by Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro)
With half of the regular season tucked under our belts, it’s time to have a look at those players who have, to use a special teams analogy, outkicked their coverage, and excelled far beyond any reasonable expectation as we began meaningful 2020 football (and in the case of this season, actually ANY football).
We are not talking about Super Bowl-winning QBs or first-round drafted running backs. This team is comprised of those who have shocked and surprised coaches, colleagues and fans alike, despite an initial lack of opportunity, lack of profile or lack of expectation.
The team will include 2020 rookies and veterans, such as those who have not had the opportunity to show their talent in previous seasons due to injury.
QB – Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
OK, so we’re starting this team by breaking a rule about early picks, as Herbert went #6 overall. What nobody expected was the immediate impact Herbert had after incumbent starter Tyrod Taylor was forced out of his position after a medical employee stabbed him in the wrong place with a routine injection, puncturing a lung. Herbert has 2,146 yards in seven starts, including three games passing over 300 yards, and four occasions with three or more touchdowns. The stats have been gaudy, and the wins have been paltry (just the one) but the next decade of Bolts football has its leader in place.
RB – James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
When Ryquell Amstead was unfortunately diagnosed with COVID-19, the Jaguars backfield was about as clear as a midnight blizzard. Up steps undrafted rookie James Robinson who went to college at Illinois State. Robinson has held the starting gig from Week 1 and has accrued over 800 yards of offence, seven TDs and an almighty 5.1 yards a touch. The Jaguars are on a seven-game losing skid, but this is not the fault of Robinson, who has been immense in the first half of the season.
RB – Mike Davis, Carolina Panthers
Sometimes you get a job because you are clearly the top candidate, and sometimes you need a bit of fortune, as has been the case with Mike Davis, who was not expected to generate anything near the production of Christian McCaffrey who has spent most of the season on the Panthers injury list. When Davis starts in Week 10, it will mark the most starts in his career (7). Davis has had 128 touches to date, including 43 catches, slotting into the offence as easily as a slice of Warburtons bread into a toaster.
WR – Travis Fulgham, Philadelphia Eagles
When you are in one of the most anaemic bunches of wideouts in the NFL, you have a prime opportunity to succeed, but opportunity does not always equate to achievement. Look at JJ Arcega-Whiteside, who has stunk whenever the spotlight of opportunity has shone his way. Travis Fulgham, on the other hand, has embraced his chance and since his first start (Week 4) has caught 29 balls for 453 yards and 4 TDs. If this is extrapolated to a 16-game total, it equates to 1,392 yards. Drafted in the 6th round in 2019 by the Lions, Fulgham made the active roster three times and had no catches as a rookie. This Old Dominion product could be the future of the Eagles pass catching game.
WR – Robby Anderson, Carolina Panthers
We all knew Robby Anderson was a good WR on an abysmal team (Jets 2016–2019), so when he was signed by the Panthers as the fourth option, behind RunCMC, DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel, there were not exactly great expectations. So what Anderson has done in nine games is phenomenal: 60 catches and 751 yards, which puts him in the top 5 of each category just past the midway point. Considering he managed 779 yards in 16 games last season, and 752 in 14 games in 2018, Anderson is going to absolutely smash his own single-season record, and can legitimately reach 1,500 yards. It’s unfortunate the Panthers only have three wins to date but with some more big games, Anderson can finally reach his potential and even earn an All-Pro berth.
WR – Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh Steelers
Claypool was drafted in the second round this year by the Steelers, but he was not expected to become an immediate force. Few athletes are built like Claypool (see DK Metcalf) and his intimidating physical presence has garnished a high volume of fandom. Claypool may only be catching two in every three balls thrown to him, but he knows how to do the most important thing, which is find the end zone. In eight games (just two as a starter), he has piled up seven touchdowns, including a mind-boggling four in a Week 5 win against the Eagles. Claypool is still finding his feet, and even Head Coach Tomlin has not quite found his greatest strengths. Once he does, Claypool will be a weapon of nuclear impact.
TE – Mo Alie-Cox, Indianapolis Colts
Alie-Cox had 15 catches in his first two seasons in Indy, and he failed to register a score in 2019. In 2020, he has not set the world alight but he has caught three or more passes in five of eight games played. Alie-Cox is being worked into the Colts offence by Coach Reich, and we know how much Philip Rivers loves a tight end as a reliable safety blanket. Look to the tight end to aim for 50 catches by the time the regular season is over. He has proved that, if targeted, he can produce: five grabs and 111 yards in Week 2 was proof of that.
