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Every year, a new wave of playmakers shows us they’re primed to earn their first Pro Bowl invite or All-Pro distinction. Sports media outlets may have overlooked them on offseason lists that call attention to the top talent in the league.
Through three weeks, eight players have emerged as stars in the making. Most of these budding talents rank among the best in major statistical categories and carry a huge workload for their respective squads.
Without a mention on NFL.com’s top-100 list, a Pro Bowl or All-Pro season, the players below let their early 2018 performances speak volumes and deserve recognition as underrated stars.
All the selections also have a previous body of work, showing some level of consistency or improvement in their production over time. Based on that criterion, rookies don’t qualify.
Outside of the established names, who’s earned a deeper respect for their contributions to the game?
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Among second-year quarterbacks picked in the first round of the 2017 draft, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes played the least amount of games as a rookie. He appeared in one contest—the regular-season finale with his team locked into a playoff spot.
Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and Houston Texans signal-caller Deshaun Watson came into the season with more experience and buzz, but they’re clearly behind Mahomes through three weeks.
Mahomes doesn’t just lead the league in touchdown passes (13) without an interception; he set an NFL record at his pace. The 23-year-old already looks like the best quarterback in his draft class.
In the early going, it seems the Chiefs actually upgraded their offense after trading three-time Pro Bowler Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins. Kansas City ranks No. 1 in points scored, and the oddsmakers took note.
OddsShark lists the Chiefs with the third-best odds to win the Super Bowl at +900. Clearly, Mahomes moves the ball and the Las Vegas needle.
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Through Week 2, Mixon logged 38 carries compared to seven for backup Giovani Bernard. Clearly, the Bengals see the second-year running back as a focal point of the offense.
As a rookie, the Oklahoma product recorded 913 yards from scrimmage in 14 games, which included seven starts. He’s a capable dual-threat backfield option. Teammate A.J. Green said Mixon deserves to be mentioned with two prominent running backs, per Geoff Hobson of the team’s website: “You mention him with Le’Veon [Bell] or [Todd] Gurley. He’s there with those guys.”
Mixon ran for 95 and 84 yards in the first two contests. As a team, the Bengals only mustered 66 yards on the ground in Week 3 without him. Despite his one-game absence, he ranks second on the team in yards from scrimmage with 236.
According to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora, Mixon could suit up as early as Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. The update suggests he’s close to a return in what should become a breakout sophomore season.
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There’s no doubt wideout Antonio Brown is the shining star among the Steelers wide receivers, but JuJu Smith-Schuster has quickly made a name for himself at the position.
Smith-Schuster has logged 116-plus yards in each of the last three contests, and his 356 receiving yards rank fifth among all pass-catchers through three weeks.
In 2017, Smith-Schuster led all rookie receivers in yards with 917 to go along with seven touchdowns and a 73.4 percent catch rate. He also flashed some versatility on special teams. The USC product returned nine kicks for 240 yards and a touchdown.
Speaking of Smith-Schuster’s flexible usage, his tremendous blocking effort often goes overlooked. Steelers Depot writer Matthew Marczi broke down that aspect of the 21-year-old’s game last year.
Critics may downgrade Smith-Schuster’s production because he catches passes from a six-time Pro Bowl quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion in Ben Roethlisberger. However, the second-year wide receiver isn’t just playing well; he’s a dominant target in the Steelers aerial attack who’s outproduced a vast majority of the league thus far.
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The New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots passed wide receiver Brandin Cooks around like a hot potato, but the Los Angeles Rams committed to him with a five-year, $81 million deal in the offseason.
Cooks hasn’t reached paydirt yet, but he currently ranks second among pass-catchers in receiving yards with 452. The 25-year-old is on pace for a single-season personal best in the category.
Before crediting Rams head coach Sean McVay’s system for Cooks’ production, remember he produced at a high level with the Saints and Patriots as well. The fifth-year wideout has logged three consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns leading into the 2018 term.
Cooks provides a Rams passing attack that ranked 10th last year with a speedy deep-threat option. He replaced Sammy Watkins, who logged 593 yards and eight touchdowns with the team in 2017.
