Every NFL Team's Biggest Surprise of the 2021 NFL Season so Far

Alex KayContributor IOctober 27, 2021

Every NFL Team's Biggest Surprise of the 2021 NFL Season so Far

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    With the midway point of the 2021 NFL season quickly approaching, it's a great time to look back at some of the biggest surprises of the campaign thus far.

    Whether these are unheralded rookies stepping up and outperforming their draft position, end-of-the-roster veterans who are now excelling following a change of scenery or formerly well-regarded talents finally shedding the bust label, there have been myriad unexpected developments this year.

    We'll stay focused on the positive here, highlighting some bright spots that fans of even the most turbulent franchises can get excited about. With that in mind, here are the biggest surprises of the 2021 NFL season so far.

Arizona Cardinals: WR Rondale Moore

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    The first team on this list may be the most surprising in the entire league. Arizona remains the NFL's last remaining undefeated team going into Week 8, a shocking run that few would have projected in the offseason.

    One of the main reasons for this is the emergence of the team's high-powered Air Raid passing attack. Implemented by head coach Kliff Kingsbury and run by an MVP candidate quarterback in Kyler Murray, the team has excelled thanks to a foursome of potent wideouts able to execute the offense to perfection.

    While few doubted the boundless skills of superstar DeAndre Hopkins, the veteran savvy of offseason acquisition AJ Green or the rapport established by Christian Kirk with his signal-caller, rookie wideout Rondale Moore has been revelation for this organization.

    Moore, the No. 49 overall pick this year, has already accumulated 26 receptions for 303 yards and a touchdown. He has accomplished this despite seeing the field for just 44 percent of Arizona's offensive snaps.

    The sky is the limit for the 21-year-old out of Purdue. He should only get better with more experience and looks like a future centerpiece this franchise can build its receiving corps around for years to come.

Atlanta Falcons: RB Cordarrelle Patterson

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    The Falcons may not be contending for a Super Bowl anytime soon, but there are still reasons to be excited about this organization.

    Kyle Pitts is rapidly emerging as a superstar tight end, shaking off a slow start to get on pace to set rookie records at the position. That development isn't nearly surprising as the latest development in the team’s running back platoon.

    Cordarrelle Patterson has transformed into a bona fide weapon in Atlanta's backfield. The ninth-year veteran—now with his fifth NFL team—has finally earned a feature role for the first time in his career and is making the most of it.

    Primarily used as a return specialist in the past, Patterson is taking most of his snaps at RB in 2021. The dynamic playmaker has appeared in six games—starting three of them—and is putting up some big numbers.

    Patterson has 55 carries for 233 yards and two scores and has been an even more dangerous weapon when deployed as a receiver out of the backfield. The 30-year-old has caught 27 of his 36 targets for 296 yards and four touchdowns.

    The Tennessee product is getting some run with the special teams unit as well, returning 10 kickoffs for 242 yards.

Baltimore Ravens: Rushing Attack

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    "This might be the year that everybody figures out Lamar Jackson."

    According to ESPN, that line of thinking was commonplace around the league leading up to the 2021 campaign.

    Given how well quarterback Lamar Jackson and has fared this year, it's safe to say those doubters were wrong.

    Baltimore is off to a 5-2 start and has a share of the lead in the AFC North largely because of its high-powered ground game. The team ranks No. 4 in the league in rushing offense after averaging nearly 150 yards per game. The Ravens have scored 10 rushing touchdowns, good for the third-most in the NFL.

    Jackson has unsurprisingly led the way, ranking first on the team in carries (76), rushing yards (480) and first downs (29) by a large margin.

    What is a surprise is how well Baltimore's rushing attack is faring after losing its top three running backs before the campaign even kicked off.

    With J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill not making it out of preseason, the team has had to lean on unproven young players (Ty'Son Williams) and over the hill veterans (Latavius Murray, Devonta Freeman and Le'Veon Bell) to move the ball on the ground.

    The team—which managed to tie the longstanding record for most consecutive 100-yard rushing games earlier in the month—hasn't been perfect, but even during a rare off night the ground game has remained strong.

    In a 41-17 loss to the Bengals last week, Jackson still went off for 88 yards on 12 carries. The Ravens need to tighten things up in some areas before the playoffs, but they should be able to keep pounding the rock successfully for as long as Jackson remains under center.

Buffalo Bills: TE Dawson Knox

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    After getting torched by Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce in both the 2020 regular season and the AFC Championship Game, Bills GM Brandone Beane admitted his roster lacked a playmaking tight end of that caliber and desired one.

    Although Buffalo didn't make any major splashes to acquire a TE this offseason, the club now has one of the league's up-and-coming stars at the position.

    While Dawson Knox hasn't yet made the leap to the upper echelon of NFL tight ends, the 24-year-old appears to be on his way to assuming that status.

