/The NFLs Biggest Early-Season Surprises

The NFLs Biggest Early-Season Surprises

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    Jack Thomas/Getty Images

    Every year, we anticipate what’s likely to happen in the upcoming NFL season. Some things unfold as expected, while other developments leave us in awe.

    Five weeks into the 2019 campaign, analysts with well-researched opinions backed with data have to change perceptions of players and teams. Some penciled the Oakland Raiders into fourth place among AFC West teams or projected Baker Mayfield as a quarterback ready for stardom. For now, those predictions seem inaccurate.

    A team that went 4-12 last year remains undefeated through five weeks. The league’s sack leader held a backup role for most of his career. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers, who played a competitive game in Week 5, haven’t run off the rails after losing their starting quarterbacks.

    Rounding up the biggest early-season surprises, we’ll dive into eight of the most shocking occurrences through five weeks.


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    Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

    The Raiders had every reason to start the season in the slow lane.

    The team went through training camp with HBO’s Hard Knocks cameras as a possible distraction.

    Head coach Jon Gruden built the offense around wideout Antonio Brown, according to The Athletic’s Vic Tafur, but Brown requested the team release him just days before the season opener.

    Rookie first-round safety Johnathan Abram underwent season-ending shoulder surgery after Week 1. The league suspended starting linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the year because of a helmet-to-helmet hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle in Week 4.

    Yet the Silver and Black head into their Week 6 bye with a 3-2 record, which includes quality wins against the Colts and Chicago Bears. The ability to battle through the distractions, injuries and a suspension illustrate the team’s mental toughness and stability.

    Running back Josh Jacobs has emerged as an Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, listing sixth in rushing yards (430). As a first-time starter, Darren Waller leads all tight ends in receptions (37).

    With Derek Carr’s precision in the pocket, working the short passing game, the Raiders have been tough to defend in the opening half. The offense averages 13.8 points through the first 30 minutes of games, which ranks eighth leaguewide, per Team Rankings.

    On paper, Oakland’s defense ranks 22nd in points allowed, but the group has come up with crucial plays to kill drives. In each of their victories, the Raiders have allowed fewer than 270 passing yards. The run defense has surrendered more than 95 yards once this year.

    Gruden fields a scrappy squad that is physical on both sides of the ball. The Raiders’ victories have come with resilience and grit, but the wins all look the same in the standings.

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    Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey

    Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffreyBrian Blanco/Associated Press

    Quarterback Cam Newton suffered a mid-foot sprain during the third preseason game and reaggravated the injury in Week 2 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Panthers started 0-2, and their season outlook looked hopeless without the offense’s centerpiece.

    Other than an impressive outing against the Arizona Cardinals, quarterback Kyle Allen isn’t lighting defenses up with his arm, but he’s done enough alongside running back Christian McCaffrey to keep the Panthers in the win column. The 23-year-old tailback leads the league in yards from scrimmage (866) and accounts for nearly 47 percent of the Panthers’ total offensive yardage.

    Head coach Ron Rivera dispelled the notion of a quarterback controversy, stating Newton would reclaim his job once he’s healthy. However, the Panthers don’t have to rush him back to action. Newton has already suffered a setback with the foot ailment that led to his absence and is out indefinitely, and Carolina has played well with Allen under center.

    Although some thought rookie third-rounder Will Grier would have a shot to play, Allen has been a stable placeholder. The second-year quarterback, who went undrafted out of Houston in 2018, has a firm command of the offense, throwing for 674 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions with a 66.7 percent completion rate.

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    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II

    Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew IIGrant Halverson/Getty Images

    While yelling “Duval,” many Jaguars fans also wear fake mustaches in support of quarterback Gardner Minshew II, whose distinguishable style makes him a recognizable figure beyond the field.

    Between the white lines, Minshew has shown traits of a starting quarterback since taking over for veteran Nick Foles, who suffered a broken collarbone in the Jaguars’ season opener. The rookie sixth-rounder has displayed poise in the pocket with the ability to make plays.

    Through five contests, Minshew has thrown for 1,279 yards, nine touchdowns and an interception. The Jaguars put together consecutive wins before losing to the Panthers last week. At 2-3, Jacksonville doesn’t seem out of the playoff race with Foles on injured reserve.

    Even in losses, Minshew made big-time throws to keep the Jaguars competitive down the stretch. He doesn’t shrink in crucial moments and looks comfortable in an unforeseen opportunity. Jacksonville may have a quarterback controversy in the near future.

    If Minshew continues to perform at a solid level and the Jaguars make a push for a playoff spot, will the coaching staff pull him for Foles when the veteran returns from injury?

    Don’t scoff at the possibility that the Washington State product holds on to the starting job. After all, Tom Brady came into the league as a sixth-round pick.

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    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield

    Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker MayfieldThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    This surprise isn’t a good one. Following a decent rookie term, Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns ranked high in quarterback tiers among league coaches and executives, per Mike Sando of The Athletic.

    “Mayfield got 30 votes in the second tier and 21 in the third,” Sando wrote. “The four fourth-tier votes for Mayfield came from voters who thought there wasn’t enough information yet.”

    Here’s Sando’s definition of a Tier 2 quarterback:

    “A Tier 2 quarterback can carry his team sometimes but not as consistently. He can handle pure passing situations in doses and/or possesses other dimensions that are special enough to elevate him above Tier 3. He has a hole or two in his game.”

