Every NFL Team's Most Improved Player in 2021

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistNovember 17, 2021

Every NFL Team's Most Improved Player in 2021

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    A lot goes into finding sustained success in the NFL. Teams must acquire the right players and mesh them with the right systems while managing roster turnover and the salary cap. Naturally, this leads to free agency and the draft getting plenty of attention.

    However, developing players is just as important if not more so. Not every star is a former first-round pick or high-priced acquisition, and games are not won on potential alone. Perennial contenders usually do a great job of developing players for the long term or getting the most out of budget additions. Perennial losers do not.

    Consider that guard Joel Bitonio recently became the first player to receive a third contract from the long-suffering expansion-era Cleveland Browns.

    Fortunately, we've seen improving players on even the most lackluster NFL rosters this season—players who, like Bitonio, could potentially become franchise staples.

    Here, we'll dive into every NFL team's most improved player through the first 10 weeks of the season. These are players who have taken that proverbial next step whether due to natural development, scheme changes or an expanded role. These players have all seen noteworthy improvement in either statistical production or efficiency when compared to last season or previous seasons.

    We're examining veterans only, and teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Arizona Cardinals: LB Isaiah Simmons

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Associated Press

    The Arizona Cardinals made linebacker Isaiah Simmons the eighth overall pick in the 2020 draft. While Simmons showed some flashes as a rookie, he also had lapses in coverage and was eventually pulled from the starting lineup.

    After starting the first four games last season, Simmons made only three starts the rest of the way and played more than 55 percent of the snaps in just two of those games.

    Fortunately, Simmons has taken a big second-year leap, particularly in coverage. He's allowed an opposing passer rating of only 77.4 after allowing a rating of 102.0 as a rookie. He's started all 10 games this season and is finally playing like the defensive centerpiece he was drafted to be.

    Simmons has played 93 percent of the defensive snaps and has compiled 67 tackles, three force fumbles, four passes defended and an interception.

Atlanta Falcons: RB Cordarrelle Patterson

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Veterans playing in their ninth season don't usually make lists like this one, but Atlanta Falcons runner/receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is an exception. A four-time All-Pro return specialist, Patterson has finally gotten a significant opportunity on offense.

    "I feel like they are really embracing the guy I can be on the football field," Patterson said, per Kris Rhim of the team's official website.

    Just nine games into the season, Patterson has already set new career-highs in receiving yards (473), receiving touchdowns (five) and rushing yards (303).

    Unfortunately, Patterson may miss Week 11 with a sprained ankle, which would be a massive blow to Atlanta's offense. Along with rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, Patterson has become one of the Falcons' most reliable weapons.

Baltimore Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    Former NFL MVPs don't usually make lists like this one either, but it's worth recognizing just how much more prolific Lamar Jackson has been as a passer in 2021.

    The Baltimore Ravens signal-caller, the MVP in 2019, has made significant strides in the passing department. Yes, he had a down game against the Miami Dolphins in Week 10, but he's also on pace for a career-high 4,622 passing yards.

    A higher volume hasn't led to diminished returns either. Jackson is still completing passes at a 64.4 percent clip—the same as last season—and continues to be one of the game's most dangerous ball carriers at any position.

    He'll have an extra game with which to work, but Jackson is on pace for 1,207 rushing yards. That would narrowly beat the single-season record for a quarterback—one he set with 1,206 rushing yards in 2019.

Buffalo Bills: TE Dawson Knox

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    The Buffalo Bills offense stumbled in Week 9 but got back on track with a 45-17 romp over the New York Jets on Sunday. That game also marked the return of tight end Dawson Knox, who had been out since Week 6 with a fractured right hand.

    Knox has been a surprisingly important piece of the offensive puzzle this season. After being sporadically utilized over his first two seasons, Knox has become a potent deep threat in Buffalo's passing attack. He has five touchdown receptions and is averaging 13.8 yards per catch.

    What's really impressive is how Knox has improved in the reliability department. He was credited with 14 drops in his first two seasons but has only one this year. Josh Allen's passer rating was below 95 when targeting Knox in each of his first two seasons, but it's jumped to 151.3 this year, a testament to the tight end's development.

