Unheralded players making impacts for NFL teams
NEW YORK (AP) — Unheralded. Unsung. But certainly not unappreciated by their teammates.
While the headlines belong to the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, each NFL team has at least one player who isn’t necessarily a household name — yet.
Far from an unknown, Indianapolis’ T.Y. Hilton broke out last year with 82 receptions for 1,083 yards, taking over as Andrew Luck’s favorite target after Reggie Wayne went down with an injury. Still, he wasn’t generally mentioned before this season among the upper echelon of the league’s wide receivers with guys such as Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and Dez Bryant.
Maybe not for much longer.
He’s off to another terrific start with 56 catches and 937 yards, which rank him second in the league.
“We’ve got that chemistry where he gives me a nod and I give him a nod,” said Hilton, in his third season. “And we just both know.”
Sometimes it takes an injury to another player on the depth chart to open up an opportunity. Cincinnati wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, San Diego running back Branden Oliver and St. Louis quarterback Austin Davis know all about that.
Sanu, a third-round draft pick in 2012, helped carry the Bengals’ offense while star receiver A.J. Green was sidelined a few weeks this season. He enters Thursday night’s game against the Browns leading the team with 39 catches for 628 yards and four touchdowns — and he has even thrown a touchdown pass.
“He has such strong hands that if anything is contested, he’ll come down with it,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “It’s nice having a guy like that.”
The Chargers feel the same about Oliver, an undrafted rookie who played college ball at Buffalo. Fourth on the depth chart just over a month ago behind Ryan Mathews, Danny Woodhead and Donald Brown, the 5-foot-8 Oliver burst onto the scene when all three went down with injuries. He has Chargers fans comparing him to Darren Sproles.
“I let everybody know during the draft process that he was one of the best running backs that I ever played against, even though it was practice,” said Raiders rookie linebacker Khalil Mack, a college teammate.
Davis also went undrafted in 2012 out of Southern Miss, but has become St. Louis’ starting quarterback in his second stint with the Rams following a season-ending knee injury to Sam Bradford and backup Shaun Hill hurting his quadriceps. Davis has helped lead St. Louis (3-5) to wins over NFC West rivals Seattle and San Francisco in the last three weeks.
For Minnesota, running back Jerick McKinnon and Carolina defensive end Mario Addison have stepped in for established stars — the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson and the Panthers’ Greg Hardy — facing legal troubles.
While Peterson has been out on paid leave because of a felony child abuse charge, McKinnon has become the Vikings’ No. 1 running back. Drafted in the third round last May, McKinnon has 446 yards on 90 carries — a 5.0 average.
“It’s nice that people are taking notice and stuff like that,” McKinnon said. “But I just think it’s really a credit to how the offense has been working.”
Addison, in his fourth season, already has a career high with four sacks and has seen his playing time increase with Hardy on the exempt-commissioner’s permission list while facing a domestic violence trial that now has been delayed until after the season.
Some veterans such as Baltimore running back Justin Forsett and Pittsburgh cornerback William Gay are making their marks with consistent playing time in unexpected roles.
Forsett, who played for three teams in five seasons before joining the Ravens as a third-stringer during the offseason, got his chance when Ray Rice got cut for his domestic violence case. He’s outplayed Bernard Pierce and is fifth in NFL rushing with 609 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry.
“Nobody works harder,” Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s one heck of a football player.”
Gay is in his eighth season and has started several games during his career, but he was initially expected to be the Steelers’ nickel cornerback. He’s now their No. 1 cornerback with Ike Taylor out and Cortez Allen struggling.
Then, there are players who seemingly came out of nowhere to make big impacts.
Tampa Bay linebacker Danny Lansanah has returned two interceptions for touchdowns after winning the starting job early this season. That came after he played in one game last season for the Bucs, his first NFL regular-season appearance since 2008.
Detroit defensive end George Johnson signed with the Lions in April, made the roster after being a long shot, and has four sacks after having none since beginning his career in 2010.
Giants tight end Larry Donnell was undrafted out of Grambling State in 2011, spent 2012 on New York’s practice squad, and had three catches in 16 games a year ago. He has suddenly become one of Eli Manning’s favorite targets this season, ranking among NFL leaders at his position with 37 receptions for 357 yards and five TDs.
Oh, and don’t forget the rookie special teamers, such as kickers Chandler Catanzaro of Arizona and Cody Parkey of Philadelphia; and punters Tress Way of Washington and Colton Schmidt of Buffalo.
“It’s pretty simple,” Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith said. “If you get an opportunity for some plays and you do good things, you’re going to get more. It’s like that for every position.”
AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell, Josh Dubow, Fred Goodall and Michael Marot contributed.
AP NFL websites: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_NFL