The Best-Kept Secret on Every NFL Roster

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystMay 25, 2017

The Best-Kept Secret on Every NFL Roster

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    Every NFL team has a star.

    OK...most NFL teams have stars. There are a few who are still working on it.

    Looking at you, Cleveland, And you, Los Angeles. Don't try to hide in the bushes, Gang Green—I see you.

    However, every NFL club has players who are very good at what they do. Some are veterans who are well known to the fans in that town but not so much outside the area. Others are rising youngsters who just need a little more time before they hit the proverbial big time.

    They are the NFL's best-kept secrets.

    And this is their time to shine.

Arizona Cardinals

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    Edge-Rusher Markus Golden

    Markus Golden had just 14.5 sacks during his time at the University of Missouri. His showings in predraft workouts could best be described as "unimpressive."

    The Arizona Cardinals turned a few heads when they selected Golden in the second round of the 2015 draft. More than a few Arizona fans I knew (I lived there at the time) came to me with the same question...

    "Who the heck is Markus Golden?"

    They aren't asking that anymore.

    After a relatively quiet four sacks as a rookie, Golden exploded in Year 2 of his career. Despite making just three starts, Golden piled up 12.5 sacks, which led the team and ranked joint-second in the NFC with the Minnesota Vikings' Danielle Hunter.

    In 762 snaps last year, Golden ranked 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers, per Pro Football Focus. Combined with Chandler Jones, the Cardinals had the most productive duo of edge-rushers in the NFL.

    As head coach Bruce Arians told John Ledyard of Fanrag Sports, Golden goes at 100 miles an hour 100 percent of the time.

    "Junk plays hard," he said. "You never have to worry about his passion. He's not making mental errors and he's giving everything he's got out there all the time."

    If he can back up last year's numbers, superstar status and a huge second contract won't be far behind.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Cornerback Desmond Trufant

    I'm well aware that fans in Atlanta are well aware of who Desmond Trufant is. So are hardcore football fans across the NFL.

    And yet, if you asked casual fans anywhere outside the 404 and 678 area codes to rattle off the NFL's best cornerbacks, I'd wager that over half of them would omit Trufant.

    You'd get plenty of votes for Richard Sherman. Ditto for Patrick Peterson and Josh Norman. Darrelle Revis would probably get more votes than Trufant, and Revis was turrible in 2016.

    Turrible I say!

    That's a shame, because Trufant deserves to be included on that list. It might be that he isn't partly due to some bad timing. A year ago, just as the Falcons were starting the run that would land them in Super Bowl LI, Trufant tore his pectoral muscle and was lost for the year.

    To say his absence was felt in Houston would be an understatement and a half.

    At 26, Trufant is just entering his prime, and he's graded as a top-10 corner in each of his last two seasons at Pro Football Focus.

    Now that the Falcons have a higher profile after their Super Bowl trip, maybe Trufant's will improve as well.

    Heaven knows his checking account just did.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Guard Marshal Yanda

    Stop looking at me like that.

    Seriously, it's unnerving.

    Upon reading Yanda's name listed here, fans of the Baltimore Ravens did one of three things: Hit me with an Anderson Cooper eye-roll, mumbled "idiot" (or something else I can't print here) under their breath or stormed off to social media to let me know personally that they think I'm an idiot (or something else I can't print here).

    And yet, if you polled 20 NFL fans who don't root for the Ravens, I'll bet you a pizza that no more than six will be able to tell you what team he plays for and at what position.

    Partly, it's a function of that position. Even the best guards usually spend their careers toiling in relative obscurity, taking a pounding in the trenches so that skill position guys can get the glory.

    Well, he's getting some run here.

    In 10 NFL seasons (all with the Ravens) Yanda has been named a Pro Bowler six times. Twice he's been named a first-team All-Pro. He's been the highest-graded guard at Pro Football Focus three years running, including a 2016 campaign in which he switched sides midseason.

    Fans might not truly appreciate just how good Yanda has been, but second-year tackle Ronnie Stanley told Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun that he does.

    "As soon as I came here, I knew one of the guys I'd be looking up to was Marshal," said Stanley. "He's everything I expected him to be and more. Great teammate, great leader."

    Great player, too.

Buffalo Bills

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    Defensive End Jerry Hughes

    Outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander told Robert Quinn of Bills Wire that he thinks the transition to a four-man front in Buffalo under new head coach Sean McDermott should mean big things for Jerry Hughes in 2017.

    "I know with Jerry now playing with his hand in the dirt he's going to have a big season," he said. "A double-digit sack season because he just doesn't have to worry about standing up and worrying about pass coverage."

