NFL Power Rankings Week 6

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  • NFL NationESPN

The NFL Power Rankings are the perfect place to track improvement. While usually that improvement is strictly on the team level, we decided to take it even further this week, as we had our NFL Nation writers identify the most improved player on the team they cover.

The answers below run the gamut. There are your usual improvement candidates, from young players who are starting to bloom with a little bit more experience (Trevon Diggs just picked off another pass for the Dallas Cowboys) and veterans who are taking up their game a notch from their previous standard (Cordarrelle Patterson pretty much does everything for the Atlanta Falcons at this point), but there are even more candidates than that. We have receivers who once had to play quarterback due to a COVID-19 contact tracing crisis (Denver Broncos fans certainly remember that) and a seven-time Super Bowl championship quarterback who is somehow better now than he was the year before.

How we rank our Power Rankings: Our power panel — a group of more than 80 writers, editors and TV personalities — evaluates how teams stack up throughout the season.

Previous rankings: 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | Preseason

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NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF

Previous ranking: 1

Most improved player: WR Emmanuel Sanders

How they’ve improved: This isn’t a particularly difficult decision. Sanders — the oldest player on the Bills’ roster — has exploded in his 12th NFL season and is a key piece of the offense as a downfield weapon. He has two games with two touchdowns already this season, including Sunday’s win over Kansas City. Prior to this season, Sanders had only six career games with two or more touchdowns, and the last was in 2017. Outside of his scoring, Sanders is averaging a career-high 16.9 yards per reception, as opposed to his average target depth last year with the Saints — a career-low 8.98 yards. He has transformed into one of quarterback Josh Allen’s favorite targets. — Alaina Getzenberg

Previous ranking: 2

Most improved player: RB Chase Edmonds

How they’ve improved: The third-year running back was given a larger role this season, and he is not just embracing the opportunity, he is flourishing. Edmonds is the Cardinals’ leading rusher and is on pace to smash his previous career high for yards in a season. With a big game or two, he could have a 1,000-yard season for the first time in his career. But Edmonds’ game isn’t limited to just carrying the ball. He spent the offseason working on his receiving skills, and it’s paid off. He’s tied for the team lead with 23 catches and has become a favorite target of quarterback Kyler Murray. — Josh Weinfuss

Previous ranking: 3

Most improved player: WR Van Jefferson

How they’ve improved: The second-year receiver admitted after his rookie season, despite displaying great maturity, that his head was spinning at times in the offense. But this season, Jefferson has proved to be a steady target for quarterback Matthew Stafford. He caught a 67-yard touchdown pass to ignite the offense in Week 1 and has seen his targets steadily increase — which is no easy feat when surrounded by other pass-catchers in Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, DeSean Jackson and Tyler Higbee. Jefferson has caught 14 passes for 242 yards and two touchdowns. — Lindsey Thiry



Field Yates isn’t worried about Tom Brady’s thumb injury impacting his playing status against the Eagles in Week 6.

Previous ranking: 4

Most improved player: QB Tom Brady

How they’ve improved: This sounds ridiculous, right? What does a seven-time Super Bowl champion QB possibly need to improve on? But if you go back to this time last year, Brady was still learning the playbook and still trying to establish a rapport with his receivers, while offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich was still trying to learn him. Brady’s touchdown to interception ratio has gone from 3.0 at this point last year to 7.5. Yards after the catch has also gone up from 542 yards to 850 yards, as has yards per attempt (7.93 yards per attempt versus 7.02, so he’s not trying easier throws), suggesting better chemistry overall. — Jenna Laine

Previous ranking: 5

Most improved player: LT Yosh Nijman

How they’ve improved: The second-year pro played only 14 total snaps last season, and several of those were just on kneel-down plays to close out games. Who would’ve thought he could have held up so well in three starts at left tackle? Well, offensive line coach Adam Stevanich, for one, did. He convinced Aaron Rodgers that Nijman was the way to go after Elgton Jenkins suffered an ankle injury. Jenkins was filling in for David Bakhtiari, who remains on PUP while recovering from ACL surgery. So the Packers were down to their No. 3 left tackle in Nijman, but you wouldn’t know it based on the way the offense has remained in high gear. — Rob Demovsky

Previous ranking: 8

Most improved player: CB Trevon Diggs

How they’ve improved: How can it not be Diggs? The Cowboys have some other candidates, like young tackle Terence Steele, but Diggs has put himself in the running for the Defensive Player of the Year just five games in with six interceptions. In his last 10 games, dating back to his rookie season, he has nine interceptions. He is lining up against the opponents’ top receivers each week, and because of that, offenses will not have the chance to shy away from him. The question isn’t how much Diggs has improved. It’s how much more can he improve? — Todd Archer



Domonique Foxworth breaks down what he likes about the Chargers after their win over the Browns.

