Even the most casual NFL fan can probably point out the game’s superstars such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, and even defensive standouts like Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, DeMarcus Ware and J.J. Watt are nearly instantly recognizable to the average fan. There’s another group of NFL players that go largely unnoticed, and even though these under-the-radar types may lack the headlines or endorsement deals of their more recognized brethren, their contributions are as valuable (in some cases even more valuable) to their team’s overall success.
Undrafted out of little Coe College (Iowa), Fred Jackson got a break when then-Bills GM Marv Levy, himself a Coe alumnus, invited Jackson to Buffalo’s training camp in 2006. A longshot at best, Jackson defied the odds and made the team as third-string RB and special teams player. In 2009, Jackson rushed for 1,062 yards as well as recording 1,014 on kickoff returns (an NFL-first). The team subsequently drafted RB C.J. Spiller who was expected to become a star, but he found it impossible to unseat the once-again healthy Jackson. The duo eventually became part of a platoon system and are now regarded as one of the NFL’s better one-two weapons at RB.
Kick returners are certainly play a vital role in the NFL, but few are as productive or as versatile as Dwayne Harris of Dallas. Although Harris leads the league in kickoff return average (31.3 yards) and is second in punt return average (14.0), it’s his consistency and unique ability to “flip” field position that makes him a standout. In addition, Harris is one of the top gunners in the NFL, regularly “blowing up” opposing punt returners with his world-class speed.
Overlooked by players such as Cam Newton, Steve Smith and Luke Kuechly, Mike Tolbert’s importance to the Carolina Panthers is off the charts. Tolbert alternates between FB and RB for the team, and his bowling ball-like physique (5’9, listed at 245 lbs.) makes him quite a load for opposing tacklers. Whether it’s carrying the ball, hauling in short passes, delivering devastating blocks or breaking up kick returns, Tolbert is arguably the most valuable Panther not named Cam Newton.
Punters are among the most taken-for-granted of all NFL players, but one of Kansas City’s most effective weapons in 2013 has been P Dustin Colquitt who not only averages 45.4 yards per kick, but has placed an astonishing 43.7% of his punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, giving his defense an overwhelming advantage in field position.
With such standouts as Wes Welker, Danny Woodhead and Aaron Hernandez gone, Julian Edelman has proven to be invaluable to the “new look” Patriots. Through Week 13, Edelman has been a stats sheet stuffer, catching 70 passes and garnering 349 yards on punt returns. The 232nd selection in the 2009 NFL Draft, Edelman has proven to the demanding Bill Belichick that he belongs, not a small feat.
Surrounded by Pro Bowlers Patrick Willis and Novorro Bowman, it’s easy to overlook their fellow LBer Ahmad Brooks of the 49ers. Despite his lesser profile, Brooks is proving to be at least as effective as his more celebrated teammates, racking up 49 tackles, an INT and forced fumble to go along with 8.5 sacks through Week 13. He benefits from the extra attention Willis and Bowman receive, but he’s made the most of it in helping to make San Francisco’s LB corps one of the league’s most-feared and respected.
With such up-and-coming potential stars such as Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Calais Campbell and probable Hall of Famer John Abraham, Arizona’s defense is among the league’s most effective, but an overlooked standout for the Cardinals is LB Karlos Dansby. The ten-year veteran fills up the stat sheet each week (92 tackles, 5 sacks, a forced fumble and recovery and two INTs, one returned for a TD), and is a big part in helping the Cards to a 7-5 record.
The latest batch of future NFL star QBs (Newton, Kaepernick, Tannehill, Luck, Griffin, Wilson) has caused Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton to be routinely overlooked. Now in his third season, all Dalton has done is throw for over 10,000 yards and 69 TDs, and most importantly, he’s led the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons. If (and when) Cincinnati advances past the first round of the postseason, Dalton may finally get his due.
Playing alongside Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley is often over-shadowed, both by Suh’s brilliance (as well as on-field antics) and production. But Fairley, an intelligent and shockingly quick athlete for his size (6’4 300 lbs.), has become a run-stuffer supreme for the Lions. Clogging up the interior isn’t all the third-year Auburn product contributes however, having racked up 3.5 sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Usually the only time an NFL center’s name is mentioned is if they make a bad snap, but Seattle’s Max Unger has not only become (at least in Seattle) almost a household name, he’s developed into one of the league’s more versatile and effective centers, anchoring the 11-1 Seahawks O-line. His importance in creating holes for Marshawn Lynch as well as providing protection for Russell Wilson is invaluable.