A favorite player isn’t always a team’s most valuable or most talented. Sometimes personality, determination and/or effort can combine to make an otherwise unknown player endearing to a fan base.
For years, Green Bay Packers fans would erupt with chants of "KUHN" every time former undrafted fullback John Kuhn touched the ball. He’s now a member of the New Orleans Saints, but Kuhn’s status as a cult hero in the NFL can’t be touched.
It’s rare that a player like Kuhn becomes nationally recognizable. In most cases, fans take ownership in the players who have charmed the home crowd but are far from household names.
So we asked experts of each NFL team who the players are that have captured cult hero status among the local fans:
While it may be a cop-out, it is Tyrann Mathieu. He has connected with the franchise and fans in a way only Larry Fitzgerald has in the past. While Fitz is the face of the franchise, Mathieu is the heart of it right now. - Revenge of the Birds
Jonathan Babineaux is about as beloved as it gets in Atlanta, though he doesn’t enjoy the same lusty cheers as other cult heroes. He’s the longest-tenured Falcon, he’s truly a tremendous player and he’s done a ton for the community. USS Babineaux is also a great nickname, so he’s got that going for him. - The Falcoholic
The Ravens have many players worthy of this title: Joe "Elite" Flacco, Terrell Suggs and his Sizzle persona, and Steve Smith Sr. being the physical embodiment of pissed off. If I really have to pick one who isn’t a superstar, though, it’s currently Keenan Reynolds, the QB from Navy who everyone so desperately wants to make the team. A spot on the practice squad means that dream is still alive. - Baltimore Beatdown
The Bills’ cult hero right now is probably Richie Incognito. Everything about him screams Buffalo and #BillsMafia, even if he's more subdued now than he was a few years ago. Beyond that, he was superb in 2015 and received a well-deserved extension this offseason. Incognito is decently active — and pretty funny — on social media and seems to have found himself in his second stint with the Bills.
Disclaimer: If Glenn Gronkowski scores a few TDs, even if they're on 1-yard fullback dives, or just creates massive lanes with a good lead block or two, forget everything I wrote about Incognito -- Buffalo will immediately have #BabyGronkMania. - Buffalo Rumblings
That has to be LB Luke Kuechly, who gets a loud round of "Luuuuke" every time he makes a play. - Cat Scratch Reader
It’s without a doubt Kyle Long. Long came in as a rookie with the traditional fire and passion that Chicago Bears teams are known for, and in each season has displayed toughness and charisma that have fans eating out of the palm of his hand. - Windy City Gridiron
There’s no question that A.J. Green is the fan favorite, cult hero, Superman, savior, all the good words you can throw at a player. Since he’s arrived in Cincinnati, he’s simply been dominant. When all else fails, the plan is to simply throw the ball to Green. - Cincy Jungle
Left tackle Joe Thomas is the clear fan favorite. The future Hall of Famer is the ultimate pro and great with the fans. Fans love the blue-collar Wisconsinite, and nearly revolted when the Browns almost traded him to the Broncos for draft picks. - Dawgs By Nature
Dez Bryant is the most popular player with the fans, but he is also one of the faces of the franchise, along with Tony Romo and Jason Witten. The cult hero type is wide receiver Cole Beasley because he is one of the smallest guys out there. He looks more like the rest of us than the majority of his teammates, he can be pleasantly goofy at times and yet he totally embarrasses linebackers and defensive backs on a regular basis. Not to mention he is an almost automatic first down. - Blogging The Boys
There are so many to choose from. Emmanuel Sanders, Chris Harris Jr. and Von Miller are all fan favorites for obvious reasons, but if you are a looking for a guy who isn’t a star player per se, then it would probably be rookie fullback Andy Janovich. He has the look of the Gary Kubiak kind of fullback and fans are always asking how he did in practice during camp. - Mile High Report
Running back Zach Zenner won the hearts of Lions fans last year by leading the league in rushing yards during the preseason, earning himself a roster spot as an undrafted rookie free agent. Zenner returns this year with a much easier path to playing time. His name, crazy intelligence and hard-nosed running style have all endeared him to the Lions faithful. - Pride of Detroit
Green Bay Packers
Jared Abbrederis is a local boy from nearby Wautoma, Wisc., and played his college football for the Wisconsin Badgers, so he has a ready-made fan base among many Packers fans. Not the biggest or fastest player, Abbrederis gets open with his precise route-running and attention to detail, which have drawn significant praise from both Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers.
