The NFL's Top Role Players
Not everyone on an NFL team can be the main attraction.
On a roster complete with 53 highly trained specialists, everyone is expected to contribute in his own unique way—obviously some guys more than others.
This list pays tribute to the NFL's most impressive role players by counting down the top 12 until we arrive at the best of the best.
In order to define what a role player is, I limited this list to guys who have played less than 60 percent of the snaps in the games they were active for. Furthermore, I tried as best as I could to populate the list with players who have exceptional ability in a specific area, thus giving them a defined role on their respective teams.
In other words, guys who were backups last season and are expected to be full-time starters in 2013 were not really looked at as role players. The same goes for anyone who lacked a distinguishing area of contribution to his team, something that he really excelled at.
Danny Woodhead did a little bit of everything for the Patriots offense.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
- Mike Tolbert, RB, Carolina Panthers
- Matt Spaeth, TE, Free Agent
- Adam Jones, CB/KR, Cincinnati Bengals
- Jacquizz Rodgers, RB, Atlanta Falcons
- Junior Galette, DE/OLB, New Orleans Saints
- Danny Woodhead, RB, San Diego Chargers
- Josh Cribbs, WR/KR, Oakland Raiders
- Joique Bell, RB, Detroit Lions
- Juqua Parker, DE, Free Agent
- James Casey, FB/TE, Philadelphia Eagles
- Kavell Conner, LB, Indianapolis Colts
- Isaac Redman, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Chris Rainey, RB, Free Agent
- Tavon Wilson, S, New England Patriots
- Aubrayo Franklin, DT, Indianapolis Colts
12. Lorenzo Alexander, LB/DE, Arizona Cardinals
Last season, Lorenzo Alexander was voted into the Pro Bowl as a special teams specialist after leading the NFL in special teams tackles, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Back in 2009, his former head coach Mike Shanahan had this to say about Alexander, via the Washington Post:
Well, you don't find many guys like Lorenzo, from top to bottom, he's the best special-teams player that I've been around of the guys that make plays consistently, both kickoff, kickoff return, special teams in general. He can run, he's a big guy; he's got a great attitude. He wants to make every play. He doesn't want to come out. If he's not in the Pro Bowl on special teams, I don't know who it'll be.
This year the man known as the “One-Man Gang,” named for his ability to play nearly any position in football, will be taking his talents to the desert, where he hopes to get the Arizona Cardinals back into the postseason. His value to the team will mostly come on special teams, as well as in his versatility to line up almost anywhere on the field.
11. Leodis McKelvin, CB/KR, Buffalo Bills
Leodis McKelvin makes this list primarily for his impressive production as a punt and kick returner. In 2012, he led the league in punt-return average (18.7 yards per return with a minimum of 10 returns), as well as punt returns for a touchdown with two.
As a cornerback, McKelvin has done a solid job contributing throughout his six years in the league, but he has failed to live up to his billing as the 11th overall selection in the 2008 draft. Nonetheless, this 27-year-old speedster has etched out a nice role for himself in Buffalo as a solid contributor with elite return abilities.
10. Lance Moore, WR, New Orleans Saints
Lance Moore is one of those guys who you'd never expect to amount to anything in the NFL, yet he continues to prove that a big heart can be more valuable than a big body.
Last season, Moore amassed over 1,000 yards receiving despite playing less that 60 percent of the offensive snaps. This impressive output was made possible by his reliable hands, excellent route running and fearlessness running across the middle.
Clearly, Moore will never be a primary target for any extended period of time, yet he has managed to become one of quarterback Drew Brees' most dependable targets in critical situations.
9. Alex Carrington, DT, Buffalo Bills
In the NFL, it pays to be long. At 6'5", Alex Carrington is one of the longer guys out there. This length has helped increase his NFL value, as he has blocked an impressive six kicks over the last two years. That in itself is a coveted skill to possess in this game of inches.
In addition, Carrington is also a skilled pass-rusher providing good push up the middle.
Though he may not be a starter in this league, he still has a tremendous impact on the Bills organization and has become a valued asset to the team. He now enters his fourth season and hopes to see increased playing time in a crowded DL unit.
