At the midway point of the 2018 NFL season, it’s time to assess where teams stand, which players have excelled and who’s on the verge of a rebuild.
Here’s a midseason edition of winners and losers:
Rams: The league’s lone undefeated team will face a huge test on the road Week 9 against the 6-1 Saints. But the 8-0 Rams have been the best team in football all year long. Coach Sean McVay continues to call a dynamic and diverse game for quarterback Jared Goff. Running back Todd Gurley has a touchdown in 11 straight games and is on pace to tally 30 scores, one shy of LaDainian Tomlinson’s record set in 2006. And, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' unit is in the middle of the pack in yards allowed, it ranks sixth in scoring.
Patrick Mahomes: The second-year passer is making coach Andy Reid look like a genius. The same goes for general manager Brett Veach, too, for his aggressive decision to trade former starting quarterback Alex Smith to the Redskins. Mahomes is sizzling in his first season as a starter, leading the NFL in passing yards (2,526) and passing touchdowns (26). In fact, his TD total through eight games matched Smith’s entire total from last season – which was a career high. The Chiefs are 7-1 and Mahomes is on pace for 52 passing touchdowns, which would be three off of Peyton Manning’s all-time record. Midway through the year, he looks like the clear MVP.
Patriots: So, about all that offseason turmoil and tension. Bet the last time you read about it was … in the offseason, right? Despite reports of friction among Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft, the team best at keeping the focus on football is doing just that. The Patriots defense still looks vulnerable at times, but New England is 6-2, the addition of receiver Josh Gordon is starting to pay dividends and a deep playoff run again seems almost inevitable.
Andrew Luck: At this time last year, we were unsure if Luck’s right arm would ever be the same as he explored different treatment options for his injured shoulder. Now, he’s completing passes at a career-high rate (65.8%), ranks second in the league in passing touchdowns (23) and is playing with sharp efficiency and sound decision making. Some credit goes to a new scheme and an offensive line that is keeping him upright, but Luck is playing the best football of his career.
Skill-position players: Perhaps because of rule changes and perhaps because of overall good health to quarterbacks, NFL teams are scoring at record pace. Teams have racked up 5,834 points and 661 touchdowns, both of which are most in league history through Week 8. Some defensive players have griped about tweaks to the rule book, but it remains to be seen whether this offensive explosion only drives up the value – and therefore salaries – of quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs.
James Conner: Perhaps no player has capitalized on an opportunity more than the Steelers running back. With all-pro Le’Veon Bell still refusing to sign, Conner has racked up 922 yards from scrimmage, second-most in franchise history through a season’s first seven games, behind only Bell’s 938 in 2014. Conner also has nine touchdowns. And with Bell a virtual lock to part with Pittsburgh at the end of this season, Conner has made it clear he is in line to be the feature back in 2019.
QB class of 2015: Three and a half years ago, The Buccaneers selected Jameis Winston No. 1 overall and the Titans plucked Marcus Mariota right after. Winston just got benched for Tampa’s Week 9 game against the Panthers after another sloppy and turnover-laden loss. And Mariota is dealing with a nagging elbow injury that has hampered his play, as he has scored just four touchdowns this season and has tossed five picks. Entering pivotal stretches in their careers – with fifth-year options in 2019 looming – they need to show they can be consistent. Meanwhile, Garrett Grayson, Sean Mannion, Bryce Petty, Brett Hundley, and Trevor Siemian are all backups with their respective squads.
Jaguars: Not having running back Leonard Fournette, who has played just two games due to a nagging hamstring injury, has been a blow. But Jacksonville’s defense hasn't lived up to last season's lofty standard. Quarterback Blake Bortles is fighting for his job, and last year’s AFC title game runner up has lost four in a row. The Jags are 3-5 and had four players detained the night before a loss in London due to a dispute over a bill. After an offseason in which some players talked trash, the Jags need to start backing it up.
Rookie head coaches: Only one of them, Matt Nagy of the Bears, has a winning record through Week 8, and Chicago is just one game over .500 at 4-3. Combined, Nagy, Frank Reich (Colts), Steve Wilks (Cardinals), Mike Vrabel (Titans), Matt Patricia (Lions), Pat Shurmur (Giants), and Jon Gruden (Raiders) have a 17-35 (.327) record. Two of them – Shurmur and Gruden – each have one victory apiece. Many are dealing with potential rebuilds and reports of disgruntled players, leaving open the possibility of potential staff changes in coming weeks.
Rookie QBs: Each of the first-round passers – with the exception of Lamar Jackson of the Ravens – has been forced into action as his team’s starter. And though all of them have had their moments, Josh Allen of the Bills (54 percent), Sam Darnold of the Jets (55.2 percent), Josh Rosen of the Cardinals (55.6 percent), and Baker Mayfield of the Browns (58.3 percent) rank last in completion rate of all NFL quarterbacks who have attempted 100 or more passes. They have a combined 30:33 total touchdown-to-turnover ratio. And none is on a team with a winning record.
Browns: After an apparent power struggle between head coach Hue Jackson and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, general manager John Dorsey fired both. The Browns do have lots of young talent on the roster, but there simply wasn’t enough progress to warrant Jackson staying at 2-5-1. The silver lining is that — even with the track record of losing — this is now an attractive job, and it’s a step that may show the Browns aren’t going to tolerate dysfunction.
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes.
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