Unearthing Every NFL Team's Early Hidden Gem

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 4, 2018

Unearthing Every NFL Team's Early Hidden Gem

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    In the NFL, hidden gems routinely emerge.

    Take New York Giants defensive tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison, who went undrafted out of William Penn. He impressed New York Jets coaches enough to make the roster as a rookie, although he didn't play much. He continued to hone his craft and became a starter in his second season. Over the next few years, Harrison developed into one of the game's best defenders and earned All-Pro honors in 2016. 

    Similar stories can be found throughout the NFL. These underdogs continued to excel until they earned recognition through their performance. 

    Each of the following players is a castoff, a mid- or late-round pick or someone who came from seemingly nowhere to become a rock-solid contributor for his respective squad. 

         

Arizona Cardinals: LB Josh Bynes

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    Arizona Cardinals linebackers Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick were supposed to be the heart of the team's defense. Instead, Josh Bynes has become Arizona's best second-line defender. 

    After going undrafted in 2011, the Baltimore Ravens cut Bynes twice in his first NFL season, and he then suffered a cracked vertebrae during training camp in 2012. He became expendable in Baltimore after the Ravens selected C.J. Mosley in the first round of the 2014 draft, and Bynes went on to start 19 games with the Detroit Lions in 2015 and 2016. 

    "Being undrafted is the hardest thing ever," Bynes told AZCentral Sports' Kent Somers in April. "I've been through a back injury, being a starter, not a starter, being a starter, not a starter. Just trying to find your role and what you mean to a team can sometimes be a little frustrating."

    The 29-year-old Bynes is finally a full-time starter, and he's developed into one of the NFL's better defenders. He leads Arizona with 32 tackles through four games, and he graded out as the best run defender at his position going into Sunday's contest against the Seattle Seahawks, according to Pro Football Focus

    The Cardinals defense is now built around perennial All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson and Bynes, even if the latter wasn't a first-round pick.

Atlanta Falcons: RB Ito Smith

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    Injuries are a part of every NFL season, and no team comes away unscathed. At the moment, the Atlanta Falcons know this better than any other organization.

    Running back Devonta Freeman is currently nursing a knee injury, but head coach Dan Quinn is "hopeful" he'll return Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, per Kelsey Conway of the Falcons' official site. 

    With or without Freeman, offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian should figure out ways to get the ball into Ito Smith's hands.

    The rookie fourth-round pick scored his first career touchdown this past Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. He's proven to be more than capable of spelling Tevin Coleman as a runner, and he's also contributed in the pass game with six receptions for 54 yards over the last two weeks. 

    Much like Freeman, the 5'9", 195-pound Smith brings speed and an elusive running style to the backfield. 

    Coleman is an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Falcons already have his replacement on their roster. 

Baltimore Ravens: LB Za'Darius Smith

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    The Baltimore Ravens don't have a shortage of pass-rushers. Terrell Suggs is still the centerpiece of the defense, even in his 16th season. Matt Judon finished second on the team in sacks last season, racking up eight. Tim Williams, whom the team selected in the third round of the 2017 draft, is in the mix as well.

    But Za'Darius Smith is the emerging star in this group. 

    Smith and Judon have rotated as the starter opposite Suggs this season, but Smith staked his claim as the team's best edge-rusher with two sacks and six more quarterback hits. The fourth-year linebacker experienced a breakthrough performance in Week 3 against the Denver Broncos with seven quarterback pressures, according to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley

    "He's always been a good player, but there was a big learning curve for him coming out," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said, per Clifton Brown of the team's official site. "He's learned it now. He knows how to play fast. He knows all the little [nuances]. He's not making mistakes like he did before that would keep him off the field, and he's cutting it loose. He's really explosive."

Buffalo Bills: CB Ryan Lewis

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    Not much has gone right for the Buffalo Bills this season during a 1-3 start. But the quintessential diamond in the rough may have emerged at cornerback after Ryan Lewis began the year on the practice squad. 

    Vontae Davis' abrupt retirement and Phillip Gaines' injury/benching created an opportunity for the young defender.  