Aaron Ripkowski deserves an honorable mention as well, as he perfectly fills the hole on the Packers’ roster that Kuhn leaves. He’s a red-bearded fullback with a name that’s fun to say. Perfect, right? - Acme Packing Company
Free safety Andre Hal might be our fan base's favorite "no name" player on the whole team. He came to Houston as a seventh-round pick in 2014, worked his ass off to make the team as a reserve cornerback and special teamer, switched positions to safety, and then became a starter halfway through last season.
There are a few reasons why the Texans’ defense suddenly became the most dominant unit in the league (statistically) in the final nine weeks of the season, and the biggest one was Hal locking down the middle of the field. He managed to lead the team in interceptions despite only starting half the year, and his presence seemed to instantly solidify a secondary that lacked cohesion in the first seven games of the season. - Battle Red Blog
Pat McAfee is not only the best punter in the league, he’s the most popular punter in the league — and I’m not sure it’s close. There are plenty of fans who wear McAfee’s No. 1 jersey, and the punter also has created a name for himself on social media and as a stand-up comedian locally. He’s a guy fans love, and he’s right up there among the most popular Colts on the roster, alongside the likes of Andrew Luck, Robert Mathis and T.Y. Hilton. For a punter, that’s pretty impressive. - Stampede Blue
Right now it’s probably wide receiver Bryan Walters, and for the life of me I don’t understand why. He was a bit player last season while the Jaguars were hit with a bunch of injuries at the wide receiver position and ended the season with a career-high 32 receptions for 368 yards and one touchdown. He has the reputation for being a hard worker with excellent hands, but he actually dropped just as many passes as the next guy and when the other receivers were healthy, he ended up inactive on game day. But if you suggest cutting him you’re met with an absurd amount of pushback from fans. - Big Cat Country
Kansas City Chiefs
Charcandrick West emerged last season after Jamaal Charles went down. West came from little and worked his butt off to beat the odds and stick in the NFL. Fans love him because he’s so accessible — on Twitter and at training camp — and because he’s always smiling. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve seen him without a smile. - Arrowhead Pride
Los Angeles Rams
The more popular players are obviously RB Todd Gurley and DT Aaron Donald, but for the deeper fan favorite it has to be FB/TE/humantruck Cory Harkey. Ol' Molasses isn't much of a runner. Or a receiver. Or really of a football player. And God love him for it. - Turf Show Times
One option is long snapper John Denney, who joined the Dolphins somewhere around the team’s second Super Bowl championship in 1973. Hyperbole aside, Denney has been with Miami since 2005, earning two Pro Bowl berths in his career, and is loved by many Dolphins fans. That is not a thing you normally hear about a team’s long snapper, but Denney does have a kind of cult following.
He seems to always be among the first people down the field on punt coverage, he forces fumbles and makes tackles, and just is that guy who always seems to be in on the play. - The Phinsider
I think it would have to be wide receiver Adam Thielen. He’s a local guy who grew up in Minnesota and played his college ball at Minnesota State University-Mankato. He started out on the practice squad and fought his way onto the active roster. He first really got noticed courtesy of a blocked punt for a touchdown in 2014 against Carolina. He also had one of the Vikings’ biggest plays on special teams last season, running 49 yards with a fake punt in the division-clinching season finale against Green Bay.
This offseason and preseason, Thielen clawed his way up the depth chart at wide receiver. He is a prime example of how you should never really give up on your dream and just continue grinding it out every day in an attempt to make it happen. - Daily Norseman
New England Patriots
I’m going to go with a pair of special teams stars in Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner. Slater is a team captain and multiple-time All-Pro as a gunner, while Ebner is another special teams stud who recently returned from the Olympics after representing the United States in rugby.
