Every year, the first few weeks of the season belong to guys like Larry Donnell. I have no problem admitting that before the Giants opened the season on a Monday night in Detroit, I had no idea who Donnell was. I’d never read his name or mentioned him to anyone. Maybe that’s a problem, considering what I do, but I’m guessing not many people outside the tri-state area had heard of him either.
That’s part of what made last night so fun — knowing that a month ago, not a soul in America knew Larry Donnell’s name, and now he’s the best receiver on one of the most visible football teams we have.
Apparently, Donnell was an undrafted free agent out of Grambling State in 2012. That’s really where the trail — or at least the first page of Google results — ends. Larry Donnell’s Wikipedia page is three sentences long.
Last night was more of the same from Donnell. Three touchdowns in a prime-time, division game is a slight step up, but he’s been one of Eli Manning’s favorite options since they got started less than a month ago.
At 6-foot-5, Donnell is a huge target, but the best part about him is those hands. Donnell will go get it, especially in the end zone, and the awareness he shows on back-shoulder throws down there makes him a serious problem for defenders.
Donnell spent the past two seasons toiling away on the practice squad, which makes you wonder what kind of talent is stuck on the back of NFL rosters. His old tight ends coach, Mike Pope, said as much earlier this week. Donnell was considerably raw when he left Grambling State, and too often, players who need a lot of work aren’t long for a world that craves instant production. Whatever Donnell’s troubles were, they look long gone. He’s been one of the stars of the early season, one of those, Wait, who was that? guys we may not have seen coming. There are plenty more, but before we get to them, please, somebody go update Donnell’s Wikipedia page. There’s some stuff worth mentioning.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys
Through three games, DeMarco Murray has a league-leading 75 carries for a league-leading 385 yards. For the Murray from last season, those numbers are totally believable. He was the most effective runner in the league a year ago, and all the pleas for Dallas to lean on its ground game this year were with Murray in mind. For anyone familiar with Murray’s history, though, it’s kind of incredible that he’s turned into this kind of running back.
Murray’s freshman year at Oklahoma was impressive. He rushed for 13 touchdowns, and that’s unbelievable even if you know five came against North Texas. But that season, and even for the next two, Murray was never the Sooners’ primary running back. That job went to guys like Chris Brown and Allen Patrick. Murray was the smaller, quicker, pass-catching scatback who turned into a lightning strike four times a game.
There are flashes of that in Dallas. Murray’s still elusive, still blisteringly fast. But he’s also an off-tackle terror averaging 2.15 yards per rush after contact.1 He’s running over and through tacklers as often as he’s running around them. Murray hitting the second level with a head of steam is one of the more beautiful sights in the league right now. I just really — really — hope he doesn’t get hurt.
That ranks 10th in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and nearly everyone ahead of him is a secondary back in a time-share — guys who’d presumably be fresher than their lead counterparts.
Kyle Fuller, CB, Bears
I won’t even pretend to be casual about this. The Kyle Fuller revolution is here, and it is amazing.
With their (still) dire safety problem, there was some bristling when the Bears took Fuller 14th in this year’s draft. I’m guessing that’s died down a bit. For two consecutive weeks, Fuller has turned a prime-time game into his own personal showcase. His pair of second-half picks sealed a win against the 49ers, and he spent Monday night locking down half the field while also doing his best Charles Tillman impression.
As good as the Bears have been on defense for most of the past decade, it’s been a while since Chicago developed an in-house star. Tillman and Lance Briggs were drafted 11 years ago. It would be stupid to anoint Fuller as that type of find after three weeks, but he’s already shown the knack for ball-stealing that defined Tillman. For better or worse, the Bears defense has long survived on turnovers. It feels right when the ball is hitting the ground or getting snatched out of the air. Finding the next guy to do both has been weirdly comforting.
Kelechi Osemele, G, Ravens
Every time I watch the Ravens offense, my focus drifts to Kelechi Osemele. Part of that is me being a line-play weirdo. The other part is that he’s become impossible to ignore.
As a rookie, Osemele’s move from tackle to guard was a step in the O-line shuffle that helped the Ravens eventually win a Super Bowl, but 2013 was pretty much a lost year. A bad back ended Osemele’s season after seven games, and the interior of the Ravens line was a mess.
Osemele had surgery this offseason, and in his third year he looks like a new man. At 6-foot-6, he’s massive for a guard. It isn’t easy to look big next to a bunch of offensive linemen, but Osemele somehow manages. Mobility is key in Baltimore’s new offense under Gary Kubiak, and Osemele moves better than a man his size has any right to. It’s downright elegant. Combine that with 330 pounds and the ability to blow people off the ball, and you get the best interior offensive lineman in football right now.
DeAndre Levy, OLB, Lions
We’ll get to everything else, but let’s start with what’s important: Where Levy falls in the NFL Beard Rankings. This list is based on no criteria other than my self-appointed title as a beard-having expert.
1. Brett Keisel: The king stay the king. Keisel has owned the NFL beard corner for nearly five years, and he stays at the top until he decides otherwise. Also, prove to me he isn’t Tormund Giantsbane from Game of Thrones. I’m talking, in a room together and no tricky mirror stuff.
