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Verdicts on NFL players on pace for greatness -- and failure

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Woodson puts onus on McAdoo to fix Giants' O-line issues (0:53)

Darren Woodson wants to see the Giants coach Ben McAdoo do more to protect Eli Manning. (0:53)

The idea of a player or team being "on pace" to do something is a joke until it isn't. Through two weeks last year, Matt Forte was on pace for a 1,568-yard rushing season, while Ezekiel Elliott was on pace for 1,072 yards. Forte finished with 813 yards, just over half of what we saw coming after two games. Elliott ran for 1,065 yards -- nearly hitting that full-season mark -- over his next nine games.

And yet, sometimes, pace does matter. Mike Evans had 169 receiving yards and two scores through two games, for a 1,352-receiving yard, 16-touchdown pace. By the end of the year, Evans was in line with those totals, racking up 1,321 yards and 12 scores. The early, career-high expectations Evans had set for himself through two weeks were met.

It's too early to draw conclusions about what will happen over the rest of 2017 from two weeks, but this is a good point to take stock of what has happened so far, both good and bad. Let's run through some of the notable outliers and surprise packages from around the league and break down whether they're likely to keep at their pace -- or something similar -- over the remainder of the season.


Eli Manning's 10-plus percent sack rate

Currently: Sacked eight times
On pace for: Sacked 64 times

New York's uncompromisingly awful offensive line has made the Cowboys' and Lions' pass rushes look like the '85 Bears in prime time over the past two weeks. The Giants have been built around getting pressure with their front four on defense for more than 30 years now, but general manager Jerry Reese has struggled to repair the other side of the line for several years running.

While Manning can be a punchline at times, one of his hidden virtues has been staying on the field. Manning hasn't missed a game since taking over for Kurt Warner midway through the 2004 season, a streak that stretched to 201 games with Monday's loss to the Lions. One of the biggest reasons why? Manning keeps himself off the turf. Eli had been sacked on just 4.6 percent of his dropbacks heading into the season, and he has been sacked more than 30 times in a season only once.

That season was 2013, when Manning also led the league with 27 interceptions, and it would be no surprise if the two were related. Manning has been under siege in 2017, going down on 10.3 percent of his dropbacks, and while that won't keep up to such an extreme, the situation isn't likely to get much better. The Giants are locked in at left tackle with the excruciating Ereck Flowers and are already down to backups on the right side with Bobby Hart injured. They have no running game to take the load off Manning. Their first-round pick was tight end Evan Engram, a promising athlete who can't block. Even once Odell Beckham Jr. is back, where is the blocking help going to come from?

Even worse, the schedule is about to get a lot more devastating. Over the next five weeks, the Giants have to play the Eagles, Chargers, Broncos and Seahawks, who have four of the best pass rushes in football. Later in the year, they'll face Aaron Donald, Justin Houston, Chandler Jones and Khalil Mack. It would hardly be a surprise to see Eli hit the turf 40 times or more this season.

Tom Brady leading the league in passing

Currently: 714 passing yards
On pace for: 5,712 passing yards

You don't need me to tell you that Brady is incredible, but as he enters his 17th season as the Patriots' starter, it's almost a surprise that he hasn't led the league in passing categories more frequently. Brady always ranks near the top of most passing categories, and he routinely posts the best interception rate, but he has less black ink than you might think. Brady has led the league in completion percentage once, yards per attempt once, and both passer rating and passing yardage twice. He racked up a league-high 4,110 yards in 2005, a total that would have ranked 12th in the NFL last season, before throwing for 4,806 yards during that legendary 2007 campaign.

Will he add a third passing title to his already-teeming and entirely fictitious statistical trophy room for a third time? It seems unlikely. Brady's volume hasn't changed -- he's averaging 37.5 passes per game through two contests, right in line with the 37.3 passes per game he averaged over the three previous seasons -- but he's generating 9.5 yards per pass attempt, which would be the third-best mark since the NFL merger behind Kurt Warner and, of all people, Chris Chandler on the Dirty Bird Falcons.

It's true that the Pats have thrown deeper this season after adding Brandin Cooks and losing Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, with Brady averaging 10.7 air yards per pass, third in the league. Brady was 27th in the league in the same category between 2014 and 2016, averaging 7.7 air yards per pass. The latter seems more meaningful and likely to win out to me, given Brady's skill set and the nature of the Patriots' offense. It wouldn't surprise me if Brady finished over 8.0 air yards per pass or approached 5,000 passing yards, but the Patriots want to stay on schedule, avoid turnovers and keep their defense fresh. That's a recipe for shorter, higher-percentage passes.

