NFL’s 10 best kept secrets heading into 2017 season

By Vincent Frank

The NFL is a league of stars. Tom Brady leading his New England Patriots to the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history. Ezekiel Elliott absolutely dominating the landscape of the league as a rookie. Julio Jones putting up monstrous receiving numbers.

These are among the very best. They have star power. They have the numbers.

Though, there are a ton of players around the league who have to be considered best kept secrets. From a certain running back in Baltimore that changes the entire dynamic on offense to a young linebacker in Atlanta who dominated last season, here are the NFL’s 10 best kept secrets heading into the 2017 season.

Danny Woodhead, running back, Baltimore Ravens

Danny Woodhead

One of the primary reasons Woodhead continues to fly under the radar is his role. He’s been seen as nothing more than a catch-first running back since entering the NFL with the New York Jets back in 2009. But with the league transitioning to offenses that feature running backs more in the passing game, players of Woodhead’s ilk continue to be best kept secrets for NFL teams.

He’s the current version of Reggie Bush and Darren Sproles. Only better. Prior to missing all but two games of last season with the then San Diego Chargers, Woodhead put up 80 receptions for 755 yards and six touchdowns in 2015. He’s surely proven to be a valuable commodity, no matter what offense he is in.

At 32 years old, Woodhead joins a Ravens offense that needs some balance. The likes of Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon combined for 64 receptions in Baltimore last season. Woodhead is averaging more than that himself in his past two full seasons.

Lorenzo Alexander, EDGE, Buffalo Bills

Dec 18, 2016; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Buffalo Bills outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (57) against the Cleveland Browns at New Era Field. Buffalo beats Cleveland 33 to 13. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Alexander entered the 2016 campaign having put up a grand total of nine sacks in nine seasons. For those of us who didn’t major in math, that’s an average of one sack per season. Last year with Buffalo, as a 33-year-old veteran, Alexander recorded an absolutely shocking 12.5 sacks.

This netted the former special teams standout a two-year, $5.9 million contract with Buffalo. It remains to be seen exactly what role Alexander will play in Sean McDermott’s defense this upcoming season, but we’re banking on him playing a large role in 2017. The expectation as of now is that he’ll play the strong side next to Reggie Ragland.

We wouldn’t bank on Alexander duplicating his performance from last season. With that said, situational pass rushers of his ilk are extremely important in today’s pass-first NFL. At under $3 million per season that’s insane value.

Delanie Walker, tight end, Tennessee Titans

The San Francisco 49ers pretty much chose Vernon Davis over Walker when the latter bolted for the Tennessee Titans in free agency following the 2012 campaign. In the four seasons since, Walker has put up 282 receptions for 3,349 yards and 23 touchdowns.

He’s also tallied one 1,000-yard campaign and two Pro Bowl appearances during that span. Did we mention Walker is among the best blocking tight ends in the game?

Not too shabby for a late-round pick from Central Missouri State who had to transition from wide receiver to tight end once he entered the pros.

Despite adding receivers Eric Decker and Corey Davis to the mix during the offseason, Walker will remain a focal point of the Titans’ offense this upcoming season. It surely wouldn’t be a surprise to see him continue the amazing production we have seen over the past four seasons in Nashville.

Darius Slay, cornerback, Detroit Lions

Slay, a former second-round pick from Mississippi State, has started all 45 games in which he’s appeared over the past three seasons. And while he has not taken that next step to elite status, we’re definitely expecting a jump in 2017.

Over the course of those three seasons, the 26-year-old corner has recorded 44 passes defended and six interceptions. He’s also played extremely well in single coverage on the outside.

After yielding a 106.5 quarterback rating last season, the Lions definitely need Slay to step up if they’re going to challenge Green Bay in the NFC North. Considering the team is already paying him like an elite-level corner, there’s no better time for this to come to fruition. Entering the prime of his career, look for big things from Slay in 2017.

Cole Beasley, wide receiver, Dallas Cowboys

Cole Beasley

Beasley put up 75 receptions and caught an absurd 77 percent of the passes thrown in his direction last season. He did so while having a rookie quarterback toss him the rock. One of the truly elite slot receivers in the game, this former Southern Methodist standout continues to fly under the radar.

We’re not too sure what Beasley has to do in order to be noticed more. One wonders if eventually playing for the New England Patriots would work. But we do know that he’s one of the most consistently good possession receivers in the game. He proved this to a T last season.

