Unsung Heroes  

 

Unsung heroes in the NFC: Adrian Peterson, Frank Clark thrived

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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 NFC.

ARIZONA CARDINALS: Tre Boston, safety. Boston moved to Arizona in 2018 (after spending 2017 with the Chargers) and didn't miss a beat, recording 79 tackles, nine passes defensed, three interceptions and one forced fumble in his first season with the lowly Cardinals. At 26 years old, Boston has already played for three teams in five seasons and is expected to hit the free-agent market again. If his 2018 is any proof, the safety could be a good low-key addition for a team in need of a safety.

ATLANTA FALCONS: Damontae Kazee, safety. Kazee stepped in nicely for the injured Keanu Neal, who was lost to a torn ACL in the season opener. The dependable, playmaking Kazee recorded 82 tackles, 10 passes defensed, seven interceptions and one forced fumble in his first full season of starting action. Though he's no Neal, Kazee did more than what was expected of him.

CAROLINA PANTHERS: Taylor Moton, offensive tackle. Moton gets the recognition here because of how well he performed when called upon due to injury. Moton replaced usual starter Daryl Williams, who played in just one game due to a knee injury, and had an excellent season, finishing as the NFL's 12th-best tackle in pass protection, per Pro Football Focus. Moton was also the highest-ranked Panthers offensive lineman in pass protection, posting an 82.7 PFF grade and finishing 29th among all linemen in the NFL. Not bad for a guy who was projected to be a backup in 2018.

CHICAGO BEARS: Cody Whitehair, center. Whitehair doesn't get the credit he deserves as the center on a Chicago line that is one of the more cohesive groups in football. Whitehair ranked 10th among centers in 2018, per Pro Football Focus, and was the leader of a group that tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks allowed with just 33. With Whitehair snapping the ball to him, Mitch Trubisky (and the Bears' offense) should continue to improve in the years to come.

DALLAS COWBOYS: Brett Maher, kicker. Maher had a tall task ahead of him when he arrived in Dallas: Replace the franchise's all-time most accurate kicker, Dan Bailey. Maher did a good job, converting 29 of 36 field goals -- including 6 of 7 from 50-plus yards -- and 32 of 33 extra-point attempts in his first season in the NFL. Bailey's exit initially left a prominent void on Dallas' roster, but Maher filled in nicely and gave the Cowboys a promising piece moving forward.

DETROIT LIONS: Quandre Diggs, safety. 2018 was a forgettable season for the Lions, but the play of Diggs under Matt Patricia is encouraging. Diggs posted a career-high in tackles (78), tied his career-best mark for interceptions (three, for the second straight season) and scored his first defensive touchdown via interception. Since joining the Lions as a sixth-round pick in 2015, the 5-foot-9 Diggs has developed into a reliable starting safety, which is especially notable given Glover Quin's uncertain future.

GREEN BAY PACKERS: Kyler Fackrell, linebacker. A Packers season that went by the wayside and resulted in the firing of Mike McCarthy didn't come as a complete loss. Fackrell blossomed in 2018, recording 42 tackles and 10.5 sacks, including three-sack games against Buffalo in Week 4 and Seattle in Week 11. While the Packers didn't do enough offensively to make the playoffs, Fackrell did more than his share defensively, solidifying one of the outside linebacker positions moving forward.

