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The Future Unsung Heroes of the 2016 Playoffs

Meet the 17 sub-superstars who will have a bigger impact on the postseason than anyone would’ve expected

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For most playoff-contending teams, star players will lead them into the postseason. Last season, Cam Newton’s unique versatility as a passer and runner carried the Panthers offense, Von Miller’s speed off the edge gave Denver a nearly unbeatable trump card in passing situations, and J.J. Watt’s unparalleled power helped Houston consistently collapse opposing offensive lines and win the AFC South. Simply put, these players are team leaders who make the players around them better.

But every playoff team needs efficient, productive role players — the guys who do the dirty work, provide quality depth, and make the most of their chances when they get them. For Carolina last season, that guy was linebacker Thomas Davis. For Denver, it was center Matt Paradis. And for Houston, it was receiver Nate Washington.

Here’s one player from each postseason contender who will have a big impact on his team’s successes down the stretch, even if he won’t get the star treatment of his more famous teammates. And by contender, we mean teams with a greater than 25 percent shot at the playoffs, per ELO. Sorry, Colts and Vikings fans.

(Teams are listed by the order of the current playoff seeding.)

AFC

New England Patriots (11–2): DE Trey Flowers

The second-year pass rusher burst onto the scene by sacking Bills quarterbacks twice in the Patriots’ Week 8 win over Buffalo. That performance earned him his first professional start the next game against the Seahawks, and he quickly grabbed two quarterback takedowns in that one, too. With just five starts under his belt, Flowers already leads New England in sacks (5.0), and the former Arkansas Razorback has stepped up to provide consistent pressure for a defense that ranks just 15th in sacks this season (28).

Kansas City Chiefs (10–3): DT Chris Jones

With starters Jaye Howard and Allen Bailey both on injured reserve, it’s fallen on Jones, the rookie second-round pick, to make an impact on Kansas City’s interior defensive line. So far, he’s come up big. Heading into last Thursday’s matchup with the Raiders, Jones was third in pass-rush productivity among interior linemen, per Pro Football Focus, with 31 QB pressures (hits, sacks, hurries) on the year. Against Oakland, he notched a hit, hurry, and two defensive stops. Down the stretch, his ability to provide push on the inside will be key; if he can disrupt the middle, quarterbacks will have nowhere to go when Justin Houston, Dee Ford, and Tamba Hali bring heat from the edge.

Pittsburgh Steelers (8–5): S Sean Davis

Since Davis replaced Robert Golden as starting safety in Week 11, he’s provided a spark for a Pittsburgh defense that had given up an average of 383 yards and 28.3 points per game during a four-game losing streak from Weeks 6 to 10. The rookie out of Maryland — who until recently was playing corner — made a touchdown-saving tackle on a goal-line stand in Week 12 against the Colts, and picked off Eli Manning in Week 13’s 24–14 win over the Giants. Davis has the range to play deep in the middle or up near the line of scrimmage, as he pairs explosive speed with incredible physicality. He’ll make some mistakes — most rookie safeties do — but he’s a big reason the Steelers defense has given up just 12.5 points per game over the last four weeks.

Houston Texans (7–6): OLB Whitney Mercilus

J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are always going to get more hype, but Mercilus has led the Houston pass rush with Watt out for the season. He’s grabbed a team-high 5.5 sacks and has been one of the few edge rushers to consistently bring pressure. His sack total may not seem like much, but he’s brought an element that had been mostly missing from a Texans defense that’s ahead of only Cleveland in quarterback takedowns with 22.

Oakland Raiders (10–3): T Donald Penn

As far as top-level left tackles go, Penn may be among the least appreciated. He’s started an absurd 153 straight games at one of the most physical positions in the sport, and even at 33, he’s still playing at a high level. A big part of the Raiders’ success this year has been Derek Carr’s MVP-level performance, but Carr’s also had the benefit of playing behind the league’s top pass-blocking unit, which is anchored by Penn on the blindside.

Denver Broncos (8–5): DE Derek Wolfe

When you think about the Broncos defense, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward immediately come to mind, but defensive end Derek Wolfe has quietly been one of the most productive members of Denver’s top-tier defense. He leads all Denver defensive linemen in tackles (47) and has 5.5 sacks on the season. The Broncos may be struggling against the run, but Wolfe has been their top-graded interior defender, per Pro Football Focus. They’re going to need him on the field as much as possible down the stretch.

Miami Dolphins (8–5): DE Andre Branch

Playing alongside the big names on Miami’s defensive line — Cameron Wake, Ndamukong Suh, and Mario Williams — the fifth-year pass rusher, who’s playing on a one-year, $2.75 million deal, has been very effective. He’s notched 5.5 sacks along with two forced fumbles, and he’s playing a higher percentage of the Dolphins’ snaps than either Wake or Williams.

Baltimore Ravens (7–6): WR Breshad Perriman

After missing the entirety of his rookie season, Perriman’s not a refined route runner, but he could be a big factor in Baltimore’s offense down the stretch simply because he’s a deadly deep threat. At this point in his career, Perriman’s the kind of boom-or-bust contributor who can suddenly swing a team’s playoff chances for better or for worse: He has three touchdowns in his last five games but only nine catches.

