Every week, Chris Wesseling will roll out the power rankings for one specific NFL position. So far, we have covered running backs, safeties, red-zone threats and throwing arms. This week, we turn our attention to the top 10 surprises at the quarter-season mark.
On to the rankings:
1. Rolando McClain, Cowboys linebacker:Twiceretired by age 24, McClain has been the most remarkable story of September. The starting middle linebacker is not just the beating heart of the NFL's most surprising defense; he's also playing better than he ever did as the No. 8 overall draft pick of the Oakland Raiders. Formerly a liability in coverage, McClain is hanging with tight ends and running backs in addition to stuffing the run.
2. Steve Smith, Ravens wide receiver: We expected Smith to lead Baltimore in receiving this season. We just didn't envision him getting off to the best start in history for any wide receiver over age 35. On pace for 100 receptions and a career-high 1,700 receiving yards, Smith has been one of the NFL's most dangerous deep threats this year after 135 players caught more passes of 20-plus yards in 2013.
3. Larry Donnell, Giants tight end:Giants fans spent the offseason bemoaning their lack of an established tight end. The former Grambling State quarterback has been a revelation, standing second in touchdowns and third in receptions at his position. NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah opined this week that Donnell is no fluke because his burst, ball skills and run-after-catch ability are "off the charts."
4. Teryl Austin, Lions defensive coordinator: With apologies to improving press-man cornerbackDarius Slay, Austin has stolen the show in replacing Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham as the defensive boss. The Lions' defense has shut down Aaron Rodgers, dominated Eli Manning and nearly sent Geno Smith to the bench. They rank in the top six in both pass defense and run defense.
5. Devin Hester, Falcons wide receiver: Perhaps the offseason's most under-the-radar free-agent acquisition, the greatest kick returner in NFL history arrived in Atlanta with little fanfare. He's proven to be a perfect fit as the third or fourth receiver in Matt Ryan's aerial attack, scoring in three different ways. Don't be surprised if Hester is one of the reasons that Ryan ends up leading the NFL in passing yards this season.
6. Darren Sproles, Eagles running back: The 1-3 Saints couldn't use a playmaker like Sproles? When the rest of the league snubbed one of the NFL's unique mismatches, the Eagles were astute enough to pick him up for the price of a future special teamer. All Sproles has done is put the Eagles on his back in a pair of victories and add an 82-yard punt return touchdown.
7. Baltimore Ravens offensive line: The Ravens have used three different players in the lead-back role, yet still rank first in runs over 20 yards, second in first-down percentage and seventh in rushing yards. That's quite a bounce back for a ground attack that was historically inept in 2013. It's also worth noting that Andy Dalton is the only starting quarterback sacked fewer times than Joe Flacco (three) through four games. New offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak deserves plenty of credit.
8. San Diego Chargers cornerbacks: Much like the Ravens' O-line, the Bolts' cornerbacks were a major liability last season. The pass defense has been much improved this season, thanks to first-round draft pick Jason Verrett and veteran acquisitionBrandon Flowers, who was left for dead by the Chiefs in June. Flowers has been the class of AFC corners through four weeks.
9. Jelani Jenkins, Dolphins linebacker: An afterthought when the season started, the 2013 fourth-round draft pick has been a godsend for Miami's beleaguered linebacker corps. Jenkins not only paces the team in tackles, but he is also among the league leaders. He's already the Dolphins' best linebacker after three NFL starts.
10. Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back: It's no surprise that Bell is enjoying a breakout season. But nobody expected him to be in the conversation for the NFL's premier all-around running back. Sporting an extra gear this season, Bell was the easily the most impressive running back we saw on Game Rewind in Week , and is currently second to DeMarco Murray in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage.
Honorable mention:Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, Rams quarterback Austin Davis, Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer, Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins, Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders
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