Every team is at least a quarter of the way through their season, and the NFL has delivered as many surprises on the stat sheet as there have been in the standings. Few expected that a 33-year-old special teams ace would have more sacks than the reigning Super Bowl MVP, or that one of the biggest free agency signings of the spring would be on the wrong side of the rule book so often, or that Atlanta would be setting the pace for the rest of the league in any metric. It’s a long way to Week 17, but as the sample size grows, the pressure increases on the names atop the league’s statistical leaderboards, for better or worse.
Who will end 2016 atop the league in the notable stat categories they dominate so far? SI’s writers and editors make the case for these five leaders through Week 5.
Falcons offense (Through Week 5: 35 points per game)
Chris Burke: The Falcons are going to lead the league in scoring. They ranked 21st in that category a year ago, at just 21.2 points per game. This season, that average has skyrocketed to a whopping 35 PPG, putting them on pace to challenge some of the most prolific offenses in NFL history. Maybe they cannot keep scoring like that (being a dome team with five outdoor games left hints that they won’t), but the Falcons should maintain their healthy edge over the league’s other 31 teams.
I’ve been as lukewarm on Matt Ryan as anyone, but he and Kyle Shanahan have unlocked close to the full potential of this offense. The way that they’re using Tevin Coleman as a receiver has been brilliant, and Coleman and Devonta Freeman have combined for 570 yards on the ground. Mohamed Sanu has been a solid pickup, too, providing Julio Jones with more of a complement in the passing game than Roddy White could at the end of his Atlanta stay.
But the biggest improvement has been across the O-line, which has stabilized inside courtesy of Alex Mack’s arrival. Ryan has time to throw, the Falcons are moving people in the run game and both should continue.
The NFL's 500-Yard Passers
Josh Norman (Through Week 5: Seven accepted penalties)
Jonathan Jones: At this point last year, Josh Norman led the league in interceptions.
Today, he leads the league in penalties.
Washington’s star cornerback leads all players in accepted penalties this year with seven. I don’t think he will finish the season as the league leader (that honor may go to Giants tackle Ereck Flowers), but I do believe he’ll finish 2016 as the team leader in penalties. No other Washington player has as many as four penalties so far this year.
Norman is no 2015 Brandon Browner, who had 21 accepted penalties against him—eight more than the next closest player. But he plays a position that, in today’s NFL, lends itself to more penalties than some others. There’s DPI, illegal use of hands and defensive holding that any DB can easily get called for. But then there’s unsportsmanlike conduct and unnecessary roughness, and those are two penalties that a guy with the personality of Norman’s can fall victim to.
Ezekiel Elliott (Through Week 5: 546 rushing yards)
Melissa Jacobs: I admittedly took the easy one. We expected Elliott to be good, but not necessarily this dominant, this fast. Through five weeks, Elliott has proven to be the real deal, putting a multitude of hash marks (85 yards, to be exact) between him and DeMarco Murray, who is toiling far behind in second.
Injuries to Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles certainly cleared the path for Elliott, but I believe he would be the rushing leader regardless. Dallas’s offensive line is every bit as good as advertised. So is Elliott. He has the size, instincts, shiftiness and sheer power to be a force on every down in any situation—which is why he is averaging an impressive 5.0 yards per carry. Last week against Cincinnati, Elliott only carried the ball 15 times and still mustered 134 rushing yards. There are a handful of impressive run-stopping defenses in the NFL, and Dallas faces a few in the coming weeks (such as Green Bay and Minnesota). But Elliott is too talented, and his line too fierce, to squander his 85-yard lead. The bigger question is, will Elliott break Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record of 1808 yards?
Marcus Peters (Through Week 5: Four interceptions)
Eric Single: When a cornerback disappears from the top of the interceptions leaderboard, it’s often taken as a sign of respect. Offenses learn to write off the receiver he’s covering and test the depth of the defensive secondary elsewhere. Peters may not have won Defensive Rookie of the Year a season ago if he hadn’t been burned for touchdowns so often in the opening weeks, emboldening quarterbacks to keep throwing his way even after he found his footing and started making big plays.
But Peters doesn’t seem much closer to becoming the NFL’s next great “island”—QBs aren’t scared of testing him even as he closes in on defending his share of the interceptions title (his eight picks in 2015 left him tied with safety Reggie Nelson for top billing). For evidence, look no further than the Chiefs’ first defensive snap of Week 4’s blowout loss to the Steelers, when Ben Roethlisberger connected on a 47-yard bomb to Sammie Coates, who had blown past Peters and slowed up only to haul in the pass as the second-year corner tried to recover.
Peters feasted on the decision-making of Brock Osweiler and Ryan Fitzpatrick in collecting his first four picks of 2016 and stands to get many more chances with five games left against the AFC West's fearless-to-a-fault QBs.
Matt Ryan (Through Week 5: 1,740 passing yards)
Bette Marston: Plenty of Falcons fans are still holding their breath, unwilling to declare that this year’s team is the real deal, but after two commanding victories over the teams who played in Super Bowl 50, it’s time to exhale.
Thanks in part to his 503-yard game against the Panthers, Ryan has 237 more passing yards than Andy Dalton, the second-closest QB, and there’s no reason to think that he’ll drop back to the pack.
Julio Jones is the cream of the crop, especially after shredding the Panthers for 300 yards. But when Jones is facing double coverage, Ryan gets to pick from free agency prize Mohamed Sanu, pass-catching running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and veteran tight end Jacob Tamme. Mack has brought stability to every aspect of the offensive line, from blocking to communication, and he’s elevated the play of those around him in the process.
Sure, the Falcons still have to play several stout defenses in the Seahawks, Eagles, Packers and Cardinals this season, but these are clearly not last year’s Falcons, and this is not 2015 Matt Ryan. As so many have already said this season, Ryan won’t slow down anytime soon.