It felt impossible that this NFL season could get even more bizarre. We had five weeks of weird — the sixth was going to be a return to normalcy. If only.
The New England Patriots barely escaped the Meadowlands with a win. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone and is likely done for the year. The only dominant team we had — the Kansas City Chiefs — got its clock cleaned at home. Last year’s NFC champion Atlanta Falcons lost in their shiny new stadium to a hapless Miami Dolphins, which are somehow now above .500.
It’s still early enough in the season that we can look at things skeptically, but the clock is ticking. If teams like the Falcons are going to turn it around, they need to do it pretty soon.
The players on this list will play an especially big role in their teams’ ability to turn it around or keep a hot start going. Here is each franchise’s player with the most to prove in Week 7.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, quarterback
We could put Bortles in this space every week because, at this point, he’s the difference between Jacksonville being .500 or a Super Bowl contender. The Jaguars have arguably the best defense in football and a great running game behind Leonard Fournette, who did not practice all week with an ankle injury. If there was any semblance of a passing game at all, they’d have their sights set on the Lombardi. But it’s really hard to win consistently when Bortles is averaging 5.29 adjusted yards per attempt and the offense doesn’t want to throw the ball. There’s not much Jacksonville can do about it until the offseason. But unless Bortles starts ramping things up, you can bet the Jaguars will look to move on from him when the time comes.
Indianapolis Colts: Malik Hooker, safety
Hooker has played exceedingly well in the Colts’ secondary thus far, especially for such a young player. Last week, however, he made a big mistake leading to a long Taywan Taylor touchdown that put the Tennessee Titans ahead late in the game. Hooker let Taylor get behind him in Cover-2 and the Titans took advantage for a 53-yard score. Now, the question is whether or not he can put that mistake behind him.
Cleveland Browns: Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator
It’s becoming hard to decipher the thinking behind some of Williams’ schematics, especially involving rookie Jabrill Peppers.
— Virtual Bubble Justo (Day 273) (@JuMosq) October 16, 2017
The Browns drafted Peppers in the first round, presumably knowing that he wasn’t going to be a traditional safety. Yet, they’re putting Peppers 15 yards away from the box — where he could be most effective — with regularity. It’s no coincidence that the Browns are dead last in pass defense DVOA. Williams has to start changing things up, and fast.
Tennessee Titans: Logan Ryan, cornerback
The Titans handed Ryan a fat contract during the offseason. They have yet to see return on their investment. Prior to Monday’s action, Ryan had an abysmal 31 percent success rate in coverage, per Football Outsiders’ charting. Some metrics are more generous. However, what’s clear is that Ryan has struggled badly when targeted, with his yards allowed per pass attempt seeing a notable rise from last season. Tennessee has a chance to pull away from the pack in the AFC South with quarterback Marcus Mariota back from injury, but Ryan can’t keep playing like this.
Miami Dolphins: Lawrence Timmons, linebacker
A lot of people assumed Timmons was finished after an abysmal 2016, but the 31-year old has been absolutely great in Miami thus far since re-committing himself. In three games, Timmons has an 85.4 PFF grade, sixth among all linebackers. The obvious catch is that it’s just three games. Even six games — which most teams have played — isn’t enough to get a good read on things. But if Timmons can keep up the hot start, it would be huge for the Dolphins’ defense.
New York Jets: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, tight end
Seferian-Jenkins has been as big a reason for the Jets’ surprising competency as anyone else. He racked up eight catches, including a touchdown, on 11 targets last week and has an absurd 79.3 percent catch rate on the year. However, that’s over just four games, and there’s a reason Seferian-Jenkins has struggled for much of his career. He needs to prove that this breakout campaign is for real.
Baltimore Ravens: Jeremy Maclin, wide receiver
Maclin has largely failed to be an impact player with the Ravens. He missed last week with an injury but should play this week. In five games this year, Maclin has averaged a career-low 9.9 yards per reception. He also ranks 60th among receivers in efficiency, as measured by DVOA. Before the season began, it looked like Maclin was the best receiver on this team, but that certainly hasn’t been he case. If he starts picking things up, it could spark Baltimore’s passing game.
Minnesota Vikings: Pat Elflein, center
The rookie looked like one of the best interior linemen in this draft class on tape. At Ohio State last season, he was a consensus All-American and Dave Rimington Trophy winner. But that hasn’t carried over to the big leagues. Elflein has a 43.2 PFF grade with the Vikings. He’s continually been Minnesota’s weak link, especially in pass blocking, where the Green Bay Packers had four sacks last week. Things won’t get easier for Elflein against Baltimore this week, but he has to do a better job protecting Case Keenum.
