We’ve hit that time of year when the NFL postseason race heats up and we naturally funnel our attention toward the league’s playoff contenders. But the teams that are out of the playoff picture or close to it at this point—you know, the bad teams—still have to play their games too.
Teams like the Browns, Texans, Colts, and Bucs can only hope to play spoiler or jockey for draft position from here on out, and if you find yourself stuck watching, say, the mostly meaningless Niners-Bears or the Dolphins-Broncos tilts this weekend, don’t despair (completely). There are still a few reasons to tune in. Each squad features a handful of exciting, fun players who are flying under the radar. Here are a few worth focusing in on down the stretch.
Cleveland Browns: DE Myles Garrett
The Browns have been so bad that the exciting play from this year’s first overall pick has largely gone unnoticed. Garrett missed the first four games with an ankle injury, but made up for lost time quickly once he hit the field, recording a sack on his first snap as a pro. He hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal since: In six games, he’s already racked up five sacks and 21 total pressures on just 140 pass rush snaps―a pass-rush productivity mark of 12.1, per Pro Football Focus, which ranks 14th among edge players in that time.
Garrett’s best attribute has been his ability to convert his speed to power as a pass rusher: Against the Jaguars in Week 11, the 21-year-old rookie’s explosive first step got (fellow rookie) Cam Robinson to over-set to the outside, and, with a strong left hand, Garrett used Robinson’s momentum against him, tossing the 6-foot-6, 320-pound left tackle to the ground. The next week against the Bengals, Garrett used his first-step quickness to force Cincy left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi upright and off balance; so instead of going around Ogbuehi, Garrett simply went through him. Garrett got away with hands to the face on this rush, but pushed Ogbuehi back into the pocket before discarding him to sack Andy Dalton.
The Browns have also used Garrett as an interior rusher, where his lightning-quick first step comes in handy.
It’s tough to get too hyped for an 0-11 team like the Browns, but Garrett alone makes that defense worth watching over the next month-plus.
Houston Texans: OLB Jadeveon Clowney
The devastating season-ending injuries to defensive end J.J. Watt and rookie phenom signal-caller Deshaun Watson have taken just about all the air out of the Texans’ season. But there is one silver lining: Clowney’s still out there wrecking offensive linemen (and anyone unlucky enough to try to block him) with regularity. The first overall pick of the 2014 draft has 42 quarterback pressures on the year (22nd leaguewide), but he’s more than just a pass rusher. If you’re looking for a master class on run defense, Clowney is the guy to watch.
Think Clowney is now the best run-stopping edge defender in football. Certainly the most entertaining— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) November 28, 2017
The fourth-year pro has been a force against the rush this year, registering 17 tackles for loss (second in the NFL), with 17 run stops (tied for ninth), per Pro Football Focus. Houston defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel deploys Clowney in a number of ways, whether it’s lining him up off the line of scrimmage so he can shoot gaps and wreak havoc, or putting him where he’s best, on the end, setting an impenetrable edge for the defense. Note to offensive coordinators: If you’re asking a tight end to get much push against the 6-foot-5 270-pounder, you might want to rethink your strategy.
Even on plays where he doesn’t register a stat, Clowney’s an intimidating tone setter who consistently makes his presence known. Just ask Baltimore tight end Maxx Williams, who got the unenviable task of slice-blocking Clowney on the right edge for this Ravens run last week. For what it’s worth, Williams did his job and took Clowney out of the play, but this could not have been much fun.
Clowney’s just bigger, faster, and stronger than most players he lines up against, and those physical mismatches are a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
San Francisco 49ers: QB Jimmy Garoppolo
It’s Garoppolo time, baby! There’s a handful of intriguing things to watch on this mostly bad Niners squad, like defensive tackle DeForest Buckner dominating up front (39 pressures, tied for fifth among interior defenders), or rookie linebacker Reuben Foster (the Defensive Rookie of the Month for November) making plays all over the field. But the chance to finally get to see what the former Patriots passer can do when given the reins of Kyle Shanahan’s offense is fun.
We got a small preview of that last week when Garoppolo replaced C.J. Beathard late in the fourth quarter, throwing a touchdown on the game’s final play. And sure, that pass came against backups in the garbagiest-of-garbage time, but it’s one of just three plays he’s taken part in as a 49er, so let’s just go ahead and overanalyze the crap out of it.
Dropping back to pass, Garoppolo first looks right but sees all his targets are covered up nicely by the Seahawks defense. He moves to his left to avoid pressure and keep the play alive, keeping his eyes downfield before throwing a perfectly placed pass into the outstretched hands of receiver Louis Murphy.
OK, maybe that play will end up meaning absolutely nothing, but taken as part of Garoppolo’s limited but impressive résumé, it is, at least, intriguing. He’s now appeared in 18 games as a pro (two starts), where he’s completed 67 percent of his passes at 7.4 yards per attempt, with six touchdowns and no picks for a cool 110.1 passer rating. It’s not always going to be that pretty for the Niners’ new potential franchise passer, but the next five weeks should give fans plenty of reason to sit up and pay attention.
Miami Dolphins: DE Cameron Wake
The 35-year-old’s still got it. Wake’s not playing as often as he used to (just 58 percent of the team’s defensive snaps this year) as a rotational pass rush specialist, but he’s sure as hell making the most of his time on the field. Last week against the Patriots, the ninth-year vet grabbed a sack and a league-high four quarterback hits on Tom Brady. On a per-snap basis, Wake’s been the NFL’s most most efficient edge rusher this season. He’s grabbed eight sacks and 46 pressures on just 243 pass rush snaps (39th) to register a league-best 15.0 pass-rush productivity mark per Pro Football Focus.
