By JOSH DUBOW, AP Pro Football Writer
Jared Goff and Carson Wentz have answered almost all the questions they faced following suspect rookie seasons as the top two picks in the 2016 draft.
Both young quarterbacks have their teams in first place in their divisions after they became the first QBs drafted Nos. 1 and 2 in the same year to each throw four TD passes on the same day this weekend.
Wentz had gotten off to a promising start as a rookie in Philadelphia before a rough second half. He lost seven of his final 10 games while throwing more interceptions than touchdowns with a pedestrian 5.8 yards per attempt.
Goff’s year was considerably worse after being taken one spot ahead of Wentz by the Rams. There were hopes he could quickly become the face of the franchise that had just arrived in Los Angeles. Instead, he couldn’t even win the starting job until halfway through the season and finished the year averaging 5.3 yards per attempt with a 63.6 passer rating.
That has all changed. Goff and Wentz have undergone sophomore surges to put their teams in contention in the NFC and lead a group of players who have been far better in the first half of this season than many expected.
Wentz has led the team with the NFL’s best record as the Eagles (8-1) have a 2 ½-game lead over Dallas in the NFC East following a 51-23 win over Denver . He leads the NFL with 23 TD passes , including 17 in the past five games.
“I think he’s progressed at a rate as fast as anybody I’ve seen really,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said about Wentz before losing to him last month. “His ability to make plays in the pocket, his ability to stay in the pocket in the face of a rush and still deliver balls accurately, his command of the offense.”
Goff has had a staggering level of improvement from his rookie year with obvious help from new coach Sean McVay and better talent surrounding him. His numbers have shot up in every category . He has increased his yards per attempt from 5.3 to 8.3 to go with 13 TDs, only four interceptions and a 97.9 rating.
That performance has helped put the Rams in first place in the NFC West following Sunday’s 51-17 win over the Giants.
“I think he’s just continuing to take an ownership of our offense. We talk about being an extension of the coaching staff and I think he is truly starting to become that,” McVay said. “But he’s only going to continue to grow and get better. And in terms of where we want him to be, I think we just want him to just continue to take those daily steps, and he’s done that and been receptive.”
Here are some other players who have been pleasant surprises in the first half of the season:
Baltimore RB Alex Collins: A fifth-round pick by Seattle in 2016, Collins lasted one year with the Seahawks and was cut before the start of this season. Unable to make a Seattle team in desperate need of a running back, Collins has thrived in Baltimore after being promoted from the practice squad in Week 2. He leads the Ravens with 521 yards rushing and his 5.6 yards per carry are second in the league halfway through the season.
Chicago DE Akiem Hicks: The former Canadian college star spent his first four seasons in New Orleans and New England before showing flashes last season when he joined the Bears. He has ramped up his game this year and already has tied his career high in sacks with seven , justifying the big contract extension he signed in September.
Dallas DE DeMarcus Lawrence: After having one sack a year ago when his playing time was limited by a suspension and bad back, Lawrence has been a pleasant surprise on Dallas’ defense with 10 1/2 sacks in his first eight games , ranking second in the league. He is finally fulfilling the potential the Cowboys believed he had when they drafted him in the second round in 2014 in hopes he would replace DeMarcus Ware.
Seattle WR Paul Richardson: Just halfway through his fourth season in the NFL, Richardson has already set career highs in yards receiving (415) and touchdowns (five) as he has turned into Russell Wilson’s most dependable deep threat. He caught two TD passes in the Week 8 thriller against Houston and has nine catches of at least 20 yards — two more than he had in his first three seasons combined.
Washington RB Chris Thompson: Thompson is the leading rusher and receiver in Washington, ranking in the top 15 in the league in yards from scrimmage . He already has set his career high in yards receiving halfway through his fifth season and is closing in on the best rushing mark in his career as well as being a key part of Washington’s offense.
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