September football has been described as extended preseason. NFL teams are still getting their legs under them — especially with less practice time post-2011 CBA — and front offices are cycling through personnel. In other words, we don’t know what to think about anything.
This list is about the guys who we know the least about. Whether they started hot or cold, these players need to prove they’re for real.
New Orleans Saints: Andrus Peat, left tackle
With Terron Armstead, the Saints’ All-Pro left tackle, just now practicing again since tearing his labrum this offseason, the onus has been on Peat at the start of this season. He hasn’t lived up to it. Pro Football Focus gives Peat a 47.7 grade thus far, and anyone who’s watched the Saints can testify to its accuracy. Things won’t get much easier for him this week against a Dolphins defense that features strong individual edge rushers in William Hayes and Cameron Wake. Regardless, this is Peat’s sink-or-swim moment.
Miami Dolphins: Jarvis Landry, wide receiver
The traditional numbers haven’t been terrible for Landry through two games, but advanced stats peg him as one of the worst receivers in football thus far. He ranks 71st among receivers in efficiency, as measured by DYAR. Landry is averaging just 6.6 yards per reception, practically half of the 12.1 he had last season. With so much of his value coming in the short passing game, that number has to go up.
Buffalo Bills: Charles Clay, tight end
Backup tight end Nick O’Leary has just two receptions so far, but the snap count gap is starting to close between the two. Though Clay caught all six of his targets against Denver in Week 3, he failed to make much of an impact, going for just 39 yards in total. O’Leary went for 31 on his lone reception. If Clay can’t make more of an impact, the Bills may turn to O’Leary to get the job done sooner rather than later.
Atlanta Falcons: Robert Alford, cornerback
After a solid 2016, Alford has been disappointing this year. Through three games, he has a paltry 49.7 PFF grade. According to Football Outsiders’ charting, he’s given up a pedestrian 7.1 yards per pass. Desmond Trufant’s return from injury has taken some of the heat off Atlanta’s corners, but Alford has to improve if their defense is going to be above-average.
Cincinnati Bengals: Cedric Ogbuehi, left tackle
The Bengals took a big risk in moving Ogbuehi to left tackle on a full-time basis this year as a replacement for Andrew Whitworth. So far, it hasn’t paid off. He has an awful 34.9 PFF grade this year and the Bengals have been one of the worst teams in the league at running the ball to the left side. After an 0-3 start, improving offensive line play has to be a focus for Cincinnati.
Cleveland Browns: DeShone Kizer, quarterback
Kizer has had two poor games in a row, completing less than half of his passes and throwing just two touchdowns compared to six interceptions in Weeks 2 and 3. That’s not a huge deal — he’s a rookie quarterback on a bad team and growing pains are expected. The question now becomes whether he can bounce back. Quarterbacks need to have a short memory in the NFL. This week will tell us whether Kizer’s capable of it.
Los Angeles Rams: John Sullivan, center
With the Dallas Cowboys’ pass rush coming off a ferocious performance against Arizona on Monday night, it should provide a real test for the Rams. Especially on the interior. Sullivan, who has struggled lately, will have to deal with the red-hot DeMarcus Lawrence on plays when he moves inside and Maliek Collins throughout the contest. Given quarterback Jared Goff’s struggles against pressure, Sullivan’s play could well decide the game.
Dallas Cowboys: Chaz Green, left guard
It was easy to brush off two members of the Cowboys’ offensive line departing during the offseason when the three that remained were All-Pros. Not anymore. Ezekiel Elliott is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, largely because there just aren’t many holes for him to run through. All five starters share some level of blame, but Green (who replaced Ronald Leary) simply hasn’t played well. He has a 29.3 run blocking grade from Pro Football Focus so far. That has to go up for the Cowboys to find an offensive grove.
Detroit Lions: Tahir Whitehead, linebacker
Few players have had more surprising starts than Whitehead, whose PFF grade ballooned from 36.7 in 2016 to 83.3 through three games this year. Detroit’s defense as a whole has looked like an entirely different unit, partly as a result of his improvement. Now the question becomes whether Whitehead can keep it up.
