UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
More Sports

Difference-makers: Ten surprising people who've had early impact

Nothing against Mark Sanchez, because New York's rookie quarterback has been everything the Jets hoped for and more, but when you go fifth overall in the draft, the bar of expectation is set ridiculously high. The more intriguing story through the first two weeks of the NFL's 2009 season is how much early impact teams are getting from the most unlikely of sources.

Chicago fifth-round pick Johnny Knox, out of Division II Abilene Christian, emerging as Jay Cutler's go-to receiver. Mike Bell enjoying a career renaissance as the Saints leading rusher. Antwan Odom turning into a sack monster for Cincinnati. And Fred Jackson about to Wally Pipp Marshawn Lynch in Buffalo's backfield. That's what we're talking about. Big games from not-so-well-known names.

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:

1. Chicago receiver Johnny Knox

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 Eddie Royal accounted for last year in Denver, it'll be huge for Chicago.

2. New Orleans running back Mike Bell

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 Reggie Bush finally turned the corner. But it's Bell who's consistently making the corner, and heading up field. The onetime Broncos rookie star has 229 yards rushing so far, ranking fourth in the league behind the more celebrated Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson and Frank Gore.

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 Pierre Thomas that gave Bell his opportunity in New Orleans. Bell is averaging a heady 5.1 yards on 45 carries, with his highlight being a 143-yard rushing day against the Lions in Week 1. Not bad for a guy who gained only 45 yards on 19 carries in the past two NFL seasons combined.

3. Cincinnati defensive end Antwan Odom

Poor, Aaron Rodgers. The Packers quarterback developed a case of Odom-phobia last Sunday at Lambeau, after being sacked five times and hit a total of seven times by Odom in the Bengals' 31-24 stunning win over Green Bay. That gave Odom an NFL-leading seven sacks in two games, which puts him on a pace that I'm willing to declare right now he'll never maintain for the whole season (56 sacks would just edge the 2001 league record of 22½ by Michael Strahan).

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.

4. Oakland safety Michael Huff

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 Tom Cable for lack of performance.

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 Matt Cassel in Kansas City on Sunday was critical to Oakland's first win of the season, and his fourth-down pass defensed on the Chiefs final drive sealed the 13-10 victory.

5. Buffalo running back Fred Jackson

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 Dominic Rhodes in the preseason and hand Jackson his biggest opportunity yet. He took it and ran.

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?

6. Denver outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil

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 Brady Quinn in the Broncos' home-opening, 27-6 win over Cleveland on Sunday, and were it not for Odom's five-sack outburst at Green Bay, everybody would have been talking about how far Dumervil has come since the position switch. Led by Dumervil, the Broncos defense has been surprisingly strong, allowing just 13 points in the first two weeks.

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 Aaron Kampman, who has yet to record a sack after totaling 37 in the past three seasons -- and appreciation for Dumervil's transition grows. I talked with Dumervil about the move to linebacker in training camp, and he couldn't wait to start making an impact in his new role.

"I had a little success before, but you watch the 3-4 linebackers around the league, guys like Terrell Suggs, DeMarcus Ware, Joey Porter, and they make all kinds of plays,'' he said. "I want to see how that feels.''

7. St. Louis middle linebacker James Laurinaitis

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 Steve Spagnuolo.

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 London Fletcher's team record of 193 in 2000.

8. Seattle defensive end Lawrence Jackson

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 Mario Williams being a prime example).

9. Minnesota outside linebacker Chad Greenway

The Vikings fourth-year linebacker had a career day last Sunday at Detroit, intercepting Lions rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford twice and adding a fumble recovery to become the first Minnesota linebacker in 13 years to earn NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors (he should be glad that sack-meisters Odom and Dumervil play in the AFC). Greenway, the Vikings 2006 first-round pick, also had four tackles and recovered an onside kick against the Lions, and appears to be ready for a bust-out season. His pair of interceptions doubled his career total.

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.

10. New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan

With a nod to the 2-0 start Mike Singletary engineered with the 49ers, none of the 11 new head coaches in the NFL has impacted his team -- or the league, for that matter -- as much as the ever-confident Ryan. After talking all offseason about his plans to change the Jets into a tough-minded and prideful club that backs down to no one, Ryan has done exactly that, with New York earning a surprisingly easy road win at Houston in the opener and then stunning New England on Sunday, holding the vaunted Patriots offense to three field goals.

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 Tom Brady on almost half of his 47 passing attempts Sunday, and it made the difference in the NFL's most surprising outcome of the young season.

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.