The Best-Kept Secret on Every NFL Roster Heading into 2019 Season
Yet, football is also the ultimate team sport. Having an MVP-caliber player is terrific, but it won't lead a team to the playoffs without strong performances from the other 52 guys on the roster. Oftentimes, there are key contributors who go largely unnoticed.
Here, we'll examine one critical player from each franchise who fails to receive national attention—we're talking about young players coming into their own, unheralded veterans and role players. Sure, individual fanbases know these players well, but they're not likely to top jersey sales or pop up in pregame promo reels.
Today, they'll get a little time in the spotlight.
Arizona Cardinals: TE Ricky Seals-Jones
The Arizona Cardinals added tight ends Maxx Williams and Charles Clay this offseason, but both could end up playing behind 2017 undrafted free agent Ricky Seals-Jones.
While Seals-Jones is certainly not a premier tight end yet, the former Texas A&M receiver is starting to emerge as an NFL-level pass-catcher. Even in an atrocious Cardinals offense, he managed to catch 34 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown in 2018. Only Christian Kirk, Larry Fitzgerald and David Johnson caught more balls.
The addition of new quarterback Kyler Murray could help Seals-Jones explode onto the scene in 2019.
From a measurables standpoint, Seals-Jones is similar to 2019 top-10 pick T.J. Hockenson. Both are 6'5" with 4.7 speed, and Seals-Jones is only slightly lighter (243 vs. 251 lbs). Seals-Jones should be a key cog in the new Murray-led Arizona offense.
Atlanta Falcons: RB Ito Smith
Running back Ito Smith was mostly a role player in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons, but he was a solid one. Though he averaged a modest 3.5 yards per carry, he also caught 27 passes and found the end zone four times.
What Falcons fans realize—and most casual fans, aside from those in very deep fantasy leagues, do not—is that Smith is likely to take over for Tevin Coleman, who's now with the San Francisco 49ers, as the primary complement to Devonta Freeman. This will be a notable role both because Freeman is returning from groin surgery and because Atlanta likes to use a heavy rotation in the backfield.
"I think he's got a big future," head coach Dan Quinn said of Smith, per James Parks of 247Sports.
Even in 2017, when Freeman was able to start 14 games, Coleman still had 156 carries and 27 receptions. This is the kind of workload Smith should have in 2019, and if he does, he'll be well-known to more than just Falcons fans.
Baltimore Ravens: LB Matt Judon
The Baltimore Ravens lost edge-rushers Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith in the offseason, which may lead many to believe that their pass rush is about to take a hit. It could, but Ravens fans know there is still one unheralded sack artist on the team ready to make an impact.
Former fifth-round pick Matt Judon has largely been overshadowed by the likes of Suggs and Smith during his three seasons in Baltimore. However, he's a capable pass-rusher himself, having produced 15 sacks over the last two seasons.
Judon is also a stout run defender and a terrific all-around linebacker. He appears poised to be Baltimore's next big pass-rusher, though, especially if rookie Jaylon Ferguson is able to emerge as a complement sooner than later. Expect Judon to receive some Pro Bowl buzz as early as this season.
Buffalo Bills: LB Matt Milano
Rookie first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds was the breakout star of the Buffalo Bills defense in 2018. However, second-year linebacker Matt Milano may have earned that title if not for the stellar season from the Virginia Tech product.
Milano, a 2017 fifth-round pick out of Boston College, was a consistent playmaker before suffering a broken fibula in Week 14. in just 13 games, he managed to amass 78 tackles, seven passes defended, a sack and three interceptions.
Assuming he is able to get back to 100 percent, Milano should be poised for a true breakout season. His ability to thrive in coverage will lead to some game-changing plays, and with Buffalo appearing to be a team on the rise, plenty of eyes should be on Milano when he makes them.
Carolina Panthers: OT Taylor Moton
Offensive linemen rarely get the credit they deserve—unless of course, they're perennial All-Pros, or at least of the franchise left tackle variety.
