COMMENTARY | In the NFL, the helmets, facemasks and shoulder pads serve as a façade to the players' true identities.
Most of the league's faces remain unrecognizable to the average spectator. And with 53-man rosters, credit for their success is distributed unevenly. The most visible talents are touted as stars.
But it takes more than stars to win football games. It takes guys.
Just like the 31 other organizations, the New England Patriots are well aware of that sentiment.
Unexpected names have carved themselves roles in Foxborough, Mass., over the years. Most will never find their names in the headlines, though. They're what we call "underrated."
Heading into 2013, the following three Patriots stand prominently under that tag.
Rob Ninkovich, Defensive End
A fifth-round draft pick in 2006, Rob Ninkovich has worn many hats. He has served as a defensive end, an outside linebacker and a long snapper. Up through the 2008 campaign, he was also a journeyman.
Ninkovich had spent two stints with the New Orleans Saints and one with the Miami Dolphins, even cutting his teeth on the practice squad and special teams. In that span, he had zero sacks and six total tackles on his resume.
His fortune changed in 2009, as the 6'2", 260-pound Purdue Boilermaker signed on with the Patriots. Since then, he has found a niche off the edge -- regardless of defensive front -- amassing 217 tackles, 19.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, 10 fumble recoveries and four interceptions. In 2012, he led the defense in sacks, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
Not blessed with tremendous size or athleticism, Ninkovich gets the most out of his ability. The 29-year-old has been a playmaker and a leader for New England, even if he doesn't have the captain designation or the Pro Bowl recognition to show for it.
Matthew Slater, Wide Receiver
The son of Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater, Matthew Slater has paved his own way in the NFL. He has done so via special teams.
Despite being labeled a wide receiver, the UCLA product is a gunner first and foremost. He has accumulated 77 tackles in 75 games, while catching only one pass in that time. He has lined up on the "Big Four" special teams units and even in the defensive backfield, setting the bar for both special teams tackles and versatility.
The 27-year-old Slater will never be the go-to target of quarterback Tom Brady. He'll likely never scratch more than a handful of receptions throughout his professional career. He's not a true wideout. And for all intents and purposes, that's just fine.
New England's fifth-round selection back in 2008 has been well worth the investment. The 6'0", 210-pound Bruin has been a team captain since 2011, also earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods twice. He has garnered accolades, just at a position heavily overlooked.
Ryan Wendell, Center
At this time last year, one of the most discussed Patriots training camp battles was taking place at center. It was between Dan Koppen and Dan Connolly.
As we now know, New England's starter ended up being neither. Koppen was let go and Connolly was moved to right guard. The center gig ended up going to 2008 undrafted free agent Ryan Wendell.
Wendell, a onetime practice squad player who had started a total of five contests prior to 2012, started all 16 tilts and made the most of them. By the end of the year, the 27-year-old had played a total of 1,379 snaps -- which was most in the NFL -- according to Pro Football Outsiders.
The 6'2", 300-pound Fresno State Bulldog's impact ventured beyond participation, however. Wendell ranked as the best run-blocking center in the league -- per Pro Football Focus -- and graded out as the fourth-best center overall. No. 62 was an integral part of New England's top-flight protection a year ago. He figures to be so again in 2013, even if he's far less noticeable than the QB he's snapping to.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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