In today’s NFL, quarterbacks get all of the attention, and then certain other glamorous positions follow closely behind. But each team has players who aren’t yet national superstars, quietly performing well to less acclaim.
Some of these players will eventually progress to that type of recognition, but others will always fly under the radar. They are this year’s secret superstars.
JUMP TO A TEAM:
ARZ | ATL | BLT | BUF | CAR | CIN | CHI | CLE | DEN | DAL | DET | GB | HOU | IND | JAX | KC | LVR | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN | NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF | SEA | TB | TEN | WSH
ARIZONA CARDINALS: TE Maxx Williams
Now likely relegated to the No. 3 tight end on the depth chart and a blocking role if he makes it out of training camp, Williams was playing very well for the Cardinals before a knee injury ended his 2021 season and caused the team to trade for Zach Ertz. Williams has typically graded well during his NFL career but just hasn’t been given the opportunity to show he can contribute beyond blocking. His career high in snaps is 490, but he was on course to blow that out of the water last year after playing 220 snaps in just four and a half games before the injury.
ATLANTA FALCONS: G Chris Lindstrom
Lindstrom seems to be a victim of the Falcons' offense collapsing around him, but he has maintained an extremely strong start to his career, improving in each season since entering the NFL. In 2021, his 83.7 PFF grade ranked sixth among guards. He didn’t allow a sack all season, surrendering 31 total pressures across 661 pass-blocking snaps. His run blocking was among the elite at the position, and he has been flagged for penalties just five times in three NFL campaigns.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: FB Patrick Ricard
Flying the flag for the fullback position, only Kyle Juszczyk has played more snaps on offense over the past two years than Ricard, though sadly his time moonlighting as a defensive tackle seems to be in the rearview mirror. Ricard has been a consistently dominant run blocker in terms of PFF grades, proving that, at least in certain offenses, an old-school throwback still has a place to pave the way for success on the ground.
BUFFALO BILLS: RT David Quessenberry
Quessenberry’s performance for Tennessee last season was completely out of the blue, but it’s worth noting given Buffalo’s approach to its offensive line and the kind of contingency he represents. Quessenberry earned an 89.1 PFF run-blocking grade — among the best in the league — even if his pass protection was far more pedestrian. That was his first full season starting, and there had been little in his prior play to suggest it was in the cards. Maybe he just caught lightning in a bottle playing in a favorable scheme, or maybe the Bills secured an intriguing option on the offensive line as a backup this offseason.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: RT Taylor Moton
Those who follow offensive line play closely know that Moton is one of the best in the league, but to others, he remains a name that doesn’t get enough publicity. Carolina’s offensive line last season was four problem spots and Moton, who still earned an impressive 77.5 overall PFF grade and allowed just one sack despite the chaos around him. With the Panthers doing a lot of good things this offseason, the entire offense may look significantly better in 2022, allowing Moton to get a little more of the credit he deserves.
CHICAGO BEARS: RB Khalil Herbert
Chicago making improvements to its offensive line deep into July is great news for the team’s backfield, which is one of the biggest areas of strength on paper heading into the season. David Montgomery is a good back, but he was out-performed last season by Herbert on a per-carry basis. Herbert earned an 84.4 PFF rushing grade on 103 carries, averaging more yards per carry than Montgomery and more after contact. Herbert's performance should warrant more playing time, but he needs the blocking in front of him to maximize that opportunity.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: C Ted Karras
The Bengals made big strides this offseason in overhauling their offensive line to ensure that Joe Burrow has the platform to take this team back to the Super Bowl. Karras may be the least exciting signing of the three front-five veterans Cincinnati brought in, but his ability to provide solid play at multiple interior positions gives the offense a vital degree of flexibility. Karras allowed 11 total pressures in each of the past two seasons, one year starting at center and the other at both left and right guard over the course of the campaign.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: LG Joel Bitonio
Somehow, Bitonio is still being left off lists of the best guards in the NFL despite a 2021 season that rivaled anybody, including Zack Martin. Bitonio’s 93.6 PFF grade was just a fraction behind Martin's (93.9), ultimately ranking third-best among all offensive linemen in the regular season. Bitonio is another lineman whose play has been improving as he approaches and passes by 30 years old, and he has been playing at the level that should see him be a household name, even at a position as overlooked as guard.
