North Queensland Cowboys' fans are in disarray after dropping a gear compared to their 2022 form, and one key figure's form is the perfect metaphor for their slow start to the season.

The Cowboys surprised the rugby league world last season, going from bottom four predictions in the pre-season to third on the ladder, earning their first-ever home preliminary final in Townsville in the process.

While it's easy to praise the players or coach Todd Payten over their stunning glow-up, a high portion of the playing group managed to play consistent, career-best football last season, and it's hard to back up.

While the world knew the damage Jason Taumalolo could cause before 2022, they didn't predict the sudden rise of stars like Reuben Cotter, Reece Robson, Scott Drinkwater, Murray Taulagi and Tom Dearden, while Valentine Holmes' move to centre was a smashing success.

However, the face that lies synonymous with their 2022 season is that of Dally M Rookie of the Year, Jeremiah Nanai.

The young back-rower crossed for 17 tries in 23 games, falling just three tries short of Steve Menzie's record of most tries in a season for a forward in the NRL era, as well as making his Queensland and Kangaroos debut in the same year.

However, don't let last week's two-try effort fool you, it's his statistics that should worry you.

Jeremiah Nanai hasn't missed a minute for North Queensland so far this year, playing 240 minutes across three games - and running for just 117 metres.

That's not his average run metres, that's his combined total across the first three games of the season.

117 metres. It works out to less than 40 metres a game.

His opposite number, Mitch Barnett, ran for 140 metres against Nanai in just a 54-minute stint against the Cowboys, while the Maroons forward produced 43 metres from six runs.

It's one run every 13 minutes.

Regardless of age, Nanai's new contract at the club has him earning a reported $900,000 per set season across four years, and there's no way the Cowboys are getting bang for their buck as it stands.

NRL Rd 3 - Broncos v Cowboys
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 27: Jeremiah Nanai of the Cowboys (L) is tackled by Herbie Farnworth of the Broncos during the round three NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium, on March 27, 2022, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Dan Peled/Getty Images)

There's been added weight on his shoulders to start the season with fellow edge forwards Luciano Leilua stood down and Heilum Luki returning from an ACL injury, the latter playing 20 minutes from the bench against the Warriors in his return match.

They were minus Scott Drinkwater and Peta Hiku for the New Zealand clash, but that doesn't change the first two matches, either.

The club produced a narrow 19-18 win over Canberra in the opening round before falling to the Broncos and the Warriors, two winnable games, and they simply need more from their high-paid stars.

This time last season, Nanai was scoring his first career hat-trick, and now he's gone from three tries to only just making three runs in a match, the term 'second-year syndrome' beginning to rear its head.

North Queensland have another 21 games before the finals, a long, long road ahead, however, they'll need to get their guns firing early if they are to make a dent in their premiership ambitions.