Chicago Bears: Prince Amukamara, cornerback
Amukamara has some of the most eye-opening numbers in the league thus far. He’s given up a miniscule 0.36 yards per route covered, per Pro Football Focus. He’s also been given an 85.5 grade by PFF, a notable boost from prior years where he usually hovered around average. If Amukamara keeps playing like this, it changes the game for the Bears’ secondary.
Carolina Panthers: Curtis Samuel, wide receiver
The Panthers spent their second-round pick on Samuel. Here are his numbers through six games: four receptions for 12 yards on 10 targets and two carries for 39 yards. Obviously it’s way too early to throw around labels like bust, but Samuel hasn’t exactly started things off on the right foot. There’s a lot of Tavon Austin in Samuel — which is not a good thing. His career has to change course fast.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: O.J. Howard, tight end
Howard hasn’t just struggled. He’s also clearly been the inferior tight end to Cameron Brate. Through five games, the rookie has just five receptions to Brate’s 21. The Bucs have seemingly been content to use Howard in run blocking situations, making Brate their primary pass-catcher from the position. However odd that may be from a coaching perspective, it’s on Howard to change the dynamic. He has to make more of his opportunities and be an impact guy. No doubt Tampa needs a spark on offense and Howard can be that player.
Buffalo Bills: Jerry Hughes, defensive end
Hughes has been an absolute monster through five games. Though his 3.0 sacks don’t jump off the page, Hughes has eight quarterback hits, per NFL GSIS. His 89.1 PFF grade ranks fifth among edge rushers. Right now, the Bills rank second in defensive DVOA and if Hughes continues playing like this, they’ve got a pretty good chance to stay there. But we’ve never seen this level of play from Hughes, at least over an extended period. If he proves this is for real, we may have to make room for him on the All-Pro team.
Los Angeles Rams: Sammy Watkins, wide receiver
Watkins’ last three games have been just terrible. The 24-year-old receiver has been targeted just 10 times, with just two catches over that time. Some of that has to do with playcalling, but Watkins should be making more of an impact. He’s still the only Rams wideout who can make an impact as a deep threat. Even if Watkins is shadowed by Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson this week, the Cardinals’ secondary has been struggling. He needs to start looking like the player the Rams thought they were getting when they traded for him in August.
Arizona Cardinals: Adrian Peterson, running back
Last week was Peterson’s best game since he led the league in rushing in 2015. He went for 134 yards and two scores on 26 carries in his first game with the Cardinals. A lot of people were very quick to proclaim that Peterson was back to his old self, but that was just one game. The 32-year old has to play like that consistently and we still don’t know whether he can. The start was encouraging, but it doesn’t mean anything if he can’t follow it up.
Green Bay Packers: Brett Hundley, quarterback
Replacing Aaron Rodgers is impossible and nobody expects Hundley to do it. But he does have to at least manage the game. After coming in last week, Hundley was intercepted three times by the Minnesota Vikings. If he turns the ball over regularly, Green Bay will struggle to win another game this season. Hundley’s had a week to prepare for this game and, despite the pressure, needs to be a competent starting quarterback. Right now, that means managing the game.
New Orleans Saints: The secondary
As impossible as it seems, New Orleans’ pass defense has been good so far. The Saints rank 11th in pass defense DVOA, mostly thanks to the secondary. Rookie corner Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley have been absolutely wonderful. They both rank in the top-10 cornerbacks when it comes to PFF grading. But can they keep it up? Given the potency of New Orleans’ offense, this might be a playoff team if the defense can continue to play well. But given the recent history, we won’t believe it until we see it.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Martavis Bryant, wide receiver
Bryant reportedly requested a trade recently, so let’s take a look at his value. Right now, most of it is based around potential. We know that Bryant can be a perennial deep threat, but outside of a couple flashes, he hasn’t been one this season. Throw in off the field troubles and it may be tough to convince a team he’s worth it. So, it’s on Bryant to remind everyone that he is worth it. If he wants out of Pittsburgh, Bryant’s value needs to be based on what he is, not what he could be. Given how close the trade deadline is, that has to happen pretty soon.
