Best of the New and/or Improved in 2015

The players who have either surpassed expectations through the first quarter of the season or finally lived up to their old standards
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Teams and units get better for a reason. Sometimes it’s a new head coach (or coordinator) bringing in a more favorable scheme, but most of the time it relates to new, better players or players performing at a higher standard than they were previously.

This week we’re highlighting a few those who are doing good things in new surroundings, as well as a few who didn’t change teams but are playing a lot better than they had previously.

Righting the Ship

Jake Matthews, Falcons LT

The roof nearly blew off the Falcons’ draft room when they landed Matthews in 2014. They had the guy to steady the sinking ship that was their offensive line. But as his first season drew to a close, he was an unmitigated disaster—of the 84 rated tackles (right and left) he was dead last. This was beyond bad: 11 penalties, and seven sacks, nine QB hits and 35 hurries allowed. His run blocking was even worse.

This season he’s allowed four hurries, three of which came against Houston last week. (For the majority of the time he was up against Jadeveon Clowney and Jared Crick, not J.J. Watt.)

It’s so easy in hindsight to say he must have been hurt during his rookie season, but how hurt do you have to be to play that badly and be left in? The Falcons are now our top-rated offensive line, and while Matthews not the sole reason, he’s been a huge part of the turnaround.

Back From Injury

Geno Atkins, Bengals DT

Since he came into the league as a fourth-round selection in 2010, Atkins has been one of the best at his position. But after returning from an ACL tear last season, he looked anything but. A good player? Sure. But one of the very best? Not so much. Even some inside the team were questioning his lack of production, which is a tough when you are still grading out as the 20th best defensive tackle overall and 14th best pass rusher.  But, of course, his 82 sacks, hits and hurries in 2012 set a standard we’d still be talking about now if it weren’t J.J. Watt.

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In 2015, Atkins is second only to Aaron Donald at his position and his projected number of QB disruptions is 68. He looks very close to his disruptive best and he’s been a major contributor to the Bengals’ 4-0 start. When you consider he’s done this despite facing two of the best interior lines (Baltimore and Oakland), this week’s contest against one of the worst (Seattle) could get a little messy.

The Rookie

Ronald Darby, Bills CB

In the salary-cap driven league we currently enjoy, everyone wants immediate returns on draft picks; there’s little point in seeing them inactive for three years, playing well in year four and then walking in free agency. The only way to allow spending on high-priced veterans is to have drafted players playing at a high level for three to four years at bargain-basement prices.

Early indications suggest the Bills may have struck pay dirt with Darby.

The corner out of FSU has made the left side of the field his own, allowing a thrown-against NFL passer rating of 50 or less in each of his four games.

He’s been tested—quarterbacks have targeted him 36 times, the second most in the league—but don’t expect that rate to continue very long. He’s intercepted two passes and knocked down five others while allowing only 42% to be completed (seventh in the league). He’s been so good, in fact, we voted him to our quarter-season All-Pro team. If that level of play continues, he’ll prove to be the home run that every team looks to find in the draft.

The Free-Agent That Works

Pernell McPhee, Bears OLB

The knock on McPhee leading into free agency was that his stellar 2014 campaign—he ranked as the NFL’a fifth-best edge rusher despite playing only 540 snaps—was predicated on playing alongside Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil. Without them, many assumed he’d be an overvalued bust.

So far, he’s our third-ranked 3-4 OLB and our top run defender at that position while playing 78% of the snaps. His play also allowed the Bears to send Jared Allen to Carolina.

The Next Step

Harrison Smith, Vikings FS

Sometimes you are just a good player. You’ve met expectations since the day you were drafted and everyone is happy. Then you move forward again and you exceed expectations. This makes your team ecstatic. And then you improve once more and blow them away.

In 2012, his rookie season, Smith was a good player. He started in Week 1, graded as our 19th best safety and looked like he was destined to be a fixture in the Vikings’ secondary thereafter. Injury derailed his second year, but he was back for the 2014 season and better than before, rating as the second best player at the position. That’s great, but there still looked to be some room between him and the top guy, the Chargers’ Eric Weddle. Most of Smith’s grade had come from excellent work in run support. While that’s important, a safety plays in the secondary and he has to cover receivers, and Weddle was much better in that facet of play.

This year Smith is our second-ranked coverage safety and second-ranked run defender, which is an unbelievable combination. No one else is close, and if he’s continues this level of performance he’ll have the best season we’ve ever seen from a safety since we started rating players.