For this week's feature article I decided to shine the spotlight on some of the NFL's lesser known players who have been performing well under the radar. I have chosen seven players who are getting their first taste of success in the NFL this year, and given them the prestigious honor of being a founding member of my All-Unknown Team.
While these guys have not gotten the mainstream media exposure that some of their teammates have, they are having good seasons and making solid contributions to their teams. Who are some players, currently flying under the radar, that you feel should have made the All-Unknown Team? Also, be sure to answer the poll and voice your opinion about Glen Coffee.
RB Shonn Greene - New York Jets
This rookie from Iowa got his first significant playing time of the season last week at Oakland. Greene responded with his first career 100 yard rushing game. New York's offense did not miss a beat when he took over as the number two running back for the injured Leon Washington. The former Hawkeye had 19 carries for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Jets ran for over 300 yards as a team for the second week in a row. Washington was put on Injured Reserve after the game, so the rookie should get plenty of opportunities as the season continues. Greene was selected in the third round of this year's NFL draft after amassing 2,228 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns during his college career.
RB Ray Rice - Baltimore Ravens
Rice ran for 454 yards in his rookie season, and he has built on that success so far this year. The former Rutgers standout won the starting running back job over Willis McGahee in the offseason, and has seen his carries increase from 8.2 per game last year to 12.2 per game this year. The increase in opportunities has led to a corresponding increase in production for Rice. He is averaging six yards per carry and has also caught 33 passes for 325 yards. Now in his second year with the Ravens, Rice is leading the team in rushing yards and is second in passing yards. He is averaging 127.7 total yards per game and his versatility has helped to make Baltimore's offense more explosive.
WR Mike Sims-Walker - Jacksonville Jaguars
24 year old Sims-Walker was suspended for Week 5's game against the Seahawks for violating a team rule, but when he has been on the field this year he has been quite productive. The Central Florida alumni, has caught at least six passes in four of the five games he has played in this season. At 6'2" 214 pounds, Sims-Walker has the size and strength to become a dominant number one receiver. In this his third year he is averaging 79.6 receiving yards per game, that's the 12th most in the league. Sims-Walker is also among the leaders in touchdown receptions with three. Despite the promise that he has displayed, Sims-Walker is still relatively unknown because he plays in the NFL wasteland known as Jacksonville. However, if he continues to produce at this pace it is only a matter of time before fans around the country take notice.
Much ado has been made about Peyton Manning's ability to play at a high level this season in spite of his mostly inexperienced receiving corps. While it is certainly true that Manning has continued to play at an All-Pro level, the Colts' young receivers have exceeded expectations, especially rookie Austin Collie. Collie is a living legend at BYU where he set school records in career receptions, career receiving yards, and career receiving touchdowns. Head Coach Jim Caldwell was impressed with the El Dorado Hills native in training camp, and he beat out Pierre Garcon for the third wide receiver job. After getting off to a slow start in his first three games, Collie has caught at least one touchdown pass in each of his last three. Indianapolis hosts San Francisco this week, and the 49ers will need to keep a close eye on this rookie if they want to slow down the Colts passing attack.
WR Mario Manningham - New York Giants
After seeing his draft stock slide due to allegations of marijuana use in college, Manningham only caught four passes in an injury riddled rookie season. But he has already caught 28 passes this year, including four touchdowns. Manningham has become a big play threat in his sophomore season. He is currently tied for third in the league with 9 catches of over 20 yards, and is averaging 15.7 yards per catch. The former Michigan Wolverine and teammate Steve Smith have become a solid receiver duo for New York this year. Manningham is built in the mold of a Wes Welker, and like Welker he has become a favorite target of his quarterback despite his diminutive stature. If he can keep his focus and stay out of trouble, I expect #82 to continue to improve and prosper as a member of the Giants.
TE Brent Celek - Philadelphia Eagles
I ended up with this guy in a fantasy league, and I have to say that I have been pleasantly surprised by his production. A 5th round pick from Cincinnati, Celek ranks 5th among tight ends in receptions (33) and 4th in receiving yards (386). He has already eclipsed the 298 yards compiled by last year's starter L.J. Smith, and it is only Week 8. He has also become more than just a possession receiver. Celek's five catches of over 20 yards rank him among the elite tight ends in the league. By adding a dynamic playmaker at the tight end position, Philadelphia has been able to add more balance to their passing game and spread the ball out more which has helped them average an excellent 27.2 points per game.
In a year when everyone is talking about the performance of New Orlean's safety Darren Sharper, rookie Jairus Byrd has gone relatively unnoticed. But the young free safety from Oregon has recorded five interceptions in his last three games, two of which were won by his Buffalo Bills. Byrd got his first NFL start in Week 4 against Miami when starting safeties Donte Whitner and Bryan Scott both went down with injuries. Part of the reason Byrd has so many interceptions is because teams have targeted the rookie since he has become Buffalo's starting safety. Jairus currently ranks 4th in pass defenses with 12, but if he continues to play at this high level teams will certainly take notice and look elsewhere when throwing the ball against the Bills secondary.