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AFC Surprises of Summer

The SportsXchange

While sailors at sea never want to get an SOS, coaches in the NFL are always looking for one during training camp -- a Surprise of the Summer.

These surprises are usually relatively unknown rookies whose anonymity is lost in training camp when they wind up finding a spot on the roster, if not the starting lineup. One such example is free agent rookie linebacker LaRoy Reynolds from Virginia, who is pushing for a starting job with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Veterans can also be a training camp SOS, such as cornerback Brent Grimes, who missed 15 games with an Achilles' injury at Atlanta last year, but has been a playmaker with the Miami Dolphins this summer.

Correspondents for The Sports Xchange were asked to declare the best Surprise of the Summer for each team. Here is a look at the SOS for each team in the AFC this year (teams listed alphabetically):

BALTIMORE RAVENS -- Middle linebacker Daryl Smith.

Smith had 11 tackles in two games as the replacement for legendary middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Smith flashed athleticism and instincts and emerged as a defensive leader, showing last season's injury-plagued campaign with the Jacksonville Jaguars was an aberration.

BUFFALO BILLS -- Running back Tashard Choice.

The fifth-year veteran has had a stellar training camp, including a 12-carry, 54-yard outing against Minnesota in a preseason game last Friday. The Georgia Tech product, who began his career with Dallas, is sending out vibes that perhaps he's a better, ah, choice for the No. 2 job behind C.J. Spiller than 32-year-old Fred Jackson.

CINCINNATI BENGALS -- Wide receiver Brandon Tate.

Tate began on the roster bubble, but has been very impressive. Many believed he was a kick or punt returner, but Tate led the Bengals in receptions (five) and yards (84) in the first two preseason games and isn't afraid to go over the middle.

CLEVELAND BROWNS -- Tight end Jordan Cameron.

Cameron is easily the most improved player on offense and arguably the most improved on the entire roster. He caught two touchdown passes against the Lions to carry over to the game what he has done all summer on the practice field. Giving credit where due, former team president Mike Holmgren said Cameron was one of the best athletes on the Browns offense.

DENVER BRONCOS -- Safety Duke Ihenacho.

After the signing of ex-Charger Quentin Jammer, who was being converted to safety, Ihenacho appeared destined for a second season on the practice squad. But that was before he capitalized on brief first-team looks in practice, zipping past Jammer, OTA standout David Bruton and 2012 starter Mike Adams to the top of the depth chart. Energetic camp practices and a knack for intercepting passes moved him up on a defense that has lost too many playmakers.

HOUSTON TEXANS -- Quarterback Case Keenum.

Keenum, who spent his first season on the practice squad, has been better than anyone could have imagined, playing like a seasoned veteran. He makes good decisions. He's accurate. He has good arm strength despite being just short of 6 feet 1. He's a natural leader who is respected by his teammates. He may not win the backup job this season, but he is playing so well the Texans will have to keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS -- Linebacker Caesar Rayford.

A former Arena League standout, the physically imposing Rayford (6-7, 267) had two sacks in a preseason game against the Giants. A 27-year-old rookie who played in college at Washington, Rayford also had the Colts' lone sack in the preseason loss to Buffalo. "He's making a case for himself, obviously. He's done a great job," coach Chuck Pagano said.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS -- Outside linebacker LaRoy Reynolds.

The undrafted rookie from Virginia wasn't given much of a chance at landing a spot on the 53-man roster. Now he is pushing both Geno Hayes and Russell Allen for one of the starting jobs on the outside. When Allen suffered an ankle sprain in the first preseason game against Miami and missed last Saturday's game in New York, Reynolds stepped in and turned in a solid performance -- collecting tackles, playing the outside spot with the first unit and moving to the middle with the second unit. He plays at one speed -- high gear -- and with a nasty disposition.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS -- Safety Quintin Demps.

Demps was signed in May only after the Chiefs went through a series of injuries in the secondary during their offseason program. The five-year veteran was a marginal contributor in Houston for several seasons after coming into the league as an Andy Reid draft choice with Philadelphia. Through training camp, he has shown that he is able to contribute not only on defense, where he is already part of the sub-packages for pass coverage, but on special teams as well, where he can return kicks, like the 104-yard touchdown return he had against San Francisco. Demps has elevated himself into the No. 3 spot at safety.

MIAMI DOLPHINS -- Cornerback Brent Grimes.

Amid a slew of big-name acquisitions and even a trade-up to get the No. 3 overall draft pick (DE Dion Jordan), Grimes may have been the best acquisition of all. He missed 15 games last season with Atlanta after sustaining an Achilles' injury, but this summer has been perhaps the Dolphins' best player on defense. Grimes, whose 11 interceptions in the 2010-11 seasons were second most in the league, is a playmaker. He had an interception on the third play in last week's 24-17 loss at Houston. The Dolphins, who were minus-10 in takeaway/giveaway margin last season, are hoping Grimes can help reverse that number.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS -- Tight end Zach Sudfeld.

The undrafted rookie tight end out of Nevada has been the talk of New England since the spring. In six college seasons, Sudfeld battled numerous injuries but had a breakout senior campaign with 45 catches and eight touchdowns. He has shown he can block and catch, and his most glaring error was a fumble in the last game. With Rob Gronkowski coming back from offseason back/arm surgeries, Sudfeld could be a surprise contributor to the new-look passing game in New England.

NEW YORK JETS -- Running back Bilal Powell.

Powell appeared to be on the roster bubble when the Jets signed Mike Goodson in March and traded for Chris Ivory in April. But with Goodson yet to report this summer because of personal reasons and Ivory battling a hamstring injury that sidelined him for most of training camp, Powell emerged as the Jets' best and most reliable running back. Powell rushed for a game-high 68 yards on just seven carries against the Jaguars last Saturday. At the very least, Powell seems likely to have earned a timeshare role and perhaps the Jets might have a sneaky every-down back candidate. Powell is also solid as a pass-catcher and as a blitz protector.

OAKLAND RAIDERS -- Defensive end Jason Hunter.

Hunter, who missed all of last season with a torn triceps, has been the only member of the projected defensive line to make every practice and every game. He has shown an ability to set the edge in the run game and was the only lineman to get a hand on Drew Brees against New Orleans.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS -- Wide receiver Markus Wheaton.

Wheaton has been everything the Steelers hoped and more since Pittsburgh drafted him in the third round. Safety Ryan Clark said Wheaton "is better than Michael Wallace at everything but one thing, speed. That's it. He does everything else better." Wheaton also has good speed and flashed it when he caught a 45-yard pass on Monday night against the Redskins.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS -- Running back Fozzy Whittaker.

Whittaker might be the biggest beneficiary of the team naming Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator. Whittaker lanquished on the Cardinals' practice squad last year, but during practice it's clear he caught the eye of Whisenhunt, then the Cards head coach. The Chargers brought him in as a fallback back with Ryan Mathews, Ronnie Brown and Danny Woodhead ahead of him on the depth chart. But his play may rearrange the depth chart. Whittaker has been consistent in the two preseason games; he also has his cause aided by Woodhead and Brown being slowed by injuries.

TENNESSEE TITANS -- Running back Jackie Battle.

Battle continues to impress and now is No. 3 in the pecking order for running backs behind Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene. Battle was signed the day before Tennessee opened camp.

--Team correspondents for The Sports Xchange contributed material for this story.
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