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Unsung heroes of 2023 NFL season: One overlooked/surprise contributor from each AFC team

On Thursday, Feb. 8, NFL Honors (9 p.m. ET on CBS/NFL Network/Paramount+/NFL+) will spotlight the stars of the 2023 NFL season. But what about the players whose key contributions flew under the radar?

Kevin Patra is recognizing one unsung hero from each team, zeroing in on players whose contributions WEREN'T noted with Pro Bowl nods or All-Pro selections. Some names you know, some are appreciated by only hardcore fans and some are simply surprise difference-makers who don't get the attention they deserve.

Today, he reveals the AFC honorees. Click here to see the NFC honorees.

Baltimore Ravens
13-4 · 1st in AFC North

All the pieces of coordinator Mike Macdonald's defense work harmoniously, like a smashmouth symphony -- and while some instruments make more noise than others, all filled chairs are vital for the concert to sound its best. Geno Stone is one of those overlooked brass horns that brings a big sound when it's his turn to shine. The fourth-year pro came into his own this season, generating seven INTs, second-most in the NFL, along with nine passes defended and 68 total tackles, all career bests by far. The Ravens have leaned on Stone's flexibility and range on the back end. Five of his picks came when he was aligned as a safety in zone coverage, the most by any player in such an alignment in 2023, per Next Gen Stats. (The Ravens ran zone at a rate of 71.9%, 17th-most in the NFL.) Stone's -0.54 EPA per target ranked fifth-best among all DBs (minimum 250 coverage snaps).

Buffalo Bills
11-6 · 1st in AFC East

Ed Oliver put together a career campaign, leading all Bills players with 60 QB pressures and compiling a personal-best 9.5 sacks. The penetrating defensive tackle boasted the sixth-best pressure rate (13.3%) at his position, per Next Gen Stats (minimum 300 pass rushes). The 26-year-old consistently burned double teams on the interior, with 20 QB pressures against double-teams tying him for third-most among all players. While Oliver made hay pushing the pocket, he was no slouch against the run, with a 6.4% run-stuff rate ranking highest among DTs (minimum 150 run snaps). The Bills inked Oliver to a four-year, $68 million extension last summer. He was worth the money in 2023.

Cincinnati Bengals
9-8 · 4th in AFC North

In 12 games, Cam Taylor-Britt swiped four interceptions (one for a touchdown) while recording 11 passes defended, one forced fumble and 50 tackles, including 40 solos. The glue of the Bengals' back end, Taylor-Britt finished in the top 10 among corners in completion percentage allowed (53.4%) and passer rating against (67.6), per Pro Football Focus (minimum of 350 snaps). Thanks to attrition, the Bengals fielded a young secondary in 2023, and Taylor-Britt's physical play (he forced tight-window throws at a rate of 23.1%, per NGS) in his second season helped buoy the group. If he hadn't missed time with a mid-season ankle injury, the former second-round pick likely would have earned more pub.

Cleveland Browns
11-6 · 2nd in AFC North

The Browns' ferocious defense wouldn't have packed as big a punch without Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah patrolling the middle. The linebacker led Cleveland with 98 total tackles (21 more than the next closest player), including 20 for loss. He also generated 3.5 sacks, six passes defended, two interceptions and a forced fumble in 16 games. Everything clicked for JOK in his first year in coordinator Jim Schwartz's defense, and the speedy linebacker knifed into the backfield with regularity. His -37.5 run-stop EPA was eighth-best among all defenders in 2023, per Next Gen Stats.  

Denver Broncos
8-9 · 3rd in AFC West

The Broncos offense might have struggled this season, but Quinn Meinerz was a standout on the interior. Flashing power and an angry streak that he used to push defenders, Meinerz was one of the best run-blocking guards in the league in 2023. He also allowed a 6.1% QB pressure rate in one-on-one situations, ranking fourth-best among all right guards (minimum 300 pass-blocking snaps), per Next Gen Stats (a tick below that of Cowboys Pro Bowler Zack Martin, who came in at 5.9%).

