Every NFL Team's Biggest Surprise Early This Season

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystSeptember 27, 2018

Every NFL Team's Biggest Surprise Early This Season

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    Expect the unexpected, because an NFL season never goes according to plan. 

    Right now, the league's Bizarro version features a 3-0 Miami Dolphins squad with a two-game lead in the AFC East, Ryan Fitzpatrick as its leading passer and the Cleveland Browns actually winning a game. 

    Unpredictability creates surprises. Some are positive. Others are negative. Organizations must react appropriately. 

    Of course, everyone prefers to see players emerge and outperform expectations. These individuals deserve recognition because they're picking up the slack in spots that may have been considered weaknesses entering the regular season. 

    The fate of a team can take an unexpected turn based on one performer's unanticipated development. Tom Brady was once just Drew Bledsoe's backup. Antonio Brown only caught 16 passes during his first season. Cameron Wake was playing in the CFL before becoming one of the league's most prolific pass-rushers. 

    Expectations are one thing. Actually delivering is something entirely different. 

    The following players are already helping their teams in ways most did not expect before the season began. 


Arizona Cardinals: S Budda Baker

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    Very little has gone well during the Arizona Cardinals' 0-3 start. Budda Baker is definitely one of the few positives, transforming from a special teams Pro Bowler into an impact safety. 

    "The dude is twitched up, man," a scout told Bleacher Report's Tyler Dunne in July. "He closes so much ground in a hurry, but he's going to hit you. His upside? He's only going to get better and better and better. ... He's explosive, twitchy, going to get there in a f--king hurry."

    The Cardinals thought enough of Baker to move on from Tyrann Mathieu this offseason when the Honey Badger refused to take a pay cut

    Now, Baker is tied for the team lead with 27 total tackles and two tackles for loss. Like Mathieu, Baker is a versatile piece who can be used in multiple roles. The difference is in Baker's physicality, especially against the run. The 2017 second-round pick is a heat-seeking missile when it comes to closing in on ball-carriers and receivers. 

    Patrick Peterson remains the Cardinals' top defensive player, but Baker may also end up being a Pro Bowl defender now that he's a full-time starter.

Atlanta Falcons: WR Calvin Ridley

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    A first-round pick playing well doesn't come as a surprise. The fact Calvin Ridley leads the Atlanta Falcons with four touchdown receptions while Julio Jones still has none is mind-blowing. 

    Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian came under fire last year for shying away from Jones in critical areas of the field and has yet to remedy the situation. However, Ridley picked up the slack, especially during his breakthrough performance against the New Orleans Saints. 

    The rookie caught seven passes for 146 yards and three touchdowns against Atlanta's rival. It's due, in part, to playing opposite Jones. 

    "Yeah, I thought Calvin did a great job for us today, played extremely well, took advantage of the one-on-one opportunities when he got them and made them pay for keeping him isolated," quarterback Matt Ryan said, per ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure.

    The performance placed Ridley first among rookies with 210 receiving yards. But more importantly, he can make opposing defenses pay for rolling coverage towards Jones' side. The 6'1", 190-pound Ridley doesn't provide the same physical presence as Jones, but his route running makes him difficult to handle when facing single coverage. 

    As such, Ridley is currently the Falcons' top touchdown-maker. 

Baltimore Ravens: WR John Brown

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    The Baltimore Ravens organization knew it had to revamp its wide receiver corps this offseason, and it did so with the additions of veterans Michael Crabtree and John Brown

    Crabtree's previous history indicated he could be a reliable No. 1 option for quarterback Joe Flacco. The 31-year-old wide receiver, of course, leads the team with 15 receptions and 26 targets. 

    But Brown has been the more effective option. The speedster is the team leader with 222 receiving yards and a pair of touchdown receptions. According to Rotoworld's Evan Silva, Brown leads the NFL with most air yards the last two weeks, in addition to leading the Ravens in targets inside the 10-yard line. 

    The fifth-year pro never developed into the well-rounded option the Arizona Cardinals envisioned after surpassing the 1,000-yard mark during the 2015 campaign, mainly due to injuries. He's now using his speed and elusiveness to help Baltimore establish the league's best red-zone offense. 

