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Players break out during every NFL postseason.
Nick Foles did so last season when the backup quarterback led the Philadelphia Eagles on an improbable Super Bowl run and earned MVP honors.
But an individual doesn’t have to develop into the Super Bowl MVP to create a lasting impact. A big performance with the season on the line can be enough to propel a career well beyond previous expectations.
These 10 players aren’t Pro Bowlers but can go from contributors to vital cogs. The playoff stage won’t be too big.
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The Kansas City Chiefs cut the NFL’s 2017 leading rusher, Kareem Hunt, in early December and turned to Damien Williams.
In four seasons with the Miami Dolphins, Williams had never run for more than 181 yards. In his three starts with the Chiefs, he ran for 203 yards.
“Just the way he moved around, his intensity, his explosiveness, ability to change direction, catch the ball and process our offense has been very impressive,” Chiefs running backs coach Deland McCullough said, per Charles Goldman of Chiefs Wire. “As the season went on, just keeping him positive and upbeat, and when the opportunity came for him to play, he took advantage of it.”
The Kansas City front office rewarded Williams with a two-year, $8.1 million contract extension last week, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. The investment shows a commitment by the team—which indicates he’ll be a big part of the Chiefs’ plans.
He should be. Williams has been a more explosive option at 6.0 yards per carry as the team’s starter, whereas Hunt averaged 4.6 yards per tote.
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Indianapolis Colts running back Marlon Mack played his best football when the team needed him to help it into the playoffs. With the Colts’ postseason hopes on the line Sunday night, Mack carried the ball 25 times for 119 yards and a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans.
“Me in this offense, I feel like I can be that explosive guy,” Mack said well before the season even began, per the Indianapolis Star‘s Zak Keefer.
He was right.
Mack posted four 100-yard games this season. The fact he notched 19 or more carries in each isn’t a coincidence, and the Colts should expand his workload. In fact, Mack’s snap rate increased down the stretch, and he played a career-high 67.1 percent of snaps in Week 17, according to Rotoworld’s John Daigle.
The Colts have a talented backfield with Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. Those rookies will get their snaps and spell Mack because they are productive thanks to differing skill sets. However, a much larger dose of Mack carrying the ball behind the Colts’ pile-driving offensive line is a must for Indianapolis to carry its late-season momentum (four straight wins and nine in its last 10) beyond the postseason’s first round.
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Few moments in sports are more exciting than when an injured player comes to a team’s rescue when they’re needed most.
Chicago Bears wide receiver Anthony Miller could do that in this year’s postseason. The rookie dislocated his left shoulder in Week 3 but missed only one game. However, he re-injured his shoulder Sunday.
Bears head coach Matt Nagy told reporters Monday the injury is “nothing significant.” Miller likely played through pain for most of the season, and he’ll have to do so again in the playoffs.
The receiver’s toughness can’t be questioned, but his value is derived from an ability to create separation in tight spaces as the Bears’ best red-zone target. He leads the team with seven touchdown receptions.
Miller may need offseason surgery, but he plays an important role in a burgeoning offense that complements the league’s best defense. Increased effectiveness despite the injury should coincide with improved play from the quarterback position. Mitchell Trubisky completed 75.9 percent of his passes over the last three weeks.
Besides, the rookie has to record one more touchdown to fulfill his preseason prediction of scoring “at least eight touchdowns.
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Usually, top-10 picks who lead their teams in touchdown receptions don’t qualify as potential breakout performers. However, the Los Angeles Chargers’ wide receiver room is loaded with talent, and Mike Williams has an opportunity to establish himself as a top target on the biggest stage.
“I think Mike Williams has found his voice as a top-10 pick,” former Denver Broncos head coach Vance Joseph said before Sunday’s meeting between the two teams, per Rachel Gossen of the Chargers’ official site. “He is a guy that’s making a lot of plays on reverses and sweeps and making plays down the field.”
Keenan Allen is Philip Rivers’ security blanket. The sixth-year veteran leads Los Angeles with 97 receptions, and Williams ranked third with 43. That’s a drastic difference.
But the 2017 seventh overall pick’s target share has risen over the last six weeks. Rivers threw to Williams 31 times during that stretch after doing so only 35 times during the team’s first 10 games.
Williams could be a big part of the Chargers’ playoff game plans as opponents roll coverage toward Allen, since Williams caught 78.6 percent of his targets during the team’s final five victories.
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The New England Patriots lack a No. 1 wide receiver after Josh Gordon’s suspension.
Tom Brady could always lean on tight end Rob Gronkowski, slot receiver Julian Edelman or running back James White. All three will be vital to any postseason success, but they’ll need help, especially since Gronkowski hasn’t been the same this season.
Phillip Dorsett led the team’s wide receivers with 19 receptions through five games before fading to the background. His re-emergence seems imminent. He caught five passes for 34 yards and a touchdown Sunday against the New York Jets.
“I knew I was going to play one day, and my fear was not being prepared when it happens,” Dorsett said, per the Boston Herald‘s Kevin Duffy. “Knowing that I stayed prepared the whole time, I have no fear.”
The 5’10”, 192-pounder isn’t as big or physical as Gordon (6’3″, 225 lbs) but does have 4.33-second 40-yard dash speed, which opponents must respect.
“I think he has everybody’s total respect in the locker room on everything—his preparation, the way he treats other people, how unselfish he is, how he’s always ready for his role,” head coach Bill Belichick said. “You saw that in the Super Bowl last year. So I don’t think you could ask for any more than what he gives the team.”
