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 NFC. 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.
The Cowboys had to endure the loss of their star running back for six games this season. While Morris didn't quite offer the same dynamic ability of Ezekiel Elliott, he did more than enough to ease the absence of the NFL's leading rusher in 2016. Morris gained an average of 4.24 rushing yards after defenders closed within 1 yard of him this season. He ranked seventh out of 47 backs with at least 100 carries in this measure of running back elusiveness. The Cowboys went 3-3 during Elliott's suspension, but Morris largely kept the run game afloat.
Not much went right for the 2017 Giants' offense, but Darkwa proved to be one of the few steady presences. The former undrafted free-agent signee of the Dolphins totaled a career-high 867 yards and scored five times for an offense that largely struggled to block well or move the ball at all. Darkwa was quietly effective in gaining extra yards this season, ranking sixth among backs with at least 100 carries by averaging 4.35 yards after defenders closed within 1 yard of him. His contract expires this offseason, but the new Giants staff should consider bringing him back as they remake their scoring attack.
Robinson bounced around the league after being the final pick in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft by the Saints. He enjoyed mere one-year stints with the Chargers and Colts after injuries and demotions followed him through his time in New Orleans. However, Robinson was a revelation for the Eagles this season after signing a one-year, $775,000 contract with the team and winning the top slot-corner job. Philadelphia allowed just 688 yards to slot receivers this season, the fifth-lowest total in the NFL. Robinson allowed a 71.2 passer rating when he was the nearest defender on passing plays. His first-quarter pick-six proved to be a tone-setter for the Eagles on the way to a blowout win over the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.
The 2015 second-round pick has yet to hit double-digit sacks in any season of his pro career, but Smith is a major asset to Washington's pass rush. His 15.9 percent pressure rate led all Redskins edge rushers. Washington ranked seventh in sack rate on the season, and overall, the 'Skins have the makings of an underrated pass-rushing group. Along with veteran Ryan Kerrigan, Smith will team with 2017 first-round pick Jonathan Allen, who maintained an excellent 16.2 percent pressure rate before going on injured reserve, to form a strong front seven.
Injuries and inconsistency defined Fuller's early career, and it looked like he was destined to end up as a first-round bust for the Bears. The team elected not to pick up his fifth-year option after injuries cost him the entire 2016 season, leaving the cornerback with no guarantees on his future heading into 2017. Fuller deserves major credit for turning in his best season at a critical point in his career. Just 46.4 percent of passes thrown when Fuller was the nearest defender were completed this season, good for a top-12 mark among all corners who took over 200 passing snaps. The Bears will now have to decide on a player they approached with caution heading into the year. As a soon-to-be 26-year-old corner coming off a breakout season, Fuller should cash in on the open market.
Ezekiel Ansah rebounded this season with 12 sacks in 14 games, racking up three sacks in three separate games. However, his fellow defensive end outshined him as a down-to-down pass rusher. Zettel led all Lions defensive linemen with a 10.1 percent pressure rate in addition to his 6.5 sacks. The second-year defensive end is a great story for the Lions as a sixth-round pick who jumped up the depth chart to start all 16 games in 2017.
A fourth-round pick out of Stanford in 2016, Martinez emerged as a 16-game starter for the Packers this year after playing a bit role as a rookie. Martinez totaled 35 run stuffs this season, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. The Packers gave up fewer than 4 yards per carry this season -- Martinez's ability to quickly close on ball carriers and soundly tackle was a big reason why. The Green Bay defense was a solid tackling unit, ranking fifth this season by allowing an average of 3.42 yards after their defenders closed within a yard of opposing running backs. Dom Capers was relieved of his duties after a long stint as the team's defensive coordinator, but new play-caller Mike Pettine should find out quickly that he has a young cornerstone in Martinez.
Vikings pass rusher Everson Griffen snagged Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors and looked like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate at different points this season. His running mate was a solid contributor on the other side of the line, as well. Hunter chipped in with 46 pressures this season, finishing behind only Griffen's 62 on Minnesota. The 23-year-old defensive end proved to be a solid ground-game defender in addition to his work against the pass. Hunter clocked 17 run stuffs on the year, third on the team behind Eric Kendricks and Linval Joseph.
