We never know much at this point in football season, but this year is even murkier than usual. Even with the Kansas City Chiefs sitting at 5-0, the lack of dominance from 31 other teams leaves us lost.
The New England Patriots won last week, but they still don’t look like themselves. The Jacksonville Jaguars went into Pittsburgh and curb stomped the Steelers. It’s unclear whether these are all just bizarre early-season happenings or real indications of what these teams are. However, it gives every player on every team motivation to separate themselves from the pack.
Here is one from each team who should be especially motivated in Week 6.
Atlanta Falcons: Robert Alford, cornerback
Alford played a huge role in getting Atlanta to the Super Bowl last season. He, Jalen Collins, and Brian Poole helped makeup for the absence of star cornerback Desmond Trufant. However, Alford’s play hasn’t carried over into this season. He has an abysmal 48.5 PFF grade through the early part of the season. Alford has also given up a middling (at best) 1.18 yards per route covered, per Pro Football Focus. With Collins serving a 10-game suspension, Alford has to get better soon.
Miami Dolphins: Jay Ajayi, running back
Lost in all of the insanity surrounding the Miami Dolphins and the criticism of quarterback Jay Cutler is that Ajayi — who looked like a star last season — has completely failed to make an impact. The 2016 Pro Bowler is averaging a piddly 3.4 yards per carry through four games. Some of that can be chalked up to Miami’s struggles in the air, which incentivizes opponents to overplay the run. However, Ajayi is still the bedrock of this offense, at least in theory. The Dolphins aren’t going to start moving the ball unless he starts improving.
New England Patriots: Nate Solder, left tackle
New England’s sack numbers are up, and that’s not entirely the fault of the offensive line. The Patriots are playing a more vertical style of offense this season, thanks in part to wide receiver Julian Edelman’s injury. That forces Tom Brady to spend more time in the pocket, leading to more sacks. However, that doesn’t change the fact that multiple members of the line, including Solder, are struggling. The veteran left tackle has a 47.8 PFF grade, a massive drop from his 81.7 mark last season. With a 40-year old Tom Brady standing in the pocket, that doesn’t fly.
New York Jets: Muhammad Wilkerson, defensive tackle
One of the greatest ironies of the Jets going on a three-game winning streak is that Wilkerson has largely struggled. He has just four pressures in five games, per Football Outsiders’ charting. His 46.8 PFF grade ranks a terrible 110th among defensive linemen. That’s shown in the Jets’ numbers as well. Gang Green ranks 30th in defensive pressure rate, per Football Outsiders. It’s pretty unlikely the Jets manage to stay hot. Without getting more from Wilkerson, it’s virtually impossible.
New Orleans Saints: Mark Ingram, running back
A quick recap of where things stand in the Saints’ backfield: Adrian Peterson got shipped to Arizona because he was unhappy over a (deserved) lack of playing time. Rookie Alvin Kamara is dazzling everyone with his ability in the passing game. He’s also averaging 5.5 yards per carry, albeit on just 15 attempts. If the Saints love Kamara as much as some reports have indicated, it’s his job to win. That leaves Ingram fighting the rookie for the starting role and he didn’t do much to win it two weeks ago in London. Ingram went for just 45 yards on 14 carries in that game. On the year, he’s averaging just 4.0 yards per carry. Ingram has to play with some urgency against Detroit this week to remind head coach Sean Payton that he deserves to be the starter.
Detroit Lions: Ameer Abdullah, running back, Detroit Lions
We’ve seen flashes from Abdullah this season. Those serve as a reminder of why the Lions spent a second rounder on the Nebraska product. However, the consistency hasn’t been there. When he plays well, it’s clear he has star talent. But Abdullah has gone for below four yards per carry in three of five games this season. Against a bad New Orleans run defense, the Lions will likely try to put the ball in Abdullah’s hands early. If he can set a tone early, Detroit will be well on its way to a win.
Cleveland Browns: Jabrill Peppers, safety
Nobody knew what Peppers was going to be during the draft process because he lacked a clear position. We aren’t any closer to figuring it out now. The Browns have largely played Peppers at safety, where he’s put up a horrific 38.0 PFF grade. According to Football Outsiders, the Michigan product has a 25.0 percent broken tackle rate. Even early in the season, that’s simply unacceptable. We have to start seeing things from Peppers at safety, or it may time to start thinking about playing him at linebacker.
