Listen, I don't try to live my life as a contrarian. That's not true -- I kind of do. I spend a lot of time in public houses and taverns, and I have a two-hour commute that allows me to hear a lot of the sports world's most popular opinions. Sometimes, I think it's best to take a look at the other side.
This is my space to articulate a handful of positions that are the opposite of what most people think -- unpopular opinions, if you will -- and explain why, well, my unpopular opinions are right and everyone else is wrong.
They are who we thought they were.
Minnesota has suffered another crushing loss in the NFC Championship Game, and I pity the poor Vikings fans -- especially you, Marshall Eriksen. But mostly, it made me think of the late, great Dennis Green. And once I start thinking of Green, who took the Vikings to the playoffs -- including two NFC title games -- in eight of his 10 seasons as their coach, my mind goes back to the Bears' epic comeback against Green's Cardinalson "Monday Night Football" in 2006. You know the game: Hall of Famers Peanut Tillman and Devin Hester rallied the Bears from a late 13-point deficit that set the stage for our -- I mean, the Bears' -- Super Bowl run.
The hallmark line from Green's diatribe was, of course, "They are who we thought they were." But because this is a contrarian column by nature, we're not going to crown those who simply did what was expected of them. (Although, you know, if you wanna crown 'em ...) We're going to go in the opposite direction -- as in, highlighting those who are NOT who we thought they were, based on the 2017 season. (Well, some are who I thought they were, but not who we thought they were, as in the collective us.)
The list below is broken into two sections: those who showed they're MORE than we thought they were (by outperforming expectations) and those who showed they're LESS than we thought they were (by underperforming).
MORE than we thought they were
Receivers out of USC: USC receivers, am I right? The position group was given a dismissive wave of the hand by fans, analysts and fantasy dorks for years, which always bugged me because it was lazy. But damn, when even assistant coaches got into the act: Then-Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley admitted in November that he didn't think much of rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster because of where the former Trojan went to school. Good one, dude. It's hard for me to believe somebody with this mentality wouldn'tcall a QB sneak for a guy the size of a typical NFL lineman in a crucial situation. But I digress. JuJu ended up with 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns this season. He wasn't the only USC product who had a great year. Nelson Agholor (62 catches for 768 yards and eight TDS with the Eagles), Robert Woods (56 catches for 781 yards and five TDs with the Rams) and Marqise Lee (56 catches for 702 yards and three TDs with the Jaguars) all excelled for playoff teams this season. Sorry, your narrative is ruined.
Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams: Goff's struggles during his rookie season stood out, even in a locale where box-office bombs are a part of doing business. Not only had the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft failed to deliver on the field, putting up 1,089 yards and a TD-to-INT ratio of 5:7 in seven games, but his inability to realize the sun sets in the west, as revealed by an episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks," might have been the biggest on-screen goof since Jessie Spano told Zack Morris she was so excited, so excited, so ... scared. And some Rams fans might have been frightened coming into this season with Goff at the helm, which was just silly because Sean McVay is a genius. Goff posted a passer rating of 100.5, an increase of nearly 37 points from his rookie season. He also piled up 28 touchdowns and 3,804 yards through the air, and became your new leading man in Los Angeles. Man, this town loves a redemption story.
Demarcus Lawrence, DE, Dallas Cowboys:Backinjuries had the 2014 second-round pick on the cusp of being a bust after totaling 9.0 sacks in his first three NFL seasons, including just 1.0 in a suspension-shortened 2016. Then he went out and recorded 14.5 sacks in 2017, three of which came in a Monday nighter against the Arizona Cardinalsin Week 3 that served notice that Lawrence was going to be a force. His best performance might have been against the Redskinsin Week 13, when he dominated an overmatched offensive line. Now, a cynic would point out this breakout season came during a contract year. A cynic would point that out, but not me. I'm not going to mention his contract year at all.
Kansas City Chiefs offense: All right, let's put this out on front street. The Chiefs suffered another horrific loss in the playoffs that seemed as inevitable as you spilling coffee on yourself anytime you wear tan pants. But don't let that take away from the fact the Chiefs were only the second NFL team in history to have a quarterback with more than 4,000 passing yards, a running back with more than 1,000 rushing yards, a wide receiver with more than 1,000 receiving yards -- right now, you might be saying to yourself, "Rank, some team has to have done that before," which is rude, and you should let me finish -- and a tight end with more than 1,000 receiving yards. The other team was the 1981 San Diego Chargers, which was loaded with Hall of Famers. Yes, Kansas City fielded a top-five offense while relying on a rookie running back (Kareem Hunt), a receiver some viewed as a gimmicky, one-trick pony (Tyreek Hill) and Alex Smith, the most-maligned good quarterback in NFL history. Before you say, "Hey, Tony Romo was a maligned good quarterback," well, I think of him as an announcer.
