The NFL veered away from recent trends in the first quarter of the 2016 season. The marquee quarterbacks took a backseat, with Peyton Manning retired, Tom Brady suspended for four games, Cam Newton struggling, Aaron Rodgers still trying to prove last year's disappointing output was a fluke and Drew Brees saddled with yet another floundering Saints defense.
Bolstered by athletic, stifling defenses, the three remaining undefeated teams are led by a rookie (the Eagles' Carson Wentz), a first-year starter (the Broncos' Trevor Siemian) and a journeyman quarterback who washed out in St. Louis and Philadelphia (the Vikings' Sam Bradford). Those three signal-callers are part of a league-wide swing toward better preparation and surrounding talent for inexperienced passers.
The six quarterbacks making their starting debuts in 2016 have combined for a 13-4 record (.765), 66.8 percent completion rate, 7.6 yards per attempt, a 19:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 98.4 passer rating. Those numbers compare favorably with the combined numbers of the NFL's established quarterbacks (a 50-59 record, 63.0 percent completion rate, 7.2 yards per attempt, 170:105 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a passer rating of 87.9).
Like your favorite HBO drama, the NFL's season is episodic, featuring story arcs that shift wildly from week to week, building toward an intense finish. The surprise at the season's quarter point is an MVP field that features two defensive stars among the top three candidates. Will the new trends hold serve over the course of a long, winding season? Or will the established quarterbacks come roaring back to assume their perch atop the NFL's hierarchy?
1) Von Miller, linebacker, Denver Broncos: Have we ever seen an edge rusher author a series of game-changing plays to match what Miller did over a five-game stretch going back to the 2015 AFC Championship Game? Miller was part of a defense that hit Tom Brady an astonishing 16 times in that title clash. Then, after earning Super Bowl 50 MVP honors by giving Cam Newton nightmares, Miller kicked off the 2016 season with a crucial third-down sack on the final drive of Denver's Week 1 victory over the Panthers. From there, he came through with a trademark strip-sack of Andrew Luck to clinch the Week 2 win over the Colts and terrorized Bengals right tackle Cedric Ogbuehiin Week 3.
Against all expectations to the contrary, the Broncos' defense is even more dominant than the one that John Elway deemed the best he had ever seen in February. Denver has held all four opponents under 20 points and 200 passing yards. Twenty-nine games have elapsed (including playoffs) since a quarterback has posted a passer rating of 100 or better versus these swarming sack specialists. And it's not like coordinator Wade Phillips' unit is living off of the weak and vulnerable. Over the last seven games (again, including playoffs), franchise quarterbacks Newton (twice), Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Andy Dalton and Jameis Winston have combined for a 63.9 passer rating and 3:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The 2015 Broncos were special because of their penchant for dramatic, game-altering plays in tightly contested battles. This year's team has maintained that quality while flat-out shutting down opposing offensive attacks.
2) Matt Ryan, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons: After feasting on the feeble defenses of the Buccaneers,Raidersand Saints in the first three weeks, Ryan established a new single-game franchise record with 503 passing yards and 571 total yards of offense against a Panthers unit that ranked sixth in Football Outsiders' defensive metrics entering the Week 4 matchup. In the process, Ryan directed three scoring drives of 90 or more yards -- just the second time a quarterback has accomplished that feat this century. The Falcons' current average of 478.8 yards per game is better than the 2011 Saints' average of 467.1 yards, which stands as the NFL single-season record. Ryan leads the league in every major passing category, jumping out to a quarter-point start that rivals the record-setting outlier seasons of Kurt Warner (2000), Tom Brady (2007, 2011) and Peyton Manning (2013).
More comfortable in his second season with play-caller Kyle Shanahan, Ryan has exhibited ideal pocket movement and vision, functioning as a high-end point guard to distribute the ball to his newfound collection of weapons. Although he's playing at a higher level and making better decisions this season, it's fair to wonder how much of that is due to superior surrounding talent, with receiver Mohamed Sanu and center Alex Mack joining the fold and running back Tevin Coleman taking on a bigger role in his second pro season. Ryan's disparate 2015 and 2016 showings are yet another data point proving that the quarterback's performance cannot be extracted from his teammates' -- and vice versa.
3) Aaron Donald, defensive tackle, Los Angeles Rams: Thanks to the prominence of analytics and the widespread study of game film over the past half-decade, interior defenders of Donald's ilk are finally receiving a modicum of the credit they're due. Leading the NFL with 12 QB hits, Donald has been the best player on the field in every Rams games this season, functioning as the driving force on the NFC West's surprising first-place outfit. Already in J.J. Watt's class a year ago, Donald has been even more disruptive this season, adding end-tackle stunts to his repertoire so he can stalk quarterbacks from the edge as well as the interior.
Like Geno Atkins in Cincinnati, Donald defeats behemoth guards and centers with a unique combination of quickness, leverage and strength. What separates Donald from Atkins and other Pro Bowl talents is unparalleled speed off the snap. That uncanny quickness is enhanced by a swashbuckler's strong but dexterous hands, a relentless array of moves and the ferocious closing speed of an apex predator. With Watt out of the picture, we can sit back and treat ourselves to an epic battle between Miller and Donald for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
4) Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback, Pittsburgh Steelers: Remove Le'Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, Heath Miller and Ladarius Green, and the Steelersstill strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenses. More than any quarterback of his generation, Roethlisberger lives and dies by the "touchdown, first down, checkdown" philosophy in his progressions. The league's most dangerous deep-ball passer going back to last season, Roethlisberger attacks relentlessly downfield and outside the numbers. Throwing as many touchdowns (five) as incompletions last Sunday, he decimated a ballhawking Kansas City defense that generated six interceptions and eight turnovers the previous week, firmly righting the ship after posting a 62.4 passer rating in a Week 3 defeat to the Eagles.
