On Thursday, Feb. 9, NFL Honors (9 p.m. ET. on NBC/NFL Network/Peacock) will spotlight the stars from the 2022 season. But what about the players whose key contributions flew under the radar?
Nick Shook is recognizing one unsung hero from each team, with the selections ranging from surprise difference-makers to players who don’t get the attention they deserve. Today, he reveals the NFC honorees. Check back Wednesday for his AFC picks.
The Cardinals had plenty of problems in 2022, but Allen logged an excellent season, constantly causing trouble for opposing offenses. In fact, it was the best campaign of his four-year career, featuring a personal-record 5.5 sacks, 47 tackles (10 for loss) and a whopping eight passes defensed. Whenever a quarterback stepped up to throw, it seemed as if Allen was there to shoot his hands in the air for a deflection. J.J. Watt rightfully received more attention along the defensive front, but the 25-year-old Allen (he’ll turn 26 in August) enjoyed a quietly fantastic year that will springboard him into free agency with a chance to make a new team (or the Cardinals) very happy.
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Allgeier broke 1,000 rushing yards while also remaining relatively anonymous on a Falcons team that won seven games and generally struggled to move the football. Atlanta actively de-emphasized the passing game and put the majority of the offensive responsibility on its rushing attack, and Allgeier emerged as the best back. The fifth-round pick out of BYU became the bell cow, finishing with 1,035 yards and three touchdowns on 210 runs. It’s quite an achievement to average 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie while operating in an offense that opponents know will be primarily running the ball. With Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson and 2021 UDFA Caleb Huntley in the backfield mix, the Falcons found a way to remain competitive.
Luvu has been a stud for the majority of his career, yet he’s continued to fly under the radar. After his 2022 season, that should no longer be possible. Luvu enjoyed the best year of his career, racking up 111 tackles (19 for loss), seven sacks, four passes defensed, one forced fumble and one interception (deftly returned for his first career touchdown). Luvu has made plays in spots in the past, but none of his previous four seasons were like this. After Haason Reddick’s departure in the offseason, the Panthers needed another player to step up to maintain their defensive productivity. Luvu took that opportunity and ran with it. He’s one of my favorite lesser-known players to watch, and he should become one of yours, too.
I love what the Bears have in their secondary. Brisker and nickelback Kyler Gordon (Gordon was selected 39th overall and Brisker was drafted 48th, both in the second round) are talented defensive backs who beefed up Chicago’s back end and are primed to make plays for years to come. Brisker only finished with one interception to Gordon’s three, but anyone who watched the Bears on a weekly basis is well aware of the safety’s exciting potential. The team’s own site even named him Chicago’s Rookie of the Year. I agree with that designation, and I can’t wait to see how he develops.
Kearse’s career has become a captivating tale of persistence. The Clemson product slid far down the draft board in 2016, landing with Minnesota in Round 7, then fizzled out with both the Vikings and Lions. In 2021, he signed with the Cowboys — and he’s done nothing but play quality football since. Like the Commanders’ Darrick Forrest (see below), Kearse always seems to be in the perfect position to make key plays. He finished with 77 tackles, one interception, five passes defensed, one forced fumble, two recoveries and two sacks in 2022, but his performance has been about more than stats. The average Cowboys fan will agree: Kearse (along with Donovan Wilson) has become an integral part of Dallas’ defense on the back end under the direction of coordinator Dan Quinn.
At his previous NFL stop — Tennessee — Raymond was a backup receiver who doubled as a returner, at least for some of his time with the Titans. In 2021, he landed in Detroit, where he continued to return punts and finished fourth on the team in receiving targets (71). The Lions extended him last March, and they’re undoubtedly pleased with what they received in return. Raymond finished second on the team in receiving yards this season (616, on 47 catches), and although he didn’t find the end zone as a wideout, he routinely made plays that advanced the ball downfield for one of the NFL’s most explosive (and surprising) offenses. He also earned second-team All-Pro honors as a punt returner, averaging a healthy 13.2 yards per return and scoring a touchdown. It will be interesting to see how the veteran’s role evolves as the team continues to incorporate 2022 first-round receiver Jameson Williams, but Raymond has certainly made the most of his chances in Detroit.
We know the big names on Green Bay’s offense both start with “Aaron” (Rodgers and Jones), but the Packers’ power back deserves some recognition. As the clear No. 2 ball-carrier in the offense, Dillon made the most of his 6-foot, 247-pound frame, recording 186 attempts for 770 yards and seven touchdowns. When the Packers neared the end zone, everyone watched for No. 28. Dillon is more than just a set of massive quads; he’s a bulldozing back who makes a living running over defenders. Step in his path, if you dare.
