Biggest surprises in NFL 2018 season for all 32 teams, and rating whether is real or mirage

0
50


Struggling units in New Orleans, Buffalo and San Francisco. Dominating units in Dallas, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay. A shocking MVP candidate (or two!). The first two weeks of the season have produced surprises all across the league.

NFL Nation reporters pick out the biggest surprises for the team they cover, then give their verdict on whether it will continue for the rest of the season.

Scan through all 32 teams by division, or click here to jump ahead to your team:


AFC EAST

The surprise: A defense in crisis.

The verdict: REAL. Despite the high-priced additions of Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy in free agency and trading up to draft linebacker Tremaine Edmunds in the first round, the Bills’ defense is tied with the Lions in allowing a league-high 39 points per game, while opposing quarterbacks have a league-high 84.8 Total QBR against Buffalo. The defensive crisis led coach Sean McDermott to strip playcalling duties from defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier during halftime of Sunday’s game. With Kirk Cousins, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck and Tom Brady on the Bills’ schedule before the halfway mark of the season, relief does not appear to be in sight no matter who is calling plays. — Mike Rodak

The surprise: An ultra-efficient Ryan Tannehill.

The verdict: REAL. Tannehill has completed 72.5 percent of his passes, fifth-best in the NFL, and has a 104.9 passer rating, good for eighth best. Coach Adam Gase is building this offense around Tannehill’s accuracy on quick throws and propensity to find open receivers. You can tell that Tannehill is having fun with his new crew of versatile receiving weapons. Tannehill will likely never be an MVP candidate or throw for 5,000 yards, but he could show similar efficiency throughout the season. — Cameron Wolfe

The surprise: Dont’a Hightower‘s lack of impact.

The verdict: MIRAGE. A defensive captain in 2016 and 2017, the linebacker missed the second half of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, and his return in 2018 was viewed as a key to the unit’s hopeful turnaround. But Hightower has had a quiet start to the season, as he appeared to be a step behind in pass coverage in Sunday’s loss to the Jaguars. He’s too good of a talent for that to continue. “He’s obviously one of the leaders of our team. I think he’s playing well. I think he’s doing everything we’re asking him to do,” linebackers coach Brian Flores said. “This guy is selfless, he’s a team guy.” — Mike Reiss

The surprise: Seven takeaways by the defense.

The verdict: MIRAGE. The Jets won’t be able to sustain it because they don’t have pressure-generating players in the front seven. Their secondary is faster and better than last season, but every secondary needs a consistent pass rush to create errant and poorly timed throws to make interceptions — and the Jets simply don’t have an established edge rusher. — Rich Cimini


AFC NORTH

The surprise: A slow start for Alex Collins.

The verdict: MIRAGE. Collins, the 11th-leading rusher in the league in 2017, has as many rushing yards (48) as Ryan Tannehill. A large part of his disappointing numbers is due to circumstances out of his control. The Ravens beat the Bills so badly in the opener that Collins didn’t play much after halftime. The next game, Baltimore got behind in Cincinnati so quickly that it abandoned the run game. Coach John Harbaugh said it’s a “big priority” to get Collins and the run game back on track. “We’re not in any way pleased with the numbers,” Harbaugh said. “We are very determined to run the ball well because we think it fits our offense, and it’s something that opens everything else up. We have to get that going.” — Jamison Hensley

The surprise: A turnover-generating defense.

The verdict: REAL. There’s no way it can continue to come up with game-sealing turnovers in the fourth quarter every week, but the Bengals’ defense has turned into a turnover machine, and that’s no fluke. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin spent all summer yelling at players to go for turnovers in practice, and it has immediately paid dividends. This defense isn’t the same as the 2017 unti, which ranked near the bottom in takeaway/giveaway differential (minus-9). — Katherine Terrell

play

0:47

Mike Clay details why Giovani Bernard is a pickup this week and where he sits in his RB rankings.

The surprise: Three sacks for Larry Ogunjobi.

The verdict: REAL. The second-year defensive tackle has been forceful, active and aggressive — and he’s taking advantage of the attention offensive lines have to give Myles Garrett. Aaron Donald led the NFL with 11 sacks from the defensive tackle spot last season. There’s no reason to think Ogunjobi cannot sustain what he has started. — Pat McManamon

The surprise: Antonio Brown‘s modest start.

The verdict: MIRAGE. For most receivers, 18 catches for 160 yards and a touchdown is a good two-game stat line. But Brown leads the league with 33 targets and his longest reception is 22 yards. Coach Mike Tomlin isn’t concerned, saying Brown’s normal dose of double-teams often gets amplified early in the season as teams earmark his presence on the calendar. Coming off a sideline flare-up and social media “trade me” tweet to a critic, Brown will be looking to produce in a big way Monday night at Tampa Bay to redirect the storyline. Plus, five straight 100-catch seasons suggests he’ll get it going in a hurry. — Jeremy Fowler


AFC SOUTH

The surprise: A league-leading rushing offense.

