As JuJu Smith-Schuster was sprinting to a Pittsburgh Steelers-record 97-yard touchdown reception last week against the Detroit Lions, the rookie receiver kept looking back. There was a reason why: his Madden speed.
"To be honest, the reason I kept looking back was because of Madden -- my speed is like 82, 83," Smith-Schuster said after the game. "So I was like, 'Nah, I think they're going to catch me. They're going to catch me.' And then next, you know, I pulled away, and I swerved to the right, and I was able to get the touchdown."
It might be the first time a player ever used Madden (and his alleged slow speed in it) to judge whether he could outrun a player in real life. Madden actually had his speed rating at an 89 -- a number that changed for the first time this week from the initial 88 -- but the game is starting to give the receiver credit as the midseason point approaches.
Smith-Schuster started with a 73 overall rating. Now the NFL’s leading rookie receiver in real life (24 catches and 424 yards) is at 77, which is a little low considering who is in front of him. That includes his struggling teammate, Martavis Bryant, recently reinstated Cleveland receiver Josh Gordon and a gaggle of rookies, including Tennessee's Corey Davis, the Chargers' Mike Williams and the Rams' Cooper Kupp.
But don't worry too much, JuJu. Madden ratings tend to figure themselves out -- and the game has already recognized the 20-year-old's route running (up eight, from 69 to 77) and awareness (up from 68 to 77). Soon enough, the rest could catch up.
With that in mind, here's a spin around the "Madden NFL 18" universe at midseason, with all the good and bad through the game's virtual byte-sized eyes. To be up front, this is not a comprehensive list.
The 99 club
"Madden NFL 18" initially had three players with a 99 overall rating: cover boy Tom Brady, Denver linebacker Von Miller and Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald. Of those, only one remains: Miller.
Brady lost his 99 rating before Week 2, dropping to 98 likely due to a two-point drop in throwing power from 97 to 95. He's still the highest-rated quarterback in the game, one position ahead of the injured Aaron Rodgers.
Donald dropped as low as 97 before Week 3, but rebounded to 98 the following week, his current rating. His block-shedding dropped from 91 to 88, perhaps explaining his one-point dip.
Miller remains a 99 and saw only small changes from his overall rating, with his block-shedding dropping from a 95 to an 88, while his awareness moved from a 92 to a 96 and his acceleration from an 89 to a 90. His man coverage dropped two (64 to 62) and his zone from 74 to 72. His finesse and power moves also dropped one point each.
Watt started as a 98 and graduated to a 99 before Week 5, the same week a fractured left leg ended his season. Gronkowski, meanwhile, was boosted up before Week 4 to a 99 when his awareness jumped from 92 to 94 and his catching from 95 to 96.
Who could join them? It's tough to truly understand the Madden formula and what will warrant bumps in ratings. Based on who is out there, Gronkowski, Miller and Watt could end up having company. There's no reason to think Brady and Donald can't once again achieve 99 status.
The best candidates to crack the 99 club:
Khalil Mack, OLB, Raiders: Mack moved from 97 to 98 already this season (he did so last week). Mack has 42 tackles in real life, which puts him on pace for a career high. He also has a shot to hit double-digit sacks for the third straight season. If he gets there, he could get the last bump he needs.
Antonio Brown, WR, Steelers: Not actually sure what the Madden raters have against Brown, who should be a 99 in my opinion instead of his holding-steady 97. He leads the NFL in receptions (57) and receiving yards (835) and has three touchdowns. His awareness rating is 99 and his spectacular catch rating is up to 98.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons: He hasn't gotten into the end zone much but is still on pace for a 1,234-yard season. It'd be his fourth straight 1,000-yard year, although his lowest total since his injury-shortened 2013. A few more touchdowns, though, and Brown's rating could bump up, especially since he has been 98 since launch.
If you play in a dynasty with the launch rosters, you're probably a little bitter right now. Those rookies you drafted? They might not be increasing as fast in the game as they are in real life -- particularly if you took a chance on some of the guys having massive first NFL seasons.
Here are the most notable rookie risers:
Kareem Hunt, RB, Chiefs: A third-round pick out of Toledo, Hunt was a 75 at launch. The potential was there, but he was behind Spencer Ware on the depth chart. Now he's the NFL's leading rusher (763 yards). His ratings have taken a similar jump. Hunt is now an 85, tied with Tevin Coleman and fellow rookie Leonard Fournette as the No. 11-rated RB. His awareness is 21 -- yes, twenty-one -- points higher than it started at. His speed is up three (87 to 90), acceleration up two (90 to 92) and elusiveness up 10 (67 to 77). At this point, it would be surprising if he doesn't open next year's game as a top-five running back.
Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans: Watson has the highest Total QBR in the league (81.9) and fifth-highest passer rating (103.0). He has improved in Madden and is the highest-rated rookie passer at 79 (up from 76), but Madden still has him behind Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and Miami's Ryan Tannehill. Watson's biggest jump is in awareness, where he started at 73 and is now 83. After suffering a season-ending ACL injury on Thursday, Watson's numbers are unlikely to change much based on how the game has handled his teammate, Watt.
T.J. Watt, OLB, Steelers: The younger brother of 99er J.J. Watt is making his own moves. After an initial rating of 74, he's 79 at midseason and was as high as 80. His awareness is up nine (61 to 70), as is his block-shedding (74 to 83) and play recognition (61 to 70).
Rookies haven't been the only players to see their stocks rise significantly. Here are some other notable risers:
De'Vondre Campbell, LB, Falcons: The second-year linebacker has 38 tackles and two sacks this season and is not ranked in the top 20 in any statistical category. But Madden loves him. He has gone from 71 at launch to 85, incrementally moving up almost every week. He moved up 15 points each in man coverage and zone coverage, 11 in awareness and play recognition, and eight in finesse moves and power moves. That makes for a much different player.
Micah Hyde, FS, Bills: He started at 78 and actually dropped as low as 75 after Week 4. But he has since moved up eight overall points as he continues to be a key part of Buffalo's stingy secondary. Hyde is now an 86 overall with 87 awareness, 10 points better than the 77 at launch. His five interceptions entering Thursday night are already a career high.
Carson Wentz, QB, Eagles: The Wentz Wagon is fully loaded at this point, both with fans and offensive options. He didn't have the dramatic rise Campbell and Hyde did, mostly because he was starting at a higher base point. But Wentz has jumped from 79 to 85 overall with a nine-point awareness leap (77 to 86). His deep accuracy and middle accuracy are up five (77 to 82 deep and 79 to 84 middle). He is still tied with Detroit's Matthew Stafford as the No. 9 QB in the game, so there's still room to grow.
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons: He's still throwing for a lot of yards, but not looking like the MVP he was last year. His 2016 performance that earned him a 96 overall rating is down to 91 at the midway point of 2017. Ryan is still one of the best quarterbacks in the game (only Brady, Rodgers and the Saints' Drew Brees are better), but much like the real-life Falcons, Ryan is a little bit less than last year.
Michael Burton, FB, Chicago: Burton was a free agent in the game when it was released. And Madden has not been kind. He started as an 85 in the game before tumbling to a 60. His awareness, though he's actually a smart player, dropped six. His run blocking cratered 22 points from a 74 to a 52. His impact blocking fell 30 points from 83 to 53. Based off a quick study, it seems fullbacks have the most fluctuation in the game this season.
Ramik Wilson, MLB, Kansas City: Madden is spot on, although it might have thought too much of Wilson's play to start. He has dropped from a 79 to a 70 and hasn't played since Week 4. The 12-point dip in awareness and play recognition and nine-point drops in man and zone coverage were virtual factors combined with his real-life inactive play.
Biggest question marks
There are some guys who Madden seems to be missing on ... badly.
Eric Ebron, TE, Detroit: Ebron is having his worst season since his rookie year. He was the subject of trade rumors last week. But not according to Madden. Ebron started the season as an 81. Now? He's an 84 and has been as high as an 86. Despite a drop rate of 9.7 percent in real life, his catching has improved in the game from 82 to 83. I've been as high on Ebron's real-life potential as anyone the past couple of seasons, but this is just unrealistic. He's tied with Minnesota's Kyle Rudolph and ahead of Oakland's Jared Cook, among others.
Alex Collins, RB, Baltimore: It might have to do with Collins' low initial rating (67), but the No. 9 rusher in the NFL should be much higher than a 74. This feels like a player who is being hurt by incremental upward movement instead of reality showing he can be a quality rusher. Among the running backs ahead of him are the Colts' Christine Michael, Detroit's Zach Zenner and Arizona's Kerwynn Williams. That's kind of ridiculous.
Joe Schobert, MLB, Browns: Yes, the Browns are winless and a mess on many levels, but Madden should be giving the middle linebacker some more love. He's tied for second in the NFL in tackles, yet has seen his rating drop from 69 to 68 -- particularly crushing him in pass coverage with an eight-point drop in both man and zone coverage that was once as low as a 14-point fall. Schobert was actually worse a week ago, but Madden made some corrections for Week 9, including improving his tackling from 72 to 77 and leveling his block-shedding to an at-launch 73. Can't say I've watched a lot of Schobert this season, but it just seems unnecessarily low.