What’s the difference between the NFL’s replacement referees and all 32 team rosters? Every squad has someone who is actually getting better from week to week. Rim shot, please. The league’s (now solved) officiating fiasco was the biggest story during the first three weeks of the 2012 campaign, but that's in past. What had been overshadowed was the early-season improvement of at least one member of every franchise. Even if your favorite team is 0-3 – sorry, New Orleans and Cleveland fans – there is reason to feel good about the development of an emerging talent. Here is a look at 32 players who fit that bill:
St. Louis: Running back Daryl Richardson.
Second-round draft pick Isaiah Pead was supposed to become Steven Jackson’s backup but he was bypassed by a running back chosen 202 spots later. Richardson was one of the unsung heroes in a Week 2 victory over Washington, churning out 102 yards of rushing and receiving while replacing an injured Jackson.
Arizona: Left tackle D’Anthony Batiste.
The sky was falling during the preseason as the offensive line fell apart sans injured left tackle Levi Brown. A journeyman who hadn’t started a game since 2007 saved the day. Batiste shifted from right tackle to fill the void and played as surprisingly solid as the Cardinals have during their unexpected 3-0 start.
Seattle: Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
The Seahawks have finally addressed what was a weakness since Lofa Tatupu’s unexpected decline began in 2009. Wagner’s eight tackles in Monday night’s 14-12 victory over Green Bay was his highest output in three rookie starts. A 2012 second-round pick, Wagner recently told me that budding star outside linebacker K.J. Wright has aided his development by showing him the ropes.
San Francisco: Wide receiver Michael Crabtree
He may never become the game-changer San Francisco had hoped when making Crabtree the No. 10 overall pick in the 2009 draft. Crabtree, though, has found his niche as Alex Smith’s favorite target in clutch situations like third downs. He also has a team-high 19 catches, all of which have come in the short and intermediate range.
Tampa Bay: Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy
Having overcome the triceps injuries that derailed his first two NFL seasons, McCoy is fulfilling the promise that made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 draft. McCoy has emerged as a pass-rushing demon in Tampa Bay’s first three games with three sacks and six quarterback hurries.
Carolina: Wide receiver Brandon LaFell
Carolina may finally have a quality No. 2 wideout to complement Steve Smith. LaFell has 10 catches for 182 yards and one touchdown in the first three games, although he was conspicuously absent in last Thursday’s 37-6 loss to the Giants.
New Orleans: Defensive end Cameron Jordan
After quietly starting 15 games as a rookie in 2011, Jordan is making a bigger impact in his second season. His 20 tackles through three games lead all NFL defensive linemen.
Atlanta: Running back Jacquizz Rodgers
The Falcons have found it easier to spell 30-year-old starter Michael Turner thanks to the continued development of the shifty Rodgers in his second NFL season. Rodgers has 28 touches already this season as a rusher and receiver.
Minnesota: Tight end Kyle Rudolph
With his 6-foot-6, 258-pound frame, Rudolph has emerged as the favorite red-zone target of fellow 2011 draft class member Christian Ponder. Rudolph has caught three touchdown passes from Ponder in Minnesota’s past two games.
Detroit: Cornerback Bill Bentley
Ideally, Bentley would be used as a nickel cornerback in his rookie season while developing as a third-round draft pick. Bentley, though, has gotten thrown into the fire because of injuries. He has seven tackles in two starts after missing a Week 2 contest against San Francisco with a concussion.
Chicago: Strong safety Major Wright
The athleticism was always there. Now in his third NFL season, Wright has developed a much better feel for opposing offenses. This was reflected on his 45-yard interception return for a touchdown in last Sunday’s 23-6 victory over St. Louis.
Green Bay: Defensive end Jerel Worthy
The Packers addressed their lack of depth on the defensive line by choosing Worthy in the second round of April’s draft. He has proven worthy of the selection by helping to apply pressure in pass-rush packages for a unit that ranks second in the NFL in sacks with 12.
Washington: Running back Alfred Morris
Mike Shanahan’s penchant for finding late-round steals at running back has continued with Morris. A 2012 sixth-round choice from Florida Atlantic, Morris won the starting job in the preseason and has posted 263 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Washington’s first three games.
New York Giants: Wide receiver Ramses Barden
Coming from a Division I-AA college program like Cal-Poly as a 2009 third-round draft pick, it was no secret that Barden would need time to develop. While it seems to have taken an eternity by NFL standards, Barden finally rewarded New York’s patience with a nine-catch, 138-yard outing in last Thursday’s 37-6 rout of Carolina. A monster-sized target at 6-foot-6 and 224 pounds, Barden should continue receiving snaps as New York’s third wideout behind Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Dallas: Wide receiver Kevin Ogletree
The Cowboys’ knack for developing low-level wide receiver prospects continues with Ogletree, who gradually worked his way up the depth chart into the No. 3 spot behind starters Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Now in his fourth NFL season, Ogletree already has posted a career single-season high of 197 yards on his 14 catches.
