It’s midseason in the NFL—and in the first season with an even number of weeks in recent memory, it’s actually midseason. For the persnickety among us (hello, friends), this is a great development.
As it is midseason, I decided to rattle off a few names who have popped off the film for me so far. Some of these players have good advanced metrics, some don’t. All I know is that when I watch them play, I’m impressed by their improvements, their quick adjustments to new roles, or their generally awesome and underappreciated play. There’s no easy title for this: It’s just my midseason film all-stars, but not exactly all-stars—just players who are good.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Don’t look now, but Matt Ryan’s back like never before, baby!
OK, not exactly like never before. Remember MVP Matt Ryan? In 2016, when he was the quarterback for Kyle Shanahan’s passing game in Atlanta, he ran an under-center, wide-zone, boot-action-heavy passing attack that would foreshadow the offensive explosion to come over the next five years. Per PFF, he ran play-action on over 27 percent of his dropbacks and pushed the ball downfield with an average depth of target of 12.5 yards on those play-action drops.
New offenses asked for new things over the next few seasons, but with Arthur Smith at the helm and a Shanahan-inspired offense back in Atlanta, Ryan is back to his old ways. He’s running play-action on over 28 percent of his dropbacks, and while his average depth of target is only 8.3 yards, his completion percentage jumps up over 11 percentage points on those play-action drops. Atlanta isn’t necessarily built for deeper targets now, with Calvin Ridley absent and Julio Jones traded—but trust me, that’s in the plan for this rebuild. It’s the character of this Smith offense.
There’s a lot left to be figured out in Atlanta, but they’ve been improving on a weekly basis as they settle in to the new offensive scheme. Ryan is fifth in completion percentage over expectation and ninth in expected points added per dropback over the last four weeks, putting him in the elite echelon of quarterback play. If Atlanta can improve the offensive line and add another pass catcher, this offense is ready to compete in the final years of Ryan’s contract.
Running Back: Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
It’d be easy to mistake the running back room in Dallas as a traditional rotation. Ezekiel Elliott, the early-drafted player and lead back for the past few seasons, is the physical, between-the-tackles runner and key pass protector. Pollard is the lighter, quicker scatback used on outside runs, screens, and quick routes on passing downs.
That’s a classic division of roles, but it doesn’t reflect reality in Dallas. Quite simply, Elliott is a very good running back, and Pollard is also a good running back. There are some things he does better than Elliott, like pass catching—but he is in no way deficient in other areas of the game. Pollard is a quality inside runner who understands how to press gaps, break tackles with physicality, and get tough yardage; he’s a willing pass protector who can cut down big linebackers rushing at high speeds. There is nothing that he can’t do at a starting running back’s level.
The variety of the Cowboys’ running game is almost unmatched in the league, which is a testament to the skill of their two backs: Both are capable inside and outside runners, so there are few concepts the Cowboys are uncomfortable deploying in their running game. The rotation should keep both players fresh into the playoffs, while also offering Pollard a big audition for his contract year in 2022 and beyond. Elliott has taken on a ton of volume, and if he continues to show signs of deterioration, as he did in 2020, the Cowboys will have a tough decision between him and the younger, less used Pollard.
Wide Receiver: Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers
I had a lot of players in mind here, including Tim Patrick, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Christian Kirk, and K.J. Osborn. But I’m gonna focus on one of my favorite players: Deebo Samuel. Everyone knows Deebo’s name, but I don’t think there’s a full, national appreciation for Samuel’s ability. He’s arguably the greatest YAC threat in the league, regularly getting targets at or behind the line of scrimmage and grabbing double-digit yards after the catch. He’s built like a running back, and the Niners use him like one: His target distribution is reminiscent of players like Aaron Jones and Alvin Kamara.
All of that makes it easy to forget just how good Samuel is in contested-catch situations. We usually think about ball winners as players with huge frames and long arms—but Deebo is just 6 feet and has an arm length under 32 inches. But he’s got such a dense build, such an explosive leap (39-inch vertical jump), and such great concentration that he wins downfield balls in the air just as well as the Courtland Suttons and Michael Gallups of the world.
This makes Deebo wildly difficult to cover. Defenses need a corner big enough and physical enough to tackle him in the shallow areas, fast enough to run with him downfield, and skilled enough to beat him in the air. Corners aren’t built to handle players like Deebo, and accordingly, his emergence as the WR1 in San Francisco shouldn’t have been surprising. His dominance isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Tight End: David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
Remember David Njoku? First-round pick of the Cleveland Browns, part of Sashi Brown’s crowning class back when he was the general manager destined to lead the Browns to the promised land? Yeah, simpler times.
Njoku’s been viewed as a bust for the past few seasons, and has regularly been positioned as a trade deadline acquisition any time Cleveland’s offense—and Njoku’s career with it—stagnated. The big free agent signing of Austin Hooper in the 2020 free agent cycle only added to that perception.