    Knox is on pace to shatter his career-best marks this year. The third-year pro had racked up 21 receptions on 27 targets for 286 yards and five touchdowns before going down with a right hand fracture in the second half of Week 6.

    While the injury will sideline the tight end at least three weeks after he underwent surgery and landed on the IR, Bills fans are hoping the 24-year-old can pick up right where he left off upon his return.

    Buffalo has benefitted tremendously from Knox's emergence as a big target for quarterback Josh Allen. The 6'4", 254-pound tight end possesses the size and athleticism to create mismatches—especially in the red area—that the team, which ranks No. 2 in scoring, has been able to capitalize on.  

    With tight end now a position of strength in Buffalo thanks to Knox's breakout campaign, this offense has raised the bar on what it is capable of.



Carolina Panthers: WR Brandon Zylstra

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    Earlier this season, it appeared that Sam Darnold was finally going to live up to the hype that followed him out of USC.

    Darnold—the  No. 3 overall pick in 2018—started off his Carolina tenure with a fantastic streak of games, but the quarterback has since taken a step back with a string of "Bad Sam" outings and now has more interceptions than touchdowns this season.

    Although Darnold has slumped during the team's current four-game losing streak, one of his receivers came out of seemingly nowhere to become an impact contributor.

    Brandon Zylstra, an unheralded wideout who had just 12 catches over his first three years in the league, has been working his way up the depth chart and making some big plays.

    While a hamstring issue and IR trip recently slowed him down, Zystra was making his mark on the game before the injury. The 28-year-old had already matched his career high with eight catches this season, turning those into an impressive 139 yards and a touchdown.

    The wideout, who will be eligible to return in Week 10, had a 100 percent catch rate and was averaging 17.4 yards per target in six games. As the fourth-leading receiver on the team and one of its most reliable when targeted, Zylstra has a great shot at carving out an even more meaningful role when he gets back in action.

Chicago Bears: RB Khalil Herbert

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    After arriving in Chicago as an unheralded sixth-round pick and starting the year buried at the bottom of running back depth chart, Khalil Herbert has suddenly emerged as a critical piece of the Bears' backfield.

    With David Montgomery going down with a knee injury and Damien Williams dealing with foot and knee ailments of his own, Herbert was thrust into the spotlight and has outperformed expectations ever since.

    The 23-year-old has put up 279 yards and a touchdown on 55 carries over the last three weeks. He's come along as a receiver out of the backfield, notching new career-highs with 33 yards on five receptions in Week 7.

    Herbert is only the third rusher to eclipse the 100-yard mark against Tampa Bay's ferocious front since the start of 2018, besting a unit that was allowing a meager 54 yards on average to opposing rushers this season.

    Herbert's 133-yard performance was one of the only bright spots in Chicago's 38-3 loss to the Bucs. That performance is one the Virginia Tech product can build on, however, something he should get plenty of opportunity to do during this trying Bears campaign.

Cincinnati Bengals: Ja'Marr Chase-Joe Burrow Battery

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    Ja'Marr Chase and Joe Burrow teamed up for two seasons at LSU, rising to prominence together in 2019 as key members of the school's national championship squad in 2019.

    Few would have guessed just how quickly and effectively the pair would re-establish their chemistry together as professional teammates.  

    The Burrow-Chase battery has come out of the gate red-hot, connecting 35 times for 754 yards and six touchdowns on 51 targets across their first seven games together.

    Chase, the No. 5 overall pick this year, is a leading candidate to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. The 21-year-old shook off a concerning preseason and training camp plagued by drops to start his career with a five-catch, 101-yard, one-touchdown game.

    He's only improved in the months since, most recently exploding against the Ravens, securing eight receptions for a career-high 201 yards and a score.

    Burrow is looking like the Comeback Player of the Year after bouncing back from a torn ACL that cut his rookie season short. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick has guided Cincinnati to a 5-2 record and a share of the AFC North lead.

    The signal-caller is now up to 1,956 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 60.5 percent of his passing attempts. Burrow should have these Bengals surprisingly fighting for a postseason spot at the season's end.

    Regardless of how Cincinnati fares down the stretch, the team is exciting to watch again and will be tough to beat thanks to the Burrow-Chase connection.

Cleveland Browns: Three-Deep Running Back Platoon

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    No one should be surprised that the Browns are leading the league in rushing yardage after seven weeks of play. The team came into the season with arguably the best one-two RB tandem in the NFL, boasting an elite all-around starter in Nick Chubb and an excellent change-of-pace option in Kareem Hunt.

    What is surprising is how the team didn't skip a beat when both of those stars were sidelined in Week 7.

    With Chubb and Hunt both nursing calf injuries suffered prior to the team's Thursday Night Football appearance and unable to suit up on a short week, third-stringer D'Ernest Johnson came through for the franchise when it needed him most.