Carolina Panthers right tackle Taylor Moton is neither of these things, which is why fans outside of Carolina may not be familiar with the 2017 second-rounder. Moton has spent time at the left tackle spot—and he could possibly play there in 2019—but he spent the majority of the 2018 season starting on the right side.
Moton is a powerful run-blocker who helped spring plenty of Christian McCaffrey bursts last season. He's a reliable starter and will help anchor the Carolina line regardless of where he's positioned moving forward, which could depend on how quickly rookie second-round pick Greg Little develops.
Chicago Bears: DT Eddie Goldman
When you think of the Chicago Bears defense—a unit that allowed a league-low 17.7 points per game in 2018—you probably think of guys like Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith and Leonard Floyd.
If you follow the Bears, though, you know that defensive tackle Eddie Goldman helps make pass-rushers like Mack and sideline-to-sideline linebackers like Smith better. The 2015 second-round pick doesn't get a ton of national attention because he plays on the defensive interior, but he's an anchor of the front seven and a disruptive player in his own right.
In 2018, for example, Goldman produced 40 tackles, 3.0 sacks and a safety. He just turned 25 years old in January, so he should remain a defensive staple for the Bears for the foreseeable future.
Cincinnati Bengals: S Clayton Fejedelem
The Cincinnati Bengals didn't have many bright moments defensively in 2018, but former seventh-rounder Clayton Fejedelem was responsible for one of them. Against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1, he forced a fumble, scooped it up and returned it 83 yards for a touchdown to secure the win.
Fejedelem looks to be a rising member of the Bengals defense, and he's one of the squad's best special teams standouts. Over the last two seasons, he's produced 77 total tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a touchdown.
If Fejedelem can continue to develop on the defensive side of the ball, he could emerge as a regular contributor. At the very least, he's likely to remain the Bengals' special teams ace as long as he remains in Cincinnati.
Cleveland Browns: LB Genard Avery
Even non-Cleveland fans know the Browns nailed the 2018 draft. Players like Baker Mayfield, Denzel Ward and Nick Chubb quickly gained national attention, and rightfully so. However, Cleveland may have also struck gold with fifth-round pick Genard Avery.
Avery is not a finished product at linebacker, but the former Memphis star showed a lot of pass-rushing potential, logging 4.5 sacks to go with 40 tackles and four passes defended. Though he only made five starts as a rookie, with Jamie Collins no longer with the team, Avery now has a legitimate chance of earning a full-time starting role.
Cleveland took steps to beef up its defensive line in the offseason, adding Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson to the mix. With the line garnering plenty of attention from opposing offenses, Avery could be poised to explode as an early-down linebacker and situational pass-rusher off the edge.
Dallas Cowboys: DL Tyrone Crawford
If Demarcus Lawrence is the star of the Dallas Cowboys defensive line—and he is—then defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford is its unsung hero.
Crawford is able to bring consistent pressure up the middle, which prevents opposing teams from being able to fully focus on the edge rush. He's produced at least four sacks in each of the past four seasons, and he racked up a career-high 5.5 sacks in 2018.
In addition to being able to pressure from the interior, Crawford is also able to kick over to end when needed. His aggressive style of play and schematic versatility make him one of Dallas' better defenders, even if he isn't a household name like Lawrence.
Denver Broncos: DE Derek Wolfe
Denver Broncos veteran Derek Wolfe is not a pass-rushing defensive end, which is why those outside of the fanbase may be unfamiliar with him. However, he is a key piece of Denver's defense who can set the edge, chase down linebackers and bring occasional pressure from the end spot.
Wolfe returned from a 2017 neck injury to start all 16 games last season. He finished with 43 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
While Wolfe is never going to be confused with sack artist Von Miller, he's been a consistent presence on the Broncos defense ever since being drafted back in 2012. He also played a big role in Denver's 2015 Super Bowl season, forever endearing himself to Broncos fans everywhere.
