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NFL midseason surprises 2020: The most surprising players and performances for all 32 teams

Nov 8, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) is tackled by Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Clelin Ferrell (96) during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As a part of our partnership with ESPN, this is a part of a story that was originally published on ESPN+ and can be viewed in its entirety here with your ESPN+ subscription – NFL midseason surprises 2020: The most surprising players and performances for all 32 teams

The NFL has a way of taking preseason predictions and making them look foolish. That unpredictability is a big part of what makes studying and analyzing the game so enjoyable.

With every team having played at least half of the games on their schedule, it's time to look back and reflect on some of the most surprising performances in the 2020 NFL season. Whether it be a pleasant surprise or a disappointing one, these players and units have not played to expectations coming into the season.

ARZ | ATL | BLT | BUF | CAR | CIN | CHI | CLE | DEN | DAL | DET | GB | HOU | IND | JAX | KC | LVR | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN | NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF | SEA | TB | TEN | WFT

ARIZONA CARDINALS: RB Kenyan Drake

Drake was the fourth-highest-graded running back in the NFL from his debut with the Cardinals in Week 9 of the 2019 season through the end of the regular season. A league-high 34% of his carries went for a first down or touchdown over that stretch. It seemed like he had found a fit in Arizona's offense, but the results this season have not been the same. Just 24% of his carries have gone for a first down or touchdown, and Drake has been a complete nonfactor in the passing game, with only seven receptions on 127 routes all year. At this point, it has become a 1A-1B situation with Chase Edmonds for the Cardinals at running back.


ATLANTA FALCONS: EDGE Dante Fowler Jr.

The contract that the Falcons gave Fowler this offseason didn't match up with his career PFF grading profile, but he was a player who looked to be improving. Fowler's pass-rushing grade and pressure count had risen in each of the past three seasons, culminating in a 67-pressure season in 2019, playing next to Aaron Donald in Los Angeles. There was reason to believe that Fowler's career was on an upward trend, and he could develop into a consistent option off the edge. Instead, he has taken a definitive step back. Fowler is on pace for fewer than 50 pressures for the season, and has made little impact against the run. Grady Jarrett is having an outstanding year on the interior, but Atlanta needs more from Fowler on the outside.


BALTIMORE RAVENS: Below-average passing offense

The Ravens' offense was a revelation in 2019, and a lot of that fell on the shoulders of Lamar Jackson‘s MVP play at quarterback. The rushing component was to be expected when you add a unique athlete like Jackson into the equation and put the defense at a numbers disadvantage. However, it was Jackson's development as a passer that took the offense over the top after he increased his PFF passing grade from 56.5 in 2018 to a fifth-ranked 82.5 in 2019. Jackson hasn't been that same player in 2020, and Baltimore has suffered offensively because of it. The Ravens rank just 23rd in yards per pass play (6.0) this season. The 2019 MVP and the rest of the Ravens' offense will have to show more consistency in the passing game to prove they still belong among the best teams in the NFL.


BUFFALO BILLS: Offense outperforming defense

The Bills' offense ranked just 22nd in the NFL in expected points added (EPA) per play last season, while their defense ranked fourth in EPA allowed per play. That has flipped on its head this season, with Buffalo's offense climbing into the top 10 in the metric, carrying a defense that ranks as one of the worst in the league through nine games. The driver in their surge offensively has been the improved play from third-year quarterback Josh Allen. Through nine weeks, Allen ranks fifth among quarterbacks in PFF grade at 86.8, and he has done a tremendous job of getting the ball out efficiently to a talented receiving corps that includes his new primary target, Stefon Diggs. Brian Daboll's offense has proved to be one of the more dangerous units in the NFL this season.


CAROLINA PANTHERS: Cornerbacks exceeding expectations

On paper, the Panthers had one of the worst defenses in the NFL heading into this season. By ranking 21st in EPA allowed per play at this point in the season, they've managed to exceed expectations, and a big part of that has been surprisingly solid play from the cornerback position. Rasul DouglasCorn Elder and Donte Jackson rank 17th, 23rd and 52nd, respectively, in PFF coverage grade out of 117 qualifying cornerbacks this season. In other words, all three rank among the top half of the league. They've proved to operate well together in Carolina's zone-heavy scheme despite modest expectations heading into the year.


