Leaving aside all the obsession over kneeling and the national anthem, this NFL season has had some intrigue.
The AFC is a lot tighter than we expected, with only a game separating the vast majority of the conference. The Rams can actually score. The Patriots can actually let anyone score. But Tom Brady is good. The Browns are not. Some things change and some will always be the same. Underneath it all lies a layer of stats and figures that could tell us more about what's to come in the next three months. Like, for example, that even if LA did lead the NFL in scoring over the first four weeks, it ranks just 13th in offensive efficiency per the advanced football stats website Football Outsiders; Todd Gurley was the NFC Offensive Player of the Month in September and yet the Rams are just 22nd in rushing offense by DVOA.
And wouldn't you know it: LA and Gurley were stuffed, at home, by the Seahawks in a 16-10 loss. What else can we expect given our access to advanced stats resources?
The Chiefs have the best offense, best quarterback and best running back
If, before the season, someone had predicted Kansas City would be the best team in football by mid-October, you probably would have thought defense would be the reason. In fact, the Chiefs defense is below-average (19th in DVOA), while their offense has been absolutely dominant. By DVOA, KC ranks first in both passing and rushing, with Alex Smith leading all QBs in DYAR and DVOA, while ProFootballFocus notes that he's the best deep passer in the game. Yes, I repeat, Alex Smith is the best deep passer so far: He's 11-of-19 for 440 yards, three touchdowns, and a 142 rating on passes that travel 20 or more yards in the air. Running back Kareem Hunt is not just PFF's top rookie, with nine runs of at least 15 yards (four more than any other player), he's also the best back in football, leading all such players in DYAR, DVOA, and forcing 12 more missed tackles than any other player.
Just five weeks into the season, Kareem Hunt has forced 12 more missed tackles than the next best running back pic.twitter.com/jbyvqWSgyM- Pro Football Focus (@PFF) October 10, 2017
Then top all of that off with Travis Kelce, the number two tight end in DYAR, catching a career-high 78.4% of his targets.
The Redskins are better than the Panthers -- by a lot
A simple look at the standings will tell you that Carolina is 4-2 (after Thursday night's loss to the Eagles), while Washington has just a .500 record, but the Redskins may in fact be the best team in the conference, while Carolina could just a middle-of-the-road team that misses the playoffs. Per DVOA, Washington is the second-best team in the NFL so far, led mostly be its fourth-ranked defense and fairly good offense. The Redskins have also faced the toughest schedule in the league so far (losses to the Chiefs and fifth-ranked Eagles), while their upcoming games are much more forgiving, starting this weekend against the 49ers. The Panthers, meanwhile, were ranked just 17th in DVOA going into the Philly game, featuring the 12th-ranked defense and just the 20th-best offense.
Washington has a better offense and a better defense, plus potentially an easier road to the playoffs having to go through the NFC East rather than the South.
Fear the easy schedule: Seahawks, Jets, Rams, Steelers, Bucs
This is more of a trend to watch in the future than it might be an indication of a team being "overrated" now, but do keep an eye on which teams skate through easy schedules towards division-leading records. So far, these five teams have done the most with the least standing in their way. The Seahawks and the Rams are both 3-2, but neither has faced a particularly rough road: Seattle's schedule ranks 30th by DVOA, while LA's is 26th. Pittsburgh is tied atop the AFC North with the Ravens, but the Steelers' schedule ranks 25th compared to Baltimore's slate that checks in at 16th. Tampa Bay has wins over the Bears and Giants, but suffered losses to Minnesota and New England, ranking 31st in schedule toughness. Then there's the surprising Jets, who are less surprising when you consider that they've beaten up on bad teams, ranking 28th in this category.
The Jaguars have the No. 1 defense despite being the second-worst team against the run
Jacksonville obviously dominated the supposedly-vaunted Steelers offense on Sunday, winning 30-9 while intercepting Ben Roethlisberger five times. The Jags' renaissance is led by a few things, perhaps none bigger than the additions of Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, but we also can't overlook the signing of Barry Church, the development of Jalen Ramsey, as well as Myles Jack, Telvin Smith, Yannick Ngakoue and even Dante Fowler, Jr., who quietly has four sacks. I mean, Fowler is on pace for 13 sacks and we aren't even talking about it. But as good as Jacksonville's pass rush and coverage has been (first in pressure rate at 39.7%, first in pass defense DVOA by a HUGE margin), the run defense has been awful. The Jags allowed 569 total rushing yards between Week 2 and Week 4, losing two of those three games. They'll want to tighten that up before the playoffs start, but we absolutely should be talking about Jacksonville as a playoff team given that no other defense is even close to them right now in shutting down opposing QBs.
Players to watch that maybe you aren't quite paying attention to yet
In past seasons we've seen plenty of examples of players who didn't quite stand out in fantasy categories or traditional box scores, but underneath all of that was a higher level of production than expected, which in turn became very notable seasons or careers. Here are a few that stand out.
Marshon Lattimore, CB, Saints
It may be little surprise that the Saints rookie is good -- he was the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft -- but so far he seems to be way ahead of schedule: He's 12th among all corners in coverage snaps per target (10.3) and allowing just .74 yards per coverage snap. This is obviously huge news for a New Orleans defense that has had more whiffs on their player acquisitions on that side of the ball than any reasonable person would care to count.
Tyler Kroft, TE, Bengals
Cincinnati got brutal news when it was announced that Tyler Eifert would miss the rest of the season with back surgery, but his replacement might not be too bad. Kroft already has career-highs in catches and yards (14 for 139) while ranking fifth in DYAR.
Carl Lawson, DE, Bengals
Keeping it rolling with Cincy … Lawson, a defensive end out of Auburn, fell to the fourth round in the draft, but the rookie has 3 1/2 sacks through five games and is also tied for ninth in pass pressures per FO, with 12. Per PFF, he's also been even more productive per pass rush snap as a rookie than Joey Bosa was last season. Which is absolutely saying a lot.
Mike Gillislee, RB, Patriots
Gillislee came out banging in Week 1 with three touchdowns, but has only scored once since and is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. So why the mention? He's not just sixth in DYAR and ninth in DVOA, but Gillislee ranks first among all running backs in Success Rate -- with 57% of his runs being deemed successful by FO. Where he struggles is breaking tackles, but that's where teammates Dion Lewis and James White fare much better.
Michael Crabtree, WR, Raiders
A well-known name of course, but Crabtree is flying under the radar as perhaps the most efficient wide receiver of the 2017 season. He's caught a whopping 19 of 24 targets, including six-of-eight from E.J. Manuel last week, so it's not all because of Derek Carr. He's first in DYAR and DVOA, with just one drop -- a much better rate than teammate Amari Cooper, who leads the NFL with five drops.