    Even with him missing two games, Knox is on pace for career highs in receiving yards (649), receptions (47) and touchdown catches (10).

Carolina Panthers: CB Donte Jackson

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Carolina Panthers cornerback Donte Jackson doesn't regularly get recognition as one of the NFL's top young cornerbacks, but he deserves it. He became a strong cover corner under defensive coordinator Phil Snow last season and has been even better this year.

    In 2020, Jackson logged three interceptions, 34 tackles and 11 passes defended in 14 games. He allowed an opposing passer rating of just 79.2. This season, he's started all 10 contests, played 95 percent of the defensive snaps and logged 41 tackles, eight passes defended and two picks.

    Jackson has allowed an opposing passer rating of only 70.3 in 2021 and has allowed just a single touchdown pass after allowing four in 2020. He's emerged as a defensive leader and was voted a team captain before the season.

    "All the credit goes to him, for realizing what he needed to do," former Panthers safety Mike Adams said, per Darin Gantt of the team's official website.

    The 26-year-old Jackson should be on the verge of stardom.

Chicago Bears: Edge Robert Quinn

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Bounce-back players deserve recognition too, and Robert Quinn deserves credit for his resurgence in 2021. The Chicago Bears edge-rusher was a disappointment last season, finishing with just two sacks and 16 quarterback pressures.

    However, Quinn has been a different player this season and is finally playing like the potent pass-rushing complement to Khalil Mack that Chicago signed him to be.

    Quinn has already logged 6.5 sacks and 14 quarterback pressures through eight appearances. He also has seven tackles for loss after having none a year ago and has added 26 tackles and a forced fumble.

    This is far from the first rodeo for Quinn, a first-round pick by the Rams back in 2011. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2013, a Pro Bowler in 2013 and 2014 and had an 11.5-sack season with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. However, Quinn is proving that it's never too late to find ways to improve in the NFL. He's doing exactly that in Chicago.

Cincinnati Bengals: QB Joe Burrow

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    Let's be honest. It's not as if Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was a disappointment as a rookie last season. The No. 1 overall pick out of LSU threw for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games before suffering multiple torn ligaments in his left knee.

    However, Burrow has been even better this season and has flashed the big-play potential he showcased for the Tigers. The addition of rookie deep threat Ja'Marr Chase has certainly helped, but Burrow is still the one delivering the ball.

    This season, Burrow has seen a two-yard jump in yards per pass attempt. He's also seen a rise in passer rating of roughly 13 points (from 89.8 to 102.6). He also leads the NFL in yards per completion (12.8).

    Turnovers have been a bit of an issue, as Burrow leads the league with 11 interceptions. Overall, though, Burrow has taken the expected steps in Year 2 and has shown no lingering signs of last year's injury. He's on pace to throw for 4,717 yards and 38 touchdowns.

Cleveland Browns: CB Greedy Williams

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns cornerback Greedy Williams returned to the field after missing all of 2020 with a shoulder injury—though he did suffer another one against Cincinnati and miss Week 10. However, getting back on the field hasn't been the only positive for Williams this season.

    The former LSU star has taken a big step in coverage and has produced a career-best six passes defended (he had two as a rookie in 2019). He also notched his first career interception against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 4.

    "I feel like I'm doing what I was drafted here to do—playing my best football, enjoying the game and just being who I am," Williams said, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.

    Williams has allowed an opposing passer rating of just 82.8 in coverage after allowing a rating of 84.9 as a rookie. He also has 28 tackles, 22 solo stops and a forced fumble this season.

Dallas Cowboys: CB Trevon Diggs

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    Make no mistake. Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs was quite good as a rookie in 2020. The second-round pick out of Alabama intercepted three passes, had 14 passes defended and logged a sack and a forced fumble.

    However, Diggs has taken his game to another level this season, becoming one of the few pass-defenders that quarterbacks should actively look to avoid. He leads the NFL with a whopping eight interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.

    After allowing an opposing passer rating of 85.8 in 2020, Diggs is allowing a rating of just 54.9 this season.

