Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Ralph Vacchiano takes a look at some of the NFL's most intriguing statistical leaders.
-by Ralph Vacchiano
You knew that Tom Brady and Drew Brees would be leading the NFL in passing yardage, even this early in the season. But come on, who would’ve guessed that Cam Newton would be third? Darren McFadden as the NFL’s rushing leader so far is probably not a stretch, but Ben Tate fifth, less than 100 yards behind and ahead of Adrian Peterson?
Nate Washington with more catches than Roddy White? Ryan Fitzpatrick in the Top 10 in passer rating? Jason Pierre-Paul tied for second in sacks, just a half-sack behind DeMarcus Ware?
There are some new and surprising faces atop the leaderboards three weeks into the NFL season. Here’s a look at the five biggest, most eye-opening surprises among them, so far:
QB Cam Newton, Carolina
There were many people who believed the No. 1 overall pick would eventually be a star, despite all his detractors. But the key word was “eventually”. In a lockout year where everyone lost the offseason, rookies figured to be more lost than usual. But not Newton. Even his most ardent supporters couldn’t have seen back-to-back 400-yard passing games at the start of his career and a completion percentage well over 60 percent. Yeah, his numbers came back to Earth in Week 3, but in poor weather conditions he still managed to complete more than half his passes and not throw an interception. He’ll have his ups and downs, no doubt. All rookie quarterbacks do. He certainly has opened up a lot of eyes, though, with his first three games.
RB Ben Tate, Houston
When Arian Foster got hurt before the opener, it seemed only natural that Texans coach Gary Kubiak would lean even more heavily on his passing attack. With Matt Schaub at quarterback and Andre Johnson at receiver, he seemed to have more than enough weapons to protect an unheralded rookie running back. He didn’t see it that way, though, and Tate carried more than 20 times for more than 100 yards in each of the Texans’ first two games. When he followed that up with 82 yards in Week 3 he put himself sixth in the NFL in rushing, ahead of Adrian Peterson, Michael Turner, Ray Rice. As soon as Foster returns, Tate’s numbers will drop, no doubt. But he certainly proved that if Foster is out long term, the Texans’ rushing attack will be fine.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo
The Buffalo Bills are the surprise of the NFL, coming out of absolute nowhere to go 3-0, and they’re riding the arm of their Harvard-grad quarterback. Fitzpatrick’s nine touchdown passes are tied with Drew Brees and trail only Tom Brady. He’s also completed 64.9 percent of his passes – six points above his career average and seven points higher than last year. Scouts have always loved him as a smart player (perhaps an Ivy League stereotype) and he showed a little potential last year. But no one saw his first two games coming, where he threw seven touchdowns and just one interception. Then he went 27 for 40 for 369 yards against the Patriots and won a duel with Brady? It looks like he has arrived.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul, N.Y. Giants
Since he was coming off the bench and it happened for a collapsing team late in the season, it was easy to overlook the four sacks Pierre-Paul had in the Giants’ last six games of 2010 – especially since he had two each in back-to-back games. It looked like he was just flashing the talent that made him the 15th overall pick in the draft. He was still considered a project. Then, filling in for the injured Osi Umenyiora, he followed that up with four more in the first three games this year and he’s been close to at least half-a-dozen others. He’s a pass-rushing beast, sitting just a half-sack behind DeMarcus Ware in the NFL standings, and he’s not so easy to dismiss as a project anymore.
WR Nate Washington, Tennessee
In his six previous seasons in the NFL, Washington has been a serviceable receiver, but one with limitations. He’s never topped more than 47 catches and he’s certainly not a player anyone would want as a No. 1 option on their team. Three games into the season, though, he has 21 catches already … on an offense that featured running back Chris Johnson and receiver Kenny Britt. Washington’s production has been both consistent and surprising. Of course now it gets tougher. Britt is out for the season with a knee injury, so Washington really will be Matt Hasselbeck’s No. 1 target. It’ll be very interesting to see if he can come close to his current production without Britt drawing double teams to the other side.