We're a quarter of the way through the 2012 NFL season, and there have been many surprises already. Who have been the biggest studs? The biggest flame-outs? And where does it all go from here?
We asked our team of NFL analysts to take stock of the first quarter of the season and give their thoughts in several key categories. Here are the results.
Pete Prisco: Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons. He has 11 TDs and two interceptions. He is why the Falcons are 4-0.
Clark Judge: Ryan. He's the top-rated quarterback on an undefeated team. Without Ryan, the Falcons are toast.
Mike Freeman: Matt Schaub, QB, Texans. Loses a quarter of an ear and is still playing the position well.
Jason La Canfora: Ryan. Dude has led comebacks, showed toughness when battered around and has been pretty flawless.
Will Brinson: Ryan. There's no clear-cut leader for the MVP award just four weeks in but Ryan is close. He's completing 69.4 percent of his passes and is averaging 7.9 yards per attempt. If you want to talk about a guy stepping up to the next level, it's Ryan right now. The Falcons being 4-0 doesn't hurt.
Josh Katzowitz: Kevin Kolb, QB, Cardinals. This feels like a ridiculous pick, and I can't imagine making the same selection after Week 17. But he replaced John Skelton in Week 1, led his team to a win and then fired off three more victories to bring his team to 4-0 while playing the best football of his career.
Ryan Wilson: Ryan. Hardly an original pick but Ryan finally seems to be living up to his first-round hype. The Falcons are the early favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Kevin Corke: Ryan. As compelling to watch as any player in the NFL right now. Heart, poise and talent. Huge, huge year awaits.
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Pete Prisco: J.J. Watt, DE, Texans. He has 7½ sacks and has been a force.
Clark Judge: Watt. He can do just about everything -- sack the quarterback, bat down passes and tackle anyone with the ball. Houston last year survived the loss of its starting quarterback because of its defense, and there's no one better than this guy.
Mike Freeman: Watt. Dominating offensive lines.
Jason La Canfora: Watt. What doesn't he do? He has been the best player for the league's best D.
Will Brinson: Watt. Watt's leading the lead in sacks, he's swatting balls left and right and he's helping the Texans laugh off the loss of Mario Williams as they start 4-0 this season.
Josh Katzowitz: Watt. He has become the scariest defender in the league, racking up an NFL-best 7½ sacks, five passes defensed and two recovered fumbles. On a team filled with young, talented players, Watt stands out.
Ryan Wilson: Watt. The 2011 first-round pick has 7½ sacks on the NFL's best defense, and we would like to point out that we projected him as the 2011 rookie of the year.
Kevin Corke: Watt. People love to talk about his motor out on the field. I like his maturity level. Rare combination of talent and maturity on the field for a player of his experience level.
Rookie who has your attention
Pete Prisco: Alfred Morris, RB, Redskins. He is fifth in the league in rushing as a sixth-round pick.
Clark Judge: Robert Griffin III, QB, Redskins. He can run. He can pass. He can win. So what can't he do? Last the season if he continues to take crushing hits.
Mike Freeman: Griffin. Easy choice.
Jason La Canfora: Bruce Irvin, DE, Seahawks. Great speed and natural pass-rushing ability. Could be the steal of the draft.
Will Brinson: Chandler Jones, DE, Patriots. The quarterbacks get all the headlines, but this class (RG3, Luck aside) has been relatively underwhelming. I love what Jones adds to the Patriots defense, and he already has three sacks and two forced fumbles, just four games into the season.
Josh Katzowitz: Greg Zuerlein, K, Rams. RG3 and Andrew Luck, of course, are under the microscope for every series they lead, but nobody has grabbed my imagination like the Rams' rookie kicker. He's 12 for 12 this season with kicks of 60 and 58 yards. At this point, I expected him to make 48 of 48 on the year with a long of 73.
Ryan Wilson: Griffin. It's an obvious choice, yes, but for the first time in a long, long time the Redskins have a franchise quarterback. That's worth celebrating.
Kevin Corke: Griffin. RG III Won't look like it every week, but will get better faster than any rookie playing the position.
