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ESPN’s NFL Nation
The NFL Power Rankings are a great way to keep track of your progress. While we typically focus on team progress, this week we decided to go a step further and have our NFL Nation writers pick the best improved player on the club they cover.
The responses that follow cover a wide range of topics. There are the usual candidates for improvement, such as young players who are starting to blossom with a little more experience (Trevon Diggs just picked off another pass for the Dallas Cowboys) and veterans who are raising their game above their previous standard (Cordarrelle Patterson pretty much does everything for the Atlanta Falcons at this point), but there are even more. We have receivers who have had to play quarterback in the past because to a COVID-19 contact tracing issue (Denver Broncos fans will remember this) and a seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback who is somehow better this year than the year before.
The following is how we rate our Power Rankings: Our power panel, which includes over 80 writers, editors, and TV personalities, assesses how teams perform during the season.
Preseason: 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | Previous rankings: 5 | 4 | 3 | 2
ARI | ATL | BAL | BUF | CAR | CHI | CIN CLE | DAL | DEN | DET | GB | HOU | IND JAX | KC | LV | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN NE | NO | PHI | PIT | SF SEA | TB | TEN | WSH
1st place previously
WR Emmanuel Sanders is the player who has improved the most.
How they’ve progressed: This isn’t a tough choice to make. Sanders, the Bills’ oldest player, has burst in his 12th NFL season as a downfield weapon and is a vital component of the offense. He’s already had two games this season with two touchdowns, including Sunday’s victory against Kansas City. Sanders has just six career games with two or more touchdowns before to this season, the latest of which was in 2017. Aside from his touchdowns, Sanders is averaging a career-high 16.9 yards per catch, compared to a career-low 8.98 yards with the Saints last season. He’s developed into one of quarterback Josh Allen’s preferred targets. Alaina Getzenberg is a writer who lives in New York City.
Previous position: 2
RB Chase Edmonds is the player who has improved the most.
How they’ve improved: This season, the third-year running back was handed a bigger role, and he’s not just taking advantage of it; he’s thriving. Edmonds is the Cardinals’ top rusher and is on track to break his previous season yardage record. He may have a 1,000-yard season for the first time in his career if he has a strong game or two. However, Edmonds’ game isn’t just about carrying the ball. He worked on his receiving abilities over the summer, and it paid off. With 23 receptions, he’s tied for the team lead and has established himself as quarterback Kyler Murray’s favorite target. Josh Weinfuss (@JoshWeinfuss)
3rd place before.
Van Jefferson, wide receiver, is the player who has progressed the most.
How they’ve improved: Despite his maturity, the second-year receiver acknowledged during his first season that his mind was spinning at times in the scheme. Jefferson, on the other hand, has proved to be a reliable target for quarterback Matthew Stafford this season. He ignited the offense with a 67-yard touchdown throw in Week 1 and has gradually increased his targets, which is no easy task when you’re surrounded by pass-catchers like Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, DeSean Jackson, and Tyler Higbee. Jefferson has a total of 242 yards and two touchdowns on 14 receptions. Lindsey Thiry (Lindsey Thiry)
Previous position: 4
Tom Brady, quarterback, is the player who has improved the most.
How they’ve progressed: Doesn’t this seem insane? What could a seven-time Super Bowl champion quarterback possibly work on? However, at this time last year, Brady was still learning the playbook and establishing chemistry with his receivers, while offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich was still learning him. Brady’s touchdown-to-interception ratio has increased from 3.0 to 7.5 this season. Yards after the catch have also increased from 542 to 850 yards, as have yards per attempt (7.93 vs. 7.02, indicating he isn’t attempting simpler passes), implying improved chemistry overall. Jenna Laine is a writer who lives in New York City.
Previous position: 5
LT Yosh Nijman is the player who has progressed the most.
How they’ve improved: Last season, the second-year pro only played 14 snaps in total, with many of them coming on kneel-down plays to close out wins. Who’d have guessed he’d be able to hold up that well in three starts at left tackle? For one thing, offensive line coach Adam Stevanich did. After Elgton Jenkins’ ankle injury, he persuaded Aaron Rodgers that Nijman was the way to go. Jenkins was stepping in for David Bakhtiari, who is recuperating from ACL surgery and is still on PUP. So the Packers were down to their No. 3 left tackle in Nijman, but you’d never know it from the way the offense has been going. Demovsky, Rob
Previous position: 8
Trevon Diggs, cornerback, was the player who improved the most.