Previous ranking: 9

Most improved player: OT Storm Norton

How they’ve improved: Norton was previously in the XFL but now is the Chargers’ starting right tackle because of an injury to Bryan Bulaga. Norton stumbled in his first start but has risen up the ranks, as he is currently the Chargers’ No. 2-ranked offensive lineman per Pro Football Focus. He was given a game ball by Chargers coach Brandon Staley after Sunday’s win over the Browns. Staley believes in the 6-foot-8, 308-pound Norton, as does Justin Herbert, who saw Norton standing up Cleveland’s Myles Garrett. He wasn’t perfect, giving up a sack to the NFL’s sack leader, but he has proved to be reliable. — Shelley Smith

Previous ranking: 7

Most improved player: CB Anthony Averett

How they’ve improved: A fourth-round pick in 2018, Averett has stepped into the starting lineup to replace Marcus Peters. A capable backup for years, Averett has allowed the lowest passer rate in coverage through four games, according to Pro Football Focus. Can the Ravens afford to keep him after the season? Averett could become a more sought-after free agent this offseason because of this improvement. — Jamison Hensley

Previous ranking: 6

Most improved player: TE David Njoku

How they’ve improved: Though it came in a losing effort, Njoku continued his strong start to this season and delivered a career performance Sunday against the Chargers. He finished with a team-high 161 receiving yards on seven receptions, including a career-high 71-yard touchdown catch in which he shed a defender before racing into the end zone. Njoku, a first-round pick in 2017, has had trouble finding his place in Cleveland. At one point, he even asked for a trade. But as Cleveland’s leading receiver through five games, Njoku might finally be hitting his stride. — Jake Trotter

Previous ranking: 11

Most improved player: TE Jody Fortson

How they’ve improved: After two seasons on the Chiefs’ practice squad as a wide receiver, Fortson was moved to tight end in the spring and has been quite a find. He caught all four of his targets this season, with two of them going for touchdowns. At 240 pounds, he is not the ideal size for a tight end but has shown well as a blocker, too. — Adam Teicher

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Previous ranking: 18

Most improved player: CB Kristian Fulton

How they’ve improved: Fulton didn’t play much last season as a rookie due to a knee injury, but this season he has settled in nicely as the Titans’ starting right cornerback. He has one interception and six passes defensed through five games. Fulton’s best performance was in Week 2, when he held Seahawks’ receiver DK Metcalf to one reception for eight yards. The second-year CB has gained confidence, and it shows in his consistent play on the field. — Turron Davenport

Previous ranking: 12

Most improved player: WR DJ Moore

How they’ve improved: Consistency is the biggest difference. Moore had an outstanding 2020 season, but his catch rate (66 of 118) was only 55.9%, and he had only four receiving touchdowns. His catch rate this year is 70% (35 of 50), and he already has three receiving touchdowns. He has become Sam Darnold’s favorite target, not Robby Anderson as some expected. — David Newton

Previous ranking: 17

Most improved player: WR Deonte Harris

How they’ve improved: Harris was already an All-Pro return specialist as an undrafted rookie in 2019. But now the Saints have been working the 5-foot-6 and 170-pound speedster more into an offense that is thin on dynamic pass catchers. He leads the team with 236 receiving yards on 12 catches (including TDs of 72 and 55 yards). He has also been a trusted target for Jameis Winston on third downs. Harris left Sunday’s game early with a hamstring injury, but now has the bye week to help him recover. — Mike Triplett

Everything you need this week:
• Full schedule » | Standings »
• Depth charts for every team »
• Transactions » | Injuries »
• Football Power Index rankings »
More NFL coverage »

Previous ranking: 16

Most improved player: LB Logan Wilson

How they’ve improved: The second-year linebacker has stepped into the team’s starting linebacker role well. He has a team-high 46 tackles and three of the team’s four interceptions. After primarily being a backup last season, Cincinnati’s 2020 third-round pick has displayed some quality moments through the first five games and earned praise from many of his teammates. “He’s a really disciplined player,” Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader said. “I’m really happy a lot of people see that.” — Ben Baby