    Diggs is starting to look like one of the steals of the 2020 draft and should be considered an early front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year.

Denver Broncos: WR Tim Patrick

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Unless you're a die-hard Denver Broncos fan or big into fantasy football, you're probably not as familiar with wide receiver Tim Patrick as with teammates like Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant and Jerry Jeudy. However, Patrick is quickly becoming a centerpiece of Denver's passing attack.

    An undrafted free agent out of Utah in 2017, Patrick began to emerge last season. He appeared in 15 games, all starts, and finished with 51 receptions, 742 yards and six touchdowns.

    With seven games to go this season, Patrick has already caught 37 passes for 523 yards and four scores. He's had zero drops and has provided a passer rating of 118.7 when targeted. That's up from a rating of 104.5 in 2020 and just 61.0 in 2019.

    Having an experienced veteran in Teddy Bridgewater under center has helped Patrick improve, but he's shown steady growth and is becoming a big-time player in Denver.

Detroit Lions: CB Amani Oruwariye

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    Matt Durisko/Associated Press

    The Detroit Lions got their first non-loss of the season when they tied the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. However, they remain winless on the season.

    "I kind of take this as a loss, because at the end of the day we didn't get the dub," rookie tackle Penei Sewell said, per ESPN's Eric Woodyard.

    Third-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye has been one of the few bright spots in Detroit this season. He's already logged a career-high three interceptions to go with six passes defended, 36 tackles and a fumble recovery.

    Oruwariye has also shown continued improvement in coverage since entering the league as a fifth-round pick out of Penn State. As a rookie in 2019, he allowed an opposing passer rating of 107.0. That number dropped to 99.2 last season and even further to 94.9 this year.

    The Lions are likely to see a fair bit of roster turnover as they continue rebuilding in the offseason, but Oruwariye is proving himself capable of being a long-term building block.

Green Bay Packers: RB AJ Dillon

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Opportunity is everything in the NFL, and Green Bay Packers running back AJ Dillon is making the most of his in 2021. A second-round pick out of Boston College, Dillon played sparingly as a rookie—he logged just 46 carries in 2020. However, backup Jamaal Williams departed in the offseason, and Dillon has taken over as the No. 2 back.

    Dillon has been nothing short of impressive. He's already compiled 421 yards and two touchdowns on 97 carries while adding another 196 yards and a score on 16 receptions. He's been terrific as a complement to starter Aaron Jones and will now get an opportunity to be "the guy."

    Jones suffered an MCL sprain in Week 10 and is expected to miss a couple of weeks.

    "I don't think it's going to be long term, but we'll just monitor it on a daily basis and see how fast he can heal up, because he's certainly a guy you want out on the field," coach Matt LaFleur said, per ESPN.

    Dillon showed that he will be up to the task, amassing 128 scrimmage yards and two scores in Week 10.

Houston Texans: S Justin Reid

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    The Houston Texans haven't won since Week 1, and they haven't had much to hang their proverbial hat on since then. The play of fourth-year safety Justin Reid, however, has been something special.

    Reid showed flashes of greatness during his first three seasons—he had five interceptions in his first two years—but he's been phenomenal in coverage this year. After allowing an opposing passer rating of 110.2 in 2020, Reid has allowed a rating of just 71.0 in 2021.

    This season, Reid has allowed a career-low completion percentage (50 percent) when targeted and has notched a pair of interceptions already. He's also notched 40 tackles and a forced fumble while being credited with only five missed tackles—after 14 missed tackles in 2020.

    Houston does not have a plethora of players worth keeping through its latest rebuild, but Reid is certainly one of them.

Indianapolis Colts: QB Carson Wentz

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    It's looking like a change of scenery might be exactly what Carson Wentz needed to get his career back on track. The reunion with Frank Reich and an opportunity with the Indianapolis Colts have helped Wentz make significant improvements from where he was a year ago.

    With the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020, Wentz was arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. He tied for the league lead in interceptions with 15 despite not starting the final four games. He had a career-worst passer rating of 72.8.

