Unsung Heroes of the New England Patriots' 2012 Season
At 9-3 and with the AFC East in hand, the New England Patriots are marching toward the home stretch of the regular season. New England's success can be attributed to the performances of Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Stevan Ridley, but this team is thinking Super Bowl because of its unsung heroes.
While Pro Bowlers and Hall of Famers put fans in the seats, it takes more than stars to win games. Here are New England's most undervalued talents of the 2012 campaign.
Danny Woodhead, Halfback
Danny Woodhead is not a guy who carries the ball 20-plus times per game. He is, however, a guy who converts on third downs.
The 5'8", 200-pound runner has amassed 25 first downs this year, which is more than Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden, Julian Edelman and Aaron Hernandez, according to ESPN.com statistics.
Woodhead runs hard, no matter if he's lined up in the slot or in the backfield. His fearless playing style and versatility has helped him rack up 211 rushing yards, 272 receiving yards and four total touchdowns in 2012.
The Chadron State standout also ranks fifth on the team in receptions with 26.
Daniel Fells, Tight End
Veteran tight end Daniel Fells was supposed to be the No. 3 guy behind Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but injuries to both targets have given Fells extended playing time.
According to WEEI.com's Christopher Price, Fells has fit the part:
He was on the field for 103 of a possible 151 snaps over the last two weeks, and while he didn’t have the same impact that Gronkowski has, he was essentially doing his job as an end of the line blocker. Most importantly, he was a consistent presence on the field during New England’s 16-play series in the fourth quarter against the Dolphins, the best offensive sequence of the season for the Patriots.
The former undrafted free agent won't wow anyone on the stat sheet, as he's caught just three passes all season.
However, Fells' 77 receiving yards is more than starting halfback Stevan Ridley and backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui have combined, per ESPN.com. In addition, all three of Fells' grabs have netted first downs.
Ryan Wendell, Center
This preseason, it looked as though either Dan Connolly or Dan Koppen would be New England's starting center. Instead, Connolly moved to right guard, Koppen was cut, and the center job went to fourth-year undrafted interior lineman Ryan Wendell.
It's been several months, and no one is second-guessing the personnel decision. The ex-Fresno State Bulldog has been one of the best run-blocking centers in the NFL, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
In November, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia praised Wendell in an interview with The Boston Globe's Shalise Manza Young:
I think clearly the obvious is that he replaced a very, very good football player and a very popular football player. That’s as tough a decision as we’ve ever had around here for those reasons. But we also knew that this is a young guy that has played very well when we’ve asked him to play.
After having started just five games through his first three NFL seasons, Wendell has stepped in and notched starts in all 12 contests this year. He may not carry the resume of a Dan Koppen or a Jeff Saturday, but Wendell's solid protection in front of Tom Brady has been invaluable nonetheless.
Rob Ninkovich, Defensive End
A fifth-round selection by the New Orleans Saints back in 2006, defensive end Rob Ninkovich is used to being overlooked.
In his first two professional seasons between the Saints and the Miami Dolphins, Ninkovich played in seven total games and recorded zero sacks. He drifted between the practice squad and the active roster, playing defensive end, outside linebacker and even dabbling as a long snapper, according the Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.
Then in 2009, Ninkovich took his career to Foxborough. In his four years as a Patriot, Ninkovich has registered 17.5 sacks.
This year, Ninkovich moved back to defensive end and has totaled six sacks. He's had a nose for the big play, forcing five fumbles and recovering four. Adding to his list of triumphs, Michael Witmer of The Boston Globe indicates that Ninkovich's five strips is tied for the team record, set by another No. 50, Mike Vrabel.
Alfonzo Dennard, Cornerback
Now, after a slow start due to a hamstring issue, Dennard has become one of New England's top cornerbacks. Currently, the Nebraska Cornhusker is the starting right corner across from newcomer Aqib Talib.
Eight games deep into his rookie year, the seventh-rounder has made 30 tackles, picked off three passes, deflected six passes and forced a fumble. For all intents and purposes, Dennard's been nothing short of a steal.
Matthew Slater, Wide Receiver/Special Teamer
The UCLA alum has thrived in his special-teams role throughout his four years with the Patriots. Last season, Slater was recognized for his efforts as the team's gunner and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
The "big four" player is a captain, but not a guy who will jump out at you in the box score. He's a wide receiver by trade, but a football player at heart.
The 2008 fifth-round selection has one career catch. However, he also has 73 career tackles. This season alone, Slater has made 15 special-teams stops—second best in the NFL, according to TeamRankings.com.