For every Super Bowl star you’d expect, there’s a player who comes out of nowhere in a relative sense to take over the biggest game of his life. That was just as true for Green Bay Packers receiver Max McGee in Super Bowl I as it was for Kansas City Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco in Super Bowl LVII.
For the upcoming matchup between the Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII, we’d like to present 10 players — five from each team — whose deeds on the field have gone relatively unnoticed, but every one of them could be the one to take his team’s fortunes over the top.
Here are the Secret Superstars of Super Bowl LVIII.
Rashee Rice, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
It took a minute for the Chiefs to realize that outside of Travis Kelce, Rice — the second-round rookie from SMU — might be Patrick Mahomes’ best target. Certainly, there weren’t many receivers ahead of Rice proving much. But Rice had his best game of his first NFL season in the wild-card round against the Miami Dolphins with eight catches on 10 targets for 130 yards and a touchdown, and he’s become a major part of the Chiefs’ passing game. Overall, he’s managed to catch 99 passes on 123 targets for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns, which is pretty good for a rookie who hasn’t always been featured.
The 49ers play a ton of zone defense — 74.9%, the 11th-highest rate in the NFL this season — and Rice is already an expert in moving through, and getting open in, zone gaps in coverage. This 39-yard crosser against the Dolphins, of which 29 yards came after the catch, is proof positive of that assertion. No matter the coverage (this was Cover-0), if you’re a step late to Rice, you could be in big trouble.
Jauan Jennings, WR, San Francisco 49ers
At some point in Super Bowl LVIII, 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy might need one of his receivers to go over the middle in heavy traffic to catch one of those in-breaking routes that Purdy has thrown so well through most of the season. Purdy obviously has all kinds of targets who can make such plays, but don’t be surprised if Jennings — the fourth-year, seventh-round pick out of Tennessee — is the guy here. There are few receivers who consistently go out of their way to not only accept the hits over the middle, but also to deliver them. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound Jennings has a tight end’s mentality when it comes to getting grimy when it’s time to catch the ball, and after that happens.
On this 21-yad catch against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round, the 49ers ran Dagger inside with Brandon Ayiuk and Ray-Ray McCloud, while Jennings ran the deeper in-cut outside. Brock Purdy threw the ball before Jennings had even stemmed his route (that’s a Purdy specialty) just over the head of cornerback Keisean Nixon, and Jennings took the ball in, knowing he’d get smacked when he came down with it.
That playing personality certainly extends to his blocking endeavors.
Jauan Jennings blocking highlights?
Jauan Jennings blocking highlights pic.twitter.com/FbaEGaLVyu
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 5, 2024
Jennings has just 25 catches on 38 targets this season for 334 yards and one touchdown this season, but if Steve Spagnuolo figures out ways to clamp down on Purdy’s other targets, Jennings has the skill set to pull off a big day on Sunday.
Trey Smith, Guard, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs might be in some trouble at the left guard position in the Super Bowl, as Joe Thuney — one of the best in the business — is doubtful to play with a strained pectoral. That puts Nick Alegretti in the firing line, and while Alegretti is a decent player, he’s not Thuney. Fortunately, the right guard position is all sewn up with Trey Smith, the 2021 sixth-round pick out of Tennessee who has developed into one of the best power-blockers at his position. Smith has also grown as a pass protector — this season, he’s allowed two sacks, five quarterback hits, and 32 quarterback hurries on 857 pass-blocking reps. The guard positions are especially important in Kansas City’s offense, because tackles Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor have not played up to expectations this season.
So, Smith is fine when dealing with the pass rush, but he’s most fun to watch when the Chiefs get into their gap-scheme stuff, and Smith can pull and just start demolishing people; this guy has an instinct to erase defenders in kick-ass fashion. On this 12-yard Isiah Pacheco run against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, Smith pulled from his right guard spot and did some serious damage to linebacker Patrick Queen as Pacheco displayed his ability to slash through the skinniest of gaps. The Chiefs will need him to move people in similar fashion against San Francisco’s hyper-dynamic fronts.
Aaron Banks, Guard, San Francisco 49ers
Similarly, the 49ers have some offensive line issues that Trent Williams isn’t able to solve, no matter how amazing the future first-ballot Hall of Famer may be. That’s especially true on the right side, where right tackle Colton McKivitz is going to need to step up his game something fierce. The good news is that Aaron Banks, the left guard who lines up to Williams’ right, can stop bad things from happening against both pass rush and loaded boxes in the run game. He hasn’t allowed a single sack all season in 553 pass-blocking reps, with seven quarterback hits and 24 quarterback hurries.
For a 6-foot-5, 325-pound guy, Banks can get upfield pretty well, as he showed on this 30-yard Brock Purdy tunnel screen to Deebo Samuel against the New York Giants in Week 3. Banks got to the second level, and decided to take two Big Blue defenders on a little bowling excursion.