    "He's just a grinder. He perseveres," fellow receiver Willie Snead said, per Pressbox's Bo Smolka. "When you work hard, and you believe in yourself, and believe in your faith, it will take you a long way, and it's taken him to the ultimate level."

Buffalo Bills: LB Matt Milano

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    There's no longer any need for the Buffalo Bills to rotate their weak-side linebackers.

    Matt Milano showed during a stellar performance against the Minnesota Vikings why he earned the starting role over Ramon Humber. The second-year defender stuffed the stat sheet with eight total tackles, a sack, tackle for loss, another quarterback hit, two deflected passes and an interception. He earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors as a result. 

    "They've been on a rotation anyway with him and Ramon, just getting some fresh bodies in there going back and forth, but any time Matt is playing with confidence, he's out there making plays," strong-side linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said, per the Buffalo News' Jay Skurski. "Obviously, he did a great job of that, flying around [Sunday]. Getting a sack, an interception, just causing a lot of havoc out there."

    Milano is now second on the team behind rookie middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds with 21 total tackles. 

    Weak-side linebacker is a critical component in head coach Sean McDermott's scheme. The position is expected to flow to the football and make plays, while being a critical part in coverage responsibilities. Milano finally provided a resounding justification for his spot as the starter.  

Carolina Panthers: RB Christian McCaffrey

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    The Carolina Panthers used the eighth overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft to select college football's most dynamic weapon. Christian McCaffrey was a true home run threat as a runner, receiver and returner at Stanford, but that didn't hold true during his rookie season. 

    Yes, McCaffrey caught 80 passes last year, but he averaged only 3.7 yards per carry and 12 touches per game. This season, the Panthers are now fully utilizing his skill set. 

    "He's obviously not just a receiving back, he's a total running back," quarterback Cam Newton said, per the Charlotte Observer's Jordan Rodrigue. "He shows signs that this is not a fluke, he's been doing this his whole career—collegiately as well as professionally.

    McCaffrey set career highs Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals with 28 carries for 184 yards. He's now the NFL's third-leading rusher with 271 yards. 

    "The fact that we have a special talent, you can't really gear in by using packages for him, he's in there every single down and the more comfortable he gets—not only in passing routes but in blocking protections as well —that is a big thing for our offense to have," Newton added, per Rodrigue. 

Chicago Bears: DE Akiem Hicks

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    All eyes in Chicago have been on Khalil Mack, and rightly so. As a result, Akiem Hicks is getting overlooked despite his dominant performance. 

    Hicks has been the NFL's second-best run defender through three weeks of play, according to Pro Football Focus. He also leads the team with five quarterback hits, per The Athletic's Kevin Fishbain

    Consistent interior disruption creates opportunities for the entire defense. Hicks' ability to shut down running lanes makes life easier on the secondary, as opposing offenses become one-dimensional. Collapsing the pocket provides edge-rushers with chances to sack the quarterback. Plus, a big body up front that demands double-teams allows linebackers to run free. 

    "That guy is powerful, man," Mack said of Hicks, per the Chicago Tribune's Dan Wiederer. "The power he has and the attention he takes up inside? Yeah, that's something I can really get used to."

    Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll called Hicks a "real problem" earlier this season, per the Chicago Sun-TimesPatrick Finley

    Hicks has flashed elite traits throughout his career, but he has never performed at the level he is now. He and Eddie Goldman form an intimidating defensive front, with Mack serving as a wrecking ball off the edge.

Cincinnati Bengals: WR Tyler Boyd

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    A.J. Green isn't the Cincinnati Bengals' leading receiver. Tyler Boyd is. 

    Boyd's 249 receiving yards already surpass last year's 225-yard effort in 10 games.

    "This has been the best start since I've been here. I'm loving it, and I am sure everyone else is loving it," Boyd said, per SB Nation's Jason Marcum. "... I already believe our offense can't be stopped. As long as we control the ball and do what we have to do, the sky is the limit."

    With an average of 16.6 yards per reception, Boyd is both creating chunk plays and serving as Andy Dalton's security blanket. Heading into Week 3, Boyd, not Green, was the Bengals' most targeted receiver with Dalton under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus' Pat Thorman.

