Unsung Heroes  

 

Unsung heroes in the AFC: Chris Jones, Tyler Boyd step up

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All-Pros, Pro Bowlers and award winners aren't the only players who make an impact in the NFL. Below, you'll find one unsung hero -- someone who stepped out of the shadows to play a pivotal role -- for each team in the AFC.

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Ozzie Newsome, general manager. This could have gone to a linebacker -- Patrick Onwuasor (59 tackles, 5.5 sacks, three passes defensed, one interception, two forced fumbles) and Matt Judon (44 tackles, 7.0 sacks, three passes defensed, one forced fumble) both received consideration -- or to defensive lineman Za'Darius Smith (45 tackles, 8.5 sacks, two passes defensed, one forced fumble). All were unsung and key pieces of the league's best defense. But the true hero here is Newsome, who snagged Onwuasor (undrafted free agent), Judon (a fifth-round pick in 2016) and Smith (a fourth-round pick in 2015). Newsome, who is stepping down this offseason from the role he's held since 2002, made a career out of plucking overlooked talents and bringing them to Baltimore to develop into reliable contributors. For one of his last acts, he helped retool the Ravens' defense, and now it's a suffocating group with a bright future. (Oh, and he also drafted potential franchise QB Lamar Jackson.) Build Newsome's statue next to the one of Ray Lewis.

BUFFALO BILLS: Matt Milano, linebacker. Every time I watched the Bills in 2018, I couldn't help but notice how effective their defense was, especially when No. 58 was on the field. The former fifth-round pick didn't have freakish athleticism or star power, but he was consistently excellent. Around The NFL's Chris Wesseling characterized him perfectly during a midseason podcast: Luke Kuechly Lite. The second-year pro landed on injured reserve after breaking his leg in Week 14, and his absence was noticeable the rest of the way. As the heart and soul of the Buffalo defense, he should receive much more love going forward.

CINCINNATI BENGALS: Tyler Boyd, wide receiver. We've been doing Boyd hype pieces for two years now, and he was a second-round pick in 2016, so it's not as if he hasn't gotten attention. But entering 2018, he'd also never caught more than 54 passes in a season, or even sniffed 1,000 yards. This season, he grew into a full-fledged playmaker for the Bengals, who otherwise careened off a cliff after losing receiver A.J. Green (and, later, quarterback Andy Dalton) to injury. Boyd put up career numbers (1,028 yards and seven touchdowns on 76 receptions in 14 games), yet he didn't get much attention because he was on a team that sputtered to a 6-10 finish. That will change in 2019, and this time, the chorus of Boyd cheerleaders won't just be full of hot air.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Larry Ogunjobi, defensive tackle. Ogunjobi's story of playing football to lose weight and morphing into a problem for interior opponents is inspiring, but when he was drafted in the third round in 2017, few expected him to be this good. We all talk about former first-round picks Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward, and rightfully so, but Ogunjobi is one more good season away from receiving serious Pro Bowl consideration. It's a stacked DT field right now, but that's how effective he was in 2018 (logging 52 tackles, 5.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 16 games). When I watched Cleveland's game tape, Ogunjobi jumped off the screen, utilizing his deceptive explosion off the snap to wreak havoc against both the run and pass. If the Browns pair him with another promising interior defensive lineman, they will suddenly have one of the more fearsome front fours in football.

DENVER BRONCOS: Matt LaCosse, tight end. Jake Butt's promising career still hasn't taken off because of unfortunate injuries, but Butt's absence did clear room for an unexpected contributor. LaCosse was an unknown entering 2018. Having broken into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2015, LaCosse recorded just three receptions from 2015 to '17. LaCosse's sudden elevation -- again via injury, this time the broken ribs Jeff Heuerman suffered in November -- gave him a chance to prove his mettle. In a season that went sideways enough to cost Vance Joseph his job, LaCosse rose up out of nowhere to become an unusual and reliable target for Case Keenum, catching 24 passes for 250 yards and his first career touchdown, with 20 of those receptions coming after Week 6.

