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NFL's Biggest Surprises of 2023 Season at NFL's Quarter Mark

Every team has played four games, and byes are starting this week. That means it's a perfect time to look at some of the biggest surprises this season in the NFL, both positively and negatively.

Season's Biggest Surprises

Texans Have a Franchise QB ...

I didn’t have a particularly strong opinion about rookie QB C.J. Stroud either way coming into the NFL. Still, the one thing I was confident about was it wouldn’t be pretty early because Stroud would be in a far different environment in Houston than he ever found himself in at Ohio State.

While throwing the ball all over the field the last couple of years for the Buckeyes, Stroud had clean pockets and often wide-open receivers to whom he could distribute the ball. The muddier pocket and pedestrian receiving corps should’ve led to tough sledding early for Stroud, but it hasn’t.

Even without four starting offensive linemen, Stroud has gotten better each week and has shredded the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers, leading the Houston Texans to victories in each. He’s completing more than 62 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception early in his rookie campaign.

>> READ: Stroud has Surpassed Young, Richardson

Commanders Might Have One, Too

Sam Howell came into this season with one career start, a fifth-round pedigree, a new offensive coordinator calling plays for the first time and one of the five worst offensive lines in the NFL.

In other words, the table was not exactly set for him to come in and have success as a first-time starter.

Multiple quarterback teammates during my time in the league have said some iteration of “you don’t really know about a quarterback until they throw a bunch of picks and play awful to lose a game for their team and have to bounce back the next week.” If those guys know what they are talking about then we all found out a lot about Howell on Sunday in Philadelphia.

The Washington Commanders triggerman had shown some moxie the first two weeks in leading his squad to come-from-behind victories against the Arizona Cardinals and the Denver Broncos. After a horrific outing against the Buffalo Bills with everybody wondering how he would react, Howell was outstanding. He completed more than 70 percent of his passes without an interception and led the Commanders on a game-tying drive as the clock expired to send it into overtime.

Philadelphia is not an easy place to play, especially against that Philadelphia Eagles defensive line. Howell showed he was up to the challenge, which is a great sign for Washington. 

Rams, Buccaneers are Kind of Good

Coming into the season, I did my Power Rankings for each team in the NFL on the Ross Tucker Football Podcast, and I had the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 27) and Los Angeles Rams (No. 30) as two of the worst six teams in the NFL.

Those predictions aren’t looking good right now. The Buccaneers and Rams are surprisingly in the thick of the playoff picture right now.

The Buccaneers finished last year poorly. With Tom Brady’s retirement, I felt certain the team would have a psychological drop off with the realization they were no longer a Super Bowl contender.

Plus, Baker Mayfield had become a football journeyman, and even their stalwart center, Ryan Jensen, was put on ice before the season began. It didn’t appear to be a recipe for success, but Mayfield has provided a spark and some quality play in leading Tampa Bay to a first-place spot in the division at the quarter pole.

The Rams, meanwhile, appeared bereft of talent and experience at most positions before putting star wide receiver Cooper Kupp on IR to start the season. No Kupp seemed like a death sentence for the Rams' offense until Matthew Stafford started looking like his 2021 self, zipping passes to rookie sensation Puka Nacua

>>WATCH: Kupp Likely Limited in His Return

Speaking of surprises, who the heck is this guy, and how did the Rams land this stat sheet stuffer in the fifth round?

Not only that, but one look at the Rams' defensive depth chart and how well that unit has performed thus far is stunning. Go check it out.  How many guys other than Aaron Donald have you ever heard of? It’s nuts.

Arizona Cardinals Joshua Dobbs

Arizona Cardinals are Competitive

There was a lot of talk coming into the season about the Arizona Cardinals being the worst team in the league. Even worse, many speculated the Cardinals were flat-out tanking to get the No. 1 overall pick. “Collapse for Caleb Williams,” perhaps?

It seems like everyone forgot to tell the Cardinals players about the plan. New head Jonathan Gannon has gotten the most out of quarterback Josh Dobbs and the rest of that roster. The team narrowly failed to hold leads against the Commanders and New York Giants before beating the 3-1 Dallas Cowboys by double digits.

Playoff-bound they are not, but it’s also not looking likely they will have the first pick in the draft, either. Speaking of which… 

Chicago Bears Have Top Two Draft Picks

Like many, there was an expectation the Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers would be improved this season.  

The Bears were eager to build off some positives from quarterback Justin Fields in 2022. They used the 2023 No. 1 overall pick to add pieces on both sides of the ball in the draft, free agency and via trade for star WR DJ Moore. It hasn’t happened, as the Bears are winless and have often been noncompetitive so far this season.

The positive for the Bears is the Panthers, from whom the Bears have next year’s No. 1 pick, are also winless. Their addition of a new star-studded coaching staff led by Frank Reich has not amounted to any victories.

The Panthers brought in veterans like Adam Thielen, Hayden Hurst and DJ Chark to help put top pick Bryce Young in a good spot for success. But so far, not so good as they haven't moved the ball with the former Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama.

Ross Tucker is a former NFL offensive lineman who played seven seasons for the Cowboys, Bills, Patriots and Washington after graduating from Princeton University in 2001. He works as a color commentator for both CBS Sports and Westwood One in addition to hosting a number of podcasts, including the popular Ross Tucker Football Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @RossTuckerNFL.