DALLAS COWBOYS: RB Tony Pollard
Anybody with eyes in the Dallas backfield for any length of time will know that Pollard isn’t exactly a secret, but he remains in Ezekiel Elliott‘s shadow at least in terms of opportunity. Over the past three years, only Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook have more carries than Elliott, but Pollard averages 0.8 yards per carry more and 0.9 yards per carry after contact more and while almost doubling Elliott's broken tackle rate. Pollard’s PFF rushing grade over the span, 91.0, ranks fourth-best in the league.
DENVER BRONCOS: LB Josey Jewell
Jewell played just 82 snaps last season before injury struck, but he has been a consistently strong performer for the Broncos since the team drafted him in 2018. Jewell may not have the most impressive physical gifts in the league, but he reads the game quickly and is particularly adept at coming downhill and making plays in the run game. He tallied 42 defensive stops in his last full season (2020), and that was also the year in which he earned at least above-average grades in every facet of play PFF measures.
DETROIT LIONS: EDGE Charles Harris
Harris had been a first-round bust over his first four seasons in the NFL. Three years in Miami saw his PFF pass-rushing grade get worse each season, and a year in Atlanta only continued that trend. But in Detroit, we saw a real impact player for the first time. Harris notched 52 pressures last season and an impressive 78.7 pass-rushing grade, the best of his career by a clear 10 grading points. Harris was a former first-round pick for a reason, and the Lions retained him for the upcoming season hoping he can repeat that performance.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: RT (likely) Elgton Jenkins
Jenkins has already shown he can play at a high level all over the offensive line for the Packers. He likely ends up being the team’s starting right tackle for 2022, leaving right guard the only spot where he has not seen significant playing time across his rookie contract. Jenkins is one of the most sound technicians in the game and has allowed just three sacks across three seasons despite all of that position switching.
HOUSTON TEXANS: EDGE Jonathan Greenard
There wasn’t much to like about the Texans last season, but second-year edge rusher Jonathan Greenard was very impressive in the playing time he was afforded. Greenard earned an 89.2 PFF pass-rushing grade, rivaling some of the elite pass rushers in the game. He tallied 27 total pressures from 215 pass-rushing snaps and likely earned himself a significantly larger role this year, particularly as the Texans have yet to fully take advantage of the draft collateral acquired from the Deshaun Watson trade.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: CB Kenny Moore II
Covering the slot is only getting tougher in today's NFL, not to mention the increasing importance of the role, and few players have been as good at it for as long as Moore. For his NFL career, he has allowed an 86.6 passer rating when targeted and has been flagged for penalties only 10 times in five years. Moore isn’t coming off his best year, but any kind of bounce-back season will see him justify this selection in 2022.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: DI Folorunso Fatukasi
In today’s pass-happy league, the best way to ensure you fly under the radar is to be a run-stuffing specialist. Being one coming off a below-average year will only magnify that. Fatukasi has been one of the best run stuffers in the league since he came into the NFL, with back-to-back PFF run-defense grades of at least 86.0 before last season’s drop-off. If he can bounce back to that previous level in Jacksonville, he will be an important and unheralded cog of a defense looking to take a big step forward in 2022.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: CB Rashad Fenton
Fenton was the Chiefs' best-graded cornerback last season, and he now has three-straight NFL seasons with a PFF coverage grade of at least 74.4 to start his career. Fenton allowed only one touchdown all season and gave up just 8.7 yards per reception from the 52 targets sent his way. The team allowed Charvarius Ward to leave in the offseason, opening up an opportunity for Fenton to step into a bigger role as an every-down player, something his play so far has earned.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS: CB Nate Hobbs