LOS ANGELES RAMS: Rodger Saffold, offensive guard. I once ran into Saffold in Venice Beach while looking for a friend's lost dog. He helped us search for and eventually find the pup, so that alone makes him a hero. But his unsung-hero merit on the field comes as the Rams, apples of many fans' eyes, find success with a bunch of other well-known names: Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, Todd Gurley, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh, C.J. Anderson and even Andrew Whitworth. A lot of why the Rams are effective on the ground has to do with the versatility of Saffold, who is agile enough to get out in the open field, and more than powerful enough to flatten defenders and clear big lanes for Gurley/Anderson. He plays next to Whitworth, so he doesn't get as much attention, but he's a damn good guard and should be regarded as such.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Kirk Cousins, quarterback. Cousins catches a ton of heat for his inability to win the big game, and that's not entirely wrong. But he gets the nod here because of the circumstances he overcame in his first season with Minnesota. The Vikings were ravaged by injuries up front before the season even started, setting up Cousins for what would be failure for a hefty portion of quarterbacks. Cousins, instead, flourished despite facing the most pressures of any quarterback in the NFL (217) and enduring a 33.6 percent pressure rate (tied for fourth-highest in NFL among passers with at least 200 attempts), posting a 99.7 passer rating while getting sacked the 10th-most in the league (40). Of the quarterbacks who were pressured at 30 percent or more, only three posted higher passer ratings: Patrick Mahomes (113.8 with 30 percent pressure rate), Matt Ryan (108.1 with 31.2 percent pressure rate) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (100.4 with pressure rate of 30.4 percent). Of that group, Cousins posted the highest difference between expected completion percentage and actual at 5.3 percent, per Next Gen Stats. He was still pretty darn good, Vikings fans.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Zach Line, fullback. How often does a fullback get love in today's game? Sure, I chose one as the New England Patriots' unsung hero, but that was only one of 16 -- and now two of 32. Line has cleared lanes for one of the NFL's most feared, two-headed running attacks for two seasons now, and last year, both of those running backs made the Pro Bowl. This year, Line earned himself a feature written by Around The NFL's Herbie Teope and a trip to the NFC Championship Game. "He's the best fullback in the game," Mark Ingram told Teope emphatically. Enough said.

NEW YORK GIANTS: Sterling Shepard, wide receiver. Odell Beckham Jr. has only played a full season once in his career, and it wasn't 2018, meaning Eli Manning needed someone else to throw to. Enter Shepard, who stepped up to the occasion by catching a career-high 66 passes for four touchdowns and a career-high 872 receiving yards. Of New York's five wins, Shepard caught touchdown passes in three of them. Not bad for a No. 2 who doesn't get a ton of attention.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Avonte Maddox, defensive back. We know the obvious answer here, but Nick Foles has received plenty of praise, enough for a full church service. We instead turn to the rookie defensive back who improved as the season grew older, teaming with fellow defensive back Cre'Von LeBlanc to serve as the most effective late arrivals to an Eagles team that rode a late peak to a playoff berth and nearly a win over the conference's top seed in the Divisional Round. Maddox recorded three of his four passes defensed in the final three weeks of the regular season, and his interception on the road in Los Angeles in Week 15 helped swing a tightly contested game in the favor of the Eagles, who absolutely had to win to stay alive. They did. Maddox then followed that up by logging four passes defensed between Philadelphia's two playoff games, capping a strong finish to his first season.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Matt Breida, running back. We could easily choose quarterback Nick Mullens for this, but he got enough of the spotlight when he led the Niners to a convincing victory over the Raiders on "Thursday Night Football." Breida gets the nod because of how he stepped up to keep San Francisco's running game afloat after losing Jerick McKinnon and Raheem Mostert to injuries. Breida rushed 153 times for 814 yards and three touchdowns in 14 games for a Niners team that was hamstrung without Jimmy Garoppolo, but still remained ornery at the very least versus better opponents.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Frank Clark, defensive end. Clark didn't get a ton of attention in part because these Seahawks were seen as a transitional team, one in a fluid rebuild that ended up proving to be a retooling good enough to land them in the playoffs. A big reason? The play of Clark, who racked up 13 sacks, 41 tackles, three forced fumbles, two passes defensed, one interception and 51 QB pressures (12th-most in the NFL). Not bad for a contract season. Add in his recent statement that he played the entire season at 60 percent (due to what he says were two torn UCLs suffered in the same game against the Vikings) and his play becomes even more impressive. Keep an eye on this one.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Carl Nassib, defensive end. Nassib made his way to Tampa Bay via free agency after the Browns cut him at the end of camp -- and he proved to be a worthwhile addition. The defensive end who became notorious for his (lack of) accounting prowess thanks to "Hard Knocks" did the simple math for the Bucs, tallying 6.5 sacks, 29 tackles, two forced fumbles and two passes defensed in 15 games (nine starts). Opposite Jason Pierre-Paul, Nassib carved out a productive role for himself with a new team, which is worth praising even if the Buccaneers didn't have the best season.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Adrian Peterson, running back. Peterson struggled to get a shot with any team and might have gone unemployed in 2018 if not for an injury to rookie Derrius Guice. Peterson took advantage of the opportunity, rushing 251 times for 1,042 yards and seven touchdowns and manning the lead-back role for a Redskins team that was suddenly in desperate need of one. He's 33 and not getting younger, but for at least one season, he was back to some form of the effective Peterson the NFL knew for so long.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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