    Now, Wentz hasn't been perfect with the Colts, and some of his mistakes have been killers—like his overtime interception against the Tennessee Titans. However, we've mostly seen the good version of Wentz this year.

    So far, Wentz has thrown for 2,378 yards with 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions. His passer rating has jumped to a very respectable 97.9, and he's added 120 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Perhaps most importantly, he has the Colts at 5-5 and still in the thick of the AFC playoff race.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Edge Josh Allen

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    Jacksonville Jaguars pass-rusher Josh Allen experienced a sophomore slump last season, due in part to a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve. After amassing 10.5 sacks and making the Pro Bowl as a rookie, Allen appeared in only eight games and finished with just 2.5 sacks.

    However, Allen is back on the rise this season and is becoming more than just the situational edge-rusher he was as a rookie. Allen has already produced 5.5 sacks, 17 quarterback pressures and eight tackles for loss.

    Allen has also started all nine contests and has played a career-high 76 percent of the defensive snaps. He's only three tackles shy of the 44 he had in 16 games as a rookie and has notched the first two takeaways (one interception, one fumble recovery) of his career.

    While Allen isn't regularly used in pass coverage, he's held his own. He's allowed an opposing passer rating of only 61.9 and has four batted balls after logging only one in his first two seasons.

Kansas City Chiefs: WR Byron Pringle

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The usual suspects, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, headline the Kansas City Chiefs receiving corps in 2021. However, fourth-year receiver Byron Pringle has started to emerge as a quality complementary target.

    Pringle, a 2018 undrafted free agent out of Kansas State, has steadily progressed over the years. He spent his rookie season on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. He caught 12 passes for 170 yards in 2019 and 13 passes for 160 yards in 2020.

    This season, Pringle has become a fairly consistent piece of the offense. He's played a career-high 39 percent of the offensive snaps and has become a dangerous deep threat in the mold of Hill and Kelce.

    Pringle has caught 22 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns. Of his 22 catches, 19 have gone for either first downs or scores. After providing a passer rating of 124.6 when targeted in 2020, Pringle is providing a rating of 138.3 in 2021.

    No player on the Chiefs roster has averaged more than the 13.7 yards per catch averaged by Pringle this season.

Las Vegas Raiders: WR Bryan Edwards

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    If you watched the Las Vegas Raiders lose to the Chiefs on Sunday night, you got a good idea of what second-year wideout Bryan Edwards brings to the Las Vegas offense. Edwards (88 yards, 1 TD) was one of the few bright spots in that game.

    Edwards has consistently been a bright spot for the Raiders this season, though. A third-round pick out of South Carolina in 2020, Edwards had a few standout plays as a rookie but filled a relatively minor role. He started only three games last season and played a mere 32 percent of the offensive snaps.

    This season, Edwards has started eight of nine games and has played 80 percent of the snaps. His production has increased as well. Edwards has compiled 21 catches for 434 yards and two touchdowns after having 11 for 193 and a score as a rookie.

    Edwards currently leads the NFL with an average of 20.7 yards per reception.

Los Angeles Chargers: WR Mike Williams

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    It was largely an up-and-down ride for Los Angeles Chargers wideout Mike Williams during his first four seasons in the NFL. He had a 10-touchdown campaign in 2018 and reached the 1,000-yard mark the following year but also had two seasons with fewer than 800 receiving yards.

    This year, though, Williams is finally emerging as a No. 1-caliber pass-catcher. He's recently been hampered by a knee injury that he suffered in Week 5, but he was nearly unstoppable early in the season and has shown a tremendous amount of chemistry with second-year quarterback Justin Herbert.

    While Williams has been relatively quiet over the last month, he's still on pace for 1,148 yards and 11 touchdown receptions. He's provided an impressive passer rating of 112.5 when targeted.

    Unfortunately, Williams is also in the final year of his rookie contract and might take advantage of his growth with a different team in 2022.

Los Angeles Rams: WR Cooper Kupp

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    When it comes to improvement at the wide receiver position, having the right quarterback can make all the difference. Cooper Kupp was a budding star with the Rams with Jared Goff under center. He had a 1,161-yard, 10-touchdown campaign in 2019 and had 974 yards and three touchdowns last season.