    Dalton told reporters the 23-year-old target is "so good. He understands running routes. He's versatile. You can move him around. He's had a lot of production in the slot and we've been able to move him around too."

    Boyd's continued development reduces the pressure on 2017 first-round pick John Ross, who continues to make mistakes and not be a significant contributor as of yet. 

Cleveland Browns: QB Baker Mayfield

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    A No. 1 overall pick is expected to turn around a woebegone franchise, but Baker Mayfield entered a unique situation.

    A month before choosing the reigning Heisman Trophy winner with the top pick, the Cleveland Browns traded a third-round pick to acquire veteran quarterback Tyrod Taylor.

    "This was a guy that we picked together that [general manager] John [Dorsey], myself, the personnel department and the coaching staffthat we went all-in on unanimously and said, 'This is the guy for the future,'" head coach Hue Jackson said in reference to Mayfield, per ESPN.com's Pat McManamon

    However, Jackson refused to consider the possibility of starting Mayfield to open the season. The coach didn't allow the rookie to take first-team reps during training camp, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.

    Taylor suffered a concussion during Thursday's contest against the New York Jets, which is the only reason why Mayfield played. He promptly led the Browns to their first victory in 635 days, looking poised, decisive and uncannily accurate. In fact, Mayfield received the highest grade ever awarded by Pro Football Focus (since 2006) during his debut. 

    Cleveland finally has its franchise quarterback. 

Dallas Cowboys: CB Byron Jones

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    Byron Jones is more well-known for his world-record breaking 12'3" broad jump at the NFL combine than for anything he's done as a professional football player so far. 

    Jones struggled to find a home as a cornerback or safety during his first three seasons, and his inconsistent performances were a direct reflection of the uncertainty. 

    Now in his fourth year, Jones found a home at cornerback, and he's been the league's best in coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, he's the league's top-graded corner and seventh-best defender overall. 

    New Cowboys defensive backs coach Kris Richard is the difference between this year and previous seasons. The 6'0", 205-pound Jones has the perfect body type for Richard's system, as Richard spent his entire coaching career under Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll before joining the Cowboys this past offseason. 

    Richard said from day one that Jones is a cornerback, and the 26-year-old veteran validated the coach's belief by developing into an elite cover man. The Cowboys now appear to have a new version of Richard Sherman in the famed Cover-3 scheme.

Denver Broncos: RB Phillip Lindsay

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    The Denver Broncos expected a rookie running back to take over their rushing duties this season. However, they didn't quite predict the right one. 

    General manager John Elway chose Royce Freeman in the third round of April's draft and subsequently released last year's leading rusher, C.J. Anderson. Freeman does lead the team with 36 carries, but he's second to fellow first-year runner Phillip Lindsay in rushing yardage. 

    Lindsay gained only 20 rushing yards against the Baltimore Ravens before he was tossed from the game for throwing a punch, yet he still leads all rookies with 198 yards. He's also a vital component in the passing game and on special teams. 

    "I am here to be our spark player," he said, per ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold. "I am here to make sure that I get my teammates going, whether it is on a punt, if it is on a kickoff or kickoff return, anything."

    Lindsay is the NFL's first undrafted player to record at least 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first two career games, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter

Detroit Lions: WR Kenny Golladay

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    Detroit Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay impressed with a two-touchdown performance in his NFL debut last season. Over his ensuing 10 games as a rookie, he scored only once more. 

    The same can't be said this season, as Golladay has become an integral cog in Jim Bob Cooter's offense. 

    The 6'4", 213-pound target adds a different element next to the smaller Marvin Jones and Golden Tate. His massive catch radius makes him particularly dangerous in the red zone. 

    "I think he is really also trying to understand kind of his physical traits," head coach Matt Patricia said, per MLive.com's Kyle Meinke. "He's kind of growing in that aspect in how to use them to his advantage as he works through the games and works through different coverages that he's seeing."

    Golladay's overall consistency is his biggest improvement. The second-year receiver has six or more receptions in each of his three contests this season, whereas he never had more than four receptions in a game as a rookie. 

    "I know what I can do. It's not like I'm going out there trying to prove it to myself," Golladay said, per Meinke. "I know I've got the ability to go out there and make plays. It really didn't come as a surprise."

