Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Five NFL players overperforming and five underperforming entering Week 6: Saquon Barkley, Geno Smith on a tear

The NFL is full of wonderful mysteries through the first quarter of its 2022 season. Not much was expected of either team residing in New Jersey, the Giants and the Jets, yet both would be playoff teams if the season ended today. The Giants (4-1) and Jets (3-2) have winning records simultaneously for the first time since 2015. Other teams labeled Super Bowl contenders in the offseason like the Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and defending Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles have struggled out of the gate.

Just like the previously mentioned teams, many players have drastically exceeded or struggled to meet expectations through the first five weeks this season. Here are some of the most noteworthy standouts in both directions at the conclusion of Week 5.

OVERPERFORMERS

Geno Smith

Only the most naively optimistic Seattle Seahawks fan could have predicted that career backup Geno Smith (34 starts in his first eight seasons and five from 2015-2021) was going to out-play his nine-time Pro Bowl predecessor Russell Wilson, whom the Seahawks traded to the Denver Broncos. However, that’s exactly what has transpired through the season’s first five games.  Not even the Seahawks themselves could have predicted Smith’s play so far since his backup Drew Lock was “the quarterback general manager John Schneider wanted” when looking at Wilson trades last offseason according to ESPN

Comparing Geno Smith, Russell Wilson in 2022

Completion %

75.2%*

59.4%

Pass YPG

261.0

250.8

TD-INT

9-2

4-3

Passer Rating

113.2*

82.8

* Leads NFL

Smith’s completion percentage of 75.2% doesn’t just lead all quarterbacks this season, it ranks as the fourth-best mark through the first five weeks of a season in the last 75 years among players with over 100 passing attempts. 

Highest completion % through Week 5 in last 75 years

He isn’t padding his stats by only throwing checkdowns, as his average depth of target (aDOT) of 8.9 yards is the 12th-highest in the NFL. It’s a higher mark than Josh Allen’s (8.4), Patrick Mahomes‘ (7.9), Tom Brady’s (7.8) and Joe Burrow’s (7.4). His stat line of 268 passing yards and three passing touchdowns in Seattle’s 39-32 road loss against the New Orleans Saints in Week 5 gave him just his third career game with three or more scoring strikes and no interceptions. The three passing touchdowns tied his single-game career-high. 

While he may not be the Seahawks’ quarterback of the future, the 32-year-old is setting himself up to cash in come free agency next offseason, demonstrating he’s capable of much more than his first eight NFL seasons had indicated. 

Jared Goff

Jared Goff got dumped by the Los Angeles Rams in 2021, the team that traded up to select him first overall in 2016, and had to suffer through last season watching his replacement, Matthew Stafford, do what he could not, lead the Rams to a Super Bowl victory. Even with his Detroit Lions serving as the featured team on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” Goff still couldn’t capture much screen time, not getting any extended close-ups until the penultimate fourth episode of the five-episode reality television series. This season, he has outshined his Hollywood replacement by a wide margin. 

Comparing Jared Goff, Matthew Stafford in 2022

Pass YPG

271.0*

264.6*

TD-INT

11-4*

4-7

Passer Rating

92.9

82.4

* Top 10 in NFL

“Yeah, I mean, I don’t see why not,” Lions head coach DanCampbell said, via the Detroit News last December when asked if Goff could be the team’s long-term quarterback. “He’s playing pretty good ball right now.”

Goff’s play this season had been consistently strong despite injuries to some of his top playmakers like running back D’Andre Swift (shoulder) and wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown (ankle) and D.J. Chark (ankle). Even with last week’s 29-0 road stinker against Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, the coaching staff that held him and his Rams to only three points in Super Bowl 53, Goff’s Lions are averaging 28 points per game, the third-most in the NFL behind only Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs (31.8 PPG)  and Josh Allen’s Buffalo Bills (30.4). That’s the definition of overperforming expectations. 

Saquon Barkley

Saquon Barkley looked like he lost a step, or five, last season, his first one back after missing the final 14 games of the 2020 season with a torn ACL. The 2021 season output was the worst of his career: 856 scrimmage yards, his first season under 1,000 when playing at least 10 games, as he shook off the rust from the ACL injury. It was also his first season averaging under 4.5 yards per carry (3.7 in 2021). 

