With eight weeks and the trade deadline in the books, there’s plenty of perceptions and realizations around the league. I tried to sum up these developments in twelve observations, I believe to be true. Not everybody will agree with all of them, but I trust what I see with my eyes and I’ll try to make you by what you read here.
Carson Wentz is the MVP
I was a big fan of Wentz coming into the draft and after glimpses of what I’ve seen he’s capable of as a rookie last year, but not even I expected him to make this kind of jump into his sophomore campaign. The North Dakota State alumn has been spectacular with his mobility and arm talent to make big plays time after time. His completion percentage might only be at 61 percent, but it’s the quality and timing of those passes he delivers that counts. On third down, Wentz leads all NFL quarterbacks in basically every major statistical category. He’s first in third down conversion percentage, yards per attempt, TD-to-INT ratio and much more on the money down. His strength and toughness in the pocket are off the charts, his ability to shake off the rush and buy extra time crazy and the way he keeps his eyes down field combined with the arm talent to make all the throws truly special. There’s four of five guys in this MVP conversation right now, but my clear favorite right now also has led his team to the league’s best record.
The running back is back
In 2013 and 2014 there wasn’t a single running back selected in the first round of the draft and everybody said they wouldn’t be worth a pick that high in general. Teams started to move to more of a RB by committee approach and not spend top dollars or picks on the guys carrying the rock. Yet, right now Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Le’Veon Bell and LeSean McCoy are all clearly top 20 players in the league at this point, in my opinion and four players at that position were drafted within the first 50 picks of 2017. Oh, and they all look pretty good. Sure, teams like New England, Green Bay and Seattle are getting it done without a featured back, but of those four RBs mentioned above, their teams have a combined record of 20-9 and are all well in the playoff-hunt. The only one that seems to be in danger of that, would be the Cowboys and that’s only because Zeke will probably be suspended for six games. Obviously. quarterbacks will always have more value to a team, but right now there’s a bunch of excellent dual-threat running backs and they contribute immensely to their team’s success.
Front-office people go crazy at the trade deadline
For every Jimmy Garappolo to the 49ers for a second-round pick trade, which makes sense for both teams, there’s a team like the Dolphins throwing away Jay Ajayi for a fourth-rounder from the Eagles. I’m not sure if Miami’s front-office people felt like they were getting a fourth- for an original fifth-round pick in Ajayi, or Adam Gase simply wanted to make a statement that it was time to change things from being the league’s worst-ranked offensive unit, but this is not the guy who’s responsible for their struggles. The former Boise State RB has been an absolute blessing in the sky for the Fins, as an extremely powerful runner with a lot of burst on wiggle to his runs. Sure, his production has never been the most consistent, but he’s not the guy to blame for me here. The Dolphins offensive line only started four games as a complete unit in 2016 and in those contests, the J-Train rushed 96 times for 608 yards and four TDs. Coming into the 2015 draft, I had him rated right behind Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon because he is supremely talented and if you just watch him play against the Ravens last Thursday night, you can see he just never had a chance to get going other than one 20-yard run. The rich just got even richer, speaking of the Eagles, and the Dolphins kind of seem like they have given up on their season, despite a 4-3 record.
The Cowboys have a real pass rush?
Coming into 2017, the Cowboys biggest question-marks were their secondary and pass-rush. Starting off the season with David Irving and Randy Gregory suspended, they were really shorthanded in options, but one guy emerged – Demarcus Lawrence. I always said he was an underrated player, but he was a better run-defender than pass-rusher up until this season. Now he leads the league in sacks with 10.5 in seven games. Now with Irving recording five sacks in his first three games and Tyrone Crawford making some big plays, Dallas is just wrecking hell on opposing passers at the moment. Their defense is still only ranked in the middle of the pack in yards and points allowed, but they now have something they haven’t had in years – the pass rush to close out games. If the Boys manage to somehow sustain one of the top rushing attacks in the league and they get after quarterbacks the way they have done in recent weeks, they have the recipe to keep a steady ship while Zeke is serving his six-game suspension.
Russell Wilson is a magician
Yeah, Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham came up with some big plays Sunday, but I haven’t seen anybody carry his team to a victory like Russell Wilson did against the Texans for quite some time. He threw for 452 yards and four touchdowns, plus he added another 30 yards on the ground, in a shootout with Deshaun Watson and to be honest, I had no doubt the Seahawks would win that game when they got the ball back with 1:39 left in the fourth quarter, because they had that man at the helm. Wilson has been magical all year long. The O-line has been horrendous until this point and versus Houston their running backs accounted for a grand total of three yards in the run game. Yet, their QB still destroys defenses. His ability to spread the ball around and makes huge plays off script is nearly surgical. To me, Wilson is the clear-cut second in the MVP race right behind Wentz. Seattle finally decided to give him some help just before the trade deadline, acquiring left tackle Duane Brown, which should help them tremendously up front.
Travis Kelce is officially the best tight-end in the game
In my top 100 players heading into the 2017 season, I already had Kelce ahead of Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Reed and Greg Olsen as the game’s premiere tight-end and with what I’ve seen over the first half of this campaign, there should be no doubt for anybody else either. While Gronk seems to always look a little banged up, Reed barely even sees the field and Olsen on IR, Kelce has caught 44 passes for over 600 yards and four TDs. He might not be nearly possess the imposing stature Gronk does, but he is just so much more dynamic. The Chiefs’ star is the best route-runner at the position without a doubt, his speed to stress defenses vertically is unmatched and he just catches everything. There’s just no other team, whose passing game revolves around as heavily around their tight-end as Andy Reid’s and he has been balling out. The only guy who comes to mind, who kind of gives Kelce a run for his money, is Philly’s Zach Ertz, who has been a beast himself to start the year.
Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane have changed the culture in Buffalo
Before the season started, when all experts and fans gave their season predictions for each NFL team, a common theme was the Bills finishing with one of the worst records in the league. While I certainly questioned some of their moves in the offseason, I thought they’d basically be a .500 team with a ceiling that would keep them from being true contenders. This new Buffalo regime has made me believe in them though. On paper, they looked much worse in terms of the roster talent coming into the year, with their top two cornerbacks and their number one receiver in different places, but what is happening in the state of New York has nothing to do with talent. New head coach Sean McDermott has established a work ethic and style of play everybody has bought into. Their defense is for real with a completely revamped secondary, which has become of the very best in the league, and Shady has been their workhorse offensively. The new Bills are going to play harder for longer than whoever they play and that has led them to a 5-2 record.
Matt Ryan is not an elite quarterback
There is no doubt, Matty Ice absolutely deserved the league MVP a year ago. He had one of the greatest statistical seasons on one of the greatest statistical offenses, but he’s not one of the greats. When I watched Atlanta play last season and really looked at the plays and schemes they ran, I understood Kyle Shanahan is a terrific game-planner. When I turned on the tape, I could tell he knew exactly where and how to attack defenses and for all but the final quarter of the Super Bowl everything panned out perfectly. That outstanding RB duo, one of the better O-lines in the league, Julio and all those receivers are still there, but the Falcons just haven’t nearly enjoyed the same success they did with Shanahan calling plays. That’s one of the best group of offensive players and I don’t want to take anything away from them, but when you look at Matt Ryan without the services of his old OC, you have to think that was an exception. Ryan’s career numbers outside of last season are pretty average – he completes 64,4 percent of his passes with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 1.87 and an average QB rating of just over 90. Don’t get me wrong, he’s still a top ten guy, but he’s not that special.
Justin Houston is a bad, bad man – finally again
Oh boy, watching the Chiefs’ number 50 go to work is pure joy. Three years removed of one of the best seasons an edge-rusher has ever had, recording 22 total sacks, Houston finally is back to being his dominant self. If you look at his numbers of 35 tackles and 7.5 sacks, you’d think he has a really good season, but when you watch all his games, you understand he’s having another monster year. Houston is much more than just a pass-rusher. Eleven of his tackles resulted in negative yardage, he has put a bunch of hurries on opposing QBs, which you find on a stat sheet and Bob Sutton drops him in coverage quite a bit too. You’ve seen him exposed a couple of times when tight-ends and backs pull him 20 yards downfield, but he is excellent at taking away areas of the field, shutting down screens and just the fact you can take him and let him run backwards for those distances is unbelievable. All his physical skills are only overshadowed by the effort he displays and they were in full effect when crushing the Broncos’ tackles on Monday night.
This Saints defense is different
If you would have told me after week two, that the Saints defense would be one to watch out for, I would have probably laughed. I saw some promise in second-year defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore and the heavily underrated Cameron Jordan, but they barely showed any resistance to start the year and I didn’t expect them to be able to turn this thing around. Since then, NOLA’s D has given up just 42 total points in four of their games, with the exception being a 52-38 win over the Lions, in which this unit forced five turnovers and was all over Matthew Stafford with five sacks. Lattimore is an absolute star in the making. I thought he was their best cover-guy as soon as he put on that golden helmet and I watched him stay glued to Brandin Cooks. He is finally getting some recognition, after picking off two passes over the last three weeks, with one them going to the house. Cam Jordan is the leader of this unit and they have played their best football in years.
Tom Brady is playing better at age 40 than anybody else
Not only does Brady have the best resume of anybody else who ever played the quarterback position, he’s playing as well as ever at an age, at which nobody even plays at all. Everybody else broke down when trying to extend their career, but Brady is still playing at a ridiculous level. Now with Aaron Rodgers likely out for the season, there’s barely even a debate who’s the best in the league right now. I love Carson Wentz and right now I’d give him the MVP trophy, but you can’t go against choosing the GOAT here. The Patriots defense had one of the worst starts in NFL history, Julian Edelman went on IR before the season even started and the offensive line has already allowed more sacks and hits on their QB than all of last year, yet number 12 has them sitting at 6-2 again. Bill Belichick has given up his number two and three guys on the depth chart behind Brady, because he is that confident in a 40-yard old. At some point he has to hit a cliff – right?
The Browns are still the Browns
Yes, the 49ers haven’t won a game this season either, but before being dominated the last two weeks, San Francisco had lost five games in a row by single-digits and not only did they just trade for Jimmy Garappolo, who Cleveland apparently was ready to give up a first-round pick for, they have some superstars in the making with DeForest Buckner and Reuben Foster on defense. The Browns on the other hand score less than 15 points a game, are the worst team in turnover-differential with -12 and the only guys who have really stood out for them have been Duke Johnson and first overall pick Myles Garrett, who has played in only three games. DeShone Kizer has a prototype skill-set, but he’s still far from being ready and there is nobody else on this roster with starter qualities. And now I hear reports that the front-office failed to send in their approval for a deal for the Bengals’ A.J. McCarron because they were too busy celebrating it. They have shown some promise, but one win over their last one-and-a-half seasons just isn’t enough.