Under-the-Radar Players Who Could Be Difference-Makers in the Divisional Round

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 10, 2018

Under-the-Radar Players Who Could Be Difference-Makers in the Divisional Round

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It's not uncommon for playoff heroes to emerge from relative obscurity. Sure, fans of the teams that employ said surprise heroes might not be shocked when they play large roles in postseason games, but this is a month in which a lot of locally popular players have a chance to become nationally popular by delivering on a playoff stage. 

    Last January, for example, wide receiver Paul Richardson emerged for the Seattle Seahawks, as did defensive tackle Kenny Clark for the Green Bay Packers, receiver Taylor Gabriel and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett for the Atlanta Falcons, and pass-rusher Trey Flowers and wideout Chris Hogan for the New England Patriots.

    Who will up their game in the 2018 playoffs? Here's a prime candidate from each team in this weekend's divisional round.

New England Patriots S Duron Harmon

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    It's hard to fly under the radar in New England, but Duron Harmon isn't a household name and isn't an every-down contributor at safety. Nobody expects him to play a large role when the Patriots kick off their playoffs against the Tennessee Titans, but he quietly led the defense with four interceptions during the regular season.

    Three of those picks came in the final seven weeks of the year, even though starters Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung were on the field far more frequently than Harmon was.

    The 2013 third-round pick has never been a regular starter, but he has flashed playmaking ability throughout his career.

    He has 13 regular-season and playoff picks. Per NESN's Doug Kyed, 10 of those have come in fourth quarters and six in the final two minutes of games, and New England has never lost when the 26-year-old intercepts a pass. He's the one who nabbed the game-clincher against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a huge December matchup that helped the Pats earn home-field advantage throughout the AFC postseason.

    If the Patriots are prowling for a play to put away the Titans on Saturday night, keep an eye on No. 30.

Tennessee Titans DT Jurrell Casey

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    On Saturday night, most Titans fans' eyes will be trained on quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back Derrick Henry. And if anyone expects a defender to change the game, they'll probably look to All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, who tied for the league lead with eight interceptions.

    But defensive tackle Jurrell Casey might have a chance to put an even bigger stamp on the contest. Casey has been a solid starter in Tennessee for the entirety of his seven-year career, and he was just named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, so by no means is he an anonymous scrub. But he's not Mariota, Henry, Byard or tight end Delanie Walker, and he plays a position that could be key to slaying New England.

    That's because it's no secret Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's kryptonite is oftentimes a strong interior pass rush. A terror inside, Casey recorded three sacks in the final four games of the regular season and was all over Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in the Wild Card Round.

    He could play the same role Jarrett did for the Falcons when Jarrett sacked Brady three times in Super Bowl LI.

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Eli Rogers

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    While Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and even Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant get more attention as Steelers pass-catchers, third-year undrafted wideout Eli Rogers could be due for a big performance Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    Rogers is Pittsburgh's primary slot receiver, which means he'll likely be covered by Jacksonville nickel cornerback Aaron Colvin. That should make him a significantly more appealing option than Brown or Smith-Schuster, who will likely be smothered by Pro Bowlers Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye out wide.

    Considering Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tossed a career-high five interceptions in a Week 5 loss to the Jags, he might want to play it a little more safe this time around. That could mean more targets for Rogers, who caught seven of the 10 passes thrown his way for 66 yards in his last playoff game a year ago.

    The 25-year-old broke off a 27-yard punt return three weeks ago against the Houston Texans, so he could factor in on special teams as well.

Jacksonville Jaguars WR Dede Westbrook

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    Five Jaguars caught more passes than rookie receiver Dede Westbrook this season, partly because the speedy fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma didn't make his regular-season debut until the middle of November.

    But Westbrook accounted for 55.2 percent of quarterback Blake Bortles' 87 passing yards in a wild-card victory over the Buffalo Bills, and he has the skill set to exploit a vulnerable Steelers defense.

    In December, only 10 wide receivers caught more 15-yard passes than Westbrook, despite the fact the 24-year-old was not Bortles' top target and was just coming back from a core muscle injury. Meanwhile, only four defenses surrendered more 15-yard completions during that span than the Steelers, who were beat by big plays time and again in 2017.