    Alexander will get no argument from this guy. There hasn't been a player on the Bills defense who has suffered more from the schematic pogo stick in Western New York the past five years than the 28-year-old Hughes.

    Not that Hughes can't play standing up, mind you. That was his role during his breakout first season with the Bills in 2013, the first of two straight seasons in which Hughes piled up 10 sacks.'

    However, over the last two years Hughes was badly miscast by Rex Ryan, asked to do a whole lot of things that do not mesh with his skill set.

    A skill set that's headlined by "find quarterback and make him cry."

    With McDermott apparently set to let Hughes do what he does best again, the upward trajectory to his career that he established a few years ago should get back on track in 2017.

Carolina Panthers

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    Outside Linebacker Shaq Thompson

    It's not that often that a former first-round pick spends his first two NFL seasons as an under-the-radar part-time performer, not because he doesn't play well, but just because of his particular situation.

    But when you're playing behind a pair of players who will all but surely one day be enshrined in a team's ring of honor, them's the breaks.

    Such is the fate the past two years for Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Shaq Thompson. Over his first two years, Thompson has played fewer than half of the Panthers' defensive snaps, largely because Thomas Davis stubbornly refuses to be old.

    However, there are signs that could be changing in 2017. Per Bill Voth of the Panthers website, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said Carolina is going to manage Davis' reps more in the upcoming season.

    That means more time on the field for Thompson, who tallied 56 tackles in 2016.

    And all Thompson needs is that chance. In 533 defensive snaps a year ago, Thompson was the fourth-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL at PFF. That was playing the strong side in Charlotte—at 230 pounds.

    Thompson's the prototypical 21st-century linebacker, with the speed and athleticism to keep up in coverage and the strength and tenacity to hold the point of attack.

    He's going to be a star. It's just a matter of time.

Chicago Bears

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    Inside Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski

    The Chicago Bears do not have a roster overflowing with talent. During last year's 3-13 fiasco, even the areas where the Bears looked to be relatively strong were ravaged by injuries and other issues.

    Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman was nicked up much of the season and drew a four-game suspension. Batterymate Danny Trevathan tore his patellar tendon, which not only ended his 2016 season but also put his status to start the 2017 campaign in doubt.

    However, the injuries that chewed through the inside linebackers may have revealed a diamond in the rough.

    As the season progressed, Nick Kwiatkoski went from a little-known fourth-round rookie to a fan favorite who compensated for a lack of elite athleticism by playing like his hair was on fire.

    Kwiatkoski admitted to Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune that he made some mistakes on the field, but he thinks his play improved as the year moved along.

    "I can feel a difference in my play. I noticed it more going back and watching film. It's 'Oh, I was playing hesitant here.' Now I can tell on film the ways I'm playing faster."

    It's fixing to be a long year by the shores of Lake Michigan, but a hard-nosed young linebacker from a franchise with a long history of them could provide a welcome distraction.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Linebacker Vincent Rey

    For the most part, the players listed in this article are starters. The way I see it, for a secret to be worth keeping, it has to involve a player who is a regular producer for a team.

    For every rule, though, there is an exception. And in this case the exception's name is Vincent Rey.

    Not that Rey hasn't started his share of games. Over his last three seasons in Cincinnati, Rey has started 33 of a possible 48 games. He's averaged over 100 stops a season over that span.

    Rey's been an effective player over that stretch too. He ranked sixth among 4-3 outside linebackers last year, per Pro Football Focus. His coverage grade was the best at the position.

    Linebackers who can cover are highly valuable commodities in today's pass-happy NFL.

    Even so, Rey could find himself squeezed right out of the starting lineup this season. The Bengals added free agent Kevin Minter to man the middle in 2017, and, so long as he can stay out of trouble, Vontaze Burfict is locked in on the weak side.

    That leaves two paths to playing time for the 29-year-old. Move to the strong side, or function as the team's top reserve at Mike and Will (a role Rey has filled in the past).

    Frankly, if I'm the Bengals, I look hard at Option 1.

    They're a better defense with Rey on the field.

Cleveland Browns

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    Offensive Tackle Joe Thomas

    This is the part where people start suggesting that I get my head examined.

    No one's saying that Joe Thomas is some unknown player languishing in obscurity. He's without a doubt the best player the Cleveland Browns have. Arguably the best left tackle in the National Football League.

    In fact, I don't think it's any sort of stretch to say that Thomas is the best player the Browns have had since they returned to the NFL in 1999.

    Thomas has played in the NFL for 10 years. All 10 years he's been named a Pro Bowler. He's been a first-team All-Pro seven times.