Detroit Lions: LB Christian Jones
Last offseason, the Detroit Lions signed linebacker Christian Jones away from the rival Bears. He made an immediate impact for Detroit and is already one of the better players in head coach Matt Patricia's defense. He amassed 69 tackles, three passes defended, a sack and a forced fumble in 2018.
Though Jones is pretty much unknown outside of the NFC North, the 28-year-old former undrafted free agent could be poised to step into the spotlight this season. He's the kind of unheralded linebacker—think Kyle Van Noy—who simply helps a Patricia-coached defense hum. With another year in the system, Jones could become a legitimate star.
"Obviously the second year in the same scheme, you know, you can only get better," Jones said, per the team's official website.
If Patricia and the Lions can field a top-tier defense in 2019, Jones is going to be a huge part of it.
Green Bay Packers: G Lane Taylor
Interior offensive linemen often go overlooked in today's NFL—unless they happen to make an immediate All-Pro impact, like Indianpolis' Quenton Nelson did in 2018. Far from being a top-10 pick like Nelson was, Green Bay Packers guard Lane Taylor entered the league as an undrafted free agent back in 2013.
Over the past three seasons, though, Taylor has emerged as a reliable starter on the interior. He's started at both guard spots and has missed just two games over the last three years.
New head coach Matt LaFleur could and should focus on ramping up the run game in 2019, and Taylor can be a big part of that. He may face competition from versatile rookie Elgton Jenkins, but Taylor's ability to play both guard positions should keep him a prominent piece of the offensive line for the foreseeable future.
Houston Texans: DT Brandon Dunn
When most fans think of the Houston Texans defense, names like J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus probably come to mind—and for good reason. These are some of the most disruptive defenders in the game, and they can make life miserable for opposing offensive coordinators.
Fans outside of Houston likely don't think of 6'2", 310-pound nose tackle Brandon Dunn. However, he's a big part of the Texans' front seven and shouldn't be overlooked.
While Dunn doesn't rack up the stats—he had just 24 tackles and a forced fumble in 2018—he does anchor the interior of the line and occupy blockers. This allows guys like Clowney and Watt to attack the quarterback and tflow to the ball-carrier while still keeping inside running lanes clogged.
Simply put, Dunn makes the high-profile defenders around him better, which is why Houston was quick to give him a new one-year, $2 million deal in the offseason.
Indianapolis Colts: CB Pierre Desir
Indianapolis Colts cornerback Pierre Desir first entered the league as a fourth-round pick of the Browns. While he didn't last in Cleveland, the Lindenwood product found a home with the Colts three years after being drafted. He's since become a reliable starter and mainstay of Indianapolis' secondary.
There's a reason Desir was given a new three-year, $22.5 million deal in the offseason. He's a quality player and the closest thing the Colts have to a legitimate No. 1 cornerback.
In 2018 alone, Desir had 79 tackles, eight passes defended and an interception. If he continues to improve as a pro—last season was his first as a full-time starter—Desir will begin to earn leaguewide recognition.
Jacksonville Jaguars: DT Abry Jones
Defensive tackle Abry Jones isn't a full-time starter and probably isn't well known to those who aren't Jacksonville Jaguars fans. However, he's a tremendous rotational player who allows defensive coordinator Todd Wash to have some flexibility with the defensive line.
Not only can Jones spell nose tackle Marcell Dareus, but he can also play next to him as an attacking 3-technique. He is capable of occupying blockers and penetrating the backfield with equal efficacy. Over the past two seasons, Jones has racked up 60 tackles, 2.0 sacks and eight passes defended.
While Dareus, Calais Campbell and 2018 first-round pick Taven Bryan are going to get more national attention, Jaguars fans know how valuable of a piece Jones can be. On a team with less defensive line depth, he'd be a full-time starter and, quite possibly, a Pro Bowl candidate.
Kansas City Chiefs: S Daniel Sorensen
If you've never heard of defensive back Daniel Sorensen, then you're probably not a Kansas City Chiefs fan. Sorensen stepped in for an injured Eric Berry in 2017, started 14 games and helped the Chiefs reach the postseason in Alex Smith's last year as Kansas City's quarterback.
