CJ Stroud to Puka Fever: pleasant early surprises from the NFL season | NFL

It’s hard to believe we’re almost a quarter of the way through the NFL regular season. It feels like just yesterday that there was optimism inside the New York franchises and Sean Payton was going to revive the Denver Broncos. But enough of the negativity, here are a few pleasant surprises from the first few weeks of the new season.

Puka Nacua

Does anyone else have Nacua Fever? How quickly did you move to your fantasy football waiver wire to nab the fifth-round rookie after his explosion in Week 1?

Through four games, Nacua already has 501 yards and is outpacing the two best receiving yard seasons in NFL history, ahead of Calvin Johnson in 2012 and Cooper Kupp in 2021 (although Justin Jefferson is actually the leader in receiving yards this season, with 543). Again: He’s a fifth-round rookie! You know what Johnson, Kupp and Nacua have in common? Matthew Stafford at quarterback.

The 35-year-old Stafford looks reinvigorated after dealing with injuries last season. He remains volatile, liable to produce the throw of the week on one drive and a mind-numbing interception on the next. But a dealing Stafford remains one of the most entertaining watches in football. On an undermanned Rams team, Stafford has returned to the old bleep-it style that defined his days in Detroit.

It sounds trite to say this is Sean McVay’s best coaching job to date, given that he’s led two teams to a Super Bowl, clinching one title. But McVay is putting out extraordinary offensive production with an unheralded group led by Nacua, Tutu Atwell and Tyler Higbee, all while jettisoning running back Cam Akers, who once formed the foundation of McVay’s offense. The Rams currently rank eighth in EPA per play on offense, a measure of their down-to-down consistency. Churning out that kind of production with Nacua as the focal point is nothing short of remarkable.

Stafford is dealing with a hip contusion, which is part of the general Stafford experience these days. But if the Rams QB can stay healthy, Nacua should show no signs of letting up – and Kupp is set to return to the lineup midway through the season.

Lamar Jackson

Jackson’s partnership with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken has gone as well as anyone could have hoped. Despite players going down injured around him, Baltimore’s quarterback is playing at an MVP level.

Monken has reshaped the Ravens’ offense. From the design of the offense to the communication system, it’s a new world for Jackson in his professional career, echoing the style he ran back at Louisville in college. After some teething problems in Week 1, Jackson has caught fire.

Even the most generous of analysts would have pointed to the mid-point of the season as the time when the Monken-Jackson pairing would find its groove, and that was before members of the Ravens’ offense started dropping like flies. But things have coalesced quickly. Jackson has more command than ever at the line of scrimmage, shifting some of the offensive burden on the quarterback from his post-snap excellence to the pre-snap machinations. Play is more spread out, opening up lanes for Jackson to take off as a runner, or to move into as a passer.

Through four weeks, Jackson has played as well as any quarterback in the league, embracing his new role as a distributor while still being capable of conjuring some magic when required. The Ravens have all the makings of a championship contender in the AFC, provided they don’t suffer many more injuries.

The Texans’ offense

CJ Stroud and Tank Dell have struck up a nice partnership
CJ Stroud and Tank Dell have struck up a nice partnership. Photograph: Melina Myers/USA Today Sports

Heading into the season, it was easy to see the Houston Texans as frisky upstarts. Perhaps they’d improve on both sides of the ball while struggling to close out games, as is often the way with a young roster and a first-time coaching staff. That alone would have been better than the tanktastic era that has characterized the post-Deshaun Watson Texans.

But the Texans are more than scrappy. They’re downright good, with the best point differential in the AFC South by a decent distance. The defense is much better, thanks in part to a rejuvenated pass-rush and the head coach, DeMeco Ryans.

The key change, though, has come on offense. CJ Stroud already looks like the most comfortable of the rookie quarterbacks. That shouldn’t come as a surprise based on pre-draft evaluations. But what is telling is that Stroud’s calm, fast-playing style has translated to the pros so quickly despite injuries to his talented offensive line.

Stroud plays at NFL speed within the pocket and is throwing with anticipation to all levels of the field. The great pocket quarterbacks conquer the vaunted stick-slide-climb-throw, moving ever so slightly off their spot to alter the radar for pass-rushers. It’s the ability to navigate those cluttered lanes, to make small movements that create decent throwing angles. To turn a dead play or negative play into a significant gain.

Stroud’s supporting cast has been impressive. Third-year receiver Nico Collins looks like a borderline superstar, while Tank Dell has caused opposing defenses trouble with his electric speed. Offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik is the latest mind off the Kyle Shanahan-Sean McVay conveyor belt, and will no doubt receive a head coaching nod in the next 24 months. But it’s Stroud’s ability to stay calm that has made the whole operation work.

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The Browns’ defense

Cleveland have fielded the best defense in the league through four weeks. They rank second in the league in EPA per play against the pass and the rush, the only group in the NFL to crack the Top 10 in both categories. The offseason gamble to remake the front around a batch of get-off-and-go pass-rushers supporting Myles Garrett is working.

The bulk of the credit should go to new defensive tsar Jim Schwartz. Schwartz has long been a coach who lifts up his scheme from place to place, wringing as much out of it as possible before moving on to the next stop. In Cleveland, Schwartz has adapted. The cantankerous, my-way-or-the-highway Schwartz of old is out; a fresh-faced, freewheelin’, blitz-happy Schwartz is in.

So far, so good. Schwartz has helped elevate the Browns’ already promising pass rush and rebuilt a run defense that ranked dead stinking last in the NFL last season.

De’Von Achane

The Dolphins have the most overwhelming offense the league has seen since the 2007 Patriots. That’s not hyperbole. In almost every crucial metric, they’re outrunning the Brady-Moss Pats and rank well ahead of the Greatest Show on Turf.

There aren’t many secrets to the formula. In Mike McDaniel, they have one of the sport’s foremost schematic wizards, a coach concocting avenues so creative that they border on cheating.

It’s a group built on speed, with Tua Tagovailoa slotted into his ideal role as the point guard, playing with a newfound knack for off-script playmaking. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle are the stars, with running back Raheem Mostert adding extra oomph on the ground and as a receiver.

The breakout star, though, is former track phenom De’Von Achane. The rookie running back is averaging a ludicrous 11.4 yards per carry. The last two weeks have been particularly impressive: he’s totted up 304 yards (!) and four touchdowns on 16 carries, figures that don’t take into account his impact off the ball.

Speed kills, the old football saying goes. It certainly helps put points on the board. The Dolphins are on pace to score an eye-popping 638 points this season – just under 38 a game. Miami currently hold a monopoly over the top five spots of the fastest ball carriers in the league in 2023, according to NFL Next Gen Stats:

Player speeds

By drafting and featuring Achane, somehow, the league’s fastest team got faster. Good luck keeping up.