Heading into the season, all sixteen AFC teams had concrete expectations. Some were higher than others, but every team had a goal. Moreover, this extends to the player level, and each player sets goals for themselves. Some have gone above and beyond, blasting past even the loftiest of estimations.
Let’s look at six colossal surprises in the AFC. These players were anticipated to perform at a low level entering the 2021 season, and have been thoroughly surprising. All six of these players have experienced Pro Bowl-caliber campaigns in 2021 despite having average expectations entering the season.
The players are listed in alphabetical order by last name.
No.1: Marquise Brown, Wide Receiver, Baltimore Ravens
As of writing, Marquise Brown is tied for the NFL lead with four deep receiving touchdowns. He is top 10 in receiving yards per game, and his six touchdowns rank among the league leaders. Few in 2021 have been as productive as Brown has. Even his issues of the past, such as drops, have fallen to the wayside. He has just two drops across his first seven games. In six of seven showdowns, he has not registered a drop. Also, Brown has a PFF receiving grade above 80, and he should be a productive asset to one of the NFL‘s most improved passing offenses for the rest of the season.
No.2: Maxx Crosby, EDGE, Las Vegas Raiders
Despite only having played seven games so far, Maxx Crosby leads the NFL with 47 pressures. After two seasons of being more of a sack artist than a consistent threat to pressure the quarterback, Crosby is on pace to have one of the most productive seasons by a pass rusher in the last 15 seasons. With his 47 pressures through seven games, the third-year edge rusher is on pace for more than 100 pressures. Only a handful of players have reached that mark in the PFF era, and many of those required the addition of playoff output to get to 100. All in all, only Myles Garrett has been in the same ballpark as Crosby from an efficiency standpoint.
No.3: Trey Hendrickson, EDGE, Cincinnati Bengals
The second pass rusher to make this list, Trey Hendrickson is one of five players to have 40 pressures through Week Eight. After an incredibly volatile season with the Saints last season, Hendrickson has come to Cincinnati and thrived. He has replicated every ounce of Carl Lawson’s productivity from last season and added upon it. Hendrickson is on pace to finish in the top 10 in pressures and close to the league’s leaders in sacks.
No.4: Harold Landry, EDGE, Tennessee Titans
This selection acts as a stand-in for the entire Titans defense. Heading into the 2021 season, many projected that the Titans would continue to slip down the defensive rankings. However, Harold Landry and others have been bright spots on a solid defense. Landry is among the NFL leaders in pressures, and is one of just a handful of players to have at least 40 entering Week Nine action. While he does not have the highest pass-rush grade, the Boston College alum is consistently pressuring the quarterback into poor decisions. Regardless of how these pressures occur, Landry is forcing the opposition into a bad situation more often than almost any other player in the NFL.
No.5: Michael Pittman, Indianapolis Colts
Michael Pittman has the benefit of an extra game over most of the rest of his competition, but this does not detract from the fact that he has been incredibly productive this year. Pittman ranks in the top 10 in catches, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns so far. He has been the only reliable option in the Indianapolis passing attack this season. In addition, he has been exceptional at winning contested catches, and he has even drawn several long defensive pass interferences. It may be an inefficient way to move the offense, but Pittman has made a case to win several Oscars with his ability to come back to the football through a defensive player and draw the pass interference. Without their leading pass-catcher, the Colts would likely have one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL.
No.6: Logan Wilson, Cincinnati Bengals
We finish the list with another Bengal. Logan Wilson has played his way into potential All-Pro consideration with his ability to cover in space and his ability to play against the run. He has four interceptions, leading all linebackers, and his tally would rank well even among defensive backs. Wilson was a mid-round pick by the Bengals last season, but he is flourishing into a star linebacker in 2021. With the blossoming of Hendrickson into a star pass rusher, Wilson has matched his growth. Hendrickson and Wilson have thus formed a devastating duo in the middle of the Cincinnati defense.
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