    Lewis went undrafted out of Pittsburgh after playing four seasons with the Panthers. In his second professional contest, the cornerback led the team with eight total tackles against the Green Bay Packers and graded as the Bills' best defender, according to Pro Football Focus

    The performance built upon an impressive debut during the Bills' shocking 27-6 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. 

    "We applauded him in our defensive meeting," defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said, per the Buffalo News' Jay Skurski. "His first start as a rookie … to play as well as he did on the road says a lot about Ryan."

    The Bills signed Dontae Johnson on Tuesday to offset the team's lack of secondary depth, according to the Associated Press. The veteran's inclusion shouldn't have an impact on Lewis' standing as long as the second-year defensive back continues to perform well above expectations. 

Carolina Panthers: DE Efe Obada

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    The NFL debuted its International Pathway Program last season. Foreign-born players are placed on practice squads in an attempt to broaden the game beyond the United States' borders.

    Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada is the program's first major success story. The 26-year-old registered a sack, deflected a pass and snagged an interception in his NFL debut against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3. 

    "I've been working my ass off, and I've been praying and I've been hoping that I do get an opportunity," Obada said afterward, per Bryan Stickland of Panthers.com. "When my name did get called, I just knew I had to make the most of it. I buried my head all week in my film studies, and then with some of the things I saw, it was instinctual. I knew what was coming."

    Obada's breakthrough performance highlighted how much he overcame after being trafficked from the Netherlands to the United Kingdom as a child, becoming homeless for a stretch and then placed in social services.

    Obada is still learning and developing after picking up the game four years ago. His potential as part of the Panthers' defensive line rotation is limitless.

Chicago Bears: CB Sherrick McManis

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    The Chicago Bears' defensive front garners most of the attention with its league-leading 18 sacks. However, the Bears secondary is quite formidable as well. 

    Nine-year veteran Sherrick McManis finds himself buried behind Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Bryce Callahan and Marcus Cooper Sr. However, the 30-year-old cornerback has six tackles, a sack, a deflected pass and an interception in limited playing time

    "He had only five snaps [in Week 3 against the Arizona Cardinals] and made all those plays—that was pretty impressive," defensive end Akiem Hicks said, per the Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Potash

    Even though McManis' biggest contributions are on special teams, he's a solid defender, too. 

    "I take pride in special teams," he said, per the Chicago Tribune's Colleen Kane. "I don't look down at it. That's me. That's what I do. I'm a special teams player. I'm proud of it. And when I'm out there on defense, I take pride in doing my job."

    As Cooper nurses a hamstring injury, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio doesn't have to worry about his cornerback depth chart. McManis has proved more than capable of filling in this season.

Cincinnati Bengals: LB Nick Vigil

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    The NFL's leading tackler from last season, Preston Brown, starts for the Cincinnati Bengals. But he doesn't lead the Bengals in tackles this year.

    Nick Vigil does. In fact, Vigil ranks fourth leaguewide with 40 stops so far. 

    The linebacker quietly produces behind an exceptional defensive front. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are difference-makers at the point of attack, while Vigil often cleans up anything behind them. 

    Even among the linebackers, Vigil receives little credit. 

    Vontaze Burfict and his status are always at the forefront of every conversation regarding the Bengals defense. The volatile linebacker is returning from suspension this week, which should help Vigil. 

    Despite everything, Burfict is still a team leader, a powerful voice in the huddle and a playmaker. The Bengals can rely on the seventh-year pro to make sure everyone is aligned properly and playing their natural positions. Vigil can now go about his business instead of trying to compensate for the void Burfict's absence created and Brown's ankle injury exacerbated. 

    Vigil may not be the Bengals' most dynamic defender, but his steady production is vital to the team's success this season. 

Cleveland Browns: LB Genard Avery

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    Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett demands attention. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi is a budding star, too.

    Rookie linebacker Genard Avery appears to be another cornerstone piece for an ascending Browns defensive front. 

    Avery, whom the Browns selected in the fifth round this year, is a "human bowling ball" working off the edge as a standup defensive end in sub-packages. The 6'0", 250-pound hybrid graded out as a top-five rookie performer through three weeks, according to Pro Football Focus. Avery then set a career-high Sunday with five quarterback pressures against the Oakland Raiders. 