The verdict: MIRAGE. While the Texans’ running game is improved from last season — even with 2017 third-round pick D’Onta Foreman on the PUP list — it’s unlikely the group will finish the season at the top of the list in this category. So far, Lamar Miller has rebounded from a career-worst 3.7 yards per carry last season and is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards, but eventually, as the passing game improves under Deshaun Watson, Houston will have to rely less on the ground game. — Sarah Barshop

The surprise: A rookie leading the team in tackles.

The verdict: REAL. Second-round pick Darius Leonard has gone from playing at FCS South Carolina State to being the anchor of the Colts defense, and he has 27 tackles in two games. The word constantly used around the Colts organization when talking about Leonard is mature, as he also wears the headset transmitter during games. He should lead the Colts in tackles as a rookie. — Mike Wells

The surprise: A slow start in sacks.

The verdict: MIRAGE. The Jaguars have just four sacks so far, after leading the NFL with 55 last season. They have pressured Eli Manning and Tom Brady, so it’s not like the rush has been ineffective. They just haven’t gotten home as much. Calais Campbell battled a sore right knee against the Patriots, but he had a great camp and should be as dangerous a rusher as he was last season (14.5 sacks). Yannick Ngakoue was almost unstoppable in the preseason and has been close to several sacks. Sacks tend to come in bunches, and it’s only a matter of time until both of those players start getting home more regularly. — Mike DiRocco

The surprise: Malcolm Butler giving up long touchdown receptions.

The verdict: MIRAGE. Butler gave up a 75-yard touchdown reception to Kenny Stills in Week 1 against the Dolphins, and Texans wideout Will Fuller got him for a 39-yard touchdown catch in Week 2. Butler is a capable cornerback who has to get his hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage to keep them from making big plays. The Titans will start to shade a safety to his side more if he continues to get beat. Gradually, Adoree’ Jackson is going to shift into being the matchup corner for Tennessee and draw the cat coverage assignment on opposing team’s top wideouts. Between scheme and Jackson, big plays against Butler should be less frequent because opportunities for them will be reduced. — Turron Davenport


AFC WEST

The surprise: The other rookie leading the team in rushing.

The verdict: REAL. Phillip Lindsay, who graduated from high school just a few miles from the Broncos’ home stadium, became the first undrafted player in league history to have at least 100 yards from scrimmage in his first two games. He has gotten more touches than third-round pick Royce Freeman. He was a roster longshot when the offseason program opened, but two weeks into the season, the Broncos should now look at him as a primary option as both a runner and a receiver. Lindsay is only 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, so Denver can’t use him as a lug-the-rock back with a heavy workload. This isn’t just a feel-good, local-kid-plays-for-the-Broncos story, however: Lindsay is the real deal. — Jeff Legwold

The surprise: An unstoppable Patrick Mahomes.

The verdict: MIRAGE. Mahomes is for real. He will continue to play well. But he can’t keep up with his current pace. If he does, he will throw 80 touchdown passes and zero interceptions, and that’s simply not going to happen. “The more that these defensive coordinators have to study it … that’s his challenge right now,” coach Andy Reid said. “Is everything going to be roses? No.” — Adam Teicher

The surprise: Austin Ekeler‘s stellar start.

The verdict: REAL. Entering his second season, the Western Colorado running back has built on a surprising rookie year, totaling 224 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown through two games. At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, Ekeler is a nice complement to the bruising running style of Melvin Gordon and adds juice to the Chargers’ passing game. Expect Ekeler to continue to get 15 or so touches a game for the Chargers as a way to keep Gordon fresh for the rest of the season. — Eric D. Williams

The surprise: Kolton Miller‘s solid play at left tackle.

The verdict: REAL. Sure, the rookie from UCLA is a first-round pick who should be playing well, but he was also a first-round pick met with a side eye of apprehension from many observers. And after more than holding his own against the fearsome pass rushes of the Rams and Broncos — he has not allowed a sack or a QB hit in two games after allowing just one pressure in 36 pass-block snaps in Denver, per Pro Football Focus — Miller appears to have staying power. “The film speaks for itself,” said Raiders coach Jon Gruden. “We think he’s a long-term, big-time player for us at a critical position. That’s why we drafted him. His range, not only as a pass protector, but you saw him get out on the quick screens, he’s got tremendous athleticism and he’s just getting started.” — Paul Gutierrez


NFC EAST

The surprise: A suffocating defense.