How they’ve progressed: Diggs, of course. The Cowboys have other possibilities, such as rookie tackle Terence Steele, but Diggs has already established himself as a contender for Defensive Player of the Year after six interceptions in only five games. He has nine interceptions in his past ten games, going back to his rookie season. He’ll be lined up against the best receivers on the other team every week, so offenses won’t have a chance to avoid him. The issue isn’t how much Diggs has progressed, but rather how much he hasn’t. It’s a question of how much further he can progress. Todd Archer is a writer.
Previous position: 9
Storm Norton (OT) is the player who has progressed the most.
Because of an injury to Bryan Bulaga, Norton, who previously played in the XFL, is now the Chargers’ starting right tackle. Norton struggled in his first start but has since climbed through the ranks to become the Chargers’ No. 2 offensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus. After the Chargers’ victory against the Browns on Sunday, coach Brandon Staley presented him with a game ball. Staley and Justin Herbert, who watched Norton defeat Cleveland’s Myles Garrett, both believe in the 6-foot-8, 308-pound Norton. He wasn’t flawless, allowing a sack to the league’s sack leader, but he’s shown to be dependable. Shelley Smith says:
Previous position: 7
CB Anthony Averett is the player who has improved the most.
How they’ve progressed: Averett, a fourth-round selection in 2018, has replaced Marcus Peters in the starting lineup. Averett has been a solid backup for years, and according to Pro Football Focus, he has allowed the lowest passing rate in coverage through four games. Will the Ravens be able to afford to retain him at the end of the season? Because of his progress, Averett may become a more sought-after free agent this summer. Jamison Hensley (Jamison Hensley)
Previous position: 6
TE David Njoku is the player who has improved the most.
How they’ve improved: Despite the loss, Njoku maintained his great start to the season with a career performance against the Chargers on Sunday. He had a team-best 161 receiving yards on seven catches, including a 71-yard touchdown grab in which he evaded a defender before sprinting into the end zone, setting a new career high. Njoku, a 2017 first-round selection, has struggled to establish his footing in Cleveland. He even requested for a trade at one point. However, after five games as Cleveland’s top receiver, Njoku seems to be finding his stride. Jake Trotter’s remark
Previous position: 11
Jody Fortson, tight end, was the player who improved the most.
After two seasons on the Chiefs’ practice squad as a wide receiver, Fortson was converted to tight end in the spring and has shown to be quite the discovery. This season, he caught all four of his targets, two of which were touchdowns. He is not the ideal size for a tight end at 240 pounds, but he has showed promise as a blocker. Adam Teicher’s remark
Previous position: 18
Kristian Fulton (CB) is the player who has progressed the most.
Fulton didn’t play much as a rookie last season due to a knee ailment, but he has settled in well as the Titans’ starting right cornerback this season. Through five games, he has one interception and six passes defensed. In Week 2, Fulton had his finest game, limiting Seahawks WR DK Metcalf to one catch for eight yards. The second-year CB has grown in confidence, which is shown in his on-field performance. Turron Davenport (Turron Davenport)
Previous position: 12
DJ Moore, wide receiver, is the player who has progressed the most.
How they’ve improved: The greatest difference is consistency. Moore had a fantastic 2020 season, although his catch rate was just 55.9% (66 of 118), and he only scored four receiving touchdowns. This season, he has a 70 percent catch rate (35 of 50) and three receiving touchdowns. Instead of Robby Anderson, he has become Sam Darnold’s favorite target. David Newton is an author.
Previous position: 17
Deonte Harris (WR) is the player who has improved the most.
How they’ve progressed: As an undrafted rookie in 2019, Harris was already an All-Pro return specialist. However, the Saints have been incorporating the 5-foot-6, 170-pound speedster into an offense that lacks explosive pass catchers. He has 236 receiving yards on 12 receptions, which leads the team (including TDs of 72 and 55 yards). On third downs, he’s been a reliable target for Jameis Winston. Harris was forced to leave Sunday’s game early due to a hamstring injury, but he now has the bye week to recuperate. Triplett, Mike
This week’s essentials include: • Check out the full schedule » | Check out the standings » • Every team’s depth chart » • Injuries » | Transactions » • Rankings of the Football Power Index » Additional NFL coverage »
Previous position: 16
LB is the player who has progressed the most. Logan Wilson is a writer and a musician.
How they’ve improved: The second-year linebacker has done a good job of stepping into the starting linebacker position for the club. He has 46 tackles and three of the club’s four interceptions, which leads the team. After spending much of last season as a reserve, Cincinnati’s 2020 third-round selection has shown some flashes of brilliance during the first five games, earning plaudits from several of his teammates. Bengals defensive lineman D.J. Reader stated, “He’s a very disciplined guy.” “I’m ecstatic that so many people are aware of it.” – Ben Little
14th place before.
Kendall Hinton, wide receiver, is the player who has progressed the most.
