Through five weeks of the 2021 NFL season, we’ve encountered some genuine surprises from a collection of unheralded talents. It’s about time I give them some praise.
First, I want to make clear I’m focusing on true jaw-droppers here. So you won’t see Mike Williams, who was a 1,000-yard receiver two seasons ago, and who was bound to produce in Year 2 with Justin Herbert, especially with his usage in new coordinator Joe Lombardi’s offense. Anyone who has paid attention to the Dallas Cowboys saw something like this big year coming from Tony Pollard. Cooper Kupp has been a key part of the Rams’ offense since he arrived in 2017, and apparently was only a few brunches from becoming his quarterback’s favorite target. Deebo Samuel likely would have posted strong numbers if he and his quarterback were healthy last season, though his current production exceeds expectation. And D.J. Moore has broken 1,100 receiving yards in each of his last two seasons.
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Oh, and there were a ton of Bills candidates — perhaps the most complete team in the NFL at this point — but in the interest of not giving too many players credit for one team’s success, I went with their greatest surprise of all and best inspiration for a range of Twitter puns.
Turn out the lights and hide. Everyone be quiet. Got your party horns and confetti? Here they come … get ready to hit the lights and shout.
Here are the top surprises through five weeks:
Patterson has been a total revelation for the Falcons in his first season in Atlanta — and precisely no one saw this coming. First off, after averaging more than twice as many targets (41) as carries (20.9) in his first eight pro seasons, Patterson is now primarily a running back, and with 173 rushing yards and five games so far, he’s already near his career high (232, set last year) in a single season. More importantly, his versatility has made him a weapon out of the backfield and split out wide, as Patterson is the only player in the NFL with one or more receiving touchdown from every target depth (behind the line of scrimmage, short, intermediate and deep) this season. Matt Ryan hasn’t been afraid to target Patterson no matter where he lines up, throwing four touchdown passes to him in their first five games together, including a three-touchdown outing in a high-flying loss to Washington in Week 4. The Falcons have a ways to go in terms of improving their roster, but the former first-round pick’s contributions in his age-30 season have made this team an exciting watch on a weekly basis.
Diggs landed on our list of potential first-time MVP candidates last week, and he only continues to build his case with each week. Diggs recorded yet another interception in Week 5, bringing his total to a league-high six and marking his fifth straight game in which he picked off an opposing passer at least once. He’s on pace to record an outrageous 20 interceptions in 2021 — and while most would see that as unsustainable, it remains possible at this point. He’s shutting down expected completions, too, recording the second-lowest completion rate over expected allowed at -18.1 percent. Only Buffalo’s Taron Johnson is better in this regard. Boosted by his interception total, Diggs is dominating target expected points allowed at -29, nearly twice as many as the next closest defender. Diggs’ penchant for takeaways has vaulted him toward the top of the ranks of game-changing cornerbacks. Most everyone expected from the second-rounder in his second NFL season, but nothing like this.
Chase spent the first month of the season calming preseason doubts about his hands. Since then, he’s already graduated to the next level, becoming a reliable big-play producer on a weekly basis — Chase has caught at least one touchdown pass in all but one of his first five games. He’s already tied the record for most deep receiving touchdown receptions (four) by a rookie in a season since the Next Gen Stats era began in 2016, and he still has 12 games to play. Chase’s latest performance was his best in terms of yardage (159 on six receptions), and it included a 70-yard touchdown grab that pulled the Bengals to within two points of the Packers just before halftime. Chase is closing in on 500 receiving yards for the season, and he’s on pace to score 17 receiving touchdowns. He’s clearly Cincinnati’s top target after just five career games and is quickly proving that the Bengals made the right choice between him and Penei Sewell with the fifth overall pick in the draft.
Hargrave has been a menace in the interior for the Eagles, who are receiving an incredible rate of production from their 2020 free-agent signing. Hargrave is already a half sack from matching his single-season high (6.5). He’s forced one fumble (recovered by Fletcher Cox for a touchdown in Week 3). And he’s matched his career high for tackles for loss (seven). A dive into the Next Gen Stats reveals an even more astounding fact: Hargrave’s current QB pressure rate of 21 percent is the highest for an interior defensive lineman with a minimum of 100 pass-rush snaps in the history of the Next Gen Stats era (dating back to 2016). We knew Hargrave was an effective interior lineman, but not like this. He’s become a force for Philadelphia — and that’s a welcome development for a defense that is still figuring out how to best utilize Cox in new coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s first season at the helm.
Week 5 was Dawson’s Week — and his five-touchdown start to the season might just end up being Dawson’s Peak. Either way, Buffalo will take it. Knox is on pace to smash his previous career high for receiving yardage (388, set in his rookie season in 2019), racking up 261 through five games, and he’s already shattered his previous ceiling for receiving touchdowns (three). Knox teamed up with Josh Allen to make some Next Gen Stats history Sunday night in Kansas City, catching a 53-yard touchdown pass to help Allen become the first quarterback of the NGS era to be perfect and top 170 yards while posting two TDs on deep attempts in a single half. Knox made some history of his own against the Chiefs, becoming the first tight end to record three deep receptions in any game in the Next Gen era. His three touchdowns on targets of 10-19 air yards are tied with Indianapolis’ Zach Pascal for the most this season in the entire league. Knox has evolved from a traditional tight end who might make a key grab every once in a while to a legitimate option in an offense filled with them. (Stefon Diggs and Emmanuel Sanders, anyone?) Defenses might want to be extra careful to not allow him to slip into open space for another episode of Dawson’s Leak.