Alex Smith averaging 300-plus passing yards per contest

Currently/On pace for: 309.5 passing yards/game

Kareem Hunt leading the league in yards from scrimmage

Currently: 355 yards from scrimmage
On pace for: 2,840 yards from scrimmage

Let's talk about the Chiefs' offense, which vanquished Brady's Patriots during a stunning opening to the 2017 season. Coach Andy Reid has seemingly taken the shackles off Smith, who has more completions on passes traveling more than 25 yards in the air in two games (three) than he did during an entire 14-game campaign in 2014 (two). Smith had nine such throws last season, but this is unquestionably a more aggressive downfield emphasis from a quarterback who was criticized for holding the Chiefs back by checking down over the past several seasons.

Will he keep that up? Probably not. It's tough to believe that Smith is a totally changed passer after two games given that we have years of evidence to the contrary. Smith overthrew an open Tyreek Hill on what would have been a long touchdown and hit Chris Conley on a deep fade route to seal the game last weekend against Philadelphia, but on the whole, he averaged just 5.0 air yards per throw against an excellent Eagles defense, well below the 6.5 air yard-average of 2016. Week 1 was probably an exception to the Smith Rule.

His running back might have a stronger case, although Hunt is probably not going to be the best big-play back the game has ever seen. Consider that he already has three 50-plus yard plays through two weeks, which is as many as any running back in the league had over the full 17-week slate in any of the past four seasons. The last time any single back had more than three 50-plus yard plays in a campaign was when Adrian Peterson produced seven of them during his MVP season in 2012.

Can Hunt lead the league in yards from scrimmage, though? It's certainly possible, especially given how his 355 yards have him more than 100 yards ahead of second-place Antonio Brown (244) through two games. The Chiefs look like an excellent team, which means plenty of fourth-quarter carries while finishing off trailing opponents, with one of the few effective offensive lines in football. Hunt has also established himself as a workhorse back, racking up 30 carries to just one for backup Charcandrick West. If Hunt can stay healthy, he's as good of a candidate to approach 2,000 yards from scrimmage as anybody else in the league.

Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and J.J. Watt get shut out

Currently: Zero combined sacks
On pace for: Zero combined sacks

The Texans were the presumptive favorites to lead the league in sacks heading into the 2017 season thanks to their three star edge rushers, with Watt returning from back surgery to accompany the duo of Clowney and Mercilus, who combined for 13.5 sacks and 39 quarterback hits in the future Hall of Famer's absence a year ago. With both Clowney and Watt healthy to start the season and the Jaguars coming to town, a hot start seemed in the cards.

Instead, through two games, Houston's threesome has exactly zero sacks. Benardrick McKinney and Kareem Jackson have the Texans' three sacks, while the three edge rushers have combined for two hits, both by Watt, on a combined 308 snaps. The game script against the Jaguars might have kept the hounds off Blake Bortles, but against a dismal Bengals offensive line, Houston's big three couldn't sack Andy Dalton once on 38 dropbacks.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. Watt, after all, is coming back from a serious back surgery. The hype surrounding Clowney has always been about what he could do based on a series of stunning plays going back to college; even in his breakout 2016 season, Clowney mustered only six sacks and 17 knockdowns, roughly in line with Emmanuel Ogbah's 5.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits.

And yet, we're probably a little too harsh to judge the Texans after two games. Think about the 2013 Rams, who finished third in the league in sacks with a core of Michael Brockers, Chris Long and Robert Quinn before adding Aaron Donald in the first round of the 2014 draft. Through the first six weeks of the 2014 season, the Rams accrued exactly one sack. From Week 7 on, though, their 39 sacks led the league. The Texans, with similar talent up front, should get going soon enough.

C.J. Anderson leading the league in rushing

Currently: 199 rushing yards
On pace for: 1,592 rushing yards

It's a surprise to see Anderson leading the league in rush attempts and being second in rushing yards given his relative ineffectiveness last season and the tough schedule the Broncos faced to start the season. While the Broncos have gotten out to early leads against the Chargers and Cowboys, Anderson hasn't been salting away games late; 25 of his 45 carries have come during the first half of Denver's wins.

Can he keep it up? Probably not. For one, even given those first-half splits, rushing titles are almost always won by players on playoff teams with opportunities to kill clock in the fourth quarter. Even after the 2-0 start, ESPN's Football Power Index projects the Broncos to win only 9.5 games, meaning that Trevor Siemian will need to throw to catch up in the second half of games close to half of the time.

More notably, Anderson has virtually no track record of holding up against this sort of workload; he had one four-game stretch toward the end of the 2014 season with a total of 109 carries, but Anderson has only eight 20-plus carry games to his name in five seasons as a pro back. It's fair to wonder if he'll be able to hold up.

Todd Gurley averaging more than 100 yards from scrimmage per game

Currently/On pace for: 116 scrimmage yards per game

Seven running backs averaged more than 100 yards from scrimmage per game last season. Gurley, who stayed healthy enough to rack up 278 carries, was not among them. A frustrating season and an unforgivably bad offensive line held the former Georgia star to 75.8 yards per game, but Gurley has his mojo back so far in 2017. He already has three touchdowns, half of his 2016 total, and he's leaping over defenders on the way to the end zone.

