With every NFL team having at least eight games in the books, NFL Media researcher Cole Jacobson identifies standouts thus far from the 2020 season. Using a combination of conventional stats and advanced analytics available to the NFL Research team, here are some of the top players, games and moments of the season’s first half:
Most devastating pitch-and-catch combo: Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan to Julio Jones
Even in Season 10 of its existence, the Matt Ryan-Julio Jones connection remains spectacular. According to Next Gen Stats, when Ryan’s targeting Jones this season, the veteran quarterback is 43 of 55 for 638 yards, with three touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 133.2 passer rating, averaging a gaudy 11.6 yards per attempt. Among all pairs with 35-plus targets, the duo ranks second in both passer rating (trailing only Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams) and yards per attempt (trailing only Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson). Ryan and Jones also lead all duos in Next Gen Stats’ expected points added (EPA) metric, with plus-48.2 on the season — and that’s despite Jones missing two games.
Runner-up: Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams
Best comeback: Chicago Bears over Atlanta Falcons, Week 3
The 2020 campaign has been defined by comebacks. This is the second season in NFL history (joining 2015) in which at least one team has overcome a deficit of 13-plus points to win in each of the first nine weeks. But even with that said, this comeback from Week 3 stands as the most impressive so far. Chicago trailed 26-10 midway through the fourth quarter before scoring 20 unanswered points to win. Via Next Gen Stats, the minimum win probability for the Bears was 1 percent, still the lowest of any team that has gone on to win this season. Some magic from Nick Foles led the Bears there; taking over for Mitch Trubisky, Foles became the first player since at least 1991 to throw three-plus touchdown passes in the final eight minutes of a game that he did not start. The 2020 Bears became the first team ever with two separate fourth-quarter comebacks of 16-plus points.
Runner-up: Dallas Cowboys over Atlanta Falcons, Week 2
Best unit: Minnesota Vikings’ running backs and fullbacks
Minnesota’s RB/FBs have a collective grade on Pro Football Focus of 90.1 this season, the highest of any non-QB positional unit on any NFL team — and the driver of this high mark is RB Dalvin Cook. Despite missing one game, Cook comfortably leads the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns and 13 scrimmage touchdowns. Also holding an average of 5.96 yards per carry, he’s joined Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Terrell Davis as the only players since at least 1948 with 10-plus rushing TDs and 5.7-plus yards per carry through their first seven games of a season. Per Next Gen Stats, Cook’s 1.69 rushing yards over expected (RYOE) per carry leads all 35 RBs who have logged 60-plus carries. But Cook isn’t even all the Vikings have going for them; thanks to Alexander Mattison, Minnesota is one of two teams (joining the Browns, who have Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb) with two RBs boasting 300-plus rushing yards and 4.5-plus yards per carry each.
Runner-up: Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive line
Best quarterback: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
As if choosing between Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers wasn’t tough enough in our first-quarter awards, Patrick Mahomes surged into the conversation to make this an even more daunting three-horse race. Even so, Rodgers’ recent play gives him a slight edge through the midway point. Rodgers’ 117.5 passer rating leads the NFL; he also joined Tom Brady as the only players with 24-plus pass TDs and two or fewer INTs through the first eight games of a season. (Brady accomplished this feat during his legendary 16-0 2007 campaign.) Rodgers’ overall PFF grade (93.8) just barely edges Wilson’s (93.1) for the best among QBs in 2020 (Mahomes is at 89.7). According to PFF, Rodgers has completed 23 big-time throws, which is second to Wilson’s 27 — but perhaps the biggest difference is that Rodgers has only made four turnover-worthy plays, per PFF, to Wilson’s eight.
Runners-up: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks; Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
Best rookie: Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
There’s seemingly no end to the accomplishments Justin Herbert has racked up seven games into his NFL career. He’s the only rookie since at least 1950 to have a passer rating of 85-plus in each of his first seven career starts. He’s one of two players since at least 1970 to average 300-plus passing yards per game with a 100-plus passer rating across their first seven games, joining Patrick Mahomes. He’s on pace to be the only rookie in NFL history to average 300-plus passing yards per game. And he aces the analytics tests, as well. Per Next Gen Stats, Herbert’s completion percentage above expected of +4.4 percent ranks third among all qualified QBs (another rookie happens to sit in second place: Joe Burrow). Herbert has continued to excel on deep passes (20-plus air yards), per Next Gen Stats, with a 44.1 percent completion rate on such plays (to Burrow’s 18.9%).
