You may not have known who Kareem Hunt was a month ago. But then he rumbled his way to 246 total yards and three touchdowns in the Chiefs’ Week 1 upset of the Patriots. Since then, he’s been must-see TV.
Deshaun Watson was more well-known coming into the new season. He became a star at Clemson, where he capped off his collegiate career with a national championship. The Texans traded up to draft him in the first round, a move that has paid off handsomely so far.
This week SB Nation’s NFL team sites are celebrating the best newcomer for their teams so far this season. Hunt’s an easy sell for the Chiefs. The rookie is the league’s leading rusher with 502 yards rushing and also has 157 yards receiving and six touchdowns over four games this year. Watson, who has already set rookie quarterback records, is another obvious choice.
But the best newcomer doesn’t have to be a rookie. He could be a free agent signed in the offseason or an old face making another go-around with a team. Julius Peppers is having a renaissance in his return to Carolina after seven seasons away. Peppers is 37 years old, and he already has 4.5 sacks on the season. Instead of filling a depth role, he’s flourishing as a key contributor to the Panthers defense.
With that in mind, here’s who was chosen as the best newcomer for each team.
Arizona Cardinals: Punter Andy Lee gets the nod
Lee ranks 11th in average punt distance in 2017. The last time the Cardinals had a punter inside the top 29 of net average was 2013 and that was 15th. While Lee hasn’t changed the net punting average as drastically, he has given the Cardinals the opportunity to make plays later on.
Atlanta Falcons: Rookie Takk McKinley is already the Falcons’ third-best pass rusher
Some of The Falcoholic’s writers debated whether rookie Takk McKinley or free agent acquisition Dontari Poe would take home these honors. McKinley gets the nod with a 2-1 vote.
No offense to speedy Duke Riley or big-time free agent signing Dontari Poe, but Takk’s been the best newcomer for these Atlanta Falcons, without question. He’s looked like the team’s third-best pass rusher behind Vic Beasley and (hilariously) Brooks Reed, he’s had a very short learning curve, and his speed and power off the edge will make him dangerous all year long. Given his sky-high ceiling and current level of production, he’s a slam dunk choice as the best player Atlanta’s added in 2017 thus far. Plus he’s my favorite Falcon on Twitter, by a wide margin.
For more, check out the entire entry at the Falcoholic.
Baltimore Ravens: Brandon Carr is the guy, but he had competition
Within his first start in Baltimore, Carr let it be known that he is here to play, to win, and to make plays. He intercepted an errant Andy Dalton pass in Week 1. DeShone Kizer was his Week 2 victim, as he hauled in another pick. Brandon’s addition has paid dividends.
Buffalo Bills: Tre’Davious White is already one of the league’s top cornerbacks
White, the NFL’s reigning Defensive Rookie of the Month for September, has been plugged in as a starting cornerback since Day 1 and was elevated to the top spot in August when Buffalo traded Ronald Darby to the Eagles. All White has done is pass every test thrown his way.
Carolina Panthers: Old friend Julius Peppers is tearing it up in Carolina again
When the Panthers brought Peppers back, they were hopeful he would be able to fill a ‘veteran depth’ role on the defensive line while the young guys got the chance to have break out seasons. Instead, it is Peppers who is having another break out season and is reminding Panthers that this new guy in town might just be the same guy they drafted in 2002. I’d say the Panthers made a good decision to bring him back, wouldn’t you?
Chicago Bears: Tarik Cohen is the no-brainer choice
He’s second on the Bears in rushing yards (181), and he’s second on the team in receiving yards (150). He leads the Bears in both targets (29), and in receptions (24). He’s eighth in the league, and first among all rookies, in catches. Cohen is also Chicago’s primary punt returner.
He’s been used in the slot, on the wing, split out wide, and at running back. He’s the most electric playmaker that the Bears have had since Devin Hester.
Cincinnati Bengals: Carl Lawson is the Bengals’ missing piece on defense
Despite falling into the fourth round of this year’s draft, Lawson has easily been one of the best defensive rookies across the NFL.
Entering Week 5, Lawson is ranked 17th among edge rushers by Pro Football Focus (includes 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers). He only has 2.5 sacks this season, but his pressure off the edge has been relentless, as he’s frequently is in the face of opposing quarterbacks.
For more, check out the entire entry at Cincy Jungle.
Cleveland Browns: Veteran CB Jason McCourty is stepping up in Cleveland
Through four games, McCourty has been one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks. Even this past week, the Browns made a subtle change by having him defend the Bengals’ top receiver, something that kept the star receiver’s production at a minimum.
Dallas Cowboys: Third-round CB Jourdan Lewis has been a pleasant surprise
Not only is Lewis playing well, he is defying expectations. Because of his size, it was generally believed that he would be a slot corner only and that he would have trouble tackling NFL backs and receivers. So far in his career, neither has been true. Lewis is playing on the outside and Scandrick is manning the slot in most three corner formations for the Cowboys. Matching up against the big boys on the outside hasn’t been an issue. And even more surprising is his tackling ability. As PFF notes, he hasn’t missed a tackle yet.