HOUSTON TEXANS: Christian Covington, defensive tackle. We don't talk about Covington enough, because he plays on a defensive line that features J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney, but Covington and fellow defensive lineman D.J. Reader are still important. Covington finished with 15 tackles and 2.5 sacks, but more importantly, the former sixth-round pick and "Hard Knocks" reading enthusiast finished 34th in Pro Football Focus' overall grading of interior defensive linemen with at least 100 snaps played. Reader could take this spot, but we'll give the slight edge to Covington, who gets even less attention.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Mark Glowinski, offensive guard. Glowinski wasn't a starter when 2018 opened, but thanks to some reshuffling due to the return of Anthony Castonzo and subpar play from Denzelle Good, Glowinski found himself starting at right guard next to rookie Braden Smith. While the spotlight turned to the other guard, rookie Quenton Nelson, Glowinski quietly did his job as one-fifth of one of the league's most cohesive units. We all know about the O-line's streak of games without allowing a sack, but while GM Chris Ballard earns deserved praise for investing in the offensive line via the draft (taking Nelson sixth overall and Smith 37th), we should take a moment to praise Glowinski, who was just as important to Indianapolis' drastic turnaround up front.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Dede Westbrook, wide receiver. Look, 2018 wasn't fun for anyone wearing teal after Week 6. But if we're looking for positives, the play of Westbrook (and Donte Moncrief) was encouraging for the Jaguars. The second-year pro posted career highs across the board, catching 66 passes for 717 yards and five touchdowns while playing in an offense that lacked a No. 1 receiver and a pro-level quarterback. Jacksonville cycled between Blake Bortles and Cody Kessler under center, making things that much more difficult for Jaguars receivers, and yet, Westbrook was still relatively productive.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Chris Jones, defensive end. I'm not sure if this one qualifies anymore, thanks to Kansas City's run to the AFC Championship Game, but Jones was a relative unknown before 2018 (the 2016 second-rounder posted 8.5 sacks combined in his first two seasons) and promptly wrecked the aspirations of many guards across the NFL this season, racking up 15.5 sacks. Jones dominated opponents for almost the entire season, setting a new NFL record for most consecutive games with at least one sack (11). It wasn't until about halfway through this streak when people started noticing Jones, who announces his presence on the game tape with his play. This will be the last time he lands here, because everyone is now aware of who Chris Jones is.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Uchenna Nwosu, linebacker. Nwosu was a quiet force for USC off the edge, serving as a reliable defender during some tumultuous times in the land of Troy. He brought a similar contribution to the Chargers as a rookie (27 tackles, 3.5 sacks), repeatedly making unexpected plays, dropping in to take care of the bad guys before slipping out of view like Batman in "The Dark Knight." Nwosu won't land in here again, either, because he was too good as a rookie on a loaded defense to go overlooked. Then again, anyone who watched him in the Pac-12 should have seen this coming.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: Brock Osweiler, quarterback. Before you leap out of your seat, hear me out: Osweiler kept the Dolphins afloat when the situation was dire at the quarterback position. Osweiler went 2-3 as a starter in place of Ryan Tannehill in Weeks 6-10, which allowed the Dolphins to stay in the playoff race before a December collapse torpedoed any remaining hopes of reaching the postseason. Sure, he's no Peyton Manning (insert sad Denver Brock GIF here), but he did what you expect your backup QB to do: give your team a chance to win.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: James Develin, fullback. Rookie undrafted corner J.C. Jackson fits here, but why not give a little love to the fullback who set a career high in touchdowns this season? Develin scored four of his five career TDs in 2018 as one of the league's most versatile fullbacks. Develin lines up at a variety of locations, covering sizable distances on split leads, chipping an end out of a wingback role before slipping out to catch a pass and -- most importantly -- opening holes for a rushing attack that asserted its will against the Chargers and Chiefs on the way to the AFC title. He's as important to New England's ground game as Rob Gronkowski's lauded blocking. In fact, he's even more important, and a big reason why New England is again Super Bowl-bound.

NEW YORK JETS: Chris Herndon, tight end. If I told you, non-Jets fan, that Herndon was New York's second leading receiver in 2018, you wouldn't believe me. Then you'd probably ask, "Who's Chris Herndon?" The fourth-round pick introduced himself to the league in his first season by becoming Sam Darnold's No. 2 option, catching 20 of his 39 receptions in Weeks 12-17. Herndon was also extremely helpful while Jermaine Kearse essentially disappeared into the abyss, leaving Darnold with just Robby Anderson to consistently target while Quincy Enunwa missed five games in 2018. New York has cause for optimism at the tight end position moving forward.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: Jalen Richard, running back. Richard has lingered in the background as a change-of-pace back in Oakland for three seasons now, but 2018 was perhaps his finest, at least in terms of the effectiveness he demonstrated on his game tape. The waterbug-like back ran with the same jittery quickness, gaining 4.7 yards per carry (on 55 total attempts), but where he was really impactful was in the passing game. Richard caught 68 passes for 607 yards (both career highs) and was a bright spot in an otherwise-dim season in Oakland. Given the rise of dual-threat backs elsewhere, the 25-year-old Richard could carve out an even bigger role with the Raiders or another team in the coming years.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Joe Haden, cornerback. Running back Jaylen Samuels deserves some attention for how he played in place of James Conner (who received plenty of praise for how he played in place of Le'Veon Bell). However, Haden was a vitally important part of a Steelers secondary that was better than it had been after struggling in previous years. Haden's best play came against New England in Week 15, when he intercepted Tom Brady as the Patriots were driving for the go-ahead score. As for the rest of 2018, Haden put together his best (and healthiest) season since the 2014 campaign (when he was still with the Cleveland Browns). In 2018, Haden appeared in 15 games, tallying 63 tackles, 12 passes defensed, two interceptions and one forced fumble. Pittsburgh still has work to do on the back end, but Haden is the reason the unit remained afloat in 2018.

TENNESSEE TITANS: Jayon Brown, linebacker. Halfway through the season (after watching an unusually large amount of Titans film), I wondered why Brown wasn't getting more love for his play. The young linebacker seemed to be everywhere against a variety of opposing offenses. His PFF grades weren't the best, but the tape didn't lie -- Brown was becoming a dude in Tennessee's defense. It warmed my heart, then, to see Around The NFL's Chris Wesseling place Brown on his All-Pro Third Team. His last big play of the season -- a 22-yard pick-six of Andrew Luck in a Week 17 loss to the Colts -- should help Brown carry his positive momentum into 2019, where I believe he'll be a great candidate to make the leap into stardom.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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