I feel like Bill Belichick’s affinity for special teams has rubbed itself off on Patriots fans because the vast majority would be able to name the core special teams players. I feel like few other teams can say that. - Pats Pulpit
New Orleans Saints
I’d have to say the fan favorite is Cameron Jordan. All you have to do is check out his Twitter account, and you’ll understand. Jordan likes to have fun, and you get the sense that he really does love where he’s at and what he does. He often hijacks the Saints’ Snapchat account, and gives us gold. - Canal Street Chronicles
New York Giants
Unfortunately for the Giants, there really isn't one. They cut fullback Nikita Whitlock, who doubled as a DT at times last year, and he would have qualified. Other than Whitlock, there really isn't anyone who would be a unique character or have a unique following. - Big Blue View
New York Jets
Nick Mangold is now the longest-tenured Jet. He has been with the team for 10 years. He started from day one and has been one of the top centers in football ever since. How many homegrown guys dominate for a decade? - Gang Green Nation
I would have to say punter Marquette King. He reached legend status when the team first signed him out of Fort Valley State for having booted an 80-yard punt. He has a unique style about him. Or as he would say, he’s "turnt" all the time.
He works out like few punters in the league do, won’t wear a red no-contact jersey in practice and celebrates good punts with leaps and fist pumps (and doesn’t look dorky doing it). Being one of only a handful of black punters the history of the NFL helps with his cult hero status as well. As a rookie, whenever he would boom a punt in practice, former teammate Tommy Kelly would yell out "Reggie Roby!" (said like Notorious B.I.G. would say "Baby, BAE-beh!") - Silver And Black Pride
Vinny Curry gets a lot of love because he grew up as an Eagles fan. He also has a fun personality. After being misused in Philadelphia’s 3-4 defense for the past couple years, he’s finally back home in the 4-3. Fans are excited to see him get more playing time than ever before. - Bleeding Green Nation
That designation would have gone to Heath Miller before his retirement, but now it would have to be Antonio Brown on offense, and Cam Heyward on defense. They are both extremely hard working players, and Steelers fans appreciate that. They want someone who is going to go out and bust their butt every week, and be great doing it. That would certainly describe both Brown and Heyward. - Behind The Steel Curtain
San Diego Chargers
The closest thing to a cult hero for the Chargers is Danny Woodhead. As for why: he’s a short, white running back. Fans eat that up. He’s also really good, which doesn’t hurt. - Bolts From The Blue
San Francisco 49ers
There’s been so much roster turnover that cult heroes are hard to develop right now. But I’ll go with wide receiver Quinton Patton. When the 49ers drafted him in 2013, he flew to Santa Clara and called the 49ers on the way from the airport, a week before they were allowed to work with him at the facility. He had to fly back home and come back a week later. That endeared him to fans pretty quickly.
He struggled to do much his first two seasons. Last season he started to show some signs, but the offense was a trainwreck, so there wasn’t much to be done. This year, he’s had a solid training camp, and with Anquan Boldin out the door, a big opportunity is presenting itself. Maybe he actually turns into more than just a cult hero! - Niners Nation
Seen as a "tweener" safety, undrafted free agent Tyvis Powell was the top priority for Pete Carroll and John Schneider after the draft and has been getting nothing but praise ever since. He can back up both safety positions and has been getting work at corner, too. In the first preseason game of the year, Powell had two huge plays on special teams and an interception on defense.
He isn’t seen as the prototypical safety or cornerback, and he went undrafted so obviously teams weren’t too high on his chances of making it as a pro after his career at Ohio State, but Powell has quickly earned favor from coaches, players and certainly from fans. - Field Gulls
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Most would say Jameis Winston. The quarterback is really popular among Bucs fans, and most everyone is convinced he’s the real deal — which is extremely uncommon in Tampa Bay history. - Bucs Nation
Tajae Sharpe is becoming that guy. Titans fans have a love affair with receivers that perform in the preseason. It is probably because of the long history of heartbreak at the position. It seems like every year there is a new guy that fans fall in love with only to end up seeing him get cut and fail out of the league. Hopefully Sharpe will be a different story. - Music City Miracles
Given the relative terribleness (a word among our fans) of the team over the last 20 years, cult hero players have been our bread and butter.
Su’a Cravens, the rookie S/LB hybrid from USC, has captured the hearts and minds of the burgundy and gold faithful. He has already displayed the kind of instinct for the ball that should help him win meaningful time on the field, as well as remind fans of the player whose number he has chosen to wear (Sean Taylor). It is not fair to compare the two at this point — Cravens has yet to see his first NFL action — but Cravens has held the attention of Washington fans since he arrived at the start of camp. - Hogs Haven