As NFL.com fantasy analyst Matt Harmon pointed out last weekend, the early portion of the 2016 NFL season suggests we are in the midst of the year of the wayward-soul running back. Prominent prodigal sons such as Christine Michael, Terrance West, Isaiah Crowell and LeGarrette Blount have turned in some of the most scintillating performances of the campaign's first five weeks.
Change happens quickly in professional football. The episodic nature of the NFL's weekly schedule creates unexpected storylines, sending careers careening in directions unimaginable a month prior. Just when you develop confidence in your assessment of a player, his outlook changes due to injury, motivation, maturity, surrounding talent, play-calling or altered coaching schemes. Events unfold to fall in line with the old football maxim that "the eye in the sky doesn't lie."
Ex-Browns coach Mike Pettine reportedly soured on Pryor because he didn't believe the former quarterback possessed the work ethic or commitment to succeed as a receiver. As soon as long-time Pryor advocate Hue Jackson took over for Pettine in Cleveland, the former Ohio State star's career began charting a different course. Pryor embraced the challenge, dialed up future Hall of Famer Randy Moss for offseason drills and worked overtime to hone his pass-catching skills.
After Pryor became must-see football theater via a one-man show at Miami in Week 3, he took time to reflect on his pigskin epiphany.
"I was a quarterback and got released four times," Pryor explained. "It makes me want to tear up in a way. ... This game was almost taken from me, and that's why it means so much to me. I don't want to ever let me teammates down. The trust that the coaches have in me, I don't want to let them down."
Let's examine the full gamut of this season's rejuvenated misfits:
1) Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver, Cleveland Browns: At this time last year, Pryor was freely available to all 32 NFL teams as a street free agent. At this time two years ago? Same story. As Seattle's third-string quarterback in June 2014, Pryor was asked about the possibility of moonlighting at another position, such as wide receiver. His answer: "I don't know how to catch."
When new coach Hue Jackson took over in Cleveland this offseason, he was still undecided as to whether Pryor would play quarterback or receiver. To Jackson's credit, he understood that the freakishly athletic Pryor was a "weapon" with a future as a gadget player. Jackson glimpsed Pryor's potential when the two were together in Oakland (2011) and Cincinnati (2015), perhaps envisioning a role similar to that occupied by former Bengalsmulti-purpose threatMohamed Sanu.
Three games into his full-time conversion to wideout, Pryor authored one of the season's seminal performances, nearly upsetting the Dolphins by himself while generating 200 combined yards as a receiver, runner and passer. Since the 1970 merger, Pryor and Hall of Famer O.J. Simpson (1972) are the only two players with at least five receptions, five rushing attempts and five pass attempts through the first five weeks of a season, per NFL Research.
Most promising for Pryor's future, there are no obvious signs that Cleveland's leading receiver has ever played another position. "He has shown an ability to go up and get the ball," Patriots coach Bill Belichick noted last week, "take it away from defenders with his length and ball skills and jumping ability and so forth. ... He does a good job for them."
2) Sam Bradford, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings: He's risen from the dead. We thought the Rams buried Bradford's once-promising career behind years of porous offensive-line play. An exceptionally athletic quarterback with a strong, accurate arm had morphed into a gun-shy pocket dancer all too willing to check down into safe throws at the expense of big plays. After four years in a wilderness of knee surgeries, shoulder injuries, trade rumors, rampant skepticism and even an offseason controversy, Bradford has finally recaptured the early-career form that had NFL scouts, coaches and executives stubbornly standing by their pre-draft assessments of a legitimate franchise quarterback.
In an 11-game span dating back to Nov. 8, 2015, Bradford has completed 68.9 percent of his passes with a 16:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 101.2 passer rating. Since Vikings general manager Rick Spielman's inspired last-minute trade brought Bradford to Minneapolis in September, the former No. 1 overall pick has thoroughly outplayed the 2014 MVP (Aaron Rodgers), the 2015 MVP (Cam Newton) and a two-time Super Bowl MVP (Eli Manning). Beyond the improved numbers, the difference in Bradford's playing style has been astonishing. Formerly a game manager, he's now standing strong in the face of pressure, delivering courageous, accurate shots downfield and featuring a different Vikings receiver each week. Who would have thought the Vikings would be stronger withoutTeddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson and both starting offensive tackles?
3) Nick Perry, linebacker, Green Bay Packers: The No. 28 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft was forced to settle for a one-year-long prove-it deal as a free agent after the Packersdeclined the fifth-year option on his rookie contract. He's proving it, all right. Despite playing one less game than most of the rest of the league due to Green Bay's Week 4 bye, Perry has as many combined sacks, QB hits and hurries as any defensive player in the league this season -- including early MVP candidate Von Miller. After just four games, he already has a career-high 4.5 quarterback takedowns.
A Packers outfit used to relying on Aaron Rodgers and a high-octane offense is now powered by a stout front seven, led by Perry. Next Gen Stats' tackle chart is revealing, as it shows a top-flight linebacker living in opponents' backfields as a terrorizing pass rusher and effective run stuffer. If this contract-year push lasts all season, Perry is going to be rewarded handsomely next offseason.
4) Christine Michael, running back, Seattle Seahawks: Michael is the poster child of football epiphanies for manifold reasons. After blowing his chances in Seattle, Dallas and Washington last season, he experienced an "awakening" last December and January when the Seahawks offered him a second chance at realizing his vast potential.
"This is a classic example of if you just keep hoping and you stay with it and you give guys chances that sometimes they come right through for you," coach Pete Carroll explained in mid-January. "This is looking like that. It's only a few games, but they're really strong indicators that he's ready to take advantage of this opportunity. Nothing less than what we had hoped for a while back."
