Every season brings a collection of breakout NFL players, but entering Week 9 of the 2015 campaign, five stand out above the rest.
The list includes a commonly recognized name who hadn’t reached his potential, a veteran who seemed to have reached the end of his career and a trio of young stars placing themselves into the national conversation.
Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Until Dalton finally wins in the playoffs, the critics won’t go away. But if there’s ever a season for the TCU product to shake that four-game losing streak, it’s 2015. The Bengals are better than ever, and Dalton is, too.
The Red Rifle has guided Cincinnati to an 8-0 record, completing a career-best 67.4 percent of his passes for 2,226 yards, 18 touchdowns and just four interceptions while rushing for a pair of scores. NFL followers keeps waiting for “Bad Andy” to appear, but a poor performance would be more of an outlier than a trend this year.
Chris Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
A wildly unsuccessful stint with the New York Jets seemed to signal the end of his career as a No. 1 back. Then during the offseason, a drive-by shooting lodged a bullet in Johnson’s shoulder. He rehabbed the injury and eventually signed with the Cardinals, but that was merely for depth purposes, right?
Wrong. Andre Ellington exited the lineup because of a knee injury, and Johnson has made himself more than a temporary replacement. The 30-year-old’s 141 carries and 676 yards rank No. 2 in the league. Johnson’s rise from a hospital bed to the top of the NFL is an amazing story, and hopefully it continues.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Kyle Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme has paid major dividends for the Atlanta backfield, which was the No. 24 rush offense last season but has soared to second-best in 2015. Although Freeman didn’t open the year as the starter because of a preseason injury, he hasn’t let go of the job.
Freeman has registered 152 carries, 709 yards and nine touchdowns—each of which is an NFL-high stat, adding 40 receptions for 353 yards and another score. The second-year runner has no fewer than 131 total yards in each of his six games as the lead back. That’s simply stunning.
DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans
Keenan Allen could’ve appeared on the list, but the San Diego Chargers receiver is out for the season due to a lacerated kidney. Although Cleveland Browns tight end Gary Barnidge is another good candidate, he’s not carrying the offense like DeAndre Hopkins is for the Houston Texans.
The third-year wideout has racked up a league-high 113 targets, which is an astounding number when considering only six players have at least 80. Hopkins has 66 receptions—54 of which have resulted in a first down—870 yards and six touchdowns. He’s on pace for a top-10 receiving season in NFL history.
Josh Norman, CB, Carolina Panthers
Seemingly out of nowhere, the 27-year-old has become the next lockdown cornerback. Norman only played 21 games during the last two seasons, managing 11 pass defenses and two interceptions. But it wasn’t injuries that kept the Coastal Carolina product out of the lineup; instead, he was on the inactive list.
Through seven appearances this season, however, Norman has become a player the opponent’s game plan must address. He’s tallied 12 pass defenses, four picks as well as a forced fumble and recovery. Norman will test Dez Bryant, Julio Jones and Mike Evans down the stretch. If you don’t believe in Norman, he has plenty of chances to prove it.