Sure, the quarterback is far and away the most important and high-profile player on a football team, but to put together a consistent winner, you need 11 players on each side functioning as a unit. But teams need more than just those 22 players. They need second and third receivers, a solid left guard, an in-line tight end -- in other words, teams need a few out-of-the-spotlight guys who do the dirty work, the special assignments to be successful.
So, who are the league's best role players?
To answer that, it helps to have a loose definition of what a "role player" is. For this exercise, I'm considering players who are not generally considered "stars" on a national level, nor considered the "go-to guys" on any given team. That means, for skill position players, we're talking that third receiver or that second tight end. For offensive linemen, I'm including starters, but focusing in on a few guys who don't get a ton of fanfare as perennial Pro Bowlers or high-profile studs. Obviously, some of these determinations are going to be a little subjective. And, as you may have picked up, I'm looking at the offensive side of the ball first.
We'll just go ahead and skip quarterbacks because by the nature of the position, they shouldn't really be "role players." If you have a "role playing" quarterback, he's not very good, and your team is probably not very good, either.
Moving on to running backs ...
Fred Jackson, BUF; Shane Vereen, NYG; Travaris Cadet, NE; Jerick McKinnon, MIN; Robert Turbin, SEA
Fred Jackson just keeps chugging along. The Bills drafted Marshawn Lynch in the first round. They traded him. They drafted C.J. Spiller in the first round. He battled injuries before leaving in free agency. And all along, Jackson's been a workhorse for Buffalo, seemingly ageless and dependable. The 34-year-old vet will ostensibly head into the 2015 season as LeSean McCoy's primary backup, and will likely continue to be a mainstay in the passing game. Jackson caught a career-high 66 passes last season, averaging a gain of 8.9 yards after each catch while forcing 19 missed tackles, third among running backs (per Pro Football Focus' tracking).
Speaking of excellent receiving running backs, Shane Vereen's future role with the Giants should be an interesting one. Sitting somewhere on the depth chart behind or between Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams, Vereen's likely to be a third-down specialist and expert pass catcher out of the backfield for Eli Manning. Vereen caught 52 passes for the Patriots last year -- fourth-best on the team -- averaging 8.6 yards per reception while scoring three times. He added two scores on the ground and actually carried the ball more than any other Patriot back, but should be in for more of a rotation with the Giants.
With Vereen moving on in free agency, the Patriots went out and picked up former Saint Travaris Cadet, who projects nicely into that Vereen role for Bill Belichick and Tom Brady's offense. Cadet is explosive in the open field and is a good receiving back out of the backfield, and should get plenty of touches -- Vereen averaged 9.9 touches per game last year -- so Cadet could have his chances, particularly if Belichick and Josh McDaniels see him as a slot receiver in certain situations. Additionally, Cadet plays in all four phases of special teams, and he could potentially find himself returning kicks if he plays his cards right. Don't be surprised if he becomes more of a household name in 2015.
Jerick McKinnon stepped up late for the Vikings last year in the absence of Adrian Peterson, and with Minnesota's All-Pro running back back in action this year, McKinnon will slide back into a support role. He should thrive there. The explosive athlete averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 113 totes, including an average of 2.6 yards after contact per touch. He added 27 catches for 135 yards, and will fight with Matt Asiata for a third-down back and spot-spelling role for Peterson this year for Minnesota. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner recently spoke about how McKinnon looks faster already this year as he's learned the ins and outs of the offense, and should be a good "change of pace" to workhorse Peterson.
Finally, Seattle's Robert Turbin doesn't get much fanfare backing up Marshawn Lynch, but the steady fourth year vet has managed to hold off explosive upstart Christine Michael these past two years because of his solid pass protection and understanding of the offense. Turbin finally managed to get healthy late in the season last year and was productive in a limited role, averaging 4.2 yards per carry on 74 rushes, while adding 16 receptions for 186 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
John Brown, ARI; Marlon Brown, BAL; Marvin Jones, CIN; Jarius Wright, MIN; Taylor Gabriel, CLE; Eddie Royal, SD; Martavis Bryant, PIT; Jordan Matthews, PHI
Playing behind Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, it can't be easy to rack up a bunch of targets, but John Brown burst onto the scene as a rookie for Arizona, catching 48 passes for 696 yards and five touchdowns. The speedy slot receiver had a knack for getting deep behind defenses, and when opposing teams were scheming to stop the Cardinals' big two offensive weapons in Fitzgerald and Floyd, Brown took advantage. He should continue to excel as their de facto third receiver in 2015, especially if Carson Palmer can stay healthy.