In that 2017 season, Sorensen racked up 89 tackles, six passes defended and an interception.
However, Sorensen is more than just "that guy" from 2017. He's been a key reserve and spot starter for the Chiefs since being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He missed much of the 2018 season due to a knee injury but still produced 26 tackles and a pick in seven games (three starts).
Los Angeles Chargers: LB Jatavis Brown
Fans outside of Los Angeles are familiar with Chargers defensive stars Melvin Ingram, Joey Bosa and Derwin James. They're probably less familiar with linebacker Jatavis Brown, who emerged as a starter in 2018.
However, Brown is deserving of more attention. He was one of the Chargers' most underrated players last season, finishing with 97 tackles, five passes defended, a sack and a forced fumble. Unfortunately, Brown also suffered an ankle injury in Week 17 and wasn't around for L.A.'s playoff run.
Heading into 2019, the Chargers appear poised to have one of the league's most complete defenses. With four prime-time games on Los Angeles' slate, Brown should make himself known to plenty of non-Chargers fans.
Los Angeles Rams: RB Malcolm Brown
The Los Angeles Rams drafted former Memphis running back Darrell Henderson in the third round, which plenty of folks saw as an insurance move. Todd Gurley dealt with a knee injury late last season that prompted the Rams to bring in C.J. Anderson for the stretch run and the playoffs.
However, Anderson was only brought in after backup Malcolm Brown was placed on injured reserve with a clavicle injury.
Rams fans know that Brown is a hard runner and a capable spot starter in his own right. He has averaged 4.0 yards per carry with the Rams and averaged 4.9 yards per carry in 2019. He even garnered some free-agent attention, as the Rams matched an offer sheet from the Lions to retain him.
Brown isn't likely to emerge as a starter with both Gurley and Henderson on board, but he should be an important piece of L.A.'s backfield rotation in 2019.
Miami Dolphins: WR Jakeem Grant
New Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is not inheriting an offense chock-full of playmakers. However, wide receiver Jakeem Grant has the potential to become one.
A sixth-round pick out of Texas Tech in 2016, Grant has yet to emerge as a full-time contributor. However, he started to come on in 2018, catching 21 passes and averaging 12.8 yards per reception. With 2018 first-round pick Josh Rosen taking over at quarterback, Grant could be in store for an offensive explosion in 2019.
Even if he doesn't emerge as a high-end receiving threat, Grant is still going to be valuable to the Dolphins. He's a dangerous returner who averaged 16.3 yards per punt return and 29.7 yards per kick return in 2018 and scored two return touchdowns.
Minnesota Vikings: CB Holton Hill
The Minnesota Vikings will be without second-year cornerback Holton Hill for the first four games of 2019 because of a PED violation. While this may not seem like a big deal to some, Vikings fans know that it is a significant defensive blow.
Hill, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas, appeared in all 16 games as a rookie and made three starts. He finished the season with 36 tackles, seven passes defended and an interception. In his three starts, he had 20 tackles and four pass breakups.
Minnesota has invested heavily in the cornerback position over the last five years, drafting Trae Waynes (2015) and Mike Hughes (2018) in the first round. Hill has the potential to become one of the team's best additions.
New England Patriots: S Duron Harmon
The New England Patriots are regularly in prime time, yet many casual fans may still be unfamiliar with safety Duron Harmon. He's a versatile backup and an invaluable piece of the Patriots secondary.
Since being drafted in the third round in 2013, Harmon has made just 21 starts. However, he's appeared in 95 regular-season games, missing just one in his rookie season. He made a career-high six starts in 2018 and finished with 38 tackles and four interceptions.
What makes Harmon so important to New England is his ability to play both safety spots and be a third safety in sub-packages. On another team, he'd probably be a star.
