With the 2020 NFL regular season in the books, Nick Shook digs into Next Gen Stats to look back at the players who flew under the radar despite making a significant impact. His unsung heroes made plays on a consistent basis and showed up on tape -- without attracting the accolades of their more popular teammates.
Below is one Unsung Hero for each team in the AFC.
We all paid plenty of attention to quarterback Lamar Jackson's elite rushing exploits and the rise of rookie runner J.K. Dobbins, but in the meantime, Edwards quietly usurped veteran Mark Ingram as the Ravens' second back and put together a solid season. Edwards rushed for 723 yards and six scores on 144 carries (5 yards per attempt) as part of the league's top rushing attack, and he made an even greater impact than most would realize when it came to Next Gen Stats. Edwards finished with the eighth-most rushing yards over expectation on the season (+163), and his rushes over expectation percentage (the percentage of rushes in which a back exceeds expected rushing yards) was the highest in the NFL at 43.1 percent. To make that especially clear, Edwards did more than expected on nearly half of his attempts in 2020, all while playing third banana to Jackson and Dobbins (and, for a bit, fourth banana, behind Ingram). It's time he gets a little praise.
It's always going to be tough for Beasley to get his due credit when playing in a receiving corps headlined by Stefon Diggs, and that's perfectly fine. But since we're highlighting the unsung heroes, few fit the bill quite as well as Beasley, a slot receiver who has made his quarterbacks look good for quite some time. Beasley caught 82 of his 107 targets in 2020 for 967 yards and four touchdowns, helping Bills passers post a rating of 108.3 when targeting him and finishing with a catch rate over expectation of +7 percent. Beasley nearly broke 1,000 receiving yards while only accounting for 18.7 percent of his team's total target share -- similar to the shares of other receivers like CeeDee Lamb, A.J. Green and Russell Gage -- and served as the perfect underneath complement to Diggs, who had a career year in his first season with Josh Allen. Beasley's been hampered by a knee injury in the playoffs, but when healthy, he's as reliable as they come in the passing game, and he helped Buffalo reach new heights in 2020.
As a safety, Bates sees less targets as the nearest defender than a corner would, but that shouldn't diminish what he did in 2020. Bates recorded three interceptions and 15 passes defensed; he also allowed a passer rating of 65.6 and a completion percentage above expectation of -9.8 percent. Bates' ballhawk rate -- the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a play on the football via pass defensed or interception -- was the second highest in the NFL, trailing only Green Bay's Darnell Savage. Bates has been an up-and-coming safety for a few years now, and even with Cincinnati's struggles, he should be known as a premier player at the position from here on out.
Higgins established a close on-field relationship with Baker Mayfield back in 2018, when Mayfield was a rookie, and even after Higgins was essentially written out of the majority of Cleveland's game plans in 2019, he re-signed with the Browns, reportedly for less money than what was offered elsewhere. That bet paid off for the Browns, who saw Mayfield turn to Higgins frequently following a season-ending injury to Odell Beckham Jr in Week 7. Higgins played a key role in Cleveland's passing offense alongside Jarvis Landry, occupying the intermediate level of the field to make timely grabs in clutch moments down the stretch in the Browns' run to the playoffs. From Week 8 to Week 17, Higgins gained 2.3 yards per route run, the 14th most among receivers with a minimum of 150 routes run. As a result of his increased involvement, the fifth-year pro posted a career season, catching 37 passes for 599 yards (16.2 yards per reception) and four touchdowns. He was inches from a touchdown reception in a Divisional Round loss, and though his fumble cost the Browns a chance to score before the half against the Chiefs, it shouldn't be what folks remember "Hollywood" for. Instead, they should think first of his timely catches and occasional walks down the end-zone's red carpet.
