NFL's 20 biggest surprises at quarter-season mark: Rookies thriving, free agents floundering
For all intents and purposes, the first quarter of the NFL season is complete.
It's unfolded with the customary number of on-field revelations ... and one remarkable caveat considering the league is operating – without the benefit of a protective bubble around its 32 teams – in the midst of a pandemic that shows little sign of slowing down. Yet just one of the 64 games scheduled through Oct. 5 has had to be transplanted from its originally scheduled week because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
But the grim reality that is 2020 is quickly setting in, the Tennessee Titans once again virtually assured of not playing an upcoming contest as planned with coronavirus continuing to wrack their organization. The New England Patriots' best players, cornerback Stephon Gilmore and quarterback Cam Newton, tested positive – Newton's Week 4 absence against Kansas City likely crippling any chance the Pats had to compete with the undefeated Chiefs.
Several players around the league went on the NFL's COVID-19/reserve list – which doesn't necessarily mean they had the virus – after reporting to training camp in July, but very few tested positive over the following two months.
But cases are steadily arising – and not only in Nashville. And while it's premature to wield a broad brush and claim players and coaches have gotten lax about vigilant virus preventive measures – though in the case of the Titans, who have nearly two dozen positive cases among players and staff, league protocols have apparently been violated – what appears to be a quickly building storm is almost as unexpected as the relative calm that preceded it.
“Everybody’s confidence level is probably a little less than a few weeks ago," said Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
“Two weeks ago everybody was riding high. It’s amazing to see what happened in Tennessee so quickly.”
The NFL's (mostly successful) blitz on COVID-19 is just one of the major surprises through the first four weeks of the season. More on that and 19 others:
1. Socially distant success
Though the pandemic's impact on the league is in alarming flux as the season enters its second quarter, let's first credit players, coaches and key support personnel throughout the league for the NFL's effectiveness combating the virus in August and September. So many of these players (and staffers, too) are single, just out of college and enjoying the trappings of privilege for the first time. Nearly everyone – and there have been notable exceptions – seems to have shown ample self-discipline.
But the league is now coming to a teachable moment – and the NFL has been busily lecturing front office personnel at the club level – one that's hopefully issued in time to prevent the 2020 campaign from going off the rails, as Major League Baseball's season nearly did.
2. Robust MVP race
Baltimore's Lamar Jackson deservedly became the NFL's second unanimous MVP after the 2019 season. But little chance any one player hoards all the votes this year.
Seattle's Russell Wilson, whose 16 TD passes tied the record for most after four games, is the presumptive front-runner and seems virtually certain to at least get his first-ever MVP vote this year. But Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Buffalo's Josh Allen and New Orleans' Alvin Kamara are all well positioned to make this a competitive race this election year – as are Jackson and Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, the most recent MVPs.
Should be a fabulous debate to track given so many worthy candidates.
3. Free agent quarterbacks thriving
Despite an offseason devoid of OTAs, minicamps or any manner of in-person meetings – not to mention the absence of preseason – quarterbacks who signed with new teams are playing remarkably well.
And while Newton, Tampa Bay's Tom Brady, Indianapolis' Philip Rivers and Carolina's Teddy Bridgewater went 1-3 in their 2020 debuts, their squads have gone a collective 9-3 since, including Bridgewater's Panthers falling to Brady's Buccaneers and that Patriots' loss in Week 4 while Newton was quarantined.
Good bet at least three of those teams reach postseason, the entire quartet of passers having something to prove – even Brady, hitched to Bill Belichick for the first 20 seasons of his career.
4. Free agent non-QBs struggling
Conversely, almost none of the blue ribbon free agents who play other positions – ones that theoretically lend themselves to an easier onboarding process than quarterback – have made much of an impact this year.
Dolphins CB Bryon Jones, Falcons DE Dante Fowler Jr., Bears OLB Robert Quinn, Titans OLB/DE Jadeveon Clowney, Saints WR Emmanuel Sanders, Raiders LB Cory Littleton and Browns TE Austin Hooper were awarded some of the most lucrative contracts of the 2020 free agent class but have yet to make substantial impressions after a month.
Plenty of time for that change, but how much longer will it take to assimilate?
5. New York, New York
Really not a shock that the Jets and Giants are struggling mightily – frankly, the Big Apple duo pretty definitively represents the two worst teams in the NFL.
But a combined 0-8? The last time both clubs started 0-4 was 1976. This could be the first time they go a collective 0-10.
No wonder Gotham is a baseball town.
6. NFC Least
The Giants' dismal play is just one reason the NFC East again projects as the league's worst division, the four clubs combining to go 3-12-1 thus far. The Eagles, who haven't missed the playoffs since 2016, just broke though for their first victory Sunday night – and immediately vaulted into sole possession of first place at 1-2-1.
What a mess.