    "There are not a lot of people in the NFL that can stop him if he gets going where he wants to go," fellow Browns linebacker Joe Schobert said of Avery during training camp, per Cleveland.com's Dan Labbe

    On the surface, Avery's nine total tackles, 1.5 sacks and a defended pass don't stand out. But the constant disruption he creates off the edge rattles opposing quarterbacks and helps others trying to create pressure. 

    Garrett, Ogunjobi and Avery form an impressive triumvirate that creates matchup nightmares for opponents.

Dallas Cowboys: DT Daniel Ross

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    Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Daniel Ross didn't take the easiest path to reach the NFL. 

    The 25-year-old defender spent two seasons in the Canadian Football League before he was signed to three different NFL practice squads during the 2017 campaign. The Cowboys plucked Ross off the Kansas City Chefs' taxi squad last November, and he's developed into an elite run defender during his second season with the organization. 

    "It's just been a crazy, crazy journey," Ross said this summer, per the Daily Journal's Stephen Hunt. "I'm just so excited to be here and try to just be the best that I can." 

    His best is none too shabby. 

    A 1-technique sets the tone in the middle of a defense. The position's physicality often determines whether the entire unit can hold up against the run before the pass-rushers can pin their ears back. Ross is already a dominant force against opposing ground games. 

    The second-year defensive lineman may not provide much on passing downs, but he helped offset the losses of Maliek Collins and David Irving to injury and suspension, respectively. 

Denver Broncos: LB Josey Jewell

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    Josey Jewell is an instinctual linebacker who has earned playing time in a rotation that includes veterans Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis. The fact Jewell is doing well against the run comes as no surprise after he registered 437 career tackles for the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

    However, he's also performed well against the pass in limited opportunities. Marshall and Davis are more athletic overall, but Jewell is smart and plays his angles well, even if he's still finding his way in the Broncos' defensive scheme. 

    "A lot of learning lessons for me, especially, coming in early like that and playing on the defense," Jewell said, per the Denver Post's Kyle Fredrickson. "A lot of things that you realize after a week, you look at the film, think about it, watch it by yourself and you understand what you did wrong. You try to improve yourself every day."

    Right now, Jewel is a rotation player receiving limited reps. That's OK. The fourth-round rookie's role continues to grow as the coaching staff becomes more comfortable with him.

    He could be starting alongside Davis as soon as next year, as the Broncos can save $5 million by releasing Marshall next offseason, according to Spotrac

Detroit Lions: S Tracy Walker

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    Rookie Tracy Walker is about to become a much bigger part of the Detroit Lions defense as long as he's healthy enough to take over a starting role. 

    Quandre Diggs suffered a broken bone in his hand during Sunday's contest against the Cowboys, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport. His timetable for return has yet to be determined. 

    Walker is also dealing with an injury and was limited in practice Wednesday, per MLive.com's Kyle Meinke. If this year's 82nd overall pick can suit up Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, he should be the first to replace Diggs after a strong start to his rookie campaign. 

    "He's played some football for us out here in critical situations," head coach Matt Patricia said, per the Detroit News' Matt Schoch. "He's still got a lot to learn from just the intricacies and the things that come up in a game and communication and the rest of it, but he's doing a good job and trying to stay on top of it and getting better every week."

    The first-year defender has performed well in two areas that weren't considered strengths of his coming into the league. Walker has impressed in deep coverage and has been a reliable tackler, albeit in limited opportunities.

Green Bay Packers: LB Reggie Gilbert

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    The Green Bay Bay Packers attempted to trade for star edge-rusher Khalil Mack when the Oakland Raiders made him available, according to Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal. The offer wasn't good enough. 

    No one on the Packers roster can replicate what Mack does, but Reggie Gilbert fulfilling his potential will go a long way to help Green Bay's pass rush. 

    "The athleticism he displays, only a few people truly possess that: the way he's able to bend, the angles he has, his hands and everything," veteran linebacker Clay Matthews said of his teammate, per the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Ryan Wood

    While Gilbert hasn't displayed the same dominance he flashed during the preseason, he has still been an effective edge presence. The third-year defender has 1.5 sacks this season and harassed Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback Josh Allen throughout Sunday's contest. 