    The third-year veteran picked up where his backfield mates left off, piling up 146 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries against the Broncos. Johnson added an additional 22 yards receiving after catching both of passes thrown his way.

    After that incredible showing, Cleveland is now collectively averaging 170.4 yards per game on the ground and has scored 13 rushing touchdowns across seven games.

    With a running back platoon that now goes three deep when healthy, the Browns have a real shot at shaking off their poor start. They will be able to batter through opponents and work through the struggles of banged-up quarterback Baker Mayfield and the team's lethargic passing game.

    Cleveland is above .500 again and can soon utilize a three-pronged rushing attack with Chubb, Hunt and Johnson. That just may be enough to get them back to the playoffs for the second straight year.

Dallas Cowboys: CB Trevon Diggs

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    The Cowboys are one of the most improved teams of the 2021 campaign. It hasn't hurt that quarterback Dak Prescott came back strong to lead the league's top-scoring offense, but a member of the team's secondary has taken the biggest leap this year.

    Trevon Diggs has launched his campaign for Defensive Player of the Year honors with one of the most impressive starts to a season a cornerback has ever had.

    The second-year pro leads the league in interceptions by a wide margin, snaring seven across the club's first six games. Logan Wilson, Cincinnati's playmaking linebacker, is No. 2 with four picks in seven games. No other defender has more than three INTs in 2021.

    Diggs has shown vast improvement as a sophomore. He was shaky at times during his rookie season, finishing the year with 58 tackles, 14 passes defensed and three interceptions in 12 games.

    According to Pro-Football-Reference, the Alabama product allowed 46 of 84 passes thrown at him to be completed for 667 yards and five touchdowns, with opposing quarterbacks averaging an 85.8 rating when targeting Diggs in 2020.

    Those numbers have improved in 2021. Diggs already has 23 tackles and 11 pass deflections to go along with his seven interceptions—two of which have been returned for scores—while allowing 21 completions on 42 targets for 332 yards and one touchdown.

    QBs are only averaging a 45.0 rating when going against Diggs this year.

    If Diggs can sustain this high level of play, he'll be a great bet to take home the DPOY Award and more importantly, will make the Cowboys secondary a matchup opposing quarterbacks will fear.

Denver Broncos: WR Tim Patrick

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    The Broncos receivers' room was bitten by the injury bug this season, losing both Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler for significant stretches.

    While most teams would struggle to replace the production of those talented wideouts, Denver has been able to make up a good chunk thanks to Tim Patrick.

    Patrick has been proving his 2020 season—a solid year in which he recorded 51 receptions for 742 yards and six touchdowns—was hardly a fluke. The fourth-year WR is again on pace for similar production, catching 27 of his 39 targets for 360 yards and three scores over seven games.

    Former Broncos great Rod Smith—who has become a mentor to Patrick—told Sam Weaver of DenverBroncos.com that the wideout is motivated to prove his doubters wrong after going undrafted in 2018:

    "You can tell when a guy has this inner drive to prove something — not to other people, but to himself. Being an undrafted guy myself, I gravitate towards him because I know those internal workings are tough and sometimes we don't feel worthy and we gotta go prove it. I see that in him — it comes out of him in the way he plays, in the emotion, the fire that he plays with."

    While the Broncos are mired in a four-game losing streak, the team could be faring even worse without Patrick in the lineup. 

    The receiver has become reliable weapon for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and should maintain that status even with Jeudy likely returning to action in Week 8.

Detroit Lions: RB D'Andre Swift

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    The Lions may be the league's only winless team, but it's not all bad in the Motor City right now.

    D'Andre Swift is having breakout year and is quickly becoming one of the league’s most intriguing playmakers from his running back position.  

    Swift is the team's second-leading rusher behind Jamaal Williams, taking his team-high 78 totes for 262 yards and three touchdowns. His real value has been in the passing game, however, an area where Swift is putting up superstar numbers.

    The second-year back has drawn 52 targets—only one off from T.J. Hockenson's team-high mark—and caught 42 of them, totaling up 391 yards and two scores.

    Swift has the most receiving yards of any running back right now, ranking No. 35 in that category overall. He’s tied with Bucs star Chris Godwin for the seventh-most catches in the NFL and has eight more than the next closest RB on the list.

    With Detroit often trailing in games and quarterback Jared Goff showing a propensity to check down during his first year running this offense, Swift should keep putting up huge receiving numbers down the stretch.

Green Bay Packers: LB De'Vondre Campbell

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    "How in the hell was this guy on the street?"

    That's what Aaron Rodgers told a teammate when De'Vondre Campbell, the linebacker who joined Green Bay months after the free-agency signing period began this spring, recorded an overtime interception to put the Packers in position to beat the Bengals back in Week 5.