The Giants play hard but just don't have much talent or experience. Washington is benching second-year QB Dwyane Haskins after four weeks ... and could probably use Adrian Peterson about now. The Cowboys – and they just have way too much ability to be 1-3 (though probably deserve to be 0-4) – have forgotten how to play defense. And Carson Wentz keeps throwing it to the other team, appearing to press in order to compensate for Philadelphia's other shortcomings.
The tidiest way to summarize the ineptitude? Five teams have committed eight or more turnovers this season – the Broncos ... and the entirety of the NFC East.
7. Rookie head coaches
Five franchises have new leading men in 2020, though Washington's Ron Rivera and Dallas' Mike McCarthy – both find themselves in that NFC East quagmire – have been NFL head coaches before. The Giants' problems have already been noted here, and it probably doesn't help that Joe Judge – who had never been a head coach at any level before New York hired him – is trying to find his way.
But Cleveland's Kevin Stefanski and Carolina's Matt Rhule are also first-time NFL head coaches, and both are already exceeding the expectations of most – thus far engineering notable turnarounds without the benefit of a standard offseason to create a culture or immerse players in foreign schemes.
Yet the Browns are off to their first 3-1 start since 2001 while leading the league in rushing by a wide margin. QB Baker Mayfield and WR Odell Beckham Jr. seem to be settling nicely into Stefanski's run-heavy system while DE Myles Garrett is budding into a superstar on the other side of the ball. Playoffs?
Under Rhule, who made the leap from Baylor, the Panthers aren't exactly setting the league ablaze. But Carolina is the only team with a new head coach, starting quarterback, offensive and defensive coordinator. To sit at .500 despite so much turnover – and with all-world RB Christian McCaffrey on the shelf – is noteworthy.
8. Rookie QBs impressing
No. 1 pick Joe Burrow is coming off his first win but has looked poised beyond his years in four starts while becoming the first rookie in league history to pass for at least 300 yards in three consecutive games. The Bengals, already halfway to 2019's total of two wins, appear to be in very good hands.
Justin Herbert has been nearly as effective since his surprise – even to him – insertion into the Chargers' lineup in Week 2 following a medical mishap with starter Tyrod Taylor. Herbert has yet to break into the win column, though he impressively went toe to toe with both Mahomes and Brady. The Bolts' failings are largely attributable to reasons that have nothing to do with the former Oregon star.
9. Rookie WRs impressing
The transition to the pro game is obviously hardest on young quarterbacks thrust into an NFL starting lineup, but the learning curve can be nearly as steep for wideouts – especially those who excelled in college systems with far fewer routes, responsibilities and much less terminology.
And yet a 2020 draft touted for its bumper crop of receivers is already living up to its billing. The Vikings' Justin Jefferson is currently PFF's top-graded wideout, a remarkable debut, and leads all rookies with 348 receiving yards. The Cowboys' CeeDee Lamb paces all first-year pass catchers with 21 receptions and two TDs as a key member of Dallas' top-ranked passing attack.
Also earning high marks on their first progress reports: The Broncos' Jerry Jeudy, Jaguars' Laviska Shenault Jr., Bengals' Tee Higgins, Bills' Gabriel Davis and 49ers' Brandon Aiyuk, who logged one of the season's most impressive scores Sunday night against Philadelphia.
10. Colts defense
Raise your hand if you forecast Indianapolis' defense as the league's preeminent unit. If your hand went up, stop lying.
But wow. The Colts went out and got DL DeForest Buckner and CB Xavier Rhodes this offseason, and both have delivered handsomely – along with mainstay LB Darius Leonard.
Not only are the Colts surrendering the fewest yards per game (236.3), they're more than 50 yards stingier than the second-ranked Steelers. Seattle's league-worst D (476.8 ypg) is yielding more than twice as many yards as Indy, which has also ceded the fewest points (14.0 per game) and owns the top pass defense (159.3 yards per game).
No wonder Rivers is off to such good start.
11. James Robinson
Admit it, you were also pretty stunned when the Jaguars dumped RB Leonard Fournette prior to the opener. And admit it, you'd never heard of RB James Robinson, undrafted out of Illinois State.
It all makes sense now. Robinson has assumed Fournette's vacated gig and racked up 446 yards from scrimmage – fourth best in the league and most by any undrafted player through four games since the 1970 merger.
Winless? Huge leads still being blown? Despite all that talent? Atlanta should be contending for the NFC South throne, not for the top pick of the 2021 draft. Inexplicable.
(Can't mention the Falcons – and meltdowns – without acknowledging New England, right?)
It sure looks like Belichick is going to turn in one of his most masterful performances – despite the departure of Brady; despite the last-minute arrival of Newton; despite the mass player exodus (via free agency and COVID-19 opt-outs) of 2019's top-ranked defense; despite the pandemic now specifically wreaking havoc at Gillette Stadium.
Don't bury this dynasty just yet.