    The progression left tackle David Bakhtiari saw in Gilbert's game during training camp is now translating to the field. 

    "He's setting up certain rushes, he's becoming smarter. The game's slowing down for him from what I can tell," Bakhtiari said in August, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky.  "Another thing, he's gotten stronger."

Houston Texans: WR Keke Coutee

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    Houston Texans wide receiver Keke Coutee won't be a secret for long if he continues to perform like he did Sunday. 

    Coutee set a modern-era record by catching 11 passes in his debut, according to Drew Doughtery of the Texans' team website.

    "He did a nice job," head coach Bill O'Brien told reporters after the team's 37-34 overtime victory over the Indianapolis Colts. "... There were some plays there that he needs to do a better job on. He would have had a bigger day, if that makes sense. But for a rookie to be his first game after having not played at all, it’s a pretty good first game." 

    The 5'11", 180-pound Coutee often served as a vertical threat for the Texas Tech Red Raiders, but the Texans have different plans for him. Houston's coaching staff manufactured touches for the rookie fourth-round pick by getting him in space after short route patterns. 

    According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Coutee had the second-highest separation per target (5.2), the fourth-lowest air yards per target (2.3) and third-highest average yards after catch (10.6). 

    "He's a playmaker," quarterback Deshaun Watson said, per ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop. "He's a guy that can come in here and help this offense [and] be electric."

Indianapolis Colts: CB Kenny Moore II

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    Nickel corners don't receive as much respect as those who work on the outside, even though they're considered starters in today's pass-first league. As a result, their contributions are often underplayed despite being vital to any defense's success. 

    Kenny Moore II is another undrafted success story. The New England Patriots originally signed him out of Valdosta State, but they released him four months later. The Colts promptly claimed Moore off waivers, and he unsurprisingly experienced ups and downs during his rookie campaign.

    This season, he's developing into an elite slot defender. 

    "He's just an extremely tough player, physically and mentally," head coach Frank Reich said, per NESN's Darren Hartwell. "He works incredibly hard at practice, the guy's a true pro. Dependable, everything you want in a football player."

    Size tends to factor into teams' decisions. Moore is listed at 5'9" and 190 pounds, which explains his need to play nickel corner. He overcomes those physical limitations with a tremendous work ethic, relentless motor and undying determination. 

    "Kenny got a point to prove," linebacker Najee Goode added, per the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer. "Straight up. He plays like that."

Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Corey Grant

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    With Leonard Fournette hobbled by a hamstring injury, the Jacksonville Jaguars want to feature third-string running back Corey Grant due to his speed, explosiveness and versatility as a runner and receiver. 

    They continually fail to do so, though. 

    "We had some special things in, so we didn't really get a chance to do some things that we wanted to," head coach Doug Marrone said after the season-opening win against the New York Giants, per Jacksonville.com's Phillip Heilman. "But we always have stuff for him in there."

    Grant got 10 touches for 69 yards the following week against the New England Patriots, but he had 10 total touches against the Tennessee Titans and New York Jets in Weeks 3 and 4. 

    The coaching staff seemingly values what Grant can do based on their attempts to keep him involved in some manner. His 4.25-second 40-yard-dash speed coupled with the agility to make defenders miss in open space is special. Unfortunately, he's stuck behind both Fournette and T.J. Yeldon on the depth chart. 

    Fournette's sore hamstring should create more opportunities for Grant as the season progresses.  

Kansas City Chiefs: G Cameron Erving

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    The Kansas City Chiefs took a chance on Cameron Erving after the 2015 first-round pick busted with the Cleveland Browns. Erving's play during the first two seasons was as poor as any blocker in the league, and the fact he's now starting and performing well for the Chiefs is nothing short of a miracle. 

    Erving never became comfortable in Cleveland after bouncing around all five line positions. 

    "For a while, I took it as a curse, but it's been a blessing," Erving said, according to The Athletic's Nate Taylor. "... It took a while to learn how to be versatile. I mean, I could go in and step in and do something, but now it's just becoming a little easier."

    He stepped into left guard and has started all four games this season. 

    The Chiefs are loaded nearly everywhere on offense, especially at the skill positions. However, left guard was a suspect area all offseason and throughout training camp. 