Green Bay Packers: WR Geronimo Allison

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    The Green Bay Packers had a different leading receiver in each of the previous three seasons. A fourth may be upcoming. 

    Davante Adams blossomed last year with 885 receiving yards and 10 touchdown receptions. Geronimo Allison appears to be next in line. 

    As Zach Kruse of USA Today's Packers Wire noted, Allison leads Green Bay with 209 receiving yards, 16.1 yards per catch and three 20-yard receptions. Furthermore, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a perfect quarterback rating when targeting the third-year receiver. 

    Their rapport is built on one simple factor: trust. 

    "I've always had a lot of confidence in him," Rodgers said just before the regular season started, per the Green Bay News-Gazette's Ryan Wood. "... He knows the offense really well, and that's the starting point of any type of trust, is the mental part.

    "So I expect him to be in the right spot and to run the routes the right way and if he's open, he'll get the ball."

    The time and effort Allison placed in his preparation is now paying dividends during games. 

Houston Texans: TE Jordan Thomas

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    NFL scouts, coaches and teams are enamored by athletes who are bigger, stronger and/or faster than their opponents. Houston Texans tight end Jordan Thomas is a wide receiver in a 6'5", 277-pound body. 

    "He's done a good job, and he probably needs to be in there more," head coach Bill O'Brien said Monday, per Drew Dougherty of the team's official site. "Big guy that can run. He used to be a wide receiver. He's got really good hands."

    The Texans opened each of the last two games in a two-tight end look with Thomas starting alongside veteran Ryan Griffin. The sixth-round pick, whom the Texans selected three rounds later than fellow tight end Jordan Akins, only has three receptions, yet two of them have gone for more than 20 yards. 

    Thomas' size coupled with his ability to run routes and get down the field makes him a potential weapon if fully utilized. However, he's still trying to improve his blocking skills. 

    "I'm working every day to get better at it," Thomas said, per Dougherty. "It's not where it needs to be, but it's good. It still needs to be improved."

Indianapolis Colts: LB Darius Leonard

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    A rookie leads the NFL in total tackles, but it isn't first-round linebackers Roquan Smith, Tremaine Edmunds, Leighton Vander Esch or Rashaan Evans. 

    Darius Leonard, whom the Indianapolis Colts chose with the 36th overall pick, has already amassed 41 tackles through three games.

    Leonard's performance requires historical context to better understand how good he's been at the onset of his career. Only Ray Lewis, London Fletcher and Zach Thomas have managed more tackles through the first three games of a season, according to Andrew Walker of the Colts official site. 

    "A star in the making," Colts defensive lineman Al Woods said, per ESPN.com's Mike Wells. "Just a guy that comes to work every single day. He takes the good with the bad. Takes the coaching, he talks to the older cats, he always tells me to remind him about his alignment."

    Leonard finally gives the Colts a defensive centerpiece after years of disappointing performances. 

    "He approaches the game with a veteran mentality, not a rookie mentality," safety Matthias Farley said, per Wells. "... Doesn't make the same mistake twice and he's eager to get better. His trajectory is very, very high, and he's balling so far."

Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Keelan Cole

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    So much emphasis has been placed on the maturation of Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, his no-name receiving corps hasn't gotten much love even though it lost Allen Robinson in free agency and Marqise Lee to a season-ending knee injury. 

    The group still has to work through some inconsistencies, but it's far better than expected. 

    Last's year's undrafted darling, Keelan Cole, has developed into a legitimate top target. Cole leads the Jags with 15 catches for 210 yards, and he also set the bar with an early catch-of-the-year candidate

    It's nothing the Jaguars haven't seen before, though. 

    "You go, 'Wow,' but he has made those catches in training camp," Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said, per the Florida Times-Union's John Reid. "He has done that before. I think when you actually go out there and do it—it's still the same thing." 

    Cole isn't all flash and sizzle. He works outside the numbers and from the slot. He can be used all over the formation to create better opportunities.

    Bortles' improvement is reliant upon his receivers. The group may not feature any recognizable options, but Cole is trying to change that. 

Kansas City Chiefs: QB Patrick Mahomes

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    Are you not entertained?

    Patrick Mahomes is taking the league by storm and playing at a previously unseen level. 

