Difference-makers: Ten surprising people who've had early impact
Before MCL injury, Mike Bell gave the Saints offense some balance
The light has come on for Raiders safety Michael Huff in his fourth season
Rex Ryan has talked a good game and backed it up with the Jets
Nothing against Mark Sanchez, because New York's rookie quarterback has been everything the Jets hoped for and more, but when you go fifth overall in the draft, the bar of expectation is set ridiculously high. The more intriguing story through the first two weeks of the NFL's 2009 season is how much early impact teams are getting from the most unlikely of sources.
Chicago fifth-round pick Johnny Knox, out of Division II Abilene Christian, emerging as Jay Cutler's go-to receiver. Mike Bell enjoying a career renaissance as the Saints leading rusher. Antwan Odom turning into a sack monster for Cincinnati. And Fred Jackson about to Wally Pipp Marshawn Lynch in Buffalo's backfield. That's what we're talking about. Big games from not-so-well-known names.
Casting our gaze league-wide, and taking the measure of rookies, veterans and coaches alike, here are 10 surprising impact performers who have quickly emerged as difference-makers this season:
1. Chicago receiver Johnny Knox
At Abilene Christian, the largest crowd Knox played in front of was 18,000 or so. But in his first two regular season games, he has handled the pressure of a Sunday night game at Lambeau Field and a home-opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. And Knox isn't just surviving, he's prospering. His 68-yard catch of a Cutler bomb at Green Bay was eye-opening, but his game-tying 7-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter of the Bears' 17-14 upset of the Steelers on Sunday was a revelation.
On a Bears offense starved for playmakers, Knox is quickly demanding attention from both Cutler and opposing defenses. He had a team-best six catches for 70 yards and that touchdown against Pittsburgh, and his eight receptions this season have produced a team-high 152 yards (19.0 average). He's proving his game includes more than just speed -- his 4.26 time in the 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine was this year's best -- and if he and Cutler can produce even two-thirds of the 91 completions that Cutler and rookie receiver Eddie Royal accounted for last year in Denver, it'll be huge for Chicago.
2. New Orleans running back Mike Bell
If I told you in July that the Saints leading rusher after two games would be a guy with a four-letter last name starting with B, you would have thought Reggie Bush finally turned the corner. But it's Bell who's consistently making the corner, and heading up field. The onetime Broncos rookie star has 229 yards rushing so far, ranking fourth in the league behind the more celebrated Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson and Frank Gore.
Bell suffered a sprained MCL at Philly last Sunday, and that may keep him out at least this week at Buffalo. Ironically, it was a preseason MCL sprain by Pierre Thomas that gave Bell his opportunity in New Orleans. Bell is averaging a heady 5.1 yards on 45 carries, with his highlight being a 143-yard rushing day against the Lions in Week 1. Not bad for a guy who gained only 45 yards on 19 carries in the past two NFL seasons combined.
3. Cincinnati defensive end Antwan Odom
Poor, Aaron Rodgers. The Packers quarterback developed a case of Odom-phobia last Sunday at Lambeau, after being sacked five times and hit a total of seven times by Odom in the Bengals' 31-24 stunning win over Green Bay. That gave Odom an NFL-leading seven sacks in two games, which puts him on a pace that I'm willing to declare right now he'll never maintain for the whole season (56 sacks would just edge the 2001 league record of 22½ by Michael Strahan).
We really couldn't have seen this coming because in his previous five NFL seasons, Odom amassed all of 15½ sacks, with his eight in 2007 for Tennessee earning him a five-year, $24.5 million free-agent contract from the Bengals last year. Odom had just three sacks in 12 games for Cincinnati last season, starting only eight games due to injury issues. Consider this: Green Bay has been playing pro football for awhile now, and before Odom's tour de force, the Packers had never given up as many as five sacks to any individual in any game.
4. Oakland safety Michael Huff
Why is it that the light goes on for some players far past the point you would reasonably expect? Huff was drafted seventh overall out of Texas in 2006, but he was bust material in his first three NFL seasons, recording just one interception and one fumble recovery in his 48 career games. He even lost his starting job in midseason last year, being benched by Raiders coach Tom Cable for lack of performance.
This year? Completely different story, and a different player so far. Through two games, Huff has been a play-making machine for Oakland, picking off an NFL-leading three passes and recovering a fumble. That's more production in eight quarters than he managed in the previous 192 quarters. His fourth-quarter interception of Matt Cassel in Kansas City on Sunday was critical to Oakland's first win of the season, and his fourth-down pass defensed on the Chiefs final drive sealed the 13-10 victory.
5. Buffalo running back Fred Jackson
Now in his third NFL season, the Bills running back was hardly an unknown entering 2009, given he rushed for 571 yards and three touchdowns last season as Buffalo's No. 2 back behind starter Marshawn Lynch. But while everyone seemed to be worried about what the Bills would do during Lynch's three-game, season-opening league suspension, Buffalo felt good enough about Jackson to cut veteran Dominic Rhodes in the preseason and hand Jackson his biggest opportunity yet. He took it and ran.
In the opener at New England, Jackson gained 53 yards on 15 carries and added 83 more and a touchdown on just five receptions. In Sunday's home opener against Tampa Bay, he shredded the once-proud Bucs defense for 163 yards rushing on 28 attempts and caught six more passes for 25 yards. That was not only his career-best rushing yardage, it was more than Lynch has ever run for in a game as the Bills' lead running back the past two years. When you factor in the 136-yard showing Jackson had against the Patriots in Week 17 last season, he has rushed for 352 yards in his past three games, or 117.3 per week. Can you say running back controversy?
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