Wake’s also been a solid run-defending edge player for the Dolphins, where he’s grabbed another nine tackles for loss. His role may be reduced at this point in his career, but Wake is still one of the best edge defenders in the league.
Indianapolis Colts: OLB Jabaal Sheard
There’s been a handful of surprising bright spots on Indy’s defense this year, but injuries keep piling up. Rookie safety Malik Hooker flashed potential early on before hitting the injured reserve with a torn ACL, and cornerback Rashaan Melvin (three interceptions) has been a revelation, but he’s due to miss some time with a hand injury. Perhaps the team should wrap Sheard in Bubble Wrap, because he’s another player worth watching when the Colts are on your TV.
The free-agent signee has done a little bit of everything this season, and his value to the team doesn’t always show up on the traditional stat sheet (27 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and a pair of forced fumbles). As a pass rusher, the seventh-year vet has quietly racked up 46 pressures (tied for 13th), including 36 quarterback hurries—a mark that ties him for fourth in the NFL among edge players. Those hurries often lead to bad throws and can contribute to turnovers.
Denver Broncos: DE Shaquil Barrett
Aqib Talib’s chain-snatching fight with Michael Crabtree may have been the apex of excitement we’ll get from an underwhelming Broncos squad this year, but one underrated and fun player to watch down the stretch is outside linebacker Shaq Barrett. The fourth-year pro out of Colorado State has four sacks, a pair of forced fumbles, and 29 total pressures in a rotational role for Denver. He combines a quick first step with fundamentally sound pass-rush moves to get to the quarterback, like he did against Raiders offensive tackle Donald Penn last week:
Shaq Barrett cross chop, edge rip combo to beat Donald Penn pic.twitter.com/IoZg7ApJTq— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) November 28, 2017
The former undrafted free agent heads into free agency this spring, which means he can make himself a big chunk of money with what he does during his final five games. The Broncos may be on the verge of dropping out of the playoff running at this point, but Barrett’s sure as hell not going to ease up.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LB Lavonte David
The Bucs’ instinctive weakside linebacker might be the most underrated player in the league. A much-anticipated breakout year for the Hard Knocks–starring Buccaneers never came, and David missed two weeks with a bad ankle injury, but the two-time All Pro has quietly been one of the best players in the league. Of course, it doesn’t help that he’s playing on a bad Tampa Bay defense, but David is currently Pro Football Focus’s second-rated linebacker with a 95.1 grade (behind only Seattle’s Bobby Wagner), having registered 26 run stops (eighth), and a run stop percentage of 11.2 (second among linebackers).
David plays with rare anticipation skills, frequently sniffing out a screen or swing pass just after the offense has snapped the ball. Against the Falcons last week, he broke on a Matt Ryan pass to Tevin Coleman almost immediately, running past right tackle Ryan Schraeder before Schraeder could even look up to make his block, wrecking the play before it really got started.
He’s also got an uncanny knack for getting the ball. The former Nebraska star recently became the first player since 2014 (J.J. Watt) with four forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in the same year. He combines a devastating punch out ...
...with a talent for wrenching the ball away from running backs or receivers.
David plays like a heat-seeking missile on the field, and he’s the best reason to watch the Bucs over the next five weeks.
New York Giants: FS Landon Collins
Collins, along with basically the rest of the Giants defense, got off to a slow start to the season. But the third-year pro, one of the league’s best breakout stories of 2016, has quietly picked up his play over the past few months. He’s worked his way up to the sixth spot on PFF’s safety rankings this year (with an 88.5 grade), thanks in part to his NFL-best 18 run stops at the position. He flies downhill like he was shot out of a cannon, as Chiefs running back Charcandrick West found out Week 11 in the Giants’ upset win.
Collins has struggled in coverage at times and New York’s pass defense has been anything but stingy, but if there’s a reason to tune in to Giants games down the stretch it’s not going to be to watch Geno Smith and Davis Webb duke it out, it’s going to be to watch Collins fly around the field.
New York Jets: WR Robby Anderson
New York’s midseason slump has hidden the fact Anderson’s quietly turned into one of the best deep threats in the NFL. Through 12 weeks, he’s second in the NFL with 382 deep yards (yards on passes caught 20-plus yards downfield), tops in the league in deep touchdowns (seven), and third in both deep catches (11) and target rate on deep balls (31 percent). He showcased why last week, when he combined speed and incredibly strong hands to reel in this touchdown pass from Josh McCown against double coverage:
Anderson’s caught a touchdown in five straight games (22 catches for 390 yards and six scores in the stretch), the longest active touchdown streak in the NFL and one that matches DeAndre Hopkins for the longest streak this season. McCown’s registered a 101.5 passer rating when targeting Anderson (17th best, league wide), and the former undrafted free agent looks like he’s on the cusp of stardom.
Chicago Bears: DT Akiem Hicks
Rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky’s first year has been, shall we say, an up-and-down affair, but while it’s interesting enough to monitor his development, his play—and that of the underwhelming Bears offense—has been anything but must-see TV. To really enjoy the Bears, focus in on the trenches and watch Hicks just dominate everyone in front of him. The 6-foot-5, 332-pound defensive lineman is as versatile as they come, lining up all over the Chicago front to disrupt run lanes and get to the quarterback. His combination of strength and length makes him very difficult to block, and if he gets his hands on you, it’s basically over.
The seventh-year pro, who recently earned a four-year, $48 million extension, leads the Bears with seven sacks and is eighth among interior linemen in total quarterback pressures (35), per PFF. He’s unstoppable against the run, as well, the top-ranked interior defender in run stops and the third-ranked player in the league in tackles for a loss.