A humbled Michael maintained that newfound maturity into the offseason, emerging as the leader in a running back room devoid of Marshawn Lynch for the first time in a half-decade. By the time the preseason rolled around, a dynamic Michael was the obvious candidate to succeed Ryan Mathews (2013), Mark Ingram (2014) and Doug Martin (2015) as the August sensation poised for a long-awaited breakout campaign. Preseason action can be incredibly misleading, but one position that does offer clues every August is running back. This summer, Michael was the barometer for those actually watching the games and trusting their eyes. He has been a revelation the past two months, showcasing the vision, explosiveness and tackle-breaking ability of a top-10 NFL running back. Locked in as the lead back in Seattle, he's now averaging 4.6 yards per carry compared to 1.88 for all other running backs in Seattle. This is no flash in the pan.
5) Jadeveon Clowney, defensive end/linebacker, Houston Texans: Mislabeled as a bust after losing 15 of his first 32 NFL games to a litany of injuries, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft is coming into his own as a disruptive force in the run game. Lost in the blowout defeat to the Vikings last week was a performance that will stand out as one of the most dominant we will see behind the line of scrimmage all season.
Through five games, Clowney leads the league with eight tackles for loss to go with six QB hits and two sacks. He might never live up to pre-draft comparisons to prototypical edge rusher Lawrence Taylor, but the Texans have to be thrilled that he's starting to match the performance of Raiders All-Pro Khalil Mack -- a defensive star they bypassed to draft Clowney.
6) Isaiah Crowell, running back, Cleveland Browns: Undrafted due to character concerns, Crowell was billed by some as the most talented back in the 2014 class. Although he showed flashes of potential in his first two seasons, he was never able to hold off committee partners to put his stamp on the starting job. Throughout the offseason, it was second-year back Duke Johnson who drew all of the breakout-season hype.
Instead, a more decisive and explosive Crowell has been the primary beneficiary of Hue Jackson's power scheme. Among all backs with at least 70 rushes, his 5.6 yards per carry is the highest figure this season. Before the Patriots shut him down in Week 5, Crowell led the league with 11 forced missed tackles versus the Redskinsin Week 4. A Browns organization starving for skill-position talent over the past decade now boasts an early-down hammer (Crowell), an exceptional passing-down back (Johnson), a Pro Bowl tight end (Gary Barnidge), an elite athlete with multi-purpose skills (Pryor) and a first-round wideout oozing with big-play ability (Corey Coleman).
7) Terrance West, running back, Baltimore Ravens: Marc Trestman might still be employed as Ravens offensive coordinator had he realized what he had in a rejuvenated West, going back to an eye-opening August performance. After frustrating the Browns and Titans in his first two NFL seasons, West arrived to training camp with his hometown team in the proverbial best shape of his life. The results have been noticeable, as he has been Baltimore's most explosive offensive player ever since.
Whether it was due to shaky self-scouting, a reluctance to anoint a 2014 third-round pick with a checkered past, a display of loyalty to Justin Forsett or a combination thereof, the Ravens did themselves no favors in reducing West to a role player in September. Since displacing Forsett as the starter in Week 4, West has averaged 6.5 yards per carry and over 100 rushing yards per game while avoiding negative plays. You can bet new play-caller Marty Mornhinweg will feature West as a focal point of the offense going forward.
8) Morris Claiborne, cornerback, Dallas Cowboys: The No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft missed 24 games in his first four seasons, nearly washing out of Dallas as a monumental bust. A picture of resiliency, Claiborne has rebounded from a devastating patellar tendon injury to emerge as the Cowboys' best defensive player this year. He entered October with the lowest completion percentage allowed among all NFL cornerbacks.
Buoyed by Claiborne's renaissance, the secondary has kept A.J. Green, Odell Beckham Jr., Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson under 80 yards each. Against the Bengals last week, Claiborne prevented touchdowns to Green and Brandon LaFell with leaping pass deflections. "He has met his challenges, and that makes it even more impressive," owner Jerry Jones said early this week. "He's gotten better out there. He's gotten more strength. He overcame his injuries. I think all of those things are coming to bear out there with the kind of season he's having."
9) Kenny Britt, wide receiver, Los Angeles Rams: Jeff Fisher's aerial "attack" has been a laughingstock for so long that nobody has noticed Britt is on pace to shatter career highs in receptions (74) and yards (1,139). If he maintains that pace, Britt will become the first Rams receiver since Torry Holt in 2007 to reach the 1,000-yard mark. A picture of consistency this season, the 28-year-old has notched at least 65 yards in four of five games. Moving the chains as a slant-route specialist, he has also accounted for 18 first downs -- with just 11 wide receivers collecting more thus far this season. Seven years after entering the league as a talented but trouble-prone first-round draft pick with Fisher's Titans, Britt is finally producing with consistency.
10) Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver, Minnesota Vikings: Ever since stickler Mike Zimmer arrived as coach in 2014, Patterson's game-breaking ability has gone to waste on special teams due to his limited route tree, inability to get open and poor feel for the nuances of the position. To Zimmer's credit, he refused to trade an enigmatic but talented young player, insisting that Patterson was never in the coaching staff's doghouse.
Four years into his NFL career, the No. 29 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft has finally found his niche, in no small part because of a newfound maturity and sense of perspective. The league's most dangerous kickoff returner has also emerged as an effective gunner on punt-return coverage. For the first time in the Zimmer era, he has earned a significant role on offense with play calls that highlight his tackle-breaking ability near the line of scrimmage. If the past two weeks are any indication, Patterson might be the hardest-to-tackle wideout in the league.