Most disappointing player
Pete Prisco: Mario Williams, DE, Bills. Where has he been?
Clark Judge: Matt Cassel, QB, Chiefs. He has as many interceptions (7) through four games as he did in 2010 when the Chiefs won the AFC West, and the Chiefs already have more turnovers (15) than that season.
Mike Freeman: Williams. Totally invisible.
Jason La Canfora: Jay Cutler, QB, Bears. Pouty, whiny, not getting anything going with Brandon Marshall, still getting sacked all over the place.
Will Brinson: Chris Johnson, RB, Titans. Hundred-yard game last week or not, I don't see how it could possibly be anyone else given the way he played through the first three games.
Josh Katzowitz: Johnson. I thought we were passed all of this with him. I thought, after a disappointing 2011, he would come into this season ready to return as one of the league's best running backs. He hasn't. In fact, aside from Week 4, he has been worse.
Ryan Wilson: Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Bills. This was supposed to be the year that the Bills put it together and made a playoff run. Yeah, that's not happening.
Kevin Corke: Tony Romo, QB, Cowboys. No matter how you spin it, Tony should be an elite QB by now. He isn't and won't ever be unless he plays smarter. What a waste.
Most surprising player
Pete Prisco: Henry Melton, DT, Bears. He is a force in the middle of that defense.
Clark Judge: Kevin Kolb, QB, Cardinals. He couldn't beat out John Skelton in training camp. Then Skelton got hurt, and now Kolb can't lose. Don't tell me the Cards didn't know what they were doing when they traded for him.
Mike Freeman: Kolb. Everyone and their grandma thought he would stink. He has been great.
Jason La Canfora: Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings. AP is a freak of nature. Should not be this good, this soon after the knee surgery.
Will Brinson: Peterson. His recovery from a major knee injury late in 2011 is simply freakish. I expected him to rebound but his recovery time is amazing.
Josh Katzowitz: Alfred Morris, RB, Redskins. He barely won the starting job, holding off Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr., but combine Morris with RG3 and you have a Washington offense that ranks third in the league. Pretty good for a rookie from Florida Atlantic.
Ryan Wilson: Christian Ponder, QB, Vikings. He isn't asked to carry his offense but Ponder has yet to throw an interception and the Vikings are leading the division. Nobody saw that coming.
Kevin Corke: Chandler Jones, DE, Patriots. Long, strong... bound to get his sack on. CJ is the truth and I'm in the choir.
Most disappointing team
Pete Prisco: New Orleans Saints. How much do they miss Sean Payton? Can't wait to see how much they blame Roger Goodell.
Clark Judge: Saints. This one's a no-brainer. They won their division a year ago. They can't win jack squat now. Check, please.
Mike Freeman: New York Jets. Really, really easy choice.
Jason La Canfora: Carolina Panthers. I thought they were primed for the playoffs, but they are already 1-3 with two losses in the division.
Will Brinson: Panthers. Two absolute no-shows against the Buccaneers (opening week) and Giants (Cam Newton's first prime-time game) and a crippling loss have them at 1-3 when they could be competing in this division.
Josh Katzowitz: Saints. Even with the loss of Sean Payton, I figured New Orleans would do well enough to challenge for a playoff spot. But four weeks in and the season might as well be over, mostly because of a horrendous defense. It's sad and surprising to watch.
Ryan Wilson: Saints. It took them four weeks to surpass their 2011 loss total and it's reasonable to think their best chance to make the playoffs will come in January 2014.
Kevin Corke: Saints. Glass half empty: No excuses. Garbage on the field, garbage off. Glass half full: They still might make the playoffs.
Most surprising team
|Christian Ponder and the Vikings start at 3-1. Few people saw that coming. (US Presswire)|
Clark Judge: Cardinals. QB was supposed to be the problem, and the Cards were doomed without one. Only they're not. Somehow, they're one of three undefeated teams, and let's hear it for coach Ken Whisenhunt. All he has done is win 11 of his last 13 starts with John Skelton and Kevin Kolb at QB.
Mike Freeman: San Francisco 49ers. Thought Alex Smith would have imploded by now. Still a steady presence.
