Through the first three months of the 2020 NFL season, 17 teams -- 10 in the NFC, seven in the AFC -- sit below .500. But losing operations still have winning individual efforts. And those players -- the resilient guys who keep excelling on flawed rosters -- deserve some love. With Next Gen Stats guiding his way, Nick Shook identifies the 10 best players on losing teams in 2020.
NOTE: All statistical rankings were current as of Dec. 1.
Houston isn't in the playoff hunt thanks to a dreadful start that saw Bill O'Brien fired, but the Texans are still worth watching on a weekly basis because of the exploits of Watson. The quarterback is a magician with the ball in his hands and has helped his top two receivers (Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller) put together quality campaigns, while also getting three tight ends (Jordan Akins, Pharaoh Brown and Darren Fells) involved fairly frequently. Partially due to Houston's lack of a viable rushing attack, Watson puts up gaudy numbers on a near-weekly basis, currently ranking fourth in passing yards (3,201) and fifth in touchdown passes (24). But even when defenses know the ball is going to end up in Watson's control, they still aren't stopping him. Watson owns a 5:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio in empty formations, and his passer rating is even better in such scenarios (127.1) than his third-best rating on all attempts (112.5), which is built on his 24:5 TD-to-INT ratio. Only Ben Roethlisberger has a higher passer rating out of empty formations, and no one is gaining more yards per attempt in this environment than Watson at 10.2.
Fuller's departure via season-ending suspension will force Watson to adjust on the fly, but as we all know, he's excellent at improvising. And when he's had Fuller available, he's used his speed and the burner ability of Cooks to post the highest passer rating outside the numbers at 134.4, while also gaining an average of 10.1 yards on such attempts, which is also the best mark in the NFL.
Watson remains excellent, even when his team has struggled elsewhere.
Herbert's rookie season has been one for the ages, which is crazy to think about when you remember that he was stuck on the bench before a mistake on the part of a trainer forced him into action. The Chargers lucked out with the quarterback widely seen simply as the next-best option after Tua Tagovailoa, and Los Angeles clearly has its man under center for the foreseeable future.
Herbert ranks ninth in the NFL in passing yards through 11 games with 3,015, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio (23:7) and resulting passer rating (100.9) are at the level of a seasoned veteran, not a rookie. It sounds unbelievable, but it's true: Herbert is a top-10 quarterback in his first NFL season, and he's excelled in a variety of ways.
A typical defense might try to frazzle an inexperienced quarterback by blitzing plenty, but that won't work against Herbert, who is tied for the fifth-best touchdown-to-interception ratio against the blitz at 10:1. He's excellent going deep, throwing nine touchdown passes on attempts of 20-plus air yards (tied for third-best in the league), and he's just as effective when threading the needle, throwing six touchdown passes when targeting a receiver in a tight window (tied for second-most in the NFL). He's productive on such attempts beyond touchdowns, too, gaining 7.2 yards per attempt in tight-window targets, the third-best figure in the league.
No matter the circumstances, the quiet kid from Eugene has proven he is more than capable of guiding an NFL offense. The Chargers struck gold with the sixth overall pick and found their guy, even in a season most will want to forget once it's finished.
If McLaurin played in a bigger market, we might be hearing about him on a weekly basis. Sometimes, though, his absurd exploits just force their way into the national consciousness. Like back in Week 9, with his incredibly improbable touchdown against New York. According to Next Gen Stats, McLaurin was expected to gain just 1 additional yard following his reception ... but ended up racking up 48 yards after the catch en route to a touchdown. The score was good for +47 in YAC over expected, and also completed the most implausible touchdown we'll likely see for some time, with his probability of scoring at the time of reception below 1 percent.
That's the highlight, but it's the work in between that makes McLaurin one of the NFL's best young receivers. McLaurin is averaging +2.2 YAC over expected per reception, the third-highest rate of all NFL wideouts (minimum 20 receptions), and he's doing so while accounting for 45.6 percent of Washington's total air yards this season. (Meaning he's seeing plenty of targets and still making the most of such opportunities.)
Defenses can key on McLaurin, but he's proven they can't shut him down. And when Washington needs him to step outside of his skill set, he can do that, too, as evidenced by his touchdown-saving chase-down tackle of Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith last week, which preserved Washington's lead and allowed it to run away with a win on Thanksgiving.
McLaurin does more than your typical receiver, and for that and many more reasons, he belongs on this list. He also belongs in your thoughts when considering the league's best going forward.
We're not in charge of Madden ratings, so Allen doesn't have a gripe with us. He should be proud to be on this list, though, even as his Chargers struggle to stack wins.
Allen is a major reason for Justin Herbert's place on this list, and together, they've created one of the most prolific connections in the NFL in 2020. Herbert knows it's wise to look Allen's way, targeting him on 30.7 percent of Allen's routes run this season, the second-highest mark among receivers with at least 100 routes run. Allen's tight-window percentage is above 22, reflecting the aforementioned point about Herbert's effectiveness in tight windows -- and it helps when the target caught in the tight window is a player of Allen's caliber. Bolts offensive coordinator Shane Steichen deserves credit for putting Allen in positions to succeed, too. Allen has caught 37 passes for 406 yards on 53 targets when aligned in the slot. Six of his seven touchdown catches also came via slot alignment, tying him with fellow AFC West receiver Tyreek Hill for the most scoring grabs in this capacity.
In total, Allen boasts a league-high 85 catches. It might be a tough year for the Chargers, but No. 13 is still flourishing -- even with a new quarterback.
Yes, there are three Chargers on this list, a fact one could take in a number of directions. Los Angeles handsomely rewarded Bosa in the offseason with a lucrative contract extension, and No. 97's proving he's worth every penny.
