After seven weeks of football, the NFL is starting to settle itself. We know about the contenders and pretenders, the haves and the have-nots and players with Pro Bowl caliber talent versus guys who do not.
There are always going to be various levels of play throughout the league: top-tier, consistent and some plain old bad players and teams.
There are also players who are worth believing in because they are on a true upswing. Conversely, there are players who we’re not buying due to the circumstances around them or their own lack of talent.
With that in mind, let’s take stock of the NFL’s top, mid-level and bottom feeders heading into NFL Week 8.
Blue Chip Stocks
Arizona Cardinals RB David Johnson
The best running back in the NFL today isn’t Ezekiel Elliott, DeMarco Murray, LeSean McCoy or Devonta Freeman. It’s Arizona Cardinals star David Johnson. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound running back is a physical freak. He has the mix of speed, power and ability that has helped the Cardinals to gain 1,000 rushing yards in just seven games by putting the ball in his hands.
On his 174 touches this season, Johnson’s 1,004 yards and eight total touchdowns show just how versatile and explosive he can be. His pace of over 2,000 total yards from scrimmage would give the Cardinals a running back in the mold of Steven Jackson.
Jackson in his prime was a true power running back who happened to have great receiving ability and the home-run hitting ability that pure speed backs have. Johnson is proving to be worth more than his draft spot in the late third round with his performance. His all-around talents have been more than worth the selection.
Cincinnati Bengals WR A.J. Green
A.J. Green has always been good and played like he was a top-5 receiver in the NFL even during the early part of his career. This season, he’s taken another step forward and is on pace for the best season of his career, by far.
The additional targets that he gotten this season because of the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu have allowed him to really show how good he can be when he’s the focus in his offense. The Bengals’ wide receiver might be the third best receiver in the NFL today.
The only two receivers with a legitimate claim to be better than Green are Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. Green has become and elite player now in his sixth season and should see another All-Pro nod this season.
Denver Broncos LB Von Miller
When looking for a premier pass rusher, teams need to look into guys that have similar traits to Von Miller. Because he’s been dominating the NFL yet again in 2016 like he has since he came into the league. Miller has been throwing offensive linemen on their backs, hitting quarterbacks early and often.
Miller has shown a variance in his pass rushing moves that allows him to even split through double and triple teams to get to quarterbacks. Teams would love to have a guy similar to the Broncos’ linebacker who could turn into the premier pass rusher on their roster.
He is one heck of a rusher and has turned in some solid run defense on top of it. Miller deserves another All-Pro nod at the end of this season should he continue the same pace he’s on. Based on his past history, he’ll hit at least 10 sacks again this year.
New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees
The Saints are only 2-4 and look horrible as a team, but Drew Brees seems to be in the best form of his career. His touchdown to interception ratio is among the best he’s had in his career, and he leads the NFL in passing yards per game. He has been a reason for the Saints to even look competitive in every game this season.
Brees is on pace for his sixth straight season of over 4,870 yards, 30 touchdowns and less than 20 interceptions. The Saints are talented on offense and turning in some good games, but it’s only a matter of time before the defense lets the other team win the game towards the end. As long as Brees is on the Saints, they stand a chance at winning any game.
Buffalo Bills LB Lorenzo Alexander
Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander has been solid at nearly every stop he’s been at, but he hasn’t been able to really break out the way that he has under Rex Ryan. The thing is, he isn’t really doing anything different than what he did anywhere else, Ryan just puts him in positions to win consistently.
Lorenzo Alexander is on pace to have a year so big, it would be as good as the previous 7 combined pic.twitter.com/Pw4X6UkhgL
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 25, 2016
Alexander might be able to double his previous career numbers in key categories by the end of the season. That’s how well he’s fit into Ryan’s scheme. Alexander has been flying around the field and creating pressure at a rate that few would have expected based on his career to date.
The fact that he’s finally putting it all together is a testament to the Ryan brothers’ ability to get the most out of their players. Alexander will be a solid investment as long as his role stays the same for the rest of the season.
Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly
Despite the Panthers having one of the worst records in the NFL at 1-5, their former Defensive Player of the Year is still performing at a high level. Kuechly is one of the most solid players in the league at middle linebacker and will rarely have bad games. He does so much so well that it’s hard to consider the idea that any linebacker in the league is better than him.
Kuechly’s early season success hasn’t been overshadowed by the horrible season the Panthers have been having. The Panthers have one of the best linebackers in the league. His consistency has been a big reason why the Panthers have been able to stay in games throughout the first seven weeks of the season.
When looking at junk bonds after seven weeks of action, whole teams have to be mentioned. And the first one to list is the Cleveland Browns. They have been so bad, it’s questionable as to whether they are intentionally this bad because they are trying to tank and get more picks or if they just don’t have enough talent to compete.
Sure, they have played six different quarterbacks this season, but there has to be more to it than that. The Browns are bad on an epic scale and are at a point where a fire sale doesn’t look like an awful idea. They haven’t won a game and don’t look like they will win a game all year. They are the joke of the NFL once again.
Jacksonville has regressed too much in year four of the Gus Bradley era. Despite winning two games, including a fluke against the Colts and a close win to the hapless Bears team, the Jaguars look like one of the most inept teams in the league. Their defense has improved in pass rush but has taken a downturn everywhere else.
Quarterback Blake Bortles has looked like he is back in college with his awful mechanics and bad decision making. The wide receiver corps is taking a step back due to that. And with the offensive line failing, the running game has taken a turn for the worse as well.
How the Jaguars keep putting out a terrible product week after week and still call it football is beyond reproach. Head coach Gus Bradley deserves to lose his job unless the Jaguars turn it around and make the playoffs. At 2-4, that looks extremely unlikely unless the rest of the division collapses in on itself like the 2014 NFC South.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers are also one of the worst teams in football. Second to the Browns, they might have the least amount of talent on a position-by-position basis. Name a starter outside of Joe Staley, Carlos Hyde, Torrey Smith, Eric Reid or Aaron Lynch that could start on any other team in the NFL that isn’t the Browns?
The 49ers don’t have enough talent to really execute the scheme that Chip Kelly runs. They also don’t have enough good defenders to protect the terrible offensive talent as a team. There are quite a few issues with the way the 49ers constructed their roster, and that all falls on general manager Trent Baalke.
As my colleague Michael Dixon said, “What does it say when I can say with a complete straight face that a 1-6 team has overachieved?” It says that the team is being run by an inept general manager who hasn’t given his halfway-decent head coach enough talent to work with in any unit.
Unlike the situation in Philadelphia, Kelly legitimately has a reason to want his general manager fired. However, just like Philadelphia, the 49ers ownership needs to let a true general manager work and give the 49ers a shot in 2017. And they should start by getting a good quarterback in the draft this coming offseason.
Buy! Buy! Buy!
Atlanta Falcons EDGE Vic Beasley
After a somewhat disappointing rookie campaign for Beasley in which he only had four quarterback sacks and five total quarterback hits, he’s really turned it on this year. He’s not only surpassed his rookie totals, he’s on pace to blow them out of the water.
A big reason why is his improved technique that works well with his speed and the play of the interior line finally coming together.
Vic Beasley is on pace for a Khalil Mack-type sophomore campaign pic.twitter.com/MzupSWtSJd
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 25, 2016
However, Dwight Freeney and Adrian Clayborn creating pressure across from him on the right side hasn’t hurt either. Two plays against the Chargers really show the improvement that Beasley has had this season.
The first one was a dip-under on the weak side while an interior stunt tied up the inside blockers. He had a perfect dip-under to the outside to utilize his speed:
atlanta blew that game in epic fashion but at least beasley is starting to come into his own the past few weeks pic.twitter.com/WiMAr7rPgW
— charles (#1 fraud) mcdonald (@FourVerts) October 24, 2016
When he hit Phillip Rivers, he forced the fumble, and the Falcons scored a touchdown on the play. The second play was a stunt to the inside that the Falcons had tried in past weeks with Derrick Shelby, but couldn’t create pressure with. This week, they put Grady Jarrett in there, and Beasley got his second sack of the game.
While both of these plays took advantage of his greatest asset — his speed — Beasley’s technique and hands have improved to the point that he is now a pass rusher to be feared on the left side of a defense. And that’s always worth buying.
Kansas City Chiefs CB Marcus Peters
When cornerbacks come into the NFL and look as solid as Marcus Peters has in coverage, you don’t expect them to see a ton of targets their way. As a result, they have less interceptions. Peters defies all expectations here, though. After putting up eight interceptions as a rookie in Kansas City, the former Washington Huskie has five interceptions in 2016 so far.
And that’s on top of solid run support and excellent coverage that Peters has been providing. The Chiefs have a gem in Peters, and he’ll only get better as he turns into the next Rod Woodson or Aeneas Williams type cornerback who isn’t just good in coverage but also an indomitable ball-hawk.
Miami Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi
The Miami Dolphins finally have what looks like a franchise caliber running back to join Ryan Tannehill in the backfield after Jay Ajayi had a pair of excellent games the last two weeks. And while part of that has been the teams the Dolphins played, the majority of it has been getting back Branden Albert and Laremy Tunsil on the left side and actually feeding Ajayi the rock.
Ajayi’s two-game total of 418 yards probably isn’t a sustainable pace, but he should be a solid 100-yard option through the rest of the season and beyond if the Dolphins offensive line can hold up. He’s a bigger back who can both catch and run the rock while also being a solid pass blocker. Injuries were the only real knock on him coming out of college.
But they were scary enough to have him drop to the fifth round. Unfortunately for Arian Foster, Ajayi now looks 100 percent healthy and ready to take the NFL by storm as the Dolphins primary running back. Foster has since retired because of the writing on the wall saying that his time was coming to a close in Miami. This only makes Ajayi a better long-term buy.
Sell! Sell! Sell!
Houston Texans QB Brock Osweiler
How many quarterbacks are as awful as Brock Osweiler has been? On the season, Osweiler has shown nothing that would lead anyone to believe that the $72 million contract that he signed in the offseason was worth a single penny he’s been paid. Osweiler has had games where he’s looked serviceable to downright atrocious.
How does anyone watch what he did against any team in 2016 and see a potential franchise quarterback? How can anyone look at the utter dumpster fire that has been Osweiler in Houston and think that the Texans shouldn’t draft a quarterback in the 2017 draft?
When you have this many questions and no answers to any of them, it’s time to jump ship. And sure, Osweiler is 6’8″, but that’s all he has. Throughout the years, how many tall guys with mediocre arms have NFL careers that they didn’t deserve?
No idea on the actual number, but there’s one of them in Houston right now. And they are stuck with him through 2017, because they guaranteed his salary.
Los Angeles Rams RB Todd Gurley
Todd Gurley is one of the best running backs in the NFL. He’s shown that he can run with vision, power and the speed needed to be successful as an NFL running back. However, he runs behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL and could turn in a career worst season this year.
Yards before contact by offensive line through the Sunday game of Week 7: pic.twitter.com/L89sYyV7V2
— Jeff Ratcliffe (@JeffRatcliffe) October 24, 2016
The Rams offensive line is the worst in the league at run blocking. That’s not going to help anyone put up the stats they are capable of. Gurley is a good football player and has shown it through the first season and a half he’s played. But at this point, you can’t invest in him because of the circumstances around him.
Indianapolis Colts Offensive Line
The Indianapolis Colts are 3-4 on the season. But the reasons for this aren’t as complicated as one would think. Sure, they aren’t seeing prime performance from Andrew Luck, and their defense is pretty bad, but their problems stem from their offensive line. Its under-performance has led to bad games for Luck more often then not.
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) October 25, 2016
As you can see in the totals above, Luck is much more accurate and and makes better decisions when his offensive line doesn’t let him get hit as often. It makes a difference in the record too. In games where the Colts allow less than five hits, they are 2-1. In other games, they are 1-3.
While they help their running game gain decent yardage, they need to protect Luck to win, and they just haven’t been doing that.