    So how the heck could I possibly be so delusional as to list Thomas here?

    It's easy. Thomas has languished—his entire careeron terrible teams.

    And because of that sentence, there are a great many fans out there who just don't realize how great he is. How dominant a player he is.

    Thomas isn't just the best left tackle in the NFL. Or the best left tackle of his generation.

    He's on a very short list of the greatest offensive tackles to ever play in the NFL.

    From the moment Thomas stepped on an NFL field as a rookie, he's played at a Hall of Fame level. Every single week.

    Not only has he not missed a game, but he's never so much as missed a snap in the NFL. Not one.

    And he's paid a price for that.

    It's no secret that Joe Thomas is a great player. But far too many people vastly underestimate just how great he truly is.

    And that's a shame.

Dallas Cowboys

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    Safety Byron Jones

    It's hard to call anyone on the Dallas Cowboys a "secret." When you play with the star on your hat, everyone knows who you are.

    Still, the never-ending change that's part of life in the NFL creates opportunities each and every year for new players to shine.

    In 2017, it's Byron Jones' chance to do so in Big D.

    Thanks to a bevy of free-agent departures, Jones is one of the senior members of the Dallas secondary this year—a fact Jones told Charean Williams of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he's well aware of.

    "When I came in, they had so much veteran presence in there," Jones said. "Within an instant, I'm the veteran presence now. I'm the guy who's played a lot of football in that room. For me, it's an opportunity to be a leader. But we're excited to take these young guys in. We've got a lot of good, young DBs in there, so we're excited."

    That pressure to lead isn't the only kind Jones will be facing in 2017. After winning 13 games last year, expectations are sky-high this season. It's Twin Cities or bust for the Cowboys.

    Talent isn't the issue. The third-year pro has the athleticism and versatility that NFL defenses crave on the back end; the physicality to play safety and the speed to play corner.

    Jones piled up 88 stops with an interception last year in 16 starts.

    Dallas will be looking for an even bigger and better season this year.

Denver Broncos

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    Guard Ronald Leary

    You can point to a number of reasons why the Denver Broncos missed the playoffs last year after winning Super Bowl 50.

    But at the root of the Broncos' offensive woes was a line that had been in decline even while the Broncos were marching toward a championship.

    Much has been made of the tackles the team brought in, but if the line turns it around, the impetus for that rebound will come from inside.

    It isn't just that Ronald Leary was arguably the best lineman on the team the moment he got to the practice facility. It's that, as Cameron Wolfe of the Denver Post reported, from Day 1 the veteran free-agent acquisition adopted the role of a leader up front.

    "Everybody just needs to be pushed more and work harder," Leary said. "That's what we're trying to do as a group. It's not an individual thing. We're just going to try to get that mentality that we're physical, that we don't take anything from anybody."

    A positive mental attitude isn't going to help the Broncos block better. But Leary's arrival was the biggest addition to a line that desperately needs to do that.

    Any chance they have of making a playoff run in 2017 depends on it.

Detroit Lions

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    Running Back Ameer Abdullah

    The Detroit Lions made the playoffs in 2016 with an offense that was just a touch one-dimensional.

    OK, it was completely one-dimensional. The team averaged a miserable 81.9 rushing yards per game after injuries tore through the backs like a typhoon.

    Ameer Abdullah was one of those injured backs, going down for the year just two games in with a bad foot. As Abdullah prepares to begin his third NFL season, he told Tim Twentyman of the team's website that he's ready to pick up where he left off.

    "I would say about early March late February (I was back on the field)," Abdullah said. "We're still progressing with things, but I feel good now. We got time to take our time right now, but we’re attacking this thing and I’m expecting to be full go, which I have been. I'm just going to work my tail off and be the best back I can in the situations I'll be given this year. This year, I'm really attacking things with a more focused mindset to get everything done."

    The Lions have their fingers crossed six ways from Sunday that he's right. After a relatively modest rookie season, Abdullah was off to a hot start last year, averaging a robust 5.6 yards per carry.

    Abdullah displayed the sort of skill-set that every team dreams of from their featured back. Speed. Power. Vision. The ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

    If Abdullah can stay on the field and avoid the fumbles that plagued him as a rookie, he could top 1,300 total yards easily for the Lions.

    The big time is waiting for him.

    He just needs to hit the hole and go get it.

Green Bay Packers

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    Running Back Devante Mays

    Secrets? In Green Bay? HA!

    The third-stringers have fan clubs in Titletown. There are bloggers and beat men breakdowns of every man on the roster from 1 to 53.