New Orleans Saints: LB Craig Robertson
Journeyman defenders frequently go overlooked in the NFL, and this is exactly the kind of player 31-year-old Craig Robertson is. The New Orleans Saints linebacker has never been named to a Pro Bowl, but he has quietly been a do-it-all player for the defense over the last three seasons.
While Robertson saw a reduced role in the defense in 2018—he made zero starts and had just 14 tackles—he is still a key reserve and one of the better backups in the league. Before that, he was a one of the team's better starting linebackers, racking up 195 tackles and three interceptions between 2016 and 2017.
Fans can expect Robertson to remain a defensive mainstay for the near future, as the Saints gave him a new two-year deal this offseason. With four prime-time games on New Orleans' schedule, national audiences should at least get a few glimpses of Robertson in 2019.
New York Giants: S Michael Thomas
The New York Giants acquired safety Jabrill Peppers in the Odell Beckham Jr. trade, and plenty of folks probably expect him to replace former Giant Landon Collins at strong safety. However, Michael Thomas—a player largely unknown outside of New York and Miami—may be better suited for the job.
Thomas came to the Giants in 2018 after spending five seasons with the Dolphins. He's mostly been a backup during his NFL career, but he's had sporadic opportunities to start and has made the most of them. Last season, he racked up 59 tackles, two interceptions and six passes defended.
While the Giants do not appear to have many standouts in their secondary heading into 2019, Thomas has the potential to be exactly that. Even at 29 years old, he is a player on the rise and one likely to see some time in the spotlight should the Giants figure out how to turn things around in the near future.
New York Jets: P Lachlan Edwards
Unless they do something very wrong, punters are rarely recognized in the NFL. This is why fans outside of New York may not be familiar with Jets punter Lachlan Edwards. This could change in the near future, though, as the Jets appear to have a franchise quarterback in Sam Darnold and look to be a team on the rise.
As the Jets spend more time before a national audience, Edwards is going to get more opportunities to show that he can be a weapon. He finished the 2018 season ranked ninth with an average of 45.9 yards per punt.
Edwards can flip field position in an instant, and that's going to make life easier for the Jets' new-look defense—now led by C.J. Mosley and Quinnen Williams.
Oakland Raiders: DT Maurice Hurst
The story of the offseason for the Oakland Raiders was the acquisition of star receiver Antonio Brown. Partnering him with fellow free agent Tyrell Williams and rookie running back Josh Jacobs should give the Raiders a more effective offense.
However, the defense has the potential for a turnaround as well. Defensive tackle Maurice Hurst can be a big part of it.
Hurst was a fifth-round pick in the 2018 draft, and he quickly ascended to a starting role. He produced 31 tackles, four sacks and three passes defended as a rookie. His ability to generate pressure from the middle will be huge moving forward—now that Oakland has a legitimate edge-rusher in rookie Clelin Ferrell.
Don't be shocked if Hurst emerges as a Pro Bowl candidate within the next couple of seasons.
Philadelphia Eagles: LB Kamu Grugier-Hill
Fans outside of Philadelphia may be familiar with linebackers Nigel Bradham and L.J. Fort. They're likely less familiar with Kamu Grugier-Hill, though Eagles fans certainly know him well.
A 2016 sixth-round draft pick, Grugier-Hill emerged as a starter in 2018, and he played well. He finished the regular season with 45 tackles, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble.
A former safety, Grugier-Hill has the speed and the physicality to excel against the run and in coverage. He should be a defensive mainstay for the Eagles moving forward, both in base schemes and sub-packages. Assuming the Eagles are again a playoff contender in 2019, Grugier-Hill should start to receive some national attention.
Pittsburgh Steelers: DT Javon Hargrave
Pittsburgh Steelers fans are likely well aware of Javon Hargrave's importance to the defense. He's the anchor in the middle of Pittsburgh's three-man front, and he allows coordinator Keith Butler to have some freedom with his blitzing schemes.
Hargrave is an anchor at the point of attack, clogging the middle, occupying blockers and allowing pass-rushers like T.J. Watt to attack off the edge. However, he's also a penetrator himself, as evidenced by his 6.5 sacks in 2018.