It's time for the 29-year-old Callahan to receive some love. The former undrafted free agent compiled his third straight solid season in terms of passes defensed (five) and interceptions (two), and his Next Gen numbers describe a player who made a significant impact on the defensive side of the ball. Callahan took away 25.6 points from opponents in 2020 (based on targeted expected points added, a player's per-target impact on the outcome of the game in terms of points added or taken away based on play), the third-best mark among all defenders in the NFL, and he allowed a 46.9 passer rating when targeted. His completion percentage allowed was 5.2 percent below expectation, and he didn't allow a touchdown as the nearest defender all season.
Reid didn't quite have the same targeted EPA impact -- he finished at -2.1 -- as some others on this list, but what he did excel at was denying passes that were expected to be completed. Reid's -17.1 completion percentage over expectation allowed as the nearest defender was the best rate among deep safeties in the entire NFL (minimum 30 targets, minimum 50 percent of snaps aligned as deep safety). That rate was also the best among any defensive back in the entire NFL, regardless of alignment. Reid saw just 34 targets as the nearest defender and recorded four passes defensed, resulting in a lower ballhawk rate. But when going deep, Reid was likely to take away your hopes of hitting a big play in 2020.
It looked like Rhodes was starting to descend as a player in his final season in Minnesota, struggling mightily (and publicly) and making the Pro Bowl more on reputation than performance in 2019. But a change in scheme and location rejuvenated the 30-year-old Rhodes in 2020.The defensive back intercepted two passes and recorded 12 passes defensed in his first season with the Colts, and his targeted EPA of -13.8 was the ninth best among all defenders (minimum 30 targets). His most astounding number was his completion percentage allowed under expectation, which came in at -12.6 percent -- he was one of only six defensive backs in the entire league to finish in double digits in the category. So much for that gradual decline.
Schobert was paid handsomely in the offseason to leave Cleveland and bring with him the abilities that made him a coveted free agent. Chief among them: racking up tackles. Schobert finished with 141 tackles, a total that falls in line with his annual tackle marks of previous years, but the quality of tackles made the difference for him. Schobert finished with 63 defensive stops (tackles that result in a successful play for the defense, based on the yards to go by down), the fifth-most among all linebackers in the NFL in 2020. Schobert also finished with 15 run stuffs, which tied for ninth-most among all defenders. Schobert's addition didn't propel the Jaguars to prominence, but Jacksonville's struggles weren't the fault of the former Wisconsin Badger, who continues to quietly and consistently go to work.
Sneed is one of the rare rookies to land on this list, which plays into his being an unsung hero -- and he looked very unlike a newbie in his first NFL season. The third cornerback has filled various roles of need in Kansas City's defense, and when opposing quarterbacks targeted him, it turned out to be a bad idea. Sneed posted the fourth-best rate of targeted EPA among all defensive backs with at least 30 targets on the year, trailing only Xavien Howard, Jaire Alexander and Bryce Callahan while taking away 18 total points from opponents this season. Those are names folks are used to hearing, or in the case of Callahan, soon will be, and Sneed played at their level while flying under the radar in 2020. Sneed also intercepted three passes, recorded seven passes defensed, allowed a 36.6 rating when targeted and a completion percentage 9.5 percent below expectation. That's quite a collection of advanced stats for anyone, let alone a rookie.
Agholor arrived as a bit of a below-the-fold signing in Las Vegas but maximized his opportunities in his first season in Silver and Black, catching 48 passes for 896 yards (an average of 18.7 yards per reception) and eight touchdowns in 2020. He also posted a catch rate over expectation of +2.7 percent and helped Raiders passers record a 113.7 passer rating when targeting him. Agholor didn't land among the 1,000-yard receivers, but he truly made the most of his receptions, gaining the aforementioned total while receiving just 15.7 percent of his team's total targets for the season. With tight end Darren Waller carrying the largest share of targets for the Raiders, Agholor found his niche in the deep-passing game, gaining 415 yards and scoring six touchdowns on 10 deep receptions (20 total targets) this season, good for the fifth-most yards and second-most touchdowns in the NFL. The offseason buzz rightfully centered on rookie Henry Ruggs, but Agholor proved he is also a quality deep threat who is a vital part of Las Vegas' passing offense.
