In the NFL, the difference between making the playoffs and spending January at home is often the players who aren't making the big bucks. The players who aren't household names, aren't endorsing products during commercial breaks and whose jerseys aren't being worn in the stands.
Just because players aren't going to Pro Bowls and getting round-the-clock praise from the talking-head types—yet—doesn't mean they aren't making a huge impact.
Which little-known players are coming up huge for their teams? Who's making plays on film that aren't making the late-night highlight reels? Which players are doing nothing but putting out great tape, week in, week out? Which players you may have barely heard of will absolutely blow your mind on game film?
Here are five young players who are proving themselves to be critical to their teams' current and future success.
Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals Defensive Tackle
Atkins isn't just a diet anymore. This 6'1", 286-pound defensive tackle has been doing nothing but slice through offensive lines and serve up havoc since the Bengals drafted him in the fourth round of the 2010 draft.
During that year's Senior Bowl game, I nearly broke Twitter freaking out about the outgoing Georgia Bulldog's ability to get pressure up the middle. His first step, power and technique belied his undersized frame and were too much for his fellow prospects to handle.
Atkins simply kept it up in the league, garnering 19.5 sacks in his first three seasons (counting this incomplete 2012, and his rookie 2010, when he wasn't a starter). This season, his nine sacks are tied for sixth-best in the NFL, along with marquee pass-rushers like Clay Matthews and John Abraham.
For a little taste of what Atkins can do, check out the welcome wagon he rolled out for former Bengals teammate Carson Palmer this past week:
The broadcasters hadn't even finished introducing the defense before Atkins used his incredible get-off to breeze past guard Mike Brisiel and crush Palmer. Per Pro Football Focus, Atkins had a ridiculous eight hurries and two quarterback hits to go with that sack, extending his lead over all NFL defensive tackles in each of those three stats.
Look for him to "surprisingly" win some end-of-year awards.
Casey Hayward, Green Bay Packers Cornerback
Packers general manager Ted Thompson famously avoids drafting to fill immediate needs. Often, his high draft picks leave fans and the media scratching their heads, wondering what he's up to. But Thompson shocked those who know his M.O. by trading up in the second round to bolster a thinning, aging secondary.
Hayward quickly worked his way into the rotation, putting his claim in as the nickel corner. Right away, his instincts and aggressiveness resulted in big plays.
Watch Hayward read Matthew Stafford's eyes and use his instincts and athleticism to make a huge play on a late-game third down:
Despite hauling in five interceptions and getting his nose up in the running game with 24 official solo tackles and 10 assists, Hayward hasn't been penalized once this season. Hayward's got a veteran's knack for riding the line between "physical play" and "illegal contact."
There's little doubt Hayward will be starting full-time sooner rather than later.
Joique Bell, Detroit Lions Running Back
Bell didn't take quite as straight a path to success as Atkins and Hayward. Signed by the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent out of Wayne State, Bell also had cups of coffee with the Philadelphia Eagles, Indianapolis Colts, Eagles again and New Orleans Saints.
All in his rookie season.
Listed at 5'11", 220 pounds, the big tailback spent most of a season bouncing between the Saints' active roster and practice squad before his hometown Lions signed him in late 2011. A preseason surprise, Bell carved out a role as a short-yardage option and late-game "closer," using his physicality late in games to punish weary defenders.
Then in Week 2, this happened:
Bell flashed sure hands, great acceleration and sneaky open-field running to gash the 49ers for 50 yards on a screen pass. As the season's worn on, Bell has replaced Jahvid Best as the Lions' pass-catching tailback. Bell doesn't quite have the athleticism of Best, but he has enough to hurdle his "goal-line back" frame over tacklers in the open field:
With 244 yards and three touchdowns on just 50 carries (4.9 yards per carry), plus 31 catches for 312 yards (10.1 yards per reception), Bell's making the most of the touches he's getting. Bell's sure hands, quiet upper body, strong frame and excellent balance will continue to earn him touches this season and beyond.
Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs Outside Linebacker
Unlike Bell, Houston's ability to contribute to an NFL team has never been in question. However, the former Georgia standout saw his stock from the late first round all the way to the third when Houston tested positive for marijuana at the NFL combine.
When discussing his choice to leave school early with media, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chip Potts, Houston said he was feeling "the pain of regret." The Chiefs certainly don't regret taking a chance on the 6'3", 270-pound monster.
Houston's size, speed and motor make him a perfect fit as a 3-4 pass-rusher. Watch this sack on the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco. Houston flashes a little bit of everything: get-off, a head fake, a power move and relentless pursuit to close on the big quarterback and bring him down.
After earning a spot in the starting lineup with 5.5 official sacks last season, Houston is tied with Atkins for sixth place in the sack race with 9.0. Pro Football Focus credits Houston with 20 hurries, better than all but five 3-4 OLBs.
Look for Houston's numbers to climb as he continues to hone his technique.
Derrick Morgan, Tennessee Titans Defensive End
Morgan isn't a diamond-in-the-rough type like Bell. He's not a talented but troubled "steal" like Houston. He's not even a second-round pick beating the learning curve like Houston.
Morgan was a 2010 first-round pick and 2009 first-team All American. But even though his development has been stunted by two severe knee injuries, the 6'-3", 296-pound end is coming on strong. Literally.
According to Pro Football Focus, Morgan has compiled four sacks, 15 quarterback hits and 26 hurries. That hits figure is second-best in the NFL, behind only speedy 240-pound edge rusher Cameron Wake.
The Titans defense does not get a lot of media hype, nor do they seem to seek it. But people will pay attention if Morgan keeps making plays like his sack-fumble of Andrew Luck.
Morgan stunted from the far side. His athleticism allowed him to get up the middle, sack Luck and pop the ball free with his left hand while bringing Luck down with his right. Combining explosive athletic talent like that with Morgan's huge frame and high motor is a recipe for quarterback disaster.
What budding stars have you seen that national media hasn't caught onto yet? Whose vital performances are going unmonitored? Which players will we talk about in 2012 the way we talk about J.J. Watt and RGIII this season?
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