The 2017 NFL season brought us a number of star-level campaigns. We'll see many of those players take the field at Sunday's Pro Bowl in Orlando, Florida.
However, no football team is made up of 53 star players everyone in the viewing audience knows about. Most teams -- or individual units -- are boosted by the efforts of unsung heroes and unknown contributors. Here, we'll look at one such player from every team in the AFC. Whether they be young breakout candidates who flashed or under-the-radar contributors who stepped up and evolved into starters, these players deserve more attention than we gave them this season.
NOTE: Unless otherwise attributed, the metrics used in this piece were gleaned from the objective Next Gen Stats data tracked by the chips in the players' pads.
Buffalo fielded a top-flight rushing offense for yet another season. LeSean McCoy was the workhorse of the Bills' offense yet again, but he wasn't as elusive as in years past, averaging 3.28 yards after defenders closed within 1 yard (after posting a 3.77 mark in 2016). That said, the drop-off didn't show up in the final product too often, thanks to the pristine run-blocking of his offensive line. Buffalo's running backs gained an average of 0.69 yards before defenders closed within 1 yard of them, trailing only the Saints this season. While Richie Incognito earned the Pro Bowl nod, the best run-blocker on the team might have been the rookie left tackle. The 320-pound unsung hero was a big reason why McCoy, who finished fourth in the NFL with 1,138 yards rushing, found so much space to run to this season.
Howard appeared to take a massive leap forward in his second season, especially during the second half of the year. The young cornerback gave up a mere 62.1 passer rating when he was the nearest defender in 2017. The highlight of his sophomore campaign came during the Dolphins' shocking Week 14 upset of the New England Patriots on "Monday Night Football." Howard covered top receiver Brandin Cooks for 31 pass plays and didn't give up a single catch to the speedy wideout. Howard looked like the next top-flight press cornerback when tracking Cooks around the field amid a strong finish to the season.
Dion Lewis' white-hot stretch to end the regular season extended into the postseason. While Lewis is one of the most elusive backs in the NFL and an excellent pure runner, some of the credit must go to a strong run-blocking unit. Patriots backs averaged 0.59 rushing yards gained before defenders closed within 1 yard of them, ranking fourth-best this season. Mason is the primary piledriver on New England's line. The former fourth-round pick is undersized at 6-foot-1, but he plays aggressively and moves well to open up rushing lanes for Lewis and Co.
A 2016 free-agent pickup from the Pittsburgh Steelers, McClendon has been a stabilizing force in replacing Damon Harrison on the Jets' defensive line over the last two seasons. Playing the nose tackle between former first-round pick Leonard Williams and always-in-the-news Muhammad Wilkerson, McClendon's easily overlooked. Yet, the former undrafted player was a key asset in Gang Green's front seven. McLendon led the Jets with an 8.2 disruption rate (percentage of plays with a run stuff or pressure), especially showing well as a run defender.
In a league obsessed with offseason discussion surrounding the crowning of the best cornerback in the game, Smith rarely finds his name thrown into the ring, because he's missed 17 games over the last four seasons. That's a shame, as the 6-foot-2 defender has the chops to hang with the top players at his position. Smith didn't allow a touchdown this season and gave up a mere 56.9 passer rating in coverage amid another impressive campaign. The unsung hero of the Ravens' annually stout defense has a good case to be the team's choice for Dave Dameshek's "Jenga Piece" theory. Baltimore boasted an 8:16 touchdown-to-interception ratio when Smith was on the field, but that flipped to 10:6 when he was off the field. Unfortunately, Smith will spend the offseason recovering from an Achilles injury that ended his 2017 season in early December (and came right before a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances -- a ban Smith served while injured).
After missing his entire rookie season with a torn pectoral, this 2016 first-round pick proved to be a revelation for the Bengals in a year where they weren't planning on him being a primary starter. Throwing his direction was an utterly fruitless endeavor for opposing quarterbacks this past season. Jackson led all cornerbacks who played at least 200 passing snaps in passer rating (33.1), yards per target (3.19) and catch rate (31.9 percent) allowed when he was the nearest defender. Cincinnati's pass defense was one of the few strengths of this team amid a disappointing season, and Jackson's breakout season was a big reason why.
A fourth-round pick of Wisconsin in 2016, Schobert was the rare defender this season who never left the field. He went out for every single Browns defensive snap in 2017. Schobert racked up 41 run stuffs (tackles for a gain of 2 or fewer yards) this season, trailing only Damon Harrison (48) among all NFL defenders this year. His efforts as a force defender against the run helped spur Cleveland's quiet turnaround against opposing ground games. The Browns were the 31st-ranked run defense (142.7 yards per game) in 2016 but jumped up to seventh overall (97.9) this season. Schobert's exploits didn't go unnoticed, either, as the linebacker replaced Ryan Shazier in the Pro Bowl as an alternate.
