Early NFL surprises and disappointments

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, along with running back Fred Jackson and wide receiver Stevie...

Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, along with running back Fred Jackson and wide receiver Stevie Johnson, all rank among the NFL's most pleasant surprises after the first three weeks. (RICK WILKING/Reuters file photo)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:20 PM ET

TORONTO - It’s only three games into a 16-game season, but it’s never too early to measure who is getting more from their personnel and who is getting less.

It’s the nature of professional sports that we want to know, no matter what the time of year, how well or how poorly our team’s big guns are faring.

With that in mind, we present those going beyond expectations and those below expectations in the categories of quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. Keep in mind those superstars playing like superstars don’t fit into either category in case you believe we aren’t aware what Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson are doing.

QUARTERBACKS

Top honours here are shared by one we thought might have a chance to be special, but didn’t really believe it, given the team he was with, and another we fully expected to fall flat on his face.

The first is Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick who showed signs a year ago of being able to do what he’s doing now — we think back to a monstrous performance in a loss at Baltimore late in the year — and has now had three big games in a row. Fitzpatrick has not only become the dependable quarterback the Bills have been missing since the Jim Kelly (okay, maybe Doug Flutie) days, but he has also become the leader in that locker room with everyone rallying behind him.

The latter is Tennessee’s Matt Hasselbeck who, we were sure, was done after Seattle. Hasselbeck, though, is completing just shy of 70% of his passes, which is a mark bettered only by Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Hasselbeck also has a rather suspect team off to a 2-1 start.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Detroit’s Matthew Stafford and Baltimore’s Joe Flacco have both stepped up their games, although neither is a huge surprise given the potential they came into the league with.

BELOW EXPECTATIONS: This isn’t the Philip Rivers we were expecting. He has thrown for four touchdowns and been picked off six times. His QB rating is 22nd in the NFL behind guys such as Andy Dalton and Chad Henne. Part of the problem is that old reliable, Antonio Gates, has been hobbled. although Rivers got the job done with plenty of injuries around him a year ago.

DISHONOURABLE MENTION: Minnesota’s Donovan McNabb and Kansas City’s Matt Cassel are both failing miserably. It may be over for McNabb. Cassel is more a victim of a team crumbling around him although he’s not blameless.

RUNNING BACKS

Easily the best running back of the early portion of the season has been Darren McFadden. The Oakland speedster is averaging more than 130 yards a game, is tied for most yards per carry and is among the top four in rushing touchdowns. He has pushed the likes of Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson and Arian Foster into his jet stream. The most surprising back of the year, however, easily goes to Fred Jackson who has been stellar for the Bills. His 6.4 yards per carry is tied for the league best with McFadden. He has also significantly improved his receiving numbers. The 115 yards through the air is already about one third of his previous best season with 13 games left to play.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy may be the toughest back to tackle, given his ability to turn on a dime. McCoy has been one of the few consistent parts of Philly’s play this year. Houston’s Ben Tate also warrants a mention. Filling in for the injured Foster, Tate has twice gone over the 100-yard mark allowing Houston to continue an important part of their offence.

BELOW EXPECTATIONS: Tennessee broke the bank to make Chris Johnson happy. Perhaps eventually he will respond in kind with the kind of performances that got him that contract in the first place. But to date, Johnson has been perhaps the bust of the season. Whether it’s the lack of OTA’S or the fact that he held out through training camp, Johnson has not been productive. He has as many yards in three games on the ground as rookie quarterback Cam Newton does. His 2.1 yards per attempt isn’t among the top 50 in the league. Johnson is making some noise this week that he finally has his football legs under him, but through three weeks his performance has been pitiful.

DISHONOURABLE MENTION: This was supposed to be the year Shonn Greene made LaDainian Tomlinson a footnote in New York. The only problem is Greene has been all but invisible this year. His 3.3 yards per carry is among the worst in the league and he has found the endzone once. They’re having similar problems in San Francisco getting their marquee back up to speed. Frank Gore is giving new head coach Jim Harbaugh just under 50 yards a game. With Alex Smith at quarterback that’s not going to be enough.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Wes Welker has always been a solid receiver. We just never envisioned him leading the league in yards. But that’s what Welker is doing, with a huge assist from Tom Brady. Welker has taken his game to another level this year. Only Calvin Johnson and Rob Gronkowski have more touchdowns than he does. With Chad Ochocinco looking anything but a threat, Welker’s breakout season couldn’t have come at a better time.

HONOURABLE MENTION: Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace spoke in the off-season about going over 2,000 yards this year. Most people just nodded and smiled. Wallace, though, is easily on pace to surpass that number and showing no signs of slowing down. One of the fastest receivers in the game today, Wallace has become a steady blip on Ben Roethlisberger’s radar. Buffalo’s Stevie Johnson is another surprise among the receiving leaders and has made Buffalo management look good in getting rid of the more expensive option in Lee Evans and handing the No. 1 duties over to Johnson. New England’s Gronkowski has turned into one of the best tight ends in the AFC. Even the presence of Aaron Hernandez (currently injured) in the mix of TE’s with the Patriots has not hurt Gronkowski.

BELOW EXPECTATIONS: Dwayne Bowe was among the biggest touchdown threats in the NFL a year ago. This year, he is a forgotten receiver with just 11 receptions and a single touchdown to his name. San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis has 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons but has yet to score once this year. For whatever reason, he does not seem to fit as well in Jim Harbaugh’s offence.

DISHONOURABLE MENTION: Hakeem Nicks broke through the 1,000 yard barrier a year ago and finished the season with 11 touchdowns. He’s on pace for about half of each number through three games this year.


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