    How good has he been? Let's count the ways. 

    Mahomes set an NFL record with 13 touchdowns passes in the first three games. Nine different receivers have caught scoring passes from him, and he has yet to give the ball away once. As a whole, the Chiefs offense has outscored opponents 49-6 in the first quarter. 

    The second-year gunslinger is making everything look easy. He has the arm talent to challenge every inch of the field, the athleticism to evade pressure and a growing comfort level in the Chiefs' offensive scheme. 

    His natural gifts have always been alluring, but his near-flawless play is the most shocking aspect of his performance. A first-time starter at the NFL level shouldn't look this good against professional defenses, but he's blown expectations out of the water. 

    "He keeps surprising everybody every single week, even his teammates, and it gets us going, playing with confidence, and that stuff is contagious, and we just keep it rolling from there," tight end Travis Kelce said, per ESPN.com's Adam Teicher

Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams

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    After the Chargers spent the No. 7 overall pick on Mike Williams in the 2017 NFL draft, his career got off to a rocky start. He dealt with back and hamstring issues throughout his rookie campaign and rarely displayed the skill set that made him an elite prospect. 

    This year, he's starting to find his way among a crowded wide receiver room. 

    Williams leads the Chargers with three touchdown receptions after his two-score performance Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams. Even with Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Travis Benjamin taking away targets, the second-year receiver's role should continue to grow in the coming weeks. 

    "Gosh, he played big and strong, and made a handful of big plays, and obviously the touchdowns," quarterback Philip Rivers said, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams. "He's going to continue to be more of a factor for us."

    The Chargers have plenty of mouths to feed on offense, but Williams is beginning to live up to his draft pedigree regardless.

    "I'm making the most of my opportunities," he said, per Williams. "Every time the ball comes my way, I feel like something good comes from it." 

Los Angeles Rams: OL Austin Blythe

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    Jamon Brown isn't getting his starting job back.

    While Brown served a two-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, Austin Blythe filled in for him and quickly developed into a rock on the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus' Aaron Bloch, Blythe is the league's top-graded guard through three weeks of play. 

    After returning from his suspension, Brown agreed Blythe should continue to start. 

    "Blythe, he played well the first two weeks and I think he earned and deserved every right to continue to keep that up," last year's starter said, per the Associated Press' Greg Beacham. "I'll do what I can, as far as still preparing and still practicing and approaching every day the same."

    Blythe has been particularly good as a pass-blocker, which provides quarterback Jared Goff with the depth necessary to step up in the pocket when needed. 

    "As far as how we move forward, it's not a result of anything Jamon hasn't done, but the fact that these are decisions that aren't very clear-cut is because of Austin's play," head coach Sean McVay said, per Beacham. "He's played so well. He's done such a great job."

Miami Dolphins: QB Ryan Tannehill

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    Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill resides in a pseudo-limbo somewhere between impressive and game manager. 

    Either way, he's doing everything he needs to do during the Miami Dolphins' 3-0 start. 

    Tannehill ranks fourth leaguewide in both completion percentage (73) and yards per attempt (9.28), although he's attempted only 74 passeswhich ranks 30th among starting quarterbacks. The seventh-year signal-caller also claims a seven-to-two touchdown-to-interception ratio. 

    The 2012 first-round pick finally seems to be living up to his draft pedigree, in part due to his head coach's unwavering support.

    "Part of it is [Adam] Gase and the support he has for me and the confidence he gives me to go out and be me and lead the way I want to lead," Tannehill said about his growing confidence in August, per the Palm Beach Post's Jason Lieser

    In turn, Gase believes Tannehill's improved pocket presence has "accelerated his growth," according to the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero

    Tannehill doesn't have to carry the Dolphins offense as long as he remains efficient within the scheme's structure. 

Minnesota Vikings: DT Sheldon Richardson

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    The Minnesota Vikings' signing of Kirk Cousins overshadowed their addition of Sheldon Richardson, but the latter is proving equally consequential. 

    Minnesota had glaring holes at quarterback and 3-technique, but it otherwise touted one of the NFL's deepest rosters. Richardson was the best available 3-tech on the market. 

