When Brandon Lloyd was making spectacular plays with the San Francisco 49ers early in his career, you'd have thought he was the NFL's next big-time wideout. But the one-handed circus grabs were about the extent of his production. His attitude often came into question, as did his work ethic. Both were under further scrutiny after his trade to the Redskins in 2006.
Lloyd's 2006 campaign was one of the worst seasons of any starting wide receiver over the last 20 years. He was thrown to 57 times, yet only managed 23 receptions for 365 yards -- in 15 games no less. Those numbers scream of a receiver not working hard enough to fight for the ball. His reportedly pouty disposition didn't help matters as he struggled the next two seasons.
Fast forward to 2010, and Lloyd is still a cancer, but only when it comes to astrology. He turned 29 in July -- still in his prime, but old enough to let his maturity manifest itself on the football field.
Lloyd has gone from a castoff in the spring of 2009 to the most productive receiver in football this season. After catching on with Josh McDaniels and the Broncos, he was able to work his way into the offense late last season after injuries beset Brandon Marshall, Brandon Stokley and Eddie Royal. But no one could've foreseen his production through 11 games of 2010.
Lloyd's 1,122 receiving yards lead the league, and put him on pace for 1,632 for the season, a figure that would tie Randy Moss (2003) for the 10th most yards in a single season in NFL history. Lloyd's nine touchdowns are tied for third this season. He has five 100-yard games, all the more remarkable considering he only had 117 yards all of last season.
For all the flak McDaniels has taken for his personnel moves -- most of it deserved -- the acquisition of Lloyd, although an afterthought at the time, has been a stroke of genius. Lloyd told reporters much of his success is due to his oft-criticized head coach, saying McDaniels "has given me space to be who I am and then trusting me to do the right thing with that space."
Lloyd isn't the only player that before the season was left for dead, unheard of, or considered bust-worthy who is now producing huge numbers. Several others are pacing toward all-time top-10 single-season lists:
Orton: Waiting for Tebow
He didn't stop there. With a defense that featured seven starters 30 or older, the Broncos were giving up a lot of points, which meant Orton was still flinging the ball around late in the fourth quarter. His yardage total had ballooned to 1,733 after five weeks, the second most ever through the first five games of a season (Drew Bledsoe, 2002 Bills).
Orton has defied critics who feel he is a serviceable stopgap and not much else. He has shown toughness, good footwork moving around the pocket, while throwing one of the better deep balls in the game. If he keeps his current pace up, he'll finish with 4,902 yards and 29 touchdowns.
Not bad for a guy who is just a bridge to Tebow-mania.
Hillis: Steal of the century
While McDaniels can take some credit for Lloyd and Orton, he dumped Hillis in one of his less-than-stellar moves as head coach and de facto co-GM. Hillis looked like a good short yardage back with some explosiveness under the Mike Shanahan regime, but McDaniels consistently used Knowshon Moreno last season in those situations. Thus, when he dealt Hillis for Quinn, not too much was made of the loss of a little-used power back.
The guy has been an everything-back for Cleveland. He's shown nimbleness that no one other than possibly his folks knew was there, while still being a powerful inside presence. "Peyton's a load," Browns coach Eric Mangini said earlier this season. "I avoid him in the hallways. I don't want to dislocate my shoulder."
Hillis' inside-outside capabilities gave Mangini the confidence to go with him as a lead back, and 900 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns later, that confidence has been rewarded. He's the real deal. In fact, Hillis is the fourth Brown to score 10 touchdowns in the first 10 games of the season, joining Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell, and Leroy Kelly. Those guys are all in Canton.
Foster: From undrafted, unknown to unbelievable
If there is one back who can actually say he's having a better season than Hillis, it's Arian Foster. And he was even a lesser-known player than Hillis coming into this season.
Foster's only career start was in a relatively meaningless game. So when the undrafted rookie out of Tennessee picked up 119 yards, no one noticed.
When training camp began a few months ago, no one really knew where Foster fit in. Steve Slaton, who had gained more than 1,000 yards in 2008, was his primary competition for a starting role. But Slaton's penchant for fumbling deep-sixed his reputation with Gary Kubiak's staff. Second-round pick Ben Tate was also a challenger, but a fractured ankle abruptly ended his rookie campaign.
He's not only the NFL's leading rusher but is on pace for 1,668 yards, which would be the most ever by an undrafted free agent.
Bowe: Knows football
While not a no-name undrafted player, Dwayne Bowe was a former big-time prospect that most fans had either completely forgotten about or had already categorized as a viable middle-of-the-road receiver coming into this season. He had a nice rookie campaign, catching 70 balls. In 2008, he broke the 1,000-yard barrier. But at the end of the day, Bowe was a 12-yards-a-catch-guy who had dropped way too many passes and didn't score much -- n football or maturity points. Throw in a four-game suspension in 2009 for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancers, and his career was a bit underwhelming.
Whether it's offensive coordinator Charlie Weis' arrival, Bowe growing up, or the Mayan Calendar, something changed this season. Despite playing in a Ground Chuck offense, Bowe has already amassed 885 yards and is averaging more than 15 yards per catch. Four of his nine career 100-yard games have come this season.
But it's getting in the end zone that counts. With 14 touchdown catches, he's already shattered one of the oldest team records in the NFL, breaking Chris Burford's mark of 12 in 1962, when the Chiefs were the Dallas Texans. If Bowe has another three-TD performance this weekend -- like he did on Sunday in Seattle -- he could threaten Randy Moss' record of 23 touchdown catches in a season. Pretty remarkable for someone who went the first four games of the season with just nine receptions and a single TD catch.
Of the guys mentioned in this story, Bowe has the most potential to be a superstar. Maybe he's growing into it.