    Campbell came to Titletown with little fanfare after spending the first five years of his career with Arizona and Atlanta, signing a modest one-year, $2 million deal. He’s now in line for a massive payday when he hits the open market again this offseason.

    The 28-year-old has become the heart of Green Bay's defense. As a sideline-to-sideline linebacker who can make plays all over the field, Campbell filled the squad’s biggest defensive need from last year.

    Campbell leads the team in tackles with 68—good for the fourth most in the league—and his 45 solo tackles tie him with star linebackers Bobby Wagner and Denzel Perryman for the most in football. The rising star also has three pass defenses, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery to his name in 2021.

    Campbell has only missed 1.4 percent of his tackles in 2021, noticeably less than the 11.6 percent he whiffed on last year.

    The surging linebacker has become dominant in coverage, allowing a 67.1 QB rating when targeted. It's a huge improvement after signal-callers notched 100-plus ratings against him in each of the last three seasons.

    Campbell's rise is a truly impressive one, a surge that no one saw coming when Campbell initially joined the Packers. He's firmly on everyone's radar now and has the potential to get even better before the campaign concludes.

Houston Texans: WR Brandin Cooks

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    The Texans are who we thought they were.

    The team, which had the lowest projected win total in football going into the season, is off to a brutal 1-6 start.

    The only game Houston won was with Tyrod Taylor under center, but the veteran quarterback has been sidelined since Week 2 after suffering hamstring injury. With rookie Davis Mills thrown into the fire, the offense has predictably struggled.

    Despite Houston's status as the league's third-worst total and passing offense, wideout Brandin Cooks is still putting up some rather impressive numbers.

    Cooks has 502 receiving yards through seven games, making him the only Texans player with more than 154. He has 45 receptions in that span, making him the only pass-catcher with more than 19. His 64 targets lead the team by a mile, with no other player drawing more than 24.  

    The team would hardly move the chains if Cooks wasn't in the lineup. He has eight more first downs—22 in total—than starting running back Mark Ingram and 12 more than backup RB David Johnson.

    The one thing Cooks hasn't been able to do with any consistency is find the end zone—he has just one touchdown in 2021—but that single score still ties him for the team high.

    It's been a trying year for Houston fans, but Cooks has at least been a bright spot for the club.

Indianapolis Colts: WR Michael Pittman Jr.

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    Colts wideout Michael Pittman Jr. is having the breakout year fans in Indianapolis were hoping for.

    The second-year receiver has already surpassed his rookie receiving yardage total, putting up 508 yards in seven games after accumulating 503 yards across 13 games all last year.

    Pittman has doubled his Year 1 scoring total—finding pay dirt twice after punching in just one TD last season—and his 35 receptions on 50 targets are on pace to shatter his rookie marks of 40 receptions on 61 targets.

    His emergence has assisted the Colts in finding their footing after a stumbling early on. Indianapolis lost three in a row to start the year but has now won back-to-back games and three of its last four.

    Quarterback Carson Wentz has clearly established a rapport with Pittman, targeting him 15 more times than Zach Pascal, the team's No. 2 leading wideout. That chemistry has the potential to blossom into plenty of big showings from this up-and-coming battery.

Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Jamal Agnew

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    After primarily playing the cornerback position during his first three years in the league, Jamal Agnew is now serving as a slot receiver for the Jaguars.                                      

    The Lions converted Agnew to wideout last year, but only deployed him in that role for 199 snaps all season. He caught a pedestrian 13 passes for 89 yards for Detroit, but has come on much stronger with his new club.

    Agnew has already hauled in 12 of his 14 targets for 146 yards this season. The 26-year-old was elevated to regular duties in the slot following DJ Chark's season-ending ankle injury and seems to have found a position he can succeed in.

    Wideout coach Sanjay Lal gave the scouting report on the fourth-year pro (via John Shipley of Jaguar Report):

    Relatively new to the position, but the intensity you see on his returns is how he's approached learning that position. So a real testament to him. Like he attacks in the classroom, he attacks a film study. He's really diligent on his techniques, he works on them extra. And then he does have the natural ability to make tough catches as we saw in this last game. He's just done a great job.

    With No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence still getting accustomed to life in the NFL, Agnew has a chance to become one of the young quarterback's top targets. It will take some time for both the QB and WR to get adjusted, but this battery has a surprising amount of promise.

Kansas City Chiefs: WR Josh Gordon

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    The Chiefs may already have an answer to their receiver woes on the roster.

    With no one outside of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce stepping up to become a reliable pass-catcher in Kansas City, the team could turn to Josh Gordon to take on a bigger role in the coming weeks.

    Gordon was a surprise signing after his reinstatement by the league office in late September, initially joining the practice squad before earning a quick promotion to Kansas City’s active roster.

