10 Under-the-Radar NFL Players Set for Postseason Breakouts
Whether it's due to shifting game plans, fresh legs, young players growing up or just a hidden penchant for the extra drama and intensity that comes with the NFL postseason, every year we see players who are unknown to the general public seize the spotlight in the playoffs.
The added attention of the postseason audience can be a springboard into a bigger contract and more playing time in the future, and some previously obscure players can even write their way into the NFL's history books with unlikely postseason breakouts.
Who are the best candidates to be overnight sensations this January? Here are 10 lessor-known players who are set to break out.
Dont'a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots
The Patriots are notorious for shuffling personnel in their defensive packages and only using a precious few key players on every down. Over the last two weeks, rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower has been one of those every-down players.
He has recorded two of his three highest tackle totals on the season during that span, and he has generally been an intimidating presence, just as he was at Alabama.
Hightower can also serve as a situational edge-rusher, evidenced by his three sacks this year and production in that role in college.
Because he hasn't been an every-down player until recently, Hightower should have a lot left in the tank for the playoffs.
Rob Jackson, OLB, Washington Redskins
When Brian Orakpo went down for the season earlier this year, that seemed to spell the end of the Redskins' chances to have a robust pass rush this year. Enter replacement Rob Jackson, who rarely saw the field except on special teams before 2012.
Jackson isn't a great speed-rusher, and he's not an overpowering player, but he gives maximum effort and always seems to be in the right place at the right time.
Jackson has four sacks in the last five games, and one in each of the last three. Against Cleveland, he pulled off the rare trifecta of a sack, forced fumble and interception.
With the offense clicking and putting pressure on the opposition to keep up, Jackson might have plenty of opportunities to be in the right place in the postseason.
Dwayne Harris, WR, Dallas Cowboys
If Rob Jackson and the Redskins beat the Cowboys in Week 17, Dallas won't have an opportunity to have a breakout postseason player, so Dwayne Harris' shot is likely to be mutually exclusive with Jackson.
If the Cowboys do win the NFC East, Harris will surely have a hand in it, and he will be a part of any effort to get Tony Romo another rare postseason win.
Harris' combination of speed, quicks, strength and aggressive moves after the catch are allowing him to flourish in a role that Laurent Robinson turned into big numbers (and a big contract) last year.
Harris also has the playmaker's mentality as a punt returner to make game-changing plays, and last week he almost won the game for the Cowboys late in the fourth quarter with a long punt return.
He has more than one way to put his stamp on a game.
Morgan Burnett, S, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers have missed Charles Woodson in the defensive backfield, but Morgan Burnett has made sure that they are still seeing momentum shifts based on good secondary play.
In the last five weeks alone, he has a forced fumble, a sack and two interceptions. Burnett is tied with A.J. Hawk for the team lead in tackles, and he is around the ball as much as any Packers defender over the course of a game.
Burnett could be freed up to make even more plays in the playoffs.
Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Woodson has been getting some work in at practice this week. If the veteran can return for the postseason, Burnett will be able to roam and play more instinctively at his free safety position.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Chicago Bears
The Bears are going to need some help to make the playoffs, but if they do, their big rookie wide receiver could provide the help they need to make a run.
Alshon Jeffery had a game to forget in the loss to the Green Bay Packers last week, but he drew a long pass interference penalty and had two key catches nullified by pass interference penalties that he committed.
One of the calls was questionable, and it was followed by a last-gasp fourth-down pass to Jeffery that was incomplete because he was interfered with, but the refs didn't see or call it.
Jeffery was getting a lot of deep targets in the second half, and one of those offensive pass interference calls came on an end-zone catch.
As long as defenses are trying to take away Brandon Marshall, Jeffery will be on the spot. If he can iron out his tendency to push off, those near-misses could turn into hits in January.
Chris Harris, CB, Denver Broncos
Tracy Porter will probably be remembered most for picking off Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XLIV and taking it to the house to clinch the game. Interestingly, the Denver Broncos signed Porter to a one-year deal this offseason.
Now with the team heading to the playoffs, Porter has been sidelined with an "illness" related to seizures, which has opened the door for Chris Harris. Harris has two pivotal interception returns for touchdowns this year, including a 98-yarder last week against the Baltimore Ravens.
With Champ Bailey locking down the other side of the field, Harris should see a lot of balls thrown his way. That means he'll have an opportunity to make a name for himself in the postseason, the way that Porter did three years ago.
Ben Tate, RB, Houston Texans
Arian Foster is the do-everything back for the Houston Texans, but usually he has speed/power back Ben Tate involved enough to keep him fresh over the course of a game and the season.
Tate has been struggling to get over a hamstring injury for most of the season, but he is finally back to 100 percent and ready to assume his role as the hammer in the Texans running game.
Foster, in turn, has had to carry the ball at least 24 times nine times this year, which means that he might not be as strong as he was last year in the postseason.
Tate will be well-rested and much stronger than the battle-worn defenses he'll be seeing, and it could show with spectacular results for the third-year back.
Vick Ballard, RB, Indianapolis Colts
When the Indianapolis Colts took Vick Ballard in the sixth round in April, it was seen as a good move to secure a solid all-around back who could share the workload with Donald Brown and Delone Carter.
Brown is on injured reserve, and Carter isn't healthy. Ballard has assumed the lead back role, and he's been doing well. Against a tough Texans defense, Ballard had over 100 yards last week.
With defenses focused on flustering rookie quarterback Andrew Luck, the Colts would be smart to give the rookie the chance to cross the century mark again when they complete their unlikely journey to the playoffs just one year after being the worst team in the league.
Corey Graham, DB, Baltimore Ravens
Once upon a time, Corey Graham was a productive nickel cornerback for the Chicago Bears.
Heading into this year, he was reduced to trying to hang onto a roster spot with the Baltimore Ravens on the strength of his special teams prowess.
Now with shutdown corner Lardarius Webb out for the season and 2011 first-round pick Jimmy Smith hampered by a groin injury, Graham is back on the field and causing people to wonder why it took so long for him get a big role on defense again.
Graham has notched two interceptions against the Ravens' most bitter rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the team could easily face them again in the first round the playoffs.
Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Atlanta Falcons
It has been obvious to anyone watching the Atlanta Falcons that second-year back Jacquizz Rodgers has more burst, quicks, speed and overall playmaking ability than incumbent starter Michael Turner.
But the team continues to inexplicably use Turner more in the backfield.
Rodgers is the team's primary back in the no-huddle offense, and he has also done great work for them on scripted drives in the first quarter. He even gets time on game-killing drives during the fourth quarter.
Perhaps they are keeping him fresh as a "secret weapon" for the playoffs when they could put responsibility in the hands of quarterback Matt Ryan.
Rodgers has more carries in the last four games than he has had in any four-game span earlier in the season, and Turner has been notorious for wearing down late in the season as he has gotten older.
January could be Rodgers' time to shine.