Who is Donnie Avery? That's what many observers were wondering after the former Houston Cougar became the first receiver taken (33rd player overall) in the 2008 NFL Draft. But after the St. Louis Rams speedster put on a scintillating six-catch, 163-yard performance against the Patriots, no one need wonder anymore.
"The kid is coming into his own," said a Rams' official. "We knew that he had the potential to be a difference maker, but he is finally getting a chance to show off his skills."
Avery has 14 receptions for 291 yards and two touchdowns since joining the starting lineup in Week 6 against the Redskins. Jim Haslett's decision to get his rookie speedster on the field has helped the Rams end their offensive funk. With Avery repeatedly demonstrating the ability to get over the top of the defense, the Rams have been able to stretch the field and open up their potent running game, which feature Steven Jackson when he's healthy.
"[Avery's] ability to get open down the field definitely makes you hesitate before committing eight men to the box," said a long-time NFL coach. "If you leave him singled up on the outside, he is showing that he can make you pay."
Though the Rams originally drafted Avery with the notion of using him as a slot receiver in their three-and-four-receiver sets, he is quickly becoming their most valuable offensive weapon. In the past, seven-time Pro Bowl receiver Torry Holt would punish defenses for loading up against the run, but he has become more of a possession receiver. Thus, it falls on the shoulders of Avery to deliver the explosive plays needed to keep the offense flowing freely.
Offensive coordinator Al Saunders has given Avery plenty of opportunities to showcase his playmaking skills by calling more vertical routes against single coverage. Avery has delivered in resounding fashion by hauling in four receptions over 40 yards, including two scores in the past three weeks. Still, some skeptics wonder if the rookie sensation can keep up his blistering pace. As one NFC personnel director summed it up, "It's just a matter of time before defenses adjust to the new phenom."
Until they do, Avery's emergence as a top flight deep threat has catapulted him into consideration as the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
1. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (Last week's ranking: 1): The first-year star has averaged almost 90 rushing yards a game despite sharing the load. Johnson's outstanding speed has added another dimension to the team's offense and given Jeff Fisher the dynamic weapon needed in his lineup.
2. DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles (2): The sensational playmaker continues to spice up the Eagles offense. His three-catch, 72-yard output against the Falcons opened up the field for Brian Westbrook in the running game.
3. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (5): The rookie continues to impress with his unflappable demeanor in the pocket. Despite being harassed by a fierce Eagles' pass rush, Ryan passed for 277 yards and connected with his top target (Roddy White) on a couple of scores. Ryan's chemistry with White is reminiscent of the Manning-Harrison connection in days gone by.
4. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (2): The Bears' star was showing signs of hitting the wall prior to the bye week. Regardless, his steady production as a runner/receiver has helped the Bears field the league's second-best scoring offense.
5. Donnie Avery, WR, Rams (NR):
1. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (Last week's ranking: 1): He continues to anchor the Falcons' defense with impressive effectiveness. Lofton is a tackling machine with a knack for delivering big hits.
2. Chris Horton, S, Redskins (2): Adding the former UCLA Bruin to the lineup has given the secondary another enforcer in the middle of the field. Horton's ability to come downhill against the run has helped solidify the 'Skins sixth-ranked defense.
3. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (3): The Patriots' top pick is all business on the field, and his ability to become an immediate contributor has been surprising. With 48 tackles through seven games, Mayo ranks as the leading tackler among rookies.
4. Chris Long, DE, Rams (NR): After making a slow transition to the pro game, Long is finally displaying the talent and pass rush skills that made him such a coveted prospect. His two sacks against the Patriots push his season total to four, which is the best among all rookies.
5. Brandon Flowers, CB, Chiefs (NR): The gritty rookie has the skills to become a top notch corner in the mold of a Ty Law. Though he lacks ideal size and speed for the position, Flowers has a knack for being around the ball.
1. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (2): The NFL's rushing leader has run for at least 120 yards in five consecutive games, and has the surprising 'Skins in position to compete for the division crown.