An unsung hero Hilton might be, but he was justly rewarded by the Steelers for his quiet breakout season with a contract extension. Hilton allowed a 75.9 passer rating when targeted in coverage this year, offering further value in other phases of the game, as well. He totaled four sacks as a blitzer from the secondary and recorded 12 run stuffs along with his work as a pass defender. The Steelers' defense showed up as a liability late in the year, but it appears they did at least unearth a gem in this former undrafted free agent.
The third-round pick saw his rookie season cut short after just 10 games, but he looked like the most explosive player in the Texans' backfield this season. Foreman averaged 4.08 rushing yards gained after defenders closed within 1 yard of him this season, clearing the 3.7-yard league average. Houston's starter, Lamar Miller, on the other hand, came in under the average at 3.57. The Texans have an out on Miller's contract this offseason and could decide to rid themselves of his $6.75 million cap hit for 2018. Foreman would become a popular breakout candidate if he inherits the lead-back role in the exciting Deshaun Watson-led version of the Texans' offense.
Not much went right for the Colts this season -- especially on defense, where they ranked outside the top 20 in points and yards allowed for the third straight season. However, they did enjoy something of a breakout season from this 2013 undrafted free agent. The lengthy 6-foot-2 cornerback was a strong cover man, allowing a paltry 66.8 passer rating and snaring three picks before landing on injured reserve in late December. Melvin made himself some money in 2017, as he heads into the offseason with a chance to test the free-agent market.
The Jaguars lost star wideout Allen Robinson in Week 1 to a torn ACL and were left with a shuffling deck at the position for the rest of the season. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns were expected to take over the bulk of the targets, while Day 3 draft pick Dede Westbrook was a popular sleeper late in the season when he returned from injury. Yet, it was this undrafted rookie out of Kentucky Wesleyan who ended up leading the team in receiving yards. Cole proved to be an excellent deep threat, clocking over 20 MPH on two 70-plus-yard receptions and hauling in eight of his tight-window targets for an average of 23.5 yards per catch.
Despite their postseason bid and subsequent wild-card upset, the Titans didn't boast many team strengths consistently throughout the season. The one exception might have been their run defense, where they allowed the fourth-fewest yards per carry on the year. One of the unheralded players in their strong front seven is the run-stuffing Williamson. He ranks third on the team in run stuffs (22) this season, trailing only Wesley Woodyard (28) and Jurrell Casey (27). Not bad for a two-down, 60 percent snap player. The former Day 3 draft pick has carved out a solid role for himself in the pros.
Not much went right for the 2017 Denver Broncos, but they did make a marked improvement as a run defense. After allowing 4.3 yards per carry in 2016, the stop unit returned to form this year by giving up just 3.3. Gotsis was a key figure in that turnaround. The native Australian played 56.3 percent of the Broncos' defensive snaps in his second NFL season, and he proved to be one of their best defenders on the early down, leading the team with 29 run stuffs on the year.
Ancillary players beyond Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce will never produce gaudy statistics in the low-volume Kansas City offense. So while Wilson has never cleared 600 receiving yards, he deserves credit for holding down a role as the Chiefs' primary slot receiver for the last three seasons. Wilson ranked 11th among wide receivers who played on at least 100 pass plays with an average of 3.33 yards of separation on all routes at the quarterback release point, showing his craftiness as a short-area route-runner. With his contract set to expire, Wilson could test the free-agent market and could even follow former Chiefs coordinator Matt Nagy to Chicago.
The Chargers' top cornerback, Casey Hayward, has emerged as a shutdown defender since signing with the team as a free agent last year. He's earned plenty of well-deserved national recognition via back-to-back Pro Bowl nominations. However, the Chargers found Hayward an excellent running mate this year in Williams. An undrafted rookie out of Penn State in 2016, Williams emerged this year, allowing a 74.4 passer rating in coverage. Just 45.6 percent of the throws sent into his coverage ended up as completions. Sporting a cornerback duo with two strong starters provides a unique advantage for NFL defenses, and it looks like the Chargers have joined that exclusive group.
The Raiders' offense was one of the more disappointing units this season. However, if you look closely, you can see a valiant effort offered up by one of the young players in the backfield behind Marshawn Lynch. Richard signed with Oakland as an undrafted free agent following the 2016 NFL Draft, but he's popped as an explosive player in his first two seasons. The elusive running back averaged 4.13 yards gained after defenders closed within 1 yard of him this year, besting both Marshawn Lynch (3.99) and DeAndre Washington (3.26). New head coach Jon Gruden should find more ways to get Richard on the field as the Raiders look to rebound as a scoring unit in 2018.