Hobbs finished his rookie year with a top-10 PFF grade among cornerbacks, grading well in both run defense and coverage. The Raiders' defensive scheme may have asked a little less of him than some other players, but he allowed only one touchdown all season and 8.5 yards per reception. Hobbs dramatically outperformed his fifth-round draft status and was one of the best rookies in the league last year.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: DI Sebastian Joseph-Day
Adding Khalil Mack to the defensive front in Los Angeles got all of the headlines, but bringing in Joseph-Day may make a huge impact on the team’s ability to defend the run — something that was badly exposed at times last season. Joseph-Day isn’t coming off his best year, one shortened by injury, but in 2020 he posted a 72.4 PFF run-defense grade and recorded 38 defensive stops. He provides a very different presence up the middle for a Chargers defense that has been lacking a true interior playmaker for some time.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: RT Rob Havenstein
Havenstein suffered through an ugly 2019 season, likely due to injury, but outside of that year has been a steadfast performer at right tackle for the Rams. He finished 2021’s Super Bowl campaign with the best overall PFF grade of his career (83.4) after allowing 30 pressures all year across 764 pass-blocking snaps. His run blocking is typically excellent, and he is one of the best right tackles in the game, with three of the past four years earning 80.0-plus overall grades.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: DI Zach Sieler
Few players better embody the notion of a secret superstar than Miami defensive lineman Zach Sieler. A seventh-round draft pick out of Ferris State in 2018, Sieler struggled to earn playing time on a stacked Ravens defensive line but has played 500 or more snaps for Miami in each of the past two years, earning progressively better PFF grades. That culminated in him ranking behind only Aaron Donald and Cameron Heyward in that category in 2021. Sieler also tallied 38 defensive stops, more than players with hundreds more snaps than him.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: CB Cameron Dantzler
Perennially in Mike Zimmer’s doghouse, Dantzler has been the best-performing Vikings cornerback in recent seasons and, given his youth, the one that would seem to have the most potential going forward. Since entering the league, Dantzler has allowed an 82.5 passer rating into his coverage and surrendered 10.6 yards per catch, with each number improving in Year 2. He has been flagged for only one penalty and has eight pass breakups to go along with three picks across 771 coverage snaps.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: OL Michael Onwenu
Onwenu has racked up a little more than 1,500 snaps in two NFL seasons, earning an overall PFF grade of at least 84.3 each year despite playing in multiple different spots along the offensive line. Onwenu lost out in the shuffle last year when everybody got healthy, but this season, he figures to be one of the five starters for New England. If he can maintain the level of play he has shown thus far as a pro, he will be one of the best linemen in the NFL and a true secret superstar.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: WR Deonte Harty
The classic example of a player grading well on limited snaps, Deonte Harty (formerly Harris) posted an 87.8 overall PFF grade in 2021 despite the team losing its quarterback for half the year. Often a gimmick deep threat, Harty also showed up among elite receivers against press coverage despite his diminutive size (5-foot-6 and 170 pounds). His quickness and speed make him difficult for bigger defensive backs to lock up physically, and that makes him primed for a much larger role if the Saints get improved quarterback play in 2022.
NEW YORK GIANTS: WR Kadarius Toney
It’s difficult for a former first-round receiver to be a secret superstar, but that’s how far the narrative has shifted on Toney. When the Giants drafted Wan’Dale Robinson in the second round of the draft, many expected Toney to be traded away shortly thereafter. Toney’s rookie season was disjointed, but a dominant day against Dallas in Week 5 showed what he is capable of. He possesses rare movement skills and showed in that game he can win all over the field. Many have written him off after an underwhelming season, but the Giants' leading receiver had 521 yards — such was the disaster of the passing game at large. With more opportunities coming Toney's way this season, we could yet see impressive play from the second-year wideout.
