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Unsung heroes of 2023 NFL season: One overlooked/surprise contributor from each NFC 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 NFC honorees. Click here to see the AFC honorees.

Arizona Cardinals
4-13 · 4th in NFC West

I nearly chose corner Garrett Williams, who performed splendidly for a third-round rookie playing a difficult position. But there was no denying James Conner's importance to the rising Cardinals club. The running back generated 1,040 rushing yards, getting over the 1K plateau for the first time, on 208 carries with seven TDs, despite missing four games due to injury. A pinball, Conner generated a league-high 3.9 yards after contact per carry, per Pro Football Focus, along with 60 forced miss tackles (third among RBs) and 31 runs of 10-plus yards (fourth). If he'd played like that over 17 games, Conner would have been a shoo-in for a Pro Bowl nod. The Cards might not have won many games, but Conner had a big role in each of their four victories and helped set a leadership tone heading into 2024.

Atlanta Falcons
7-10 · 3rd in NFC South

The old man's still got juice. At 37, Calais Campbell might no longer be a perennial Pro Bowler, but he played a significant role in the Falcons' defensive turnaround in 2023. Campbell led the Falcons with 43 total pressures, per Next Gen Stats, and he tied for the team lead with 6.5 sacks in his first season in ATL. Campbell also generated 49 stops and 10 tackles for loss. Yes, the Falcons' defensive front still lacked pop, even as the team's offseason additions boosted Atlanta from one of the worst defensive rankings in the league in 2022 to a respectable 11th in yards allowed. But imagine if Campbell hadn't been part of the revamp. If he sticks with his plan to play a 17th season, Campbell, a free agent, can undoubtedly help a defense again.

Carolina Panthers
2-15 · 4th in NFC South

Can you picture the 2023 Panthers offense without Thielen? My word. The wideout generated 1,014 receiving yards, breaking 1K for the first time since 2018, on 103 catches with four touchdowns. All other Panthers WRs combined went for 1,238 yards and 116 catches. Thielen was one of 11 receivers who went for 100-plus catches and 1,000-plus yards in 2023. For loooooong stretches, Thielen was the Panthers' offense. His 103 catches tied Steve Smith Sr. for most in a season by a Carolina wide receiver in club history (trailing only RB Christian McCaffrey among players at all positions). Rookie QB Bryce Young struggled mightily, but at least he had Thielen to provide a security blanket. Now, the Panthers need to add a piece or seven to complement the 33-year-old wideout and help their quarterback in 2024.

Chicago Bears
7-10 · 4th in NFC North

Like most of his teammates, Edwards got off to a rough start early in the campaign but caught stride in the middle of the season as Matt Eberflus' defense found its footing. Edwards led the Bears with 155 total tackles, seventh-most in the NFL, stuffing the stat sheet with eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, eight QB hits, seven passes defended, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Boasting both the ability to tackle in space and excellent coverage skills, Edwards was the glue in the middle of Chicago's defense. One thing was certain watching Edwards play: The Eagles could have used him back in Philly this year.

Dallas Cowboys
12-5 · 1st in NFC East

Is it possible to be overlooked when you play with a star on your helmet? Anyone with a glimmer in Dallas is probably making a Pro Bowl or All-Pro roster. So let's use this opportunity to highlight Ferguson's play. The second-year tight end exploded for 71 catches and 761 yards with five TDs, ranking in the top 10 in each category among tight ends. Ferguson finished second among Cowboys pass catchers in targets (102), catches and yards while ranking fifth among tight ends in receiving yards over expected (113), per Next Gen Stats. Ferguson combined the ability to find open gaps in the defense with stellar run-after-catch performance (430 YAC, sixth-most among TEs). He proved he's a keeper.

Detroit Lions
12-5 · 1st in NFC North

Alim McNeill is on track to be the latest interior defender who goes overlooked by the general public far longer than their play warrants -- think Jeffery Simmons and Kenny Clark types. Case in point: McNeill graded as the seventh-best interior defender by PFF metrics. The penetrating DT generated a career-high five sacks in his third pro season despite missing four games, during which the Lions D sorely missed his presence. Even taking that absence into account, McNeill finished second on the Lions with 34 QB pressures, per PFF. Though there was an ocean-sized gap behind him and Aidan Hutchinson (101), that figure still highlights how much the Lions' defensive front relied on him. If McNeill continues his upward trajectory next season, far more people will know his name.

Green Bay Packers
9-8 · 2nd in NFC North

On an offense filled with blossoming young players, Tom might be the most overlooked. The second-year pro has developed into a stellar right tackle, able to plow the road in the run game, and is stout in pass protection, having allowed two sacks and two QB hits on 625 pass-blocking snaps, per PFF. Tom gave up some pressures (33), but a majority of those came against Detroit's Aidan Hutchinson, who has given most right tackles bad days. A technician with size, Tom can hold his own on the outside while often being left in one-on-one matchups. Among all right tackles, Tom finished with an NFL-best 5.6% QB pressure rate in the regular season (minimum 300 pass blocks), according to NGS. He also led all RTs with a 5.8% one-on-one QB pressure rate. Tom settled in during the season, along with the rest of the Packers offense, to help push Green Bay into the playoffs. 

