Halfway through a season of surprise packages and glorious disappointments, Pundit Arena’s Stephen Loftus examines the most improved players in the NFL.
DeAndre Levy – Detroit Lions
Playing behind one of the most dominant defensive lines in the NFL, linebacker DeAndre Levy is having a brilliant, under the radar season. Levy has led the Detroit defence and set the tone with crunching tackles, while pressurising the quarterback at every opportunity.
He may not put up the gaudy statistics like other “flashier” linebackers, but it is hard not to notice the presence of Levy when watching Lions’ games. He has already almost bettered his previous season-high in tackles, in five less games. Levy has racked up an astonishing 82 tackles in 11 games but his improvement goes way beyond the mere statistics.
Dont’a Hightower – New England Patriots
Hightower was always a highly touted prospect but one this writer thought struggled in pass coverage, which was highlighted in his first season with New England where he saw little snaps due to average speed and pass recognition.
However, the injury to captain Jerod Mayo last year proved to be transcending for Hightower as he had to take over as the signal caller and his adaptability as a defensive player was tested. The former Alabama linebacker had his role changed from outside linebacker in the 4-3 defence to middle linebacker and had the defensive plays radioed into his helmet.
Bill Belichick clearly trusts Hightower, and after another Jerod Mayo injury this year, Hightower has again taken responsibility for the middle of the defence and has greatly improved his pass defence. Despite missing two games this year, he has shown an incredible ability to get to the quarterback and already has 3.5 sacks.
Justin Forsett – Baltimore Ravens
Former Houston Texans running back Forsett has emerged as Baltimore’s lead running back and has already scored five touchdowns. He has shown his explosiveness in the running game but also as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Forsett’s true ability could never really emerge when he plied his trade in Houston where he was behind Arian Foster on the depth chart but at the age of 29, he is finally getting to showcase his talent in an extended role.
Twice this year, Forsett has rushed for over 100 yards in a game and is averaging over 20 receiving yards per game despite starting the season behind Lorenzo Taliaferro, Bernard Pierce and Ray Rice.
Since he has not been the feature running back with Baltimore for long, he is still relatively fresh for a running back and will be an integral figure for the Ravens as they look to get back to the playoffs.
Ryan Tannehill – Miami Dolphins
The younger quarterbacks have generally struggled this year with the exception of Tannehill in the Bill Lasor offence. Tannehill was largely disappointing last season but the arrival of Bill Lasor as offensive co-ordinator from Philadelphia has sparked an upturn in fortunes for the former Texas A&M wide receiver.
Tannehill has looked composed at the helm of this offence and has formed a striking relationship with young wide receiver Jarvis Landry. His struggles last year can be attributed to a poor offensive line but this year has seen Tannehill improve in every aspect of his game.
Completion percentage, interception rate and touchdown percentage have all improved for the third year quarterback, who has led the Dolphins to important wins over New England, Chicago and San Diego. Although Miami are unlikely to reach the playoffs, 2014 can be looked upon as a good year for Ryan Tannehill.
Stephen Loftus, Pundit Arena