    The investment Kansas City made in Erving paid off for both the team and the player. The two sides agreed to a two-year contract extension worth a possible $15.7 million just days before the start of the regular season, per Yahoo Sports' Terez A. Paylor

Los Angeles Chargers: RB Austin Ekeler

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    An argument can be made Austin Ekeler, not Melvin Gordon, is the Los Angeles Chargers' best running back. 

    Ekeler is a versatile piece who excels in every area. The second-year back averages more yards per carry (6.7) and reception (12.5) than the team's starter. Pro Football Focus graded him as the best player on the Chargers roster through the first quarter of play. 

    A combination of short-area quickness and exceptional agility makes him nearly impossible to tackle in the open field as a runner or receiver. He even has the league's highest elusive rating, according to PFF.

    The 5'10", 200-pound back doesn't go down on first contact, either. Ekeler gains plenty of yardage after being hit, too, per ESPN NFL Matchup

    Ekeler can line up in the backfield or out wide. His flexibility creates mismatches. 

    Gordon is a fine starting option. After all, the 2015 first-round pick ranks seventh overall with 276 rushing yards and has a team-leading five total touchdowns. But the Chargers must be giddy to have arguably the game's best one-two punch. 

Los Angeles Rams: Cory Littleton

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    The Los Angeles Rams roster may be loaded, but they entered the season with plenty of questions at linebacker. 

    Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree needed to be replaced after the Rams traded him and a 2019 seventh-round draft pick to the New York Giants for a pair of 2018 selections. A homegrown talent took the role and ran with it. 

    Cory Littleton, whom the Rams signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, is thriving with a team-leading 35 total tackles.  

    "I think he's done an excellent job," head coach Sean McVay said of Littleton, per The Athletic's Vincent Bonsignore. "It's one thing being able to project. It's another thing to deliver and play up to the level that he has." 

    Obviously, stars can be found all over the Rams roster. Littleton is the glue that holds a talented defense together. 

    "He's got good instincts, good awareness," McVay continued. "You see the ability to be able to run and recognize different things. I think he's done a nice job with the communication, specifically with what the MIKE linebacker spot entails. He's playing every snap for us right now and he's playing at a high level."

Miami Dolphins: WR Jakeem Grant

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    The Miami Dolphins have surprised many this year. Wide receiver Jakeem Grant has provided arguably the most surprising performance. 

    Grant struggled to find his footing his first two seasons, but with 11 receptions for 153 yards in four games, he's only two catches and 51 yards shy of his career totals entering this season.

    "To see him grow as a receiver, draw on his ability, his technique and a way to use his speed and size as an advantage, as far as getting leverage and the edge on guys, it's definitely shown up big for us so far this season," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said, per Antwan V. Staley of USA Today's Dolphins Wire. 

    Coaches will always find ways to get individuals with speed to burn on the field. How those players are used determines whether they're successful.

    Grant continues to excel in both the offensive scheme and special teams. The 5'7", 169-pound receiver is working outside and from the slot. Head coach Adam Gase likes to move him around the formation to see how defenses react. 

    Plus, the diminutive speedster leads the NFL with an average of 36.1 yards per kick return. His 11.6 yards per punt return also ranks first among those with at least eight opportunities.

Minnesota Vikings: DE Stephen Weatherly

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    Stephen Weatherly has been thrust into the Minnesota Vikings' starting lineup while the team's top sack-artist, Everson Griffen, deals with personal matters. 

    He's been prepared for the moment. 

    "Previously, when [Griffen] and [Danielle Hunter] went out there, they would always come back to the sidelines and be like, 'He's doing this,'" Weatherly said, per the St. Paul Pioneer Press' Dane Mizutani.  "... Now that I know what it's like, I have to learn to adjust the same way they do so that I can make more plays and we can get the W."

    Weatherly performed well in his first career start with seven tackles and a sack in the Vikings' disappointing loss to the Buffalo Bills. 

    However, the 24-year-old defensive end was shut out by the Los Angeles Rams a week later. The Vikings will need him to contribute since a timetable for Griffen's return hasn't been established. 