    Now that the cannon-armed Matthew Stafford is at quarterback in L.A., though, Kupp has become arguably the best receiver in the NFL.

    Kupp has a reasonable chance of breaking some impressive single-season NFL records.

    Through 10 games, Kupp leads the NFL with 85 receptions, 1,141 yards and 10 touchdown receptions. He also leads the league with an average of 114.1 yards per game. He's on pace for roughly 145 receptions, 1,940 yards and 17 touchdowns. That's just short of Michael Thomas' record 149 receptions and Calvin Johnson's record 1,964 receiving yards.

    Kupp was already quite good, but he's now unquestionably elite.

Miami Dolphins: LG Austin Jackson

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    Austin Jackson's rookie season with the Miami Dolphins didn't exactly go as planned. The Dolphins took the USC product 18th overall in 2020 to be their left tackle of the future. However, Jackson missed three games with a foot injury and had some big blocking lapses.

    Jackson was responsible for five penalties and four sacks allowed in 848 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Earlier this year, the Dolphins decided that a position switch would benefit Jackson. They moved him to left guard and inserted rookie second-round pick Liam Eichenberg into the left-tackle spot. It's early in the transition, but the move appears to be paying off.

    "Being strong at the point of attack has allowed Jackson to excel in the four games since the move after there were many questions about his future at tackle the way he started his second season there in three starts," David Furones of the Sun Sentinel wrote earlier this month."

    Penalties are still an issue for Jackson, as he's had six of them this season, but he's been responsible for only one sack allowed, per Pro Football Focus. With a new role, Jackson's career is back on the upswing.

Minnesota Vikings: WR K.J. Osborn

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    Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen remain the top two targets in the Minnesota Vikings offense. However, Minnesota has gotten a pleasant surprise this season in No. 3 receiver K.J. Osborn.

    Osborn, a 2020 fifth-round pick out of Miami, saw action exclusively on special teams as a rookie. However, he cracked the rotation during the preseason and has since played 60 percent of the offensive snaps. He's provided a fine complementary chess piece to go with the Vikings' two stars.

    "[Jefferson and Thielen] draw plenty of attention, though, with safeties often rolling toward them to try to take away Minnesota's best weapons. That's why a productive and reliable third downfield option is so important," Dave Campbell of the Associated Press wrote.

    After not seeing a single opportunity on offense a year ago, Osborn has caught 29 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns. He's provided a passer rating of 101.8 when targeted.

New England Patriots: CB J.C. Jackson

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    New England Patriots cornerback J.C Jackson was criminally underrated in 2020. Despite having an impressive nine interceptions and 14 passes defended, he failed to earn a Pro Bowl nod and received a second-round tender as a restricted free agent in the offseason.

    This year, Jackson has emerged as the clear-cut No. 1 cornerback in New England and he's becoming impossible to ignore—though opposing quarterbacks should probably try avoiding him.

    Jackson has already logged five interceptions and leads the NFL with 14 passes defended. He's played 87 percent of the defensive snaps and has become arguably the best cover man in the NFL. Though Jackson allowed an impressively low opposing passer rating of 66.5 in 2020, he's been even better this year.

    When targeted, Jackson has allowed an opposing passer rating of just 46.8. He also has just two fewer tackles (38) than he did in all of 2020.

New Orleans Saints: WR Marquez Callaway

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    New Orleans Saints receiver Marquez Callaway entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee last year. He saw some action as a rookie, but played only 36 percent of the offensive snaps and finished with 21 catches and 213 receiving yards.

    This season, Callaway has made a jump as an offensive asset. With No. 1 receiver Michael Thomas out for the year following ankle surgery, Callaway has taken over the role of top perimeter target.

    Callaway is tied with Deonte Harris for the team-lead in receptions (24) among wide receivers. He's caught 24 passes for 346 yards and leads the team with five touchdown receptions. Harris deserves a mention here as well, as he leads the team with 407 receiving yards, but Callaway's rise has been more dramatic.

