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Thursday, May 24, 2018

10 under-the-radar players who could impact the Super Bowl

James Harrison

Anything can happen in one single NFL game. Little-known players can have the game of their lives as they step up and play like a star. That’s true even in high-profile games like the Super Bowl. All you have to do is look at the list of MVPs for confirmation of that. You have your usual luminaries — Tom Brady has won the award four times, Eli Manning has claimed it twice, and Von Miller has his name on it as well. However, you can also spot lesser-known names like Dexter Jackson for Tampa Bay in 2003 and Malcolm Smith beating out everyone from the famed Legion of Boom to claim the honor in 2014 for the Seattle Seahawks. When the Patriots won the Super Bowl last season, it was James White with a huge game. In their victory over Seattle, Malcolm Butler stepped up with the play of the game.

Which under-the-radar players could take Super Bowl LII by storm? Here’s a look at ten candidates.

1) James White, RB, Patriots

White doesn’t get a ton of carries, but you’ll remember what he’s capable of if you watched last year’s Super Bowl. He’s the Patriots’ primary backfield receiving threat, and while he’s not going to get a ton of carries, only three Patriots had more receptions this season than White did. He’s already proven once that he’s capable of changing a playoff game. The Eagles will have to take care to ensure that he doesn’t do it to them as well.

2) Nelson Agholor, WR, Eagles

It’s safe to say that the first two seasons of Agholor’s NFL career were not very good. The former first-round pick was written off by many prior to the 2017 season, but Philadelphia put him in the slot and he’s suddenly taken off. After just 59 catches and three touchdowns over his first two seasons, Agholor bested both of those marks in his third year, catching 62 passes with eight of them going for touchdowns. The Patriots will have to watch him very carefully.

3) Ronald Darby, CB, Eagles

Darby’s first year with Philadelphia came perilously close to being wrecked by injury, but the cornerback got healthy for the stretch run and has made a big impact. He picked off three passes during the regular season and has defended four in his two playoff games so far. With Patrick Robinson’s emergence, Darby may not even be the Eagles’ best corner, but that makes it all the better. His presence ensures that Tom Brady will have some headaches in the passing game.

4) Danny Amendola, WR, Patriots

Statistically, Amendola’s 2017 season was fairly underwhelming. While he was third on the team in receptions, not terribly far behind Rob Gronkowski and Brandin Cooks, he trailed well behind them in receiving yards and caught just two touchdowns during the regular season. The AFC championship was a fine reminder of what Amendola can do. He had a two-touchdown game against the Jacksonville Jaguars and stepped up after Gronk exited with a concussion. Gronkowski and Cooks chew up most of the yardage, but the Eagles will pay if they let Amendola slip through the cracks, just as Jacksonville did.

5) LeGarrette Blount, RB, Eagles

The arrival of Jay Ajayi before the trade deadline significantly limited Blount’s opportunities to make an impact, but he’s still worth keeping an eye on. He’s a power runner adept at breaking tackles. Despite his more limited usage, he still scored two touchdowns and racked up 766 rushing yards during the regular season. As an added bit of intrigue, this is the same Blount who scored 18 touchdowns for New England last season. He’d love to beat them from the other side, no doubt.

6) Vinny Curry, DE, Eagles

It’s easy to be overlooked on a defensive line that includes superstar Fletcher Cox and breakout player Brandon Graham. Curry has stayed in those shadows and been an extremely effective presence on the Philadelphia defensive front. He had three regular season sacks and has added three tackles in the playoffs, serving as an effective pass rusher. That pass rush may be Brady’s biggest challenge on Sunday. Curry may well be one of those causing problems.

7) James Harrison, LB, Patriots

James Harrison overlooked? He won’t like that, but that’s the way it is. His move to New England was a huge source of controversy. Since then, he’s put his head down and gotten down to business, looking more like his old self. All he did was pick up two sacks in his first game with the team before getting six tackles in two total playoff games. He’s still a threat, no doubt, even if he isn’t getting the publicity he did in his prime.

8) Ricky Jean-Francois, DT, Patriots

Jean-Francois was picked up by the Patriots midseason, waived, and then they brought him back into the fold. He’s really helped solidify the New England front four since the Week 15 win against Pittsburgh, and he’s been particularly valuable in the playoffs thus far. He’s made four tackles with two assists and one sack. He’ll be hoping to cause more havoc against Nick Foles and the Philadelphia offensive line. He’s certainly quietly capable of doing so.

9) Trey Burton, TE, Eagles

It turns out the Eagles have another tight end behind Zach Ertz. Burton is also a reliable option in the passing game, even if some games he goes without making a catch. A frequent red zone target, Burton has five touchdowns, good for fourth on the team. He doesn’t catch a ton of passes — his 23 receptions lagged far behind his more accomplished peers — but when nearly a quarter of your receptions are for touchdowns, you’re obviously doing something right. New England will have their hands full with Ertz, but they’re going to have to keep tabs on Burton as well, especially close to the goal line.

10) Patrick Chung, S, Patriots

Chung is something of a Swiss Army knife — he can cover, he can blitz, he can do pretty much whatever is asked of him on the New England defense. He’s been a busy man so far in these playoffs with seven tackles in just two games. Devin McCourty may be the face of the Patriots’ secondary and the likes of Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore will get a lot of attention, but don’t sleep on Chung, who is definitely a threat to make a big play whenever he’s on the field.

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