Previous ranking: 14

Most improved player: WR Kendall Hinton

How they’ve improved: Hinton just keeps moving up the developmental curve with hard work and simply being ready when the Broncos need him. Hinton gained a slice of fame last year when he was forced to play quarterback against the Saints when all of the Broncos quarterbacks missed the game for violation of COVID-19 protocols. He opened the season on the practice squad again, but when Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler each suffered injuries, he was promoted. His toe-tap reception along the sideline for a key third-down conversion in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh, along with his first career touchdown earlier in the quarter, were two examples of how far he has come. — Jeff Legwold

Previous ranking: 23

Most improved player: DE Robert Quinn

How they’ve improved: Quinn admittedly had a rough 2020 season, but the veteran has bounced back. Through five games, Quinn has been the Bears’ most consistent pass-rusher. He has 4.5 sacks in five games this season, compared to two sacks in 15 games in 2020. Quinn’s re-emergence has also allowed Khalil Mack to flourish on the other side of the line. Quinn and Mack have become one of the NFC’s most dominant pass-rushing duos. What a difference a year makes. — Jeff Dickerson

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Previous ranking: 10

Most improved player: WR Bryan Edwards

How they’ve improved: Yes, he had a terrible drop while wide open downfield in the second half of the Raiders’ ugly loss to the Bears on Sunday. But in Las Vegas’ 3-0 start to the season, he had been the team’s closer, so to speak, with clutch catches late in games. Plus, with 13 catches for 236 yards thus far, he has already eclipsed his totals from his rookie season, when he caught 11 passes for 193 yards in 12 games. — Paul Gutierrez

Previous ranking: 15

Most improved player: WR Deebo Samuel

How they’ve improved: A big part of Samuel’s ascent is because he’s been healthy so far, but he also put in a lot of work in the offseason to get leaner, expand his route tree and become a more complete receiver. That work has paid off. Samuel has gone from primarily a gadget player limited to designed runs and in-breaking intermediate routes to the league’s second-leading receiver (548 yards) and the 49ers’ clear No. 1 target in the passing game. — Nick Wagoner

Previous ranking: 20

Most improved player: WR Jakobi Meyers

How they’ve improved: Meyers has been targeted a team-high 47 times and has totaled 31 receptions for 302 yards. While he had one regrettable drop in Sunday’s win over the Texans in which he was wide open, Meyers’ leap forward is reflected in that through the first five games of last season, he had just one catch for seven yards. The third-year receiver is still looking for his first touchdown reception, though. — Mike Reiss

Previous ranking: 13

Most improved player: WR Freddie Swain

How they’ve improved: Last year’s sixth-round pick has been the Seahawks’ third receiver while rookie Dee Eskridge has been sidelined since the opener. Swain is easily outpacing his 2020 numbers, with his two touchdowns in five games already matching last year’s total. One of his touchdowns was on a scramble play against the 49ers on which he showed good awareness of how Russell Wilson had gone off script. — Brady Henderson

Previous ranking: 24

Most improved player: DL Cameron Heyward

How they’ve improved: Playing like a man on mission, Heyward has been the anchor on a Steelers’ defensive front that’s been in flux with a series of injuries. Through five games, the 11-year veteran is Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded interior defender, outpacing Aaron Donald and Jonathan Allen. As a unit, the Steelers’ pass rush hasn’t been able to get as much pressure as previous seasons, but Heyward is still a force with 14 solo tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. — Brooke Pryor

Cam Heyward, Cordarrelle Patterson & Taylor Heinicke ESPN

Previous ranking: 19

Most improved player: QB Taylor Heinicke

How they’ve improved: There aren’t many candidates here — maybe returner DeAndre Carter — but Heinicke certainly qualifies when you compare him to where he was at in 2020: attending classes at Old Dominion University. He was just about done thinking he’d be back in the NFL. For that reason alone, he is their most improved player. Heinicke has his limitations, and they’re on display against really good defenses — four combined picks in losses to Buffalo and New Orleans. But he has thrown for 1,208 yards and eight touchdowns (with five picks), and he has led two late, game-winning drives. His future might just be as a solid backup, but a year ago he was an NFL afterthought. — John Keim

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Previous ranking: 22

Most improved player: DE Everson Griffen

How they’ve improved: The Vikings brought back the 33-year-old defensive end, who spent 2010-19 in Minnesota, to be a rotational pass-rusher. Five games into the season, Griffen has played his way into the starting lineup. He has transitioned into a different role, splitting reps between defensive end and three-technique on passing downs. Griffen played a season-high 72% of snaps against Detroit and supplanted D.J. Wonnum in the lineup. With four sacks in five games — after a total of six a year ago with Dallas and Detroit — Griffen has cemented himself as a piece of the Vikings’ pass rush that they cannot do without. — Courtney Cronin

Previous ranking: 25

Most improved player: DT Javon Hargrave

How they’ve improved: Hargrave has been the Eagles’ best player through five games. He already has six sacks on the season, which is tops among defensive tackles and third overall in the NFL. It’s also a half-sack less than his career high. Hargrave, 28, had four quality seasons with the Steelers before joining the Eagles in 2020. He was limited due to injury last season, but has turned into a dominant force in his second year in green. — Tim McManus

Previous ranking: 21

Most improved player: WR Michael Pittman Jr.