    If you're under the radar in Green Bay, then you must be new.

    Such is the case with running back Devante Mays, one of several ball-carriers the Packers added in this year's draft.

    Mays wasn't the first back the Packers drafted in 2017. He wasn't the second, either. But he told Ralph Mancini of Lombardi Ave. that he thinks he brings a degree of physicality that was missing from Green Bay's rushing attack in last year's run to the NFC Championship.

    "I think I'm more of a physical back," Mays said. "I really don't shy away from contact, but I also think I have enough speed to get to the outside if I have to. I take pride in being a physical runner."

    Mays was limited to just 259 yards on the ground in six games last year at Utah State, but the year before he posted nearly 1,000 yards and averaged almost six yards a pop.

    More importantly, he's a 230-pound back with 4.5 speed and a 40.5-inch vertical jump.

    Mays is hardly the favorite in a wide-open backfield competition , but he's a kid to watch in camp.

    You have to dig deep to find a secret in Wisconsin.

Houston Texans

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    Wide Receiver Braxton Miller

    By just about any measure, 15 catches for 99 yards and a touchdown would be considered a good game.

    As the stat line for an entire season, it ain't so hot.

    Still, when the Houston Texans selected Braxton Miller in the third round of the 2016 NFL draft, they knew they had a project on their hands. Miller played receiver for all of one year at Ohio State after winning two Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year awards as a quarterback.

    However, as Aaron Wilson wrote for the Houston Chronicle, general manager Rick Smith thinks a big jump is coming from Miller in Year 2.

    "It's a difficult position to play in our league," Smith said. "There's a lot of learning. There's a lot of physical demands on that position. The expectation and the progression from a career, there's exponential growth expected from Year 1 to Year 2. And it's because, in a lot of respects, they know pro football a lot better, the rhythm of the season, the demands, everything is just different. It's heightened. To the degree that a guy can come in and process that and play with some success as a rookie, that's good. That next year is when you tend to see that biggest jump."

    We've already seen one quarterback make the leap recently to 1,000-yard wide receiver in the NFL. As a matter of fact, we've seen one former Ohio State quarterback do it.

    Just as it took Terrelle Pryor some time, it will take Miller some as well. But once he gets more comfortable as a pass-catcher, it's going to be all the easier for Miller to start showcasing the reason Houston drafted him; the ability to make defenders look very foolish in space.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Linebacker Sean Spence

    In many respects, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Sean Spence is lucky to playing football at all. After the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Spence in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, he suffered a serious knee injury—serious enough that it wiped out Spence's first two seasons in the league.

    After two more years of playing sparingly in the Steel City, Spence joined the Tennessee Titans last year in free agency. He took advantage of the most playing time of his career during that one year in Nashville, starting six games inside and piling up 54 tackles and three sacks.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Spence's tackling efficiency (number of attempted tackles per miss) was the third-best in the NFL last season. Spence was one of only three linebackers to not miss a tackle in the run game.

    That effort and those numbers got Spence noticed by a Colts team that badly needed help in the middle of the defense, and from all indications the 26-year-old will be afforded every opportunity to win a starting job in camp.

    I expect that Spence will not only win that job but that he'll lead a remade Colts defense in tackles this year. He might never be quite as rangy as he was before his horrific injury, but he's still vastly more athletic than anyone the Colts had on the roster prior to his arrival.

    Inside linebacker was a glaring weakness for the Colts in 2016. Well, to be fair, defense period was a glaring weakness for the Colts last year.

    That isn't going to be the case this year, partly due to Spence.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Safety Tashaun Gipson

    On some level, just about every player in Jacksonville is a secret to people outside Jacksonville. The Jaguars are the NFL equivalent of the witness protection program.

    Still, I'll go with the player who always seems to get left out of the discussion about the free-agent spending sprees the Jags have gone on defensively the past couple of years.

    When the Jaguars inked safety Tashaun Gipson to a five-year, $36 million contract in 2016, the team was hoping to get the ball hawk who intercepted 11 passes for the Browns over a two-year stretch in 2013 to 2014. During that time, he made 144 tackles.

    Yeah, not so much. Gipson had the lowest tackle total (41) since his rookie season, and his first year in Florida produced a single pick.

    So what possible reason could I have for picking Gipson?

    Well, I can't pick the new additions on that side of the ball. After getting all the money ever, Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church are out.

    So are early draft picks Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack, although I think both of those youngsters are set for a big step forward in 2017.

    That leaves Gipson. The sixth-year veteran is still only 26, and given Jacksonville's improvements on both offense and defense, the Jaguars might actually play with the lead once or twice in 2017.

