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Alfred Morris, Brian Hartline lead NFL's early-season surprises


When the Arizona Cardinals improved to 4-0 on Sunday, they solidified their status as one of the biggest surprises of the season so far, along with the 3-1 Minnesota Vikings. Before the season began, few expected the Cardinals or Vikings to do much of anything, and yet here they are, possessing two of the best records in the NFL.

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They aren't the only teams surprising folks. The Miami Dolphins are playing better than their 1-3 record suggests. And the San Diego Chargers finally are playing up to expectations during their 3-1 start.

None of these teams are winning with magic; they all have players who are doing better than expected. I thought I'd take a look around the league for some of the most notable individual surprises so far this season.

Jasper Brinkley, LB, Minnesota Vikings
Going into training camp, Brinkley wasn't even a lock to win the starting job, but he's been a sight for sore eyes at linebacker for the Vikings in 2012. Brinkley was one of the players who I said had to step up and prove themselves this season, and he's done that. After collecting a season-high 10 tackles in a win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, Brinkley is tied for third on the team with 22. Brinkley lacks great speed, but he boasts tremendous recognition; he's able to quickly diagnose what the offense is doing and make plays in the hole. Brinkley plays well against the run and is one of the reasons the Vikings rank eighth in total defense.

Bruce Carter, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Before suffering a hip injury early in Monday's matchup with the Chicago Bears, Carter had really stepped up for the Cowboys, collecting 20 tackles through the first three games of the season. Carter had always been seen as a solid player in space who can drop back in coverage. The question with him was whether he could step up and take on blockers, but he's really done well with that, playing much better against the run than expected. He and Sean Lee give Dallas an outstanding set of inside linebackers. Carter's been a definite upgrade at the position for the Cowboys this season.

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Breno Giacomini, OT, Seattle Seahawks
Another player who I said had to step up this year, Giacomini has really settled in as a starter for the Seahawks. He has tremendous work habits and has gotten much stronger since he first came into the league with the Green Bay Packers in 2008. Offensive line coach Tom Cable has developed him into a top-notch lineman who is athletic enough to be good in the passing game and strong enough to succeed in the running game. Giacomini is definitely a key to the Seahawks' potent ground attack. Numerous teams in the NFL wish they had someone like Giacomini to play right tackle; whomever he ends up blocking just doesn't make plays.

Brian Hartline, WR, Miami Dolphins
Drafted by the Dolphins in the fourth round out of Ohio State in 2009, Hartline didn't do much through the first three seasons of his career. But he turned heads in a serious way with a 253-yard performance against the Cardinals on Sunday, breaking the team's single-game receiving-yards record. I think Hartline, who is averaging 18.2 yards per catch, is going to keep this up in 2012. Many people assumed he was more of a possession-type receiver, but he's a lot faster and stronger than folks thought he was; he did, after all, win the state championship in the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles as a high-school track athlete in Ohio. Hartline and rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill seem to have developed a pretty good relationship, and it looks like Hartline is going to be the guy Tannehill throws to from here on out. Hartline reminds me a lot of Packers receiver Jordy Nelson, another good route-runner who is faster than people think.

Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
A third-round draft pick in 2009, Johnson started just five games and collected just six sacks in 2011. But he's an unbelievable talent who seems to have really put it together this season. Starting every contest, he's collected 11 tackles and four sacks so far. Johnson puts pressure on the quarterback, forcing opposing offenses to pay attention to him and opening up things for fellow defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap.

Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins
I covered Morris last week as one of my thriving rookies. In Week 4, he confirmed that he belonged on that list, running for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He's had the same kind of effect in Washington as Terrell Davis did with the Denver Broncos when Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was there. Morris could even be a solid Rookie of the Year candidate in 2012, depending on how the Redskins' season goes. He has running skills; I think he's the surprise player of the whole 2012 draft class.

Dennis Pitta, TE, Baltimore Ravens
After starting just two games in 2011, Pitta has really come on this season, collecting 18 catches, including some great downfield grabs, for 188 yards and two touchdowns. Pitta has become a significantly better blocker in his third year in the league, making him one of the most improved players on the Ravens team, if not the entire NFL. I don't think Pitta was ever asked to block at BYU, where he was a walk-on, but he's now an integral piece of Baltimore's run game. The Ravens are so much better than they were with Todd Heap playing tight end.