All eyes landed on rookie quarterback Justin Herbert in 2020 for good reason, but the Chargers had a rough campaign otherwise, making it difficult to find standouts beyond the household names. But like Keenan Allen, Williams benefitted from the aptitude of the young signal-caller. Williams caught 48 of his 85 targets for 756 yards and five touchdowns in 2020, and though his numbers weren't near the career highs set in yards in 2019 or touchdowns in 2018, his Next Gen performance revealed his effectiveness. Williams finished with a catch rate over expectation of +5.9 percent, landing among the likes of Emmanuel Sanders, Jarvis Landry and Travis Kelce. He was especially effective serving as the perimeter complement to Allen's field-crossing impact, catching 31 passes for 521 yards and four scores on targets outside the numbers (the 14th-most yards in the NFL) and giving Herbert multiple options in different areas of the field. This type of balance is ideal for a young quarterback, and it gives us an idea of Williams' value to the Chargers, even if he doesn't grab the headlines.
As the Miami Dolphins steadily climbed up the standings in 2020 to the surprise of many, Ogbah made key plays on a consistent basis. In fact, fellow Around The NFL writer Kevin Patra and I had a weekly tradition of notifying one another of an important Ogbah play, with the same reaction following the play: Every week. Ogbah finished with the same number of total disruptions (48) as Indianapolis' DeForest Buckner -- a first-team All-Pro selection -- and ranked third in turnovers caused by pressure (five), trailing only former Browns teammate Myles Garrett and Buccaneers edge rusher Shaquil Barrett in the game-changing category. Add in nine sacks, seven run stuffs and 32 defensive stops, and you'll see what the tape will tell you: Ogbah was a difference-maker in 2020.
Jackson finished second in the NFL in interceptions with nine to go along with 14 passes defensed in 2020, another solid season from the cornerback operating in the shadow of Stephon Gilmore. He also allowed a passer rating of just 61.6 and a completion percentage above expectation of -2.3 percent when serving as the nearest defender. His interceptions and passes defensed total made for a ballhawk rate of 18.4 percent, which is a solid number, considering he was targeted nearly 80 times in 2020. The Patriots weren't great in 2020, but Jackson sure was good.
As the No. 3 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Williams is expected to make an impact, but he lands on this list because he wasn't getting a ton of love, thanks in large part to the Jets' general ineptitude in 2020 (and probably partially because he went on injured reserve in December). Williams, though, was anything but inadequate, posting the highest run-stuff rate (7.1 percent) of any interior defensive lineman in the NFL (minimum of 200 run snaps). He was just as effective rushing the passer, too, averaging 2.86 seconds to register a quarterback hurry, the fastest among all interior defensive linemen. Add in his 39 stops and 33 disruptions, and you've got yourself a defensive lineman poised to make folks remember his name very soon.
Whenever the Steelers needed a defensive play in 2020, it seemed as if Hilton was always right there to make one. He was a shutdown defender in coverage when nearest to the target, allowing an opposing passer rating of 58.7, the fourth-lowest rating among all corners in the NFL (minimum 30 targets). His targeted EPA landed at -1.4 for the season, and he finished with three interceptions and seven passes defensed for a ballhawk rate of 16.3 percent. Hilton also accounted for 50 tackles, with seven coming as hustle stops (the league lead was 20). Not a bad resume for a corner overshadowed by plenty of other Steelers defenders.
Davis hasn't yet met the expectations set by his selection in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, but he quietly produced in 2020 while playing alongside A.J. Brown. Davis posted five games of 100-plus yards en route to finishing with the highest receiving totals of his career, catching 65 passes for 984 yards and five scores. Davis was extremely productive in the opportunities afforded to him, gaining 2.7 yards per route run in 2020, the fifth-highest rate of all receivers with at least 300 routes run. It's hard to miss the 6-foot-3 receiver on the field. Now that he's finally starting to flirt with the type of production expected of a high pick, folks might start paying attention to his presence in the years ahead.