I suspect Gurley should be able to make it past 100 scrimmage yards per game, a feat he narrowly missed as a rookie in 2015 before coming well short last season. New coach Sean McVay has emphasized the role Gurley will play in the red zone, and while Lance Dunbar might eventually steal some of Gurley's snaps on third down when healthy, Gurley is guaranteed virtually all of the rush attempts. The Rams should also be better than they were in 2016, meaning Gurley will have a few extra wins to close out in the fourth quarter.

Cincinnati's league-worst red zone offense

Currently/On pace for: 1.5 points per red zone trip

It's almost impossible for a team to be as bad as the Bengals have been in the red zone through two games. Assuming a single extra point for each touchdown, the average NFL team scored 5.27 points per red zone trip last season, ranging from 5.98 points for the Titans to 4.33 points for the Jets. The worst red zone offense since 2002 is the 2009 Rams, who racked up a mere 3.82 points on each of their rare trips inside the 20.

Those numbers should tell you that the Bengals aren't going to average 1.5 points per red zone possession the rest of the way, but it also points out just how bad Cincinnati has been. Their six trips deep in opposition territory have delivered three field goals, a turnover on downs, a fumble and an interception. Andy Dalton's QBR in the red zone so far this year is pretty bad: 0.0.

The Bengals will get better, but they were right around league average in the red zone last season at 5.33 points per trip. I'll be surprised if they end up getting back there by the end of 2017. A team with A.J. Green always has a shot, but the Cincinnati offensive line is an absolute mess, and it'll take some sudden development from tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher to give Dalton the time he needs to operate. Tyler Eifert is also struggling with various injuries, so if Cincinnati's star tight end is unavailable yet again, too much might fall on Green and the duo of Joe Mixon and Jeremy Hill.

The Ravens setting an interception record

Currently: Eight interceptions
On pace for: 64 interceptions

Seven defenses recorded one game with four or more interceptions last season. None recorded a second such game. The new-look Ravens defense, though, has picked off the opposing quarterback four times in each of its first two games this season. The defense is on pace for 64 picks, which would shatter the AFL record of 49 (set in 1961) and the NFL record of 42, which was set in 1946. No team since the AFL-NFL merger has topped the 39 interceptions racked up by the 49ers in 1986, which included 10 from future Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott.

The Ravens aren't getting to 64 interceptions. Could they make it to 40? They're off to a great start, but it's close to impossible. The 1986 49ers were playing in an era when an even 4.0 percent of passes were being turned into interceptions leaguewide. Interception rates have nearly been cut in half since then; teams are throwing more, but just 2.3 percent of passes resulted in interceptions last season. No team made it over 18 picks last season; the Ravens would need 32 in 14 games. It's more plausible that the Ravens, who tied for the league lead with 18 interceptions last season, will hold the crown on their own this time.

Jacksonville leading the league in sacks

Currently: 11 sacks
On pace for: 88 sacks

This really amounts to one incredible game, as the Jaguars took down Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson 10 times as part of a dominant performance in Week 1. The Jags followed it with a lone sack of Marcus Mariota during their Week 2 loss to the Titans, and even with a second game against the Texans due in Week 15, they're probably not going to make it to double digits again. The only team in league history to put up two 10-sack games in one season is the 1984 Bears.

These Jags aren't as good as the Mike Ditka-era Bears, but could they lead the league in sacks? I buy it. In addition to the Texans, the Jaguars still get to play the Bengals, Browns, Jets, 49ers and get two games against the Colts, each of whom have eminently sackable quarterbacks. The Jags have a pair of young pass-rushers in Dante Fowler and Yannick Ngakoue, each of whom could take a leap forward while playing alongside Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson. The only concern is that the teams who lead the league in sacks are often average-or-better, and while the Jags impressed in Week 1, it remains to be seen whether they'll hit .500 this season.

Jason Witten leading the league in receptions

Currently: 17 catches
On pace for: 136 catches

This many receptions would be tied for the second most in a single season alongside Antonio Brown and Julio Jones while coming up seven short of Marvin Harrison. Witten, meanwhile, just finished what was his least productive season as a full-time starter by producing just 673 receiving yards. He hasn't even seen 136 targets since 2012, when he was thrown the ball 147 times and caught 110 passes, the standing record for tight ends.

I don't think Witten is going to lead the league in receptions, although it's hardly his fault. For one, the Cowboys have a healthy Ezekiel Elliott and Dez Bryant in their lineup, and they're going to get the bulk of the touches as long as they're around. I also suspect the Cowboys aren't going to throw the ball as frequently as they have so far. Dak Prescott, Mark Sanchez, and Tony Romo averaged just more than 30 pass attempts per game last season. Prescott has thrown 89 passes in two games this season for an average of nearly 45 passes per contest. With Elliott in the backfield, the Cowboys are always going to be a run-first team. Another 100-catch season would be a nice bow on a Hall of Fame career for Witten, who is quietly one of the best players at his position in league history.