But even the second or third tight end has an important role in head coach Kevin Stefanski’s offense—now, even more so, with Odell Beckham Jr. out of Cleveland. The Browns run more 13 personnel—that’s three-TE sets—than any other team, at an astounding clip of 21 percent. The next closest team, Atlanta, is at 9 percent. That means Njoku has taken 360 snaps this year, more than any individual wide receiver on the Browns’ roster.
The book on Njoku coming out of Miami was that he was a good receiver, but couldn’t block. The new offense has forced Njoku to settle in as a blocker, and he’s grown well into the role, with multiple quality blocks on his film for 2021. The running game in Cleveland is based on outside zone runs, but their most dangerous run is when they go for traditional power concepts that demand those tight ends carve out running lanes with powerful down blocks or lead the way as a puller. Njoku’s number has been called more this year than ever before, and he’s answered. When a tight end is sealing Chris Jones out from a pin-pull run, you know he’s got the goods.
Throw in the blocking improvement with his existing receiving abilities, and Cleveland’s decision to pick up Njoku’s fifth-year option last offseason seems plenty justified. Now comes the question of his extension. No matter where he ends up, Njoku is deserving of his second contract and has lived up to his lofty draft position.
Defensive Tackle: Solomon Thomas, Las Vegas Raiders
Earlier this week, I wrote about a lot of failed draft picks in San Francisco: Dante Pettis, Joe Williams, Trey Sermon, and so on. There was one I didn’t mention in that piece who deserves mention here: Solomon Thomas.
The 49ers drafted Thomas at no. 3 in 2017, but they never found the right rhythm with him. He split time as a big defensive end and undersized defensive tackle, endured an ACL injury, and was lost in a sea of other first-round picks: Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Nick Bosa. The Niners cut him after the 2020 season, and during their free agent spending spree on defense, the Raiders picked him up.
Thomas has immediately shined. After playing more than 75 percent of the snaps on the edge in San Francisco, he’s playing over 90 percent of his snaps on the interior in Las Vegas. Gus Bradley’s defense, which emphasizes upfield penetration, lets Thomas play fast upfield without regard for sound run defense. Sports Info Solutions has Thomas at 13th in pressure rate above expectation among 147 players with at least 100-plus pass-rushing snaps; Next Gen Stats has Thomas at a career-high 11.9 percent pressure rate. He’s just out here causing problems, folks.
Thomas has always had nice hands as a rusher, and the space afforded by Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue on the outside lets him maximize that hand usage. Thomas can generate rush angles quickly, and then has the slipperiness and shoulder dip to work through contact and flatten into the quarterback. Thomas won’t show up with gaudy sack numbers, but on a chaos-oriented defensive line like the Raiders’, he’s exactly what the doctor ordered, and the unsung hero of a lot of Crosby’s and Ngakoue’s production.
Edge Rusher: Randy Gregory, Dallas Cowboys
When star outside rusher DeMarcus Lawrence broke his foot after Week 1, it should have spelled doom for the Cowboys defense. They were a bad unit last year and came into this season relying on a ton of young players to step up into key roles under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn; Lawrence was perhaps the only established veteran of above-average, let alone high-quality, talent.
But the Cowboys defense has been plenty fine during the first half of the season. There are many reasons for that. They hit on a couple of key rookie starters in linebacker/designated pass rusher Micah Parsons and penetrating defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa. CB Trevon Diggs is having a stellar start to the season. Quinn has some holdovers, like Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, playing fast and physical.
But a huge and underappreciated part of the Cowboys’ defensive strength is Randy Gregory, who is delivering the best season of his fraught career. Gregory fell into the second round of the 2015 draft after testing positive for marijuana at the NFL combine, and had multiple suspensions for violating the league’s substance-misuse policy during his first two seasons, as well as an indefinite suspension after the 2019 season that required him to file with the league for reinstatement.
As it is, Gregory is on pace to play over 600 snaps, the most in his career; he’s also on pace for 10.5 sacks and 68 pressures, both of which would comfortably be career highs. Natural talent was never Gregory’s problem, and his unique blend of explosiveness and wiry power are on full display this season. Gregory has been at his best using speed and bend to get around tackles’ outside shoulders, and when they set too deep on him, using his length to get through them to take quick inside tracks to the quarterback.
Gregory has embarrassed more than a few tackles this season by straight bowling over them immediately in the rep, quickly compromising pocket integrity and taking a play off script. It’s not just that he’s winning—it’s that he’s winning fast.
When Lawrence returns, expect the Cowboys’ pass rushing duo to create nightmares for teams relying on five-man protections. This front will force offenses to keep extra players in to block, making coverage easier on the Cowboys’ feisty but undermanned back seven.
Linebacker: David Long Jr., Tennessee Titans
The stars of the shows in Tennessee’s recent defensive outings have been obvious: Kevin Byard has had multiple interceptions, Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry are living in the backfield. I’m here to herald an underappreciated riser: David Long Jr.
Long was a sixth-round pick out of West Virginia in 2019, meant to back up starter Jayon Brown and provide flexibility with Wesley Woodyard’s contract—his special-teams value as a 227-pound missile didn’t hurt, either.