Houston Texans: Brennan Scarlett, defensive end
J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, two of Houston’s three star pass rushers, are both done for the year. Though they signed some veterans who will fit into the rotation, Scarlett is in line for a lot of the snaps. Nobody expects him to be a star, but if Jadeveon Clowney is Houston’s only serious pass rushing threat, the Texans look a lot less threatening. Scarlett has to become a threat off the edge.
Chicago Bears: Mitchell Trubisky, quarterback
Trubisky’s NFL debut was a mixed bag. No one will dispute that he deserves to start over Mike Glennon. However, the rookie completed less than 50 percent of his passes for only 128 yards, and he threw an awful interception. Things won’t get easier for him this week as Chicago faces a strong Baltimore defense on short rest. Obviously we’re grading Trubisky on a curve here — this is his second ever start and nobody expects him to shred Baltimore’s defense — but it’s important that we see improvement, even incrementally. Will Trubisky display poise in a tough matchup? Is his decision-making ability evolving? Is he reading defenses more accurately? Little things like that will tell us how he’s progressing more than a win or loss.
Baltimore Ravens: Eric Weddle, safety
The 32-year old Weddle has started to look his age in the early part of this season. He has a paltry 46.6 PFF grade on the year and a 40 percent broken tackle rate, per Football Outsiders. It’s still early in the year and we shouldn’t read deeply into things, but these are pretty bad signs for someone as old as Weddle. If things don’t start looking up soon, it’s time to start taking seriously the possibility that Weddle is succumbing to the aging curve.
Washington Redskins: Jordan Reed, tight end
Reed has been one of the best tight ends in football for the past two seasons, largely acting as Kirk Cousins’ safety blanket. Though he’s played just three games this season — missing one due to injury — the Redskins have missed Reed’s contributions. He ranks 40th out of 41 tight ends in efficiency, as measured by both DYAR and DVOA. Though Reed had caught 73.7 percent of balls thrown his way, he’s gone for just 7.5 yards per reception. If Washington tries to get him more involved this week, Reed has to start looking like his 2016 self.
San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde, running back
Hyde had a nice start to the season, but he was all sorts of bad against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday. On eight carries, Hyde had a grand total of 11 yards. This in a game that wasn’t just relatively close throughout but also had nearly 10 full minutes of overtime. Bad games happen to everyone, but it’s how players bounce back that matters. The Niners will need a big game from Hyde to stay in it against a Washington defense which ranks fourth in efficiency, as measured by DVOA. If he fails to deliver, this game will turn ugly fast.
Green Bay Packers: Martellus Bennett, tight end
It seemed that Bennett would be a little more involved in Green Bay’s offense after the Packers made a rare foray into free agency to sign him. Though the tight end got 17 targets in the first two games, Aaron Rodgers has looked his way just 14 times in the three games since. Last Sunday against Dallas, Bennett had just three targets in total. Star wideout Jordy Nelson is clearly not at full health, so it’s on Bennett to step up. Minnesota has struggled against tight ends this year, so Rodgers will likely look Bennett’s way. He has to take advantage.
Minnesota Vikings: Laquon Treadwell, wide receiver
Unlike last season, Treadwell has gotten on the field for Minnesota. He had 10 targets already compared to the three he got in all of last season. But the former first rounder isn’t doing much with that playing time. He has just five receptions for 42 yards. After Michael Floyd’s return from suspension last week, it’s fair to assume that Treadwell may see that playing time sapped if he doesn’t start contributing more. These next few weeks may be his last chance to prove he belongs in Minnesota.
Arizona Cardinals: Deone Bucannon, linebacker
Bucannon missed Arizona’s first three games with an injury. Since returning, however, he’s been flat-out atrocious. He has a godawful 29.8 PFF grade with just six tackles. Bucannon is very much the key to Arizona’s defense. His versatility unlocks so much for the Cardinals, but it doesn’t mean much if he’s playing this badly. More than likely, Bucannon’s struggles are an early-season aberration. However, the Cardinals are already below .500, and they are coming off a blowout loss. If things are going to turn around, it has to be sooner rather than later.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Donovan Smith, left tackle
Smith has struggled for much of his three-year career, and the early part of this season is no exception. The 24-year-old has a 46.7 PFF grade through four games. Tampa Bay has also been significantly worse when running the ball to the left than the middle or right. The Cardinals aren’t an especially imposing matchup for Tampa this week. Smith should be able to handle whatever defensive coordinator James Bettcher throws at him. For Jameis Winston to stop struggling, Smith doesn’t have a choice but to do the same.
