The 5 Biggest Unsung Heroes Heading into the NFL Playoffs

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IDecember 24, 2012

The 5 Biggest Unsung Heroes Heading into the NFL Playoffs

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    The big names of the looming 2012 NFL playoffs aren't hard to identify. Any 10-year-old who watches ESPN on a regular basis knows the leading characters. 

    Tom Brady. Aaron Rodgers. Peyton Manning. J.J. Watt. Robert Griffin III. 

    These are your A-list stars, the unmistakable names in terms of popularity and impact in every game in which they play. 

    Yet no leading man can win an Oscar without an equally talented but often overlooked supporting cast. The same goes for the NFL. 

    In the following slides, we'll take a look at five of the most unsung heroes as we head into the NFL playoffs. 

CB Casey Hayward, Green Bay Packers

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    Where would the Packers be without Hayward, a second-round rookie out of Vanderbilt who has made the loss of Charles Woodson (collarbone) nothing more than a tiny speed bump?

    According to Pro Football Focus, Hayward has been a top three cornerback this season over 673 snaps. He's allowed a passer rating against him of just 27.7, or the best in football by almost 15 full points (Baltimore's Lardarius Webb, who tore his ACL earlier this season, is second). 

    Hayward has done his best work in the slot, where Woodson has frequently roamed since arriving in Green Bay. Also, his six interceptions are the third most in the NFL this season. 

    Overall, the Packers have improved almost 80 yards against the pass in 2012. Hayward's emergence as one of the game's most impactful cornerbacks is a big reason why. 

RB Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins

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    The Redskins are the RG3 show, and rightfully so. In quite possibly the greatest rookie quarterback class of all time, Griffin III is a prime candidate to win offensive rookie of the year.

    However, let's not underestimate the impact a fellow offensive rookie has had in Washington this season. 

    Lost in the greatness of Griffin III has been the year of Morris, a sixth-round pick who currently has 1,413 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012. Morris is one of just three backs who have over 1,400 yards and at least 10 touchdowns this season, joining the likes of Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch. 

    Griffin III is a transcendent athlete at the quarterback position, but Morris is the other engine that has helped transform the Redskins into the NFL's top rushing team in 2012.

C John Sullivan, Minnesota Vikings

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    Adrian Peterson and his quest for Eric Dickerson's all-time single-season rushing record has dominated the headlines for the Vikings. But maybe, just maybe, his center should get a tiny piece of that credit. 

    According to Pro Football Focus, Sullivan has graded out as the NFL's No. 1 center in 2012. As you'd expect, Sullivan's run-blocking grade (+22.3) is tops at his position and bested by only Philadelphia's Evan Mathis and San Francisco's Joe Staley among offensive linemen this season. 

    Sullivan should be an All-Pro this season, but he probably won't be. Maybe a Vikings run (no pun intended) in the postseason will get Sullivan's name recognized on a more national stage. 

OLB Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys

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    DeMarcus Ware is still one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers, but his overall impact on the game might actually be bested by Anthony Spencer this season. 

    Opposite Ware on the left side of the defense, Spencer has 10 sacks and 24 other quarterback pressures.

    He might also be the best run-stopping 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. Pro Football Focus grades him out at +21.6 against the run, or almost seven full points ahead of No. 2 at 3-4 linebacker (Baltimore's Courtney Upshaw is +14.6). 

    Ware is a monster for left tackles to handle, but Spencer has more than pulled his weight against right tackles this season. If the Cowboys make the playoffs with a win over Washington in Week 17, expect Spencer's performance against the run to be a big reason why. 

DL Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Slowly, Atkins has earned the respect he's earned over the last two seasons. But the general NFL fan populous still doesn't realize just how dominant an inside presence Atkins really is. 

    While J.J. Watt is the undisputed king of the defensive linemen, Atkins is a noble second. According to Pro Football Focus, Atkins' overall grade of +65.0 is the third best in the NFL this season behind Watt's +92.8 and Von Miller's +77.8. Yet we never hear Atkins' name mentioned in any defensive player of the year discussions. 

    Atkins is also almost 31 points ahead of Buffalo's Kyle Williams, who is second on the grading scale at defensive tackle and nose tackle this season. From an inside position, Atkins has a staggering 13 sacks (best in the NFL among interior defensive linemen) and 59 other quarterback pressures. 

    No one would name "Geno Atkins" if asked who the most dominant defensive players in football are right now. But his name certainly belongs in that discussion.