    For further perspective, understand that coaches and executives placed Mayfield in the same tier as Matt Ryan, Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford, Deshaun Watson and Jared Goff. All of them have multiple solid seasons on their resumes.

    Mayfield has fallen painfully short of his offseason buzz. He’s completed just 55.9 percent of his passes and leads the league in interceptions (eight). The second-year signal-caller hasn’t tossed multiple touchdown passes in any game this season.

    While a subpar pass-protecting offensive line contributed to some of Mayfield’s struggles, he’s held on to the ball for extended periods. At times, the 24-year-old fails to escape pass-rushers on the run.

    Oftentimes, fanbases have inflated optimism about their teams and specific players. Mayfield’s regression has likely surprised division rivals and those within the league as well.

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Shaquil BarrettMichael Reaves/Getty Images

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have a budding star on the edge. Shaquil Barrett played five seasons with the Denver Broncos in a backup role behind DeMarcus Ware, Von Miller, Shane Ray and Bradley Chubb. His former team allowed him to hit the free-agent market. Now, he’s wreaking havoc on offensive lines in a starting role.

    According to ESPN’s Jenna Laine, Barrett credits work ethic for his breakout.

    “Years and years of hard work is just coming to fruition,” he said.

    Barrett recorded 14 sacks with the Broncos. At this rate, he’ll surpass that mark in one season with the Buccaneers. In Laine’s report, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles acknowledged double-teams on interior tackles Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea have allowed the 26-year-old to exploit holes in opponents’ pass protection.

    When you think about potential sack leaders, Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Chris Jones and Myles Garrett come to mind. Once an afterthought, Barrett has put himself on the NFL radar with nine sacks in five games.

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    San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa

    San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick BosaTony Avelar/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers have already matched last year’s win total (four). Furthermore, their success isn’t based solely on quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s arm. This club fields the league’s best ground attack and a top-five defense in points and yards allowed.

    Despite losing running back Jerick McKinnon for the season because of a knee injury and missing Tevin Coleman for two games while he nursed a high-ankle sprain, head coach Kyle Shanahan has run the ball effectively with Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr.

    Since 2016, the 49ers have finished with a bottom-fourth scoring defense each season. General manager John Lynch made a concerted effort to strengthen that side of the ball.

    The front office acquired Dee Ford via trade with the Kansas City Chiefs and selected Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s draft. The pair of edge-rushers, along with Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner on the interior, have factored into the significant improvement on defense. That quartet accounts for 10 sacks and five forced fumbles.

    The front line has also benefitted the pass defense, which allowed the second-most touchdowns (35) last year. Through four games, the 49ers have allowed just five scores through the air—tied for seventh-fewest.

    After going 4-12, the 49ers have the best record in the NFC with a defense that’s gone from one of the worst in recent seasons to a top-notch unit.

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    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan

    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt RyanJim Mone/Associated Press

    The Buccaneers have a new coaching staff. Cam Newton is out with a mid-foot sprain. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees has missed the last three games because of thumb surgery. Despite all those factors, the Atlanta Falcons sit last in the NFC South.

    The Falcons lost safety Keanu Neal for the season because of a torn Achilles, but that doesn’t compare to losing a starting quarterback for an extended period.

    Last year, Atlanta dealt with multiple injuries, specifically to the defense as Neal, safety Ricardo Allen and linebacker Deion Jones all sat out for a majority of the year. Running back Devonta Freeman only suited up for two outings and landed on injured reserve with a groin ailment. Nevertheless, healthy bodies haven’t solved this club’s struggles in 2019.

    After relieving former defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel of his duties, head coach Dan Quinn took over play-calling responsibilities. In 2018, the Falcons finished 25th in scoring defense. Through five weeks this year, they’ve allowed the second-most points in the league.

    The Falcons boast the third-best passing attack. However, the offense lacks balance, ranking 28th on the ground under offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who similarly struggled to spark the rushing attack in his first Atlanta stint (2012-14).

    Despite Atlanta’s relatively healthy roster and a top pass-catching group, featuring Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper, Atlanta may be looking toward the 2020 draft rather than the postseason in the coming weeks.

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    Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White (No. 27)

    Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White (No. 27)John Munson/Associated Press

    During the offseason, the New York Jets generated some buzz as the team to challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. Adam Gase accepted the head coaching position. The front office signed notable free agents in running back Le’Veon Bell and linebacker C.J. Mosley, and it acquired left guard Kelechi Osemele via trade with the Raiders.

    However, the Buffalo Bills beat the Jets and quarterback Sam Darnold in Week 1, and they’ve opened the year 4-1 going into a Week 6 bye.

    The Bills have only beaten sub-.500 teams, but they came close to a victory over the Patriots in Week 4. Despite turning the ball over four times, Buffalo had a chance to win late before backup quarterback Matt Barkley threw an interception in New England territory. Starter Josh Allen exited the game with a concussion early in the fourth quarter.

    Buffalo’s offense isn’t flashy. John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie and Duke Williams wouldn’t list as lead wide receivers on most rosters across the league. At 36 years old, Frank Gore leads the team’s running back by committee. Yet the Bills defense keeps the scores close.

    Skeptics may scrutinize the Bills’ quality of wins and mistake-prone quarterback, but they went down to the wire with the undefeated Patriots and currently hold a wild-card spot in the postseason picture.