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) February 8, 2024
Mike Danna, DL, Kansas City Chiefs
Chris Jones and George Karlaftis are the Chiefs’ marquee pass-rushers, but Steve Spagnuolo has a whole stable of lesser-known guys who can get after the quarterback from all over the place. Chief (sorry) among them is Mike Danna, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound 2020 fifth-rounder from Michigan who can play inside like a man 40-50 pounds heavier, and can create pass rush outside, as well. This season, only Jones and Karlaftis have more total pressures than Danna’s 46, which he’s complied with eight sacks, seven quarterback hits, and 31 quarterback hurries.
Danna can also make things tough for opposing running backs, as his 34 stops prove. As the Chiefs do have some vulnerabilities in the run defense department, and the 49ers can run the ball until you beg them to stop, that may be Danna’s most important attribute in the Super Bowl. If Brock Purdy wants to get on the move as he did against the Lions in the NFC Championship game, he’d better watch out for No. 51, because Danna also has a way of getting a bead on mobile quarterbacks.
Just ask Josh Allen about that.
Arik Armstead, DL, San Francisco 49ers
Armstead isn’t a secret per se, but when you talk about the 49ers’ outstanding defensive line, the conversation starts with Nick Bosa, and it might end there. That would be a mistake for the Chiefs, who are smarter than to ignore Armstead as a multi-gap player who can disrupt from everywhere. This season, he’s totaled seven sacks, seven quarterback hits, and 37 quarterback hurries, as well as 14 stops.
The 49ers aren’t especially “tricky” with their fronts — not in relation to what the Chiefs do — but they love to bedevil opposing quarterbacks with loaded fronts to one side, and Armstead can be the point man on those concepts. On this sack of Baker Mayfield against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 11, Armstead was the outside man in San Francisco’s three-man overload, with Javon Hargrave as the three-tech, and Bosa as the one-tech shade. This forced one-on-one protection across, and that was VERY bad news for right tackle Luke Goedeke. Armstead turned Goedeke out with a vicious bull-rush, then holding Goedeke at bay with one hand while disrupting Mayfield with the other. Armstead would go against Chiefs right tackle Jawaan Taylor, the NFL’s most penalized player this season, in those instances… which could be similarly disastrous for Kansas City.
Drue Tranquill, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
Tranquill first hit my radar when he played for the Los Angeles Chargers, the team that selected him in the fourth round of the 2019 draft out of Notre Dame. Somehow, the Chiefs got away with signing him to a one-year, $3 million contract in the 2023 free agency cycle, which I pegged as a ridiculous deal before it happened. Good on general manager Brett Veach for that one.
Ex-Chargers LB Drue Tranquill reminds me of Lofa Tatupu. Does everything well, and I do mean everything. Someone's probably going to get a stupid bargain in free agency with him. pic.twitter.com/Os24MbIHsn
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) March 11, 2023
For the Chiefs, Tranquill has amassed five sacks, 22 total pressures, 72 solo tackles, 42 stops, and he’s allowed 38 catches on 49 targets for 318 yards, 230 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, one pass breakup, and an opponent passer rating of 93.7.
Steve Spagnuolo wants his linebackers to be truly position-versatile, which has made Tranquill a great fit. He can play off-ball of course, but 13% of his snaps this season have come on the edge, and 9% from the A-gaps. Steve Spagnuolo’s preference for anarchy in his rushes and blitzes have been accentuated by Tranquill’s efforts, as this sack of Russell Wilson in Week 6 proved. Watch Tranquill’s closing speed all the way across to the quarterback — he plays as if he’s shot out of a cannon no matter where he lines up.
And of course, it was Tranquill who prevented Lamar Jackson’s impromptu throw to himself from becoming a much bigger play in the AFC Championship game.
Lamar Jackson catch. Justin Reid and Drue Tranquill blitz off the left side. Great deflection by Reid. If Tranquill doesn’t make that tackle. Lamar honestly might have taken that the distance for a TD. A HUGE tackle by Drue. #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/rri3RJWERT
— Nick Jacobs (@Jacobs71) January 30, 2024
Dre Greenlaw, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Because Fred Warner is the NFL’s best linebacker, Greenlaw doesn’t get his due, but he’s a Top-10 linebacker in the league in his own right. Greenlaw has been right up there with Warner statistically this season, and there’s no way that defensive coordinator Steve Wilks could run his 4-2-5 base concepts at the level he does without two great ‘backers in the middle. Greenlaw comes into the Super Bowl with two sacks, eight total pressures, 98 solo tackles, 48 stops, and he’s allowed 75 catches on 109 targets for 592 yards, 398 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, two interceptions, three pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 86.6.
Steve Wilks is quite a fan of Greenlaw’s playing personality, as he should be.
“Greenlaw’s the enforcer. If you get into a fight, he’s like running home and getting your big brother. That’s the guy that you want right there.” – Steve Wilks pic.twitter.com/YlKjtnZzi2
— KP (@KP_Show) February 8, 2024
Greenlaw took over San Francisco’s divisional round win over the Green Bay Packers with two picks, and this interception with 52 seconds left in the game shows just how much ground this guy can cover. Greenlaw started in the hook zone, and then ran quickly to the middle of the field to stop Jordan Love’s dreams of making a difference-making scramble-rule throw to receiver Christian Watson over the middle. Greenlaw would be LB1 on about 20 NFL teams right now; it’s just the 49ers’ good fortune to have him in tandem with the best in the business.