The verdict: REAL. Let’s put a caveat there: The Cowboys will give up more than 20 points in a game this season at some point. For years, the Cowboys have been mostly about their offense, with stars like Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott and the offensive line. Now, however, the defense has a talent level that matches the effort defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli demands with the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, Jaylon Smith and an improved secondary. This isn’t a remake of Doomsday, but it will be able to win games for the Cowboys. That has not been the case over the years. — Todd Archer

The surprise: An inept offense.

The verdict: MIRAGE. The Giants, Eli Manning and the offensive line can’t be this bad. Can they? They’ve scored two touchdowns on 22 drives so far. They’re reaching the end zone at a 9 percent clip. That’s worse than last season when they finished 31st in the NFL in scoring. The Giants are averaging 14 points per game. It will get better. The offensive line can’t possibly be that bad, and Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley will make enough splash plays for the scoring output to improve. They might not become a consistent unit, but they will make enough splash plays to be competent. — Jordan Raanan

play

1:20

Field Yates, Matthew Berry and Mike Clay discuss Carson Wentz’s return to action and where he fits in the rankings ahead of Week 3.

The surprise: A struggling secondary.

The verdict: MIRAGE. The Eagles yielded two touchdowns of 75 yards to the Bucs in Week 2 and gave up four TDs in all to Ryan Fitzpatrick. Their technique, decision-making and tackling was not up to par. It’s a talented group, though, led by safety Malcolm Jenkins, and should stabilize before long. — Tim McManus

The surprise: An unproductive receiving corps.

The verdict: REAL. The Washington wideouts have combined for just 18 catches and 173 yards in two games. They will have some productive games — Jamison Crowder is good in the slot and Josh Doctson will flash on occasion. But the problem is that one starter, Paul Richardson, is playing with a bad shoulder and said it’s about managing the pain. Doctson has been too quiet since camp opened. And the Redskins have already added two others in Michael Floyd and Breshad Perriman, which speaks to a lack of depth and need for anyone who can make plays. Also, the strength of their pass game is with running back Chris Thompson and will be with tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis. — John Keim


NFC NORTH

The surprise: Prince Amukamara as a takeaway machine.

The verdict: MIRAGE. Amukamara had a pick-six in Chicago’s Week 2 victory over Seattle, but his last interception before that came in 2015. Amukamara, an established veteran who the Bears signed to a three-year extension in the offseason, now has eight interceptions in his eight NFL seasons. It’s highly unlikely he’ll finish the year with five or six picks. It is possible, however, that given the Bears’ formidable pass rush, Amukamara could match his career-high of three interceptions in a season, which came in 2014. — Jeff Dickerson

The surprise: A struggling Matthew Stafford.

The verdict: MIRAGE. The quarterback is on pace for his lowest completion percentage since 2014 (61.6), his worst passer rating since his rookie year (76.7) and lowest Total QBR (32.0) of his career. His four interceptions are tied with Case Keenum for most in the league. This, though, shouldn’t continue. Stafford has shown progress every year from 2014 through 2017 (coinciding with the Jim Caldwell era), and he is in the same offense that brought him his best success. In particular, he has struggled with deep passes, admitting Sunday, “I’ve got to give [the receivers] chances.” If the ineptitude continues, though, and there is something truly wrong with Stafford, then the Lions are going to have a big, big problem. — Michael Rothstein

The surprise: Randall Cobb‘s production.

The verdict: REAL. The Packers’ No. 2 receiver leads the team in receiving yards (172), with 20 more than No. 1 receiver Davante Adams. The Packers stuck with Cobb and released Jordy Nelson this offseason even though both had salaries in the $10 million range. If Cobb can stay healthy, something that has been an issue since his best season in 2014, then expect his productivity to remain high if teams focus on Adams and tight end Jimmy Graham. — Rob Demovsky

The surprise: Up-and-down success in the run game.

The verdict: MIRAGE. With the return of Dalvin Cook, there were expectations that the Vikings would explode immediately in the run game, but they rank 22nd through two weeks with 92 yards per game. Fortunately, there’s little to be worried about. Even as San Francisco sat eight defenders in the box regularly, Cook looked good on 16 carries for 40 yards in Week 1 and was actively involved in the passing game. Against Green Bay, Minnesota had a handful of big runs called back because of penalties. When it got down 20-7, Kirk Cousins had to throw the ball to get his team back in the game. The offensive line’s struggles also haven’t been great for run blocking, but this aspect of the Vikings offense shouldn’t be a concern going forward. — Courtney Cronin


NFC SOUTH

The surprise: Matt Ryan leads the team in rushing touchdowns.