    What a concept.

    That's going to put Gipson in better position to make plays and allow the Jaguars to start getting some return on their investment.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Linebacker Ramik Wilson

    Last year, third-year linebacker Ramik Wilson didn't even make the Chiefs' active roster out of training camp. But after Justin March-Lillard went down for the season, Wilson was promoted from the practice squad.

    By the end of the year, Wilson was the team's best inside linebacker, racking up 76 total tackles over 11 regular-season starts.

    Per Pro Football Focus, Wilson was the NFL's 16th-ranked inside linebacker in 2016. His coverage grade landed him inside the top 10.

    As reported by Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star, longtime defensive cornerstone Derrick Johnson will try to make it back in time for training camp, but the fact is he's a 33-year-old linebacker attempting to return from his second Achilles tear in three seasons.

    The Chiefs are a team with Super Bowl aspirations in 2017. And while it would be great if Johnson makes it all the way back, taking his return for granted is a dangerous assumption.

    That the Chiefs did very little to address the possibility he won't in the offseason shows how much faith they have in Wilson's ability to man the middle this season.

Los Angeles Chargers

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    Cornerback Casey Hayward

    Hayward's days as the best-kept secret on the Los Angeles Chargers may be coming to an end.

    Or at least they would be if the Chargers were playing in front of more than 15 people a week in 2017.

    Ah. More StubHub Center jokes.

    Hayward was the free-agent steal of 2016 for the Bolts. After signing a relatively modest deal with the Chargers, Hayward proceeded to lead the NFL in interceptions (seven) while finishing the year among the top 10 at his position per Pro Football Focus.

    It was the second time in Hayward's five-year career that he combined at least six picks with a top-10 PFF grade.

    Hayward's performance in 2017 netted the 27-year-old a spot at No. 64 on the "NFL Top 100" this year, which can only serve to increase his profile with fans around the country.

    Now, if he can just stay healthy. Injuries have dogged Hayward throughout his career, and he's already battling a balky ankle this spring.

Los Angeles Rams

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    Offensive Tackle Andrew Whitworth

    It doesn't speak especially well to the talent level on the Los Angeles Rams that the best-kept secret on their team just got there.

    But it's not like Andrew Whitworth was exactly a household name before.

    There are a few reasons for that anonynimity. For starters, Whitworth plays on the offensive line. For the first 11 seasons of his NFL career, Whitworth played in Cincinnati, which isn't exactly in the middle of the spotlight.

    And Whitworth was a late bloomer, not appearing in his first Pro Bowl until 2012.

    Whitworth's made up for lost time since. In four of the last five years, he graded out as a top-10 tackle at PFF, including a first-place ranking in 2014. He graded third a year ago, trailing only Washington's Trent Williams and Green Bay's David Bakhtiari.

    Now, at 35, Whitworth will be charged with protecting the blind side of young quarterback Jared Goff in L.A.

    Perhaps ending his career in a much larger market will turn more people on to just how good Whitworth's career has been.

Miami Dolphins

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    Safety Reshad Jones

    Miami Dolphins safety Reshad Jones might be the best player in the NFL most casual fans have never heard of.

    In 2015, Jones had a monstrous season. He finished the year with a staggering 135 tackles, good for fourth in the NFL. He was one of only three players to top 100 solos. Only NaVorro Bowman of the San Francisco 49ers had more.

    There was no repeat in 2016 though. Six games into the season, he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

    Jones watched as the Dolphins made the playoffs and then get flattened by Pittsburgh, but he told David Dwork of CBS Miami that he's eager to get back after it and avenge that defeat.

    "I feel great, I'm almost back [to normal]," Jones said. "I'm doing everything with the team right now and I'm excited to get back on the field. I hated that I couldn't be out there to help my boys in the playoffs against Pittsburgh, I think we got all pieces and I really like the moves we did this offseason. We got a lot of great guys in this locker room and we want to do something special."

    The Dolphins made a number of veteran additions in free agency, but the biggest addition of all would be the return of Jones.

    During that magical season two years ago, only Minnesota's Harrison Smith and Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles received higher grades at Pro Football Focus among NFL safeties than Jones. He was destined for stardom.

    This year, he fulfills that destiny.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Defensive Tackle Linval Joseph

    Ask a fan about the best defensive tackles in football and you'll hear a list of names. Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams, Ndamukong Suh of the Miami Dolphins, maybe Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals.

    And if you travel far enough north, Linval Joseph of the Minnesota Vikings.

    Joseph has now played seven seasons in the NFL—the first four in New York with the Giants and the last three in Minnesota. The 28-year-old was named to his first Pro Bowl this past year.