Cincinnati Bengals: Jeremy Hill, running back
Rookie running back Joe Mixon has taken full hold of the job in Cincinnati. Even though Hill is the official starter, he had just four carries last game with seven being his season-high. Mixon’s season low is eight — and he’s hit double-digits in the last three games. In other words, this is going from a timeshare to Mixon being the workhorse. Hill is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry this season. If he wants to keep being a part of the offense, he needs to start playing like it.
San Francisco 49ers: Trent Brown, right tackle
Brown was called the best right tackle in football by Von Miller before the season started. Thus far, he’s backed up that praise as well as anyone could expect, being a consistent stud for the Niners. This week, however, brings a new challenge, as Brown will face Demarcus Lawrence for most of the game. Lawrence has at least one sack in every game and leads the league with 8.5 on the year. If Brown can put an end to the sack streak, Miller may be proven right.
Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant, wide receiver
Prior to the Cowboys’ bye week, Bryant had arguably his two best games of the year. Against the Rams and Packers, he went for 150 yards on 10 catches. However, something was still missing. Bryant’s catch rate on the year is still a terrible 43.8 percent. He still has yet to go over 100 yards in a game. Bryant’s matchup this week is favorable, as San Francisco’s secondary struggles to contain top receivers. If he can’t be his old self this week, he may never be that player again.
New York Giants: Justin Pugh, right tackle
Pugh slid to right tackle last week and it worked. The Giants had their best run blocking game of the season and, despite three sacks allowed, Eli Manning generally had time to throw. That’s encouraging, especially against the Denver Broncos. If Pugh can replicate it against the Seattle Seahawks, the Giants may have found a solution to their biggest problem.
Seattle Seahawks: The offensive line
The Seahawks just had two weeks to work on their O-line issues. It’s now or never — if Seattle’s line continues to derail their offense, the door will remain open for the Rams to win the NFC West. The Giants certainly pose a big test for this line, as facing Jason Pierre-Paul, Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon is never easy. But the Seahawks need to see instant improvement here. The bye week was their chance to get better. Let’s see what they did with it.
Denver Broncos: Trevor Siemian, quarterback
Despite solid numbers, Siemian didn’t look himself against the Giants last week. He looked uncomfortable in the pocket, missed throws consistently and threw two interceptions. It showed in the scoreline, as Denver put up just 10 points. Siemian can’t let this derail what had previously been an encouraging year. The Chargers are a beatable opponent for Denver, but not if Siemian plays badly again.
Los Angeles Chargers: Mike Williams, wide receiver
The seventh overall pick in the draft made his debut last Sunday and it was underwhelming to say the least. Williams played just 11 snaps and got targeted only once, though he did make a reception. With another week of practice under his belt, Williams needs to start looking like a top pick.
Atlanta Falcons: Steve Sarkisian, offensive coordinator
The Falcons’ offense hasn’t been bad by any means, but there’s been a noticeable downturn. Especially in the passing game. Atlanta ranks 12th in passing DVOA so far after leading the league last season. Much of that is on Sarkisian. His playcalling has been less than inspired, especially on early downs. This isn’t a tough fix, but it’s undoubtedly necessary. The Falcons rank 22nd in passing DVOA on first down, per Football Outsiders. If that doesn’t change, Atlanta will keep struggling.
New England Patriots: The secondary
Even in a win last week, New England’s secondary didn’t get better. Jets quarterback Josh McCown threw for 354 yards and there were constant coverage breakdowns. And that was against the Jets. Needless to say, the Falcons pose a much bigger challenge this week. The Patriots aren’t out of the woods — not by a longshot. If the secondary doesn’t play much better this week, New England is going to get curb-stomped in a nationally televised game.
Philadelphia Eagles: Patrick Robinson, cornerback
Robinson has been one of the league’s breakout players so far. The previously unknown corner has a 91.5 PFF grade through six weeks — more than double his 45.1 mark from last season. Of course, it’s one thing to play like this for six weeks and another to do it for the whole year. Robinson will see a tough matchup in Jamison Crowder on Monday. If he can sustain this level of play, however, Crowder will have a quiet night.
Washington Redskins: Stacy McGee, defensive lineman
With Jonathan Allen going on injured reserve, McGee is one of the players who will have to step up in replacing the rookie. Though he’s played just 131 snaps this year, McGee had an 81.8 PFF grade last season. We know he’s capable of taking on a larger role, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. Especially against a tough Philly offensive line on Monday night.