The 2012 NFL season is only four weeks old, but we have already seen Hail Mary passes completed, special teams trickery and several circus catches ... and that was just the Lions-Titans game! Every year, the NFL provides exciting moments and shocking results, but it sure feels like the first four weeks of this season have been especially entertaining.
While it's definitely too early in the season to issue report cards for teams or players, I thought it would be appropriate to put together a progress report. Here are my thoughts following the completion of the first quarter of the 2012 NFL season:
Star Offensive Player
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan: The Falcons signal-caller has been fantastic during the first four games. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes and only two interceptions while leading Atlanta through a perfect 4-0 September. His late game heroics to pull out last week's game against the Panthers caught the attention of the entire league.
Star Defensive Player
Houston Texans pass rusher J.J. Watt: There were several deserving candidates in this category. Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington and Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews are both off to hot starts, but Watt has been the most dominant defender so far this season. His 7.5 sacks lead the league and he's also recorded 20 tackles. He has been equally dominant against the run and the pass.
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III: The Redskins gave up quite a bit to secure the services of RG3, and so far, it looks like an absolute bargain. Griffin is the NFL's fourth-rated passer, completing 69.4 percent or his throws while also rushing for 252 yards. He has four touchdown passes to go along with four touchdown runs. If not for a bonehead penalty by one of his receivers, he could have the Redskins tied for the lead in the NFC East.
Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris: Griffin isn't the only rookie putting up good numbers for the Redskins. Morris is currently tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (4) and he's ranked fifth in rushing yards (376 yards). Mike Shanahan has a history of unearthing stud running backs, and Morris, a sixth-round pick, is his latest success story.
St. Louis Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein: It sounds strange to say that a team hit the jackpot with the selection of a kicker, but that is exactly what Jeff Fisher did in the sixth round of April's draft. Zuerlein has been the Rams' most valuable player through the first four games. He is a perfect 12-for-12 on field goal attempts, including a long of 60 yards.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Mark Barron: Not much has gone right for coach Greg Schiano and the Bucs, but the performance of their rookie class has been a bright spot. Running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David have played well, but Barron is the one who has impressed me the most. He plays the run like a linebacker and he can cover a lot of ground in the back end.
New England Patriots defensive end Chandler Jones: The Patriots were desperate to get younger and more athletic up front on defense; Jones has helped them accomplish both goals. He leads all rookies with three sacks and he's more than held his own against the run.
Arizona Cardinals: Ken Whisenhunt's team has taught me a very valuable lesson: Preseason football needs to be watched while wearing a blindfold and earmuffs. The Cardinals were putrid in August, but they have been outstanding during their 4-0 start to the regular season. Kevin Kolb has been efficient, while the defense has been dominant.
Baltimore Ravens' offense: Joe Flacco has the Baltimore offense playing at the highest level in Ravens history. They are currently the league's second-ranked offense, averaging an impressive 424 yards per game. Flacco's 24 completions of 20-plus yards is tops in the NFL. I expected the offense to take a step forward this season, but so far it looks like it has taken a giant leap.
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline: I can't imagine too many people thought Hartline would be leading the NFL in receiving yards following the fourth week of the season. The Dolphins desperately needed a receiver to step up to help rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill and Hartline has responded to the challenge. Hartline, in his fourth season, is only 25 years old and continues to improve on a weekly basis.
New Orleans Saints: I knew there would be some challenges for the Saints following their tumultuous offseason, but I never thought they would be winless four weeks into the 2012 campaign. Drew Brees has been inconsistent, but the real problem with this team has been on the defensive side of the ball. They are dead last in yards allowed, and their lack of speed and playmakers is very evident when you watch their game tape.
Baltimore Ravens' defense: The Ravens' offense has been a pleasant surprise, but their defensive performance has been shockingly poor. They are ranked 23rd in yards allowed (390.2 yards per game) and 29th in passing yards allowed (295.8 yards per game). Linebacker Terrell Suggs' absence has had a major impact on this unit.
Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams: Williams signed an extremely lucrative contract with the Bills this past offseason, but aside from his play against the woeful Browns, he has been a huge disappointment. He has only recorded nine tackles this season and he's been held without a sack in three of the Bills' four games.
Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder: There has been plenty of attention placed on Cam Newton's sophomore slump, but the Vikings' second-year quarterback has had a sophomore surge. Ponder has seen his quarterback rating jump from 30th in 2011 to eighth in 2012. His completion percentage has gone from a paltry 54.3 in 2011 to an impressive 68.3 in 2012. He also has yet to throw an interception this season. He deserves plenty of credit for the Vikings' 3-1 start to the 2012 campaign.
New England Patriots running back Stevan Ridley: Thanks to the play of Ridley, the Patriots now possess a very balanced offense. Ridley's 339 rushing yards and three touchdowns have helped take the pressure off Tom Brady and the passing game. I've been very impressed with his combination of vision, balance and power. He has Pro Bowl potential.
Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green: I caught some flak when I ranked Green as the NFL's third best receiver prior to the start of the 2012 season. Through the first four games, I'm beginning to think I missed the mark and had him too low. He has been the league's best receiver so far this season, averaging 107 yards per game and hauling in three touchdowns.
Super Bowl Favorites
Houston Texans: The Texans have played not only as the class of the AFC, but also the entire NFL. They are very physical up front on both sides of the ball and possess playmakers at all of the skill positions. If quarterback Matt Schaub can stay healthy, this team should cruise to the top seed in the AFC and play all of its playoff games at home.
San Francisco 49ers: This was a tough decision. The Falcons and Cardinals are both undefeated, but I've still been more impressed by what I've seen from the 49ers. They had a hiccup on the road against the Vikings, but they physically dominated their other three opponents. The defense is loaded across the board, and I like how the offense has found a way to utilize backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.