2. Trent Edwards, QB, Bills (1): The Bills' star didn't play well against the Dolphins as his series of fourth-quarter miscues led to the team's second loss. Regardless, Edwards' stellar play during the first half of the season has the team tied for the division lead at the halfway mark.
3. Eli Manning, QB, Giants (5): The reigning Super Bowl MVP was outstanding down the stretch in leading the Giants to a come-from-behind win over the Steelers. Manning's solid play has the defending world champions sitting atop the NFC with the conference's best record (6-1).
4. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (3): The 37-year-old veteran continues to enjoy one of the best seasons of his career. Although his 381-yard passing day didn't lead to a win over the Panthers, it gave Warner his third 300-yard passing game of the season and made him the league's second-ranked passer in yards.
5. Jason Campbell, QB, Redskins (NR): His ability to manage the game is one reasons the 'Skins have been so successful winning close games. Campbell has thrown 253 passes this season without an interception and only has one turnover on the season.
1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (1): The former Comeback Player of the Year continues his sizzling start with a 300-yard passing day against the Chargers. Brees has topped the 300-yard mark in six of his eight starts, and is on pace to surpass Dan Marino's single-season record for passing yards. If the Saints finish with a winning record, Brees may end up stealing the MVP trophy too.
2. Clinton Portis, RB, Redskins (2)
3. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers (4): The Bolts' star has had three-touchdown outings in five games this season, and leads the league with 19 passing touchdowns. With the team reeling at the halfway mark, expect Norv Turner to put more of the offensive load on Rivers' shoulders during the second half of the season.
4. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (3)
5. Jay Cutler, QB, Broncos (5): The Broncos desperately need Cutler to regain the form that enabled him to pass for over 300 yards in three of the team's first four games.
1. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (1): The most dominant defender in the game leads a ferocious Titans' defense. Although Haynesworth possesses the size and strength of a run stopper, it is his ability to get to the quarterback that makes him such a special talent. His six sacks lead the team, and ranks as the seventh-best total in the league this season.
2. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (2): The Pro Bowler continues to wear out the opposition with his high motor and vast array of rush skills. Though he was neutralized against the Giants, Harrison continues to terrorize overwhelmed offensive tackles on a weekly basis.
3. Charles Woodson, CB, Packers (3): The veteran corner has re-emerged as one of the top corners in the game. Though he no longer possesses the supreme athleticism that propelled him to four consecutive Pro Bowls at the start of his career, Woodson continues to befuddle opponents with his uncanny instincts and ball-hawking skills.
4. London Fletcher, LB, Redskins (4): The man at the heart of the Redskins' defense continues to deliver with timely playmaking. Fletcher's big fourth-down hit on Calvin Johnson preserved the team's 25-17 victory over the Lions.
5. Joey Porter, LB, Dolphins (NR): The league's current sack leader (10.5) has regained his swagger and his game this season. Porter has recorded at least a partial sack in six of the team's seven games.
1. Jeff Fisher, Titans (1): The Titans silenced a lot of critics with their impressive come-from-behind win over the Colts. With a four-game lead within the division, the Titans have essentially wrapped up the division title at the halfway mark of the season.
2. Tom Coughlin, Giants (2): The hard-nosed coach benched his star player (Plaxico Burress) for a quarter for a team violation, but still guided the Giants to a hard fought, come-from-behind win over the Steelers.
3. Jim Zorn, Redskins (NR): Raise your hand if you thought the 'Skins would be title contenders in Zorn's first year. His impressive work with the offense has resulted in two of his stalwarts (Clinton Portis and Jason Campbell) producing MVP-caliber seasons.
4. Dick Jauron, Bills (4): The young team suffered a hiccup on the road against the Dolphins, but the Bills are still in position to wrestle the division crown away from the Patriots
5. John Fox, Panthers (NR): This team is quietly becoming a title contender behind a physical defense and a smash mouth running game. With Steve Smith providing the sizzle, the Panthers have all of the necessary elements to make a deep postseason run.