    It isn't hard to see what got Joseph a free ticket to Disney World. Joseph piled up 77 total tackles a year ago—a staggering number for a defensive tackle. He tied a career high with four sacks and ranked ninth among all interior linemen at PFF.

    Joseph's relative lack of notoriety might be tied to a lack of "splash" plays. He has 16.5 sacks over seven seasons in the leagueDonald had 20 over his first two years with the Rams.

    But after a so-so year during his first season with the Vikings, Joseph settled in as one of the best run-stuffing tackles in the league. In each of the past two campaigns, he's ranked inside the top six in that regard on PFF.

    The Vikings have built one of the best defenses in footballa defense that's anchored by a fearsome defensive front.

    And the anchor of that front at the point of attack is Joseph.

New England Patriots

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    Cornerback Eric Rowe

    It's very difficult to pinpoint a player for the New England Patriots as a "secret." The Pats are one of the most scrutinized teams in the NFL.

    Now if they were hurt it would easy, because at that point Bill Belichick's shroud of secrecy would descend around them.

    However, given the huge contract signed by Stephon Gilmore and the trade talk involving Malcolm Butler, young cornerback Eric Rowe has gotten lost in the hooplah surrounding his teammates.

    While Gilmore got all the cash and Butler got all the publicity, it's actually Rowe who allowed the lowest percentage of passes thrown in his direction to be completed in 2016.

    As a matter of fact, according to Pro Football Focus Rowe's completion percentage against of 48.9 trailed only Minnesota's Xavier Rhodes among corners who played at least 400 snaps in 2016.

    The Patriots acquired Rowe a year ago from the Philadelphia Eagles for a conditional draft pick.

    Yes, another trade by the Patriots that they won going away.

    Yes, that's getting old for the other 31 teams in the NFL.

    And yes, having depth at corner like Rowe, who had 26 tackles and an interception last year, is just one more edge the NFL's most loaded club has entering the 2017 season.

New Orleans Saints

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    Wide Receiver Willie Snead

    It can be much more difficult for a wide receiver to crack the ranks of stardom than it used to be. With each passing year, pass-catchers are posting gaudier and gaudier stats.

    The bar just keeps being raised.

    However, like Mike Thomas last year and Brandin Cooks before him, the table's set for Willie Snead to have a huge 2017.

    His waiter's name is Drew Brees.

    Per Pro Football Focus, Snead was the NFL's fifth-best slot receiver in 2016.

    "Snead had a very solid under-the-radar season for the Saints out of the slot last year," PFF's Bryson Vesnaver wrote, "providing quarterback Drew Brees with a solid security-blanket receiver. With the loss of WR Brandin Cooks (traded to Patriots) from the offense, Snead has the chance to have a breakout season this year in a Saints offense that will have no shortage of passes for him to snag."

    It's that last part that's of particular interest. Yes, the Saints will presumably run the ball more in 2017 after adding Adrian Peterson and rookie Alvin Kamara. But Cooks was targeted 117 times in 2016.

    Even if that number drops by a third and Thomas receives the majority of what's left, there should still be enough there for Snead to top his 984 receiving yards from a year ago.

    Possibly by quite a bit.

New York Giants

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    Running Back Paul Perkins

    The New York Giants did not run the ball well in 2016 even a little bit. But the Giants didn't do a ton to upgrade the backfield in the offseason. Yes, they added Clemson's Wayne Gallman in the fourth round, and New York made a half-hearted free-agent stab at LeGarrette Blount.

    But according to ESPN's Jordan Ranaan, head coach Ben McAdoo is confident that Paul Perkins can spearhead the Giants' ground game this season.

    "Paul Perkins is going to be our starter out there on first and second down, and we've added some competition in the room in a variety of ways," McAdoo said. "Shaun Draughn, Shane Vereen is coming back, we drafted Wayne Gallman, so it's going to be interesting to see how the running back room shakes out."

    Now, at first glance that confidence might seem misplaced. Perkins showed some elusiveness during his rookie season, but he averaged just 4.1 yards per carry last year.

    However, that 4.1 yards a pop starts looking quite a bit better when you consider that the Giants averaged more than half a yard less as a team.

    Now, I'm not going to sit here and say that Perkins will rush for 1,400 yards as a sophomore in the NFL.

    But the Giants have the makings of a potent passing attack. The kind of passing attack that draws defenses back and softens up the box.

    And that should open up opportunities for the Giants' new lead back.

New York Jets

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    Running Back Bilal Powell

    It's hard to find good things to say about the current state of the New York Jets, but it's not all doom and gloom for Gang Green.