    “The good thing about Coach [Mike Zimmer's] defense is that it doesn’t require any superheroes," Weatherly said, per Pioneer Press' Chris Tomasson. "Everyone needs to step up, all 11 men one play at a time. Do your job. Nothing more, nothing less, and then good things will happen."

New England Patriots: C David Andrews

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    Sometimes gems are hidden in plain sight. 

    David Andrews is now in his fourth year as the New England Patriots' starting center. He hasn't made a Pro Bowl or earned All-Pro honors. All he's done is develop into one of the game's elite pivots, according to Pro Football Focus. His performance is now on par with 2017 All-Pro center Jason Kelce.   

    "Well, that's pretty good company," Andrews said, per CLNS Media's Evan Lazar. "I've always thought he was a great player."

    Andrews isn't the biggest, strongest or most athletic snapper. However, he's exceptionally consistent with his technique and highly intelligent in identifying pre-snap reads and making proper line calls. 

    Plenty of question marks can be found on the Patriots offense. The running back stable is beset by injuries. Wide receiver has been a mess all year. Even left tackle was once a concern, though Trent Brown has been solid. 

    Andrews provides accountability along the offensive line so the greatness of quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski can be seen. The fact this one-time undrafted free agent is now counted among the Patriots' top performers serves as a testament to his work ethic and overall progress.

New Orleans Saints: QB Taysom Hill

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    What can't Taysom Hill do?

    The backup quarterback/ball-carrier/special teams standout is doing everything he can to help New Orleans win games. 

    "The Swiss Army knife," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said of Hill, per the New Orleans Advocate's Rod Walker. "He does everything. What doesn't he do? I saw him get coach Sean [Payton] his coffee the other day. I'm just saying. There's nothing he can't do."

    Hill is an exceptional athlete who would could have been one of the best college football quarterbacks ever if a string of injuries hadn't ruined his amateur career.

    Now, the 6'2", 230-pound multipurpose weapon is taking advantage of his size, 4.46-second speed and agility by returning kicks, lining up in the backfield as a run/pass threat and even completing a pass as the punt return team's fullback. 

    "Obviously, carrying three quarterbacks, you have a dead roster spot," said Hill, who went undrafted. "So, if I can add value, I'm all for it. First and foremost, I love to play quarterback. But I love to compete and I love to be on the field. Any opportunity to get on the field, I'm never going to complain about."

New York Giants: DE Kerry Wynn

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    Kerry Wynn is benefitting from James Bettcher's hire as the New York Giants defensive coordinator. 

    Wynn, who served as a rotational player the last five seasons, has started two games and been used all over the defensive front under the new staff. Wynn is being asked to play the edge and even slide inside at times to take advantage of potential mismatches. 

    "Kerry is long, he's kind of a relentless player, he's tough, he's all the things you're looking forhe's tough, he cares, he works, and he finds a way to make plays," head coach Pat Shurmur said, per NJ.com's Matt Lombardo

    Statistically, Wynn's performance to date won't turn any heads. The 27-year-old defender has 10 solo tackles, half a sack, a deflected pass and a forced fumble. 

    However, he's continually done his job by setting the edge, defending the run and creating pressure. Pro Football Focus had Wynn graded as the game's fifth-best edge defender going into Week 4 play. 

    Interestingly, the Giants defense decided to scale back Wynn's workload this past weekend. Maybe the coaches should have placed one of their best defenders on the field against the Saints' explosive offense. Just a thought. 

New York Jets: DE Nathan Shepherd

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    This may come as a surprise, but Sam Darnold isn't the only rookie starting for the New York Jets. It only seems like it since quarterbacks demand so much attention. But Nathan Shepherd has started three games.

    "Shep is completely different," head coach Todd Bowles said when asked to compare Darnold and Shepherd, per Newsday's Neil Best. "A D-lineman and quarterback mindsets are completely different. He's been a joy to coach and to be around. He works hard. He doesn't take a play off and doesn't take a day off and we like that about him." 

    This year's 72nd overall pick is trying to fill the void left by Muhammad Wilkerson. Granted, Wilkerson didn't play all that well after the Jets handed the lineman a massive contract extension. Still, the defense needs someone to take pressure off Leonard Williams. 

