NFL roundtable: What is most pleasant first-month surprise of season?




October is here, and thus ushers (most of) Week 4, with Thursday night's game between the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals kicking off the slate. While the majority of the league has played three games, it's never too early to spot trends and provide takeaways from the very early portion of the season. The Houston Texans and the Las Vegas Raiders are the league's only winless teams, perhaps giving the other 30 teams more reasons to be optimistic from this point forward.

Still, some teams, coaches and players have stood out more than most in the first month. Here are what USA TODAY Sports' NFL experts deem as the most pleasant first-month surprises.

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Jacksonville Jaguars

It's gotta be the Jaguars. We're not out of September yet and Jacksonville (2-1) is one victory away from matching its win total from the entire 2021 season. We knew they'd be better with new coach Doug Pederson replacing the disgraced Urban Meyer. But the past two weeks, the Jags flat-blasted the Colts and Chargers by a 62-10 margin. Like wow. While Trevor Lawrence is and will be the face of the product, this is bigger than the franchise QB. The defense has been balling under new coordinator Mike Caldwell, infusing a pair of first-round rookies in Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd. And the big offseason haul of free agent signings is paying dividends already. It's too early to declare that the Jags have arrived and are destined to be playing in mid-January. But this much for certain: As bad as they've been in recent years, they have quickly ignited a turnaround. - Jarrett Bell

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence has thrown six touchdowns this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence has thrown six touchdowns this season.  

Rookie head coaches

What a job the five rookie head coaches have done bolting from the gate. Brian Daboll (New York Giants), Matt Eberflus (Chicago Bears), Nathaniel Hackett (Denver Broncos) and Kevin O'Connell (Minnesota Vikings) all have their teams off to mostly impressive 2-1 starts … though it's fair to say Hackett and Co. have gotten there, at least in part, in spite of themselves. Meanwhile, Mike McDaniel has the Miami Dolphins leading the AFC with a 3-1 ledger, though Thursday night's loss in Cincinnati, marred by QB Tua Tagovailoa's head injury, took some of the bloom off the rose. If the season ended now - premature but fun thought - the Bears would be the only member of this quintet who didn't qualify for postseason. And while it's natural to assume the league will start to catch up with the schemes and tendencies of the newbies - plus the likelihood the Giants and Chicago, at minimum, will regress into the pack - let's give credit where it's due … for now. -- Nate Davis

Lamar Jackson

I'm pleasantly surprised that Jackson has reasserted himself as an MVP candidate and best quarterback in the AFC North. Jackson went into this season motivated to show the Ravens and NFL world that he's worthy of a contract north of $200 million, and he's proving it every week. The Ravens quarterback leads the NFL in touchdown passes (10) and passer rating (119). His 243 rushing yards are also a league-best among quarterbacks, and tied for fifth in the league. Jackson bet on himself going into this season. Thus far his gamble is paying off in a major way. Jackson said he doesn't want to negotiate his contract during the season, but Ravens brass should give the dual-threat quarterback an offer he can't refuse - regardless of what the NFL calendar says. - Tyler Dragon

Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa

I'm going to say it's the emergence of a pair of young passers playing in Florida, though perhaps a better word than emergence is breakthrough: Trevor Lawrence and Tua Tagovailoa. In particular, Tagovailoa had been a target for criticism for his supposed lack of arm strength and inability to throw the deep ball. An 11-yard laser in a tight window Sunday to River Cracraft answered the question about velocity and his several deep shots to Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill showed he can hit players downfield. His passer rating of 117.8 ranks second in the league.

Lawrence ranks sixth in that category (103.1) and has washed the stain of the Urban Meyer era off of his play, with an assist from new coach Doug Pederson. Lawrence's pocket presence has improved, he's protecting the ball and has seen his accuracy jump by almost 10 percentage points. - Lorenzo Reyes

Jacksonville Jaguars

No one knew how much time first-year head coach Doug Pederson, who is five years removed from a Super Bowl with the Philadelphia Eagles, would need to tap into quarterback Trevor Lawrence's potential. Turns out, not that long. The Jaguars are 2-1 and Lawrence has looked the part of franchise quarterback. Following a lackluster Week 1 loss (one touchdown, one interception) to the Washington Commanders, Lawrence is 53-for-69 over his past two games with five touchdowns and no interceptions. Tearing his Achilles late in the 2021 season apparently won't slow down running back James Robinson, who has a score in each of his team's first three games and 230 rushing yards.

The silver lining from Urban Meyer's disastrous tenure came in the form of the No. 1 pick, which they used on linebacker Travon Walker. But another rookie on defense, linebacker Devin Lloyd, has shined brightest - he was named the league's defensive rookie of the month for September with picks in the Jaguars' past two games and 24 tackles overall. - Chris Bumbaca

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL Week 4 schedule analysis: What is most pleasant early surprise?

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