It was a stark contrast to what Barkley looked like as a rookie: a future Hall of Famer, leading the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,028) in 2018, joining Eric Dickerson (1983) and Edgerrin James (1999) as the only rookies with over 2,000 scrimmage yards in NFL history. He followed that successful year with another solid season, 1,443 scrimmage yards, in 2019.

This season, he’s within shouting distance of his 2021 total with an NFL-best 676 scrimmage yards through the first five weeks. Barkley’s three rushing touchdowns this season are more than he had in his 15 games played in 2020 and 2021 combined (2). He’s on pace for 2,298 yards from scrimmage in 2022, which would rank as the 12th-highest single-season total in NFL history. Barkley is also exhibiting the moves of an elite running back, appearing to have just as much burst and agility as when he entered the NFL in 2018, leaving the ankles of the Green Bay Packers defenders strewn across the field, or rather the pitch, in London.

Barkley’s first five games: 2018 vs. 2022

Touches

102

115

Scrimmage Yards

582

676

Scrimmage Yards/Touch

5.7

5.9

Scrimmage Touchdowns

5

3

* 2018: Led NFL in scrimmage yards and won Offensive Rookie of the Year

The discussion prior to this season regarding Barkley centered around this season being the last for the former second overall draft pick as a member of the Giants. Now, the topic has shifted to what the money on his new contract should look like and could he sign an extension in-season. Hats off to Barkley, he’s a shining star once again. 

Marquise Brown

Over his last two seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, Marquise Brown became more notable for dropping potential touchdowns than catching them. The low point occurred in Week 3 last season at the Detroit Lions when he dropped three potential touchdowns, but the receiver was fortunately spared from costing the Ravens the game when kicker Justin Tucker had an NFL record 66-yard field goal as time expired to win that game 19-17. 

The baggage clearly wore on Brown as Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta confirmed that his first draft selection on the job, 25th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, requested a trade early into the 2022 offseason. The wide receiver’s wish was granted as he and a third round pick were flipped to the Arizona Cardinals on the first night of the most recent draft for the 23rd overall pick. A reunion with his college quarterback from their University of Oklahoma days, Kyler Murray, couldn’t have been a better landing spot for Brown to restart his career. 

His 55 targets and 38 receptions are career-highs for the fourth-year pro through the first five games of a season, and Brown is on-pace to break his previous season career-highs in every receiving statistic in 2022. 

Marquise Brown in 2022

Targets

55

T-2nd

Receptions

38

T-4th

Receiving Yards

417

T-6th

Receiving Touchdowns

3

T-5th

His current career-highs are: 146 (2021), 91 receptions (2021), 1,008 receiving yards (2021), and eight receiving touchdowns (2020). Brown is on pace for 149 targets, 129 receptions, 1,417 receiving yards, and 10 receiving touchdowns. If he maintains his current trajectory and ends up with 129 receptions, he will shatter DeAndre Hopkins‘ standing franchise single-season record of 115, set in 2020. However, Brown’s production may simmer down slightly when Hopkins, the three-time First-Team All-Pro, returns from his six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s PED policy and eats into Brown’s target share. No matter what, Brown has shown he can shoulder the load as a legitimate number one and borderline top five wide receiver, something that would have seemed like a pipe dream just a year ago.  

Alex Highsmith

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith wasn’t an overnight NFL sensation after being selected in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, starting only five of his 16 games as a rookie. However, he snagged a full-time starting role a year ago and tripled his rookie sack total of two sacks with six in 2021. Highsmith had half of his 2021 career-high total in the Steelers’ 23-20 overtime road win in Week 1 against the Cincinnati Bengals, winning with quickness and agility off the line of scrimmage while finishing takedowns of Joe Burrow with unrelenting determination.