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Disruptive defensive tackles are worth their weight in gold.
The Seattle Seahawks’ Poona Ford fits the mold even though his statistics say otherwise. The 5’11”, 310-pounder has only 22 tackles and three tackles for loss. Those numbers don’t tell much, if any, of his story.
Ford didn’t hear his name called during April’s draft but did earn a roster spot as an undrafted free agent. As the regular season progressed, he earned more opportunities.
Pro Football Focus graded the rookie as the league’s 10th-best interior defender (via the Sports Xchange’s Corbin Smith).
“He’s been really aggressive,” head coach Pete Carroll said, per the Associated Press’ Curtis Crabtree (via the Richmond Times-Dispatch). “He’s shown really good instincts to get a feel for taking advantage and making plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. He’s going to get some more playing time.”
Ford’s natural leverage and first-step quickness make him difficult for any blocker to handle. Seattle’s first-round opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, has dealt with injuries along its offensive interior all season.
“He’s got a really good initial quickness and the ability to get off the ball,” defensive line coach Clint Hurtt said. “Really good hands player and very, very strong, and he has longer arms for a guy that is his height. So he has some unique traits to him.”
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Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press
New Orleans Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins finally received the attention he deserves when he dropped into space and stripped Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster during a Week 16 thriller to secure a Saints victory.
But Rankins has been wreaking havoc all season, realizing his potential three seasons after he was the 12th overall pick.
“The confidence level he’s playing with now [is apparent], and he’s having fun playing,” head coach Sean Payton said, per the Associated Press’ Brett Martel. “When you watch him, I think he’s in real good shape. And I think overall, he’s a great example of a guy who’s improved not necessarily just from year one to year two but later in the process, and he’s a fantastic worker.”
The Saints defense is loaded with talent.
Cameron Jordan draws the most attention as the game’s most complete defensive end. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore is the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year. Demario Davis joined the Indianapolis Colts’ Darius Leonard as the only linebackers with 110 or more tackles, five sacks and one forced fumble.
If opponents slide their protection toward Jordan—which they almost certainly will after the defensive end finished the regular season with 12 sacks, including five games with two—Rankins will get one-on-one opportunities against lesser athletes along the interior.
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Andy Jacobsohn/Associated Press
The Dallas Cowboys’ Leighton Vander Esch isn’t the best rookie linebacker in the league; the Indianapolis Colts’ Darius Leonard is. Vander Esch may not even be the best linebacker on the Cowboys roster with Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee in the fold.
Yet Vander Esch is a superb three-down player who has helped mold the Cowboys defense into one of the league’s best. He and Smith afford Dallas the luxury of keeping its linebackers on the field since both work well in space.
“They’re both rangy and they’re both fast,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said during training camp on J Dub City. “And if you’ve got that … you can rotate and take some snaps off guys.”
Utilizing linebackers as both run and pass defenders is a simple concept, but finding the right talent to properly execute such a scheme without making personnel changes is difficult. Vander Esch proved to be reliable in all facets. He led the Cowboys and finished third in the NFL with 140 tackles.
He set a career-high with 15 tackles in a Week 16 contest against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It’s an important late-season performance, because it showed how he’s diagnosing plays and the range he possesses.
Vander Esch is ready to become a household name, and he’ll soon surpass those who may be better known.
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Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Nearly four years ago, Malcolm Butler became a postseason legend with his game-sealing interception in Super Bowl XLIX. The New England Patriots now have another undrafted free-agent cornerback who can have a profound impact on their defense.
J.C. Jackson earned a roster spot and worked his way into the starting lineup by Week 13. According to Pro Football Reference, Jackson has played at least 79 percent of the defense’s snaps over the last five games.
The rookie’s performance shows he’s deserving of the expanded role. Pro Football Focus graded Jackson as the league’s third-best rookie corner behind Pro Bowler Denzel Ward and a part-time performer in Levi Wallace.
“We know he’s talented and can play, and we’ve got his back,” safety Devin McCourty said, per Sullivan. “… We had him in some tough situations where we were counting on him to make plays sometimes by himself with no help, and he showed up. He had been doing that every time we gave him an opportunity to be out there.”
Stephon Gilmore is an elite coverage corner. Opposing offenses will test Jackson—which will provide plenty of opportunities for him to come up big.
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When it comes to the Los Angeles Rams defense, John Johnson III is way down the list.
Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Lamarcus Joyner are the headliners. All five are well-established performers and deserving of the credit they receive.
With that said, Johnson is the unit’s emerging star.
“He’s got all the traits and characteristics that you’re looking for,” head coach Sean McVay said, per ESPN.com’s Lindsey Thiry. “You’re really not limited in any way that you can utilize a player of his versatility.”
Every team is searching for a safety capable of playing near the line of scrimmage and covering the deep third. These individuals provide scheme flexibility, and that’s exactly what the Rams get from Johnson.
“His tackling is so outstanding—open field, around the ball, around the line of scrimmage, those kinds of things,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “He’s learned more and more about what to do in different areas that he plays.”
Johnson, who finished second on the team with 119 total tackles, averaged nine stops per contest after the Rams’ Week 12 bye. He averaged 6.7 tackles through the first 11 weeks.
As opponents concentrate on trying to stop (or even slow) Donald, Johnson will make plays all over the field.