    While the 30-year-old has yet to break out—he's caught just one pass on two targets for 11 yards while seeing the field for 28 snaps in three games—he could assume a larger workload as he gets brought up to speed.

    Head coach Andy Reid said Gordon is still getting familiar with the offense when asked why the wideout saw less than half of the 20 snaps the Chiefs hoped to give him in Week 6 (per Denny Medley of Arrowhead Pride):

    I think as [Gordon] gets more accustomed to our offense and how we run it and how we do things, I think you'll see him get utilized more and more over time. His skill set is something not a lot of people have in this world—to be that big, that fast [and] that strong.

    The 3-4 Chiefs may not have much more time left before they'll need to take drastic measures. Getting Gordon on the field more often and getting the ball to him should be a top priority for the club.

Las Vegas Raiders: Interim Coach Rich Bisaccia

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    The Raiders were one of the league's surprise successes early in the 2021 season after they jumped out to a 3-0 start.

    Things took a sharp turn for the worse when the team lost two in a row and Jon Gruden stepped down following the public release of racist, misogynistic and anti-gay emails the head coach had sent between 2010 and 2018.

    Although it seemed likely the Raiders would continue trending downward following the departure of their head coach, the team has instead rallied around interim coach Rich Bisaccia and pulled off back-to-back victories.

    Starting quarterback Derek Carr admitted he hasn't even had time to process Gruden's resignation and believes the team's Week 8 bye is coming at an ideal time (via ESPN's Paul Gutierrez):

    It was literally, Oh, shoot, oh, uh. Next game. It was kind of weird like that. Again, it wasn't like we were 0-6 and you saw something coming. It was just a surprise. So, I think, with the injuries, with everything our team has been through, this bye week couldn't come at a better time.

    With the Raiders again on top of the wide-open AFC West with a 5-2 record, there is a real chance the club becomes only the third team to make the playoffs with an interim head coach at the helm since 1960.

Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams

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    Mike Williams was supposed to become one of the league's best receivers when the Chargers drafted him at No. 7 overall back in 2017.

    After four ho-hum seasons to start his career, the Clemson product is finally living up to his lofty draft status.

    Williams has gotten in sync with second-year signal-caller Justin Herbert and the pair is producing a litany of big plays. The fifth-year pro is overtaking Keenan Allen as the team’s leading wideout after notching 498 yards and a whopping six touchdowns on 33 catches.  

    This is the first season where Williams has been a consistent performer and has stayed relatively healthy. He’s now on a pace that would shatter his previous career best marks of 49 receptions, 1,001 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.

    Head coach Brandon Staley, who took the reins of the Chargers this offseason, heaped praise upon the 6'4", 218-pound wideout (via Kaelen Jones of The Ringer):

    The guy's a fantastic receiver. He's a complete receiver. He can beat you in the deep part of the field, he can beat you in the first or second level. He can move through the formation. What you're seeing is a guy who, when you need a win, can. He can. The guy's a clutch player and I'm super proud of him.

    The 27-year-old WR credited the volume of opportunities he is getting for his recent successes.

    Given the production Williams is turning in on those targets, there should be many more coming his way in the future.

Los Angeles Rams: WR Cooper Kupp

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    Cooper Kupp has long stood out as one of the NFL's better receivers during his career, but his name isn't often mentioned in conversations regarding the league's best. That is changing this season, as the fifth-year wideout is having a truly memorable campaign.

    Kupp just put together another gem in Week 7, catching a season-high 10 passes on 13 targets for 156 yards and two scores. It was the fourth multi-touchdown game of the 2021 season for Kupp, who is now leading the league in nearly every major receiving category.

    The 28-year-old's incredible stat line of 56 catches for 809 yards and nine touchdowns all top the league going into Week 8.

    Last week, Yahoo! Sports' Eric Edholm looked at how Kupp's career stacks up against some of the all-time greats.

    The results may surprise you, as Kupp already has more catches in his first 60 games than a trio of Hall of Famers in Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison and Randy Moss. The Rams wideout clocked in at No. 8 all-time with 334 receptions in that first 60-game span.

    If Kupp can keep showing out on this level—and it's looking impossible to stop him now that QB Matthew Stafford is running the offense—he’ll have a season for the ages and have LA's offense firing on all cylinders heading into the playoffs.

Miami Dolphins: Young Pass-Catchers

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    Tua Tagovailoa still has much to prove if he wants to be regarded as a potential franchise quarterback, but he has the tools around him to succeed.

    Although some of Miami's pass-catching acquisitions haven't panned out—Will Fuller has been a huge bust after signing a one-year deal with the club in free agency—the 'Phins do have a pair of up-and-coming prospects in Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki.

    Waddle, Tua's collegiate teammate at Alabama, has been highly effective when paired with the second-year quarterback. The No. 6 overall pick this year is already up to 384 yards and three touchdowns on 44 catches this season, with much of that production coming in games with a healthy Tagovailoa on the field.

