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 NFC.
Reddick's sack total (12.5) was inflated by his five-sack outing against the Giants in Week 14, but his total body of work is still undoubtedly worthy of recognition. Reddick matched Carl Lawson and Za'Darius Smith with 50 QB pressures (tied for eighth in the NFL), recorded 53 disruptions and forced two turnovers via pressure in 2020, finishing with a QB pressure rate over 14 percent. He also logged 10 run stuffs and 36 stops, and his disruption rate was the 10th best in the entire league. Reddick took a while to blossom into the effective edge rusher Arizona thought it was getting when it spent the 13th overall pick on him in the 2017 NFL Draft, but he definitely arrived in 2020 -- just in time for him to hit the free agency market after the Cardinals declined to pick up his fifth-year option.
If Ridley duplicates his production from 2020 next season, he'll no longer qualify for this list, because folks simply won't be able to look elsewhere for places to direct praise on the Falcons' roster. Ridley shredded defenses this season, catching 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 15 games. While we think of Julio Jones as Atlanta's big-play threat, it was actually Ridley hitting the home runs, catching 51 passes for 1,077 yards and six touchdowns on passes of 10-plus air yards. Those marks were good for the most receptions and yards, and his six scores tied for 11th-most in the NFL. If that didn't teach us a lesson, we also learned Matt Ryan absolutely loved to air it out when Ridley was in his crosshairs. No player in the NFL accounted for a higher air-yardage total or air-yards share than Ridley, who was the only receiver to break 2,000 air yards when targeted. Looks like that first-round pick was worth it.
Quietly, Burns became a force off the edge for the up-and-coming Panthers in 2020. Burns tied for eighth in the league in total disruptions with 55 and recorded nine sacks and 43 QB pressures. He also impacted the game in a direct fashion, forcing two turnovers via pressure to go along with 58 tackles, including 31 stops (tackles that result in a successful play for the defense based on the yards to go by down) and seven run stuffs. Burns was there in crucial moments for the Panthers -- and he was there in a hurry, posting the fastest average time to hurry in the NFL at 2.66 seconds. Though Carolina still has a ways to go to return to contention, the Panthers have an important piece causing problems off the edge.
Here's another player who would be receiving due recognition if the rest of his teammates had performed well enough to get his unit some attention. Robinson has been very good in his last two seasons, combining for 13 touchdowns and nearly 2,400 receiving yards between 2019 and 2020. But because the Bears' offense has largely been putrid outside of Robinson, many forget about his value and skill. Here's a prime example: Robinson gained 2.2 yards per route run this season -- and he was the only one of the 17 Bears who ran a route this season to crack the 2-yard mark. An excellent player can help a team, but he can't win the games by himself. Get this man a cape -- and a new contract (whether that comes from Chicago or not remains to be seen).
Lamb put together quite a rookie season, which becomes especially clear when one considers his quarterbacks. The first-year receiver finished with 74 receptions for 935 yards and five scores, gaining 12.6 yards per catch while also accounting for just 18 percent of Dallas' target share. He did this while catching passes from Dak Prescott, Ben DiNucci, Garrett Gilbert and Andy Dalton as part of an offense that found itself frequently forced to throw its way back into games thanks to a porous defense. No task seemed too great for Lamb, though, who largely made his impact out of the slot, catching 63 passes for 784 yards and four TDs from that alignment, good for the fourth-most receptions, second-most yards and tied for the ninth-most touchdowns in the league. The sky is the limit for this kid, and he won't be an unsung hero for long.
Oh, hey, another overlooked receiver on a bad team. In case Matt Patricia's firing didn't serve as a hint, the Lions were not very good in 2020, but Jones was still quite effective. He caught 76 passes for 978 yards and nine touchdowns (tied for eighth-most in the NFL among receivers), but his younger teammate, Kenny Golladay, usually gets the love from those casually familiar with Detroit beyond its place in the history of American manufacturing. Jones flourished when Golladay wasn't able to play in 2020; from Week 9 to Week 17, Jones caught 25 passes of 10-plus air yards (tied for second in that span) for 519 yards (ranking third) and five touchdowns (tied for second). While fantasy owners love Golladay's production, we can't forget about the guy who's been in the Motor City since 2016 -- and neither can the rest of the league as the 30-year-old Jones approaches free agency.
Playing with Aaron Rodgers is nice, but so is having a last name that rhymes with Funyun. As Tonyan said back in late November, he made a name for himself, catching 52 passes for 586 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2020 and becoming the latest tight end to morph into a favorite of the future Hall of Fame quarterback. Tonyan was money near the end zone, as evidenced by his touchdown total -- and he also reliably made the unlikely a reality. Tonyan posted a catch rate over expectation of +16.8 percent, the highest rate among all tight ends with a minimum of 50 targets. We know Rodgers won't play forever, but as long as Tonyan is around (the 26-year-old will be a restricted free agent this offseason), we can bank on them connecting for more scores.
Williams' performance this season was surely an incredibly pleasant surprise for the Rams, who found in Williams a reliable third corner to fill out the back end of their suddenly stingy secondary. Williams burst onto the scene in the first quarter of the 2020 season, recording interceptions in wins over the Eagles and Giants, though he saved his best for a 23-16 win over the division-rival Seahawks in Week 10, when he intercepted Russell Wilson twice. Williams finished 2020 with the fifth best figure in targeted expected points added (or EPA; this statistic explains how much an individual player's performance is affecting the total points scored by the opponent) among defensive backs, taking away 18 points from opponents with his play. He also recorded 14 passes defensed and accounted for an expected completion percentage over expectation of -7.1 when serving as the nearest defender. Jalen Ramsey rightfully receives the notoriety among Rams defenders, but Los Angeles isn't as strong defensively without Williams, who is headed for restricted free agency.