Philadelphia: King Dunlap
The versatile Dunlap – he had seven starts at three different positions the past two seasons – has found a home at left tackle with Jason Peters (Achilles tendon) out for the year. Dunlap bested ex-Buffalo starter Demetress Bell for a first-team spot in the preseason. Dunlap has also shown impressive agility for being now the NFL’s biggest left tackle at 6-foot-9.
Denver: Tight end Jacob Tamme
A backup his first four seasons in Indianapolis, Tamme got to showcase his receiving skills in 2010 when Dallas Clark landed on injured reserve. Tamme is doing the same now that he is reunited with Peyton Manning in Denver. Tamme has 10 catches for 87 yards and one touchdown in the Broncos’ first three games.
Kansas City: Outside linebacker Justin Houston
The Chiefs have found their pass-rushing complement to Tamba Hali with this 2011 third-round pick. Houston’s three-sack effort last Sunday helped boost Kansas City’s 27-24 comeback victory over New Orleans.
Oakland: Tight end Brandon Myers
A spot starter through his first three NFL seasons, Myers has shown sure hands while catching all 15 of the passes thrown to him this season by Carson Palmer. Myers needs only one more reception to tie the career high he posted in 2011.
San Diego: Defensive end Kendall Reyes
The Chargers have needed a 3-4 lineman with pass-rush skills since Luis Castillo’s productivity dropped following a seven-sack season in 2006. Although not starting as a rookie quite yet, Reyes has shown promise of being able to fulfill that aforementioned role by pushing the pocket.
Houston: Fullback/H-back James Casey
Drafted as a tight end out of Rice in 2009, Casey has found his niche at another position that better utilizes his skill set. He is a solid blocker whose seven catches through three games reflect his value as a secondary option in the passing game.
Indianapolis: Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman
After three years in the Canadian Football League, Freeman has taken advantage of his opportunity for playing time in the absence of starter Pat Angerer (foot). Freeman leads the team in tackles with 27 and has notched a sack and forced fumble.
Tennessee: Running back/kick returner Darius Reynaud
Reynaud didn’t let spending all of 2011 out of the NFL after being cut by the New York Giants in the preseason end his NFL dreams. Reynaud has taken advantage of a second chance with the Titans by excelling on special teams. He helped directly produce two touchdowns in last Sunday’s 44-41 upset of Detroit.
Jacksonville: Wide receiver Cecil Shorts III
Shorts saved the best for last in two of Jacksonville’s first three games. He had a 39-yard touchdown catch in the final minute of the season-opener against Minnesota and streaked for an 80-yard score with 45 seconds remaining to seal last Sunday’s 22-17 victory over Indianapolis. Those two plays alone equaled more productivity than Shorts’ 2011 rookie season in Jacksonville.
Baltimore: Tight end Dennis Pitta
He can be considered a poor man’s Rob Gronkowski in Baltimore’s offense. Pitta, who was chosen two rounds later than Gronkowski in the 2010 NFL draft class, has 18 catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns while assuming the starting role from Ed Dickson.
Pittsburgh: Cornerback Keenan Lewis
It took three seasons, but this 2009 third-round pick has finally earned a starting spot at left cornerback opposite Ike Taylor. The promotion could pay financial dividends for Lewis in 2013 when he is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
Cleveland: Tight end Jordan Cameron
The Browns are hoping that a five-catch, 45-yard outing in his 2012 debut last Sunday against Buffalo is a sign of things to come. A raw prospect taken in the fourth round of last year’s draft, Cameron has the chance to become a top receiving option for rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden as Cleveland continues to experience troubles with its wide receiver corps.
Cincinnati: Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins
A road that included stints in the Canadian Football League and an NFL reality show (Michael Irvin’s 4th and Long) finally led the undersized Hawkins to the big time. Hawkins has showcased his elusiveness this season as a slot receiver in Cincinnati with 12 catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns.
Buffalo: Left tackle Cordy Glenn
General manager Buddy Nix’s pre-draft belief that the big-bodied Glenn (6-foot-5, 343 pounds) was athletic enough to handle the left tackle spot is paying dividends. The Bills lead the league with an 8.1-yard average on 23 runs to the left side of their offensive line behind Glenn and left guard Andy Levitre.
New England: Defensive end Chandler Jones
The brother of UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon “Bones” Jones is already providing knock-out plays for the Patriots as a rookie. Chandler Jones forced fumbles in each of his first two NFL games after winning a starting spot during the preseason.
New York Jets: Running back Bilal Powell
The Jets entered the regular season with uncertainty at the No. 2 running back position. Not anymore. Powell, a 2011 fourth-round draft pick, has leapfrogged Joe McKnight for carries behind struggling starter Shonn Greene (2.8-yard average on 57 carries).
Miami: Center Mike Pouncey
Pittsburgh’s Maurkice Pouncey now has legitimate competition as the best center in his family. Twin brother Mike has blossomed in his second NFL season, helping to pave the way for running back Reggie Bush (302 rushing yards and two touchdowns). Mike’s decision to shed weight during the offseason – he lost eight-percent body fat and hired a personal chef – helped him make a smooth adjustment to Miami’s new zone-blocking scheme that requires better mobility from the offensive linemen.