    Tailback Bilal Powell had the best season of his six-year career in 2016. Powell's 189 total touches a year ago made for the second-highest total of his career, and he accomplished something for the first time last season.

    Powell topped 1,000 total yards.

    The 28-year-old also impressed the rankers at Pro Football Focus, Powell's grade of 11.5 ranked sixth among running backs, ahead of players like LeSean McCoy, Jordan Howard and DeMarco Murray.

    Powell was exponentially more effective than Matt Forte, who looked every bit his age during the 2016 season. There's been abundant speculation among Jets' beat writers that Powell will receive a larger share of the workload in 2017.

    Let's be clear. It's not going to be a fun season in New York. But as the versatile lead back for a team in America's largest media market, a lot of people will be seeing Powell play extensively for the first time in 2017.

    They're going to discover he's actually pretty good.

Oakland Raiders

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    Center Rodney Hudson

    Usually, when people talk about the league's best offensive line, the discussion centers on the Dallas Cowboys. But the Oakland Raiders aren't far behind. A great deal of Derek Carr's success in 2016 traces back to the clean pockets and time to throw the football he received.

    Even when people do talk about that line, the focus is usually left tackle Donald Penn, because he's a left tackle. Or guard Kelechi Osemele, who joined the team in free agency a year ago.

    Center Rodney Hudson is every bit as good. A case can be made that he's the best center in football.

    Hudson, who joined the Silver and Black in 2015 after spending the first four years of his career in Kansas City, ranked fourth among all centers at Pro Football Focus in 2016. In over 1,100 snaps, Hudson did not allow Carr to be sacked.

    Even better, Hudson didn't allow Carr to be hit.

    Even better-er, in two seasons with the Raiders, Hudson has permitted defenders to touch his quarterback all of twice. One was Christmas. The other was Von Miller's birthday.

    That last part may be made up.

    But it isn't fiction that Hudson is really, really good.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Outside Linebacker Nigel Bradham

    Over five NFL seasons with two teams, Nigel Bradham has toiled in relative obscurity. He was viewed as a capable linebacker but not much more than that. When Bradham hit free agency a year ago, the Buffalo Bills didn't exactly roll out the red carpet in an effort to keep him.

    Bradham found a new home in Philadelphia, and in that new home the light bulb appears to have come on.

    Not only did Bradham top 100 total tackles for the second time in his career while setting a career high in solo stops, but his level of play increased significantly.

    Back in 2014 (Bradham's last 100-stop season) he graded out 11th at his position at Pro Football Focus. Last year, that ranking bumped all the way to fifth, ahead of the likes of Jamie Collins of the Cleveland Browns and Lavonte David of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Not bad given that Collins probably makes more in a month than Bradham does in a year.

    Bradham's had difficulty staying out of trouble off the field (he was suspended a game back in 2014 and currently faces both misdemeanor weapons and assault charges), but given that the Eagles didn't make any moves to back him up, the team appears confident he'll be exonerated.

    Hopefully 2017 will bring a raising of his profile on the field combined with a lowering of his profile off it.

    It's depressing when a talented young player just can't get out of his own way.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Linebacker Vince Williams

    The times are changing in the Steel City.

    For the first time since 2009, Lawrence Timmons will not be opening the season as a starter at inside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, after leaving for Miami in free agency.

    That opens up a spot next to Ryan Shazier—a spot that Vince Williams is ready to step into, according to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    "I'm humbled really," Williams said, "because we had opportunities to get some linebackers in free agency. We had an opportunity to draft a first-round linebacker, and we didn't. It shows the organization has a lot of confidence in me, and that's the first time I ever felt that way."

    Williams made four starts next to Timmons last year in place of an injured Shazier and fared pretty well, tallying 35 total tackles and a pair of sacks over that stretch.

    I've been asked a few times by fans on social media how I feel about Williams as a player, and whether or not I think it should be Tyler Matakevich who should start opposite Shazier.

    The best answer I can give is this—Williams is in many ways Timmons with a different number on his jersey. Tough against the run, good at occasionally rushing the passer, but average in coverage. 

    In any event, we'll probably see Matakevich at some point.

    Shazier's had his share of durability issues.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Cornerback Keith Reaser

    It's hard to find many bright spots on the San Francisco 49ers we don't already know about. They rather stand out against all the darkness.

    However, as Kevin Jones reported for KNBR, there was something of a surprise from this week's OTAs.

