The Biggest Surprises of the 2021 NFL Season

Alex KayContributor IDecember 6, 2021

The Biggest Surprises of the 2021 NFL Season

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    The 2021 NFL season is quickly barreling towards a close, making this a great time to highlight some of the campaign's biggest surprises.

    Some of these unexpected revelations involve rebuilding teams making a sudden push into contending status.

    Others include young players either making an early leap to the top of their craft or contributing more than projected as rookies.

    One of the year's shocking moments even involved a player being cut after the trade deadline before landing with an NFC contender.

    With that in mind, here's a look at all the biggest surprises of the season thus far.

    All stats and records taken on Saturday, December 4. 

Arizona Cardinals Rise Up

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    After narrowly missing the playoffs last season, the Cardinals seemed poised for further improvement in 2021. Few would have predicted the team would boast the league's best record going into Week 13.
    Arizona started the year on a 7-0 run and is still 9-2 with less than a third of the season left to play.

    The offense has been potent thanks to Kyler Murray making a leap in his third year. The quarterback has completed a league-best 72.7 percent of his passes for 2,276 yards and 17 touchdowns. He's also added 147 yards and three scores on the ground.

    The Cardinals boast a deep receiving corps, with DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk and rookie Rondale Moore all playing a role. Each has caught at least 34 passes for 400 yards and a score this season.

    While coach Kliff Kingsbury's high-flying Air Raid attack gets much of the credit—Arizona does rank in the top-10 for total offense and is a top-five scoring unit—the defense has been a key reason this club is still in a position to earn the NFC's playoff bye.

    Arizona ranks in the top-five for both yards allowed and points against in 2021, a massive improvement from last year when the team finished outside the top-10 in both categories. This stingy defense has allowed the Cardinals to overcome injuries to key offensive players, such as Murray and Hopkins, over the last month.

    The Cardinals have a tough stretch coming up—they'll face off with the Rams, Colts, Cowboys and Seahawks over the final six weeks—but this team has already proven its contending status after one of the most surprising starts to the season.

    If Arizona gets healthy come playoff time, it will be a force to be reckoned with.

Mac Jones Becomes New England's Franchise QB

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    Stew Milne/Associated Press

    Even after the Patriots drafted Alabama quarterback Mac Jones with the No. 15 pick, Bill Belichick spent much of the offseason intimating that Cam Newton would remain New England's starter in 2021.

    That appeared to be the team's plan until right before the regular season began. That's when the Pats made the shocking decision to cut Newton, opening the door for Jones to take over as the Week 1 starter.
    It's a decision the Patriots have not regretted.

    While Jones and New England got off to a slow start—winning just once in the first four games—the team has become one of the hottest in the league over the last two months.

    The Patriots have gone 7-1 since Week 5, including winning six straight leading up to Week 13. The team is in the driver's seat to win its 12th AFC East title in 13 years, returning to the top of the division after a one-year "rebuild," in which the club went 7-9 with Newton as its starter.

    Jones has clearly been the catalyst for this turnaround.

    The first-year signal-caller has shown excellent poise and patience. He has the third-highest completion percentage in the NFL, connecting on 70.3 percent of his passing attempts. He's racked up 2,850 yards and 16 touchdowns in 12 games, throwing just eight interceptions and taking 24 sacks in that span.

    He's improved noticeably during New England's current winning streak, tossing nine of those scores against a meager two interceptions over the last six games.

    While New England still isn't a lock to make the playoffs, it's looking quite likely this team returns for the first of many postseason runs with Jones under center.

Ja'Marr Chase Jump-Starts Cincinnati Bengals Offense

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    Mac Jones isn't the only rookie making a major impact on his team's offense.

    Ja'Marr Chase, the No. 5 overall pick, has been a revelation for the Bengals. The wideout is already up to 906 receiving yards (No. 6 in the league) and eight touchdowns (tied for the fourth-most) on 50 receptions.

    It's been a sterling start to the LSU product's promising career. Since joining the team, Cincinnati has become a top-12 passing offense and ranks No. 6 in points per game, a sizable increase from last year's squad that ranked in the bottom six in both categories.

    Chase's presence has helped quarterback Joe Burrow bounce back from a torn ACL and MCL that cut his rookie season short.

    The signal-caller has exceeded most expectations upon his return, becoming a top candidate for Comeback Player of the Year while leading the team to a 7-4 record with a chance to end a half-decade stretch without a playoff appearance.

    The Burrow-Chase battery's chemistry was apparent from the jump. The pair linked up for the first time since winning a national championship together at LSU during the 2019 season and made things look as effortless in the pros as they did in college.

    With both players just starting their careers and already making the Bengals offense one of the league's best, Cincinnati's future is looking bright.