Los Angeles Rams: Sammy Watkins, wide receiver
In his last two games, Watkins has one reception for 17 yards. Things won’t get any easier for him this week, as he’ll be matching up with Jaguars corner A.J. Bouye for much of the game. However, Watkins has to be a featured part of the Rams’ passing game. He’s the best downfield threat they’ve got right now. If Watkins keeps getting shut down, it gets a lot harder for Jared Goff to throw the ball.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, quarterback
The Jaguars managed to win easily last week with just 14 passing attempts, 95 yards and an interception from Bortles. That’s the ideal scenario for Jacksonville every week. However, it’s impossible to expect that they’ll achieve it regularly. Bortles has to be comfortable throwing the ball upwards of 30 times a game without turning it over if the Jags are going to win the AFC South. Leonard Fournette and Jacksonville’s defense can’t win every game for them. At some point, the Jaguars need some contributions out of Bortles. This week would be a good time to start.
Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, wide receiver
It’s almost jarring how badly Cooper has started the season. A Pro Bowler last season, Cooper has four receptions on 15 targets in his last three games. He’s been a drop machine, with a 39.4 percent catch rate. The Raiders simply haven’t gotten anything out of him. Quarterback Derek Carr is likely to return this week. Oakland needs Cooper to start playing like himself as well if the passing game is to gain any traction.
Los Angeles Chargers: Jatavis Brown, linebacker
Brown, a key figure in the Chargers’ defense, has struggled through the early part of the season. The second-year player has a 42.4 PFF grade, ranking 69th among linebackers. Though he’s dealing with an ankle injury this week, Los Angeles needs more from Brown if they have any chance of turning things around. That’s unlikely with the team sitting at 1-4. However, three of those losses have been by three or fewer points. It’s not inconceivable that the Chargers start winning, especially if Brown ups his level of play.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback
Roethlisberger threw five interceptions against Jacksonville last week. Two of them were returned for touchdowns. It was his worst game as a pro. After the game, he told reporters “Maybe I don’t have it anymore,” though he did back off that talk this past week. Roethlisberger has played badly thus far, but there’s still time to turn it around. The Steelers still have the pieces to be one of the most dynamic offenses in football. But that all hinges on whether Roethlisberger’s still got it.
Kansas City Chiefs: Alex Smith, quarterback
Smith has gotten off to an otherworldly start. The question now becomes whether he can keep it up. The Chiefs are going up against a Pittsburgh defense which ranks third in pass defense efficiency, as measured by DVOA. The Steelers are likely to get some pressure against Kansas City’s interior line, which has had health issues thus far. This will be Smith’s biggest test yet.
New York Giants: Eli Apple, cornerback
After the fiasco surrounding fellow corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Apple finds himself in an untenable position. Despite having played terribly thus far, he now has to shoulder even more of a burden in the Giants’ beleaguered secondary. He has a terrible 38 percent success rate, per Football Outsiders, with 7.9 yards allowed per pass. Apple will have to go up against either Emmanuel Sanders or Demaryius Thomas for most of the game, so things won’t be easy. However, he needs to have his best game of the season if the Giants even have a chance of notching their first victory.
Denver Broncos: Menelik Watson, right tackle
Watson has been an albatross on Denver’s offensive line this year. The newly installed right tackle has a 36.8 PFF grade. He’s often been the culprit on pass pressures and run stuffs alike. And he’ll face off against Jason Pierre-Paul Sunday night. This matchup is the key to the game for Denver. If Watson can hold off Pierre-Paul, the Broncos win easily.
Tennessee Titans: Eric Decker, wide receiver
It’s hard to say Decker struggled last week when Matt Cassel played so terribly at quarterback. However, it’s clear that Decker has struggled on the year. He ranks 59th out of 74 qualified receivers in efficiency, as measured by both DYAR and DVOA. Decker also has just 138 receiving yards on the year with only 8.6 per reception. That has to improve against a bad Indianapolis secondary on Monday night.
Indianapolis Colts: Frank Gore, running back
Not only is Gore struggling, but he may well lose the starting job to Marlon Mack soon if things don’t turn around. In his last four games, Gore is averaging just 3.03 yards per carry. On the other hand, Mack went for 91 yards on nine carries last week against San Francisco. If those trends continue, it won’t be long before Mack is the starter.