8. Courtney Upshaw, LB/DE, Baltimore Ravens
Courtney Upshaw was thrown into the fire early and often during his rookie year last season. As a result, he proved that he had the strength and ability to hold up and compete against the best and strongest in the world.
Upshaw’s rookie performance should make it hard for the Ravens to keep him off the field, especially on running downs, which is where his greatest strengths lay. This guy is quickly becoming one of the best edge-setters in the NFL.
7. Bruce Irvin, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Some have called this athletic phenomenon a one-trick-pony. Well, Bruce Irvin is riding that "one trick" all the way to prominence. Irvin led all rookies with eight sacks last season despite having a very limited role on the defense.
He will have to miss the first four games of the season after being suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs). Regardless, Irvin's role in Seattle will continue to be focused on attacking the quarterback, which happens to be something he does exceptionally well.
6. Dan Williams, DT, Arizona Cardinals
At only 26 years of age, this run-stuffing behemoth has been slowly making a name for himself as one of the most immovable human beings currently walking the earth today. Fortunately for him, there's a lot of money to be had when you can create an impenetrable wall of muscle in the middle of a defense.
Dan Williams stands 6'3", 327 pounds and doesn't even have much fat to grab onto. His role is simple in concept, yet one of the hardest things to accomplish with any regularity—stop all runs up the gut.
Williams does this with remarkable consistency. But don't expect him to rush the QB, as he's still looking to land his first career sack.
5. Jacoby Jones, WR/KR, Baltimore Ravens
Joe Flacco may have gotten the historic payday this offseason, but there would be no Super Bowl celebration without this dancing diva.
Jacoby Jones was electric this postseason, playing a pivotal role both on offense and on special teams for the Super Bowl champs. His biggest assets are his world-class speed and his increasingly popular body control, which he put on full display this offseason as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars.
Jones may never develop his game into a traditional No. 1 receiver, but his value as a big-play game-changer has cemented his roster status as a high priority in Baltimore.
4. Mike Martin, DT, Tennessee Titans
This unusually athletic interior lineman is entering only his second year in the league, yet he has quickly established himself as one of the best young pass-rushers in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, this former Michigan Wolverine ranked fourth in pass-rush percentage among all defensive tackles in the NFL (subscription required).
Mike Martin has definitely made the most of his limited opportunities thus far and has yet to reach his full potential. At this point in his career, Martin has defined his role primarily as a pass-rusher. With some experience under his belt, there’s no question his duties should expand as he continues to learn how to dominate in all phases.
3. Darren Sproles, RB/KR, New Orleans Saints
Darren Sproles may be the ultimate role player. His impact on a team’s offense is so profound that it may only be truly understood by his absence—see the San Diego Chargers, for example. They have not been even a shadow of themselves since the departure of Sproles to New Orleans.
Meanwhile, in his two seasons with the Saints, this tiny spark plug managed to rush for over 800 yards on the ground while amassing just under 1,400 yards receiving That’s over 2,000 yards of offense coming in a variety of ways on a team loaded with running backs.
In addition, Sproles is also an excellent return man.
He may never get the recognition of a guy like Arian Foster or Adrian Peterson, but Darren Sproles continues to live in infamy throughout defensive meeting rooms across the country.
2. Brandon Graham, DE/OLB, Philadelphia Eagles
Brandon Graham may be undersized at 6’1”, 254 pounds, but he always manages to show up big at the QB.
This dynamic pass-rusher has yet to find a full-time role on Philly’s defense, yet his impact is unquestioned by those who have paid attention. Graham’s role this season should change, as he’s expected to move to rush-linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Last year, he racked up 5.5 sacks in very limited duty and was a constant presence in opposing backfields.
1. C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills
Plain and simple, C.J. Spiller is one of the most electrifying playmakers in the game today.
It may have taken him a while to get there, but this kid has finally emerged in the NFL. Spiller may not be the best option in pass protection, but his ability to catch the ball and make defenders miss is essential to the Bills having an explosive offense.
Spiller tops the list at No. 1 because of his potential to be one of the best all-around players in the NFL this season, despite splitting time with RB Fred Jackson.
Ryan Riddle is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Before B/R, Ryan played defensive end at the University of California, where he still holds the single-season sack record. Afterwards, he was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and spent time with New York Jets, Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens.