NFL playoffs: Secret Superstars of the divisional round — the offense

NFL players don’t always find their ideal environs with their first NFL teams. You can be drafted into a nightmare of an organization in which nobody is utilized to their ultimate potential. You can hit the bottom of a positional logjam. Or maybe your skill set just wasn’t developed enough in your first few seasons.

As we prepare for the divisional round of the 2022 season, there are all kinds of under-the-radar players who had to travel on a second (or third, or fourth) contract before things went the right way for them. But however they arrived, they arrived.

This week’s list of Secret Superstars on the offensive side of the ball is relatively packed with such players, along with some guys who have managed to have the lights go on in their first stop.

Here’s our list of the most underrated (and perhaps most crucial) players on offense for the divisional round.

Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants

(Syndication: The Record)

Through his first three NFL seasons, and weighted down by sub-optimal coaching staffs, Jones looked very much like a bust. He was a handful of quarterbacks over the last 30 years to post passing DVOA  of -10.0% or worse in each of his first three years, and the list of quarterbacks who have done that have not provided a ton of encouragement: Jeff George (1990-1992), Rick Mirer (1993-1995), Tim Couch (1999-2001), and Sam Darnold (2018-2020).

Woof.

Then, Jones found himself benefiting from the efforts of new head coach Brian Daboll and new offensive coordinator Mike Kafka, and he was able to make the career turnaround none of those quarterbacks were able to (though Darnold was actually pretty decent in 2022). This season, Jones has ranked 20th in Passing DYAR (1.1%), the first positive finish of his career, and he’s also been of exponential benefit to his offense in designed runs.

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Jones has done all of this with an offensive line in transition, and a receiver group nobody would call top-tier. If the Giants are going to upset the Philadelphia Eagles in the divisional round, they’ll need explosive plays from Jones’ arm and legs. This 37-yard completion to Darius Slayton in Week14 against Philly’s Cover-3 certainly qualifies as the kind of thing Daboll and Kafka will want to dial up.

Tony Pollard, RB, Dallas Cowboys

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Say all you want about Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and CeeDee Lamb — when it comes to players who make the Cowboys’ offense go, Pollard is just as important as anybody else on the roster. This season, Pollard has gained 1,084 yards on just 208 carries (5.1 YPC) and nine touchdowns. Among running backs taking at least 50% of their team’s offensive snaps, Pollard ranks second behind New England’s Rhamondre Stevenson with 3.79 yards per carry after contact. And only Nick Chubb and Saquon Barkley have more carries of 15 or more yards this season than Pollard’s 19. Factor in his 42 catches for 383 yards, and we’re dealing with a complete back with the potential to be explosive in any situation.

This 18-yard run against the Tampa Buccaneers in the wild-card round showed Pollard’s combination of patience, burst, and contact balance. Out of a pony package with Elliott also in the backfield, Pollard followed the sweep, turned on the jets when needed, and broke three tackles. No surprise there, as he’s forced 50 missed tackles on the season.

Pollard will have his hands full with San Francisco’s NFL-best defense this Sunday, but he’ll give as good as he gets.

Miles Sanders, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

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The Eagles have perfected the art of running from passing personnel, and Sanders is a huge part of that equation. He has been the NFL’s most voluminous runner in 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back, three receivers) this season, with 161 carries for 867 yards, 420 yards after contact, 21 broken tackles, and three touchdowns.

The Giants are all too familiar with this, as Sanders zapped their defense for this 22-yard run out of 11 personnel in Week 14. Center Jason Kelce and right guard Isaac Seumalo did a great job of doubling super-tackle Dexter Lawrence and pushing him back (not an easy thing to do), and right tackle Lane Johnson sealed edge defender Azeez Ojulari outside. Sanders had the lane he needed, and he took full advantage.

Jerick McKinnon, RB/WR, Kansas City Chiefs

(Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

The “right place/right time” thing doesn’t always happen right away for NFL players. McKinnon, selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the third round of the 2014 draft, had bit parts as a running back for his first NFL team over four seasons. Then, he signed a four-year, $30 million contract with the San Francisco 49ers in 2018, but missed each of the 2018 and 2019 seasons with knee injuries. After a comeback year in 2020, McKinnon signed two one-year deals with the Chiefs — as a roleplayer in 2021, and as an entirely unexpected star in 2022.

McKinnon had a historic streak this season in which he has caught at least one touchdown pass in six straight games — no running back since at least 1970 had ever done that before, and his nine touchdown receptions this season is tied for the most since 1970, along with Marshall Faulk (2001), Chuck Foreman (1975), and Leroy Hoard (1991). Only Washington’s Charley Taylor, who had 12 touchdown catches in 1966, had more among running backs in pro football history, and like McKinnon, Taylor split his time between runner and receiver.

Why has McKinnon been so special in Andy Reid’s offense? Because he’s a force multiplier in a set of schemes (especially in the red zone) that put defenses to the ultimate test. This touchdown against the Denver Broncos in Week 17 was a perfect example.

To start, there’s receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Noah Gray running mesh. Then, there’s tight end Travis Kelce running a pivot route over the middle, and receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling running a slant to further gum things up to the goalpost. With all that happening, McKinnon was able to easily leak out from the backfield, with defensive tackle Mike Purcell trying to catch up. Not the best matchup for Denver’s defense, or any other defense. The Jaguars had best be ready for this.

