Unexpected contributions from unlikely sources have become part of what we expect each season in the NFL. This year, many teams have benefited from surprise performers who were selected in later rounds or undrafted entirely, while other teams have experienced disappointment from players expected to do much more.
By "surprise," we mean a player who has outperformed his draft position; by "disappointment," we mean a player who hasn't lived up to it.
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By far the most efficient rookie quarterback this season, Carr is succeeding with an iffy group of targets and perhaps the worst run game in the NFL. Yes, he has Donald Penn and Gabe Jackson to protect him on his left side, but would Blake Bortles do the same as Carr has with the same team? Doubtful at this point. Has completed 60.7 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and seven picks, the only qualifying quarterback with more touchdowns than interceptions this season.
Crowell was dismissed from the Georgia program for multiple felony weapons charges in 2012, and transferred to Alabama State instead of sitting out a year at Division I. The undrafted Crowell has averaged 6.5 yards per carry, helping a Browns rushing attack that had to deal with the early injury loss of Ben Tate.
Leads all rookies in rushing yards with 446 on just 90 carries; the third-rounder from Georgia Southern was an all-around positional player in college who lined up everywhere from quarterback to slotback to defensive back to kick returner. But he always had speed (4.37 40 at the scouting combine), and he's proven to be a great change-of-pace back with legitimate starting potential.
Branden Oliver, RB, San Diego Chargers
Oliver came out of nowhere with back-to-back 100-yard games against the Jets and Raiders in early October as injuries to other Chargers backs put him in the pole position. It wasn't a surprise to his teammates, who had been talking up the undrafted back from Buffalo since training camp and before. The 5-foot-7, 208-pound Oliver has a running style very similar to that of ex-Charger Darren Sproles: compact, with speed and power.
Taylor Gabriel, WR, Cleveland Browns
Only Odell Beckham, Jr. of the Giants has a higher Pro Football Focus receiver rating than Gabriel, and Beckham was Big Blue's first-round pick, while Gabriel, who starred at Abilene Christian, had to wait out the draft and make a go of it as a free agent. Gabriel has 22 receptions for 412 yards and a touchdown, boasting the kind of burner speed that could make him a valuable component in Cleveland's passing game for a long time.
Going back to his days as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians has always a speed receiver who could beat defenses over the top from the slot or outside. It was Mike Wallace with the Steelers, T.Y. Hilton in Indianapolis, and now it's Brown in Arizona. The third-rounder from Pittsburg State has been a revelation in Arians' offense this year, though drops have been an issue at times. He plays far stronger than his 5-11, 179-pound frame would suggest.
Yes, Henderson has allowed four sacks this season, but two came in his first three NFL games, and the other two happened against the Patriots in Week 6, when Rob Ninkovich beat the daylights out of him. Other than that, the seventh-rounder from Miami has lived up to the talent that didn't always translate to the field in college, allowing no sacks in his last two games, and playing every single snap at right tackle this season for the Bills.
Joel Bitonio, OG, Cleveland Browns
If guard were a sexier position, Bitonio might have a shot at the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He's been an absolute stud in the run game since Day 1, and he's developing nicely as a pass protector. He played tackle at Nevada, but the Browns took him in the second round because they believed that he was a natural guard, and they were absolutely right.
Gabe Jackson, OG, Oakland Raiders
Jackson dropped to the third round of the draft due to an iffy scouting combine and some questionable tape at Mississippi State. Some wondered if he would be able to translate his rare power of size and pulling speed to the NFL level, but to this point, he's done so admirably, especially on pulls, reach blocks and movement to the second level. Has allowed just two quarterback hits and no sacks in 322 pass-blocking snaps this season.
Linsley got about as tough a test as there is in his first NFL game: starting against the Seahawks' estimable defensive front in the season opener at CenturyLink Field. But he did well enough there, allowing just one quarterback hurry, and he hasn't given up a single sack or hit this season. Linsley stepped in due to an injury to projected starter JC Trotter, and the fifth-rounder from Ohio State has played every offensive snap this season.
The undrafted free agent from Delaware has the versatility required in the defense coached by Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky; he can line up at tackle or end, and he's put up three total sacks in the Colts' last six games. He's also an impressive run-stopper who is working his way into the rotation on more and more plays.
Lynch was a transfer to South Florida to Notre Dame, and had scouts divided with the overall inconsistency of his play in college along with attitude and off-the-field issues. But once the 49ers gave the fifth-rounder a shot as a pass-rusher in place of Corey Lemonier, Lynch grabbed more and more playing time, and he's put up two sacks, four quarterback hits and 13 hurries so far this season. He's also made plays at important times, such as the stop of Eagles running back Darren Sproles late in San Francisco's Week 4 win over Philadelphia.
Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
When the Jags took Bortles with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft, the idea was to sit him through most of his first season. But when starter Chad Henne proved ineffective, underscored in Jacksonville's Week 3 loss to the Colts, Bortles' ascendance accelerated, and he was thrown into the soup. So far, Bortles has mixed the occasionally athletic play with some truly head-scratching decisions, and he leads the league with 13 interceptions -- in just 241 attempts.
The first overall pick in the 2014 draft has played in just two games this year due to a sprained knee and an illness, and there have been reports that some in the Texans organization have become frustrated with Clowney's ability to get on the field. Whether that's just your average team angst over the absence of a talented player or something more is a matter of conjecture, but 55 total snaps, no sacks and one quarterback hurry halfway through a rookie season? It's understandable that the Texans are disappointed.
Jimmie Ward, DB, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers selected Ward out of Northern Illinois with the 30th pick in the draft because they believed him to be the ideal hybrid pass defender for the modern NFL way: able to play everywhere from slot corner to deep safety. But Ward has undergone some serious growing pains, looking out of position far more often than expected. He's given up 15 receptions on 22 targets and three touchdowns with no picks on 226 snaps, and he's seen his playing time dip precipitously in the last month due to a quadriceps injury.