Chris Burke and Doug Farrar examine the most impressive first-year players, the biggest injury concerns entering Week 3 and the most improved unit in the Super Bowl rematch between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.
Most impressive rookie through two weeks?
Chris Burke:Bills WR Sammy Watkins. This ought to come as little surprise, though there were (and are) some questions about if EJ Manuel might hold back the former Clemson star. So far, Watkins has looked every bit the part of a No. 1 receiver, and he's coming off a week in which he shredded Miami for eight receptions and 117 yards.
The Bills have been rather smart about how they get him the ball, too. They will ask more and more of him as the season progresses, but for now he's rolling along at a 73.3 percent catch rate with no drops, thanks to a bevy of short routes. Last season's leading receiver in Buffalo, Stevie Johnson, wrapped up the year with 54.7 percent of the balls thrown his way resulting in completions.
Watkins has not yet established himself in the class of, say, Calvin Johnson or A.J. Green. He's on his way, however, and has been all the Bills could have asked for thus far.
Doug Farrar: Bears CB Kyle Fuller. It's very, very difficult to come into the NFL as a cornerback, with the league's restrictive rules, and play at a high level against excellent receivers from the start. But that's exactly what Fuller has done so far -- against the Bills and 49ers, Fuller allowed just three receptions on six targets for 50 yards, no touchdowns and a 38.9 opponent passer rating, grabbing two interceptions against San Francisco on Monday night. Injuries affected Fuller's senior season, but he had perhaps the cleanest and most consistent tape of any cornerback in his draft class, and he's been perhaps Chicago's best overall defender so far this season.
Burke: Broncos defense. Not sure this one is even that close for me. The Seahawks offense could be better than it was in 2013 because Russell Wilson continues to mature and Percy Harvin (for now) is healthy, but Denver's defense -- plain and simple -- has better players than it did a year ago.
Having Von Miller back on a full-time basis is enough on its own to make the Denver defense more formidable. Let's not forget that he was a Pro Bowler and All-Pro during an 18.5-sack 2012 season. DeMarcus Ware brings another proven force off the edge, and yes, he still has something left in the tank. There's also T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib and rookie Bradley Roby, who has been sharp through two weeks.
There are gaps, like in a thin linebacking corps. Compared to last season, though, there's no doubt the Broncos are better prepared for the league's best offenses.
Farrar: Denver's defense. While the Seahawks offense looks sharper and more explosive with a fully healthy Percy Harvin and a new array of option looks, it's clear to me that Denver's defense has completely upset its former paradigm -- and definitely for the better. The Broncos have 10 new starters if you include rookie slot corner Bradley Roby, and the results have been definitive. New outside cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris (Harris was primarily a nickel corner before) have combined to allow just 10 catches for 122 yards in Denver's first two games. DeMarcus Ware, thought to be done in Dallas, leads all 4-3 defensive ends with 12 total pressures. And former Browns safety T.J. Ward has become just what the doctor ordered -- a player who can fill in against the run and cover short routes as a lurk defender, while also excelling in deeper coverage concepts when the need arises.
In addition, young linebackers Brandon Marshall and Nate Irving are impressing, and as John Fox said this week, things are looking very good for this redefined defense so far.
"We lost the Super Bowl," Fox told SI about the start of that process. "We lost [Von] Miller for three quarters of the season. Before we signed anybody new, we had to replace him and we did that, hopefully with DeMarcus [Ware] and then we get Von Miller back. We were without some pretty important players; Chris Harris, Derrick Woods, as I mentioned Von, throughout the season. We missed them for a large portion of the season, Rahim Moore who’s a starter at free safety. We can lose some guys like everybody does and we gain some guys, it’s the sport we are in, and there’s always change."
One thing's for sure -- the Seahawks will see a different Denver defense on Sunday. If there's one advantage for Seattle, it appears that defense is structured very much like the one Pete Carroll has been building in the Emerald City since 2010.
Injury that will have biggest impact in Week 3
Burke:Jamaal Charles and Knowshon Moreno. Since the Chiefs visit the Dolphins on Sunday, it's a two-for-one here. Moreno is definitely out for the next several weeks after dislocating his elbow last Sunday. Charles' status is more up in the air -- he seemed headed toward sitting out Week 3 because of an ankle sprain, only to return to practice on Thursday.
Charles' presence alone might not be enough to stop Kansas City's early-season slide, but there is a definite drop-off from him to Knile Davis on the depth chart. A healthy Charles gives the Chiefs a chance to establish the run, thus minimizing how aggressive the Dolphins' potent defensive front can be. When the Chiefs' own playcalling neglected Charles in Week 1, Tennessee's defense turned it loose on Alex Smith.
Meanwhile, Moreno's injury thrusts Lamar Miller back into the spotlight. Moreno opened the season with a bang, helping Miami drop New England in Week 1. Without him, the Dolphins will be hard-pressed to avoid a step back on the ground.
“I wish I had a concrete answer or somebody knew exactly what to do to wake it up, but that’s not known,” Palmer told the team's official website this week. “It’s just time. The only answer is time, and I’m hoping it doesn’t take any more time.”
Backup Drew Stanton was good enough to help the Cards beat the Giants 25-14 last Sunday, but the G-Men are hardly a tough test on either side of the ball, and Stanton's raw numbers -- 14 completions in 29 attempts for 167 yards and no touchdowns -- seem to indicate that if a more explosive passing attack is needed against the 49ers, head coach Bruce Arians had best hope something kicks in for his starter.