His two-and-a-half sacks since have him at five-and-half for the season (tied for fifth-most in the NFL) and on-pace for an All-Pro level of quarterback takedowns of 18.5. Though he may find it harder and harder to approach that number as the season continues with the absence of T.J. Watt, the NFL’s leader in sacks over the last two years, as teams continue to focus on limiting his production, Highsmith has proved he can be much more than a role player. His 5.5 sacks this season are tied for the fourth-most in the NFL and his 18 pressures rank inside the top 20. 

“I think that it’s a natural maturation process that he’s going through,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said following Highsmith’s three-sack performance in Week 1. “His second year, he moves into a starting role and does an admirable job there. A varsity job there. So, I think it’s reasonable to expect that he’s going to continue to improve in the ways that he’s done since he’s been here. I don’t know that any one of us is shocked by the performance. As a matter of fact, most of us are expecting it to continue. You’re not going to get three sacks each and every week, but he’s a good player, and he’s a man to be reckoned with for sure.”

High praise from a coach who doesn’t hand out compliments lightly.

UNDERPERFORMERS

Russell Wilson

Any and all optimism that was surrounding the Denver Broncos in the offseason has completely vanished after their 12-9 overtime home defeat against the Jonathan Taylor-less Indianapolis Colts on “Thursday Night Football,” which has them out to a 2-3 start. The biggest reason for that is their acquisition of 9-time Pro Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson, whom the team traded three players and five draft picks (including two first round picks) for back in March, looks like a swing-and-miss at this point. The Broncos have the worst red zone touchdown percentage (21.4%) through the first five games of a season since the 2008 Rams (20.0%), who finished that season 2-14. Wilson is off to one of the worst starts to a season in his 11-year career.

Wilson’s stats in 2022

Completion %

59.4%

2nd-worst

Pass TD

4

Worst

Passer Rating

82.8 

2nd-worst

The eye test may be even worse for Wilson than his numbers so far. He missed a wide-open KJ Hamler on fourth down in overtime Thursday night for what would have been the game-winning touchdown. Wilson appeared to have pre-determined he was throwing to Courtland Sutton the entire play, a surprising sequence from a passer with his experience and credentials. 

If the Broncos don’t figure out their offensive woes quickly, their marriage to Wilson could age poorly. The team doubled-down on their trade for Wilson by signing the 33-year-old (who turns 34 in November) to a five-year, $245 million extension before the start of the season, when Wilson still had two years left on his current contract. For better or worse, the parties are tied at the hip through Wilson’s age-40 season in 2028 while he makes an average of $49 million a season, the second-highest figure in the entire NFL behind only Aaron Rodgers‘ $50 million. 

Matt Ryan

What has transpired offensively during the Indianapolis Colts’ 2-2-1 start to the season with potential Hall of Famer Matt Ryan as their quarterback instead of the combustible Carson Wentz is not what owner Jim Irsay thought his team was signing up for. After calling Wentz’s 2021 season in Indy “a mistake” and “a very obvious” situation to move away from, the switch to the 37-year-old Ryan has done the opposite of stabilizing their offense. 

Ryan looks stiff and slow moving in the pocket, which has contributed to him being intercepted seven times and sacked 21 times already this season, tied for the most in each category in the NFL with Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford. Ryan’s league-leading 11 fumbles so far are historic as no one has put the ball on the ground more through the first five games of a season since the AFL-NFL 1970 merger. As a result, the Colts have mustered the third-fewest points (69) by a team with a .500 or better record through five games in the 21st Century. 

Fewest points through five games (with .500 record or better)*

2017

Dolphins

61

3-2

2006

Broncos

62

4-1

2022

Colts

69

2-2-1

* Since 2000

The Colts are fortunate to be .500 through five games, but Ryan has a long way to go to make the Colts’ decision to bring him into the fold look like anything else than a humongous whiff. 

Matthew Stafford

Matthew Stafford and the Rams have one of the more noticeable cases of Super Bowl hangover in recent memory. Fresh off a Super Bowl LVI title, a career-high 41 touchdown passes and a four-year, $160 million contract extension, Stafford entered the 2022 season living the good life. All of the positive vibes from breaking through and playing big in the playoffs for the first time in his career have evaporated in 2022. 