    Jacksonville makes its money on defense and with the running game, but it'll likely need Bortles' right arm to come alive in order to upset Pittsburgh. If that happens, Westbrook could have a huge game. And he might also have a chance to contribute on special teams. He returned one punt for two yards against Buffalo and had a 19-yard punt return against Houston in December.

Philadelphia Eagles DE Chris Long

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    The Philadelphia Eagles didn't finish the regular season on a strong note, but veteran defensive end Chris Long did.

    With two sacks and two forced fumbles in the final four weeks of the season, Long tied for third on the team with five sacks and finished first with four forced fumbles. He was on the field for just 48.2 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps.

    The 32-year-old was graded by Pro Football Focus as the team's third-best player in Week 16 and its second-best player in Week 17, when he recorded a season-high six tackles. That momentum matters, as does Long's experience.

    Saturday against Atlanta, look for him to get plenty of ears-pinned-back pass-rushing opportunities against beatable right tackle Ryan Schraeder.

Atlanta Falcons CB Robert Alford

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    Top corner Desmond Trufant and hard-hitting safety Keanu Neal get most of the love in the Atlanta secondary, but lesser-known fifth-year cover man Robert Alford outplayed both of those guys in the Falcons' upset victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Wild Card Weekend.

    Per Pro Football Focus, Alford allowed just two receptions for 17 yards on eight targets, which earned him the second-highest grade on the team. That was also the case one week prior, when the 29-year-old intercepted Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on Atlanta's final defensive play of the regular season.

    Trufant is a better player, which is why he doesn't get tested as often. But it's a good sign Alford had nearly twice as many passes defensed during the regular season (20 to 12), and he ranked fourth in the league in that category.

    With Trufant likely to cover Alshon Jeffery most of the day, Alford should have a wide range of assignments against the Eagles and could be asked to move into the slot to cover the dangerous Nelson Agholor. If Alford remains hot, that could be the difference for the Falcons on the road.

Minnesota Vikings RB Jerick McKinnon

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    The New Orleans Saints defense has been surprisingly excellent this season, particularly against the pass. That's why Minnesota Vikings quarterback Case Keenum will have his work cut out for him as he tries to fend off All-Pro pass-rusher Cameron Jordan and beat superb cover men Marshon Lattimore, Ken Crawley and Marcus Williams.

    But the Saints are vulnerable when it comes to containing running backs in coverage. Evidence of that came against the Panthers in Week 3, when Christian McCaffrey caught nine passes on 11 targets for 101 yards. In Week 2, the Patriots' James White caught all eight of his targets for 85 yards.

    New Orleans did much better against McCaffrey in the teams' second meeting in Week 13, when he caught five passes on six targets for 33 yards and a touchdown. Still, you wonder if the Vikings might have an under-the-radar offensive weapon in running back Jerick McKinnon, who caught 51 passes for 421 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season.

    Not only might McKinnon be used as a safety valve in the passing game, but he could also be asked to give the Minnesota offense balance in order to keep the New Orleans defense honest. Veteran back Latavius Murray will likely get the lion's share of the work, but Murray had an up-and-down season, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry.

    Meanwhile, McKinnon averaged 4.5 yards per rush on 35 attempts over the final four weeks of the regular season, though he only averaged 3.8 overall. Murray matched his season average on 70 attempts over the same stretch.

    McKinnon may be the fifth option in the Minnesota offense, but the 25-year-old could play a much larger role than expected Sunday.

New Orleans Saints S Marcus Williams

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    Lattimore and Alvin Kamara, rookies who made the Pro Bowl, are getting a lot of credit for the turnaround in New Orleans, but Minnesota would be smart not to underestimate Marcus Williams, a rookie safety.

    The second-round pick out of Utah is coming off back-to-back strong performances. He intercepted a pair of Jameis Winston passes in the Saints' regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then he recorded eight tackles in a wild-card win over the Panthers.

    Williams, who turned 21 in September, is the second-youngest player in the league after Smith-Schuster. And he seemed to pick up steam as his first season progressed. Three of his four interceptions came in the final four weeks of the year, and it wouldn't be surprising if he made a big play or two against Keenum and the Vikings on Sunday in Minnesota.


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