Difference-makers: Ten surprising people who've had early impact
Chicago fifth-round pick
Casting our gaze league-wide, and taking the measure of rookies, veterans and coaches alike, here are 10 surprising impact performers who have quickly emerged as difference-makers this season:
At Abilene Christian, the largest crowd Knox played in front of was 18,000 or so. But in his first two regular season games, he has handled the pressure of a Sunday night game at Lambeau Field and a home-opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. And Knox isn't just surviving, he's prospering. His 68-yard catch of a Cutler bomb at Green Bay was eye-opening, but his game-tying 7-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter of the Bears' 17-14 upset of the Steelers on Sunday was a revelation.
On a Bears offense starved for playmakers, Knox is quickly demanding attention from both Cutler and opposing defenses. He had a team-best six catches for 70 yards and that touchdown against Pittsburgh, and his eight receptions this season have produced a team-high 152 yards (19.0 average). He's proving his game includes more than just speed -- his 4.26 time in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine was this year's best -- and if he and Cutler can produce even two-thirds of the 91 completions that Cutler and rookie receiver
If I told you in July that the Saints leading rusher after two games would be a guy with a four-letter last name starting with B, you would have thought
Bell suffered a sprained MCL at Philly last Sunday, and that may keep him out at least this week at Buffalo. Ironically, it was a preseason MCL sprain by
We really couldn't have seen this coming because in his previous five NFL seasons, Odom amassed all of 15½ sacks, with his eight in 2007 for Tennessee earning him a five-year, $24.5 million free-agent contract from the Bengals last year. Odom had just three sacks in 12 games for Cincinnati last season, starting only eight games due to injury issues. Consider this: Green Bay has been playing pro football for awhile now, and before Odom's tour de force, the Packers had never given up as many as five sacks to any individual in any game.
Why is it that the light goes on for some players far past the point you would reasonably expect? Huff was drafted seventh overall out of Texas in 2006, but he was bust material in his first three NFL seasons, recording just one interception and one fumble recovery in his 48 career games. He even lost his starting job in midseason last year, being benched by Raiders coach
This year? Completely different story, and a different player so far. Through two games, Huff has been a play-making machine for Oakland, picking off an NFL-leading three passes and recovering a fumble. That's more production in eight quarters than he managed in the previous 192 quarters. His fourth-quarter interception of
Now in his third NFL season, the Bills running back was hardly an unknown entering 2009, given he rushed for 571 yards and three touchdowns last season as Buffalo's No. 2 back behind starter Marshawn Lynch. But while everyone seemed to be worried about what the Bills would do during Lynch's three-game, season-opening league suspension, Buffalo felt good enough about Jackson to cut veteran
In the opener at New England, Jackson gained 53 yards on 15 carries and added 83 more and a touchdown on just five receptions. In Sunday's home opener against Tampa Bay, he shredded the once-proud Bucs defense for 163 yards rushing on 28 attempts and caught six more passes for 25 yards. That was not only his career-best rushing yardage, it was more than Lynch has ever run for in a game as the Bills' lead running back the past two years. When you factor in the 136-yard showing Jackson had against the Patriots in Week 17 last season, he has rushed for 352 yards in his past three games, or 117.3 per week. Can you say running back controversy?
I'll grant you that Dumervil was hardly unheralded entering this season, having led the Broncos with 12½ sacks in 2007. But that was as an undersized defensive end in the Broncos 4-3 defense, and this year he made the switch to outside linebacker as Denver transitioned to a 3-4 formation. So far, so great.
Dumervil had four sacks of
No one in the league except for Odom has more sacks this season than Dumervil's four, and his two-sacks-per-game average this season dwarfs his previous career totals of 26 sacks in 45 games, or .58 per game. Just compare that to another veteran defensive end making the move to outside linebacker in the 3-4 -- Green Bay's
"I had a little success before, but you watch the 3-4 linebackers around the league, guys like
It took about 30 seconds for Laurinaitis to win the starting middle linebacker job in training camp, and the second-round pick from Ohio State has taken charge ever since. Not only does Laurinaitis rank fourth in the NFL with 22 tackles, but also he never comes off the field and he makes the defensive calls for the Rams, which is a pretty big dose of responsibility for a rookie in a St. Louis defense that's overseen by head coach and former Giants defensive coordinator
What Laurinaitis might lack in terms of overwhelming athleticism he makes up for with great instincts, superb preparation and a fierce competitiveness. He made 14 tackles (10 solo) in his first regular season game, a loss at Seattle, and followed that with eight more tackles (six solo) in the Rams' 9-7 loss at Washington. He's on a pace for 192 tackles this season, which is just one shy of
Through two games Jackson has already topped his sack total as a rookie, leading Seattle with three sacks after recording two in 2008, when he struggled to contribute after being the Seahawks first-round pick out of USC. Despite not starting, and playing only as part of Seattle's line rotation so far, Jackson had a sack in the home-opening shutout of St. Louis in Week 1, and added two more sacks and a fumble forced in the Seahawks' 23-10 loss at San Francisco on Sunday.
Jackson is healthy after a preseason shoulder injury, and like a lot of young defensive linemen, is seen as a potential late bloomer whose second season might look nothing like his first (Houston defensive end
The Vikings fourth-year linebacker had a career day last Sunday at Detroit, intercepting Lions rookie quarterback
With Greenway performing confidently in a key play-making role, the Vikings defense has allowed just 26 points in two games, and one of the two touchdowns it has allowed came in a garbage-time setting on opening day at Cleveland. The Vikings are off to their first 2-0 start since 2006 and own first place in the NFC North entering their Week 3 home-opener against unbeaten San Francisco.
With a nod to the 2-0 start
Ryan, the former Baltimore defensive coordinator, is following the 2008 Ravens' blueprint of winning with a rookie quarterback to a tee. New York's strong running game and defense do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and the Jets look for opportunities to let rookie Mark Sanchez impact the game from a position of strength. So far, Sanchez's work on third downs has drawn respect and raves from around the league. On defense, Ryan has the Jets playing in the aggressive, force-the-issue style of Baltimore's long-successful defense. New York rushed six or more defenders against