    Gesicki also seems to be the real deal at the tight end position. The fourth-year man out of Penn State leads the Dolphins with 427 receiving yards, with his 37 receptions and 51 targets trailing only Waddle.

    Gesicki has scored twice this season and is building on a breakout 2020 campaign in which he recorded 53 catches for 703 yards and six scores.

    If the Dolphins can eventually augment the core of Tagovailoa, Waddle and Gesicki with a competent offensive line and a better defense, this team projects to be far more competitive than it currently stands.

Minnesota Vikings: DT Armon Watts

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    The Vikings are battling back from a rough start to the season—losing three of their first four games—reaching .500 before their Week 7 bye.

    One reason for the team’s turnaround is the play of defensive tackle Armon Watts. The third-year pro has emerged as a standout along Minnesota's defensive line when it was needed most.

    After nose tackle Michael Pierce went down with an elbow injury, head coach Mike Zimmer simply trusted Watts to capably man the position and slotted him in as a starter. The decision has been amply rewarded, as the 25-year-old is shining with an increased workload.

    PFF has graded Watts out at a star-like 81.5, better than all but five interior defensive lineman, for his performance across 154 defensive snaps this year. He’s been credited with 13 tackles—10 of them solo—one sack and one forced fumble in that span.

    Once Pierce returns, Minnesota will have one of the NFL's deepest defensive tackle rotations thanks to Watts' play over the last few weeks.

New England Patriots: QB Mac Jones

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    Cam Newton seemed like he was set to remain the Patriots starting quarterback in 2021, even after the franchise used the No. 15 pick on rookie QB Mac Jones.

    That all changed right before the campaign kicked off, when New England surprised everyone by releasing Newton and elevating Jones to the QB1 position.

    The decision has paid off so far. Although New England is below .500 entering Week 8, Jones has done fantastic for a first-year player learning a complex system without a full offseason to prepare with the first-stringers.

    The Alabama product's numbers aren't jumping off the page, but he’s playing clean football and avoiding many of the mistakes plaguing his fellow rookie signal-callers.  

    Jones is completing a highly impressive 70.4 percent of his passes, a figure that makes him the fourth-most accurate starting QB in the league right now. He has racked up 1,779 yards and nine touchdowns, standing strong in the pocket while taking only 14 sacks and giving up six interceptions.

    There is still plenty of room for Jones to grow, but the Patriots are in great shape and ahead of schedule on their post-Tom Brady era rebuild.

    They have found their quarterback of the future and successfully put him on the field after it initially seemed Jones would be a backup in Year 1.

New Orleans Saints: QB Jameis Winston

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    Jameis Winston was one of the league's most polarizing quarterbacks during his tenure with the Buccaneers.

    The No. 1 overall pick in 2015 finished his half-deacde run with the organization with 19,737 yards passing and 121 touchdowns, but also threw 89 interceptions, took 169 sacks, fumbled 50 times and went 28-42 as a starter in that span.

    After sitting behind Drew Brees for a year, Winston has emerged as a much more mature quarterback in his career's second act. The Saints have been rewarded for taking a risk on Winston, getting a starter who has guided the club to a 4-2 record while taking great care of the football.

    Winston may not be tasked with airing it out nearly as much as his predecessor or his tenure in Tampa Bay, but the 27-year-old has done well on his drop backs. He's completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 1,003 yards and 13 touchdowns, getting intercepted only once and fumbling just twice this season.

    The Saints have what it takes to win without needing their QB to put up a large volume of passes. Alvin Kamara is one of the league’s best backs and the defense has been stout.

    If Winston can keep up this trend of ball security, New Orleans will be tough to topple in 2021.

New York Giants: QB Daniel Jones

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    With the offensive line crumbling and his top weapons dropping one-by-one, Daniel Jones has stood tall and soldiered on.

    The Giants quarterback is having arguably his best season as a pro despite the myriad injuries surrounding him. The signal-caller has thrown for 1,727 yards and five touchdowns with a 63.5 percent completion rate , putting up an additional 229 yards and two scores on 41 rushing attempts.

    These may not be exceptional numbers in comparison to his peers, but Jones is accomplishing this with the Giants down a pair of Week 1 offensive line starters and a slew of skill position talent.

    The Big Blue wideouts have been hit especially hard by injuries, with Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard, marquee offseason pickup Kenny Golladay and rookie Kadarius Toney missing a combined nine games thus far.

    Top tight end Evan Engram didn't get on the field until Week 3 and star running back Saquon Barkley has also been sidelined for a pair of contests.

    The offensive line has been in a state of turmoil, with four different players starting at left guard over a four-week stretch earlier in the season. Week 1 starters Shane Lemieux and Nick Gates are both out for the season, absences that quickly threw a wrench in New York’s plans for 2021.