In his last 11 games following a loss, Roethlisberger is 11-0 with a 68.5 percent completion rate, 291 yards per game, a 27:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 114.2 passer rating. Much like a vintage baseball "stopper," that's the sure sign of a valuable player.
5) Derek Carr, quarterback, Oakland Raiders: Proving that last season's breakout was no fluke, Carr has steered Oakland to its best start since the 2002 squad that won the AFC Championship. With the quarterback delivering key plays in crunch time, the Raiders have won their first three road games of the season for the first time since 2000. Beyond the won-loss column, there are reasons to believe Carr has the most promising future of all quarterbacks drafted since 2014. He owns the NFL's lowest sack rate and the highest red-zone efficiency rate. He has thrown just one interception in his last 176 pass attempts and boasts a prototypical fluid delivery with a rocket arm. Add it all up, and Carr is leading a loaded offense that ranks third at the quarter point.
6) Sam Bradford, quarterback, Minnesota Vikings: A godsend in the wake of devastating injuries to Teddy Bridgewaterand Adrian Peterson -- the cornerstones of the Vikings franchise -- Bradford has outplayed the 2014 MVP (Aaron Rodgers), the 2015 MVP (Cam Newton) and a two-time Super Bowl MVP (Eli Manning) since arriving in Minnesota. While much of that can be attributed to the fact that he doesn't have to face his own dominant defense, Bradford deserves credit for playing the best ball of his seven-year career, completing 66 of 95 passes (69.5 percent) for 719 yards (7.57 YPA), a 4:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 105.5 passer rating.
This past offseason, much was made of Bradford's impressive seven-game stretch to close out last season with the Eagles. He's been even better this year. After spending his first five seasons throwing maddeningly short of the sticks and checking down to avoid hits, he's now escaping pressure, moving the chains and attacking with accuracy down the field. This is a version of Sam Bradford we haven't seen before -- the one who kept executives, coaches and scouts drooling despite his persistent lack of production in the past.
7) Carson Wentz, quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles: Playing in a hybrid college-pro system reminiscent of the one used to incubate Robert Griffin III in a historically great 2012 rookie season with Washington, Wentz was the talk of the league in September. While it's worth noting that he has yet to be tested against a quality NFL secondary, he has checked the requisite boxes through three pro starts: He has the ability to throw with power as well as touch, high-end athleticism to make plays on the move and pocket toughness to stand in against pressure, and he can also audible to the run in advantageous situations and recognize the blitz to hit his hot read.
Give Doug Pederson's coaching staff credit. Since the preseason opener, in which Wentz went down with a rib injury that cost him the rest of the preseason, his delivery has been shortened and his footwork streamlined to produce more accurate throws and more consistent results. It's not unusual for talented but inexperienced quarterbacks to mix highlight-reel plays with mind-numbing miscues. What makes Wentz special is that he has generated the big plays without committing the drive-killing errors. He became the first rookie in NFL history -- joined later by Dallas' Dak Prescott -- to not throw an interception in his first 100 career pass attempts. Needless to say, the last-minute Bradford trade has been a win-win deal for the Vikings and Eagles.
8) Russell Wilson, quarterback, Seattle Seahawks: The deck has been stacked against Wilson, who suffered a high-ankle sprain to one leg in the season opener and an MCL sprain to the otherin Week 3 while operating behind an offensive line that is patchwork at best, even by Seattle's standards. Without the benefit of his trademark elusiveness, Wilson led a masterful game-winning drivein Week 1, orchestrated a blowout victory over the 49ersin Week 3 and unfurled a bevy of beautiful touch passes in a brilliant performance versus the Jetsin Week 4. With a Week 5 bye to recuperate, he's going to keep rising up this list as the season plays out.
9) Julio Jones, wide receiver, Atlanta Falcons: Powered by the fourth 300-yard receiving game of the Super Bowl era, Jones is leading the league in receiving after posting the second-most receiving yards in NFL history last season. The Falcons' pick-your-poison attack is on pace to threaten several offensive records in large part because Jones draws so much defensive attention away from Matt Ryan's newfound plethora of receiving options. Now that Calvin Johnson is retired, Jones is battling Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown for recognition as the NFL's preeminent wideout for the next half-decade. He already owns three of five best single-game grades of the past half-decade, according to Pro Football Focus.
10) Martellus Bennett, tight end, New England Patriots: Minus two perennial MVP candidates with strong claims to the titles of greatestquarterback and tight end in NFL history, the Patriots roared out to a 3-0 start behind Bennett's convincing Rob Gronkowski impression. Acquired on the cheap two years after generating 90 catches and over 900 yards with the Bears, Bennett leads all tight ends in run blocking, pass blocking and overall performance, per Pro Football Focus, while breaking the 100-yard mark for the third and fourth times in his nine-year career.
After dominating as a blocker in the season-opening upset over the Cardinals, he switched gears versus the Dolphinsand Bills, showing rare receiving ability and athleticism for a 6-foot-6, 270-pound behemoth. Once Gronkowski fully recovers from his early-season hamstring injury, Tom Brady will have the luxury of his most loaded offensive weaponry since his record-breaking 2007 season.
Special mention:A.J. Green, wide receiver, Cincinnati Bengals; Antonio Brown, wide receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers; Emmanuel Sanders, wide receiver, Denver Broncos; Jamie Collins, linebacker, New England Patriots; Carlos Dunlap, defensive end, Cincinnati Bengals; Jerry Hughes, linebacker, Buffalo Bills; Aqib Talib, cornerback, Denver Broncos; Chris Harris, cornerback, Denver Broncos; Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Dallas Cowboys; David Johnson, running back, Arizona Cardinals.