With the Cowboys’ supporting cast remaining the same this upcoming season, it would not be an absolute shock to see Beasley continue to make strides with second-year quarterback Dak Prescott. Could a 100-reception, 1,000-plus yard season be in the cards?

Harrison Smith, safety, Minnesota Vikings

A Pro Bowler each of the past two seasons, Smith somehow doesn’t get the same notoriety as the Earl Thomas and Eric Berrys of the world. Maybe it’s where he plays. It could also have to do with the fact that Smith wasn’t a top-10 pick with lofty expectations heading into the NFL. Either way, he’s the best kept secret in the twin cities.

Here’s a guy that plays both the run and the pass at an elite level. He’s a sure tackler. He can act as a second line of defense from the center field position. Heck, Smith has the capability to go up against receivers on the outside. It doesn’t necessarily show up in the numbers (two passes defended, zero interceptions in 2016), but it’s surely an important aspect of what the Vikings are building on defense.

A player of this ilk helps outside corners do their thing. That’s one of the primary reasons Xavier Rhodes has taken his game to an elite level. It’s not a sexy position, but it creates a situation where a defense is able to do a whole lot more against the pass.

Gabe Jackson, guard, Oakland Raiders

Interior offensive linemen in general fly under the radar. They are also best kept secrets for a reason. In today’s pass-first NFL, most of the focus is on EDGE rushers from the outside. Can a defensive player get to the quarterback outside of the tackle? If so, it can create mistakes that changes a game on a dime.

With that said, more quarterbacks in today’s NFL struggle when faced with pressure from the interior of the defensive line. That’s where teams must find elite-level interior pass protectors. That’s also an area Jackson has dominated in throughout his three-year career in Oakland.

It’s also important to note here that Jackson has proven himself to be an elite two-way player. Not only did he go through the 2016 season without yielding a sack, the former second-round pick helped lead one of the game’s best rushing attacks. He did so without the Raiders boasting a top-level running back.

One has to wonder whether that will change with Marshawn Lynch now handling the rock in Oakland. Is it possible that the Raiders could finish in the top five in both rushing and passing? If so, Jackson himself will no longer be considered a best kept secret.

DeForest Buckner, defensive line, San Francisco 49ers

Entering his second year in the NFL, Buckner projects as a Pro Bowler at some point here soon. As a rookie last season, the former top-10 pick recorded 73 tackles and a team-high six sacks on an otherwise disastrous and talent-stricken 49ers defense.

In fact, he was among the best players at his position in the entire league. He also proved to be nothing short of a three-down player during his initial campaign.

Buckner is now slated to move outside to defensive end in Robert Saleh’s new defense. This will create wide-ranging matchup problems with tackles expected to take on his 6-foot-7, 291-pound frame.

It’s easy to be a best kept secret on a one-win team while being tasked to take on hogs inside. Once Buckner flourishes in his new role, the secret itself will be out of the bag.

Jack Doyle, tight end, Indianapolis Colts

Jack Doyle

How good was Doyle last season? Indianapolis pretty much gave away starting tight end Dwayne Allen to the defending champion Patriots for pennies on the dollar. It then signed the 27-year-old former undrafted free agent to a solid extension in the offseason.

The Western Kentucky product put up 59 receptions for 584 yards and five touchdowns in 2016. He also caught a tremendous 79 percent of the passes thrown in his direction.

Assuming Andrew Luck is back on the field at 100 percent this upcoming season, look for Doyle to continue producing at a high level. In fact, it would not be an absolute shock to see him improve his numbers leaps and bounds from a breakout 2016 campaign.

Deion Jones, linebacker, Atlanta Falcons

A first-year starter as a rookie last season, Jones’ secret to remaining under the radar was the elite-level offense the eventual NFC Champion Falcons boasted. But make no mistake about it, he played a huge role in the team’s surprising success.

Jones filled the stat sheet in a huge way, recording 106 tackles, 11 passes defended, three interceptions, two touchdowns and one forced fumble. He also came up absolutely huge in the playoffs for Atlanta.

Look for Jones to take on a larger role as a team leader this upcoming season, pretty much letting everyone know the cat is out of the bag in the process. A Pro Bowl caliber player last season, it would not be a shock to see Jones challenge for All-Pro honors in 2017.