The verdict: MIRAGE. Don’t expect Ryan to turn into Michael Vick, who had eight rushing scores with the Falcons in 2002. And don’t expect Ryan to go full helicopter regularly to get into the end zone, like he did against Carolina. But the QB sneak is something Ryan is capable of with his long frame, and it’s a “new wrinkle” the Falcons have been hesitant to use in recent years. When Devonta Freeman returns from injury, though, he could be among the league leaders in rushing touchdowns if the Falcons clear holes like they did last week. — Vaughn McClure

The surprise: A record-breaking receiving pace for Christian McCaffrey.

The verdict: REAL. McCaffrey has 20 catches in the Panthers’ first two games, putting him on pace for 160, or twice what he had last season. Though 160 isn’t realistic, it would not surprise to see the No. 8 overall pick of the 2017 draft break the single-season record of 102 catches for a running back, especially with tight end Greg Olsen injured and quarterback Cam Newton focused on more high percentage passes. “I’m always trying to be the most complete back I can be,” McCaffrey said. — David Newton

The surprise: A league-worst pass defense.

The verdict: MIRAGE. This is only because it will be nearly impossible for the Saints to remain this porous all season. But there is reason to fear they will be more inconsistent than 2017. The Saints are allowing the most yards per play (7.0) in the NFL. They are the only team to allow three passing plays of 47-plus yards (all touchdowns). And they have allowed six passes of 35-plus yards, which is two more than any other team in the league. The good news is that they looked better in Week 2 against Cleveland than they did against “Fitz-Magic” in Week 1. The bad news is they’ll be tested by Julio Jones and Odell Beckham Jr. over the next two weeks. “You’re gonna have bad games. It comes with this league,” said top corner Marshon Lattimore, who said he is eager to face those two stars. “So it’s all about how you bounce back. That’s how I’ve been my whole life. … You get knocked down, get back up. Show ’em that you still here. That’s the dog mentality that you have to have playing this game.” — Mike Triplett

play

1:15

Mike Clay explains why Ryan Fitzpatrick is a must-start against the Steelers on Monday Night Football.

The surprise: Ryan Fitzpatrick’s deep-ball success.

The verdict: REAL. Fitzpatrick has hit seven of his nine throws of 20-plus air yards so far, and he is averaging 17.1 yards per completion, the most in the league. His completion percentage has also shot up despite averaging 13.4 yards per attempt — he’s completing 78.7 percent of his passes, up from his career mark of 60.0. The Bucs also are much more effective scoring, with eight touchdown passes and one rushing touchdown. At this point last season, they had just one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. How long the Bucs can keep this up depends on whether or not Fitzpatrick will get the chance to keep playing — presumed starter Jameis Winston returns from his three-game suspension next week. — Jenna Laine


NFC WEST

The surprise: An inept offense.

The verdict: REAL. The Cardinals’ offense has been downright pitiful through two games, and it is poised to stay much the same despite a reduction of the playbook, as coach Steve Wilks called for Monday. Arizona has scored just six points in eight quarters, and quarterback Sam Bradford has thrown for 243 yards in two games, which ranks last in the NFL. The Cardinals have struggled to do, well, everything on offense, so any improvement is still a ways off. “I would say I’m just a little disappointed by the way things are going thus far,” wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. — Josh Weinfuss

The surprise: A dominant defense.

The verdict: REAL. It was understood after the Rams traded for Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and signed Ndamukong Suh in free agency that Wade Phillips’ unit would be good. But this good? And this soon? The Rams allowed 13 first-half points in Week 1 against the Raiders, and have since posted six shutout quarters. “I feel like we can get even better, that’s the scary thing,” reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald said after Week 2. “Everybody is clicking. Everybody gets along well.” — Lindsey Thiry

The surprise: A struggling passing game.

The verdict: MIRAGE. Jimmy Garoppolo‘s rough first game wasn’t as bad as the statistics would indicate, and his bounce-back second game wasn’t as good as the numbers made it look. But Garoppolo has been without top wideout Marquise Goodwin (thigh) for most of both games, and coach Kyle Shanahan has had to adjust on the fly after losing running back Jerick McKinnon to a season-ending knee injury. Garoppolo is still only nine starts into his NFL career, and while there’s work to do, getting Goodwin back healthy should stabilize things and allow the Niners to get back to a more consistent aerial attack. — Nick Wagoner

The surprise: An absent running game.

The verdict: MIRAGE. The Seahawks have rushed for only 138 yards through their first two games, not what anyone expected given everything they did this offseason to reignite that part of their offense. But much of the issue so far has been simply not running the ball enough — only 38 attempts compared to 66 throws, even though they haven’t faced large deficits that would naturally force a team to stray from the run. It’s hard to imagine Pete Carroll allowing that to happen any longer given how badly he wants to have a strong running game to provide offensive balance. — Brady Henderson



Source link

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here