2. Jason Kelce: Ideally, you’d want to judge the hair and beard separately, but I’ll admit one plays into the other. It’s the overall look that leads to opportunities like this:
3. DeAndre Levy: The fullness defies understanding. Forget how uncomfortable it has to be with a chin strap. I have no idea how he even gets one on.
He does, though, and it turns him into an offense-destroying nightmare. Levy was great last year, picking off six passes and covering the middle of the field as well as any linebacker around. The coverage skills are back — Levy was manned up on Jordy Nelson on the game-ending play Sunday — but he’s also at the center of Detroit’s incredible run defense. Levy was the one knifing into the backfield and dragging Eddie Lacy down in the end zone for a safety. It takes one hand to count the linebackers who can consistently make both of those plays: Patrick Willis, the guys in Carolina, Lavonte David, and Levy. Even with all of those interceptions last year, I don’t think people thought Levy could be on that level. If he isn’t there now, he’s certainly close.
Jurrell Casey, DE, Titans
There’s no one quite like Jurrell Casey. The Titans gave the 24-year-old a four-year deal with $20.5 million guaranteed this offseason, a reward for some truly impressive production last year, when he had 10.5 sacks. Playing as a traditional defensive tackle, Casey was taking a run at guys like Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy as the best in the game.
When Tennessee hired Ray Horton and announced it was shifting to a 3-4 defense, there was some worry Casey might be miscast in a move to defensive end. Not only has Casey been his old self, but the Titans are actually using him in weirder ways than anyone could have thought.
Coming out of USC, Casey’s build gave people pause about his future as a defensive tackle. Now, he’s occasionally the squattiest outside linebacker anyone has ever seen. It’s not like the Titans are throwing him out there just to do it, either. Casey gave Doug Free plenty of trouble from that spot when the Cowboys came to Tennessee. Few players can line up and play well from so many different spots, and the ones that can typically look more like Calais Campbell than Casey. He really is unique.
Devin Hester, WR, Falcons
There’s a cruel irony to Devin Hester burning a Lovie Smith–coached team to the ground the way he did last week. Smith ultimately lost his job with the Bears because he could never find the assistant coaches to get the most out of his offense, and in Hester’s first season away from Chicago, he may have finally found his place as a receiver.
The process of turning Hester into a wide receiver in Chicago was always backward. Jumping from “return specialist” to “no. 1 option” never made any sense, and falling back from “failed no. 1 option” to “return specialist” probably didn’t either. In Atlanta, Hester’s allowed to be the ultimate luxury — a fourth receiver/returner useful on the type of jet-sweep, Oh shit not this guy plays he scored on against the Bucs.
But as a receiver, he’s also getting open every time he’s given even a little room. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever seen him return a punt, but it still took us this long to get here. Terry Robiskie, the receivers coach in Atlanta, deserves credit for finally turning one of the game’s notorious open-field players into a receiver who can chew up cornerbacks in the open field.
Harrison Smith, S, Vikings
Some day, I’d like to ask Harrison Smith about going from Leslie Frazier’s defense to Mike Zimmer’s. He’ll probably be diplomatic about it, but I’m not sure he should be. Sticking Smith in the back half of a zone defense is an insult, to both Smith and to football.
Smith still pulled off an impressive rookie year, and after missing a good chunk of last year with a toe injury, he’s back and in a perfect spot with Zimmer. He can do a bit of everything — blitz, patrol center field, help against the run — and defensive coordinator George Edwards lets him. It’s a perfect marriage of player and scheme, and in Smith’s third year, he has a chance to be at the top of that class of safeties just below Earl Thomas.
Le’Veon Bell, RB, Steelers
Earlier this week, Jason Bailey dove into the changes Le’Veon Bell has made to his body since leaving Michigan State, but it’s worth reiterating: Bell was a grind-it-out, volume-based running back in college. Now, he’s the type of back who can rip off an 80-yard run. There were four of those in the NFL all of last season.
This version of Bell allows him to combine the best elements of the player he was and the player he’s become. His vision is supernatural, and he has that patience all running backs talk about but few actually use. Bell is never in a hurry until he wants to be, and these days, he can be in one pretty damn quickly.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Raiders
“The Black Hole” suits Oakland in a couple of ways, one of them being that it’s a place young players often go before they’re never seen again. It takes a lot these days to earn some positive attention for the Raiders, which makes Khalil Mack’s start all the more amazing.
At the University at Buffalo, it made sense that Mack was moving at a different speed than everyone on the field. The scary part is that he still is. Mack’s had at least one play every week that warrants rewinding. And last week against New England, there were a few. Nate Solder’s had a rough month, and Mack didn’t make it any easier.
Everyone knew before the draft that Mack could just appear in the backfield — Nightcrawler in a football helmet — but it’s the sturdy plays, ones where the crazy physical skills mesh with some football savvy, that have shown up so far. Mack’s ditching blockers, pulling off spin moves, and doing things reserved for guys who have been at this a lot longer than he has. Like some of his colleagues here, he’s going to be a star.