How they’ve progressed: Hinton continues to go up the developmental ladder via hard work and just being there when the Broncos need him. Last year, Hinton made headlines when he was forced to play quarterback against the Saints after the Broncos’ quarterbacks were all suspended for violating COVID-19 protocols. He started the season on the practice squad, but he was elevated when Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler both went down with injuries. His sideline toe-tap catch for a crucial third-down conversion in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s defeat in Pittsburgh, as well as his first career score earlier in the quarter, were two instances of how far he has come. Legwold, Jeff
Previous position: 23
DE is the player who has progressed the most. Quinn, Robert
Quinn had a rough year in 2020, but the veteran has rebounded well. Quinn has been the Bears’ most consistent pass-rusher through five games. In five games this season, he has 4.5 sacks, compared to two sacks in 15 games in 2020. Quinn’s return has also given Khalil Mack a chance to shine on the opposite side of the line. Quinn and Mack have established themselves as one of the NFC’s best pass-rushing tandems. It’s amazing how much a year can change things. Dickerson, Jeff
• What’s next after Allen’s heroics? • The Bears offense showing signs of life under Lazor • Mayfield’s opportunity was snuffed out by a run play Toney brings a sense of levity to the Giants The offensive woes of the Jets begin early.
Previous position: 10
Bryan Edwards, wide receiver, was the player who improved the most.
Yes, in the second half of the Raiders’ humiliating defeat to the Bears on Sunday, he had a horrible drop when wide open downfield. He had been the team’s closer, so to speak, in Las Vegas’ 3-0 start to the season, with critical receptions late in games. Furthermore, he has already surpassed his rookie season totals of 11 receptions for 193 yards in 12 games, with 13 catches for 236 yards. Gutierrez, Paul
15th place before.
Deebo Samuel (WR) is the player who has improved the most.
How they’ve improved: Samuel’s rise has been aided by his recent health, but he also worked hard in the offseason to slim down, extend his route tree, and become a more complete receiver. That effort has been rewarded. Samuel has progressed from a gadget player restricted to planned runs and in-breaking intermediate routes to the league’s second-leading receiver (548 yards) and the 49ers’ obvious No. 1 receiving target. Nick Wagoner is a writer.
Previous position: 20
WR Jakobi Meyers is the player who has improved the most.
Meyers has been targeted 47 times, for a total of 31 catches for 302 yards, which leads the club. Meyers’ jump forward is evident in the fact that he had only one reception for seven yards in the first five games of last season, despite being wide open. However, the third-year receiver is still on the lookout for his first touchdown catch. — Reiss, Mike
Previous position: 13
WR Freddie Swain is the player who has improved the most.
How they’ve improved: The Seahawks’ third receiver is last year’s sixth-round selection, while rookie Dee Eskridge has been out since the season began. Swain is already matching last year’s total of two touchdowns in five games, significantly surpassing his 2020 statistics. One of his scores came on a scramble against the 49ers, in which he displayed a keen knowledge of Russell Wilson’s deviation from the script. Brady Henderson’s quote
Previous position: 24
DL is the player who has progressed the most. Cameron Heyward is a British actor.
How they’ve progressed: Heyward has been the defensive anchor on a Steelers defensive front that has been in turmoil due to a series of injuries. Through five games, the 11-year veteran has outperformed Aaron Donald and Jonathan Allen as the highest-graded interior defender on Pro Football Focus. The Steelers’ pass rush hasn’t been able to generate as much pressure as in past seasons, but Heyward has 14 solo tackles, one sack, and one forced fumble to his credit. Brooke Pryor is an actress who plays Brooke Pryor.
Previous position: 19
Taylor Heinicke, quarterback, is the player who has progressed the most.
When compared to where he was in 2020: taking courses at Old Dominion University, there aren’t many possibilities here (maybe returner DeAndre Carter), but Heinicke definitely qualifies. He’d given up hope of ever returning to the NFL. He is their most improved player just because of this. Heinicke’s flaws are on show against top-tier defenses, as seen by his four interceptions in defeats to Buffalo and New Orleans. He has, however, passed for 1,208 yards and eight touchdowns (with five interceptions), as well as leading two game-winning drives late in the game. His career may be limited to that of a reliable backup, but he was an NFL afterthought only a year ago. ‘John Keim’
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22nd in the previous ranking
Everson Griffen, DE, is the player who has progressed the most.
How they’ve progressed: The Vikings re-signed the 33-year-old defensive end, who was with the team from 2010 to 2019, to serve as a rotational pass rusher. Griffen has worked his way into the starting lineup after just five games. On passing downs, he’s shifted into a new position, splitting repetitions between defensive end and three-technique. Griffen replaced D.J. Wonnum in the lineup and played a season-high 72 percent of plays against Detroit. Griffen has established himself as a component of the Vikings’ pass rush that they cannot go without, with four sacks in five games following a total of six sacks a year ago with Dallas and Detroit. — Cronin, Courtney
Previous position: 25
DT Javon Hargrave is the player who has improved the most.