L'Jarius Sneed, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have several young defensive backs who are ascending, and it’s become a serious strength of Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. The guy the 49ers really want to be careful with is Sneed, who has quietly become a legitimate CB1 who can travel to both sides of the field, and into the slot. The 2020 fourth-round pick out of Louisiana Tech has enjoyed his best season to date in 2023/2024 with 51 catches allowed in 98 targets for 522 yards, 207 yards after the catch, one touchdown, two interceptions, 11 pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 62.5. In previous seasons, Sneed was more of a blitzer, but Spags has given that role to other defensive backs now, because he wants Sneed in coverage as often as possible, and for good reason.
Matching up to Tyreek Hill in the inside slot is one of the most terrifying things any cornerback can face, but in Kansas City’s wild-card win over the Miami Dolphins, Sneed was all about that smoke. This deflection of a possible Hill touchdown with 7:27 left in the game had Sneed aligned on tight end Durham Smythe in the outside slot in Cover-0, and Sneed switched his assignment post-snap to help cornerback Trent McDuffie deal with Hill. You can’t run zero-blitzes against one of the NFL’s most explosive passing games unless you have total faith in your best cornerback, and that’s what was shown here.
Charvarius Ward, CB, San Francisco 49ers
On the 49ers side, Charvarius Ward has also become a true matchup cornerback against the league’s best receivers. The 2018 undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee played his first four seasons with the Chiefs before signing a three-year, $40.5 million contract in 2022 to switch sides, so he knows what’s up. This season, Ward has allowed 55 catches on 100 targets for 653 yards, 245 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, five interceptions, 17 (!!!) pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 64.3. As you might expect, those 17 PBUs lead the league this season, and it’s where a lot of Ward’s ball-hawking abilities really show up.
Let’s go back to that Packers playoff game. With 7:30 left in the first quarter, Jordan Love was pretty sure he had receiver Romeo Doubs for a touchdown, but Ward was having absolutely none of that. It looked for a split second that Doubs had Ward beaten on the quick in-cut, but as happens so often, Ward baited the quarterback into the throw, and that was that.
Mike Edwards, Safety, Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs lost safety Bryan Cook to an ankle injury in Week 13, which meant more playing time for rookie Chamarri Conner, and also meant that Edwards — in his first season with the Chiefs after four with the Buccaneers — had to take things over in an important sense.
“I tell you what – if we didn’t have Mike after we lost Bryan Cook, and to come in and do the things Mike has had to do at safety, that says a lot about him,” Steve Spagnuolo said this week. “Very natural football player. He’s very instinctive. If we didn’t have him, we’d be in trouble, because Chamarri is a rookie, and Mike’s been able to step in. He’s very versatile, and we love that.”
Versatile, indeed — this season, Edwards has logged more than 100 snaps both in the box and in the slot, with 415 snaps at free safety. In all those places, he’s allowed 19 catches in 31 targets for 245 yards, 111 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, two interceptions, five pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 59.2.
Edwards should probably have three interceptions on the season, though. This pass breakup against Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5 shows his estimable range in the deep third; you can line him up as the single-high guy with no worries at all. This was Cover-1 with Edwards as the only help up top for anyone, and he read the play immediately as Jefferson ran to the boundary with cornerback Trent McDuffie in tight coverage. In the end, the only thing that prevented Edwards from catching this Kirk Cousins pass was the fact that he and McDuffie had a little car crash on the way to the ball.
Tashaun Gipson Sr., Safety, San Francisco 49ers
Gipson has been around for a while — he started his NFL career as an undrafted free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 2012 — and he was a bit of a league afterthought when he joined the 49ers in 2022. Even then, he bounced from the practice squad to the active roster for a time, which is kind of nuts when you consider how well he’s played in San Francisco’s defenses over the last two seasons. This season, the 33-year-old Gipson has continued to fool Father Time at a position where age generally doesn’t just come calling; it tends to break down the door.
This season, he’s been good for 16 catches allowed on 31 targets for 171 yards, 82 yards after the catch, one touchdown, one interception, three pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 65.4. Like Edwards for the Chiefs, Gipson is a do-it-all guy who keeps things together in the back third with his professional acumen. Also like Edwards, Gipson can play box and slot, but his home is in the deep third. He has the kind of field-reading ability you’d expect for a guy who’s been in the league since Russell Wilson was a rookie, and it showed up on this pass breakup in the NFC Championship game against the Detroit Lions.
The 49ers flipped from single-high to Cover-2 post-snap, and Jared Goff was pretty sure he had tight end Sam LaPorta on an in-cut 10 yards downfield. Goff didn’t have that at all, because Gipson came crashing down to break it up — and this was after he first read Jameson Williams’ corner route to the other side.
Athletes of all kinds will frequently say that they with they had the physical tools of their youth, and the understanding of their games as time moves along. Gipson is one of the fortunate few who has combined the two things.