Browns DT Larry Ogunjobi

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    As a backup who only played on 28.18 percent of his team's defensive snaps last year, Larry Ogunjobi didn't have much of a chance to make an impact.

    He did amass 32 tackles and a sack, but when defensive tackle Danny Shelton left for the New England Patriots, Ogunjobi had a chance to enter the starting lineup.

    Entering the preseason, however, five-year veteran Jamie Meder was listed in Shelton's place, with Ogunjobi as the second-stringer.

    However, Ogunjobi stepped into a starting role when defensive tackle Trevon Coley suffered a high-ankle sprain. He ran with the ones in Week 2 of the preseason, produced a sack and another tackle for a loss, and he never looked back.

    But who could have projected Ogunjobi making this type of impact after he was listed as a backup just a month-and-a-half ago? He's arguably one of the best interior defensive linemen in football and the anchor of a Browns defense that has been sensational this year, most notably holding the high-powered Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints offenses to just 21 points each.

    Ogunjobi has played a big part in that, amassing 18 tackles and three sacks. Per Michael Hoag of Dawgs By Nature, he's also totaled 11 quarterback pressures (after having 12 last year).

    He's on pace for 96 tackles, 16 sacks and 59 pressures, although that trend is likely unsustainable. Still, it shows the second-year pro's dominance.

Denver Broncos RB Phillip Lindsay

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Undrafted out of Colorado this year, running back Phillip Lindsay's best-case scenario looked like a spot as the team's third-string running back (behind third-round pick Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker) and a key special teamer.

    However, Lindsay is the best Broncos back through three weeks and one of the better ones in the league. An ejection following a scrum in the Baltimore Ravens game cut his Week 3 effort short, but overall, Lindsay has rushed 33 times for 198 yards (6.0 yards per carry) in addition to having three catches for 35 yards and a touchdown.

    He's 23rd in the league in yards from scrimmage despite missing the final 32:31 of the Ravens game. Lindsay is also second among rookies in yards from scrimmage, behind second overall pick Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants.

    It's rare just to see undrafted free agents make the roster, but it's next to impossible to see one making a huge impact starting Week 1.

    Lindsay has helped the Broncos jump out to a 2-1 record, with a three-point victory over the Seattle Seahawks and a one-point win versus the Oakland Raiders. Without his efforts, the team could be 0-3.

Indianapolis Colts DL Margus Hunt

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    No. 92
    No. 92Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    The following are some of Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman Margus Hunt's stats through his first five NFL seasons (2013-2017): 60 games, 57 tackles, 2.5 sacks, zero forced fumbles.

    These are Hunt's 2018 stats: three games, 10 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and recovery (off a strip-sack of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz).

    The former Cincinnati Bengals second-round pick has eclipsed his five-year sack total in just three games, and he's on pace to nearly beat his career tackle total by the end of the season.

    Indianapolis Colts Assistant Director of Communications Christian Edwards also noted that Hunt leads the league in tackles for loss with eight.

    Hunt has elicited much praise from numerous sources. Matt Harmon of Yahoo Sports said he's the most improved player in the league. Josh Norris of Rotoworld quipped that Hunt unexpectedly resembled one of the Watt brothers (the Houston Texans' J.J. and the Pittsburgh Steelers' T.J.).

    As Hunt explained to Stephen Holder of The Athletic, the increase of on-field reps during game action is beneficial, as he's able to better read opposing offenses as the game moves along.

    If that's indeed the case, then Hunt may continue this breakout trend, as he's played 83.96 percent of snaps through three weeks. That's well over his career high of 53.53 percent last season and could lead to a Pro Bowl year.

Los Angeles Rams OG Austin Blythe

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Picked in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts, interior lineman Austin Blythe lasted just one year with his first team, playing in eight games and earning one start. He landed with the Los Angeles Rams the following year and still didn't see much playing time, starting just one game and playing 19.07 percent of snaps.

    However, Blythe became the Rams' starting right guard when the NFL suspended guard Jamon Brown two games for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

    The third-year pro took advantage of his opportunity, as he excelled as part of a Rams offense that accounted for 60 of the team's 67 points through two weeks.

    Blythe received much praise for his efforts. Cameron DaSilva of Rams Wire said Blythe was "better the past two weeks than Brown was at any point last season." Rich Hammond of the Orange County Register called him "superb" through two weeks.

    Even Brown admitted (via Lindsey Thiry of ESPN) that Blythe "played well the first two weeks" and "that he earned and deserved every right to continue to keep that up."

    Blythe started Week 3 and once again acted as one-fifth of a dominant offensive line. In a 35-23 Rams win over the Los Angeles Chargers, the team rushed for 4.9 yards per carry, and quarterback Jared Goff completed 29 of 36 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns. He was only sacked once.

    The Rams look unbeatable right now, and Blythe has played an important role on that front.

Miami Dolphins WR Jakeem Grant

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    Marc Serota/Getty Images

    Here's a sentence that seemed implausible entering the season: the Miami Dolphins are 3-0, and wide receiver Jakeem Grant (who entered the season as a backup on the team's wide receiver depth chart) has three touchdowns.

    Grant has played an instrumental part in two of his team's three victories. In Week 1 against the Tennessee Titans, the third-year pro scored the game-winning touchdown on a 102-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter. The score couldn't have come at a better time, as Tennessee had just tied the game at 10.

    In Week 3, Grant scored two consecutive touchdowns to help turn a 17-7 second-half deficit versus the Oakland Raiders into a 21-17 lead. The first score was off an 18-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill, and the second came off a reverse and 52-yard throw from wide receiver Albert Wilson on a trick play.

    Grant now has as many touchdowns as he did during the first two years of his career. While he still doesn't get a lot of playing time (39.76 percent of offensive snaps), his penchant for big plays has the Fins standing as just one of three undefeated teams through three weeks.

Seattle Seahawks TE Will Dissly

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    Quinn Harris/Getty Images

    Here are three remarkable facts about Seattle Seahawks rookie tight end Will Dissly, who is currently eighth at his position in receiving yards with 151 and tied for first with a pair of touchdowns through three games.

    1. Dissly started his University of Washington career as a backup defensive lineman. He didn't move to tight end until the 2015 Heart of Dallas Bowl (the final game of his sophomore season).

    2. In two seasons, Dissly caught just 25 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns. That's not an indictment on his catching ability, as Dissly was used more as a blocker.

    3. Dissly was behind Ed Dickson and Nick Vannett on the team's depth chart at tight end earlier this preseason. Dickson suffered a quad injury, which left Vannett as the starter.

    Vannett and Dissly both saw action in Week 1 against the Denver Broncos, and the latter responded with three catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. He added another three receptions for 42 yards and a score in Week 2 versus the Bears, and through two weeks, he was Pro Football Focus' top-ranked rookie at tight end.

    He did have a quiet Week 3 (one catch, four yards), but Dissly has already exceeded expectations, and quarterback Russell Wilson compared him to ex-Dallas Cowboys great Jason Witten.

    Dissly has a long way to go to meet that level, but his career is off to a surprisingly good start.

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