    Since defensive tackle isn't as glamorous as playing quarterback, the signing of Richardson didn't create the waves Cousins did. Also, a few years had passed since the 27-year-old earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and a Pro Bowl nod with the New York Jets. 

    Richardson is back to looking like the same disruptive force that entered the league. He's collapsing the pocket on a consistent basis to create pressure and provide more opportunities for the team's edge-rushers. 

    "He's a great player," linebacker Eric Kendricks said, per the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Chip Scoggins. "He's athletic, he's explosive and he's strong. Those are the three characteristics you want out of a 3-technique."

    Minnesota didn't receive any guarantees Richardson would return to form, but the defense continues to benefit since he has. 

New England Patriots: DT Lawrence Guy

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    Lawrence Guy is the New England Patriots' best interior defender, even though the team features two former first-round picks at defensive tackle. 

    The Patriots traded for Danny Shelton to pair with Malcom Brown and build an immovable duo up front only to be disappointed by both. Shelton hasn't started a game, and Brown remains inconsistent. Meanwhile, Guy has developed into an elite run defender, according to Pro Football Focus

    When names such as Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox are used to provide context about a player's performance, it's safe to say that player is faring well, even if he isn't in the same class overall. 

    New England still has numerous issues across its roster, particularly on defense. However, Guy provides a rock in the middle. The 28-year-old defensive tackle may not solve New England's pass-rush woes or help cover anyone down the field, but he's utilizing his skill set to the best of his ability in his seventh season.

    With Brown and Shelton taking a step back, Guy deserves to become a bigger part of the Patriots' plans moving forward. 

New Orleans Saints: WR Michael Thomas

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    Everyone already knew Michael Thomas was good. But how many realized he would be this good? 

    Right now, Thomas is the NFL's best receiver, and it isn't particularly close. The third-year receiver broke Julio Jones' previous NFL record with 38 receptions through the first three contests. He's caught 10 or more passes in each game, and he leads the league with 398 receiving yards. 

    But one thing stands out most of all: Drew Brees has completed 95 percent of his passes when targeting Thomas, according to the Saints' Twitter account

    "Alert the league, that's all I've got to say," running back Alvin Kamara said, per NOLA.com's Josh Katzenstein. "You know what you're getting from him every Sunday, period."

    @CantGuardMike isn't just a clever social media handle; it's the truth. Defenses need to start taking the Michael Jordan approach with Thomas this season: Let him get his and stop everyone else. Otherwise, there's no way to stop the New Orleans Saints offense. 

New York Giants: OL Will Hernandez

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    Saquon Barkley may be the new face of the New York Giants franchise, but Will Hernandez is the best rookie on the team's roster. 

    Hernandez quietly goes about his business as a bulldozer at left guard. He'll never be the most athletic lineman working in space, but the 327-pound blocker can pave a lane for New York's running backs.

    However, his game isn't entirely predicated on being physical at the point of attack. Hernandez continues to improve each week with his angles and pass protection. 

    All the while, he's graded out as the top rookie offensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus

    The Giants continue to struggle along the offensive line as a whole. Center Jon Halapio is done for the year due to a broken ankle. This past week, the coaching staff benched underachieving right tackle Ereck Flowers in favor of Chad Wheeler. Hernandez, meanwhile, continues to go about his business alongside veteran left tackle Nate Solder. 

    The group has shown some improvement, and the organization should be excited about Hernandez leading the way for Barkley for a long time to come. 

New York Jets: WR Quincy Enunwa

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    Only one receiver on the New York Jets roster has more than eight receptions. It's Quincy Enunwa, who leads the way with 17 catches for 212 yards. 

    His re-emergence comes as a surprise on two fronts. 

    First, Enunwa didn't play last season because of a bulging disk in his neck. Just being on the field and performing after last year's scare is a testament to the 26-year-old's perseverance. 

    Second, Robby Anderson was supposed to be the Jets' breakout candidate this year after his promising 2017 campaign. However, defenses are keying on the vertical threat. 

    "[Opponents] are doing some things different this year with Robby in trying to take him away, and other guys have to step it up if they get somebody [on top of] him," Bowles said, per ESPN.com's Rich Cimini

    Enunwa is particularly good when asked to create after the catch, but his rapport with rookie quarterback Sam Darnold may be the most important factor to the entire offense's growth.

