The NFL Pro Bowlis coming up, which means some of the league's best players will descend upon Orlando to celebrate their excellent seasons in style. Unfortunately, a bunch of other players who helped pave the way for those seasons will remain at home. In an effort to shine a light on those guys, we assembled our list of unsung heroes in the NFC. The AFC list can be accessed here.
Dallas Cowboys: Orlando Scandrick, cornerback. The versatile slot cornerback missed a handful of games this season, but he was arguably Dallas' most efficient and useful defensive back when healthy. Soon-to-be free agent Barry Church will headline the secondary's progress this season; however, Scandrick's two sacks, one interception, three forced fumbles and eight pass breakups are nothing to scoff at.
New York Giants: Weston Richburg, center. Defensive tackle Damon Harrison might have been the most glaring Pro Bowl snub on the roster, but that injustice was immediately called out in the Twitterverse. Far fewer folks know about the Giants' third-year center. Richburg has missed just one game in his career and did a masterful job holding together a patchwork Giants offensive line this season.
Washington Redskins: Pierre Garcon, wide receiver.Jamison Crowder got some well-deserved publicity for a breakout season, but the steady consistency of Garcon seems to have fallen by the wayside. The 30-year-old enjoyed his best campaign in years, posting a career-high 69.3 percent catch rate in 2016. There is no Kirk Cousins without him. (Offensive tackle Morgan Moses received heavy consideration here.)
Arizona Cardinals: Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger, safeties. Proving once again that the Cardinals have one of the deepest secondaries in football, Jefferson and Swearinger will both hit free agency having played some excellent football in 2016. Sometimes outshined by Tyrann Mathieu, other members of the "No Fly Zone" do a lot of the dirty work. Jefferson, exceptionally physical and fearless, was quite fun to watch this year.
Los Angeles Rams: Kenny Britt, wide receiver.Yahoo Sports reported that, because Britt is a "Jeff Fisher guy," he might be allowed to test free agency. If Los Angeles does not have any plan to immediately replace Britt in free agency, they are doing a grave disservice to young quarterback Jared Goff, who can benefit from the big target range Britt provides. The 28-year-old had a career-best 1,002 yards off 68 catches (111 targets) in 2016. Hello, Patriots.
San Francisco 49ers: Gerald Hodges, linebacker. The 49ers' linebacking corps was wrecked early this season. The team was deprived of yet another full year from unquestioned leader NaVorro Bowman, but Hodges and Nick Bellore filled the gap admirably. Hodges paced the unit with three sacks, two interceptions and a pair of passes defensed. He's hitting the open market at the right time.
Seattle Seahawks: Doug Baldwin, wide receiver. We will bang the table for the former undrafted free agent until everyone starts to listen. Russell Wilson's unparalleled trust in Baldwin is one of the few critical linchpins in Seattle's offense, a big reason why the team isn't letting No. 89 go anywhere.
Chicago Bears: Cody Whitehair, center. The 2016 draft class was packed with excellent offensive linemen -- and the best one might have been taken in the second round. Whitehair helped pave the way for rookie running back Jordan Howard's excellent season and gives Chicago plenty of flexibility moving forward. The Bears are one free-agent acquisition (and some good fortune, health-wise) away from a top-five offensive line.
Detroit Lions: Taylor Decker, offensive tackle. I think it's safe to assume that 2016 would not have been possible without a very mature performance from the Lions' rookie left tackle. Decker started all 16 games this season and, while displaying some of your typical youthful mistakes, did not seem blown away by the increased level of competition.
Green Bay Packers: Morgan Burnett, safety.Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a deserved Pro Bowl representative, but it is fun to watch Burnett grind as both a sub-package defensive back and safety in coverage. He's a staple in the team's blitz game and is great against the run. Burnett had 93 tackles, two interceptions and three sacks in 2016.
Minnesota Vikings: Adam Thielen, wide receiver. The former undrafted free agent from Minnesota State broke away from underdog status midway through the season and nearly posted a 1,000-yard campaign in 2016. He enters the frustrating (and often unfair) world of restricted free agency this offseason, with a long-term payday potentially another year away.
Atlanta Falcons: Deion Jones, linebacker. Jones put Saturday's win over the Seahawks to bed with a fantastic, bobbling interception, but he has been a valuable part of Atlanta's surprisingly good defense all season. Jones has three picks and two touchdown returns. He added 11 passes defensed, a forced fumble and 108 tackles. Not bad for a second-round pick in Year 1.
Carolina Panthers: James Bradberry, cornerback. The Panthers took a massive step backward on defense this season, though the breaking in of their new defensive backs wasn't all negative. Bradberry picked off two passes and broke up another 10 over 13 games, to go along with 59 tackles and a generous approximate value rating of 5 by Pro Football Reference. That's rock-solid rookie production.
New Orleans Saints: Jahri Evans, guard. Not bad for an injury-riddled veteran who was cut by the Seahawks during training camp. While I can make an argument that Drew Brees is New Orleans' unsung hero (and havein my list of Pro Bowl snubs), Evans played some good football and made all 16 starts for the Saints.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cameron Brate, tight end. Brate wasn't going to crack the Pro Bowl roster -- with the NFC tight end duo of Greg Olsen and Jordan Reed -- but his knowledge of the system and sure hands (70.4 percent catch rate on 81 targets) was invaluable to a second-year quarterback whose top target, Mike Evans, was exceptional but had a lower catch percentage (55.5).