CHICAGO BEARS: DI Akiem Hicks

Hicks has been one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen against the run for years. From 2016 to 2019, his 91.5 run-defense grade fell behind only Damon Harrison, Aaron Donald and Kawann Short at the position. That number is all the way down to 57.7 through the Bears' first nine games of the 2020 season. He's on pace for one of the better seasons of his career as a pass-rusher, with 32 pressures, but the dominant presence against the run that we've come to expect from Hicks just hasn't been there thus far.

Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (96) starts the game as a backup in the first quarter of the NFL Week 7 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. Credit: Sam Greene via Imagn Content Services, LLC

CINCINNATI BENGALS: DICarlos Dunlap

Yes, Dunlap is no longer on the Bengals' roster, but that illustrates how strange the situation was between the veteran and Cincinnati. Dunlap was coming off a career year in 2019 with 51 quarterback pressures and a career-high PFF grade of 89.7. That play certainly didn't carry over into 2020. Dunlap recorded just 13 pressures and a PFF grade of 53.9 in seven games with the Bengals, while causing a whole lot of headaches for the team off the field in a series of public displays of his displeasure. That opened the door for a trade to the Seahawks, where Dunlap had his best game of the season against the Bills in Week 9.


CLEVELAND BROWNS: G Wyatt Teller

Sometimes it takes time for young offensive linemen to develop. Teller is the latest example of that being the case. He earned PFF grades of just 60.3 and 56.7 in his first two years in the NFL out of Virginia Tech but ranks first among all guards with a 94.4 overall grade this season. Teller hasn't played since Week 5 because of a calf injury, but he is a physical presence along a talented Browns offensive line, a player who opened up lanes in the running game for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt early in the season. Teller allowed just three quarterback pressures across those first four-plus weeks as well. It's hard to imagine Cleveland isn't excited about his return to practice this week.


DALLAS COWBOYS: Decline from young linebacker duo

Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch looked like a pair of future stars at linebacker for Dallas back in 2018. They ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in PFF grade at the position that season. Vander Esch's injury and a dip in play from Smith in 2019 dampened some of that optimism, but there was still reason to be excited about the duo, with Vander Esch returning healthy in 2020. Neither has looked all that reminiscent of the players we saw two years ago, though. Smith has earned a 53.4 PFF grade, and Vander Esch comes in a tad higher at 55.3 in another injury-shortened season thus far. Their disappointing play is part of the reason that the Cowboys' defense has underperformed this year.


DENVER BRONCOS: T Garett Bolles

There's something about contract years that tends to bring out the best in players, and we're certainly seeing Bolles' best in his fourth season out of Utah. The primary gripe with Bolles has always been penalties. From 2017 through 2019, his 46 penalties were the most in the NFL. He has cut that number down to five through the first half of this season, but it's not all about the penalties with Bolles. He has a 90.1 PFF run-blocking grade on the season while allowing a 2.7% pressure rate that has him tied for fifth among all tackles. He's on track for a nice payday given the current state of the tackle market in the NFL.


DETROIT LIONS: QB Matthew Stafford

The Lions generated a lot of buzz this offseason as a potential worst-to-first candidate in the NFC North, and much of that had to do with Stafford's return from injury and a potential continuation of the strong play he showed to start the 2019 season. That has not come to fruition. Stafford's 68.4 overall grade through nine weeks ranks 26th among 32 qualifying quarterbacks in 2020. He hasn't been quite as aggressive as he was in 2019, generating an average depth of target that has dropped from 11.4 yards last season to 9.3 yards this year. The veteran signal-caller has clearly missed Kenny Golladay when the wideout has been sidelined with injury. The end result is an offense that hasn't been as impressive as anticipated.