Jason La Canfora: Cardinals. Raise your hand if you had them beating the Patriots and Eagles in consecutive weeks, stifling both.
Will Brinson: Minnesota Vikings. The Cardinals could get the nod, but their defense was good and they were in the wild-card hunt last year, so it's not quite as shocking. The Vikings have already equaled their win total from 2011 a quarter of the way into the season.
Josh Katzowitz: Cardinals. Maybe we overlooked Arizona's defense because of the John Skelton/Kevin Kolb soap opera, but the Cardinals have relied on players like Sam Acho, Calais Campbell and Daryl Washington to complement Kolb. Who would have thought Arizona would be 4-0 with wins against the Patriots and Eagles? With the exception of Pete Prisco, not many.
Ryan Wilson: Cardinals. Nobody -- not even Ken Whisenhunt -- thought this team would be 4-0. More impressive: Kevin Kolb looks like a capable game manager, which, given all that has happened over the past 12 months, is welcome news.
Kevin Corke: Cardinals. This deck of Cards may fall apart sooner or later but right now they're way ahead of where I thought they'd be.
Best play so far
Pete Prisco: Has to be the Hail Mary at the end of the Packers-Seahawks game, although the Packers might disagree.
Clark Judge: The "touchdown" that ended the Seattle-Green Bay debacle. It ended the NFL's lockout of the regular game officials, and halleljuah.
Mike Freeman: Robert Griffin III's Week 1 touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon. It started RG3's impressive rookie season.
Jason La Canfora: Cecil Shorts' touchdowns. Blaine Gabbert isn't supposed to make that kind of perfect pass in that situation, and Shorts isn't supposed to make that catch ... then two weeks later they actually won the game.
Will Brinson: Mohamed Sanu's 73-yard touchdown bomb to A.J. Green out of the wildcat formation to start the Week 3 game against the Redskins. Creative, tone-setting, shocking and fun to see.
Josh Katzowitz: The Hail Mary at the end of the Seahawks-Packers game that gave Seattle an undeserved victory. Not so much because it basically ended the lockout, but because it's rare for the Twitter community to all come together at midnight to make jokes and express outrage at the same time. It was like hanging out in a sports bar that stretched all the way across the country.
Ryan Wilson: Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson treading Eagles safety Kurt Coleman in Week 1.
Kevin Corke: Seattle's Hail Mary dual-catch phony touchdown. Proof that Roger Goodell was, for a time, the emperor with no clothes. Our long nightmare is over.
Trend you expect to continue
Pete Prisco: Passers throwing for 300 yards. We had 13 of them in Week 4.
Clark Judge: No-huddle offenses. They're productive, they're hard to defend and they wear out defenses, especially when quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are dealing.
Mike Freeman: Tony Romo interceptions. He's going to have a bigger implosion than usual.
Jason La Canfora: Questionable calls. The real officials missed the entire preseason and three weeks of real games. It's going to take them time to get on top of their game.
Will Brinson: Read-option working well. Anyone who thinks this is a gimmick is a cranky old curmudgeon who lumps it in the same boat as the wildcat. Yes, you want quarterbacks who can pass, but adding different running wrinkles to the game only makes quarterbacks more dangerous.
Josh Katzowitz: In order to win a Super Bowl, a team has to have a top-10 quarterback on its roster. That's why the Cardinals won't win the Super Bowl but the Texans and Falcons very well could.
Ryan Wilson: The Jets' defense will continue to stop no one.
Kevin Corke: Peyton Manning keeps getting better. Neither his stats nor the Broncos record will show it, but beware potential AFC playoff foes. The man is ring shopping and this ain't Tiffany.
Trend you expect to stop
Pete Prisco: Crying about the officials. I think.
Clark Judge: Icing the kicker. It's time to admit that it doesn't work.
Mike Freeman: Jay Cutler punchable face smirks. I think he goes on a midseason tear starting now.
Jason La Canfora: Rookie and first-year QBs still starting. Jake Locker is already hurt, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill and Russell Wilson are very up and down and RG3 won't last until November if he keeps taking this beating.