OG – Wyatt Teller, Cleveland Browns
Teller started nine of 15 games in 2019 after an unproductive rookie season with the Bills in 2018. The former fifth-round pick has only started five games in 2020 but with Teller in the starting line-up, the Browns are 4-1. After nine games, Teller leads the entire league in the PFF (Pro Football Focus) grading for guards with a 94.4 mark. Teller’s run blocking grade of 93.9 is the best for any offensive lineman in 2020. The Browns need Teller back in the starting line-up if they have any expectations of a play-off run.
OG – Damien Lewis, Seattle Seahawks
A former LSU product, Lewis was selected in the third round of this year’s draft and, as with all offensive linemen drafted outside the top 50, expectations were not through the roof. In eight games (all starts), Lewis has achieved a PFF run block grade of 87.0, fourth for all guards. His pass-blocking skills need to improve to become a rounded performer, but with half a season helping the Seahawks to a 6-2 record, in part with some lesser-known running backs (DeeJay Dallas), Lewis is proving to be a bargain signing. His rookie salary is a mere $610k.
OT – Michael Onwenu, New England Patriots
How do the Patriots do it? Year after year, their scouts do the hard work, eating gas station sandwiches as they trawl the USA unearthing talent. A case in point is Michael Onwenu, who could end up an All-Pro as a rookie, despite opening the season as a back-up. Onwenu lead the NFL in PFF grading for tackles after nine games (90.4) in 437 snaps. It’s a remarkable achievement for a rookie, and an even more unbelievable achievement for a sixth-round selection (pick 182). With eight starts with the worst offensive skill unit in the past 20 seasons in New England (yes Cam, I am talking about you), Onwenu could be the second coming of Bruce Armstrong (youngsters, look him up!).
OT – Garrett Bolles, Denver Broncos
After nine weeks, only one offensive tackle has managed a PFF rating of 85 or over both in run and pass blocking. That accolade has been achieved by Bolles, now in his fourth season. Bolles has been consistently OK in his first three seasons, but his output has risen way beyond expectation in 2020. If only the Broncos had kept faith with Philip Lindsay in the backfield, the team would not boast an underwhelming 3-5 record at the midpoint. After making the All-Rookie team in 2017, expectations were high but like a fine wine, it has taken a few seasons for Bolles to mature and live up to his first round expectations.
C – Frank Ragnow, Detroit Lions
In a season when even Jason Kelce is starting to look a little human, not many centers have risen above the pack. One of the few exceptions has been the Lions Frank Ragnow, now in his third season. Ragnow has gradually improved his PFF rating every season: 32nd as a rookie, 6th in 2019 and now 2nd (78.0) in 2020. In eight games, Detroit have failed to rush for a team total of 100 yards. If only the Lions had a true workhorse back instead of a 35-year-old Adrian Peterson, and a pair of underwhelming youngsters (Kerryon Johnson and D’Andre Swift), then Ragnow may even get some wider recognition.
(Traditional 4-3 defence)
DE – Aldon Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Forget about all the zombies in The Walking Dead, Aldon Smith’s resurrection after four-and-a-half seasons in the NFL wilderness is the performance that deserves a Emmy. Smith was suspended by the league from 2016–2019, so when the Cowboys picked him up in the offseason, there were a mixture of gasps and chortles. Smith has started nine games in a row for the first time since 2012 (no, that is not a typo), and his haul of 37 tackles and five sacks is noteworthy. Unfortunately for Smith, the majority of the rest of the Cowboys D is about as effective as a marshmallow in front of a lit blowtorch.
DE – Trey Hendrickson, New Orleans Saints
With just 6.5 sacks as a role player in his first three seasons in New Orleans, an injury to Marcus Davenport saw Hendrickson step up. In eight starts, Hendrickson has recorded 7.5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss and 13 QB hits. Trey incredibly ranks third in sacks at the half-way point, and 14 takedowns is within reach. At 6-2, the opportunity for Hendricks to get some late-game cheap sacks is highly likely.
DT – Tyson Alualu, Pittsburgh Steelers
In 157 games, all prior to the 2020 season, Alualu has been the personification of an NFL pro: rarely injured, but also rarely obtaining headlines for game-changing plays. Seven seasons in the wilderness of Jacksonville is going to help turn your career into a vanilla one. Alualu has burst onto the 2020 season with his best-ever PFF grade (91) and he only trails Aaron Donald. Alualu has been on the sidelines since Week 8 with a sprained MCL but will look to come back bigger and badder than ever this weekend against Cincy.
