Eleven best surprises of the 2015 NFL season

The Cardinals' offense is so good that it's turned Chris Johnson five years younger. Johnson is enjoying a third career act no one saw coming just months after being shot as a passenger in a Jeep and subsequently facing his football mortality on the waiver wire.

Of all the pleasant surprises through three weeks of the season, Johnson's emergence as a valuable piece to a juggernaut offense is the most unlikely. The highlight reel below shows how Johnson is playing different he's playing.

It's jarring to see Johnson run so decisively between the tackles in the red zone. He's making defenders miss again in the open field, something he hasn't done for years. He's even throwing his body around while blocking linebacker NaVorro Bowman as a prelude to a 40-yard catch.

This isn't about staying power as a "lead back." The Cardinals need Andre Ellington to get healthy and David Johnson should be a big part of this backfield. What Chris Johnson has already done -- with 150 yards from scrimmage Sunday -- is more than the Cardinals could have expected when they signed him for $870,00 in mid-August.

After years as an overpaid one-dimensional runner, CJ2K has a chance to finish out his career as a useful role player for an insanely fun offense.

Here are some of my other favorite pleasant surprises through three weeks:

O.G. Receivers: It's 2008 all over again, with Steve Smith and Larry Fitzgerald legitimately looking like top-shelf No. 1 wideouts again. Both players rank in the top five in receiving yards alongside much younger stars. Smith showed off ridiculous power and toughness on multiple plays Sunday against the Bengals while racking up 186 yards. He fights off every defender as if he'll have to retire the minute he hits the ground. He's the oldest player ever to produce at least 10 receptions for 150+ yards in two straight games.

Fitzgerald is similarly rugged. He finally has another franchise quarterback worthy of his skills. He's making diving catches and outrageous grabs while being well covered. He's always open because he doesn't need to be open to make catches. Carson Palmer knows.

Sean Lee's move to weakside linebacker: Perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised. But there was no telling how Lee would play at a new position coming off another serious injury. He looks like an evolutionary Derrick Brooks or Lance Briggs. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli funnels the defense through Lee, and he is playing like an All Pro.

Andy Dalton deep strikes: Dalton has enjoyed hot streaks before. The difference this year is that he's attempting -- and completing -- far more vertical passes. Dalton is completing highlight reel tosses on a weekly basis. It's weird. He's also making good decisions on when to run.

Give offensive coordinator Hue Jackson a lot of credit. Despite some miscues and a blown lead Sunday against Baltimore, Jackson kept dialing up big plays at the biggest moments. Dalton didn't flinch, and he's supported by perhaps the most talented group of teammates in the league. When the Bengals get pushed now, they push back.

The "other" guys on Seattle and Denver's defenses: The Broncos are the most fun defense in the league to watch, and should challenge the Seahawks as the NFL's top defense. DeMarcus Ware has been the best pure pass rusher in football through three weeks and Von Miller isn't far behind. The starting cornerbacks are outstanding, but we knew that.

The surprise here come from the other Broncos: Brandon Marshall, Malik Jackson, Sylvester Williams, Bradley Roby and even David Bruton are all making big plays.

Seattle is used to that kind of depth. This year it's coming from some surprising places. Rookie Frank Clark looks like a find despite limited work. Cary Williams and Ahtyba Rubin are reborn as veteran free agent pickups. It's amazing what good coaching and good teammates can do.

B.J. Raji and Michael Crabtree: Taken one pick apart in the top ten of the 2009 NFL Draft, Raji and Crabtree were both available for relative cheap this offseason. Both players look like bargains at the moment.

Raji was dominant against the Seahawks last week and forms a nice combination with Mike Daniels in Green Bay. Crabtree is on pace for 96 catches and fits well as a No. 2 receiver behind Amari Cooper. He is attacking the ball.

Ronald Darby: Rex Ryan has another great young cornerback duo to coach up. Darby has come out the gates swinging at a difficult position for rookies. Along with Stephon Gilmore, this is one of the most physical cornerback duos in the league.

The Patriots offense is better: Three rookie starting offensive linemen and a ton of preseason injuries had dumb folks like me wondering if the Patriots' offense would start the season slow. Instead, Tom Brady has improbably improved on last year's championship offense through three weeks. They are calling plays even more aggressively and have added a new prime weapon to the mix.

Dion Lewis could be the closest thing to an every-down back in New England since Corey Dillon. As Chris Wesseling wrote last week, Lewis is too valuable to take off the field. Bill Belichick tellingly rested Lewis extensively for the first time Sunday once the team was way ahead. He was too valuable to keep playing.

The Derek Carr-Bill Musgrave marriage: Last season, the Raiders' offense asked Carr to dink and dunk to a ridiculous extreme. Now the talent around Carr is better with Crabtree and Amari Cooper, and the playcalling is far more aggressive. No other trio of teammates in NFL history that was each aged 25 or younger had as many passing, rushing and receiving yards, respectively, as Carr, Latavius Murray and Cooper had in Week 3 against Cleveland. They were nearly as explosive against Baltimore the week before. Oakland is relevant for the first time since Hue Jackson and Palmer were roaming the Black Hole.

The Falcons are watchable: Mike Smith's Falcons were a bore, despite the presence of Julio Jones and Matt Ryan. New Falcons coach Dan Quinn, with a huge assist from offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, has made the team fun again. As Dan Hanzus mentioned in our podcast Sunday, Jones is having the type of season where he gets recognized as best of the best at receiver. Ryan, who never left the top-10 quarterbacks, is finally supported again by a running game and a sentient defense.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content

Purchase single game tickets for the 2022 season