Super Bowls of recent years have inevitably produced one outstanding performance from an unsung player. Offering wild stabs in the dark to pick potential stars is always fun! So, Senior NFL Writer Nick Dunkeyson has been down roster lists and tried to pick some possible surprise stars for this year’s Super Bowl.
He rushed 6 times for 29 yards and 2 touchdowns, while catching 14 passes for 110 yards and 1 touchdown. Former fourth-round pick James White came from – in common consciousness – nowhere to come within a whisker of an MVP win. But his 2017 Super Bowl performance wasn’t the only one in recent years to come from an unsung player. One year previously, Panthers’ rotational rusher Kony Ealy got 3 sacks, 2 tackles for a loss and recovered a fumble. One year before, Seattle’s practice-squad-fodder receiver Chris Matthews racked up 109 receiving yards and a touchdown. The year before that, former seventh-round linebacker Malcolm Smith returned a pick-six 69 yards and recovered a fumble on his way to an MVP vote. Previous years have given us Jacoby Jones and David Tyree, for example. So, forgive me if I expect a suddenly brilliant performance from someone whose career to date has been less spectacular. But who?
First up, three New England Patriots:
Deatrich Wise Jr, DE
Wise isn’t the best edge rusher on the New England roster – that’s Trey Flowers. However, if Wise and Flowers line up on their usual sides, Wise gets to go at the perceptibly weaker Halapoulivaati Vaitai, while Flowers would have Lane Johnson. Johnson is elite, Vaitai is not. Wise has been a bit hit-and-miss, which isn’t unexpected for a fourth-round rookie. But he’s shown he can get after the passer. And having any luck getting past Vaitai will give him a run at the famously statuesque-in-the-pocket Nick Foles. If Vaitai has a bad day, Wise could find himself with a glut of sacks and a forced fumble or so.
Phillip Dorsett, WR
Look again at Chris Matthews’ stat line from Seattle’s defeat in 2016 – 4 receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown. That’s exactly the sort of stat line a flaky, but potentially game-changing, deep-threat receiver can put up. Dorsett’s been one of the many early-round flops at wide receiver in recent years, sure. Including postseason, he has 13 catches for 225 yards all season. Expecting him to be a Super Bowl star is frankly ridiculous, right?
Right. But he’s still the same burner who ran the 40 in 4.33 seconds at the combine. He’s the player who caught 871 yards and 10 touchdowns worth of passing in his senior year at nearly 25 yards/reception. That’s an insane stat, even in the offense-heavy world of college football. Dorsett will mostly likely catch 1-of-2 for about 15 yards and that’ll be it. But heck, it’s not as if the Eagles will be gameplanning for him.
Duron Harmon, S
It was tempting to nominate Eric Rowe here, who struggled in Philadelphia and is a bit of a poster boy for Bill Belichick finding a role for early picks who struggled. But Rowe’s played less than 25% of snaps of defense this year, and you can’t star if you’re on the benches. Harmon has played two-thirds of snaps, and plays that hovering-in-the-center-field role that can snag a couple of interceptions.
Harmon is one of these quietly effective safeties that dot the league. He snagged four interceptions – a respectable number. Moreso when, as PFF points out, those were on four of the nine times he was targeted as the primary defender. Now, call me naïve and gullible, but surely a defender who intercepts four-ninths of his targets is a decent shout for having a breakout game? And what better opportunity than with Nick Foles throwing the ball in his general direction?
Now, which Philadelphia Eagles may stand out?
Corey Clement, RB
The Eagles have managed to get meaningful, positive contributions from about five different running backs this year. They mostly have very deliberate roles. Jay Ajayi does the majority of between-the-tackles work outside the red zone. LeGarette Blount backs him up and mixes in some red zone work. Whichever has been healthy of Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner has caught passes on wheel routes. Even Nelson Agholor takes the odd end around.
Clement stands out because he’s done a bit of everything, and he’s done it all well. Not bad for an undrafted player, who I thought looked better than that on the (very limited bit of mostly focused on Ryan Ramczyk) Wisconsin tape I watched last year. The Denver game that netted him three total touchdowns and 66 yards of offense stands out. The Patriots are famous for meticulously gameplanning to neuter every threat. One like Clement, who played 22.63% of snaps (per Pro Football Reference) may prove surprisingly vital.
Corey Clement (Bill Streicher/ USA Today Sports)
Brandon Graham, DE
No-one in the league seems to be less noticed when getting pressure on a quarterback than Brandon Graham. Maybe he’s not an elite “finisher” of plays, but he gets in the right position to make them. And often, pressures-into-sacks evens out over time. Graham actually got a career-best 9.5 sacks this year, but he’s still overlooked behind Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, Timmy Jernigan, Chris Long and co.
Now, the Patriots do have a good offensive line. But they’re weakest on the left, where if they’re lucky former Lions liability LaAdrian Waddle will be starting if healthy. Graham will likely start lining up against him. If ever a high quality player’s got a chance to break out on the biggest stage, going up against a backup right tackle in the Super Bowl is that.
Brandon Graham (Bill Streicher/ USA Today Sports)
Nelson Agholor, WR
I thought about a few different players for Philly’s third choice. Nick Foles was an obvious one given his middling rep, but you expect quarterbacks to stand out. Ronald Darby is the best Eagles corner but he’s not a ballhawk. Malcolm Jenkins and Mychal Kendricks are far too well-known. So it came down to Agholor, the former butt-of-jokes, would-be bust who has thrived moving into the slot this year.
Agholor recorded a paltry 52.2% catch rate in 2016, but has upped that above 65% this year, on his way to 768 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns, mostly from the slot. Philadelphia have a glut of offensive weapons – like New England, few leap out as elite, but so many are solid contributors. Agholor is a great example of that, and the sort of player who could float under the radar to rack up a great overall performance.
Follow Nick Dunkeyson on Twitter, @longsnapsranked.