GREEN BAY PACKERS: Lack of pass rush

The Packers finished the 2019 regular season ranked second in the NFL in pressure rate (39%), behind only the Steelers. The additions of Za'Darius Smith (93 pressures) and Preston Smith (55 pressures) on the edge gave them a much-needed complement to Kenny Clark on the interior. The pass-rushing group hasn't exactly changed this season, but the results have changed dramatically. The Packers' 25% pressure rate in 2020 ranks just 28th in the NFL heading into Week 10. The Smiths have combined for just 33 pressures, well off the pace they set a season ago. Green Bay will need a little more from them to make opposing QBs uncomfortable.


HOUSTON TEXANS: LB Zach Cunningham

The Texans signed Cunningham to a four-year, $58 million contract extension this offseason after a 2019 campaign in which he was the fourth-most valuable off-ball linebacker in the NFL per PFF's wins above replacement metric. Theoretically, the Texans were locking up a young, improving asset a year early, but Cunningham has proved to be more of a liability than an asset in 2020. He has missed a league-high 14 tackles through nine weeks while allowing a passer rating of 124.2 on 30 throws into his coverage. The early returns on Houston's investment have come in well below expectation.

Sep 27, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes (27) celebrates his second interception of the game in the first half against the New York Jets at Lucas Oil Stadium. Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: CB Xavier Rhodes

Don't be fooled by the fact that Rhodes made the Pro Bowl in 2019. He was one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL a season ago, allowing a league-high completion rate of 84.3% on throws into his coverage, and earning a PFF coverage grade of just 44.7 on the season. It looks like a change of scenery may be all Rhodes needed, though. He has fit right in with the Colts, allowing just 18 of the 40 passes into his coverage to be completed, with two interceptions and six pass breakups. It seems as if the “washed-up” proclamations may have been a bit premature for the former Viking.


JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: RB James Robinson

As an undrafted free-agent running back out of Illinois State, Robinson wasn't garnering any huge expectations coming into the season. The Jaguars' decision to release Leonard Fournette created an opportunity for Robinson, and he has run wild with that opportunity. His 396 rushing yards after contact this season are tied for fifth most in the NFL through nine weeks, and his 80.6 rushing grade ranks third among running backs with 100 or more attempts, behind only Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry. That's not bad company to keep as a young running back. His production has been a pleasant surprise for a team that will finish as one of the worst in the NFL this year.


KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Cornerbacks stepping up

Cornerback was one of the few potential weak spots for the Chiefs heading into the 2020 season. Bashaud Breeland was set to begin the campaign serving a four-game suspension after earning just a 51.3 PFF coverage grade in 2019, and Kansas City had a lot of unproven youth at the position behind him. That youth — namely Charvarius WardRashad Fenton and rookie L'Jarius Sneed — stepped up in his absence, and Breeland has allowed just a 47.3 passer rating into his coverage since returning. The Chiefs' cornerbacks have an NFL-high 79.3 PFF coverage grade collectively through the first nine weeks of the season. The offense deservedly gets a lot of credit in Kansas City, but the team is also getting quality play from its defense.


LAS VEGAS RAIDERS: LB Cory Littleton

Littleton was pegged as one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL in recent years, and as such, it seemed like he would bring a much-needed element to the Raiders' defense. He has been anything but impressive in coverage this season for Las Vegas. Littleton has allowed 388 receiving yards into his coverage in 2020, the third most in the NFL, all while failing to record a single pass breakup or interception. The Raiders have thrown resources at trying to improve their coverage unit in recent seasons, but additions such as Littleton haven't had the desired impact. Las Vegas ranks 27th in EPA allowed per pass play this season.

Oct 25, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: QB Justin Herbert

Even those who had high expectations for Herbert coming into the season have to be impressed with his ability to create explosive plays. The only quarterback with more touchdown passes on throws 20 or more yards downfield than Herbert this season (nine) is Russell Wilson (10). He's often making those plays with defenders in his face as well. Herbert's 101.6 passer rating under pressure this season is tops in the NFL. It hasn't been a perfect start, but it has certainly been an encouraging one. Herbert looks like one of several rookie quarterbacks who is going to be a quality starter for years to come, which is something that was in doubt when he came out of Oregon.