Los Angeles Rams
10-7 · 2nd in NFC West

Playing in Aaron Donald's shadow isn't for everyone, but Turner shined during his debut campaign. He led the Rams and all rookies with nine sacks, generated 47 QB pressures (tied for third among rookies, with Eagles DT Jalen Carter, per NGS) and registered 45 stops, tied for 12th-most among all defensive tackles. Turner surged down the stretch, producing seven of his sacks and 34 pressures in the final seven regular-season games, per NGS, helping the Rams bully their way into the playoffs. The rookie benefited from Donald's pressures, to be sure, but that wasn't the sole driving force behind a sensational first season. Turner's 22 QB pressures when double-teamed were second-most among DTs, per NGS, behind only Quinnen Williams' 24. This was a year of finding building blocks in L.A., and Turner is certainly a foundational piece.

Minnesota Vikings
7-10 · 3rd in NFC North

Credit defensive coordinator Brian Flores for unlocking Metellus' havoc-creating ability. The former sixth-round pick out of Michigan played sparingly his first three seasons but became a versatile weapon under Flores. Metellus lined up all over the formation, from safety to outside linebacker, inside linebacker, slot corner, wide corner and defensive lineman. Heck, PFF even charted Metellus as having one snap lined up as a defensive tackle. From those various locations, the 26-year-old stuffed the stat sheet, gobbling up 112 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 10 QB hits, one interception, five passes defended, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Metellus led all safeties with 30 QB pressures, per Next Gen Stats, on a whopping 116 pass rushes (26 more than any other safety in 2023).

New Orleans Saints
9-8 · 2nd in NFC South

The Saints locked up the former undrafted free agent to a contract extension in September for good reason. The 27-year-old has become the club's most reliable front-seven defender, leading the team with 8.5 sacks and 64 QB pressures (26 more than any other Saint), per NGS. His 60 stops were second-most for New Orleans, behind only Demario Davis (69), and ranking fourth among all defensive linemen. Granderson's ability to play in the backfield was essential for an up-and-down Saints club that otherwise struggled to get after the quarterback (New Orleans' total of 34 sacks was tied for fourth-fewest in the league).

New York Giants
6-11 · 4th in NFC East

It feels almost like cheating to name Okereke here, but the linebacker was snubbed from every awards list, getting shut out of the initial Pro Bowl rosters and All-Pro teams. In his first season with Big Blue, Okereke was all over the field, generating 149 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, 21 QB pressures, two interceptions, 10 passes defended and four forced fumbles while playing every single defensive snap. Stellar in coverage and stout versus the run, Okereke was the glue for New York's defense in 2023. He will remain a force in 2024 for the team’s next defensive coordinator.

Philadelphia Eagles
11-6 · 2nd in NFC East

In a season that ended in a downward spiral for Philly, Elliott was the Eagles' most consistent performer. The kicker made some massive boots, including a 59-yarder to force OT against Buffalo, a 54-yard overtime winner against Washington and a 61-yard smash against Minnesota. Elliott made 30 of 32 field-goal attempts, including 7-of-8 from 50-plus yards. His 20.4% field goal percent over expected was tops among all kickers, and his 60.7% win probably added was second, per Next Gen Stats. Philadelphia collapsed down the stretch, but it probably wouldn't even have been in a position to collapse from without Elliott's heroics early in the season.

San Francisco 49ers
12-5 · 1st in NFC West

The Niners featured nine Pro Bowlers and seven players who made the first- or second-team All-Pro squads, making it tough to find someone on their roster who went overlooked in their sensational season. Despite missing the last five games of the regular season due to foot and knee injuries, Armstead finished third on the team with 38 QB pressures and generated five sacks. His ability to take on double teams -- he was doubled at a higher rate than any other 49ers regular, per NGS -- helped open opportunities across the defensive front. The 30-year-old's production might have waned as injuries piled up, and there are bigger stars on the Niners D, but Armstead remains a crucial cog willing and able to do the dirty work for a Super Bowl contender.

Seattle Seahawks
9-8 · 3rd in NFC West
Boye Mafe

Mafe came into his own in his second season, leading the Seahawks with nine sacks, 16 QB hits and (per PFF) four batted passes. The edge defender also paced Seattle with 53 QB pressures and added 35 stops, according to NGS. The athletic Mafe displayed burst, getting 24 quick pressures, per NGS, and showed effort to the ball. The 25-year-old pass rusher got off to a hot start with seven of his nine sacks coming in his first eight games. As his play tailed off, so did the Seahawks D, with Seattle coming up shy in its bid to get back into the postseason. Mafe is just beginning to scratch the surface of his ability.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
9-8 · 1st in NFC South

Vea could be the poster boy for underappreciated players. The mountain of a man controls the line of scrimmage like few others. Vea led all Bucs defensive linemen with 35 stops and finished third on the team with 29 QB pressures to go along with 5.5 sacks. Tampa even used him on the outside at times this season to create mismatches on tackles. His ability to stuff the run was a key reason the Bucs D finished tied for fourth in the NFL in yards-per-carry allowed (3.8). When it's time to cast ballots for popularity contests, Vea's name might not come up, but you can be sure offensive linemen feel his presence every game.

Washington Commanders
4-13 · 4th in NFC East

The Commanders’ offensive line struggled for much of the season, but Cosmi’s play stood out. The third-year pro had a career year, showing the ability to open holes in the run game and improving as a pass blocker. After two seasons at right tackle, Cosmi moved to right guard in 2023 and shined. He allowed 31 pressures but gave up just one sack and four QB hits in 17 starts on 736 pass-blocking snaps, third-most among guards, per PFF. Changes are afoot for the Commanders in 2024, including likely moves along the O-line, but Cosmi showed he could be a building block on the interior.

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