Each NFL team’s most surprising player this season
Houston Texans – Deshaun Watson, QB
Prior to suffering an unfortunate torn ACL, Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson was surprising the entire NFL on a weekly basis. After taking over for Tom Savage in the first game of the season, Watson looked like a seasoned pro, getting things done with both his arm and legs. He was completing nearly 62% of his passes with 19 touchdowns, and was averaging nearly 250 yards passing per game before his injury. Watson was well on his way to winning Rookie of the Year prior to being untimely derailed.
Indianapolis Colts – Rashaan Melvin, CB
This spot could have just as easily gone to quarterback Andrew Luck given that few expected him to miss the entire season, but Rashaan Melvin’s season has been too impressive to ignore. An undrafted rookie journeyman who has spent time with six different teams, Melvin was sort of a throw-in for the Colts to start the season. They liked what they saw in 2016, so they gave him more of an opportunity. Melvin has responded with 36 tackles, two interceptions, and 12 passes defensed this season. He has become the team’s lock-down corner and one of the highest-graded CBs in the league (No. 13 overall) courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Calais Campbell, DE
Many believed the career of 31-year-old Calais Campbell was nearing its end following his departure from the Arizona Cardinals, but he had other ideas. Joining a retooled Jaguars defense, the veteran has shown he has more than a little gas left in the tank. In 10 games this season, Campbell has recorded a career-high 11.5 sacks, which is currently tied for the league lead. He has been a leader of what has turned out to be the nastiest defense in the league. Pro Football Focus also has him graded out as the No. 4 edge rusher in the NFL.
Kansas City Chiefs – Alex Smith, QB
His poor performance against the New York Giants in Week 11 aside, Alex Smith has turned his “game-manager” label on its head in 2017. In 10 games this season, Smith is completing nearly 70% of his passes and has 18 touchdowns to just three interception (he had only one interception entering Week 11). He’s on pace for a career-high 4,200-plus yards to go along with a career-high quarterback rating of 107.6. If the high-powered Chiefs can get back on track, Smith warrants some MVP consideration — no matter how crazy that may seem to some.
Los Angeles Chargers – Chris McCain, Edge
Any time a role player on a bad team can make an impact, it’s worth noting. And while Chris McCain needs to round out his all-around game, there’s no denying the impact he’s had as a rotational edge rusher for the Chargers. In nine games (no starts), McCain has put relentless pressure on opposing quarterbacks and recorded a career-high five sacks in the process. More valuable than that is the rest he gives to Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, which keeps them fresh and playing dominant football.
Los Angeles Rams – Jared Goff, QB
Every single thing about the Rams in 2017 is a surprise, but perhaps nothing is more surprising than the play of quarterback Jared Goff. In his rookie season, Goff looked confused, over-matched and like potential bust material. However, he returned in 2017 more comfortable and confident in himself and it’s shown. Through 10 games this season, Goff is completing nearly 62% of his passes for 2,610 yards, 16 touchdowns and four interceptions. Most impressive of all, Goff has led the Rams to a 7-3 record and first place in the NFC West.
Miami Dolphins – Jay Ajayi, RB
After a 1,271-yard, eight-touchdown season in 2016, expectations were high for Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi entering the year. However, seven games into the season, Ajayi was averaging just 3.4 yards per carry and it was clear he had fallen out of favor with head coach Adam Gase. With Miami’s offense struggling, the Dolphins pulled the plug, gave up on Ajayi and shockingly traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles. This was not at all the way fans in Miami saw the season going for Ajayi.
Minnesota Vikings – Case Keenum, QB
With Teddy Bridgewater (knee) still out to start the season and Sam Bradford being lost to a knee injury of his own, Case Keenum was thrust into the starting quarterback role for Minnesota. Oh no, right? Wrong. After four rough seasons with the Texans and Rams, Keenum found the right fit with the Vikings. In nine games, he’s completing nearly 66% of his passes for 2,194 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. Even more impressive, the Vikings are 6-2 in his starts (8-2 overall). As Mike Zimmer recently said, you can’t bench the guy when he’s playing this well.
New England Patriots – Stephon Gilmore, CB
Stephon Gilmore was a rare big-name signing for the Patriots this offseason, earning a five-year, $65 million deal. Coming off perhaps his best season, Gilmore established himself as one of the elite corners in the NFL and wasn’t shy about letting people know it. However, he’s been a bit of a letdown in 2017, as he’s dealt with an ankle injury and concussion, and even been benched at times. He’s graded out as the 68th-ranked cornerback in the league according to Pro Football Focus.