In 2019, Kendricks was named a first-team All-Pro and made his first Pro Bowl. In 2020, Kendricks was blanked in both categories as part of a Vikings team that underachieved -- but that doesn't mean Kendricks disappointed. The linebacker was again stellar, allowing a passer rating as the nearest defender of just 53.9, the second best rate among all linebackers with a minimum of 20 targets. Hs -8.1 targeted EPA was the 10th best among linebackers, and he added 107 tackles (four for loss), six passes defended and three interceptions. His ball-hawk rate (the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a play on the football) of 16.2 percent landed him fifth among all linebackers -- in other words, he embodied the ideal, complete linebacker any team would want. Had Minnesota performed better during a 7-9 season, Kendricks likely would've received too much attention to make this list. But, hey, silver linings.
Few knew of Hendrickson before 2020, and while teammates like Cameron Jordan, Drew Brees, Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara understandably received more attention, Hendrickson deserved some this season. Set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, he spent a good amount of the season near or atop the league leaderboard in sacks (he finished tied for second with 13.5), registered the sixth-most QB pressures in the NFL with 53, seventh-most disruptions (57) and forced two turnovers via pressure. All of these numbers were better than those of Jordan -- who made the Pro Bowl. Need we say more?
The first of two NFC East cornerbacks on this list is Bradberry, who finished as the 13th-best wide corner in targeted EPA at -6.1. Bradberry also posted a targeted completion percentage allowed below expectation of -5.1, and tied for second in the entire league in passes defensed with 18. Only stellar Dolphins corner Xavien Howard had more than Bradberry, who also added three interceptions to his ledger in 2020 and finished with a ballhawk rate north of 21 percent. That three-year, $43.5 million deal the Giants signed Bradberry to in 2020 looks like a pretty good idea right about now.
It was fairly difficult to find an unsung hero for the Eagles because of their widespread struggles, but the veteran Graham emerged as an important player for a team that spent most of its time in the spotlight trying to decide what to do at quarterback. Graham finished with eight sacks and 47 disruptions, and his 36 QB pressures landed him in the top 25 in the league. That ranking might not exactly jump off the screen, but it's important to note that he still had the most among all Eagles. The bar was low in Philadelphia, but Graham still exceeded it in a forgettable season.
The speedy Wilson played in 12 games in 2020, the most he has in any of his three seasons in the NFL, and his increased opportunities allowed him to produce at a rate previously unseen from him at this level. Wilson set career highs in carries (126), rushing yards (600), yards per carry (4.8), rushing touchdowns (seven), receptions (13), receiving yards (133) and receiving scores (three). He was efficient when carrying the ball, gaining 74 rushing yards over expectation on the ground in 2020, and for a team that was again hampered by unfortunate injuries, Wilson stepped up when needed -- and he was rewarded with a one-year deal from the team this week.
Even with D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett leading the way in receiving in Seattle, Moore carved out an important supportive role. He reached a career high in receptions with 35, gained 417 yards (11.9 yards per reception) and hit a single-season best with six touchdowns. Moore was especially efficient downfield, catching five passes for 212 yards and three scores on eight deep targets this season. In Week 2, he made a highlight grab that was among the best in the entire league this season, catching a 38-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson just inside the pylon on a play that carried a completion probability of 6.3 percent; it was one of just two catches in the NFL with a probability in the single digits in 2020. That reception boosted his catch rate over expectation on deep targets to +37.5 percent, the highest in the NFL among those with a minimum of five deep receptions. Metcalf and Lockett are two dynamite receivers, but Moore proved he packs a punch, too -- and in a contract year, to boot.
Pac-12 (and USC) fans will tell you they saw this one coming, but they're likely the only ones. The Texas Tesla set career-high marks in rushes (192), rushing yards (978), rushing touchdowns (seven) and receiving touchdowns in 2020 as part of the new-look Bucs offense orchestrated by none other than Tom Brady. The Buccaneers addressed the running back position from all angles, signing Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy, but Jones -- the guy who was already on the roster -- ended up being their best option in the backfield this season. His 1.14 rushing yards over expectation per attempt were the fourth-most in the NFL among running backs (minimum 80 carries), and his 219 rushing yards over expectation were the fifth-most in the league. Sure, it helps to play with Brady and the Bucs' talented skill players, but Jones has definitely done his part, too.
Like Williams in Los Angeles, Fuller put together a very solid season, even if it was less surprising. Fuller intercepted four passes, registered 11 passes defensed, allowed an opposing passer rating of 65.5 and finished with a completion percentage allowed under expectation of -6.2. His best advanced metric -- targeted EPA -- displayed how much he impacted the outcome of Washington's games. Fuller finished as the eighth best defensive back in the category, taking away 14.4 points from opposing offenses with his performance through the course of the 2020 season. Fuller did so while applying press coverage on just 10 percent of his 71 targets, meaning he was excellent at blanketing a receiver even with a generous initial cushion. Nothing to argue here -- Fuller was sharp in 2020.