Minnesota Vikings: Xavier Rhodes, cornerback
Rhodes got his money during the offseason. Time to earn it. A 48.7 PFF grade through three weeks simply isn’t good enough. A $70 million contract means you are expected to be an unquestioned star. Now would be a good time for Rhodes to start.
Carolina Panthers: Mike Shula, offensive coordinator
When Carolina drafted Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel during the offseason, it was supposed to open the offense up to more short passes. Instead, the Panthers ran what was essentially a college football offense for the entire first half last week. It was option after option, and even against a defense as bad as the Saints’ it didn’t work. Shula has to find a way to get the best out of this offense, or there was no point in drafting those guys to begin with.
New England Patriots: Stephon Gilmore, cornerback
Through this early part of the season, the Patriots have featured the worst defense in football, by far. That’s according to efficiency, as measured by DVOA, in addition to traditional metrics like points and yardage. We knew the front seven wasn’t overwhelming, especially after Dont’a Hightower went down, but the secondary has to be better. Gilmore was a marquee offseason acquisition, but he’s given up 8.0 yards per pass, according to Football Outsiders. If New England is going to start dominating teams, that has to get better.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Cam Robinson, left tackle
Jacksonville snagged Robinson near the top of the second round and he simply hasn’t lived up to expectations. The rookie has a 41.4 PFF grade so far. He’s been an active liability in both run blocking and pass protection. This week against the Jets — a defense which ranks 29th in pressure rate, per Football Outsiders — is a good chance for Robinson to improve. If he doesn’t, we could be looking at longer-term issues.
New York Jets: Morris Claiborne, cornerback
One of the few players expected to be reliable for the Jets this year, Claiborne has been anything but. He has a 49.3 PFF grade through three games, with most of the struggles coming in coverage. Jacksonville’s passing game is far from fearsome. If Claiborne is going to bounce back, this is the time to do it.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback
Roethlisberger’s home/road splits were an area of concern last season and don’t seem to be going away. In two road games so far this year, Roethlisberger has an 88.6 passer rating with 6.84 adjusted yards per attempt. Baltimore’s defense will doubtless test the 35-year old signal caller this week. If the Steelers’ offense fails to look like the explosive unit it’s been in the past, it could be time to recalibrate expectations.
Baltimore Ravens: Joe Flacco, quarterback
Flacco didn’t do much for the first two weeks of the year. Then, last week, he played the worst game of his career. The Ravens were blown out 44-7, and Flacco had just 28 yards passing on eight completions with two interceptions. That comes out to a comically bad passer rating of 12.0. With Baltimore facing a divisional rival, Flacco has to prove that last week wasn’t the beginning of the end for him.
Tennessee Titans: Jack Conklin, right tackle
When Conklin was a rookie in 2016, Titans head coach Mike Mularkey tailored protection schemes to help him out with chip blockers or double-teams as needed. It worked wonders, as Conklin was elected to the All-Pro team. However, Mularkey has been content to leave Conklin on an island this year and the effects have been profound. He has a 53.3 PFF grade through three weeks. It’s time for him to start showing he can play on his own.
Houston Texans: D’Onta Foreman, running back
Make no mistake, Lamar Miller is not doing much to keep the starting job. At 3.7 yards per carry so far, Miller may, in fact, be handing the reins to Foreman on a silver platter. And the rookie is handing them right back. A strong performance this week could make Foreman the starter. However, he hasn’t done much to inspire confidence yet. He has to seize the job by the horns.
New York Giants: Brandon Marshall, wide receiver
Marshall finally started to look himself last week against the Eagles, going for 66 yards on eight receptions. The yardage wasn’t much, but it was at least a start. Now it’s time to follow up on that with another good performance. The Buccaneers have a vulnerable secondary. Marshall should be able to take advantage.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brent Grimes, cornerback
Grimes has seen just five targets in two games, per Football Outsiders. However, his numbers are godawful. Grimes has a 0 percent success rate, per FO, and a 41.7 PFF grade. That’s probably just be small sample-size theater, but Grimes has to prove it.