Runners-up: Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals; Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Most-clutch play: Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford’s touchdown pass to T.J. Hockenson at Atlanta Falcons, Week 7
With the Lions trailing 22-16 at the Falcons’ 11-yard line, Matthew Stafford threw a TD to T.J. Hockenson on the final snap of the game to win it for the Lions. (Well, once the ensuing extra point went through.) Next Gen Stats gave the Lions a win probability of 2 percent entering the snap, and the game was over once the PAT was kicked, making the jump in win probability 98 percentage points — that’s the highest of any play in the 2020 season so far. Stafford’s pass wrapped up a 75-yard drive over the game’s final 1:04, one that began after Todd Gurley’s infamous accidental TD. Stafford has engineered 36 game-winning drives since being drafted in 2009, second in the NFL over that span (behind Drew Brees’ 39).
Runner-up: Denver Broncos QB Drew Lock’s touchdown pass to KJ Hamler vs. Los Angeles Chargers, Week 8
Best record-breaking performance: Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers
All the Steelers have done since drafting Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 is win. Thanks to Pittsburgh’s 8-0 start this season, the team has clinched its 17th consecutive season with a record of .500 or better, meaning Pittsburgh has not had a losing season since 2003 — when Big Ben was still in college. Roethlisberger now owns the all-time NFL record, among players at any position, for most career seasons played without ever having been on a sub-.500 team. (For those curious: Tom Brady was on the 2000 Patriots, who went 5-11.) Roethlisberger broke the record previously held by Pro Bowl center Frank Winters, who played 16 seasons, from 1987 to 2002, across four different teams, never having a losing record with any of them.
Runner-up: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (all-time passing touchdowns)
Best cover man: Kendall Fuller, CB, Washington Football Team
Fresh off a Super Bowl run with the Chiefs in 2019, Kendall Fuller signed with Washington (the team that drafted him in 2016), where he’s made an immediate impact, boosting a pass defense that ranked 18th last season to first in the NFL. Fuller is one of four players with four-plus interceptions in 2020, and according to PFF, he’s the only one of them who has no passing touchdowns allowed when targeted. Opponents only have an 18.9 passer rating when targeting Fuller, lowest among 232 defenders who have been targeted 15-plus times. His 45.5 completion percentage allowed ranks second among 116 CBs with 15-plus targets through Week 9, behind Colts CB Xavier Rhodes in that span.
Runners-up: Jessie Bates III, S, Cincinnati Bengals; Bashaud Breeland, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
Best call by a coach: Andy Reid’s fourth-down play-call in overtime at the Los Angeles Chargers, Week 2
Reid’s Chiefs had the ball on the Chargers’ 46-yard line on fourth-and-1 with 4:07 remaining in overtime. He could’ve punted or sent Harrison Butker out for what would have been a career-long 63-yard field-goal try. Instead, Reid chose to keep the offense on the field, a decision that added 20.3 percentage points to KC’s win probability, per EdjSports — that’s the biggest addition of any coaching call this season. The gamble paid off, as Darwin Thompson converted with a 2-yard gain. And Butker still got to have his shot at a career-long kick: It came from 58 yards out, later on that drive, to win the game for the Chiefs.
Runner-up: Kliff Kingsbury’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter of Arizona’s Week 9 loss to Miami Dolphins (added 10.4 percentage points to the Cards’ win probability)
Iron Man award: Justin Simmons, S, Denver Broncos
Justin Simmons has continued to be a mainstay on the field for the Broncos, and he’s a repeat “Iron Man” award winner (from the first-quarter Research Awards) as a result. Simmons is one of 11 players (and the only Bronco) to play every one of his team’s defensive snaps this season (541 for Denver). And as was the case after the first quarter of the season, Simmons’ impact all over the field separates him from the rest. According to Next Gen Stats, Simmons’ stop distance (the average distance traveled before a player makes a tackle) is 20.31 yards, second among all players with 40-plus tackles (behind only Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs).
Runners-up: Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks; Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles
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