As we approach the latter stages of a regular season that has already offered us so much, we can more confidently identify the serious challengers for Super Bowl LVI and the athletes who have played key roles in securing wins. It’s a sport and a league that is so heavily characterised by its athletes and big names, and the sheer volume and charisma of the NFL’s superstar athletes is arguably one of the most exciting aspects about the sport. Week to week, season to season, followers of the league are constantly witnessing the development of great players.
The most inspiring part about the NFL is that anyone can make it big. Perhaps the greatest player to ever do it, Tom Brady himself, was the 199th pick of the 2000 Draft. This only goes to show that the NFL is nothing if not a game for the underdogs and this season has been no different.
The midpoint of the season is a great time to herald some of the biggest surprises of the campaign thus far. Whether they are a rookie pick who has outperformed their draft position or an established player who has stepped up for their team, there has been a host of surprise developments this year. Here are some of the most standout players of the season:
5. RB Cordarrelle Patterson: Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have been one of the league’s most unimpressive teams for a few years now, and their offence has become notably unproductive in recent games with blowout losses to the Cowboys and Pats meaning they have rarely reached the 20-point mark at all this year. However, one bright spot will be the resurgence of veteran Cordarrelle Patterson, the former Minnesota first-round pick and Bears returner who was picked up in free agency. Despite not even being the Falcons first RB pick up before the 2021-22 season (former Panther Mike Davis), Patterson has shone spectacularly all season taking most of his snaps at RB despite operating as a WR and on special teams and has even been listed as a third-string safety on their most recent depth chart.
Patterson has averaged 12.2 yards per reception and has 4 TDs to his name, and his deployment all over the field and high production rate has rapidly established him as a fan favourite. Although the Falcons will not be contending for a Super Bowl anytime soon, the Falcons will look to Patterson in the absence of Calvin Ridley and the loss of Julio Jones to set a positive tone for a regressing offence in the games to come. If he maintains rushing and receiving consistency, he should be a strong Pro Bowl shout.
4. WR Ja’Marr Chase: Cincinnati Bengals
Ja’Marr Chase has exploded onto the scene and is a primary reason why the Bengals are in the playoff picture this season. The fifth pick overall of this year’s draft has already established himself as a leading candidate for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award with the best seven-game start to a season for a WR since 1954, and so far, has racked up 958 yards and eight scores in just twelve games.
Whilst some doubted whether Chase would be able to connect with his former LSU teammate Joe Burrow to the same degree of success that they felt in their college years, their numbers speak for themselves. Chase has become instrumental to a Bengals organisation that has struggled to gain momentum in recent seasons, with his on-field presence opening the field for his receiving corps teammates as well as providing a reliable target for his QB who is also having himself a prominent sophomore season.
3. CB Trevon Diggs: Dallas Cowboys
The return of star QB Dak Prescott who has ignited the Cowboys offense this season has certainly caught the attention of the press and NFL fans. But second-year CB Trevon Diggs is quietly having one of the best seasons a cornerback has ever had, achieving 41 combined tackles and a staggering 9 interceptions (as well as two pick-sixes) prior to Week 14. Even more impressive is the fact that he has only allowed a 56.9 completion percentage despite being targeted 75 times this season
Diggs has placed himself at the forefront of the Defensive Player of the Year award debate with his defensive performances so far and has shown vast improvement in his sophomore year. Opposing QBs averaged a passer rating of 85.8 when targeting Diggs last season, but this has already improved to 45.0 this year. His stats combined with the game-changing nature of his plays have distinguished Diggs as a player to watch for the rest of the season.
2. WR Cooper Kupp: LA Rams
Cooper Kupp had always been in and around discussions of the top wide receivers in the league, but he had never really been considered as one of the best. However, he has become one of the NFL’s most statistically dominant wideout athletes thus far this season. In his fifth season as a Los Angeles Ram third-round draft pick, Kupp has caught 100 receptions for 1,366 yards and 11 TDs.
These performances across the board have earned him an elite PFF rating of 91.0. Although this is only just surpassed by the Packers’ Davante Adams, he leads the league in snaps, receptions, 40+ yard plays and targets. If he can maintain this production rate, he’ll have the Rams offense excellently set up for a tough playoff run as well as having himself a season for the ages.
1. RB Jonathon Taylor: Indianapolis Colts
Jonathon Taylor has been quietly enjoying himself one of the most impressive breakout seasons the NFL has seen in recent years and has surely established himself as a top-three running back. Over thirteen regular season games, Taylor has amassed 1,348 yards and 16 scores from 241 carries, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He also leads the league’s top backs in rushing yards, touchdowns, first downs and 20+ yard plays.
Putting aside his statistical resurgence, JT enjoyed a productive season in his rookie season last year. However, he has truly proven himself to be an MVP candidate by helming a Colts offense that is proficient in both the running and passing game, which will delight head coach Frank Reich. After Week 14, Taylor will have a significant opportunity to make his case for the MVP award in his matchups against the Patriots and the Cardinals who have arguably fielded the best and the second-best defences in the NFL all season. Two big performances combined with the numbers that he has run up so far could cap off a monster season with multiple award shouts for the young running back.