San Francisco 49ers: Solomon Thomas, defensive end
The second overall pick in the draft hasn’t made much of an impact early in the year. Thomas has yet to record a sack and, per NFL GSIS, has just one quarterback hit. He has a terrible 47.7 PFF grade to boot. Given how Arizona’s offensive line struggled last week, this is a team against which Thomas can improve.
Arizona Cardinals: Justin Bethel, cornerback
Bethel won the starting job opposite Patrick Peterson during training camp. Through three games, he’s been a disaster. Bethel has a 47 percent success rate, per Football Outsiders, along with a 45.2 PFF grade. If he can’t improve, Bethel may lose that starting job as quickly as he won it.
Philadelphia Eagles: LeGarrette Blount, running back
To call Blount’s performances this year inconsistent would be an understatement. He went from a bad game in Week 1 to having zero carries in Week 2 to averaging over five yards per carry in Week 3. Whichever one of these ends up being indicative of Blount’s season as a whole will have a huge impact on the Eagles’ season. Another strong performance this week will raise Philadelphia’s ceiling immensely.
Los Angeles Chargers: Philip Rivers, quarterback
Rivers is 35 years old and he looks like it. He has been flat-out bad so far this year. After leading the league in interceptions in 2016, Rivers has thrown four picks in three games this year. He’s averaging just 5.47 adjusted net yards per attempt, and the Chargers’ offense has lagged all year. Unless Rivers starts to look like himself, Los Angeles will have to start thinking about the future.
Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, wide receiver
Cooper has always had drop issues, but his 43 percent this year is simply unacceptable. He ranks second-to-last among qualified receivers in efficiency, as measured by DYAR, and has just 101 yards in three games. The Raiders’ offense won’t recover from scoring just 10 points against the Redskins last week unless Cooper improves.
Denver Broncos: Derek Wolfe, defensive tackle
Wolfe has been one of the most dominant defensive tackles in football over the past two years. Through three games this season, however, he has just a 59.6 PFF grade, four tackles and zero sacks. For Denver’s defense to start dominating again, Wolfe has to start wreaking havoc on the interior.
Indianapolis Colts: Vontae Davis, cornerback
Davis is set to return this week from a groin injury which has kept him out for all of Indy’s first three games. If the Colts have any chance of pulling a major upset in Seattle, Davis has to be at his absolute best. The Seahawks’ offense has struggled this far. Davis shutting down Doug Baldwin or another receiver could preempt complete stagnation.
Seattle Seahawks: Darrell Bevell, offensive coordinator
It’s clear the Seahawks’ offensive line isn’t getting any better. That means the onus is on Bevell to scheme Seattle out of trouble. He needs to find ways to work around the offensive line. It’s a hard, but doable task. Seattle managed one of the league’s better offenses last season despite a similarly bad line. They’ll have to do it again, and that starts with Bevell.
Washington Redskins: Terrelle Pryor, wide receiver
Pryor simply hasn’t had an impact on the Redskins so far this year. He has just 116 yards in total through three games, and Kirk Cousins has looked his way less than 20 times. Pryor was supposed to be the No. 1 receiver in this offense and it sure doesn’t look that way right now. Kansas City’s secondary, minus Marcus Peters, is vulnerable at best. With that in mind, Pryor needs to get into gear.
Kansas City Chiefs: Phillip Gaines, cornerback
Cornerback depth has been one of the only areas in which the Chiefs have clearly struggled this year. Gaines is a big part of that. He has just a 39 percent success rate, per Football Outsiders, and is giving up 9.8 yards per pass. That’s in addition to a 34.8 PFF grade. Marcus Peters can’t play all three cornerback spots. Unless Gaines picks up the slack, the Chiefs will learn that the hard way.