Tennessee Titans (7–6): RT Jack Conklin

Marcus Mariota and DeMarco Murray have carried the Titans offense all year, but neither of them could have been so efficient and effective were it not for some excellent play up front. The rookie Conklin has held things down on the right side of the line. In pass protection, he’s registered four games without giving up a single pressure, and in the run game, his veteran-like technique and nasty disposition have allowed him to open up plenty of holes for Murray to run through.

NFC

Dallas Cowboys (11–2): WR Cole Beasley

It’s Dak Prescott, Zeke Elliott, Dez Bryant, and that ridiculously great offensive line in Dallas, but Beasley (64 catches, 711 yards, five touchdowns) has been a vital cog in the machine. He’s a chain mover: His 20 catches on third down lead the team and tie him for 10th this year among all pass catchers, and 17 of those catches have given the Cowboys first downs, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. Without Beasley, a lot of Dallas drives would have stalled this season.

Detroit Lions (9–4): DE Kerry Hyder

Hyder, a second-year defensive end, has only started two games this season but has given the Lions’ pass rush a big boost off of the bench. He’s led Detroit in sacks (8.0) and he’s disruptive and active when he doesn’t get to the quarterback, whether it’s pursuing down the line to tackle running backs or breaking up screen plays on the edge. Like Houston, Detroit has really struggled to rush the passer this year — the Lions have just 22 sacks on the season and the normally explosive Ziggy Ansah has yet to record one in 10 games — so if the Lions want to win the NFC North and make a run in the playoffs, Hyder’s presence on the edge is going to be a big factor.

Seattle Seahawks (8–4–1): WR Tyler Lockett

Injuries have kept Lockett from having the same type of impact he had as a rookie (he has just 32 receptions after grabbing 51 last season), but we saw a glimpse of his game-changing speed when he took an end around 75 yards for a touchdown against the Panthers. With the loss of Earl Thomas on defense, Seattle needs its offense to take things up a notch. That didn’t come close to happening against the Packers on Sunday, but if Seattle is going to turn it around for the last three weeks of the season, Lockett’s going to be a catalyst.

Atlanta Falcons (8–5): WR Taylor Gabriel

Julio Jones missed last week’s game nursing a turf toe injury, and this leaves his status over the next few weeks up in the air. The Falcons need a playmaker to emerge and pick up some of the slack down the stretch. Over the past six games, that guy has been Gabriel. The Falcons claimed the 5-foot-8, 167-pound speedster off of waivers before the season began, and he’s earned more time and targets with his big-play ability. Gabriel has scored five touchdowns in the last six games, racking up 397 yards on 21 receptions while adding another 51 yards on four carries. He’s not going to see double-digit targets in a game, but opposing safeties have to keep an eye on him on every single snap.

New York Giants (9–4): DE Romeo Okwara

The loss of Jason Pierre-Paul to a sports hernia for the rest of the season is a big blow to the Giants top-tier pass rush, but his replacement looked great against the Cowboys on Sunday night. Okwara, an undrafted free agent, played 60 snaps in relief, notching a sack, two hits, a hurry and two defensive stops against the best offensive line in the NFL as the Giants defeated Dallas for the second time this season. He’s got big shoes to fill, but so far, Okwara looks up to the challenge.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8–5): TE Cameron Brate

The 25-year-old tight end out of Harvard has now overtaken Ryan Fitzpatrick as the most successful Harvard grad in any field ever. He’s currently tied for ninth among all tight ends in catches (51) and more importantly, he’s developed as a trusty end zone target for Jameis Winston. His six touchdowns tie him for the league lead among tight ends, and he has just two drops on the year.

Washington Redskins (7–5–1): TE Vernon Davis

Yes, Jordan Reed is a matchup nightmare, but there’s an argument to be made that he hasn’t even been the most valuable tight end on his own team. Davis, the 32-year-old, 11th-year pro, has caught 37 passes for 498 yards and two touchdowns. Coming into Week 14, he ranked fourth in Football Outsiders in DYAR (a metric that measures total value) and second in DVOA (value per play). The normal problems that come with Davis haven’t appeared either: He’s registered an 80 percent catch rate, with zero drops on the season, per Pro Football Focus.

Green Bay Packers (7–6): C Corey Linsley

The Packers season has been a series of incredible peaks and valleys on both sides of the ball, but right now the offense under Aaron Rodgers is firing on all cylinders. Much of that can be chalked up to improved protection up front, and Linsley has, uh, been at the center of the change. After suffering two hamstring injuries during the offseason, the third-year pro took back his starting job in Week 9 and much of Rodgers’s offensive explosion has coincided nicely with his return. Over his last eight games, Rodgers has picked opposing defenses apart as he’s consistently sat back in a clean pocket with plenty of time before unleashing downfield throws. In the Packers 38–10 beatdown of the Seahawks, Rodgers was pressured just six times, a testament to Linsley’s ballast as a blocker and ability to communicate protection schemes.