    Shepherd may not be the most explosive interior defender, but he's strong at the point attack and physical. 

    "He's tough," Bowles said of the 24-year-old rookie, per NorthJersey.com's John Rowe

Oakland Raiders: DT Maurice Hurst

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    Maurice Hurst's continued improvement through the first four games of his professional career shows exactly why he graded as a first-round talent after the 2017 season before his draft stock plummeted due to a pre-existing heart condition. 

    The Oakland Raiders decided to take a chance on Hurst with a fifth-round selection, and they're now benefiting from the rest of the league's trepidation. 

    "Love Hurst," Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said during training camp, per the Detroit Free Press' Dave Birkett. "He's been well-coached at Michigan, he's polished. He's got a great motor. That's why we traded up to get him. He's exactly what we thought he was."

    The Raiders were happy with their overall defensive tackle situation and signed veteran Clinton McDonald and Jonathan Hankins after the regular season began. Their additions haven't slowed Hurst, though. 

    The rookie received an impressive 90.5 grade against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus. Hurst recorded his second career sack while adding a tackle for loss, deflected pass and quarterback hit. He managed three defensive stops in the run game as well. 

Philadelphia Eagles: RB Wendell Smallwood

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    The Philadelphia Eagles feature the NFL's deepest backfield. However, the team's depth has been tested this season, allowing Wendell Smallwood to become a bigger part of the offense. 

    With Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles missing time, Smallwood showed why he's earned the coaching staff's trust. 

    "No, Wendell has always impressed me," head coach Doug Pederson said, per the Morning Call's Nick Fierro. "He’s worked extremely hard. He's really improved his craft and put himself in a position to help us. He did it again in training camp, again here and the first part of the season."

    The 2016 fifth-round pick carried the ball 10 times for 56 yards and caught three passes for 35 years during the Eagles' Week 3 contest against the Indianapolis Colts. 

    "Got to have guys like that," Pederson continued. "Might be role players, but you know what, their role is pretty big in games like this, when your two top guys are down in the backfield." 

    The Eagles have five running backs on their active roster. Smallwood showed he can be just as effective as any of them when provided with a larger workload. 

Pittsburgh Steelers: TE Jesse James

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    Multiple names will be mentioned regarding the weapons found within the Pittsburgh Steelers offense before tight end Jesse James is discussed. 

    Antonio Brown is the game's best wide receiver. JuJu Smith-Schuster leads the team with 31 receptions for 416 yards. James Conner has been a competent replacement during Le'Veon Bell's absence. Even fellow tight end Vance McDonald received far more attention in recent weeks after his wicked stiff arm on Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Chris Conte. 

    James is more well-known for a non-catch than anything he's accomplished on the field. This is a shame since he's developed into a well-rounded tight end. 

    The fourth-year target is third on the Steelers with 228 receiving yards. He's been particularly adept at working down the seam with his 6'7", 261-pound frame. James is second among all receivers and first among tight ends at 22.8 yards per reception. 

    Furthermore, he's one of the league's better blocking tight ends. 

    Unfortunately, the Steelers don't always get him involved. James has only caught two passes for 30 yards the past two weeks. The 2015 fifth-round pick deserves to be a bigger part of the offense. 

San Francisco 49ers: LB Fred Warner

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    A pair of rookies ranks first and third, respectively, in total tackles. The Indianapolis Colts' Darius Leonard leads the way with 54, while the San Francisco 49ers' Fred Warner has 43. 

    The difference between the two is Warner wasn't supposed to start. Malcolm Smith's hamstring injury and Reuben Foster's suspension paved the way for Warner's inclusion into the lineup, and he isn't leaving any time soon. 

    Now, the 49ers have the league's best young duo at inside linebacker. Warner allows Foster to play weakside linebacker, whereas the rookie can handle all of the responsibilities at MIKE backer. 

    "We thought he played at a very high level throughout the practices and the games that he got in on," head coach Kyle Shanahan said before the start of the regular season, per 49ers Webzone's David Bonilla. "So did Reuben [Foster] last year. But, we thought he was better at the other spot, not doing the communication."

