There are just three weeks left in the 2015 NFL season, meaning it's all but over for a chunk of hard-luck teams with losing records. But that doesn't mean we should check out on those teams. Below, I've listed 11 players on teams with losing records -- most have been eliminated, though some are hanging on to playoff dreams kept alive either by a legitimate late-season push or mathematical technicality -- that are absolutely worth watching over the home stretch.
Some of these players are on this list because they're standout talents, and some are here because they're facing interesting junctures in their careers -- but I won't be able to take my eyes off any of them as we wrap up the regular season.
I expected big things out of Gurley entering 2015, even knowing the rookie was likely to miss some time to start the season -- and he hasn't disappointed. Gurley is on target to reach the 1,000-yard mark on "Thursday Night Football" against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in what will be just his 11th start. He's tied for third in rushing touchdowns (eight) and has shown incredible determination on a team that has little or no passing game. I love everything I see about this guy, including the effort he's displayed as a blocker. He's even shown some receiving promise on screen passes.
Manziel's had an up-and-down season, but he's posted some pretty good numbers lately -- 71.1 percent completion rate, 642 passing yards and a passer rating of 94.3 over his last two starts -- for someone who's spent time as a third-stringer this season. He has the talent to make the Browns a better team. I want to see how he acts and reacts in this last three-game stretch. There are no tomato cans -- to borrow a term from the boxing world -- left on the Browns' schedule, which is now comprised entirely of good teams (Seattle, Kansas City and Pittsburgh) that will likely be desperate to win as they fight for playoff spots. If Manziel can keep the Browns from totally fading and avoid any 38-0-type stinkers -- and, of course, avoid making too many bone-headed plays -- that'll count as progress.
Ansah is one of the most unusual players in the NFL, given how raw he was coming in as a rookie -- he didn't join the football team until his sophomore year at BYU, and he had just one full season as a starter -- and how successful he's been in Year 3, racking up 13.5 sacks, tied for second most in the NFL. That's just nearly double his sack total from last season (7.5) -- and he's still got three games to play. Ansah is an outstanding competitor with rare speed for a guy his size, and he's made huge strides in his pass-rushing technique. Many players need a sidekick to excel, but Ansah's thrived after the departure of All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh last offseason. He's an amazing player.
The first Jaguars player to crack 1,000 receiving yards since 2005, the former second-round pick from 2014 has blossomed into a legit No. 1. He shows tremendous concentration and athleticism when catching the football, and has an outstanding yards-per-catch mark of 16.4. The bottom line is, he's pretty damn good.
On track to post the fifth-highest passer rating by a rookie in the Super Bowl era (91.9), Mariota has had exceptional numbers for a rookie, especially when facing the blitz (61.9 percent completion rate, six touchdowns, two picks). He has everything he needs to be a franchise quarterback. I wouldn't expect any miracles against Bill Belichick and the Patriots this week -- to reach three wins for the season with this Titans team is miraculous enough -- but he should finish strong against Houstonand Indianapolis.
Smith has surrendered just four sacks this year -- three less than All-Pro Tyron Smith has given up in Dallas. The rookie left tackle is an athletic, long-armed player who probably needs to get stronger. For Winston to succeed, Smith has to succeed. I'm interested to see how he does on "Thursday Night Football" against the Rams' pass rush.
I'm similarly interested in seeing how Winston does in this final stretch of his debut campaign, which could be very important for both of these players, given that the Bucs are the one team represented on this list with a chance at posting a winning record in 2015. Since being picked off four times against Carolina in Week 4, Winston has done a pretty good job avoiding interceptions, putting up a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 12:4 and a passer rating of 92.3. Of course, the Panthers -- who could be looking to lock up a perfect regular season by then -- await Winston and the Bucs as their Week 17 opponent.
I want to see how Tannehill, who's going through some trials and tribulations in his fourth pro season, wraps up the year. He had relatively limited quarterbacking experience entering the NFL, and I think that's largely to blame for his inconsistency. I still see an athlete who has rare size and speed for his position, plus arm strength and athletic ability, and I like him a lot. At best, the Dolphins will be finishing 8-8 for the third straight year -- and that's likely a tall order, given that the Patriots remain on their schedule. Tannehill would benefit if Miami were to bring in a quarterback coach who could really reach him. I see him as someone who can eventually lead this team to the playoffs.
In retrospect, Gabbert probably never really had a chance at Jacksonville, given that he was a three-year college player joining a bad team as a high draft pick back in 2011. I don't think he ever gained the confidence he needed to be successful. He seems so much more poised now, throwing the ball downfield so much better than he has before. The question now is, will he start in San Francisco next season? He can really bolster his case by bringing this team -- which, speaking of bad teams, isn't exactly overflowing with talent -- together down the stretch.
Collins has way outpaced my expectations for a rookie offensive lineman. He doesn't make mental mistakes and doesn't allow much pressure. He made an unbelievable play against the Packers last week, when he ran downfield on a pitch to Darren McFadden, made a block, knocked down his man and kept going -- the 315-pounder was clocked at over 18 mph on that play. I'm looking for that kind of effort the rest of the year on a team that might not win another game. I'm anxious to see if he'll hit the wall or keep playing aggressively.
Gordon doesn't seem to run with the explosion you need to succeed in the NFL. I thought really highly of him when he was coming out of Wisconsin, and I've watched him with a great deal of interest. I don't know if he's not sure of the offense, maybe thinking rather than reacting, but I've been really disappointed in Gordon. If I were his coach, I'd give the rookie the ball 25 times per game the rest of the way and see what he does with the workload.