We’ve reached that point in the NFL season when potential postseason contenders and their quickly developing playoff races take center stage. But as our collective focus turns toward the league’s best teams, the worst teams—the cellar dwellers left jockeying for a higher draft spot—still have to finish out the rest of the year, too. If you’re stuck watching a game between non-playoff squads, like, say, this week’s Jaguars-Bills matchup or the scintillating 49ers-Bucs tilt, all is not lost. From household names to lesser-known future stars, there are still plenty of fun players on every bad team. Here are a few I’m looking forward to watching down the stretch.
TE George Kittle, 49ers
Kittle is the league’s next superstar tight end. The second-year pro has built on a promising rookie year with a breakout performance for San Francisco this season, posting 50 catches for 775 yards and three touchdowns in the team’s first 10 games. He’s big, physical, and incredibly athletic after the catch, regularly picking up chunk yards while running away from linebackers and defensive backs. Kittle ranks third among tight ends in receiving yards and second among all players in total yards after the catch this year with 535, per Pro Football Focus, averaging 10.7 yards after the catch per reception (a higher clip, notably, than open-field tackle breakers like Saquon Barkley (9.2), Christian McCaffrey (8.3) and Alvin Kamara (7.9). Most impressively, the former fifth-rounder out of Iowa has put up these numbers catching passes from three different quarterbacks, splitting time between Jimmy Garoppolo, C.J. Beathard, and rookie Nick Mullens.
In the 49ers’ Week 9 win over the Raiders, Kittle put his skill set as a receiver on display, running a nifty jab-step slant route over the middle, reeling in an off-target pass with one hand and running away from several defenders en route to a 71-yard gain.
Sometimes tight ends can be more like glorified wide receivers, but Kittle certainly isn’t. He’s a throwback to the old-school players at his position, burying opponents as a blocker in the run game with regularity.
George Kittle's weekly fantastic block: pic.twitter.com/9MvEwGwVmn— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) October 10, 2018
The 49ers aren’t very good on either side of the ball, but Kittle alone makes them worth watching every single week.
DE Chandler Jones, Cardinals
Jones is the best edge rusher no one talks about. The 28-year-old veteran has already quietly tallied double-digit sacks again this year (10.5), the fifth time he’s hit that benchmark in the past seven seasons. In fact, combined with his league-high 17.0 sacks from 2017, Jones leads the NFL in sacks going back to the start of last season.
5 players have 20+ sacks since 2017— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) November 19, 2018
Chandler Jones (27.5)
Aaron Donald (23.5)
Demarcus Lawrence (22.5)
Calais Campbell (20.5)
Von Miller (20)
The underrated Cardinals pass rusher ranks third in that category this year (behind only Aaron Donald and Danielle Hunter), leads the NFL in disrupted dropback rate (4.0 percent), has racked up nine tackles for loss (tied for 20th), and has forced three fumbles. In Arizona’s Week 6 loss to Minnesota, Jones exploded off the edge, beat left tackle Rashod Hill, and stripped the ball away from quarterback Kirk Cousins, leading to safety Budda Baker’s scoop-and-score touchdown.
Despite posting excellent numbers for most of his career, Jones is rarely discussed as one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers. That’s a shame, because the athletic seventh-year pro is an elite playmaker for Arizona’s defense.
CB Tre’Davious White, Bills
The Bills offense has been hilariously inept this year, but the other side of the ball has performed well. Second-year corner Tre’Davious White has emerged as a leader on that unit, avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump while quickly turning into one of the top shutdown defenders in the NFL. Per PFF, White is second among qualifying corners in coverage snaps per reception allowed (23.1), has given up just one touchdown on 30 targets, and has surrendered a 67.4 opponent passer rating, seventh-best leaguewide.
As he demonstrated on this pass-breakup against Packers receiver Davante Adams, he’s got quick feet, great balance, speed down the field, and the presence of mind to turn and find the ball in the air. It’s been a deadly combination.
He’s still still flying under the radar playing on a bad team in Buffalo, but White’s on his way to superstardom.
DE Yannick Ngakoue, Jaguars
Ngakoue is often overshadowed by Jacksonville’s cadre of star defenders, but the third-year pro has been a menace off the edge again this year. Mixing an explosive first step and brutal cross-chop pass-rush move, Ngakoue has racked up six sacks, eight tackles for loss, and 43 pressures (tied for 10th among defensive linemen and edge players)―including 14 quarterback hits (tied for second), per PFF.