    Warner must miss fewer tackles, but his athleticism and command of the defense make this year's 70th overall pick one of the league's best young defenders. 

Seattle Seahawks: CB Justin Coleman

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    All the drama Earl Thomas initiated through his holdout and one-finger salute after suffering a season-ending broken leg overlooks one simple truth: The Seattle Seahawks secondary is still quite talented. 

    Yes, the Legion of Boom is now obliterated. But its demise does a disservice to those still in uniform and playing well. The unit ranks fifth overall in pass defense. 

    Shaquill Griffin has developed into a top cover corner. Bradley McDougald has quietly played very well in Kam Chancellor's old role. Justin Coleman, meanwhile, is among the league's best nickel corners. 

    Even at the height of the Seahawks' defensive prowess, the unit never fielded a nickel defender quite as talented as Coleman. He's fluid in coverage with the ability to bump outside if needed. He moves all over the formation as the catch-all in coverage. 

    Coleman continues to build upon last season's performance after the Seahawks flipped a seventh-round pick to acquire him from the New England Patriots. He graded fifth among nickel corners in passer rating allowed last year, according to Pro Football Focus

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: WR Chris Godwin

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    The Chicago Bears supplied a dose of reality to the Tampa Buccaneers' high-flying offense. Even so, the Bucs still present one of the league's best groups of wide receivers, including the emerging Chris Godwin. 

    Tampa Bay chose Godwin in the third round of the 2017 draft, and he played relatively well as a rookie behind Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries. Godwin's game became more well-rounded in his second campaign. The 6'1", 208-pound target is on pace to snag 60 passes for 772 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

    The Bears became the first team this season to keep Godwin out of the end zone. 

    Godwin is far from a finished product. He's dropped a few passes, fumbled twice and needs to be more consistent overall. But his penchant for making difficult catches and development into a premium red-zone option despite being, at best, the Bucs' third receiver makes him dangerous in the team's wide-open offensive scheme. 

    "That's the nice thing about Chrishe's versatile," head coach Dirk Koetter said during the preseason, per ESPN.com's Jenna Laine. "He can do a lot of different things." 

Tennessee Titans: LB Jayon Brown

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    First-round pick Rashaan Evans is supposed to be the emerging star in the middle of the Tennessee Titans defense. His extended absence during training camp and preseason allowed fellow linebacker Jayon Brown to emerge as a standout performer. 

    Brown is a perfect example of a draft pick needing time to realize his potential. The Titans chose the UCLA linebacker in the fifth round of the 2017 draft. His contributions have steadily increased with a career-high 76 snaps Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, according to Pro Football Focus

    An injury to Wesley Woodyard played a factor in Brown's extended playing time, and head coach Mike Vrabel remains unsure if the veteran defender will be available for the upcoming contest against the Buffalo Bills, per the Tennesseean's Erik Bacharach

    Brown played exceptionally well this past weekend with 10 total tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and two more quarterback hits.

    "He was really one of those guys that was one of the players of the game on defense," Vrabel said afterward, per ESPN Radio Nashville's Buck Reising

    The second-year linebacker is tied for third on the team with 23 total tackles, and he only has one start under his belt.

Washington Redskins: DT Matt Ioannidis

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    Interior pass-rushers are among the rarest and most valuable commodities at the NFL level. The Washington Redskins' Matt Ioannidis is among the league's best. 

    According to Pro Football Focus, the 2016 fifth-round pick led all interior defenders in pressure percentage (23.1) and pass-rush productivity (14.4) through three weeks of play before Washington entered its early bye week. The 24-year-old lineman became the first interior defender since Dan Wilkerson in 1999 to record at least one sack in three straight contests, according to NBC Sports Washington's Rich Tandler

    Washington features a talented defensive front with two recent first-round picks, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, starting at defensive tackle and Ioannidis rotating at both tackle and 5-technique. 

    "When you go sub, I think he's a great sub in there with Jonathan and Payne," head coach Jay Gruden said during the preseason, per Sports Journey's Lake Lewis Jr. "Three guys that can all rush the passer pretty good and they're all strong against the run."

    Due to a strong foundation, including Ioannidis, Washington features an elite defense that ranks in the top seven overall against the run and pass.