Marlon Brown may continue to get overshadowed this year by Steve Smith and rookie Breshad Perriman, but the third-year former undrafted free agent out of Georgia will continue to make the most of his chances. Though his numbers were relatively tepid -- just 24 catches for 255 yards and no scores after a 49-catch, seven-touchdown rookie year -- according to Pro Football Focus' stats, no receiver caught a higher percentage of his passes in 2014 than Brown (82.8 percent). The sure-handed pass catcher may see quite a higher number of targets this year in Marc Trestman's system as Perriman adjusts to the NFL, and it wouldn't surprise to see those numbers bounce back.
Similarly, Cincinnati's Marvin Jones will look to bounce back this year after a breakout 2013 season in which he caught 51 passes for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns. The former Cal star missed all of last season to an ankle injury, but even sitting behind A.J. Green and Mohamed Sanu on the depth chart should figure to make a big impact for the Bengals' offense this season.
Minnesota's Jarius Wright will have to fight for targets with Charles Johnson, Mike Wallace and Cordarrelle Patterson, but if he continues to be as productive as he's been with the football in his hands, Teddy Bridgewater won't hesitate to throw it his way. Wright caught 42 passes for 588 yards last season with the Vikings, and was second behind only DeSean Jackson in yards after the catch per reception (8.0), per Pro Football Focus' tracking. It's likely he'll see a lot of action in the slot in Norv Turner's offense this year.
Cleveland rookie Taylor Gabriel was nearly as productive after the catch as Jackson and Wright (7.6 yards per reception) in 2014, and his 16.7 yards per catch was eighth in the NFL among qualifying receivers (per PFF). The diminutive speedster likely sits behind Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline on the depth chart, but could see his role in the offense increase next year as he adjusts to the pro game.
Bears veteran Eddie Royal saw a career renaissance in San Diego over the past two years and will look to continue on that trajectory as he takes up a place behind Alshon Jeffery and Kevin White in Chicago. Royal caught 62 passes for 778 yards last year while getting to paydirt seven times, and should be a good option in the slot with the twin towers of Jeffery and White outside.
Rookie Martavis Bryant jumped onto the scene late last year for Pittsburgh, and the speedy outside threat racked up eight touchdowns in only 10 games of action. Considering Megatron caught eight touchdowns last year as well, that's pretty good production for a guy that played 306 snaps (Johnson played 705). Likewise, Matthews' production for Philly was a huge factor last year, and the rookie out of Vanderbilt scored eight touchdowns for himself while catching 67 passes for 872 yards. Both Bryant and Matthews feel destined for stardom, but at the moment, both are more of role players for their respective offenses.
Dwayne Allen, IND; Josh Hill, NO; Luke Willson, SEA; Rhett Ellison, MIN; Matt Spaeth, PIT; Tim Wright, TBB
Indianapolis tight end Dwayne Allen caught eight touchdowns last year on just 47 targets. Compare that rate to Jimmy Graham's 10 touchdowns on 121 targets and you see how efficient Allen was for Andrew Luck and the Colts. The fourth-year pro splits reps with fellow tight end Coby Fleener (he played 633 snaps to Fleener's 812) and is more of an in-line player than his counterpart, but has shed about 13 pounds this offseason to help him become more explosive. In the target-happy environment that is Indianapolis' offense, Allen is just one cog in the machine, but he's a versatile player that should continue to play an important role.
The New Orleans offense is similarly target-friendly with Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks, Josh Morgan, Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller set to carry the load. With the exit of Jimmy Graham, though, quite a few targets will have to be distributed elsewhere, and the athletic Josh Hill is getting some hype as a player that could step in. He'll likely still split reps with Ben Watson (Watson played 578 snaps last year to Hill's 293) at tight end, but he has the athletic traits that Sean Payton loves and he'll need someone to step up as a playmaker.