    "Surprise, surprise," he said. "It was Reaser, not Dontae Johnson, mostly lining up opposite of Rashard Robinson at outside cornerback. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, the 5'11" Reaser has never started a game in his NFL career. He did log 353 snaps a season ago (30.6 percent of the snaps) as a sub-package cornerback. But like most of his teammates, his play was mostly uninspiring in 2016. Reaser looked comfortable and confident."

    It's fair to question whether this was anything more than a new coaching staff trying out different personnel permutations. And in addition to Johnson, Reaser would also have to hold off third round-rookie Ahkello Witherspoon to start.

    But this is worth mentioning, if only because of this: The 49ers need everything from starters to depth and all ports in between. Finding a diamond in the rough like Reaser who can develop into even an adequate starter is a much bigger get for a rebuilding team like the 49ers.

    Don't underestimate the impact that can have for a club.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Defensive End Frank Clark

    For the past several years, the Seahawks have had a solid duo of defensive ends in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.

    That duo is now a trio.

    Frank Clark has had his share of off-the-field issues, and that shouldn't go unmentioned. But on the field, after piling up 10 sacks in just under 700 snaps for the Seahawks a year ago, Clark appears on the cusp of becoming an elite pass-rusher. With both Avril and Bennett not getting any younger, the Seahawks could be looking at Clark as the future of the franchise on the edge.

    In case you haven't noticed, high-end pass-rushers have a tendency to make quite a bit of money.

    It will be two more seasons before Clark hits free agency, though. Two more years where the 23-year-old will have to keep his pressure numbers up. Two more seasons where Clark can work on getting even better against the run (although he excelled in that regard last year).

    And most importantly, two years to show that he can be remembered less for being a hothead and more for being one of the league's best defensive ends.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Cornerback Brent Grimes

    Most fans who do know who Grimes is do so largely because of his wife Miko's mouth, not because he's played over a decade in the National Football League with three teams. Or that he's gone from undrafted free agent to four-time Pro Bowler.

    The 33-year-old is only getting better with age, too. Per Pro Football Focus, in just under 1,000 snaps with the Buccaneers in 2016, Grimes was the highest-graded player at one of the NFL's most important positions.

    Not Richard Sherman. Not Aqib Talib.

    Brent Grimes.

    The secret with Brent Grimes isn't that he exists. Miko made sure we all know that.

    The secret is that he's really, really good. And that gets lost in all her noise.

Tennessee Titans

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    Tackle Jack Conklin

    With the exception of a few players (quarterback Marcus Mariota, tailback DeMarco Murray and maybe tight end Delanie Walker) just about everyone in Nashville could be considered a secret. The Titans are a small-market team that hasn't been good in a long while.

    Until now, that is.

    The Titans are a legitimate contender in the AFC South this year, and the backbone of their offensive success is a pair of mauling book-end tackles in Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin.

    Right tackle Jack Conklin was especially effective last year. In his first NFL season, all Conklin did was play over 1000 snaps, allow just two sacks and grade out as the No. 1 right tackle in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

    As Jim Wyatt of the Titans' website reported back in January, Conklin said his first year as a pro was a learning experience.

    "Oh man," said Conklin. "Just understanding how much you have to prepare, just how much goes into each week. The NFL is different game. But I learned a lot in the last eight months."

    Wait? You mean he gets better?

    Strong-side tackle is hardly a glamour position in the NFL. And Tennessee isn't the Big Apple or Chicago.

    But make no mistake—this young man is already a star.

Washington Redskins

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    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

    Edge-Rusher Trent Murphy

    Everything was falling into place for Trent Murphy of the Washington Redskins entering 2017. Heading into a contract year, the 26-year-old was coming off easily the best season of his career.

    But that contract year will get off to a rocky start. As Mike Jones reported for the Washington Post, after piling up nine sacks in 2016, Murphy will miss the first four games of the 2017 campaign due to a PED suspension.

    Murphy, who blamed the positive test on a tainted supplement, made no excuses.

    "It was extremely disappointing to find out," Murphy said. "It was a gut-wrenching feeling, took me completely by surprise. But now I can just move everything I can to help out the team and put myself in as good a position, be in shape and be ready to fire on all cylinders."

    The 6'5", 290-pounder won't see the field until Week 6 now, but that doesn't mean he can't still salvage a strong season.

    Murphy emerged last year as a vitally important piece of the Washington defense, with the size to play with his hand in the dirt but the quickness to harass quarterbacks off the edge.

    He wasn't a one-trick pony either, grading out 13th at his position against the run, per PFF.

    The suspension is undoubtedly unfortunate, but if Murphy's per-game production stays high in 2017, that big payday will still be forthcoming.


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