Denver Broncos: Domata Peko has helped strengthen the run defense
Nose tackle is responsible for so much of the positive impact either side of the defensive line has. If that position is playing at a high level, the defensive line has less to worry about on both sides of that nose position.
Peko came in here looking like a washed up old guy and has instead fortified the middle of that defense and turn it into a force to be reckoned with.
Detroit Lions: Darren Fells gives the Lions the dual-threat TE they’ve been looking for
In Sunday’s game alone, Fells caught four passes for 40 yards. While that doesn’t seem like a particularly big game for the Lions tight end, every single one of those catches earned the Lions a first down, two of which came on third-and-longs.
Green Bay Packers: Second-rounder Kevin King is pivotal to the secondary
King’s early emergence as a boundary corner has been critical to the Packers’ success in defending the pass.
For some context, the Packers are currently fifth in passing yards allowed, though their ranking drops to 17th in opponents’ passer rating and they are 15th in pass DVOA. Last season in those three measures, the team ranked 31st, 26th, and 23rd, respectively.
Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, duh
In fact, with Watson under center, I might go so far as to say that the Texans offense is downright innovative right now. Bill O’Brien is drawing up plays you don’t typically see run at this level. All this after years of frequently watching Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Mallett, Case Keenum, Brian Hoyer, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler, and Tom Savage struggle to string together more than a scoring drive or two each week.
Indianapolis Colts: Rookie safety Malik Hooker is leading the NFL in picks
In 2016, Indianapolis had a turnover ratio of -5. The entire secondary produced seven interceptions with linebacker Akeem Ayers adding an eighth. This year the turnover ratio is 0 through four games — and that includes unforced errors by backup quarterbacks — and the secondary has produced six interceptions.
Hooker is responsible for three of the six. He is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions through the first four games.
For more, check out the entire entry at Stampede Blue.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Calais Campbell has made an even bigger impact than expected
Campbell has been working as a defensive end and tackle, depending on the down and package, and he garners attention at either spot. We’ve seen Dante Fowler, Jr. flash a few times and pick up some big sacks from the defensive end spot, when Campbell is at a tackle spot. With Campbell inside, he commands attention and that frees up guys like Fowler and Yannick Ngakoue to pin their ears back and beat their man one-on-one.
Kansas City Chiefs: Who else but rookie Kareem Hunt, the NFL’s leading rusher?
One of the best stats in all of the NFL this year is that Kareem Hunt, who leads the league in rushing with 502 yards, would still lead the league in rushing if you only counted his second half rushing yards (372).
Los Angeles Chargers: Russell Okung is their best offensive lineman
Has to be Okung. In what little success the team has had running, it’s been behind him. The Chargers average a whopping 6 yards a pop running around the left end. That’s 5th best in the NFL. Everywhere else they are below average. He’s also been the key to keeping the QB clean. Okung has been one of the few bright spots on the team.
Los Angeles Rams: Andrew Whitworth has helped the Rams turn things around
But with the offensive revival under head coach Sean McVay, no newcomer has made more of a difference than Whitworth. He has only surrendered one sack in the entire season and is tops in the NFL per Pro Football Focus’ Pass Block Efficiency. His addition alone has elevated the performance of the offensive line which is single-handedly allowing McVay’s concepts to be implements and allowing QB Jared Goff to do what he has done this season: go through reads, make good decisions and work all areas of the field to a wide diversity of targets.
Miami Dolphins: Charles Harris’ stats aren’t mindblowing, but his presence is felt
This year, Harris only has two tackles, but his presence is starting to be felt. “Yes, the last game I though he was disruptive, high energy,” head coach Adam Gase said of Harris’ development early this season. “He was flying around the field. That was what we’ve been expecting. You can throw the stats out the window. That doesn’t mean anything to me. When the quarterback feels you and he’s getting rid of the ball because he feels like you’re creating pressure on the side of the ball you’re rushing from or in the run game, if you’re doing your job, which our defense has been the majority of the time, where everybody is playing team defense, that’s why the run game has changed.”
For more, check out the entire entry at the Phinsider.
Minnesota Vikings: LT Riley Reiff was worth the money
The Vikings were a disaster along the offensive line in 2016, and that showed in the limitations the offense had. Bradford had no time to really do anything longer than a checkdown, and the running game was among the most atrocious the Vikings have fielded since the advent of the 16-game schedule. I know that other new faces have contributed to that, such as Remmers at right tackle and rookie Pat Elflein at center. But I honestly feel that Reiff’s contributions at left tackle. . .not the least of which is giving the Vikings’ quarterbacks the confidence that they might not get their internal organs rearranged on every single snap. . .has been the biggest part of that.