Will Brinson: Heavy pass-interference penalties. We already saw it early on with the Week 4 action now that the real officials are back. I would bank on us continuing to see less of them.
Josh Katzowitz: A disappointing Mario Williams. For a $100 million man, Williams has done next to nothing, recording nine tackles and 1½ sacks in four games. He has to get better. Right?
Ryan Wilson: Michael Vick will throw fewer interceptions.
Kevin Corke: Lions being terrible. As Marvin Gaye sang, what's going on?! This Motown mess will turn it around or else...
First coach to be fired
Pete Prisco: I've said all along I don't think anybody will get it during the season.
Clark Judge: Aaron Kromer, Saints. Guaranteed, he doesn't last more than six games.
Mike Freeman: Romeo Crennel, Chiefs. Will be the fall guy for the front office.
Jason La Canfora: Pat Shurmur, Browns. Cleveland faces a daunting schedule, has major issues and inexperience on offense and lacks the depth to withstand injury.
Will Brinson: Crennel. The hot seat is shockingly cool right now because teams either just hired someone or they're doing better than folks expected. But if the Chiefs keep struggling as bad as they have, Crennel could be the victim of Scott Pioli trying to save his own skin.
Josh Katzowitz: Shurmur. Originally, I thought it would be Ken Whisenhunt, but clearly, that's not going to happen. For now I'll say Shurmur, because when that new ownership group takes over in Cleveland, there's no telling what changes will be made.
Ryan Wilson: Rex Ryan, Jets. We know that the higher-ups say Ryan's job is safe but, well, it shouldn't be.
Kevin Corke: Jim Schwartz, Lions. Restore the roar or hit the door. You've got tools -- use them or hit the Jeffries Freeway and beat it.
Assistant coach whose stock is rising
Pete Prisco: Dirk Koetter, offensive coordinator, Falcons. He has really done wonders for the Atlanta passing game. He will be a head coach soon.
Clark Judge: Ray Horton, defensive coordinator, Cardinals. There's one common element to the Cards' 11-2 record the past 13 games. It's called defense.
Mike Freeman: Every assistant on the Houston Texans. Just about each unit is playing well.
Jason La Canfora: Horton. The Dick LeBeau disciple has the baddest D in the land and the Cards staff is already bracing for what's seen as his eventual departure.
Will Brinson: Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator, Bengals. The Sanu touchdown is among a number of different ways he has gotten creative this season on the offensive end. With the Bengals' defense lagging, Gruden's only helped boost the stock of Andy Dalton in his second year, when no one was willing to expect that.
Josh Katzowitz: Gruden. People already were impressed by what he accomplished last year with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, and this year, Gruden continues to build his résumé. It's sad to think Gruden likely will get a head coaching job before Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Ryan Wilson: Koetter. Imagine that: Getting out of Jacksonville can do wonders for your career.
Kevin Corke: Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator, Patriots. J-Mac is back and soon will be the head coach of another NFL team. He'll be better this time.
Will the Browns win a game? If so, against who?
Pete Prisco: Yes. Either at Indianapolis or home against the Chiefs later in the season.
Clark Judge: Of course they will. They hung with the Bengals and Ravens. And they could ... maybe should ... beat Indianapolis in Week 7.
Mike Freeman: The Browns will win two -- against the Colts and Chiefs.
Jason La Canfora: Sure, against Bengals. It's hard to go 0-16 and they tend to get up for the battle of their home state.
Will Brinson: Potentially three of them. No, really: I could see Cleveland beating Oakland and Kansas City in December and sneaking up on someone else. That's maxing it out though.
Josh Katzowitz: Yes, Week 14 vs. the Chiefs -- who somehow are even more awful than Cleveland.
Ryan Wilson: They'll beat the Colts in Week 7, 3-2. But that's it. This is a one-win outfit.
Kevin Corke: Yes, vs. the Chiefs on Dec. 9. You've gotta have heart to live in Cleveland. Browns deliver against KC and celebrate with BBQ.