Cooper Kupp Ascends to Top of NFL Receiver Hierarchy

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Cooper Kupp has spent his career being a steady and reliable possession receiver for the Rams, making the breakout year he is having one of the more unexpected developments of the season.

    Los Angeles was clearly in for an offensive boost after upgrading its quarterback situation—swapping an ineffective Jared Goff for a proven veteran in Matthew Stafford—but no one could have projected just how much of an effect the change would have on Kupp.

    After recording 92 receptions for 974 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games last year, Kupp has exploded for 1,237 yards and 10 scores on an identical 92 receptions in just 11 contests.

    The wideout leads the league in most major receiving categories, including catches, yardage and touchdowns.
    It's hard to imagine the Rams would still rank in the top-five for both passing yardage and passing touchdowns without the fifth-year veteran. Kupp's rapport with Stafford has been instrumental in the team averaging 27.2 points per game, nearly four more than the club put up last year.

    Kupp has been extremely consistent, having just one game with fewer than 92 receiving yards and recording less than seven catches just a single time. He's scored twice on four occasions, morphing into a game-changing weapon for the 7-4 Rams.

    It's been a special season for Kupp. If he can keep up his current pace, he'll have a chance to contest for an MVP award in a wide-open year where a quarterback has failed to separate from the pack.

Trevon Diggs Develops into NFL's Top Ball Hawk

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    Even the Cowboys might be surprised with how quickly cornerback Trevon Diggs has developed into one of the NFL's elite cornerbacks.

    Dallas used a second-round pick on the Alabama defender last year, getting a player who contributed quickly for the club. Diggs started 11 games in his first season, recording three interceptions in those contests.

    The 23-year-old retained his starting job in Year 2 and has since become the league's best ball hawk.

    Diggs put himself squarely in the Defensive Player of the Year award conversation after recording seven interceptions over the first six games of the season. His pace has slowed a bit in the weeks since, but the defensive back still has a league-leading nine picks—including two returned for a touchdown—following their Week 13 win over the Saints.

    Even if the quarterbacks throwing at Diggs aren't getting picked, they aren't finding the end zone reliably.

    Diggs has given up a 54.9 percent completion rate against, and he's allowed just three touchdowns in 12 starts, a noticeable improvement over the five scores he allowed in 2020.

    There's still room for further growth here as well. PFF is only grading Diggs out at a 53.2, a drop of nearly 10 points from his rookie mark.

    If Diggs can become a bit more consistent in coverage while still coming up with game-changing turnovers, he has a real shot at becoming the NFL's most feared corner.

Jonathan Taylor Becomes NFL's Best Running Back

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Few would consider anyone but Derrick Henry to be the NFL's best running back going into the 2021 season, but that has changed three months into the campaign.

    While Henry was having another monster season before going down with a foot injury, Jonathan Taylor has since usurped the Titans star at the top of the league's RB hierarchy.

    Taylor is in a class of his own going into Week 13, leading the league with 1,205 rushing yards—no other back has more than 1,000—and 14 touchdowns on just 209 totes. Seventy-four of those runs have gone for first downs, 25 more than Henry had before his injury.

    The Wisconsin product has proven to be a viable receiver as well, reeling in 36 of his 43 targets for 336 yards and two scores.

    The second-year back has come on especially strong over the last nine games, a stretch during which the Colts have won six games following an 0-3 start to 2021. Taylor has averaged nearly 115 rushing yards and scored all 16 touchdowns in that span.

    If Indianapolis ends up making the playoffs after an abysmal start, it will be largely due to Taylor's otherworldly contributions. Considering he was a promising player but not truly a top-tier back coming into 2021, it's been quite the rise for Taylor.

Odell Beckham Jr. Exits Cleveland

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    One of the most surprising in-season moves of the year came after the trade deadline.

    After failing to find a taker for Odell Beckham Jr., the Browns were forced to cut ties with the disgruntled wideout.

    Cleveland's hands were tied after a social media post from Beckham's father surfaced showcasing Beckham's lack of chemistry with quarterback Baker Mayfield.

    Rather than let OBJ hurt morale in the locker room, the front office quickly reached a $4.25 million settlement with the wideout and released him.

    After he went unclaimed on waivers, Beckham drew interest from numerous suitors. While the Packers were reportedly close to landing the 29-year-old, the allure of Los Angeles—and a slight bit more money—was ultimately too intriguing for him to pass up.

    The Rams signed Beckham to a one-year, $1.25 million deal and put him on the field four days later, debuting him for 15 snaps in Week 10. While he didn't make a big difference in that contest, OBJ drew a season-high 10 targets in Week 12, catching five of them for 81 yards and a touchdown.

    It remains to be seen if Beckham can keep up that sort of production for the rest of the year, but it has been a promising start for a receiver who had fallen off during his two-and-a-half seasons in Cleveland.

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