How they’ve improved: Through five games, Hargrave has been the Eagles’ best player. He leads all defensive linemen with six sacks this season and is third overall in the NFL. It’s also a half-sack less than his previous best. Hargrave, 28, played with the Steelers for four seasons before joining the Eagles in 2020. Last season, he was hampered by injuries, but in his second year in green, he has blossomed into a dominating force. Tim McManus, Ph.D.
Previous position: 21
WR Michael Pittman Jr. is the player who has progressed the most.
How they’ve progressed: Pittman, the Colts’ second-round selection in 2020, has 23 catches and 279 receiving yards in four games this season, compared to 13 games as a rookie. In his current position as the Colts’ No. 1 receiver, he leads the club in each of those categories. Mike Wells’ remark
Previous position: 27
Cordarrelle Patterson, running back, is the player who has progressed the most.
How they’ve improved: Isn’t Patterson the solution to virtually everything for the Falcons right now? However, in this instance, it’s dead on. Patterson has the potential to be the most improved player in the NFL. He’s already had his best season statistics since 2017, with 25 receptions and 295 yards, and he’s also equaled his career high in receiving touchdowns (four). His 173 yards are the third-highest season total in his career as a runner. It’s Week 5 once again. In Patterson’s eighth season and sixth club, Falcons coach Arthur Smith has become the playcaller who has finally figured out how to best use the former first-round selection. Michael Rothstein is a writer and producer.
Previous position: 26
DL is the player who has progressed the most. Wilkins, Christian
Wilkins has already matched his career best in quarterback hits (4) and established a new career high in tackles for a loss in only five games of his third NFL season (5). In addition, he has one sack on the season, one short of his career best. After a solid-but-unspectacular start to his career, the 2019 first-round choice has always brought enthusiasm to the field — sometimes “too much” juice, according to coach Brian Flores — but his output is beginning to match that. — Louis-Jacques Marcel
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30th in the previous ranking
S Lonnie Johnson Jr., S Lonnie Johnson Jr., S Lonnie Johnson Jr., S Lonnie Johnson Jr.
How they’ve progressed: Johnson is in his second season as a safety after being selected in the second round as a cornerback in 2019. Safety Johnson is becoming more comfortable playing in defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s scheme, according to Justin Reid, and it’s showing on the field. Johnson gets his first two career interceptions in back-to-back games in Weeks 4 and 5. Sarah Barshop is a writer.
Previous position: 29
Bryce Hall (CB) is the player who has progressed the most.
How they’ve progressed: With five passes defensed, the Jets’ 2020 fifth-round selection, who fell in the draft due to a severe ankle injury at the conclusion of his last season at Virginia, leads the team. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, just eight players in the NFL have more than Hall. Hall gained some experience as a starter in the second part of last season, but he was still shaking off the rust after his absence. He’s now 100 percent healthy, playing CB1 for the Jets, and has a shot to be a long-term starter. Cimini, Rich
Previous position: 28
QB is the player who has progressed the most. Jones, Daniel
How they’ve improved: Jones has always struggled with turnovers, but that hasn’t been the case this season. Jones had appeared to have it figured out and was having a great game until he was taken off with a concussion late in the first half against Dallas on Sunday. This season, he has just one fumble loss and one interception, the latter of which came on a Hail Mary. This year, the third-year quarterback has clearly made significant progress. Through five weeks, he has a QBR of 61.0, which places him in the top ten in the NFL. Jordan Raanan is a writer.
Previous position: 31
LB is the player who has progressed the most. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is an American football player.
How they’ve improved: According to first-year Lions coach Dan Campbell, Reeves-Maybin has made the most progress. He sticks out since he spent much of the season on special teams. But he’s improved in recent weeks, most notably against Minnesota on Sunday, when he caused and recovered a critical turnover in addition to making five stops. “He’s a playmaker,” Campbell remarked. “He’s a good worker for us.” Eric Woodyard’s remark
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32nd in the previous ranking
RB is the player who has progressed the most. Robinson, James
Despite a sluggish start to the season (only 16 carries in the first two games combined), Robinson is on pace for 1,316 yards running, which would be almost 250 yards more than his rookie total. Robinson worked hard in the summer to improve his speed, and it seems like he did it without sacrificing power. Robinson had a solid rookie season, and he might go close to 1,500 yards if the Jaguars give him more work than the 16 carries he’s had in the last three games. Mike DiRocco’s remark