Christian Ponder, QB, Minnesota Vikings
Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave really did a great job with Ponder this offseason, turning someone who many thought was not starter material into one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the league. Ponder's completion percentage of 68.3 is tied for fifth-best in the NFL (with Pittsburgh Steelers veteran Ben Roethlisberger). Moreover, he's the only starting quarterback in the NFL who has yet to throw an interception. Few predicted the Vikings would start the season at 3-1, and even fewer predicted Ponder would be a major reason why.

Garrett Reynolds, OG, Atlanta Falcons
Reynolds has made his presence felt in his first season as a full-time starter, helping to pump up the offensive line in Atlanta. He's not a great athlete, but he's one tough hombre, the rare offensive lineman who approaches the game with the intensity of his defensive counterparts. He also showed surprising mobility in Sunday's win over the Carolina Panthers. Reynolds played a crucial role in setting up that big 59-yard bomb from Matt Ryan to Roddy White, doing a great job pulling on play-action and really selling it. When I saw Reynolds on that play, I realized he must be better with his feet than I'd previously thought. His uncle, Jack "Hacksaw" Reynolds, spent 15 seasons with the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers from 1970 to 1984, playing with a similar toughness.

Stevan Ridley, RB, New England Patriots
After starting just two games in 2011, Ridley has been a runaway success carrying the ball for the Patriots this season, rushing for 339 yards and three touchdowns while gaining 4.6 yards per attempt. Ridley is very strong, someone who breaks tackles and runs with good vision. He's also a solid receiver, with five catches for 51 yards. A third-round draft pick out of LSU in 2011, Ridley is an example of another fantastic scouting job by the Patriots.

Greg Zuerlein, K, St. Louis Rams
Zuerlein is a rising star as a rookie. A sixth-round pick in April's draft who wasn't invited to the combine, Zuerlein has shown off a monster leg this season, setting a Rams record with kicks of 58 and 60 yards in a Week 4 win over the Seattle Seahawks. He also became the first player in NFL history to make kicks of 50-plus yards and 60 yards in the same contest. Zuerlein has made all 12 field goals attempted. I think he's better than Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud and current Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski were as rookies.

Others who've done better than expected this season: Scott Chandler, TE, Buffalo Bills; Andrew Hawkins, WR, Cincinnati Bengals; Kareem Jackson, CB, Houston Texans; Kevin Ogletree, WR, Dallas Cowboys.


» My unsung heroes in Week 4 are a pair of undrafted rookie free agents who probably could have easily made my list of surprising players. Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict collected eight tackles and a sack Sunday, giving him 18 tackles on the season. Folks expected big things out of Burfict heading into the draft, but he was out of shape when he got to the NFL Scouting Combine and performed poorly, failing to finish his workout. But he landed with Cincinnati and has played well so far. The other unsung hero of the week, New England Patriots running back Brandon Bolden, rushed 16 times for 137 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots' blowout victory over the Buffalo Bills. It's hard to understand why Bolden wasn't drafted out of Mississippi. He did not have a great senior year, but he had a very good combine, running the 40-yard dash in 4.66 seconds and the three-cone drill in 6.96 seconds, making him one of just five backs who completed the drill in less than seven seconds. It's harder still to understand why he sat out there until May 10.

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» When New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees connected with Marques Colston in the end zone Sunday, it marked the 47th consecutive game in which he'd thrown a touchdown pass, tying Johnny Unitas' record, which had stood untouched for 18,291 days. One interesting thing about Brees' accomplishment: Before he started that run, he played back-to-back games (against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 27, 2009 and against the New York Jets on Oct. 4) without scoring.

» Patriots coach Bill Belichick notched his 194th career win, making him the eighth-winningest coach in NFL history. He needs eight wins to pass Dan Reeves, who owns 201.

» Arizona won its 500th game, becoming the ninth team to reach that plateau. The last nine teams to start 4-0, by the way, all reached the playoffs.

» Through the first four weeks of the season, NFL teams have scored a combined total of 2,986 points, 70 more than they did through the first four weeks of the 2011 campaign. We'll have to see if teams keep scoring at this pace; a lot of people thought we were scoring more because the replacement officials might have been letting guys get away with looser play downfield.

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