As the playoff picture begins to unfold and games become more important, we have seen teams rely on their star players in big games. For many teams, this means turning to household names to make big plays and earn valuable wins. While the likes of Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Marshawn Lynch and Calvin Johnson are performing as expected, some lesser-known players have emerged as star players on their respective teams. Following is a list of five players who have surpassed expectations and put themselves on the map as top players in the NFL.
1. Josh Gordon
When it comes to Josh Gordon the concern has never been about the player’s talent. Off-field issues and questions about his attitude led many to wonder whether or not Gordon would be able to get on the right track and meet expectations. It’s safe to say that these questions have been answered as the Cleveland Browns receiver currently stands as the third leading receiver in the NFL in terms of yardage. This includes multiple 200 yard receiving games and 7 touchdowns at this point in the season.
What’s even more impressive is the fact that Gordon has been unfazed despite playing with three different quarterbacks this season. He has certainly become the focus of opposing defenses as he consistently gets assigned to the league’s top secondary players. Regardless of who is throwing him the ball or how talented the person covering him happens to be, this speedy receiver is in the midst of a prolific sophomore season.
2. Julius Thomas
With blocking responsibilities and limited targets, it is often difficult for tight ends to distinguish themselves in the NFL. This task becomes even more difficult when you are just one of the many weapons in Peyton Manning’s arsenal in the Denver Broncos’ lineup. This challenge has been no problem for Thomas; he has established himself as one of the best tight ends in the NFL in what can be considered his first real season in the league.
With just one season of college football under his belt and two injury-ridden seasons on the bench in the NFL, Thomas has made 2013 his coming-out party. In his first start of the season, Thomas pulled in two touchdown passes from Manning and became a new threat in Denver’s potent offense.
Through Week 13 Thomas has 10 receiving touchdowns, a mark that has him tied with Vernon Davis for the second-most touchdowns at his position. This converted basketball player certainly seems to have completed his adjustment to the NFL.
3. Kiko Alonso
Glances at the list of ESPN’s statistical leaders may have many people wondering who Kiko Alonso is and how he is having such an impressive season. The rookie middle linebacker currently has the third-most tackles in the NFL and has established himself as a notable member of the Buffalo Bills’ defense.
One of Alonso’s best games of the season was against the Pittsburgh Steelers in their Salute to Service Military Appreciation Game. While veterans, military families, military dependents and current service members looked on, Alonso put on a show for the crowd with his team-leading 6 solo tackles. This is a mark that Alonso has surpassed multiple times this season as he continues to plague opposing offenses.
Alonso’s 125 tackles, 4 interceptions and 2 sacks stand as an impressive stat line for any player, let-alone a rookie on a struggling Bills roster. With the 46th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Bills uncovered a gem in Alonso, who will serve as an anchor for their improving defense.
4. Nick Foles
If you had started a discussion about a star quarterback in Philadelphia during the preseason, the conversation would have likely turned to the prospects of Michael Vick. It is very doubtful that anyone anticipated Nick Foles emerging as the franchise quarterback for Chip Kelly’s Eagles. Many were surprised by the fact that he was given a starting role, let alone that he would go on to tie the NFL record for touchdowns in a game in just his second start.
With Michael Vick sidelined with injuries for much of the season the door was open for Foles to step forward and take the reins in Philly. In his new starting role, Foles has shattered expectations and gone on to arguably become the most efficient quarterback in the NFL, according to USA Today Sports. These arguments seem outlandish until you analyze Fole’s impressive statistics, which rival those of Peyton Manning.
Through Week 13, Foles has thrown for 1,791 yards and 19 touchdowns without an interception. Also, Foles 125.2 passer rating is higher than that of other top quarterbacks such as Manning, Drew Brees and Andrew Luck. While it may be a stretch to point to Foles as the most talented quarterback in the NFL, there is no questioning the quality of his performances this season. He has been a pleasant surprise for Eagles fans.
5. Alshon Jeffery
Just as a preseason discussion of Eagles stars would have overlooked Nick Foles, a poll of the best receiver on the Chicago Bears’ roster would have unanimously pointed to Brandon Marshall. This would be justifiable if it weren’t for a player named Alshon Jeffery who currently leads the Bears in receiving yards. While Marshall has been the more popular red zone target with nine touchdowns, Jeffery also outclasses Marshall in terms of his average yards per catch.
The speedy second year player’s 1,109 receiving yards through Week 13 has him ranked fourth in the NFL and surpasses his 2012 season total by more than 700 yards. To say that Jeffery is having a breakout season would be an understatement, as he has emerged as a bona fide star in Chicago.
Unlike Gordon, Jeffery doesn’t have to worry about double coverage thanks to the threat that Marshall poses to defenses on the other flank. This makes the Bears’ receiving corps a nightmare for an opposing secondary as they are forced to pick their poison between the two talented receivers.
While watching the NFL’s established stars is always entertaining, seeing new players make a name for themselves is a welcome development. With just a few games left in the 2013 regular season, the aforementioned players will hopefully continue their breakout seasons and help their teams reach the playoffs. I also wrote NFL players born on 25 December to give you more interesting stuff on NFL players