As a rookie edge rusher, Oweh is already well beyond what most figured to see from him in 2021, even taking into account the higher expectations that come with being a first-round pick. Oweh made a key play in a frantic comeback win over the Chiefs in Week 2, forcing Clyde Edwards-Helaire to fumble with the game on the line. He did it again in Monday’s win over the Colts, forcing Carson Wentz to fumble via strip-sack, giving the ball back to Baltimore and taking away a red-zone opportunity from Indianapolis. Oweh is tied with Cardinals edge rusher Chandler Jones for the most turnovers caused by pressure this season with three, and he’s currently tied with Joey Bosa in total quarterback pressures with 18. Oweh is just as effective against the run, tying with a handful of defenders (including Aaron Donald) for the fourth-most run stuffs with six. His arrival has bolstered Baltimore’s defense up front, making the Ravens a difficult matchup for any team.
Landry had a field day against the Colts in Week 3, generating a career-high 12 quarterback pressures in Tennessee’s win over Indianapolis. His pressure rate in that one tied for the third-highest mark in a game in the Next Gen Stats era, propelling him to the top of the leaderboard for total QB pressures (26) through five weeks. The 2018 second-rounder is well on his way to surpassing his single-season high for sacks (nine), having recorded 4.5 in five games, and he’s added some needed juice to the edge rush for Tennessee. A lot of Landry’s production came from that stellar Week 3 performance, but it set a new bar Landry can strive toward. And if the Titans can get something similar from Landry through the rest of the season, they’ll be more than pleased with him.
We all know the narrative surrounding the Ravens at this point: Sure, Baltimore can run it with the best of them, but can Lamar Jackson throw them to victory on a consistent basis? Well, Monday night’s comeback provided an answer for those asking that question, and Brown again had a lot to do with the result. The receiver nicknamed “Hollywood” caught nine passes for 125 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning score, and he’s strung together a couple of key performances to help the Ravens rattle off four straight wins. The 2019 first-rounder came into the year averaging 3.5 catches and 45.1 yards per game; it seems as if all he needed was a competent cast of fellow receivers and a bit of a playbook expansion on the part of offensive coordinator Greg Roman — oh, and to rediscover his own hands — to take the next step toward becoming Baltimore’s legitimate No. 1 pass-catcher. He’s using his speed to win downfield, earning an open-target rate of 40 percent on deep passes (tied for first with the Chargers’ Mike Williams, among those with a minimum of 10 such targets), and he’s making the plays in between. We’re watching Brown figure it out in real time, and the Ravens are reaping the rewards.
Preseason often doesn’t mean much, but sometimes it gives us a peek at what could be ahead — and that was the case with Callaway, who has carried his buzzy preseason performance into his first season catching passes from Jameis Winston full-time. As a rookie last season, he finished with 21 catches for 213 yards and zero receiving TDs — he’s already set a new career high for receiving yards (222) and touchdowns (three), and he’s closing in on receptions (he has 13 through five games). He’s not the only unknown Saint to make a difference — tight end Juwan Johnson has three touchdown catches in five games — but he’s quickly becoming a weapon for a Saints offense still figuring out its identity. Callaway’s two receiving touchdowns in Week 5 — including a scoring reception on a Hail Mary that was the most improbable touchdown in the NFL this season — made Michael Thomas’ absence a little bit easier to bear.
This choice relies more on the tape than the numbers — but if you’ve tuned into Lions games this season, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Walker make a few plays. In fact, the fourth-year pro has been all over the field for Detroit, racking up 25 tackles (two for loss), one sack and two passes defensed through five games. As a safety, he doesn’t see a ton of targets as the nearest defender, but when opponents do throw in his direction, he’s been effective. Walker has posted the highest ballhawk rate (22.2 percent) of any Lions defensive back with at least five targets, and he’s denying 12.4 percent of expected completions on nine total targets. Even better: Walker has been a valuable asset against the run, ranking fourth among all defensive backs (minimum 120 run defense snaps) in run-stop rate and sixth in run-stuff rate. Walker is a Pro Football Focus darling through five weeks, earning the second-highest grade among all safeties at 83.5, a mark powered by his strong run-defense grade (86.2). Again, his stat totals might not get much snazzier, given his position, but he should continue to jump off the screen.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Cowboys RB Tony Pollard, Bengals LB Logan Wilson, Bills DE Gregory Rousseau, Bills DE A.J. Epenesa, Bills WR Emmanuel Sanders, Bills CB Taron Johnson, Giants QB Daniel Jones, Browns TE David Njoku, Browns DT Malik McDowell
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