Meanwhile in Seattle, Graham steps to the forefront as a go-to player, leaving third-year pro Luke Willson as more of a complimentary option. Late last year, Willson stepped up as a viable option for Russell Wilson, and his three late season touchdowns led the way for the Seahawks (who, keep in mind, were led in touchdowns among receivers by Doug Baldwin's three scores). This is a low-volume passing offense that thrives on the big play, and Willson proved he has that ability with his game-changing speed. Combined with Jimmy Graham, who is sure to draw the attention of opposing defenses, don't be surprised when Willson gets behind a safety or two for scores this season.
Rhett Ellison is a great example of a true role player, splitting reps in the backfield as a fullback and in-line as a tight end. The former USC Trojan is a steady blocker with some upside as a receiver, and caught 19 of his 24 targets last year for 208 yards.
Pittsburgh's Matt Spaeth is another great example of a role player. His role Pittsburgh's offense is to block in the run game, and he does his job well. He's not going to give you much in the passing offense and his snaps are limited with the increase of three-receiver sets, but the wily vet gives the Steelers what they need when he's called upon to do so.
Anthony Sherman, KCC; Kyle Juszczyk, BAL; Bruce Miller, SF
The fullback is a slowly dying position in the NFL with the advent of more spread-out offensive looks, but the few teams that still regularly use them benefit from hard-nosed and tough individuals that play that spot.
Kansas City's Anthony Sherman helps lead the way for Jamaal Charles and contributes heavily on special teams, and his standout play helped earn him a contract extension last year. He's one of the top fullbacks in the league -- not many people can name more than a handful of fullbacks in the first place -- but Chiefs fans surely know about his value to the run game.
Baltimore's Kyle Juszczyk and San Francisco's Bruce Miller play similar roles for their respective teams, but also add some skill in the passing game. Juszczyk's 19 catches trailed only Oakland's Marcel Reece last year, and Miller wasn't far behind with 18 receptions. Having a solid option to pass to out of the backfield is a big deal in short-yardage situations and on the goal line, and Miller caught two touchdowns for the Niners last season.
Kelvin Beachum, PIT; Ricky Wagner, BAL; Lane Johnson, PHI; Terron Armstead, NO
It can be tough to categorize a starting offensive lineman as a "role player," because generally speaking they play every snap and are highly important to each play. But a few young players that are perhaps underappreciated come to mind.
Kelvin Beachum's done really solid work at left tackle for Pittsburgh and hasn't gotten tons of fanfare about it, as has Ricky Wagner on Baltimore's right side. In Philly, Lane Johnson had a good year and looks like a solid pick amid a sea of questionable offensive line picks from early in that 2013 draft, and Terron Armstead, a third-rounder that year, has come on strong for the Saints. These four players could become household names over the next couple of seasons.
Gabe Jackson, OAK; J.R. Sweezy, SEA; Larry Warford, DET; Brandon Linder, JAC
Along those same lines, I've got four young guards whose names you should look out for over the next few years. Oakland's Gabe Jackson, a third-round pick in last year's draft, started 12 games for Oakland last year and really held his own, providing a spark to the Raiders' offensive line that he'll hope to carry into 2015. Larry Warford's going into his third season so you may know a bit about him already, but the Lions guard seems destined to be a star -- inasmuch as a guard can be a star in this league.
J.R. Sweezy converted from the defensive line out of college and plays right guard for Seattle, and his combination of athleticism and toughness is a perfect fit for what the Seahawks want to do. Finally, Brandon Linder, a rookie third-round pick out of Miami last season, really came on strong for the Jags and provided some stability for a team that really needed it up front. He's expected to build on that foundation next year and become a real stalwart for Jacksonville at guard.
I would include Cleveland's Joel Bitonio and Dallas' Zack Martin in this group as well, but they seem to have gotten quite a bit of hype already. Chicago's Kyle Long had a strong sophomore season as well.
Travis Frederick, DAL; Corey Linsley, GB
Much was made of Dallas' starting offensive line last year and with good reason, but a big part of the team's success with the zone-blocking scheme came from the strong play by center Travis Frederick. Meanwhile, in Green Bay, Corey Linsley went from a fifth-round pick out of Ohio State to 16-game starter for the Packers as a rookie, and held his own all season long. Linsley is as strong as a bear, and he should help hold that talented Green Bay line together in 2015.
So there you have it -- a quick (OK, not that quick) look at some key role players for teams around the NFL. These aren't stars and they're not putting their respective teams on their back and carrying them to big-time wins, but without these guys, their teams likely wouldn't look the same.
Next up, I'll take a look at some defensive players that fit the same mold.