    After providing a passer rating of 99.5 when targeted as a rookie, Callaway has provided a rating of 120.9 this season. Harris has also seen a strong rise as a wideout—he's provided a rating of 102.9—but Callaway's gets the nod here.

New York Giants: S Xavier McKinney

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    New York Giants safety Xavier McKinney was productive when healthy as a rookie last season. The second-round pick out of Alabama was limited to six games by a foot fracture but finished with 25 tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception.

    Now fully healthy, McKinney has emerged as a legitimate difference-maker in the Giants secondary. He has appeared in all nine games, has logged seven passes defended and four interceptions to go with 46 tackles.

    In Week 9, McKinney picked off Derek Carr twice and returned one interception for a touchdown. That proved to be a massive play, as the Giants escaped with a seven-point victory. McKinney was named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week for that performance.

    McKinney has allowed an opposing passer rating of only 52.3 this season.

New York Jets: DE John Franklin-Myers

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    McKinney was a highly drafted defender out of a marquee college program. New York Jets defensive end John Franklin-Myers was not. A fourth-round pick by the Rams out of Stephen F. Austin, Franklin-Myers took a winding route to the Jets.

    Waived by the Rams in 2019, Franklin-Myers was claimed by New York but spent the season on injured reserve. He got onto the field in 2020 but played just 48 percent of the defensive snaps.

    This season, Franklin-Myers has seen a big jump in both his role and his production. He has played 64 percent of the snaps and has already logged career-highs in tackles (23), solo stops (11) and sacks. He has produced 17 quarterback pressures after producing 23 in 15 games last season.

    Franklin-Myers has also assumed a leadership role in New York's defensive front.

    "This team goes as we go," he said, per Jack Bell of the team's official website. "We put it on us."

Philadelphia Eagles: QB Jalen Hurts

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    It remains to be seen if Jalen Hurts can be Philadelphia's long-term answer at quarterback. However, he's shown plenty of improvement this season after showing glimpses of promise in four starts as a rookie last year.

    Hurts still struggles with consistency—he's had three games with a passer rating of 80.0 or below, four above 100.0—but he has kept his composure through what has been an up-and-down season.

    "I think he's very composed," right tackle Lane Johnson said, per John McMullen of the Philadelphia Voice. "He's always composed."

    Statistically, Hurts has been better than he was a year ago, and significantly so. He's seen a leap in passer rating from 77.6 t 91.9. He's also improved his completion percentage from 52.0 percent to 62.2 percent. Hurts is averaging the same 5.6 yards per carry that he did a year ago, so the rise in passing hasn't hurt his ability to attack defenses on the ground.

    Hurts still has a long way to go before he can be considered a franchise quarterback, but he's shown a lot of growth while enduring plenty of pressure and scrutiny.

Pittsburgh Steelers: LT Chukwuma Okorafor

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    A third-round draft pick out of Western Michigan in 2018, offensive tackle Chukwuma Okorafor started only four games over his first two seasons. The Pittsburgh Steelers slotted him in at right tackle in 2020, and Okorafor had mixed results.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Okorafor was responsible for five penalties and three sacks allowed.

    With Alejandro Villanueva departing in free agency, Pittsburgh moved Okorafor to the all-important left tackle spot this offseason. He has not disappointed. He has played 94 percent of the offensive snaps and has been even better in pass protection than he was on the right side.

    Though Okorafor has been responsible for seven penalties, he has yet to allow a sack this season, according to Pro Football Focus.

San Francisco 49ers: WR Deebo Samuel

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers shocked the Rams on Monday, racing out to a 14-0 start and controlling the game from there en route to a 31-10 victory.

    While safety Jimmie Ward deserves credit for the hot start—he snagged two interceptions, including one for a touchdown in the first quarter—wideout Deebo Samuel played a big role in putting the game away. He finished with five catches for 97 yards and a touchdown and rushed five times for 36 yards and another score.

    After flashing promise as a rookie (802 receiving yards, three touchdowns) and then missing nine games in 2020, Samuel has emerged as a complete and completely dangerous offensive weapon this season.