Houston Texans
10-7 · 1st in AFC South

Jonathan Greenard really took off in DeMeco Ryans' defense, putting up a team-leading 12.5 sacks, more than he'd generated in his first three years combined (10.5). The 26-year-old finished with 59 QB pressures and a 15.7% pressure rate, ranking second on the club in both marks, behind rookie Will Anderson. Greenard's ability to win off the edge, with a 0.77-second get-off rate, and his relentless motor jumped off the screen. And he didn't just shine with the pass rush. His 13.6% run-stop rate ranked third among all edge defenders (minimum 200 run snaps).

Indianapolis Colts
9-8 · 3rd in AFC South

There were plenty of Colts to choose from here -- guys like Zaire Franklin and Bernhard Raimann -- but let's go with the perennially underrated Kenny Moore. Charged with spending most of his time defending the slot, one of the most challenging positions on the field, Moore snagged three INTs (two for touchdowns) and added 93 tackles, including eight for loss. He was beaten on some plays down the stretch and missed Week 17 with a back injury, but that doesn't negate how important he was to the Colts' D. His -10.0 target EPA ranked seventh among all slot defenders, per NGS. Never afraid to stick his nose into the fray, Moore finished with 26 run stops, tied for most among nickel corners in 2023.

Jacksonville Jaguars
9-8 · 2nd in AFC South

The Jags might have cratered down the stretch, but Foye Oluokun remained a stud. The linebacker led Jacksonville with 173 total tackles, and he paced the entire NFL with 111 solo takedowns. The rangy linebacker added 2.5 sacks, 10 QB hits, a pick-six and six passes defended. The tackling machine improved his coverage skills in 2023, generating a -13.4 EPA when targeted, sixth-best among linebackers. Despite gobbling up stats, Oluokun remains one of the most overlooked linebackers nationally.

Kansas City Chiefs
11-6 · 1st in AFC West

Where would the K.C. defense have been this season without Drue Tranquill? Having signed a one-year deal in March, Tranquill was initially a rotational linebacker. Injuries thrust the 28-year-old into a more prominent role, and he responded with 78 tackles (seven for loss), 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Tranquill also led the Chiefs with 44 defensive stops. He was solid in coverage, and his timing on blitzes (23.2 pressure rate) meshed perfectly for Steve Spanuolo's defense. Tranquill was low-key one of the best offseason pickups of 2023.

Las Vegas Raiders
8-9 · 2nd in AFC West

Did the Raiders finally unearth a running mate for Maxx Crosby? Used sparingly in his first two years, Koonce was stuck in a rotation early in the season, but the Raiders finally gave him more snaps down the stretch, and Koonce blasted off. He racked up 8.0 sacks, all coming after Antonio Pierce took over as interim head coach in Week 9. He also added 36 pressures in that span, giving him 51 on the season, and he finished second on the team in both categories, behind Crosby. For his career entering 2023, the former third-round pick had generated nine total pressures. What Koonce managed this season was the type of production the Raiders hoped they might get from first-round pick Tyree Wilson. Now it's on Koonce to prove the impressive end-of-the-season run was not a blip on the radar.

Los Angeles Chargers
5-12 · 4th in AFC West

A lot went wrong for the Chargers in 2023, but Gilman's emergence was nice to see. The former sixth-round pick struggled in limited reps throughout his first three seasons but shined in coverage during Year 4. Gilman's -3.5 receptions over expected ranked ninth among safeties, per Next Gen Stats (min. 200 coverage snaps), and his 10 passes defended were tied for eighth at his position (two behind the league leaders). Gilman added two interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 73 tackles in his breakout campaign. For years, the Chargers have tried to find a safety to partner with Derwin James. Gilman stepped up in 2023.