LOS ANGELES RAMS: Offensive line revival

The Rams' Super Bowl hangover in 2019 stemmed from several factors, but none may have been bigger than the deterioration along the offensive line. The Rams' 37% pressure rate allowed last season ranked 28th in the NFL, and Jared Goff being under pressure at that kind of rate was disastrous for the Los Angeles offense. The group up front has been much improved this season. Andrew Whitworth (86.3 overall grade) and Rob Havenstein (80.8 overall grade) have both taken steps forward, and the Rams have allowed the league's lowest pressure rate in 2020, a massive improvement. That kind of play up front makes Los Angeles a much better team.


MIAMI DOLPHINS: Defense becoming one of the best in NFL

We aren't that far removed from the questions about whether the Alabama Crimson Tide could beat this Dolphins team. Now, Alabama's former quarterback — Tua Tagovailoa — is Miami's quarterback, and the Dolphins are firmly in the playoff hunt at 5-3. The biggest reason is the effectiveness of their defense. The only team to allow a lower EPA per pass play than the Dolphins this season is the Rams. Miami has clearly emphasized the secondary, with big contracts handed out to Xavien Howard and Byron Jones at outside cornerback, and investments in players such as Noah Igbinoghene and Brandon Jones in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft. That philosophy is working for Brian Flores & Co.


MINNESOTA VIKINGS: WR Justin Jefferson

Everyone thought that this rookie wide receiver class was going to impress, but it would have been difficult to peg the kind of success that Jefferson has had early in his NFL career. Not only has he been one of the league's top big-play threats among rookies, but he's right up there with the top receivers of any age. His 321 receiving yards on passes 20 or more yards downfield are fewer than only D.K. Metcalf, and his 18.4 yards per reception are the most of any wide receiver with 25 or more receptions this season. That has led to a 90.1 PFF receiving grade that stands out as a top-five mark in the NFL. The Vikings' ability to replace Stefon Diggs was a major question coming into the year, but Jefferson is off to a fantastic start in that effort.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: OL Michael Onwenu

You don't often see a rookie offensive lineman come out and dominate. Seeing a rookie offensive lineman come out and dominate across three different positions is even rarer. That is what Onwenu has done in New England. The sixth-round selection out of Michigan has started at left guard, right guard and right tackle with a rookie-high 89.8 PFF grade on the season across all those positions. He has moved bodies in the running game, while allowing just one combined quarterback hit or sack in 242 pass-blocking snaps. The early returns are very promising for a player who should help keep the Patriots' offensive line as one of the best in the NFL.

Oct 12, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Mike Williams (81) catches a pass over New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (23) during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Pass defense becoming a major issue

The Saints' defense got its act together this past week against Tampa Bay, but it had been a liability heading into Week 9. Many of its issues have stemmed from penalties and miscommunication in the secondary, leading to big plays for opposing offenses. The Saints have allowed a league-high nine pass plays of 40 or more yards in 2020. Their seven pass interference penalties of 20 or more yards are four more than any other defense. The talent is there, with players such as Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams, but the Saints must stop beating themselves in the secondary. Sunday's dominant win against the Buccaneers was a good step in that direction.


NEW YORK GIANTS: G Kevin Zeitler

The Giants' offensive line had clear question marks coming into the season, but Zeitler was supposed to be a reliable cornerstone. The lowest PFF grade of his career was 73.2 in 2017, and he has profiled as one of the best pass-protecting guards in the NFL for years in his time with Cincinnati, Cleveland and New York this past season. Zeitler hasn't been that reliable presence at right guard this season. His 20 pressures allowed are already more than he allowed in four of his eight seasons, and his 59.6 overall grade is easily a career low. His name was floated in trade rumors at the deadline, but it looks like he'll have the rest of the season with the Giants to try to right the ship.


NEW YORK JETS: TE Chris Herndon

Herndon was a darling of the fantasy football community this offseason, and the line of thinking behind that made sense. He was returning from an injury that kept him from building on a 2018 season in which he earned a 74.8 PFF grade and averaged nearly 13 yards per catch on his 39 receptions. Additionally, this was a Jets offense that projected to have very little competition in the way of targets. Despite all that, Herndon has been a complete non-factor in 2020. He has just 101 receiving yards on 179 routes this season, which is good for an average of 0.56 yards per route run that ranks among the worst at the position. A lot of players have been disappointing for New York, but few more so than Herndon.


PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: QB Carson Wentz

At various points, each of Jared Goff, Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz has looked like the best quarterback in the 2017 draft class. It's safe to say that Wentz hasn't this season. Yes, the Eagles have had a makeshift offensive line and a patchwork receiving corps due to a flurry of injuries, but Wentz has also made far too many unnecessary mistakes. His 23 turnover-worthy plays this season are 10 more than any other quarterback in the NFL. To the detriment of Philadelphia's offense, he has too often tried to put on a cape and make a play when nothing is there. Wentz is capable of more, and he'll need to show it for the Eagles to win the NFC East.


PITTSBURGH STEELERS: WR Chase Claypool

There was a lot of talk in the pre-draft process about whether Claypool was best suited to be a tight end in the NFL, coming out of Notre Dame as a big, physical wide receiver. Then, he lit the scouting combine on fire, and that talk died down a bit. Claypool has shown early in his NFL career with the Steelers that he is not merely a workout warrior. His four receptions on passes 20-plus yards downfield are fewer than only CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson among rookie wide receivers, and Claypool's seven total touchdowns (five receiving and two rushing) are tied with Jacksonville's James Robinson for the most of any rookie in the NFL. It appears as if he'll continue Pittsburgh's recent run of drafting success at the wide receiver position.


SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: CB Jason Verrett

There are a few strong options for Comeback Player of the Year, but Verrett should be in that conversation. After playing just 67 defensive snaps total since the start of the 2017 season, Verrett has found himself in a prominent role in San Francisco with the injury to Richard Sherman, and he has run with it. His coverage grade of 77.6 ranks sixth at cornerback, allowing just 141 yards in 228 coverage snaps. It seemed unlikely Verrett would ever get back on the field as a starter — let alone be a good one — but here he is.


SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Brian Schottenheimer/Pete Carroll

One of the more puzzling phenomena in the NFL in recent seasons has been the Seahawks' insistence on running the football despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the league on their side. Their 51% run play rate on first and second down across the 2018 and 2019 seasons fell behind only Baltimore and Tennessee, but that number is all the way down to 36% this season (the second lowest in the league). That means the ball is in Russell Wilson's hands on those early downs, where his 128.5 passer rating leads the NFL in 2020. The decision by Schottenheimer and Carroll to unleash Wilson has made this offense all the more dangerous.


TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: QB Tom Brady

There was a narrative coming into the year that Brady was finished as a high-level QB, after the way his 2019 season ended with the Patriots. He has shown this year that New England's offensive woes last season rest more with the lack of a supporting cast than they did with the quarterback. Brady heads into Week 10 ranked third in PFF grade among quarterbacks at 90.9 overall, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson. The stat line may not always show it thanks to untimely drops and key pass interference penalties drawn on quality downfield throws, but Brady has been dealing. He has looked sharp for the most part in his adjustment to Tampa Bay's downfield passing attack, with little evidence that he's deteriorating at age 43.


TENNESSEE TITANS: Struggles on defense

The Titans' defense certainly had questions to answer coming into the season — namely where the pass rush would come from — but the unit still projected as a solid one overall. Heading into Week 10, Tennessee ranks just 25th in EPA allowed per play. That comes even after a dominant performance against Nick Foles and an inept Bears offense in Week 9. However, with the addition of Desmond King via trade and Adoree' Jackson's return from injury on the horizon, reinforcements are here. The Titans will be hoping those additions lead to better results defensively down the stretch.


WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM: Much-improved play in the secondary

Washington turned in a team coverage grade that ranked 23rd out of 32 qualifying defenses in 2019, and the team parted ways with their top cornerback, Quinton Dunbar. Despite that, the Football Team has improved to sixth in team coverage grade this season, behind several unheralded additions. Kevin Pierre-Louis (80.2 PFF coverage grade), Kendall Fuller (77.1) and Ronald Darby (68.4) have each made an impact defensively this season against the pass. A lot of the focus gets put on Washington's defensive line and all of its first-round talent, but the team's ability to cover this season has been equally as promising.


 

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