NEW YORK JETS: EDGE John Franklin-Myers
Franklin-Myers has seen his playing time and overall performance improve each season in the NFL, and last year he was a real force for a Jets defense that was bad enough that few people noticed. Myers earned an 80.3 overall PFF grade, generating 53 pressures and 19 defensive stops from over 700 snaps of play. With the Jets working hard this offseason to add talent to the rest of the defense, the unit as a whole might be good enough that people start to appreciate how good a player Franklin-Myers has become, and there’s still the possibility that he continues to improve.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: LB T.J. Edwards
Edwards may be one of the best underdog stories in the NFL. A player who has consistently graded well at every level PFF measures, Edwards has marginal physical tools and so had to earn his way to playing time — undrafted, on special teams and in the preseason. Since assuming a starting job, however, he has been the best Eagles linebacker in some time (an admittedly low bar to clear), earning a 75.5 PFF grade overall in 2021 — higher than perennial All-Pros Bobby Wagner (71.8) and Lavonte David (72.3).
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: EDGE Alex Highsmith
Highsmith is the choice here, although it wasn't easy picking out a secret superstar for Pittsburgh. Overshadowed by one of the best defenders in all of football in T.J. Watt, Highsmith was able to maintain the play he had previously shown on limited snaps across a much larger workload in 2021. He played 851 snaps last year, almost double the number from his rookie season, and had 43 defensive stops over the year. The Steelers would love to see him bring just a little more pressure to the table, but there is no reason he can’t take that step in his second full season starting.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: S Jimmie Ward
Finding a secret superstar for the 49ers is challenging, and Ward isn’t exactly an unknown quantity, but he is a consistently productive part of that defense despite the attention typically shifting elsewhere. Ward has earned an overall PFF grade of at least 73.5 in each of the past three seasons, with 13 pass breakups over that time despite a lack of interceptions. Ward has lined up in the slot at least 200 times in each of the past two years in addition to free and strong safety, bringing important versatility to the secondary.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: DI Shelby Harris
Harris isn’t coming off a strong year, but the Seahawks getting him included in the trade for Russell Wilson with Denver was smart business. In the four seasons before last year, Harris had consistently strong PFF grades as both a run defender and a pass rusher as Denver tinkered with his deployment. He can be a disruptive force in all areas of the game, even if he may be limited in terms of workload. A bounce-back year in Seattle would cement him as a secret superstar.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: WR Russell Gage
Gage was an impressive performer for a flailing Falcons offense and now gets to play with Tom Brady and the stacked Buccaneers instead. He has improved his yards per route run figure each of the past two seasons and split almost evenly between lining up in the slot (49.6%) and out wide last year. Gage can win at all levels of the field and provides Brady with a possible Antonio Brown replacement after Brown danced his way off the field into the NFL wilderness last season.
TENNESSEE TITANS: S Amani Hooker
All of the attention at safety for Tennessee goes to Kevin Byard, who is one of the game’s very best at the position, but that does Hooker a disservice because he gives the Titans an elite safety duo, not just one star. Hooker earned an 83.3 overall PFF grade last year, fifth in the league, as he racked up 13 defensive stops and three pass breakups. He also had PFF grades of at least 75.0 as both in run defense and coverage.
WASHINGTON COMMANDERS: CB Kendall Fuller
Once arguably the best slot cornerback in the league, Fuller got a chance to be more than that, but his trade to Kansas City didn’t really work out. He ended up back in Washington a couple of years later with the luster firmly worn off his reputation. But he has quietly rebuilt his career over the past couple of seasons, including an impressive 2021 campaign. Fuller logged 14 pass breakups and allowed just 9.4 yards per reception despite lining up predominantly on the outside — not in the slot. His 78.7 PFF coverage grade was his highest mark since his breakout 2017 season when he posted a 91.2 grade.