But Long was more than just a fun special-teamer coming out of West Virginia. He had legit play recognition and good slipperiness in tight areas, and when Brown went down with injury in 2020, he got the reps necessary to hone it into legit, starting-caliber play. Brown came back in 2021 with no assurances that he would keep the starting job over Long, and then was injured again in this season, leaving Long another opportunity to show his stuff.
Long’s just nifty, man. He isn’t the biggest, so sometimes he leaves plays on the field because he can’t occupy a ton of space in zone or stun a climbing offensive lineman. But in space, he collapses in a hurry and offers sure tackling; in coverage, he aggressively closes the initial window and understands how to read quarterbacks’ intentions.
Really nice rep of Long (far LB) and Evans (near LB) exchanging the over route in Cover 3.— Benjamin Solak (@BenjaminSolak) October 25, 2021
Then the situational awareness from Long, knowing that Mahomes loves to throw against momentum on those scramble drills. Anticipates the backside throw, PBU, tip drill INT. Instincts! pic.twitter.com/V5AtN20Eq6
He’s a modern backer playing behind a dominant defensive line, and his attacking style should secure him a 2022 starting job and 2023 contract extension in Tennessee.
Cornerback: Greg Newsome II, Cleveland Browns
Remember the Jaycee Horn–Patrick Surtain II debate ahead of the 2021 NFL draft? Two elite SEC corners with physicality, ball skills, and NFL pedigrees? Horn went at no. 8 to the Panthers, and Surtain at no. 9 to the Broncos, and both teams should be happy with what they got: Horn looked great before his foot injury, and Surtain is fresh off one of his best career performances against Amari Cooper in the team’s surprising win over Dallas.
Well, there was a third big, strong, physical corner with quality ball production and an NFL pedigree in the first round of the 2021 draft: Greg Newsome II, son of Craig Newsome, an NFL cornerback in the late ’90s. Newsome played at Northwestern, in a conference that doesn’t get as much buzz for aggressive passing games to challenge NFL cornerback prospects. That, plus Newsome’s injury history, pushed him a bit down the board.
The Browns didn’t care. They wanted to invest in the secondary, and after a couple of key signings—slot corner Troy Hill, strong safety John Johnson III—they put the cherry on top when they drafted Newsome. He’s been an excellent cover man in his rookie season—a really tough position to play well in your rookie season—and is coming off the best game of his career with three pass breakups against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Greg Newsome on Chase pic.twitter.com/1kYZdL5h2K— Ballsack Sports ® (@BallsackSports) November 7, 2021
This sort of comfort is rare for rookies. Newsome is playing in the half turn, meaning his hips are turned upfield and his head is rotated to keep his eyes on the receiver. That leaves a blind spot, which Ja’Marr Chase attacks, in an effort to disrupt Newsome’s momentum and balance. As Chase breaks across the field, Newsome gets his eyes back around, stays in stride, finds the ball in the air, and arrives with great timing through the catch point.
Cleveland has one of the strongest secondaries in the league, in large part because of their stars: Johnson, Denzel Ward. But there was a legit danger that, for all of their talent, teams would relentlessly attack the one weak link in the chain: the rookie playing on the outside. Newsome’s stellar play raises the entire floor of the Browns’ pass coverage—if they can match up with the Bengals’ receiving corps, who can’t they match up against?
Safety: Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins
There were a few names I considered for this spot (principally Taylor Rapp, who has taken over John Johnson III’s role well in Los Angeles, and Xavier McKinney, who’s finally healthy for the Giants)—but I decided to bang the table for another rookie defensive back, Jevon Holland.
Holland seemed like a peculiar pick at the time. The Dolphins had two quality safeties, Bobby McCain and Eric Rowe—they’d later cut McCain for cap relief and add Jason McCourty for leadership and depth. But after Miami spent a top-40 pick on Holland—a pick that they could have spent on a running back or another option on the offensive line—there was pressure on Holland to deliver right away.
Well, he certainly has. He’s taken nearly 100 percent of the snaps in each game since Week 5, taking over at deep safety for McCourty. The book on Holland coming out of Oregon was that he was a highly versatile player with great athleticism, but he has settled into a center-fielding role as if he has always played the position. His first career pick, which came against the Texans last week, is one of the best interceptions you’ll see this season.
Jevon Holland has been a bright spot for Miami. Starts flexed wide vs TE, then transitions to single high, and covers a lot of ground for the INT pic.twitter.com/Q8O0s2BC6Y— Billy M (@BillyM_91) November 10, 2021
He has legit range, but it’s the play recognition that really stands out. Holland, who has played all over the field since his days at Oregon, has seen it all, and he’s rarely taken out of position in Miami’s defensive backfield. The Dolphins have a lot of problems on defense to address, and they’re enduring a bit of regression from the outside corner duo in Xavien Howard and Byron Jones—but Holland, along with fellow safety Brandon Jones, rounds out one of the best and most exciting secondary groups in the league.