It's unlikely that Hargrave will continue to fly under the national radar for long. Players of his ilk rarely do. As the 2016 third-round pick enters his fourth NFL season, Hargrave is poised to be a breakout star.
San Francisco 49ers: WR Richie James
The San Francisco 49ers took steps to revamp their receiving corps this offseason, acquiring Jordan Matthews and drafting Jalen Hurd and Deebo Samuel. This is why second-year receiver Richie James could continue to remain an unknown outside of the Bay Area.
However, 49ers fans know that James is more than a reserve pass-catcher. Yes, he contributed nine receptions and 130 yards to the offense in 2018, but more importantly, he was a threat on special teams every time he touched the football.
James is a dangerous returner on punts and kickoffs. He averaged 6.3 yards per punt return and 25.2 yards per kickoff return as a rookie and managed to take one kick 97 yards to the house. He's likely to remain a core special teamer for the 49ers while also providing depth to the receiving corps.
Seattle Seahawks: S Tedric Thompson
When the Seattle Seahawks lost free safety Earl Thomas for the season—and ultimately, for good—plenty of folks may have thought that the secondary would suffer in a big way. However, Tedric Thompson stepped into the starting role and performed at a high level.
The 2017 fourth-round pick was a difference-maker at safety, finishing the regular season with 57 tackles, three passes defended, an interception and a forced fumble. He gives the Seahawks a solid starting option and a bright young player to build around for the foreseeable future.
"We know he's a good player, he's a smart kid," head coach Pete Carroll said of Thompson, via the team's official website.
As Thompson heads into his second season as a regular contributor, he should be in store for some time in the national spotlight.
Tennessee Titans: TE Jonnu Smith
Plenty of casual fans know about Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker. Far less are familiar with third-year tight end Jonnu Smith. However, Smith made a strong impression in 2018, particularly after Walker was lost for the season to an ankle injury.
Smith averaged an impressive 12.9 yards per reception in 2018 and found the end zone three times. Unfortunately, he too was lost for the season to an MCL injury and has not yet been cleared to return to practice.
Assuming Smith is able to get back to 100 percent, he could be in store for a breakout year. Walker is back for another run with the Titans, but he's also 34 years old. Smith is more likely to be the future at tight end, and he's going to see playing time as a blocker, even when Walker is on the field.
If the Titans get into the postseason race in 2019, Smith is unlikely to remain a Tennessee secret.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DE Carl Nassib
If you're a casual fan and you're familiar with defensive end Carl Nassib, it's likely from his time with the Browns on HBO's Hard Knocks. If you're a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan, you're familiar with Nassib from his time as a legitimate playmaker in 2018.
Nassib arrived in Tampa after Cleveland released him. The 2016 third-round pick became a defensive force almost immediately, adding some punch to the Buccaneers pass rush. He finished the regular season with 6.5 sacks to go with 29 tackles and two forced fumbles.
Entering his second season with the Buccaneers—and the final year of his rookie deal—Nassib has a chance to be a breakout star. There is some excitement surrounding the Buccaneers offense after the hiring of head coach Bruce Arians, and Nassib should help provide some excitement on the other side of the ball.
Washington Redskins: DE Matt Ioannidis
Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen have emerged as the stars of the Washington Redskins defensive line. Defensive end Matt Ioannidis, meanwhile, has gone mostly unrecognized outside of Washington. However, the Temple product is a tremendous player who would likely be more recognizable on a more dominant defense.
A 2016 fifth-round pick by Washington, Ioannidis has gone from a sparingly used backup to a starter in three seasons. His value lies in his ability to stuff the run, set the edge and pressure the quarterback on his own.
While Ioannidis isn't a true edge-rusher, he can generate sacks. He had 7.5 this past season to go with 31 tackles and a forced fumble.
The Redskins signed Ioannidis to a three-year extension this offseason, and if he continues to improve, he won't be a Washington secret for long.
*All contract information via Spotrac.