    "I'm real proud of Deebo's development, and I think he gets the credit," general manager John Lynch told NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco (h/t Rohan Chakravarthi of 49ers Webzone). "... Ultimately, it comes down to the player. Are you willing to invest what it takes to be great? And Deebo has put that investment forward."

    Samuel now has a total of seven rushing and receiving touchdowns on the season and is on pace for 1,849 yards through the air. There's an outside chance that he can catch Cooper Kupp in the race for the 2021 receiving title.    

Seattle Seahawks: LB Jordyn Brooks

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    The Seattle Seahawks haven't had the best of luck when it comes to recent first-round draft picks. Running back Rashaad Penny has been too often sidelined by injuries, while L.J. Collier has fallen out of favor and the lineup this season.

    However, 2020 first-round selection Jordyn Brooks may be bucking the trend. He played somewhat sparingly as a rookie—just 37 percent of the defensive snaps—but has become a defensive centerpiece this season.

    The 24-year-old linebacker has started all nine games and has played 79 percent of the defensive snaps. He recorded his first career sack in Week 4 and has already eclipsed his 2020 tackle total (57). He has 84 tackles and 46 solo stops this season.

    He still has room for improvement in coverage, as he has allowed an opposing passer rating of 111.8. As a downhill run defender, though, Brooks is beginning to shine.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB Jamel Dean

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    Pass defense has not been a team strength for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season. Injuries to players like Carlton Davis III and Antoine Winfield Jr. have hindered the secondary, and Tampa ranks 22nd in passing yards per game allowed (254.2). It has allowed 17 touchdown passes on the season (tied for 24th).

    However, cornerback Jamel Dean has been a bright spot on the back end. He has started seven of his eight games and is having his best season yet as a cover man.

    A third-round pick out of Auburn in 2018, Dean started just 12 games over his first two seasons. He's played a career-high 85 percent of the defensive snaps this year and has already logged seven passes defended and two interceptions.

    Most impressively, he has allowed an opposing passer rating of only 43.3 after allowing a rating of 85.4 in 2020.

Tennessee Titans: Edge Harold Landry

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    This was a tough one, as both defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons and edge-rusher Harold Landry have shown improvement under new defensive coordinator Shane Brown.

    The Tennessee Titans have gotten an impressive 7.5 sacks from Simmons, who is evolving into a game-wrecker on the interior. However, we're giving Landry the edge here—no pun intended—as he's morphing into a viable Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

    Landry has played 91 percent of the defensive snaps this season and has already produced career highs in sacks (10.0), quarterback pressures (38) and quarterback hits (19). Despite starting all 16 games a year ago, Landry finished that season with only 5.5 sacks and 34 quarterback pressures.

    The only players in the league with more sacks this season are first-team All-Pro pass-rushers Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt. Landry also has 52 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.   

Washington Football Team: QB Taylor Heinicke

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    Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke got a taste of starting experience with the Panthers back in 2018 and in the playoffs with Washington last season. He's been starting since Week 2 this year after Ryan Fitzpatrick's hip injury, and it appears that he'll start from here on out.

    "One source said Sunday that Fitzpatrick was 'unlikely to return,'" ESPN's John Keim wrote.

    While Heinicke hasn't emerged as a high-end starter, he is establishing himself as a serviceable one. He's thrown for 2,184 yards with 12 touchdowns to nine interceptions and has a passer rating of 87.4 this season. He's been done no favors by a shaky offensive line. He has been under pressure on 21.8 percent of his dropbacks and has been sacked 14 times over the last three games.

    Yet, Heinicke has continued to show growth. His start with Carolina didn't go well—he tossed three interceptions and had a rating of 58.2—and while his start in last year's playoffs was better, he still had a rating of only 78.4. Since 2018, his completion percentage has climbed from 61.4 to 63.2 to 65.7 percent this season. After losing to the Buccaneers in the playoffs, Heinicke helped lead a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that put them away during the Week 10 upset.

    Is Heinicke the long-term answer under center in Washington? Perhaps not, but he's not the reason for the team's disappointing 3-6 record. A defense that appeared to be lost before Sunday's upset of Tampa Bay is the biggest culprit. Heinicke has mostly held his own.


    *Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.