14. Home-field advantage
You knew playing in your own stadium wouldn't provide its usual perks given most are devoid of fans – certainly a massive advantage at venues in Seattle, New Orleans, Kansas City and elsewhere in a normal year.
But how about this stat: Home teams are 31-31-1 in 2020.
COVID-19 challenges aside, it appears the NFL has never enjoyed more parity.
One other note on home fields: L.A.'s SoFi Stadium and Las Vegas' Allegiant Stadium definitely appear spectacular from the couch. Can't wait to visit ... and see them packed to the rafters with fans.
15. Dollars for Dak
Don't blame Dallas' disappointing start on QB Dak Prescott, who's playing the 2020 season on a franchise tag worth $31.4 million. A month in, he's become the first NFL quarterback ever to pass for at least 450 yards in three successive games. His 1,690 yards are the highest four-game total of all time.
Playing on the tag means Prescott can't sign an extension until 2021. But while he may not approach Mahomes' half-billion pact, if Prescott keeps this up, he'll surely bypass Deshaun Watson – his new deal averages $39 million annually – as the league's second-richest player.
If there's any debate on Dak, inside or outside The Star, it appears pretty well settled.
16. Kansas City vs. Baltimore
The highly anticipated Week 3 matchup between Mahomes' Chiefs and Jackson's Ravens turned out to be a highly disappointing dud, Kansas City cruising to a 34-20 triumph at M&T Bank Stadium.
Still, a rematch between clubs who project as the class of the AFC seems nearly inevitable. But ...
► Is anyone beating the Chiefs, the first team to string together four consecutive 4-0 starts? And it's not just because Mahomes is piloting Andy Reid's typically uncontainable offense. Take note, too, that only the Colts are allowing fewer points than Kansas City's 17.5 per game.
► Meanwhile, Baltimore continues to be a dominant regular-season team – the Ravens' +49 point differential is the AFC's best – but Jackson and Co. are starting to craft a reputation for falling flat in big spots.
Still, who wouldn't welcome this rematch?
Maybe it should come as no surprise that many players have landed on injured reserve in the aftermath of such an atypical offseason, one that didn't allow for conditioning under direct club supervision or a preseason break-in period.
But to have already lost Saquon Barkley, Nick Bosa, Derwin James and Von Miller (probably) for the entire season while the likes of McCaffrey, Michael Thomas, Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Chubb and Jamal Adams are sidelined – just a bummer.
18. Tracking Trevor
Before the season began – and a year after the Dolphins were allegedly "tanking for Tua" (Tagovailoa) – some assumed Jacksonville might attempt to do the same for Clemson star QB Trevor Lawrence. But despite unloading Fournette, DE Yannick Ngakoue and S Ronnie Harrison before the start of the season, the Jags have actually been quite competitive and already lost ground on Lawrence after a Week 1 upset of Indianapolis.
Whoever picks atop the 2021 draft, the Lawrence factor creates a fascinating dynamic. The Jets, Giants, Texans and Falcons are all currently 0-4. Houston is wed to Watson, but could any of those other teams pass up the opportunity to draft Lawrence – he's being touted as a generational pick – if they "earn" the No. 1 pick? And if the Texans wind up with the selection, can they get enough for it in a trade to essentially restock a draft cupboard rendered barren by the wheeling and dealing of just-fired GM/coach Bill O'Brien?
This subplot will be nearly as compelling as the playoff chase.
19. No. 7 seeds
Speaking of postseason, the league will feature a 14-team bracket for the first time in a non-strike campaign.
Spotlighting a year-end chase for a seventh seed will take some getting used to. And given how COVID-19 could yet disrupt the schedule, it's worth wondering how coveted a No. 1 seed (and consequential bye week) might be if it means teams earning them might actually face excessive time off if the league winds up, for example, adding an 18th week to squeeze in a full 256-game schedule.
Regardless, the new format guarantees two clubs – and likely at least six, if history holds – who didn't reach postseason last year will in 2020. (And, in case you're wondering, the Browns and Saints currently hold the final berths in their respective conferences while long absent teams like the Bucs and Cardinals could also being playing games in January.)
20. No defense
Finally – and with apologies to the Colts, Steelers, Chiefs – are defenses going to show in 2020?
Conventional wisdom suggests offenses get off to rockier starts than defenses as players perfect timing – especially when there's a change under center. If that were true, 2020's circumstances seemed certain to exacerbate the gulf given no team had shared a field with an opponent for at least seven months.
Naturally, this season is on course to be the highest-scoring in history. The 51.3 points scored per game thus far are 3.2 more than any previous campaign in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to this point. The 371 touchdowns scored exceed the previous high-water mark (2018) after four weeks by 27.
Purists may hate it, but – like most aspects of life in 2020 – the scoring outburst adds a chaotic element to most any contest, rendering nearly any lead surmountable.
Just ask the Falcons.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis
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