How they’ve improved: Pittman, the Colts’ second-round pick in 2020, has more than half the number of receptions (23) and receiving yards (279) in four games this season than he had in 13 games as a rookie. He leads the Colts in both of those categories while in his new role as the team’s No. 1 receiver. — Mike Wells



Field Yates and Matthew Berry discuss Cordarrelle Patterson’s recent success and the fantasy value he brings.

Previous ranking: 27

Most improved player: RB Cordarrelle Patterson

How they’ve improved: Patterson is the answer for almost everything Falcons at this point, isn’t he? But in this case, it’s wildly accurate. Patterson might be the most improved player in the NFL — period. With 25 catches and 295 yards, he’s already put up his best season numbers since 2017, and he’s already matched his career-high in receiving touchdowns (four). As a runner, his 173 yards are the third-highest season total of his career. And, again, it’s Week 5. Falcons coach Arthur Smith has become the playcaller who finally figured out how to use Patterson best in the former first-round pick’s ninth season and fifth team. — Michael Rothstein

Previous ranking: 26

Most improved player: DL Christian Wilkins

How they’ve improved: Through just five games of his third NFL season, Wilkins has already tied his career-high in QB hits (4), and set a new career-high in tackles for a loss (5). He also has registered one sack on the season, just one shy of his career high. The 2019 first-round pick has always brought energy to the field — sometimes “too much” juice, according to coach Brian Flores — but his production is starting to match that after a solid-but-unspectacular start to his career. — Marcel Louis-Jacques

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Previous ranking: 30

Most improved player: S Lonnie Johnson Jr.

How they’ve improved: Johnson, who was drafted as a cornerback in the second round in 2019, is in his second season at safety. Safety Justin Reid said he can tell Johnson is getting more comfortable playing in defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s system, and now it’s showing up on the field. Johnson has interceptions — the first two of his career — in back-to-back games in Weeks 4 and 5. — Sarah Barshop

Previous ranking: 29

Most improved player: CB Bryce Hall

How they’ve improved: The 2020 fifth-round pick, who slipped in the draft because of a significant ankle injury near the end of his final season at Virginia, leads the Jets with five passes defensed. In fact, only eight players in the NFL have more than Hall, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Hall got his feet wet as a starter over the second half of last season, but he still was shaking off rust from the layoff. Now he is 100%, playing the role of CB1 and has a chance to be a long-term starter for the Jets. — Rich Cimini



Stephania Bell reports on Daniel Jones after his concussion in the Giants’ Week 5 loss.

Previous ranking: 28

Most improved player: QB Daniel Jones

How they’ve improved: The turnovers have always been the problem for Jones — until this season. Jones finally seemed to have that fixed and was playing really good football prior to being knocked out with a concussion late in the first half Sunday vs. Dallas. He has just one fumble lost and one interception this season — and that interception was on a Hail Mary. Clearly there has been major improvement from the third-year quarterback this year. Entering Monday night, he is top 10 in the NFL in QBR at 61.0 through five weeks. — Jordan Raanan

Previous ranking: 31

Most improved player: LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin

How they’ve improved: One of the biggest improvements in the eyes of first-year Lions coach Dan Campbell is Reeves-Maybin. He stands out because he primarily saw action on special teams last season. But over the past few weeks, he has gotten better — notably on the road against Minnesota on Sunday, where he forced and recovered a crucial fumble to go along with five tackles. “He makes plays,” Campbell said. “He’s productive for us.” — Eric Woodyard

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Previous ranking: 32

Most improved player: RB James Robinson

How they’ve improved: Despite a slow start to the season — just 16 carries in the first two games combined — Robinson is on pace for 1,316 yards rushing, which would better his rookie total by nearly 250 yards. Robinson worked on getting quicker and faster in the offseason, and it looks like he accomplished that without losing any power. Robinson was pretty darn good as a rookie, and he could approach 1,500 yards if the Jaguars would give him even more work than the 16 carries he is averaging over the past three games. — Mike DiRocco