With Week 5 now in the books, the second quarter of the 2017 NFL regular season is underway, and the trade deadline is looming. So far, the season has delivered plenty of drama and excitement, and more is on the way.
Parity is alive and well in the NFL. Just ask the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Los Angeles Rams, two teams that have transformed themselves from cellar-dwellers to contenders in their respective divisions over the course of a single offseason.
Conversely, for Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliot and the Dallas Cowboys, all the preseason hype may not be enough to save those two young players from suffering a sophomore slump in 2017. It could be worse, though. The New York Giants — who were 11-5 last season — stand on the precipice of an 0-6 abyss.
A season full of surprises promises to provide many more before it’s over. With this in mind, here are 10 unheralded players primed to be the “X-Factor” for their team on Sunday.
The former first-round pick’s first five seasons were marred by a string of off-the-field incidents that ultimately prompted the Jets to part ways with the talented defensive tackle. Richardson was acquired via trade by the Seahawks during the offseason and, so far, seems to be responding well to the change of venue.
Seattle has been in search of an adequate replacement at defensive tackle since former stalwart Brandon Mebane opted to enter free agency last offseason. Richardson may have found a home in Seattle, where the physical traits that prompted the Jets to draft him in the first round have been on full display for his new team. Last week, in an important win over the Rams, Richardson registered his first career interception and recovered a fumble to help his new team regain their lead atop the NFC West standings.
Richardson plays a key role in Seattle’s defense, soaking up blockers in the trenches to free up teammates like Michael Bennett and KJ Wright to make plays in the backfield. If he continues to perform like he has, he’ll get every opportunity to solidify himself as the anchor for the Seahawks’ front seven for years to come.
At this stage of Cooper Kupp’s NFL career, we can be sure about two things. First, the Rams’ rookie wideout is a true competitor, demanding the most out of himself during games. Second, the young man can play in this league. Kupp’s 17 catches for 230 yards and two touchdowns in the first five games have put to rest any questions about whether or not his skill set translates well to the professional level.
The Rams’ faith in the small-school prospect out of Eastern Washington seems well placed at this early stage. The former third-round pick has already developed good chemistry with second-year quarterback Jared Goff. Kupp has the look of a quality possession receiver that can consistently take advantage of single coverage and also be counted on to make plays downfield when his number is called.
Just five weeks into his rookie season, linebacker Jarrad Davis has made his presence felt. Taken in the first round of the draft back in April, the investment in Davis is paying immediate dividends for a team in search of more physicality on defense. His impact, especially against the run, has been clear.
When Davis was diagnosed with a concussion following the Lions’ Week 2 win over the Giants, Detroit failed to demonstrate the same level of physicality in the two games that followed without him on the field. Davis returned in Week 5 to face the visiting Panthers and so did the Lions’ run defense. In his three starts, opposing defenses ran for a combined 135 yards, averaging just over two yards per carry. By comparison, in two games without Davis, the Lions’ defense surrendered 239 yards rushing and a five yards per carry average.
If his performance over the first five weeks of the NFL season is any indication, Davis should be wreaking havoc in his opponents’ backfield for years to come.
Now in his eighth season out of Toledo, the veteran defensive back who spent his first seven seasons with the Cowboys is off to his strongest start since 2013, when he led the team’s defense with 107 tackles. Church’s numbers declined steadily over the next three seasons, though, prompting the Cowboys to look in other directions when his contract expired at the end of the 2016 season.
This season, however — surrounded by a much better supporting cast in Jacksonville — Church seems primed for a career-year. One thing is certain: He’ll get far more opportunities to make plays than he did in Dallas by virtue of the Jaguars’ fierce pass rush. Look for Church to utilize his experience and take advantage of increased opportunities created by the Jaguars’ dominant front seven.
Following a rookie campaign in which Hunter Henry established himself as the heir-apparent to Antonio Gates, the sophomore tight end is off to a slow start for the Chargers in 2017. Splitting time with Gates, Henry finished 2016 with 36 catches, 8 touchdowns and a whopping 13.3 yards per carry average.
Though expectations were high coming into this season, Henry hasn’t been targeted enough to meet them early on. He’s made the most of limited opportunities, however, and has seen himself become more involved in the offense a bit more each week. Expect that trend to continue as Henry has consistently demonstrated his play-making ability virtually every time he’s targeted.
Selected in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, rookie running back Aaron Jones is leaving no doubt about his ability to play at the professional level. With 174 yards on 32 carries (two touchdowns), Jones has seen his touches increase in each of the last two games, and that trend should continue.
So far, Jones has proven to be a decisive, downhill runner, with the speed and ability to de-cleat defenders in the open field. He also demonstrated soft hands and great body control on a sideline catch late in the second quarter against the Cowboys last Sunday. Jones has earned the trust of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the coaching staff, and he should continue to be involved in the offense going forward.
Playing in the shadow of a phenom like Derek Carr isn’t easy. Raiders’ backup quarterback EJ Manuel has some man-sized shoes to fill, should Carr be unable to go this coming Sunday when the Chargers come to town.
As critical as a Week 6 contest can be, this matchup between division rivals is all but a must-win for both clubs, and neither will be leaving anything on the table. Though word out of Raiders’ camp is that Carr will likely play this Sunday, it seems more likely that this is just an attempt at gamesmanship, hoping to keep the Chargers guessing.
The type of back injury Carr suffered typically requires a recovery time of 2-6 weeks. Given Carr’s importance, the Raiders aren’t likely to take any chances. Sending him out against one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the league, with Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, seems ill-advised unless Carr truly is 100 percent.
Should Manuel get the start as some suspect, he’ll have ample opportunities to make plays against a defense that’s made a habit of making opposing quarterbacks look good, no matter who’s behind center.
How can the Texans soften the blow of losing J.J. Watt for the season? They can score more points, of course. Second-year speedster Will Fuller can help with that.
Drafted in the first round by Houston last season, Fuller is emerging as a viable go-to guy for Texans’ rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson. After suffering a broken collarbone during the preseason, the young wideout returned to action in a Week 4 drubbing of the Tennessee Titans, and wasted no time in making his presence known. In just two games, the sophomore receiver has recorded six catches, four touchdowns and a 15.3 yards-per-catch average.
His ability to stretch the field opens everything up for the Texans’ offense, and as a legitimate scoring threat, Fuller appears primed to take the next step towards becoming one of the NFL’s dynamic wide receivers.
Roger Lewis is the next man up in New York, as it relates to the team’s wide receiver depth chart. Lewis is guaranteed to receive an expanded role following injuries to Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, Dwayne Harris and Sterling Shepard, all suffered during the Giants’ loss to the Chargers last Sunday.
Though they’ve also brought wide receiver Travis Rudolph up from the practice squad and re-signed Tavarres King, who was waived last month, the Giants will surely be looking for more depth wherever they can find it. Still, Lewis has the most experience in the system and presumably, the best timing and familiarity with quarterback Eli Manning, and should expect to be targeted more frequently as a result.
Despite playing a major role in the Cowboys’ impressive 2016 campaign, speedy (albeit diminutive) slot receiver Cole Beasley has gotten off to a relatively slow start this season. Beasley had a breakout season for Dallas in 2016 with 75 catches and five touchdowns, playing mostly out of the slot.
Though he wasn’t targeted as much early on this season, his two touchdowns in last week’s home loss to the Packers should be a signal of good things to come. A viable weapon whose skillset creates serious mismatches for opposing defenses, Beasley won’t remain underutilized for long. Look for the Cowboys to take steps to get him more involved in the offense moving forward, and for his number of catches to increase.