The former Pro Bowl defensive tackle joined the Falcons on a one-year deal in March to provide an intimidating presence for their run defense. While Poe certainly fulfilled that obligation, he also showed up well as a pass rusher for Atlanta. Poe collected 25 pressures in what turned out to be one of his best pass-rushing campaigns since his second season with the Chiefs in 2013. Kansas City was worried about his waning effectiveness in the passing game and ultimately elected to let him walk in free agency. The Falcons were able to reinvigorate Poe as a rusher and reaped the rewards.
It's ironic that a former first-round pick is outshined by the player drafted one round later than him in 2013, but that's become the reality for Lotulelei. While Kawann Short is the premier attraction along Carolina's defensive front -- and is paid as such -- Lotulelei is still a key figure as a space-eater. The Panthers' pass defense started to show cracks as the year wore on, but their run defense remained one of the league's best. Running backs gained an average of -0.22 yards before Carolina defenders closed within 1 yard of them this season, the fourth-best mark in the league. While he might not be the one making splash plays, Lotulelei plays a crucial role in keeping blockers occupied. He'll be a free agent this offseason.
New Orleans Saints: Offensive line
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram both made the initial Pro Bowl roster, but not a single one of the Saints' offensive linemen found their way onto the team. While both running backs deserved the honor, at least one of their front-line blockers should have been recognized, as well. The Saints' backs gained an average of 0.87 yards before defenders closed within 1 yard of them this season. Not only did they lead the NFL in this metric, but they did so by a decent gap. The second-place Bills afforded their backs an average of 0.69 yards before defenders closed, and the third-place Rams checked in at 0.65, while the NFL average sat at 0.29. Rookie Ryan Ramczyk deserves extra credit for stepping up and chipping in at both tackle positions this season.
The Buccaneers had one of the least inspiring pass defenses this season, leading the league in yards allowed. But at least one player held up his end of the bargain: Ayers, in his second year with the team. Despite posting just two sacks in 12 games, Ayers led Tampa Bay with 41 pressures on the season. He and Gerald McCoy (35) were the only players with more than 20. The Bucs desperately needs to infuse their pass-rushing group with some youth and additional talent, but at least they know they can count on a veteran like Ayers for one more season.
The Cardinals were one of the easiest teams for opposing passing games to pick on at the onset of the season. Teams would avoid Patrick Peterson's shadow coverage of their No. 1 receiver, instead opting to mercilessly attack Justin Bethel at the other outside-corner spot. It wasn't until Williams was installed as the starter with just 10 games left in the season that the Cards began to reverse this trend. The 34-year-old corner was a revelation for Arizona, allowing a mere 49.7 passer rating when he was the nearest defender. This put him the same company of stars like Jalen Ramsey (52.1) and Richard Sherman (54.8).
The Rams ranked eighth by allowing a 79.2 passer rating to receivers targeted out of the slot this season. Robey-Coleman, L.A.'s slot corner, turned in a career year in his first with the squad after four seasons in Buffalo. He gave up a 71.5 passer rating when he was the nearest defender in 2017, the lowest among the Rams' top three corners. He also snared a pair of picks and forced a fumble. The veteran will hit the open market again after inking a one-year deal last offseason, but he proved his worth in defending the ever-popular three-receiver sets in 2017.
Despite playing a part-time role, Dumervil proved a valuable asset for the 49ers this season. His 33 pressures trailed only DeForest Buckner (42) among San Francisco defenders -- and that's despite the fact that Dumervil logged just 249 pass-rush plays. The former fourth-round pick has been in the NFL for over a decade now, but he continues to prove his worth as a sub-package rusher. After San Francisco finished on a five-game win streak following Jimmy Garoppolo's ascension to the starting lineup, the veteran will certainly look forward to returning to a much-improved team for the second year of his contract.
The rookie corner took on more of a role than the team likely planned on to start the season. Griffin led all Seahawks corners in passing snaps played and started 11 games in his first NFL season. He proved up to the task, allowing a paltry 47 percent completion rate when he was the nearest defender and just 5.84 yards per target. Griffin trailed only Richard Sherman in both metrics among Seattle corners this year. The Seahawks are headed for a crucial offseason in which they may well have to make tough decisions about the once-fabled "Legion of Boom" secondary. The 'Hawks can at least rest assured knowing they uncovered a future starter in the third round of last year's NFL draft.