The Jaguars defense hasn’t been as dominant overall this year as it was in 2017, but this group can still get after the passer.
These defenses are PRESSURING opposing QBs the most this season!— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) November 19, 2018
Negative plays, turnovers and penalties are just a few of the issues that happen vs pressure.#LARams #DUUUVAL #HereWeGo #GoPats #BeRedSeeRed #GoPackGo #ChiefsKingdom #Texans #Seahawks #Skol #RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/dbApMts8FX
Ngakoue’s a key part of the team’s pressure package. Next time you turn on a Jags game, zero in on the left side of their defensive line.
WR Kenny Golladay, Lions
There’s a reason Golladay’s “Babytron” nickname has started to catch on. The second year pass-catcher boasts a Calvin Johnson–esque blend of size, speed, body control, and soft hands. He put those tools to work last week against the Panthers: Late in the first quarter, he reached up and snatched the ball out of Carolina cornerback James Bradberry’s hands, taking it for himself to pick up a first down.
Later in the game, he scored what ended up being the game-winning touchdown, fully extending while falling on his back to reel in this lob from quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Golladay seems good for a highlight-reel catch just about every week. He’s racked up 47 receptions for 714 yards and five touchdowns this year, and as the newly minted go-to guy in Detroit’s passing offense, his star is rising. I’ll be tuning into Lions games down the stretch just to see what Golladay is going to do.
RB Nick Chubb, Browns
There’s a handful of young playmakers on the Browns that make them worth watching late in the year, like Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward, Myles Garrett, or Larry Ogunjobi. But more than anyone else, I’m turning on Browns games so I can watch Chubb run the ball. The rookie running back is explosive, physical, elusive, and fast; he’s a legitimate threat to score from anywhere on the field and anytime he touches the ball.
Nick Chubb with the 92-yard TD run! He’s got 32.50. pic.twitter.com/suupURAMAj— DraftKings (@DraftKings) November 11, 2018
S Jamal Adams, Jets
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick put it well this week when he said that Adams is “a contact player.” The second-year safety plays with an old-school style that conjures images of the big-hitting safeties of yesteryear. He’s an intense field general and versatile playmaker, capable of lining up pretty much anywhere on the defense: Per PFF, he’s aligned in the box as a de facto linebacker on 41.6 percent of his defensive snaps this year, at free safety on 25.8 percent, at corner 13.2 percent, and up on the line on 13.6 percent of his snaps.
Adams does a little of everything for the New York defense. He’s collected 67 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception, nine passes defended, and leads all defensive backs with eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage. And sometimes, his impact isn’t reflected in the boxscore. On this blitz against the Bills, Adams threw Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy out of the way and forced quarterback Matt Barkley into a rushed, off-balance throw, nearly leading to a pick.
The Jets offense needs a lot of work, but the team’s defense has some fun, young playmakers. Adams is the leader of that group.
DT Maurice Hurst, Raiders
There aren’t too many bright spots for the Raiders defense this year, but rookie Maurice Hurst has emerged as a difference-maker for a group that’s been desperate for one. Hurst, who fell out of first-round consideration because of a heart condition and was ultimately selected in the fifth round, has picked up where he left off at Michigan. The 6-foot-1, 291-pounder has racked up four sacks to go along with three pass knockdowns, a forced fumble, and five hurries.
Against the Browns in Week 4, Hurst sliced past veteran guard Kevin Zeitler with a nice right-arm rip move, then, with his left, he knocked the ball out of Mayfield’s hand for the fumble. It was recovered by the Raiders.
It’s little surprise to those who watched him at Michigan that Hurst is outperforming his fifth-round draft slot.
WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
Look, I realize this one’s obvious. But with almost all of our attention this year going to rookie phenom Saquon Barkley and whether or not this is Eli Manning’s final season, it actually does feel like Beckham’s often jaw-dropping play has flown under the radar. Beckham’s quietly on pace to notch career-highs in catches (110) and yards (1,491), and his eight-touchdown pace could certainly ramp up down the stretch. Beckham doesn’t even need to be reaching up over someone’s head to reel in a touchdown pass with only his fingertips, as he did last week against the Buccaneers, to be entertaining …
Sometimes he’ll nonchalantly reel a ball in with one hand on an otherwise routine route.
It sounds ass-backwards, but it’s true: Every time you turn on a Giants game, something special could happen. Beckham is an extraordinary player and I’m going to try to appreciate that more over the next month and a half.