Are you surprised how the Jets have used
Pete Prisco: Why use him at all? He is a distraction. Period. All he does is ruin the offensive flow.
Clark Judge: No. They're using him exactly as they said they wanted to use him. Where's the mystery?
Mike Freeman: Shocked because they made such a big deal when they traded for him.
Jason La Canfora: Nope. They can't use him like a normal backup in a mopup role because it will cause too much drama/chaos.
Will Brinson: No. The only way this season could have been any more disastrous for them is if they really cranked up the quarterback controversy by giving Tebow tons of reps.
Josh Katzowitz: Yes, the lack of imagination while using him has been stunning. He has attempted one pass so far this season, so when Tebow does take a direct snap, he's a one-dimensional player. Offensive coordinator Tony Sparano has experience in the wildcat, and at this point, what is there to lose by not making the offense more gimmicky? What they're doing isn't working.
Ryan Wilson: The only thing that surprises us is that Tebow hasn't been used at cornerback or wide receiver, the Jets' two biggest needs after quarterback.
Kevin Corke: No. Want to win some games, Rex? Play Tebow. Want to lose your job? Play Tebow.
College player you're looking forward to seeing next season
Pete Prisco: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Wow. He is a big-time passer.
Clark Judge: Smith. He threw more touchdowns last weekend than Tom Brady has this year. Who wouldn't want to see what this guy has?
Mike Freeman: Matt Barkley, QB, Southern California. Because he's going to royally flame out.
Jason La Canfora: Smith. The kid is throwing for nearly 700 yards and 8 TDs. Who doesn't want to see how that translates to the big leagues?
Will Brinson: Smith. Since he's fast and has a big arm, I'm sure people will compare him to Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton and wonder if he can live up to those expectations. Instead of, you know, letting him do his own thing and just be good.
Josh Katzowitz: Smith. He's only completing 83.4 percent of his passes this season. I assume he'll be at least 80 percent in the NFL next year.
Ryan Wilson: Smith. There's already talk that he's better than Matt Barkley.
Kevin Corke: Smith. One word: Fun. A man's mind in a college kid's body.
Which teams will be in Super Bowl XLVII?
Pete Prisco: I picked the Packers and the Patriots, and I'm sticking with it. It's early.
Clark Judge: Green Bay and Houston. I said it at the start of the year, and I've seen nothing to discourage me.
Mike Freeman: Packers-Ravens. My preseason pick is still alive.
Jason La Canfora: Texans vs. Packers. Green Bay knows how to get there and the Texans might be the most complete team in the NFL.
Will Brinson: Falcons and Texans. Maybe they don't hand out rings in early October, but when your Super Bowl picks start out a collective 8-0, you keep riding those Super Bowl picks.
Josh Katzowitz: Texans vs. Falcons. Both teams are 4-0 and looking great without showing many signs of weakness. Atlanta had to survive a tough one vs. the Panthers last Sunday, but that's what the good teams do.
Ryan Wilson: Falcons vs. Patriots. Matt Ryan will out Brady Tom Brady and Tony Gonzalez will finally get a ring.
Kevin Corke: Patriots vs. 49ers. A wicked good match up. A Patriots win means Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Dallas have Super Bowl elite company.
How happy are you to have the real refs back?
Pete Prisco: It's better, but it was a story that had more overreaction than any in the history of the league.
Clark Judge: Not as happy as the NFL. Look at last weekend's games. There were six that were under three hours. There were eight games over 3:30 with the replacements.
Mike Freeman: Haven't been this happy since losing my virginity.
Jason La Canfora: Pretty stinkin' happy. One less negotiation to cover. No one cares how the sausage is made and covering the process is tedious at best.
Will Brinson: I'm just happy that Twitter isn't a complain-about-the-refs social-media forum now that they're back.
Josh Katzowitz: Fairly happy, but at the same time, so much of the hilarity of Sunday afternoons and evenings has disappeared without the replacements. So, kind of a mixed bag.
Ryan Wilson: Happier than any NFL running back is to face the Jets' defense.
Kevin Corke: Spectacularly! Nothing personal guys, but I don't want a replacement barber, let alone a replacement ref.