Three weeks into this NFL season we have seen some tremendous performances by individual players and teams. After analyzing Patrick Mahomes’ early success, I decided to give some other players credit for what they have shown so far. However, we all marvel over Drew Brees defying odds and how Khalil Mack is wrecking offensive gameplans on a weekly basis. So rather than pointing out the obvious superstars of the game, I want to bring those guys into the spotlight that I think aren’t talked about enough. Moreover, I won’t mention seasoned veterans like Fletcher Cox, who has been an absolute nightmare for opponents, or rookies like Kerryon Johnson, who I predicted to have a big year anyway. With that being said, here’s the list:
So having the leader of an offense that is widely regarded as one of the top two units in the league and that puts up 34 points per game so far definitely doesn’t sound like an under-the-radar performer, but I believe this guy simply doesn’t get the credit he deserves. While I thought his success last year was largely based on Sean McVay’s genius play-calling that schemed receivers open off play-action, Goff has made several big-time throws already this season. The Rams QB has delivered tight-window spirals, placed the ball away from defenders – low and inside on in-breaking routes as well as over the top and to the outside along the sidelines – and I have really liked how he has maneuvered inside the pocket or even taken what was in front of him at times. Last Sunday in the “Battle of L.A.” versus the Chargers, he made a spectacular throw against cover-two when he got the ball over the top of the corner underneath and just far enough outside so the safety couldn’t reach it, while Robert Woods was able to toe-top at the sideline. I know he has a ton of weapons around him, a stout O-line in front of him and one of the most creative play-callers in his ear, but it takes a special guy to make it all work.
Having a guy like Melvin Gordon ahead of you on the depth chart and all those really good receivers around you does take some of the limelight away from you, but this guy is an outstanding overall player. Ekeler might not possess any elite attributes or impress you with his physical traits, but he does everything well. The Chargers use him on jet-sweeps, inside runs, as a checkdown who makes things happen after the catch and as an actual downfield receiver out of the backfield as well as split out wide. Ekeler has had a ton of success finding space off counter and trap runs, he makes defenders miss at the second level and he is a tough runner. In the passing game he punishes defenses routinely when they decide to put a linebacker on him and is really tough to bring down in the open field. On just a third of the offensive snaps, the little dynamite has amassed 295 yards from scrimmage on 8.2 yards per carry and 12 yards per reception. Pro Football Focus actually has Ekeler graded as their number one running back in league at this point. His touches may be limited, but he always makes most of them.
When you have Golden Tate and Marvin Jones as your dynamic receiver duo, it’s easy to forget about some of the other options in the passing game, but this second-year receiver is starting to get undeniable. Golladay started his rookie year with a boom, catching four passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns, but was forgotten over the next two weeks and then missed six games. He had four more catches of 40+ yards when he got back, but ended up with just 28 total grabs on the season. So far in 2018 he is a single catch and yard away from Tate’s season totals. Standing at 6’4”, 215 pounds Golladay presents a different type of target for Matthew Stafford. His catch-radius is enormous, he has the speed to win vertically and on crossing routes, the flexibility for a guy his size is outstanding and he breaks a ton of tackles. That 30-yard touchdown reception he had versus the 49ers, when he twisted out of a tackle along the sideline and pretty much was out of bounds with his entire body, but still was able to reach back inside the pylon, was one of the best plays I have seen all season and it showed a lot of the abilities he has.
I loved this guy’s all-around skill-set coming out of college when I watched his tape early on last year. At Iowa Kittle was used in a multitude of roles – as a true Y tight-end, H-back, fullback and others. His reception numbers were fairly low in a run-centric offense, but his effort as a blocker, versatility and natural receiving abilities put him among my top 100 draft prospects. Back then I said his best days as a receiver were ahead of him and three games into this season he looks a valuable asset for this 49er offense. After catching 43 passes for 515 yards as a rookie, Kittle has totaled almost 200 yards through the air already in 2018. The second-year man has been very effective coming underneath the formation on zone-split fakes and going out into the flats, running drag or dig routes and even catching a screen and shovel pass respectively. Kittle does an excellent job creating separation through contact and using that little chicken-wing to push off at the top of his route, he has been a security blanket underneath and he runs hard with the ball in his hinds, shoving defenders out of the way and going through them. Plus, he is a quality blocker.
