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Hidden Stars: NFL Performers Who Quietly Excel in Unlikely Areas

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 21, 2016

Dec 13, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) drops back to pass against the Chicago Bears during the second half at Soldier Field. The Washington Redskins defeat the Chicago Bears 24-21. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone feels unappreciated every now and again; it's human nature. But it's entirely different to excel in a certain area and barely warrant attention. This is what some of the NFL's best players experience on a weekly basis despite being exemplary performers.

Numerous skill sets are required to be a successful NFL contributor, and those extend beyond the obvious. A star quarterback, 1,000-yard rusher or a premier sack artist is easy to identify.

What about those who do the little things that go unnoticed yet complete their jobs at a high level? These are the NFL's hidden stars.

None of these players have been named to the Pro Bowl or earned All-Pro honors. They go about their business and cement themselves as some of the league's best despite little fanfare.

Certain less appreciated traits separate these players from the rest.

   

Play-Action Master

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Kirk Cousins
Kirk CousinsGeoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

A good play-action quarterback is a magician with the football. He can make the pigskin disappear with a slight of hand. Defenses never know who has the ball until it's too late.

Being a Houdini behind center can turn into a big advantage and make an accurate quarterback like the Washington Redskins' Kirk Cousins downright deadly.

Cousins led the NFL last year with a 69.8 percent completion rate. It increased to 74.3 percent when head coach Jay Gruden called a play-action pass. Not only did the Michigan State product prove to be accurate in these situations, he also punished defenses.

A quarterback can be accurate without ever threatening a defense. Cousins doesn't fall into this category. He led the NFL in 2015 with an average of 11.3 yards per attempt on play-action passes. To put this number into context, the Arizona Cardinals' Carson Palmer led the NFL last season with an overall average of 8.70 yards per attempt and still finished second behind Cousins in the play-action game.

Washington placed the franchise tag on its quarterback, and his worth is greater when digging a little deeper.

   

Receiving Back

Charles Sims
Charles SimsReinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

To be a triple threat at running back, it requires more than being effective in one phase. The ability to excel in the passing gameas both a receiver and blockeris vital to becoming a complete back.

In Tampa Bay, Doug Martin is viewed as the team's workhorse, but he's not an every-down back. Instead, Charles Sims is among the game's best as both a receiver and blocker. He's also an effective runner.

Other backs such as Theo Riddick, Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead and Duke Johnson are exceptional receivers and true weapons in their offenses, but none of them are the complete package.

Sims caught 51 passes last season for 561 yards, graded among the league's best blockers and still averaged 4.9 yards per carry. He's an effective weapon in multiple phases even if he's pigeonholed into the role of a third-down back.

   

Blocking Tight End

C.J. Fiedorowicz
C.J. FiedorowiczBob Levey/Getty Images

Blocking isn't sexy. Today's NFL values tight ends who create mismatches in the passing game far more than those who are willing to do the dirty work.

There's only one Rob Gronkowski, who dominates in both areas.

Others are defined as "move" tight ends for their ability to produce in the passing game or "Y" tight ends, who are traditional in-line options.

The Houston Texans' C.J. Fiedorowicz is the league's best all-around blocker. The third-round pick only caught 17 passes for 167 yards last season, but he's still a valuable asset in both the passing and run games.

No tight end graded higher last year in pass blockingFiedorowicz serves as an extra offensive tackle when head coach Bill O'Brien needs added protection. The Iowa product also finished among the best run-blockers at his position.

Most tight ends want to be a part of the passing game, but Fiedorowicz's value as a blocker is a big part of the Texans offense.

   

Forgotten Offensive Lineman

Andrew Norwell
Andrew NorwellJason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Legendary offensive line coach Howard Mudd created the Mushroom Club in reference to offensive linemen. Why? In Mudd's mind, the offensive line is kept in the dark, fed (fertilizer) and still expected to grow.

More shade may be thrown Andrew Norwell's way than any other NFL offensive lineman.

It's almost impossible to get noticed when the center you're playing next to, Ryan Kalil, has been named to the Pro Bowl five times, fellow guard Trai Turner is one of the league's best young linemen and the team's left tackle, Michael Oher, had a movie made about his life.