    While the Giants are unlikely to contend this year, Jones is making a case to stick around as their franchise quarterback. He at least earned another shot next season, a campaign where the G-Men will hopefully have a cohesive offensive line in place and less injury misfortunes.

New York Jets: Defensive Backs

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    The 1-5 Jets are slumping through yet another lost season with little for fans to be excited about.

    No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson is off to a rough start to his career, taking a battering behind the club’s broken offensive line and recently suffering a sprained PCL that could keep him out a full month.

    Although the team has been a mess, there are some positives that stick out for Gang Green. The secondary stands out for a halfway decent collective effort, which is more than can be said about the contributions from most members of this club.

    Through seven games, the Jets have only given up seven passing touchdowns to the opposition. That ties the club for the third-fewest allowed in the league. It’s a significant improvement over last season as well, when New York conceded 34 scores through the air, tying them for the third-most.

    Young defensive backs like rookie Brandin Echols and sophomores Bryce Hall and Javelin Guidry have fared as well as one could reasonably expect given their situation.

    Both Hall and Guidry have earned PFF grades above 60.0, while Echols has earned a 51.2 while serving as a starting cornerback despite being a sixth round pick this year.

    If New York can put some more talent around these up-and-coming DBs and find a way to keep the offense on the field more consistently, it could see its secondary take a real leap in 2022.

Philadelphia Eagles: WR Quez Watkins

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    The Eagles went into the season hoping to feature a pair of first-round picks as their top two receivers.

    While rookie DeVonta Smith has shown flashes of greatness early in his career, sophomore Jalen Reagor hasn't shown much improvement after a disappointing first year.

    With Reagor failing to make any headway despite ample opportunity, head coach Nick Sirianni finally started reducing the wideout’s playing time.

    Quez Watkins has been the surprise standout in Philadelphia's receiving corps. The sixth-round sophomore outsnapped Jalen Reagor in Week 5 after outplaying his teammate for much of the year.

    While the two have seen relatively similar workloads in the weeks since, Watkins is clearly the more effective and efficient pass-catcher.

    Watkins has brought in 18 of his 26 targets for 348 yards—second to only Smith in that category—this year compared to Reagor's 19 receptions on 30 targets for 165 yards. Reagor has found the end zone twice, however, while Watkins is still seeking his first TD of the campaign.

    With the Eagles losing two in a row and five of their last six, it may be time for a shakeup. Getting Watkins more involved at the expense of Reagor seems like it could only help at this point.

Pittsburgh Steelers: S Tre Norwood

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Not much was expected of rookie safety Tre Norwood when the Steelers drafted him in the seventh round this year, but the first-year defensive back has been a major boon for this organization.

    Norwood has become an intriguing piece for the Steelers, contributing as a member of the secondary and on special teams. The 22-year-old has played 45 percent of the squad’s defensive snaps and 37 percent of the special teams snaps, recording 15 tackles and a defensed pass on the season.

    Head coach Mike Tomlin praised Norwood’s versatility and ability to make plays for his team (via Brooke Pryor of ESPN):

    Tre has been part of a group that has provided big-time versatility for us. We've been working hard to find a division of labor there at the early portions of the season. Mike Hilton (who is now with the Bengals) was a significant guy in some of that stuff here, and so we've got a bunch of guys doing a bunch of things. [Norwood is] a part of that group. We're trying to highlight the individual skill sets. It provides an opportunity for a lot of those guys to make plays, and he's one of them.

    Already tasked with covering top wideouts like Seattle's Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf, Norwood has allowed only allowed a respectable 70.6 percent completion rate on his 17 targets, giving up 89 yards and zero touchdowns.

    If the Oklahoma product can continue on this trajectory, he'll wind up being a big part of Pittsburgh's future defensive efforts.

San Francisco 49ers: RB Elijah Mitchell

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    When the 49ers assembled their roster for the 2021 season, it appeared that Trey Sermon would be the rookie back who would eventually usurp veteran Raheem Mostert as the team’s starting running back.

    The highly-touted fourth-round rookie hasn't made that type of impact yet, with Sermon starting his career as a surprise inactive in Week 1. When Mostert went down for the year on just his second touch of 2021, the team entrusted his workload to sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell.

    Mitchell rewarded head coach Kyle Shanahan's faith with a 19-carry, 104-yard, one-touchdown outing in the opener.

    While Sermon eventually got his shot when the new starter was sidelined for a two-game stretch with a shoulder injury, it didn't take long for Mitchell to regain his spot at the top of the pecking order.

    Mitchell just had his best showing of his career, exploding for 107 yards and a TD on 18 carries against the Colts.

    With Mitchell seeing the field for over 60 percent of the offensive snaps each game he has been active for, there hasn't been much meat left on the bone for Sermon—who didn't log a single snap Sunday—and the rest of San Francisco's backfield.