Miami Dolphins
11-6 · 2nd in AFC East

With his flowing locks, Andrew Van Ginkel did his best Thor impression, flying all over the field to drop the hammer on opponents, seemingly making a head-turning play every week. The edge rusher's stats might not stand out among his teammates, but they are nothing to sneeze at, either: six sacks, 19 QB hits, 69 tackles, eight tackles for loss, eight passes defended and an interception for a touchdown. Van Ginkel averaged a career-best 0.82 seconds get-off this season and he made his rushes count. His 17.7% QB pressure rate ranked sixth among all defenders, per NGS (min. 250 pass rushes). It's not surprising that he burst forth in Vic Fangio's defense. Can the Dolphins keep the free-agent-to-be in South Beach in 2024?

New England Patriots
4-13 · 4th in AFC East

Christian Barmore shined in his third pro season, breaking out for a team-high 8.5 sacks and 53 QB pressures. A wrecking ball on the interior, Barmore was limited by injury to 10 games in 2022. Staying healthy in 2023, he showed the ability to play in the backfield and discombobulate offenses. Battling through double and triple teams, Barmore generated 13 tackles for loss and 16 QB hits. Despite making just six starts, the 24-year-old netted a 14.4 run stop percentage, per NGS, fifth-best among DTs (min. 250 run snaps). Oh, and the behemoth led the Pats with five batted passes, to boot.

New York Jets
7-10 · 3rd in AFC East

Given the attention Gang Green receives, it's almost stunning that there isn't more hype around Jermaine Johnson. The former first-round pick put a poor rookie year behind him and earned a big role in a dominant defense. Johnson finished second on the team with 7.5 sacks, earning 16 QB hits, 55 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, a pick-six, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, 53 QB pressures and 26 run stops. Quinnen Williams remains the star, and Bryce Huff was sensational as a pass-down specialist, but Johnson showed flashes of brilliance that portend brighter things ahead. The second-year pro's play strength was worlds better than what he showed in his rookie campaign, and his confidence in play recognition went to new heights. We often see burgeoning young players hit peaks in one area of their game while slogging through valleys in another -- i.e., missing tackles or getting burned in space. With Johnson, everything was trending upward in 2023. If Johnson continues his rise in 2024, that 2022 draft class will be an all-timer.

Pittsburgh Steelers
10-7 · 3rd in AFC North

The Steelers brought Joey Porter Jr. on slowly, with the rookie not making his first start until Week 8. Then they trusted him in coverage against some of the best wideouts in the NFL. Per NGS, Porter aligned across from a top wide receiver on a majority of their routes in nine of his 11 starts -- a gauntlet including Calvin Ridley, DeAndre Hopkins, Romeo Doubs, Amari Cooper, Ja'Marr Chase, Marquise Brown, Tee Higgins, DK Metcalf and Rashod Bateman. Of that group, only Metcalf generated 40-plus total receiving yards when covered by the rookie (86 yards in Week 17). As injuries mounted for the Steelers D, the youngster provided the kind of impressive play Pittsburgh desperately needed. A physical corner, Porter forced a tight window on over half of his man coverage targets this season (18, tied for most in the NFL). The second-round pick also allowed -16.0 target EPA this season, the fourth-fewest by a rookie CB in the NGS era.

Tennessee Titans
6-11 · 4th in AFC South

Tyjae Spears proved to be a dynamic change-of-pace back alongside Derrick Henry, showing electric burst and Austin Ekeler-type ability in the passing game. Able to find slivers in the defense, Spears earned 4.5 yards per carry on just 100 totes. He added 385 receiving yards, second-most among rookie running backs, despite playing far fewer snaps than fellow rookies Bijan Robinson (487 receiving yards) or Jahmyr Gibbs (316). Spears shined down the stretch, generating 72 receiving yards over expected in the final five weeks, fourth-most among all RBs, per Next Gen Stats. With Henry likely moving on from Tennessee, the Titans appear to have found a dual-threat back to feature in 2024.

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