Bosa is tied for ninth in the NFL in sacks with 7.5, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Bosa is elite when it comes to getting to or near the quarterback, registering 40 pressures (tied for fifth-most in the NFL), and has pressured the quarterback on 15.9 percent of his pass rushes, the second-highest rate in the entire league (minimum 150 pass rushes).
Bosa wins with speed and superior technique, using his 0.78-second get-off time from the edge (seventh-fastest among edge defenders, minimum 150 pass rushes aligned on the edge) to gain an instant advantage before getting his hands into the chest of an opposing blocker, winning the leverage battle and skirting past him to close in on the passer.
Derrick Henry is again the league leader in rushing yards, but just behind him is Cook, who proved with his absence just how valuable he is to the Vikings' chances of success. Of the top 10 rushers in the NFL, only Nick Chubb (6.3) owns a better yards-per-carry average than Cook's 5.2 figure, and that's with 104 fewer carries than Cook due to Chubb's own extended absence. Cook is shredding defenses and producing loads of points, scoring 13 touchdowns on the ground while racking up 1,130 yards on 219 carries.
A key indicator of effectiveness beyond the norm can be found in yards gained over expectation, and Cook is a stud in that department, racking up +222 rushing yards over expectation and trailing only Chubb (271) for the league lead. Cook's average of 1.03 rushing yards gained over expectation per carry is the third-highest in the league, and he's one of only three qualified players to average more than 1 rushing yard over expected this season (Chubb and Ronald Jones are the others).
The wide-zone scheme is again proving fruitful, with seven of Cook's touchdowns coming on rushes outside the tackles, which is tied for the most among running backs with New Orleans' Alvin Kamara.
We didn't even cover his contributions through the air, either. Just pull up the tape from Minnesota's rematch with Green Bay and fast-forward to his touchdown reception. That will tell you all you need to know about Cook's impact on the game, no matter his team's record.
Look, another Viking! Jefferson was initially in the "also considered" category below, but after taking a closer look at his numbers, it's impossible to leave him off this list.
In his rookie season, Jefferson is in the top eight in receiving yards (918), top 15 in receiving touchdowns (six) and top four in yards per reception (17.7). It would make sense if Jefferson were Minnesota's only receiving option, but down there on the "also considered" list is teammate Adam Thielen, who also could've been in this top 10.
So, how is Jefferson doing it? Well, by taking advantage of his opportunities. Jefferson is averaging 3.0 receiving yards gained per route -- not reception, route -- this season, which is the second most in the entire league behind only star receiver Davante Adams. Jefferson's receiving yards per route run is also the most by any rookie who has run at least 100 routes since 2016.
Jefferson isn't just filling Stefon Diggs' shoes in Minnesota -- he's blowing holes through the sides of them. Quick, someone get this man a new pair of cleats! He has more routes to run and yards to gain.
The Jaguars sent Leonard Fournette to the temporary unemployment line just before the start of the season and pushed all of their chips into the center of the table on a hand powered by Robinson, an unknown, undrafted player who needed only one game to grab the attention of those not already curious. He's since served as Jacksonville's best hope offensively and also given legitimate momentum to his candidacy as a feature back for the seasons ahead.
Robinson's 890 rushing yards place him third in the NFL, and his yards-per-carry average of 4.6 tells us this isn't just a case of a guy getting a ton of carries within a bad offense. His rushing yards over expected (+34) aren't stellar, landing outside the top 20, but the fact it's still in the positive -- when opposing defenses enter games knowing he's Jacksonville's best option -- is encouraging.
Robinson has also been rather effective in the passing game, gaining 313 yards after catch when aligned in the backfield, which is tied for third-most in the NFL.
And the rookie has done all of this despite the fact that he's playing for a team that is staring at a top-two pick in April. It's just the beginning for Mr. Robinson.
Bates has been trending in this direction for a while now, but one key statistic jumped off the screen when viewing defensive backs: ballhawk rate. Of all defensive backs with a minimum of 30 targets in which he was the nearest defender, Bates owns the best ballhawk rate (the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a play on the football, either via a pass defensed or an interception) by a wide margin, making a play on the ball on 43.3 percent of his 30 targets. The next-closest defender in this category is Jacksonville's Sidney Jones, at 29 percent on 31 targets. It's no surprise, then, to see Bates with 13 passes defensed and three interceptions to his name, boasting a lowly passer rating allowed of 61.9. Bates is also allowing a -7.9 completion percentage below expectation, taking away a decent amount of should-be completions with his play. His targeted EPA (expected points added) is also in the negative by double digits at -11.2. The guy essentially takes points off the board.
Bates has been targeted on 8.1 percent of plays, meaning the majority of his snaps aren't offering him a chance to make an impact. But when he is the nearest defender, he's changing the game in favor of the Bengals on the back end of Cincinnati's defense in a significant way.
Burns might be a bit of a surprise, but he lands on this list because of where he stands among some of the game's elite edge rushers. Burns has quietly made a legitimate impact for Carolina this season, tying for fifth among all defenders in disruptions with 45. His quarterback pressure rate is over 10 percent, and his disruption rate is near that of Myles Garrett, with the two separated by less than one percentage point. Burns also has six sacks and two turnovers caused by pressure to his name, as well as 27 stops, with the latter putting him in the top four among all defensive ends.
Believe it or not, Burns is making a difference for the Panthers. It's about time we start paying attention to his performance on a weekly basis.
ALSO CONSIDERED: James Bradberry, CB, New York Giants; Zach Cunningham, LB, Houston Texans; Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington Football Team; Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears; Justin Simmons, FS, Denver Broncos; Roquan Smith, LB, Chicago Bears; Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings; Fred Warner, LB, San Francisco 49ers.