Injuries decimated the Rams, undercutting their chances of defending their Super Bowl LVI title in 2022. With Cooper Kupp and Allen Robinson going down at various points in the season, Ben Skowronek and Jefferson (who missed the first portion of the season with a knee injury of his own) were ultimately left as Los Angeles’ top options at receiver. Jefferson capitalized, starting in every game in Weeks 13-18 and consistently producing at a level that was respectable, especially considering how short-handed the Rams’ offense was in the final months of the season. Jefferson’s numbers didn’t come close to his career-best marks of 2021, but whenever the person playing quarterback for the Rams (with Baker Mayfield being the last of the replacements for injured starter Matthew Stafford) needed a receiver to target, Jefferson usually came through.
Justin Jefferson rightfully attracts much of the attention in the Vikings’ offense, but after two nearly identical seasons, Osborn deserves some love, too. The third-year receiver followed up a 50-catch, 655-yard, seven-touchdown campaign in 2021 with 60 catches for 650 yards and five touchdowns in 2022, serving as a quality third pass-catcher in a corps headlined by Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Osborn has proven to be a consistent secondary option who often finds himself open because defenses are dedicating resources to stopping Jefferson, Thielen and in-season addition T.J. Hockenson.
This one is a tough call between a dark-horse Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate in Olave and an unexpected contributor in fellow receiver Rashid Shaheed, but I’m going with Olave. How was he “unsung” as a first-round pick who eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving? Well, it felt like he was overshadowed in this rookie class by his former Ohio State teammate, Garrett Wilson, in New York, as well as Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker III, among others. Olave had a fantastic year while playing with three quarterbacks, and it’s fair to wonder if he’d be regarded more favorably had he played with a more celebrated passer (sorry, Andy Dalton). I will say this: Olave won’t land in this spot again, because he’ll be too notable.
The Giants’ stunning turnaround spawned from a number of key developments on offense, including the resurgence of Saquon Barkley, a breakout year from Daniel Jones, and a sneaky-good rookie campaign from tight end Daniel Bellinger. Hodgins is my pick here, though, because of how he capitalized on his opportunities. An in-season addition, Hodgins hit the ground running in New York, catching 33 of his 42 targets for 351 yards and four touchdowns in eight regular-season games (five starts). His showing on Super Wild Card Weekend — eight catches for 105 yards and one touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings — only added to his growing legend with the Giants, a team that desperately needed unlikely contributors to step up in the passing game. Hodgins certainly answered the call.
Reddick made my list last season while with the Panthers, and the Eagles were apparently paying attention to his 2021 performance, signing him to a three-year, $45 million deal in the offseason. Reddick has done nothing but continue to produce for the Philadelphia, a team with plenty of stars on both sides of the ball. On defense, we often think of guys like Fletcher Cox or Darius Slay, but we should really pay more attention to Reddick, who led the Eagles with a career-high 16 sacks. This spot could go to Josh Sweat, who also had a great season, but I want folks to focus on Reddick. It feels like the football world’s collective lamentation of Reddick’s untapped potential in Arizona was ages ago.
Hufanga won’t be operating in anonymity for long. I chose him as the fifth defensive back in my All-Pro team for 2022 and the AP voters followed suit, which would typically eliminate such a player from consideration for this. I’m keeping him here, though, because very few football fans would have been able to name Hufanga prior to this season, and as the 49ers ascended to the elite tier of title contenders, Hufanga’s name started to circulate. Hufanga announced his presence with a game-deciding pick-six of Matthew Stafford in Week 4 and continued to fly around the field for most of the season, denying expected completions at a rate of -13.2 percent, per Next Gen Stats. He’s another player on this list who is just getting started.
The second-fastest cornerback at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine found a great home in Seattle, where he quickly produced, recording an interception in every game from Week 3 through Week 6. That’s an incredible return on a fifth-round pick out of UTSA who first made a name for himself at the NFL level with his 40-yard dash time (4.26). At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Woolen possesses the length and size to win press battles at the line of scrimmage and erase separation between himself and a targeted pass-catcher. Woolen tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), while also racking up 16 passes defensed, three fumble recoveries and 63 tackles. It feels as if he’s only getting started.
A nightmarish season for the Buccaneers produced a couple of bright spots along the way: First, Tampa Bay reached the playoffs (albeit at 8-9), and secondly, it found another quality runner in its backfield. Amid the frequent consternation regarding the Bucs’ struggles, did anyone notice when White took Leonard Fournette’s job? It happened in Week 10, the Munich game played against the Seahawks, when White rushed 22 times for 105 yards and helped Tampa Bay sneak past Seattle, 21-16. From there, he started every remaining game, and while he didn’t put up great numbers, he posed a greater threat than Fournette and carries more future value at the position. It was a tough year in Tampa and there weren’t many Bucs candidates for this list, but I like White’s potential. The rookie showed he can be a viable NFL back.
Washington gets a lot of praise for its defensive strength up front, but the player who jumped off the screen to me in 2022 was this second-year safety. Evidently, Ron Rivera’s staff felt similarly, moving Forrest from a rotational role into a starting spot in the second half of the season. The ballhawk finished with four interceptions, nine passes defensed and 88 tackles, and his hard-hitting style produced two fumbles (he also had one recovery). I love watching this guy play, and he always seems to be around the ball.
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