    Since no one else seems to have earned Darnold's trust, Enunwa has developed into the 21-year-old's security blanket with a team-leading 29 targets. Terrelle Pryor ranks second on the team in targets with 14.

Oakland Raiders: TE Jared Cook

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    The Oakland Raiders' 30-something crew was supposed to serve as a supporting cast. Instead, the coaching staff is leaning on its aging core more than expected, especially 31-year-old tight end Jared Cook. 

    Cook leads the Raiders and all tight ends with 260 receiving yards. 

    His production has decreased each week, but he's still considered a significant threat, and opponents have taken notice. 

    "I think it's tough when a guy is a really good player," Dolphins head coach Adam Gase said of Cook before Sunday's game, per Antwan Staley of USA Today's Dolphins Wire. "It's hard to just completely shut a guy down. You've got to find ways to make sure that guy doesn't beat you."

    The Dolphins held Cook to five receptions for 31 yards, but his presence creates space for those who work on the outside. 

    "Roles change all the time," the tight end told the San Jose Mercury News' Matt Schneidman. "It really never stays the same because week-in and week-out, your offense is going to change. You're lined up in different positions, doing different things." 

Philadelphia Eagles: TE Dallas Goedert

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    Zach Ertz is already the Philadelphia Eagles' top offensive weapon. Now, Carson Wentz and Co. can feature a dynamic two-tight end scheme with the emergence of second-round pick Dallas Goedert. 

    "It's big," Ertz said, per NJ.com's Zack Rosenblatt. "We need him to be a player for us. His role will continue to evolve and hopefully increase. We need him. We need him to go out there and contribute each and every week in the run game and in the pass game."

    The rookie caught seven passes for 73 yards and a touchdown Sunday in Wentz's return to the lineup.

    While Ertz remains the offense's top target, Goedert provides plenty of flexibility after lining up primarily as a detached tight end during his collegiate career. The Eagles can use him in the slot, out wide, on the wing, across the formation or a traditional in-line option. 

    "It's just time to play and cut him loose a little bit and don't keep him back," head coach Doug Pederson said after Sunday's victory over the Colts. "... As he gets more and more comfortable with the offense, he's just going to get better and better." 

Pittsburgh Steelers: RB James Conner

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    James Conner isn't Le'Veon Bell. He's never going to be Le'Veon Bell. But he's good enough to shoulder the Pittsburgh Steelers' rushing attack and keep the unit among the league's best. 

    Conner's 213 rushing yards rank seventh leaguewide. The running back doubles as the Steelers' third-leading receiver with 15 receptions.

    As Steelers public relations manager Dom Rinelli noted, Conner is one of three running backs—including Todd Gurley of the Rams and Adrian Peterson of the Washington Redskins—with at least 200 rushing yards, 100 receiving yards and three total touchdowns. 

    "Conner has done a great job," center Maurkice Pouncey said, per Sports Illustrated's Jenny Vrentas, "and I wouldn't mind having him at running back the whole entire year."

    Teammates have been vocal about Bell's absence. Conner, meanwhile, is getting the job done in an offense that ranks second overall in yards per game. 

    Bell is undoubtedly a great player, and his return would provide a boost to the Steelers. However, Conner has the makings of a lead back, and Pittsburgh can win games without Bell in its lineup.

San Francisco 49ers: RB Matt Breida

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    San Francisco 49ers running back Matt Breida is tied with Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys as the NFL's leading rusher with 274 yards. 

    The two couldn't be more different.

    Elliott is a true workhorse, whereas Breida creates chunk plays in limited opportunities. Breida has 16 fewer carries than Elliott, but he leads the NFL with six runs of 20 or more yards and is averaging 8.6 yards per carry. 

    Everything could change in the coming weeks as the Niners shift gears after Jimmy Garoppolo's season-ending knee injury. Breida is also dealing with a hyperextended knee, according to The Athletic's Matt Barrows

    Even if the second-year back is slowed for a few weeks, his continued success is integral to San Francisco's offensive scheme. Breida is already tasked with filling the void left by Jerick McKinnon, who suffered a torn ACL prior to the season. Alfred Morris is not a threat to run the outside zone stretch. Plus, the team will have to lean heavily on the running game with C.J. Beathard behind center. 