Cooks may not match Watkins’ eight scores as a receiver, but he’s in play for another season over 1,000 yards and his first Pro Bowl invite.
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The Cleveland Browns didn’t need to draft Bradley Chubb at No. 4 overall to bolster their pass rush. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi ranks second on the team in sacks with three behind Myles Garrett, who has four.
Last year, Ogunjobi flashed as a stout run-defender, which helped the Browns finish seventh against the ground attack. Now, with Ogunjobi’s ability to pressure the pocket, play-caller Gregg Williams has a complete interior talent on the front line primed for a career year.
Ogunjobi isn’t a stranger to flying under the radar. He committed to Charlotte’s inaugural recruiting class and became the first NFL draft pick from the school. It’s fair to label him a trailblazer for a new program, paving the way for 49ers to follow his path.
Even though Ogunjobi didn’t come into the league with much buzz from a well-known program, he’s moving toward the spotlight for a team that needs rising stars to elevate the franchise out of futility.
The Browns field one of the top pass-rushing defenses partially because of Ogunjobi’s development in that area.
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The Minnesota Vikings saw something special in defensive end Danielle Hunter. The front office decided to extend his contract with a five-year, $72 million deal over the offseason. The 2015 third-rounder has recorded a sack in each game this season.
Hunter’s production doesn’t come as a surprise, though. In 2016, he had a 12.5-sack campaign, leading the team in the category while playing just 58 percent of the defensive snaps. As a starter in the following term, he dropped to seven sacks but steadily improved his ability to defend the run.
With fellow defensive end Everson Griffen undergoing an evaluation for a mental health issue, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, Hunter will serve as the Vikings’ premier pass-rusher. He’s logged a sack in each game and leads the team in the category this season.
In a vacuum, one sack per contest seems insignificant, but Hunter’s had several pass-altering quarterback hurries and has shown solid run defense on one side of the perimeter. In Week 1 alone, he accounted for eight pressures, per Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Andrew Krammer. The 23-year-old looks like a budding star on the Vikings defensive line.
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It’s a rarity for a 31-year-old to fall under the category of underrated star, but Carolina Panthers defensive end Mario Addison deserves acknowledgment as one of the best-kept secrets in the league.
Since the start of the 2016 season, Addison ranks seventh in sacks with 23. He broke out with 11 last year as a full-time starter for the first time in his career.
The eighth-year pro leads the Panthers with 2.5 sacks. Similar to Danielle Hunter, Addison has made strides as a run-stopper in the trenches. This part of the defensive end’s skill set isn’t statistically appreciated as much as pass-rushing, but his well-rounded development will bolster the front line.
Once upon a time, Julius Peppers took the field as the preeminent pass-rusher on the Panthers defensive line. Now, we’re seeing a changing of the guard with the 38-year-old closer to retirement in a reserve role, logging 37.5 percent of the defensive snaps. Addison has stepped into the forefront over the last two seasons.
At 31 years old, Addison isn’t a fresh face with a decade ahead of him, but he’s a late bloomer making the most out of playing at his peak.
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Oftentimes, the best cornerbacks in the league are considered ball hawks or cover men who know how to position themselves to break up a high volume of the targets thrown in their direction. Xavien Howard possesses both qualities.
In 2017, Howard broke up 13 passes and snagged four interceptions, leading the Miami Dolphins in both categories. Through three weeks, he’s continued to showcase his coverage skills with three picks and four passes defensed.
The 25-year-old is one of three defensive backs with three interceptions thus far. According to Football Outsiders, the Dolphins have allowed an average of 57 receiving yards per game to No. 1 wideouts. It speaks to Howard’s ability to limit the opposing quarterback’s best receiving option when taking on a tough assignment.
Last week, Oakland Raiders wideout Amari Cooper stopped on a deep route in the first quarter; his miscue allowed Howard to pick off an easy pass. On the second takeaway, he secured an interception in a jump-ball scenario with wide receiver Martavis Bryant, showing off his ball-tracking skill in crunch time.
The Dolphins have a playmaker on the perimeter who’s going to challenge the league’s best pass-catchers every week.