Listen, I’ve always considered myself a fan of the unsung heroes. Like when everybody was rooting for The Rock and Stone Cold during the Attitude Era, I was a Chris Jericho guy. All of my friends debated who was better, Tom DeLonge or Mark Hoppus? I was a Travis Barker guy. And while the masses talked about favorite NBA teams, I always repped my Lakers.
All right, so it’s an inexact science. (And if you ever need to find out why I’m a Lakers fan and not a Bulls fan, hit up my podcast.) But enough about that. Because I would love to present my list of the most unsung heroes on the field this year across the NFL. We will start with the AFC today, and I’ll hit you with the NFC on Wednesday. Let’s get started!
BALTIMORE RAVENS: Chuck Clark, safety. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is the undisputed star of this team. And even on defense, when your squad brings in Marcus Peters during the season, it’s kind of easy to fly under the radar. Oh, sorry for the bird pun. That was unintentional. But while the move for Peters might have received a lot of credit for the Ravens‘ defensive turnaround earlier in the season, Clark taking over for Tony Jefferson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 5, might’ve been the best move for this team.
BUFFALO BILLS: Jordan Phillips, defensive tackle. Somewhere in some bar in Buffalo right now, there is a patron trying to tell the person he’s with that Phillips might be a better player than Aaron Donald. And that would be wrong. But Phillips was easily one of the AFC’s top defensive tackles in 2019. The Bills were great against the run all season, but Phillips made life miserable for quarterbacks as he finished with 9.5 sacks. That is the second-highest total for a defensive tackle — behind only, wait for it, Donald.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: Auden Tate, wide receiver. The Bengals have been linked to LSU quarterback Joe Burrow for some time now. And people are clamoring about what Cincy’s offense could be in Zac Taylor’s second season, with all of the talent of Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green (if he stays). But a player I had my eye on for the second half of the season was Tate, who had some pretty big games for the Bengals before a knee injury cut his season short. A former seventh-round pick, he had 40 receptions in 12 games and averaged 14.4 yards per catch.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: Jarvis Landry, wide receiver. Obviously, I dabble in fantasy football. Every week this season, it seemed I was inundated with questions about Odell Beckham Jr. And it seemed at times that I was guilty of overlooking this particular unsung hero, as I consistently had OBJ higher in my rankings. But Landry was putting in work for the Browns, as he caught 83 passes for 1,174 yards and six touchdowns. He was one shining star for the Browns in a season where they failed to live up to expectations.
DENVER BRONCOS: Justin Simmons, safety. I know this might seem strange to say about a team that won seven games, but I feel like the Broncos overachieved a little bit this season. And the defense was especially good, even after losing Bradley Chubb early in the year. Part of the reason was Simmons, who led the team with four interceptions. He was also one of the club’s top tacklers. Simmons is one of those frustrating players for opposing fans because he always seems to make a big play when the Broncos need it most.
HOUSTON TEXANS: Tytus Howard, offensive tackle. The biggest weakness for the Texans heading into the season was the offensive line, which explains why the team gave up a bevy of picks for Laremy Tunsil. And that dude ended up earning a Pro Bowl nod. But the first-round pick out of Alabama State, who some might have questioned, also ended up being a huge addition to the team. Limited by injuries, Howard played quite well in eight games for the Texans, who improved dramatically up front.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Kenny Moore, cornerback. Moore was an undrafted free agent from Valdosta State in 2017, initially signed by the Patriots. But this season, he became one of the most important players for the Colts‘ defense. Obviously, they’ve done a great job getting some gems on the defensive side of the ball, but Moore’s importance to the unit was never more evident than when he didn’t play in the final four games of the season — and the Colts gave up 34-plus points in three of them.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Josh Allen, defensive end. While everyone went as Gardner Minshew for Halloween (and it was a fine choice), Allen was clearly the best rookie in Jacksonville. In fact, the Jaguars‘ official Twitter account was upset that Minshew wasn’t a finalist for the Pepsi Rookie of the Year, but Allen was likely the biggest snub. Allen had 10.5 sacks (more than Nick Bosa), 11 tackles for loss and 22 quarterback hurries. He also forced two fumbles for good measure.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Daniel Sorensen, safety. Yes, this is likely the most extreme example of recency bias imaginable, but I’m good with it. Sorensen made two incredible plays in the Chiefs’ historic rally against the Texans in the Divisional Round. And while we all celebrate Patrick Mahomes (and rightfully so), Sorensen was there for Kansas City. Sorensen has long been one of those guys on the Chiefs who does all of the dirty jobs. He might not be the flashiest of players, but when K.C. needed him the most, he came up huge.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS: Austin Ekeler, running back. OK, I’m not really sure he’s so unsung. The Chargers merely shrugged when Melvin Gordon missed the first few weeks, because Ekeler was out there killing it for the team. He had the winning touchdown reception for the Bolts in Week 1, and he physically torched the Jaguars with an 84-yard touchdown run down the stretch. He finished second among NFL running backs in receiving yards, as well, nearly going for 1,000. If I’m the Chargers, I make this guy, who is set to become a restricted free agent, my top priority this offseason.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: DeVante Parker, wide receiver. All right, this is weird. Because we have waited years for the huge Parker breakout season and never thought it would happen. Even when he started putting together great games this season, we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. But it never happened. And I can’t believe I’m going to write this, but I’m heading into next year expecting big things from Parker, who finished this season with 72 receptions for 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Danny Shelton, defensive tackle. Shelton was a disappointment during his first year with the Patriots following a trade with the Browns. It seemed like the kind of move that always works out for the Patriots, but it didn’t. At least, not until this season. Shelton played a huge role in the middle for New England and finished tied for third on the team in tackles. He had a monster play against the Bengals in Week 15 that helped turn the tide for the Patriots, who looked like they were about to careen out of the playoffs.
NEW YORK JETS: Kyle Phillips, defensive end. An undrafted free-agent signee out of Tennessee, Phillips quickly worked into the rotation for Gregg Williams’ defense in 2019. He posted modest totals, but did have nine tackles for loss. Phillips figures to be the kind of pest who will end up being a big part of the Jets‘ defense moving forward. And if I’m allowed to here, I’d also like to throw a quick shoutout to Brian Poole, who crushed it as a slot corner this season. This defense could be really great in 2020.
OAKLAND RAIDERS: Darren Waller, tight end. I know some of you will mention Hunter Renfrow, who was great and will be the biggest thing to hit the Las Vegas Strip since Carrot Top. (You can make as many jokes about Carrot Top as you’d like, but he’s been headlining in Vegas for more than a decade — he was in The Hangover and is constantly voted one of the best of Las Vegas.) But Waller was a monster for the Raiders this season. The tight end position excels under Jon Gruden. Remember Jared Cook in 2018? But Waller was easily the best pass catcher on Oakland this season and will be even better in 2020.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Steven Nelson, cornerback. The Steelers had so many injuries on offense this season — including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which forced the team to play two quarterbacks who weren’t ready. Unfortunately, all of those setbacks overshadowed a great effort by Pittsburgh’s defense. The Steelers‘ secondary started to become the strength of the team after they traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick. But another key move was made during the offseason when they brought in Nelson. He formed a pretty formidable tandem with Joe Haden, and it looks like this will be the foundation for the Steelers to build around heading into next season.
TENNESSEE TITANS: Ryan Tannehill, quarterback. Even as celebrated as he currently is, having helped the Titans get all the way to the AFC Championship Game, Tannehill still doesn’t get enough credit. At this point, most people fail to remember that this team was 2-4 and looking at another lost season before Tannehill took the reins and turned into this generation’s Steve Young.
Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @adamrank.