The Rams have scored 10 or fewer points in three games this season, the most such games in the entire NFL. They only had seven such games in head coach Sean McVay’s first five seasons in charge from 2017-2021. Thanks to the retirement of left tackle Andrew Whitworth and injuries to starting interior offensive linemen Brian Allen and David Edwards as well as wide receiver Van Jefferson, Stafford has exclusively locked on to his safety blanket, reigning Super Bowl MVP and Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp to even greater heights. This has left big-ticket free agent signing (three years, $46.5 million) wide receiver Allen Robinson (23 targets, 12 receptions, 107 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown) likely wondering what he did wrong.  

Stafford’s tunnel vision for Kupp has led to him missing other receivers or holding on to the football too long, resulting in him currently co-leading the NFL in interceptions (7) and sacks taken (21) with Colts quarterback Matt Ryan. With the NFC East looking much improved and providing more competition for wild card spots, Stafford needs to find his groove quickly if the Rams are to avoid missing the playoffs as the league’s defending champion, something that hasn’t been since the Peyton Manning-less Denver Broncos in 2016. 

Kyle Pitts

Kyle Pitts became the highest-drafted tight end in the Common Draft Era (since 1967) when the Atlanta Falcons selected him fourth overall in 2021, as he elicited comparisons to “in-his-prime Jimmy Graham” from CBS Sports NFL Draft expert Chris Trapasso. 

Pitts’ lived up to the hype as a rookie with 1,026 receiving yards, making him the second tight end in NFL history with over 1,000 yards in his first year, joining Hall of Famer Mike Ditka (1,076 receiving yards in 1961). However, Year 2 has been a slog for the player. Through four games played (missed Week 5 at the Buccaneers with a hamstring injury), he has caught 10 of his 22 targets for 150 receiving yards and no touchdowns. Pitts has totaled fewer than 30 receiving yards in three of his four games this season, something that only happened to him four times in 17 games as a rookie. 

The Falcons have transitioned to one of the most run-heavy offenses in football (54.5% run percentage, second in the NFL behind only the Chicago Bears) with Marcus Mariota taking the snaps in Atlanta instead of Matt Ryan. However, Pitts has been targeted 17 fewer times (39 to 22) than their eighth overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, wide receiver Drake London.  Having lost by a combined 11 points in their three defeats this season, it would seem that making Pitts a bigger part of the offense could pay dividends for the Falcons and maybe flip some of those L’s into W’s. 

“It’s a game of cat and mouse, and sometimes he’s No. 1 on the progression and they [defenses] take it away, and we go to other places,” Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said earlier this season in response to being questioned about Pitts’ role. “The ball will find him. He’s going to break out here again, and we’re going to win because of it.”

Smith better hope so for his sake as the Falcons’ 30th-ranked passing offense (166.8 passing yards/game) desperately needs a jolt for their former top five pick to break through and get back on track this season. 

Chandler Jones

The Raiders traded away 27-year-old and one-time Pro Bowl pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue to make room for a 32-year-old pass rusher, Chandler Jones, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, two-time 1st-Team All-Pro, and member of the 2010’s All-Decade Team. Las Vegas signed Jones to a three-year, $51 million contract in free agency, reuniting former New England Patriots. Jones’ first four seasons (2012-2015) occurred alongside current head coach Josh McDaniels, who was the Patriots offensive coordinator at the time. So far, Jones has zero sacks in five games while recording no more than four quarterback pressures in each of his first five games with the Silver and Black. 

In order to compete in the AFC West against Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs, the six-time defending division champions, and Justin Herbert’s Los Angeles Chargers over the long haul, the Raiders need to be able to disrupt opposing quarterbacks. So far, the Raiders’ other defensive end Maxx Crosby is holding up his end of the bargain, co-leading the NFL in sacks (6.0) and sitting in the top five in quarterback pressures (22, tied for fourth-most) after signing a four-year, $94 million extension in the offseason. Jones needs to carry his weight in order for both he and Crosby to continually get one-on-one matchups, which will be crucial if the Raiders want to break through in a loaded AFC where each of the top contenders is equipped with a young, explosive quarterback. 

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