Super Bowl XLVI: 10 Players to Watch Not Named Brady or Manning

Joe Drake@JoeDrakeDotComContributor IIIJanuary 31, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI: 10 Players to Watch Not Named Brady or Manning

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    You already know these guys: Tom Brady and Eli Manning.

    One is the Golden Boy of the NFL, a "rags to riches" story of the NFL Draft, the former sixth round pick who has led the Patriots to three Super Bowl rings.

    The other is the son of Archie Manning and younger brother to Peyton, the future Hall of Fame QB. Eli was a heralded prospect coming out of college and already has a Super Bowl ring of his own.

    But today we're going to talk about the supporting cast, the guys who aren't household names -- yet.

Rob Gronkowski, Tight End, New England Patriots

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    So maybe you've heard of this guy?

    He broke a few records this year, records that were previously held by guys like Tony Gonzalez and Vernon Davis.  Maybe you've heard of them?

    Rob Gronkowski is good.

    Very good.

    The 6'6" 265lb tight end is going to impact Super Bowl XLVI in a very big way and should be a favorite win the Super Bowl MVP.

    If the Patriots win the big game this Sunday, Gronkowski will be a huge reason why.

Hakeem Nicks, Wide Receiver, New York Giants

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    Standing six feet and one inch, Hakeem Nicks does not tower over defenders like some other big name receivers. But what he lacks in size, he makes up for with playmaker ability.

    Nicks has posted back to back 1,000+ yard seasons despite missing 4 games this year.

    In the Giants three playoff games this year, Nicks has reeled in 18 catches for 335 yards and four touchdowns, ranking him 2nd, 1st and 1st in all three categories for the postseason. 

    Not too shabby.

    Look for Nicks to take advantage of New England's weak secondary and find paydirt in Super Bowl XLVI.

Wes Welker, Slot Receiver, New England Patriots

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    If you have followed the NFL at all over the past few seasons, there is no doubt you've at least heard of Wes Welker. This diminutive man--listed at 5'9" and 185lbs--has become one of the most heralded wide receivers in the NFL.

    Welker lines up in the slot for New England and appears to be open on almost every single play. He led the NFL in receptions for the second time in three years this past season and caught more than 100 passes for the fourth time in five years.

    He simply cannot be stopped.

    Welker was there in 2007 when the Giants ruined New England's perfect season with a Super Bowl loss.

    You can bet he hasn't forgotten.

Victor Cruz, Wide Receiver, New York Giants

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    1,536 receiving yards.

    Not bad for a guy that didn't have an NFL catch until week two this season.

    Victor Cruz absolutely exploded onto the NFL scene this year, finishing 3rd in the league for receiving yards, behind only Detroit's Calvin Johnson and the aforementioned Wes Welker.  Don't tell either Johnson or Welker this, but Cruz had more yards per catch.  That stat did lead the NFL.

    Cruz was an under the radar guy that came from FCS-level University of Massachusetts.  I actually had the pleasure of watching him play right at the University of Maine.

    Needless to say, Victor Cruz is no longer flying under-the-radar.

    If he has a big day during Super Bowl XLVI, the Giants will likely "Cruz to Victor-y"... See what I did there?

Aaron Hernandez, Tight End/Runningback?, New England Patriots

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    Aaron Hernandez may need to change his position after the postseason. The already dynamic force in the passing game has been lining up in the backfield during recent games. 

    But not for the sole purpose of protecting Tom Brady.

    Hernandez has now become a part-time running back in the ever-evolving New England offense.

    How's that for a twist?

    Clearly head coach Bill Belichick wants to get Hernandez the ball, so look for the Patriots to utilize the tight end in multiple ways--especially as a decoy early on--only to have him strike it big if the Giants' defense falls asleep.

Jason Pierre-Paul, Defensive End, New York Giants

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    A year ago, Jason Pierre-Paul finished the season with zero starts, 30 total tackles and four and a half sacks.

    Yes, it was his rookie season, but it was still nothing to write home about.

    Now flash forward to today.

    The Giants are preparing for Super Bowl XLVI and Pierre-Paul has started 15 games--including his last 9--and nearly quadrupled his regular season sack total, finishing fourth in the NFL with 16.5. 

    If the New York defense hopes to keep Tom Brady in check, Pierre-Paul will need to get into the backfield and pressure the quarterback again. He recorded a sack during New York's win at New England in week nine; will another sack lead to a win for the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI?

Offensive Line, New England Patriots

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    It's going be a long day for Brady and the Patriots if Matt Light ends up sitting on his backside after plays.

    The New England offensive line has been given--what may be--the most difficult job in Super Bowl XLVI: stopping the New York pass rush.

    With big names like Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka anchoring the Giants defensive line, Light and the boys have their work cut out for them. 

    Conquering such a mighty task, however, will reap equally mighty benefits.

    Should Brady's jersey stay clean during the Super Bowl, you can bet that the Patriots will have racked up four or five touchdowns. When you give Tom Brady time to throw, there isn't a defense in the league that can stop him.

Ahmad Bradshaw, Runningback, New York Giants

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    There is nothing I can say about Ahmad Bradshaw or his playing style that would do justice.

    He is 5'10" and 215lbs of pure animal on the gridiron.

    Bradshaw is a big, bruising back with the speed to get outside and bulldoze helpless defensive backs.

    Though he did deal with some injury issues during the regular season, Bradshaw is back and ready to go now. He missed the week nine matchup in New England, but I will personally guarantee you that he won't miss this one. The Patriots had the league's second worst defense.  Would you pass up that opportunity if you were Bradshaw?

    I didn't think so.

Stephen Gostkowski, Kicker, New England Patriots

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    In a postseason that has seen clutch field goals make or break games, you can bet that Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski will have a significant impact on Super Bowl XLVI.

    Every Super Bowl the Patriots have played in since 2001 has been decided by three points, so why would Super Bowl XLVI be any different?

    The cold, hard truth is that New England hasn't experienced much playoff success--minus the 2007 Super Bowl run--since former kicker (and icon) Adam Vinatieri left the team for the Indianapolis Colts. He was the deciding factor in each Super Bowl win in 2001, 2003 and 2004.

    Stephen Gostkowski had better be ready come Sunday.

    There is no doubt his number will be called.

David Tyree, Former New York Giants Wide Receiver

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    You didn't think we could get through an entire discussion without bringing up David Tyree's "Helmet-Catch", did you?

    One of the most improbable plays in sports history led to the "Giant upset" of the Patriots' in 2007, thus ruining New England's perfect season.

    Tyree was an average NFL player--not bad by any means--but definitely not someone New England was going to key on during the game.

    But, Tyree single-handedly changed the outcome of that game.

    Think the Giants will make sure David Tyree is in the building once again for this Super Bowl rematch?

    The smart money says, "yes".

Who Will It Be This Year?

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    Now that you know the supporting casts to Tom Brady and Eli Manning, who do you think will have the biggest impact in Super Bowl XLVI? 

    There is no question that the superstar quarterbacks will leave their mark on the game, but who is going to be the game changer?

    Which relatively unknown player will become an overnight sensation and a household name on Monday morning?

    We will soon  find out.