Norwell quietly does his job at an effective rate. The undrafted free agent wasn't called for a single penalty in 834 snaps last season. During his first two seasons, officials tagged the Ohio State product for one infraction. That level of consistency shouldn't be undervalued.

The best possible compliment for an offensive lineman is never hearing his name called. Norwell's name rarely, if ever, comes up during games.

   

Interior Pass Rush

Tyrone Crawford
Tyrone CrawfordTom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

The NFL's financial system is set up where edge-rusherswhether they're defensive ends or outside linebackers—hold a much higher value than any position other than quarterback.

This is based on the philosophy a pass-rusher is one of football's four cornerstone pieces alongside the aforementioned quarterback, left tackle and cornerback. It's a give-and-take where teams are either spending large amounts of money to attack or protect a signal-caller's blind side.

However, a great pass-rusher doesn't need to play on the edge. Last year, the then-St. Louis Rams' Aaron Donald, Cincinnati Bengals' Geno Atkins and Carolina Panthers' Kawann Short each registered 11 sacks.

The ability to create pressure up the middle and collapse the pocket is as effective—if not more so—as consistent edge pressure.

Tyrone Crawford isn't a strong run defender, but he's a disruptive presence along the Dallas Cowboys' defensive front. The Boise State product averaged a quarterback hurry on 4.7 percent of last season's snaps. That's a slightly higher percentage created by Donald, the Miami Dolphins' Ndamukong Suh and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Gerald McCoy—who have eight first-team All-Pro nods among them. Over the last two seasons, Crawford registered eight sacks and 63 quarterback hurries.

A good interior pass-rusher is worth his weight in gold.

   

Pass-Coverage Backer

K.J. Wright
K.J. WrightBrian Bahr/Getty Images

When naming stars on the Seattle Seahawks defense, K.J. Wright wouldn't be the first, second, third or even fourth name mentioned, but he plays a vital role in one of the league's best groups. Wright's name should be mentioned more often, though, because he's a premier coverage backer.

Last season, only two linebackers—the Carolina Panthers' Thomas Davis and Jacksonville Jaguars' Telvin Smith—received more coverage snaps. The Seattle defender proved to be more effective than both by surrendering fewer yards per coverage snap (0.75) and gave up fewer catches (10.4 coverage reps per reception).

Wright is effective lined up over the tight end or, at times, covering the slot. The linebacker also led the Seahawks in tackles (116) and forced fumbles (four) last season.

Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Michael Bennett will continue to steal the headlines, but Wright will continue to make play after play.

   

Nickel Specialist

Brice McCain
Brice McCainSean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In today's NFL, a team's third cornerback is a starting position. Three-wide receiver sets are the most common base offense, and nickel corners receiver a much higher profile as a result.

The Denver Broncos' Chris Harris Jr. is arguably the league's best cover corner, whether he's lined up outside or in the slot. But there are those who make a living working inside against some of the league's most physical or shiftiest wide receivers.

Brice McCain is a perfect example of a valuable nickel corner who gets miscast as a starting outside cornerback. Over the last two seasons, the Utah product played a total of 1,461 snaps. Only 545 of those came in the slot.

Yet the 5'9" defensive back graded among the best slot corners the last two seasons. He's only allowed 45 receptions over that period. Thus, he surrendered a reception for every 12.1 coverage snaps. Harris is the only corner to play more snaps in the slot and have a better rate.

Despite top-notch nickel play, McCain is now on his fourth team in four seasons, but the Tennessee Titans will have a better secondary because of his contributions.

   

Little Things

A total team effort is required to be successful in the NFL. It's not just about the quarterback or the skill positions or the team's best defensive player.

Multiple pieces must come together like a puzzle to form a whole. Even so, there are still those who perform at a high level yet receive far less recognition than their play deserves.

These hidden stars can come in many forms. Their performances might not be pretty. A typical fan might not even notice if one of these individuals is doing a tremendous job.

But they're all doing the one thing every player should strive to achieve: helping their teams win.

   

Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus.

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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