Alex Collins, RB, Baltimore Ravens: We haven't all been bearish on Collins, but do you want to know who was? The Seattle Seahawks, who gave him the boot in September. (Although vintage LaDainian Tomlinson might have struggled behind that Seahawks line.) The Irish-dancing superstar had a pretty good year for the Ravens, as he rushed for 973 yards (a 4.6 yards-per-carry average) and six touchdowns. I'm still of the mind that John Harbaugh and the Ravens coaching staff will continue to try to make Kenny Dixon a thing. But Collins should get a chance next season. Unless, you know, the Ravens don't want to be successful or anything.
Here's the thing, though. Sometimes this can go the other way ...
LESS than we thought they were
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Oakland Raiders:Local boy comes out of retirement to lead his team to the Super Bowl, just a few years before said team is set to be uprooted and shipped to Las Vegas. I know, this sounds like a reboot of "The Goonies," so it stands to reason that I would buy into this version of how Lynch's return to the NFL to play for the Raiders would go. Spoiler alert: It didn't work out. Lynch did contribute seven rushing touchdowns, but he totaled just 891 yards on 207 carries (4.3 yards per carry). The Raiders, meanwhile, ranked 25th in rushing offense, and the team never seemed to click. Oakland finished the season with a disappointing 6-10 mark, and coach Jack Del Rio was fired. But then, the team hired Jon Gruden, and damn it, I'm in for the sequel.
Terrelle Pryor, WR, Washington Redskins: All I remember hearing when Pryor signed in Washington is that he was amazing in Cleveland, and though the former quarterback had just four receiving touchdowns to his name, he was going to play with one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the NFL in Kirk Cousins. A one-handed grab in practice made the world lose its damn mind. And then you probably lost your fantasy season if you drafted him. Pryor played in nine games for Washington in 2017 and started just two. He was targeted 37 times and nabbed 20 receptions for 240 yards and a touchdown. At times, he even looked like a former quarterback still learning to play wide receiver.
Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers: I'm guilty of being a huge fan of Hyde when he was drafted by the 49ers. He hit this amazing spin moveagainst the Minnesota Vikings in the Monday night opener (the late one) in 2015 and again, everyone lost their damn minds over it. Not much happened after that -- Hyde finished that game with 168 yards and has topped 100 rushing yards just three times since -- but we still believed. I finally jumped off the bandwagon, but heading into 2017, the pro-Hyde people were talking about how Kyle Shanahan was going to be the one to finally get Hyde over the hump. Really? His career arc is much like that of Coldplay. One hit. A couple of nice tunes, but mostly just overhyped. The only difference is that Coldplay has performed in the Super Bowl.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers offense: Thank goodness the Bucs fired Lovie Smith to promote offensive wizard Dirk Koetter. That was the kind of move the St. Louis football club would make, like when the Rams let Dick Vermeil walk out the door less than a day removed from a Super Bowl win so they could hire Mike Martz full-time. Koetter did get this team to nine wins in 2016. And then this squad went out and added DeSean Jackson and rookie tight end O.J. Howard, which was going to take this offense to the next level and make Mike Evans the best receiver in the game. Instead, while the Bucs were ninth in total offense, they were 18th in scoring, and quarterback Jameis Winston looked lost at times. Tampa also never found a running game (27th in rushing). And Evans did not become the best receiver in football. Which I found troubling.
Jordy Nelson, WR, Green Bay Packers:But Rank, you say, he lost Aaron Rodgers. And that's true: Rodgers missed nine games after suffering a broken collarbone. But this guy did nothing with Brett Hundley. He went from being a top-five receiver with Rodgers -- from 2011 to '16, Nelson caught 57 touchdown passes, which was more than anyone but Rob Gronkowski and Dez Bryant in that span, despite missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL -- to barely even cracking the top 100 in the NFL without him. There hasn't been an athlete this lost without their partner since Shawn Michaels threw Marty Jannetty through the Barber Shop window. In his five prior seasons, Nelson averaged 80.2 yards per game -- a figure he failed to clear even once in 2017, when his average dropped to 32.1 yards. And remember, Rodgers did play in seven games. Nelson was also scoreless the last 10 games of the season, one year after posting 1,257 yards and a league-high 14 touchdown catches. Rodgers carried him. And Davante Adams is ready to assume the position of top receiver for the Packers.