DT – Folorunso Fatukasi, New York Jets
There is a chink of light in the Big Apple in the form of Folorunso Fatukasi, the defensive lineman with a tongue-twisting name who is proving 2019 was no fluke. After nine games, Fatukasi has the best PFF run-blocking grade among all defensive linemen (90.1). The Jets need all the help they can get, and stopping the run is critical if they are going to avoid a 0-16 record. Fatukasi has 23 tackles in nine games and while his pass rush repertoire is non-existent, he is a foundation for J-E-T-S to use in the 21st century.
OLB – Andrew Van Ginkel, Miami Dolphins
The entire Dolphins defence has been performing at an unprecedented level, masking the rather uninspiring performances of their rookie QB. A shining example of the flying Fish has been Van Ginkel, a second year pro, who has made a big impression. He took a fumble 78 yards for a TD, has 2.5 sacks and has already surpassed his tackle total as a rookie in eight games. VG has a PFF pass rush grade of 74.5, ranking him in the top 20 for edge rushers. The hair maybe a throwback to Axl Rose, and the number #43 is just wrong, but Van Ginkel is part of a revolution in Florida.
OLB – Brian Burns, Carolina Panthers
With 33 tackles, four sacks and nine solid starts, Burns is showing why he was a first-round selection in 2019. Burns’ PFF rating has shot up from 63.7 as a rookie to 85 in 2020, and a Pro Bowl berth could be on the cards for this energetic defender. The Panthers D needs leaders after the shock retirement of Luke Kuechly and on his current trajectory, Burns has a legitimate shot at a future seat at the captains’ table.
ILB – Blake Martinez, New York Giants
The Giants are not as bad as their record, well at least the defence is anyway. Martinez spent his first four season in Green Bay, and is missed by cheeseheads for sure. Having moved to the Giants in 2020, Martinez has not missed a beat. He is averaging just over 10 tackles a game, and has generated two turnovers in nine contests. If this team was to exist in real life, Martinez would be my captain. He is on the squad not because he has surprised people with his production, it’s because he has surprised people with how smoothly he has adapted to a new team.
CB – Jason Verrett, San Francisco 49ers
It must come as a huge relief to Verrett that he has played in seven consecutive games for the first time in half a decade. Poor old Verrett managed to suit up in just six games between 2016 and 2019. He currently ranked 7th among all CBs by PFF (77.6) in pass coverage, and has a solid 72.1 run grade. Coming back season after season, despite huge injury setbacks, is testament to the determination of Verrett to succeed. In a season completely decimated by injuries in San Francisco, it is somewhat ironic Verrett is the golden boy in the 49ers secondary.
CB – Kendall Fuller, Washington Football Team
A Super Bowl winner, Fuller had four tackles and two passes defended in this year’s big game. In 2020, he returned to Washington after two years with the Chiefs. Having managed just two picks in 26 regular season games with KC (2018–2019), Fuller has four pick-offs in six games, including two against the Ravens in Week 4. The Washington Football Team have a defence on paper that should be winning games. Fuller has been a baller, unlike the rest of the D, and while some will recognise his play, it will go largely unnoticed.
S – Duron Harmon, Detroit Lions
What is a three-time Super Bowl winner doing on a surprise team? Harmon never started more than eight games in seven seasons in New England, and his nickname of the ‘Closer’ came after gaining some of his 17 New England pickoffs against teams desperately trying to make a late comeback. Since his rather under-the-radar move to Detroit, Harmon has become a leader. Eight starts, with two interceptions and 32 tackles are one thing, ranking 4th in PFF pass coverage (77.4) for all safeties is another. Harmon will not like being on a losing team. Young Lions defensive backs, like first-round pick Jeff Okudah, best bring their notepads to every Zoom session this year, as they will learn a hell of a lot from Harmon.
S – Bobby McCain, Miami Dolphins
McCain has been with the Dolphins since 2015, and perhaps his most memorable moment in his first five seasons was back in 2017 when he punched Patriots WR Danny Amendola. McCain has surprised many people with his 2020 play, ranking 2nd at the halfway point for overall PFF safety grades (75.9). He has also managed 100% starts in the Dolphins’ first eight games, the first time he has achieved this percentage of starts ever. Miami have won five of their last six, and McCain has been an important part of this streak. As someone who has seen the worst of Miami, he will be happy he hung around.
K – Rodrigo Blankenship, Indianapolis Colts
Nothing more need to be said apart from his name and his eyewear. The legend is 19 of 21 on FG attempts, and is third in scoring after half a season is in the books. Respect the specs!
Let’s see if these mid-season surprises get recognised by the end of the season. Surely there is a sprinkling of Pro-Bowlers and maybe one or two All-Pro’s in here?
Disagree with me? Continue the conversation on Twitter! (@F10YRetro)