During the offseason I wrote about positional battles going on at training camps and when I talked about the Colts defensive line I said there were no proven guys on that front outside of Jabaal Sheard, acknowledging that they had some talented young players still finding their game. However, I could not have foreseen that Margus Hunt all of a sudden emerges as one of the most disruptive forces in all football. With three sacks on the season, he has already surpassed the numbers he had put up through his first five years in the league. While he lines up as a base D-end in their four-man front, he slides inside in their nickel packages on plenty of occasions and gives guards fits, completely making them whiff or bull-rushing them into the quarterback’s lap. Not only that, he has also been a terror in the run game, as he completely stands up offensive linemen and creates penetration, leading to an NFL-best eight tackles for loss. With the emergence of some of their young defensive linemen, including rookie Kemoko Turay on the edge, and two dynamic linebackers behind them this front has been way more impressive than I anticipated it to be.
The Buffalo Bills looked like a contender for that number one draft pick in April of next year before punching the Vikings in the mouth at their homefield last Sunday and Hughes is one of those guys, who showed that he just has too much pride to let anybody push them down. In the season-opener at Baltimore he was double-teamed and chipped a lot, but crushed tight-ends and still hustled his ass off. Since then Hughes has been a high-impact performer for these Bills – squeezing gaps and creating havoc by slanting inside against the run, consistently turning the corner on anybody leading to tackles leaving their feet and then countering that with inside moves and even take some easy underneath completions away by dropping into coverage. The edge rusher has collected two sacks and a forced fumble, but his influence on games surpasses common statistics. According to Pro Football Focus, Hughes is tied with Khalil Mack for a league-leading 20 total pressures over the first three weeks of the season and the effort of guys like him, Trent Murphy, Lorenzo Alexander, Kyle Williams and others is what will keep this team in games.
Darius Leonard & Anthony Walker
At this point Darius Leonard is one of the top candidates to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year together with Derwin James and Denzel Ward, who I didn’t put on this list because I think they are getting the recognition they deserve. Leonard is so instinctive and aggressive. He constantly shoots gaps and creates trouble in the run game as well as timing up blitzes perfectly. In coverage he gets depth quickly even if run-fakes hold him for a second, he displays fluid hips to redirect and he doesn’t allow any extra yardage to shallow crossers. He put on a clinic on how to win as an open-field tackler against the Redskins’ dynamic receiving back Chris Thompson. Leonard already has 41 tackles, with six of those going for loss, three sacks, a forced fumble and two pass-deflection, while not missing a single snap all year. Let’s get to the Colts’ second inside linebacker. I was a big fan of Anthony Walker at Northwestern because he played with so much heart and brought the thump, but he never looked nearly as dynamic in college as he does now in the NFL. I’ve seen him run around blockers, carry receivers down the seams and just show up all over the field. On Sunday he got his first career INT in Carson Wentz’s return. These two guys are just flying around
The Ravens are first in the NFL in total yards allowed and they hold opponents to just 31 percent on third down conversions, in large part due to their strong pass defense. While a lot of credit goes to Terrell Suggs, Matt Judon and those other guys up front, these Baltimore DBs have been plastering receivers for large portions of the season. In absence of the suspended Jimmy Smith, Humphrey has stepped up as the Ravens number one corner after a highly underrated rookie campaign. In the season-opener versus Buffalo he allowed just one catch for two yards and deflected three passes despite being tested deep on several occasions. At Cincinnati in week two he struggled a bit with A.J. Green creating separation out of his breaks and gave up a touchdown. However, on Sunday versus the Broncos Humphrey shut it down once again. The second-year corner surrendered just one catch on a delayed whip-route to Emmanuel Sanders for eight yards, when he was matched up with a receiver one-on-one or they entered his zone responsibility. Baltimore’s front-seven is loaded, they have an excellent duo of veteran safeties, Tavon Young is emerging as one of the best nickelbacks in the league and when Smith is back they have the luxury of rotating Brandon Carr into the lineup, who is still a quality corner.
When Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith first got his hands on the then-rookie out of Texas A&M, he described Evans as a hybrid safety and that’s kind of how they have used him ever since. Evans has played single-high safety, half-field on cover-two shells, dropped down into the flats and occasionally even lined up in the box. We have all seen his fumble return touchdown versus the Saints in week one and that sweet interception he just got on Ben Roethlisberger on Monday Night, but him being around the football is a constant theme. He also had two fine pass-breakup against the reigning Super Bowl champs, a game in which he really shined in coverage. What I appreciate about the young safety is that he stays balances to not give quarterbacks any easy reads by turning his hips or whatever, but then he trusts what his eyes tell him and attacks it. While the Bucs used to play a ton of soft zone coverages in recent years, Evans versatility and range have allowed them to be more aggressive and man people up. Plus, they can trust that the second-year will arrive at the ball eventually.
Some other guys:
Frank Ragnow & T.J. Lang
Mitch Morse & Mitchell Schwartz