    Expect Mitchell to retain his grip on the starting job as long as he continues to produce at a high level.

Seattle Seahawks: LB Bobby Wagner

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The Seahawks defense stands out as one of the most disappointing units in football this year, giving up more yards per game than every team besides the Dolphins.

    Despite his teammates failures, veteran linebacker Bobby Wagner has managed to remain a productive stalwart in his 10th career season.

    Now 31, the linebacker is still shining as one of the league’s very best at the position. Wagner leads the league in both combined (79) and solo tackles (45) while also adding three QB hits, two defensed passes and a sack to the stat sheet.

    Wagner hasn't come off the field in 2021, playing 100 percent of Seattle's defensive snaps over the first seven games. He’s been steady in coverage, allowing 30 of 38 passes to be completed for 248 yards while keeping his marks from getting into the end zone.

    The team hasn't been blitzing Wagner at the same rate as last year when he was sent 100 times, but he has done well on his 14 blitz attempts. He's created one quarterback hurry, two knockdowns and four pressures on those plays.

    With PFF grading Wagner out at a commendable 74.5, it's certainly been an impressive year from an aging linebacker.

    Given Wagner avoided regressing like many members Seattle’s defense, it’s a nice surprise for Seahawks fans to watch this timeless defender live up to the high bar he has set for himself.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cornerbacks

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    The Buccaneers have seen their cornerback room get decimated by injuries to start the 2021 season.

    Tampa is missing a pair of opening night starters with Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis going down with quad and elbow injuries, respectively, and only got three games out of Richard Sherman before the veteran corner was lost to a hamstring issue.

    The team is still hanging on despite its reliance on former practice squad member Pierre Desir and journeyman Dee Delaney—who was out of football last year—most recently holding the Bears to just 184 passing yards.

    Delaney recorded an interception in the contest, but also suffered an ankle injury that could hinder his abilities going forward. Jamel Dean, the team’s other Week 7 starter, exited in the fourth quarter of that contest and couldn’t return.

    It seems no matter who lines up at corner for this group, the Bucs can still find a way to win.

    The team, which is off to a 6-1 start, has only given up 264.7 yards per game through the air. That isn’t the best mark in the NFL, but it’s better than 10 other franchises at this juncture.

Tennessee Titans: DL Denico Autry

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    The Titans brought veteran defensive lineman Denico Autry in this offseason as part of a massive retooling of their defense. The signing has paid off, with Autry steadily contributing to the team's improved pass-rushing capabilities before finally exploding on Sunday.

    Head coach Mike Vrabel praised Autry's skillset following his two-sack performance against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in Week 7 (via Ben Arthur of Tennessean.com):

    He's won from multiple different moves, whether he's made a guy miss and kind of looked like he was going to take them on and then slip them. Did a nice job the other day just working a simple rip move and leaning back into the guy and not getting past the quarterback. 

    Through seven games, Autry has pitched in a total of 11 tackles—five for a loss—11 QB hits, 3.5 sacks and one pass defense. He’s been responsible for eight QB hurries and seven knockdowns on his 19 total pressures.

    Autry's versatility has opened things up for Tennessee on defense. The team has deployed him all over the defensive line and even at outside linebacker, creating mismatches and headaches for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with.

    Although his individual stats aren’t eye-popping, Autry is a huge piece of the Titans defense and a major reason why the club is now firmly atop the AFC South at 5-2.

Washington Football Team: QB Taylor Heinicke

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    With Ryan Fitzpatrick still working his way back from a hip injury, the Washington Football Team has entrusted Taylor Heinicke with the starting role. The 28-year-old journeyman has done surprisingly well in his first extended stretch as a starter, especially when it comes to scrambling.

    Heinicke has been difficult for defenders to stop once he gets into the open field, amassing 222 yards and a score across the 35 times he has taken off.

    Head coach Ron Rivera believes Heinicke needs to refine the rest of his game and become more consistent in order to push Fitzpatrick for the job once the former starter is healthy (via Nicki Jhabvala of The Washington Post):

    There are a couple of things that when you watch some of the tape and you see some of the plays as they break down, you sit there and say, 'Wow, now I think he'll understand that he’s got to throw it this way'… Some of his inexperience is showing. But I think obviously he has the skill set that you’re looking for, he does have the ability to lead, but he's still young in terms of actual opportunities and experiences as a quarterback in the league so far.

    Heinicke has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 1,658 yards and 10 touchdowns, but has thrown seven interceptions and taken nine sacks while fumbling once.

    With Washington going just 2-4 in his starts, the team may not be patient enough to stick with the Old Dominion product once Fitzpatrick is back.

    Regardless, the once unknown backup has flashed some surprising talent during this stretch and may get a look from another team down the line because of his elite mobility.

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