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Zay Jones, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

(Syndication: Florida Times-Union)

Jones is another player who has taken a while to find his ideal circumstances. Selected by the Buffalo Bills in the second round of the 2017 draft out of East Carolina, he had brief moments for the Bills and Raiders before signing a three-year, $24 million contract with the Jaguars this past offseason in a recover spend-a-thon that also included former Arizona Cardinals target Christian Kirk.

While Kirk has been the star of Jacksonville’s receiver corps this season, it would be unwise for the Chiefs to sleep on Jones’ explosive potential. In Jacksonville’s 27-17 Week 10 loss to the Chiefs, Jones caught eight passes for 68 yards — mostly underneath stuff. Since then, Jones has had two 100-yard receiving games, and his 11-catch, 145-yard game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12 was the star turn. Jones had three explosive receptions in that game, including this 29-yard play with 36 seconds left in the game. Here is where you see his ability to run through zones, make the killer cut, accelerate at the right time, and make the acrobatic catch when needed.

The Chiefs could be in for more deep stuff from Jones in the rematch.

Gabriel Davis, WR, Buffalo Bills

(Syndication: Democrat and Chronicle)

It’s the playoffs, so we have to talk about Gabe Davis differently. The third-year man from Central Florida blew up the Chiefs’ defense for four touchdown receptions in last season’s divisional-round loss, and against the Miami Dolphins in this season’s wild-card round, he had another one of those catches in the end zone. Josh Allen made a ridiculous cross-body fade throw, but Davis was the guy who had to be there, and it wasn’t as if Allen was pinpoint throughout this game.

Davis has been up and down this season, but he’s also been an effective deep weapon in an offense that loves to take deep shots like no other. In 2022/2023, Davis has 11 catches of 20 or more air yards for 407 yards and a team-high five touchdowns.

It’s not just Stefon Diggs the Bengals will have to deal with when Allen decides to turn it loose — and odds are, Allen will turn it loose a lot against the Bengals.

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Isaiah Hodgins, WR, New York Giants

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On November 1, after the Buffalo Bills waived him, Isaiah Hodgins was available to any NFL team. The Giants picked him up the next day, and the 2020 sixth-round draft pick out of Oregon State suddenly became a Very Dangerous Man in Brian Daboll’s offense. Hodgins caught four passes on six targets for 41 yards and no touchdowns in his Bills career, and that was all in a Week 5 Bills thrashing of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With the Giants over eight games this season, Hodgins has amassed 41 catches on 48 targets for 456 yards and five touchdowns. At 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds, he’s expertly filled the role of the big-bodied receiver every offense would prefer. Hodgins has also caught a touchdown pass in five of his last six games, including this two-yarder against the Eagles in Week 14. Hodgins did a great job here of getting open as Daniel Jones started to drift to his right, and the original plan turned into something else.

Hodgins’ breakout has come at the perfect time for a Giants receiver corps in desperate need.

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Evan Engram, TE, Jacksonville Jaguars

(Syndication: Florida Times-Union)

Not that the Giants have made the most of all their receivers in recent years. They selected Engram 23rd overall in the 2017 draft out of Mississippi, and things never really went the way anybody expected. Engram never became the true threat his talents would seem to indicate, but he’s starting to bloom in that role in his first season with Doug Pederson and the Jaguars. In Pederson’s offense, Engram is sometimes used as a deep threat, but he’s really taken off as a yards-after-catch monster.

On their way to the third-largest postseason collapse in pro football history, the Los Angeles Chargers got some of that from Engram on this 21-yard play with 6:15 left in the fourth quarter, and the Chargers up, 30-20. Engram rolled through the Chargers’ preferred Cover-6 on a slot crosser, and turned on the gas downfield to set up yet another second-half Jaguars touchdown.

Aaron Banks, LG, San Francisco 49ers

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We don’t talk much about the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive line outside of left tackle Trent Williams, who is the best offensive lineman in the NFL, regardless of position. But it might be time to pay attention to Aaron Banks, Williams’ inside bookend on the left side of the formation. The 49ers selected Banks in the second round of the 2021 draft out of Notre Dame, but the rookie saw just five snaps in his inaugural season.

Laken Tomlinson’s departure to the New York Jets in free agency opened the door for Banks, who has allowed just one sack, two quarterback hits, and 24 quarterback hurries on 560 pass-blocking reps this season.

Moreover, Banks has no issue with being physical and flexible in the trenches. This 34-yard deep touchdown pass from Brock Purdy to George Kittle against the Washington Commanders in Week 16 doesn’t likely happen without Banks. On the play, he started off doubling defensive tackle Jonathan Allen with center Jake Bendel; Banks then turned to level edge-rusher Chase Young after young started to get past Williams.

Clean pockets lead to explosive plays in the passing game. That’s simple math for most offenses, and certainly so for the 49ers.

Trey Smith, RG, Kansas City Chiefs

)Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Smith was part of Kansas City’s complete offensive line overhaul following the team’s loss in Super Bowl LV. The Chiefs stole him in the sixth round of the 2021 draft out of Tennessee, and in his second NFL season, Smith has grown exponentially as a pass-blocker. In his rookie season, Smith allowed five sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 42 quarterback hurries on 956 (!) pass-blocking snaps. This season, he’s given up two sacks, two quarterback hits, and 28 quarterback hurries on 697 chances. And in Kansas City’s 26-10 Week 12 win against the Los Angeles Rams, he managed to handle a healthy Aaron Donald more than once, which is about all you can expect from anybody.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire