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Monday, November 20, 2017

Hidden gems on all 32 NFL teams

James Bradberry

NFL superstars tend to receive many rewards, ranging from massive contracts to All-Pro nods and trips to the Pro Bowl. But in order to succeed at the highest level, all 32 teams still need role players and unsung heroes to help them along their journey.

Sometimes those role players receive the recognition they deserve — most often within the fan bases or cities in which they play. But frequently, they are not recognized the way they should be.

Each team has some hidden gems on their roster — here’s a look at one for each team.

Arizona Cardinals – Markus Golden, linebacker

Markus Golden is more overlooked than unknown, but at his current rate of development, he won’t be forgotten much longer. Golden finished the 2016 season with 53 total pressures, 41 run stops and 12.5 sacks. The 41 run stops were good for fourth-most among edge defenders in the NFL. Golden is in line for a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nod in 2017 if he continues at this pace. If that happens, the secret will be out.

Atlanta Falcons – Grady Jarrett, defensive tackle

Grady Jarrett was considered underrated in college and that remained true over his first two seasons with the Falcons. Even despite a strong performance in the Super Bowl, Jarrett hasn’t exactly seen his name in lights. If Atlanta didn’t choke the game away, perhaps that would be different, but for now, Jarrett and his 78.3 Pro Football Focus rating will continue to fly under the radar.

Baltimore Ravens – Tony Jefferson, safety

Tony Jefferson may be a new face in Baltimore, but that doesn’t make him any less of a hidden gem. He emerged for the Arizona Cardinals a season ago, leading the team with 96 tackles, but he’s so much more than that. He also led the NFL with 13 run defeats in 2016 and proved to be a valuable commodity when blitzing the quarterback. In Baltimore’s system, he’ll have even more opportunities to be a disruptive force.

Buffalo Bills – Richie Incognito, guard

Richie Incognito very well could have seen his NFL career come to an end after his involvement in the Jonathan Martin bullying scandal with the Miami Dolphins, but he’s experienced a revival in Buffalo. In two seasons with the Bills, Incognito has appeared in and started all 32 games and established himself as one of the best run blocking guards in the league. He’s also been named to the Pro Bowl in both of those seasons.

Carolina Panthers – James Bradberry, cornerback

After Josh Norman departed for the Washington Redskins, the Panthers were in desperate need of another cornerback. And despite their step back defensively in 2016, they found one in rookie second-round pick James Bradberry. He may have struggled in Week 1 and had some rookie hiccups, but Bradberry finished the season having not allowed a single pass over 31 yards. Pro Football Focus also gave him an overall grade of 82.6, which was good for No. 20 of all qualifying cornerbacks.

Chicago Bears – Adrian Amos, safety

Consistency is essential, and few have been more consistent than Adrian Amos. The 2015 fourth-round pick has appeared in 31 games over two seasons with the Bears (30 starts) and recorded 20 defensive stops in each of those seasons. He’s also improved against the run and, perhaps most impressive of all, has committed just two penalties in two seasons.

Cincinnati Bengals – Alex Erickson, wide receiver

Though Erickson had only had six catches for 71 yards on the season, the undrafted rookie made his impact last season on special teams. Erickson came on strong toward the end of the year and finished first in the league in kickoff return yards and second in yards per kickoff return. For his efforts, Pro Football Focus named Erickson a Second-Team All-Pro.

Cleveland Browns – Briean Boddy-Calhoun, cornerback

Briean Boddy-Calhoun did get beat badly a time or two in 2016, but on a team that’s lacking substantial talent, his upside is hard to ignore. The undrafted rookie, whom the Browns claimed off of waivers from the Jacksonville Jaguars, logged 14 games (seven starts) last season, recording 43 tackles (39 solo), one sack, three interceptions, one touchdown and 11 passes defensed.

Dallas Cowboys – Sean Lee, linebacker

Sean Lee isn’t the hidden gem he once was, finally having found some level of health over the previous two seasons. But after four years of flying a bit under-the-radar, he still deserves the mention. He’s compiled over 270 tackles the last two seasons and is a game-changing defender when able to stay on the field. If he can remain healthy in 2017, he will continue to dominate. He’ll also lose his hidden gem status, but the Cowboys are undoubtedly fine with that.

Denver Broncos – C.J. Anderson, running back

C.J. Anderson has been on the fringe for several years now, but injuries have prevented him from reaching his full potential. He’s gained over 2,000 yards in four seasons with the Broncos, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Anderson is also more than capable out of the backfield, hauling in over 70% of his targets since 2014. Ultimately, Denver’s success may rest on Anderson’s ability to stay healthy in 2017. And if Anderson can, he may be able to enjoy his first true breakout season.

See the next 10 on Page 2

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