    Breida may not be able to maintain his current pace, but he's already proved to be one of the league's fastest and most explosive runners. 

Seattle Seahawks: TE Will Dissly

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    The following is a predraft evaluation of Will Dissly's skill set: 

    "He won't blow you away with talent or athleticism," an NFC West Coast scout told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, "but he does his job." 

    Basically, many pegged the tight end as an unathletic blocker who could help the Seattle Seahawks in the run game. 

    The evaluation couldn't have been more wrong.

    Sure, Dissly didn't test well at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, but Seattle's coaching staff saw his potential as a receiver. The tight end is second on the team with 151 receiving yards and two touchdowns. His 21.6 yards per catch ranks fourth leaguewide. 

    "He's a baller," quarterback Russell Wilson told reporters last week. "He can really make a lot of plays. He kind of reminds me of a young [former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason] Witten a little bit, just how he sees the game, how he runs routes. He just catches the ball every time you throw it." 

    Dissly caught only one pass Sunday against the Cowboys. Regardless, defenses must now respect him in the passing game.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick

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    If someone predicted Ryan Fitzpatrick would be the NFL's leading passer through three weeks of play, he or she would have been laughed out of the room. 


    Fitzpatrick leads the league with 1,230 passing yards and became the first quarterback in NFL history with three consecutive 400-yard passing games.

    Everyone around the bearded bomber benefitted. Tampa Bay's offense ranks first overall. DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans became the first pair of teammates in NFL history to each reach 300 receiving yards and three touchdowns through three games, according to Scott Smith of the Buccaneers' official site. O.J. Howard is third among tight ends with 222 receiving yards. 

    The Bucs are rolling with Fitzpatrick under center. However, Jameis Winston returned from his three-game suspension Tuesday, and head coach Dirk Koetter isn't revealing any plans. 

    "I hope everyone can appreciate that it doesn't do us any good to tell our opponents what we're going to do," he said, per ESPN.com's Jenna Laine. "... But we do have a plan, and both guys are aware of it."

    Even if Koetter chooses Winston over Fitzpatrick, what the 35-year-old veteran already accomplished is noteworthy.

Tennessee Titans: S Kenny Vaccaro

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    The safety market collapsed this offseason and left Kenny Vaccaro without a job for an extended period. An opportunity arose when Tennessee Titans safety Johnathan Cyprien suffered a torn ACL in August. 

    "He's got a unique skill set," head coach Mike Vrabel said upon Vaccaro's signing, per TitanInsider.com's Terry McCormick. "He's got good size, good speed and he had a great workout."

    The New Orleans Saints selected Vaccaro with the 15th pick in the 2013 draft. He played exceptional football at times only to be benched at other points.

    But he's been a solid presence in the Titans secondary. The entire defense is playing fundamentally sound football under Vrabel's direction. Vaccaro and free safety Kevin Byard are a big reason why the unit hasn't been prone to big plays  

    Vaccaro in particular adds versatility since he lines up at strong safety, can cover the slot and remains an option to blitz the quarterback. As a result, he's third on the team with 13 total tackles while also registering a sack, an interception and a deflected pass.

Washington Redskins: RB Adrian Peterson

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    The Washington Redskins signed Adrian Peterson only because of Derrius Guice's season-ending ACL tear. Even so, the offense is the getting the most out of the future Hall of Fame running back. 

    At 33 years old—a time when most running back careers are long over—Peterson ranks fifth with 236 rushing yards and has the league's third-most carries (56). 

    The seven-time Pro Bowler looked great in Sunday's win over the Green Bay Packers with 120 rushing yards. 

    "For me, it's never [feeling] rejuvenated. It's always, 'Give me the opportunity, and I'll show you what I've got," Peterson told reporters after the game.  

    The chiseled 6'1", 220-pound back certainly has something left in the tank. A legitimate ground attack makes Washington's offense even better since quarterback Alex Smith is one of the league's best with the play-action game. 

    "He's a great player, he's a pro and we're happy to have him," head coach Jay Gruden said of Peterson, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "He fell into our lap at a critical time. We needed a player, and he was there for us. He is everything as advertised."