New England Patriots: Brandin Cooks has been the weapon everyone thought he’d be
Rich Hill at Pats Pulpit decided to rank each newcomer in New England. It’s no surprise that wide receiver Brandin Cooks came out on top:
Cooks has been an every-down player on offense and ranks 11th in the league with 294 receiving yards. His two receiving touchdowns are tied for sixth most in the league. His average receptions of 22.6 leads the league. He’s already contributing at a high level and he’s only going to get better.
For more, check out the entire entry at Pats Pulpit.
New Orleans Saints: Marshon Lattimore is exactly who the defense needed
For a secondary that has majorly struggled over the past few seasons and is down Delvin Breaux and working with other virtual ‘unknowns’ in the secondary, Marshon Lattimore has been a huge bright spot for the Saints defense, and should continue being a top performer.
New York Giants: Tight end Evan Engram is making history
He is on pace for 76 receptions for 800 yards, which would put him as — as far as my research can tell — the most productive rookie tight end since Mike Ditka’s 1,076 yards in 1961. Before all is said and done, Engram could well eclipse the 4 touchdowns for which he is currently on pace.
For more, check out the entire entry at Big Blue View.
New York Jets: Jamal Adams has already saved a game for the Jets
The Jets have a number of additions who have helped the team through the first quarter of the season, but there is no need to overthink this one. When you take a player sixth overall, you are hoping for an immediate impact. That is what the Jets have gotten from Jamal Adams.
Oakland Raiders: Marshall Newhouse is a surprise choice
Even Levi Damien was surprised when Newhouse was the player he landed on as the team’s best newcomer:
Through four games, Newhouse has given up just one sack. He has not done well in run blocking — which has had him named a Buster twice — but neither has really any of the offensive line, especially the past two weeks.
What it comes down to is while right tackle was where 7 of the 8 sacks the offensive line gave up last season came from, thus far it is not appearing like the glaring weak area it was before. Despite paying a fraction of the cost at the position they would have for either Watson or Howard. As a result, Pro Football Focus ranked the Raiders the best pass blocking line in football right now.
Philadelphia Eagles: Offseason trade acquisition Tim Jernigan is an upgrade at DT
Brandon Lee Gowton at Bleeding Green Nation decided to grade every newcomer for the Eagles. Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan was his top choice:
The Eagles would be pretty screwed without Jernigan right now. With Fletcher Cox out, Philadelphia would be down to Beau Allen and Elijah Qualls as the starting defensive tackles. Both of those players have shown promise but they’re not as good as Jernigan.
Pittsburgh Steelers: JuJu Smith-Schuster can do it all at WR
Smith-Schuster’s unique skill set of size, speed, and strength hasn’t been seen in Pittsburgh since Hines Ward donned No. 86 and was knocking defensive players on their behinds for the black-and-gold. No wonder Ward, who served as a coaching intern during training camp this year, gravitated to the rookie.
San Francisco 49ers: Trent Taylor is an impact player on offense and special teams
The 49ers have lacked consistency in the punt return game since Ted Ginn left, and it seems like a matter of time before Taylor busts one for a touchdown. In the passing game, he is showing confidence that receivers with significant experience lack. With Marquise Goodwin and Aldrick Robinson dealing with drops, Taylor is starting to emerge as the second wide receiver option behind Garçon.
For more, check out the entire entry at Niners Nation.
Seattle Seahawks: Shaquill Griffin has been pressed into the Legion of Boom duty
The title of “best Seahawks newcomer” realistically could only go to one of Griffin or Chris Carson, and while Carson has earned all of the accolades and it’s devastating to lose his services, Griffin is my choice because he’s been thrown into the unenviable role of “The guy quarterbacks target because Richard Sherman is on the other side,” and he’s handled it extremely well.
For more, check out the entire entry at Field Gulls.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: J.R. Sweezy, not DeSean Jackson, has been the best addition
Instead, I’m going with someone who the Bucs signed in 2016: right guard J.R. Sweezy. He missed his first season with the Bucs with a back injury, but has been awesome in the past three games.
Sweezy is one of three players to play every single snap on his side of the ball, and the only player who could realistically be called a newcomer. He’s been good in the run game, but he’s been surprisingly great in the passing game.
For more, check out the entire entry at Bucs Nation.
Tennessee Titans: The one not many expected — tight end Jonnu Smith
That leaves Jonnu Smith as the Titans best newcomer. He has only three catches, but two of them have gone for touchdowns. Smith brings so much to the Titans offense. Like Delanie Walker, Smith is really good as an in-line tight end or split out wide.
Washington: Zach Brown was a wise investment
We saw his speed in action on Monday night, when Brown was able to catch Kareem Hunt from behind on a sweep to the sideline. He has generally been a sure tackler, and he has made third down plays—a major point of emphasis for this defense after last year’s debacle on third downs.
For more, check out the entire entry at Hogs Haven.