Ten unheralded players set to shine in NFL Week 9

While six teams on a bye week does give us a smaller pool of unheralded players to choose from, NFL Week 9 still gives us a solid, deep group.

So, who are those guys? Which players who have fallen under the radar find themselves in favorable Week 9 matchups?

Which 10 unheralded players are most likely to shine during Week 9 of the NFL season?

Tim Hightower, running back, New Orleans Saints

There’s a lot to like with Hightower in Week 9.

We’ll start with his quarterback, future Hall of Famer Drew Brees. While Brees is a legend, his splits are traditionally much better at home than on the road. This is especially true outdoors, where Brees will be playing this week against the San Francisco 49ers.

All three off Brees’ road games in 2016 have been outdoors and the results have been glaring.

That’s nearly two yards per attempt, and over 100 yards per game better at home. Brees is good on the road, but not great. The run needs to be a part of the New Orleans game plan.

Fortunately for Brees, Hightower should have his back.

He was the Saints’ featured back against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 8. In that game, Hightower rushed for 102 yards on 26 carries. Granted, 3.9 yards per carry may not seem like much, but it’s far from terrible against an elite defense like Seattle’s.

San Francisco’s defense is far from elite. In fact, the 49ers’ run defense perpetually resembles a hockey team on a 5-on-3 penalty kill. Opposing offenses have jammed the ball down San Francisco’s throat at will.

Sean Payton would do well to dial up a game plan to exploit that. With that, those watching the game should hear Hightower’s name called a lot.

Nick Perry, outside linebacker, Green Bay Packers

Perry has been a force for Green Bay’s defense in 2016. With Clay Matthews on the other side of the field, Perry has recorded 5.5 sacks, 19 tackles, has defended three passes, and even hauled in an interception.

In Week 9, Perry gets every pass rusher’s dream — a game against the Indianapolis Colts. His chances of success are even greater when we consider the damage that another left outside linebacker did against the same line in Week 8.

In Week 8, Dee Ford terrorized the Indy offensive line and Andrew Luck, recording 3.5 sacks. That game was in Indianapolis. The schedule should be tougher for the Colts this week, playing in Lambeau Field.

Perry is in line for a similar game. While the right side of the Indianapolis line needs help, Perry should see a handful of one-on-one assignments. With Matthews on the other side, the Colts will have to take their chances with Perry. There is no way that Indianapolis will let a perennial All-Pro like Matthews see consistent one-on-one blocking.

Matthews will likely be double-teamed all game. With that, Perry will feast on that line and be in Luck’s face throughout the game.

Zach Brown, linebacker, Buffalo Bills

One thing we can say about the Buffalo defense is that it can get to the quarterback. The Bills and Denver Broncos are tied for the NFL lead with 26 sacks.

The much-maligned offensive line of the Seattle Seahawks will have its hands full on Monday night. Jerry Hughes and NFL sack leader Lorenzo Alexander figure to be attacking Russell Wilson from the edges all night. With that kind of punch coming from both edges, Seattle will have to devise a game plan to at least limit the edge rush.

Unfortunately for the Seahawks, that will leave the interior line quite vulnerable to the blitz. That’s where Brown enters the mix. Brown has already recorded three sacks on opposing quarterbacks this year.

Going against a team that ranks 29th in hurries allowed and 21st in hits surrendered, Brown and Wilson figure to spend a lot of time with each other.

But even if not, Brown is no one-trick pony.

The middle linebacker has also had a hand in 87 tackles, included seven for a loss. Additionally, Brown has forced three fumbles. He’ll be a prominent part of Buffalo’s defense on Monday.

Kenny Stills, wide receiver, Miami Dolphins

Stills certainly has his flaws as a receiver. But throughout 2016, he’s been a fantastic deep-ball option for Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins.

In total, Stills has hauled in 16 passes for 317 yards at just a shade under 20 yards per catch.

That should play very well against the Jets. Even in the midst of a two-game winning streak, New York’s defensive backs have consistently struggled to defend the deep ball. In Week 8’s win, the Jets allowed 101 yards on six catches to Terrelle Pryor, and two touchdowns to Andrew Hawkins.

There’s no evidence to suggest that they’ll be any better against Miami’s receivers. Look for Stills to be a consistent vertical threat against New York.

If nothing else, that presence will draw the attention of the Jets’ defenders, opening up short routes and the running game. Stills should also be counted on to make a few big plays on his own.

Quincy Enunwa, wide receiver, New York Jets

With Eric Decker out of action, Enunwa has emerged as a rock solid No. 2 receiver for Ryan Fitzpatrick. Enunwa leads the team with 36 receptions and three touchdown catches. His 502 yards are second on the team to Brandon Marshall, putting Enunwa on a 1,004 yard pace.

Recently, Enunwa has shown himself capable of stretching the field vertically, as well as getting the hard yards in traffic.

Like New York’s, Miami’s pass defense has struggled this season. Opposing receivers have caught at least one touchdown pass in all but one of the Dolphins’ seven games.

Also, while Fitzpatrick has certainly struggled, the Jets have shown a willingness to air it out. With that in mind, Enunwa will certainly get his fair share of targets. That should lead to nothing worse than another solid day for the second year receiver.

Lance Kendricks, tight end, Los Angeles Rams

Opposing defenses have stacked the box against Todd Gurley all year, daring Case Keenum and the Rams to throw the ball. Like the aforementioned Fitzpatrick, Keenum has obliged, attempting 30 or more passes in all but one game.

Keenum may have another poor game. But even in a poor game, some of those passes are going to be caught.

Over the last four weeks, Kendricks has been on the receiving end of many of those. He’s hauled in 19 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown in that time. So, Keenum is clearly comfortable targeting his tight end. Given his shaky offensive line, it makes sense.

Additionally, the Carolina Panthers have struggled against opposing tight ends in 2016.

Tight ends have caught six touchdown passes and have recorded at least three receptions in each of Carolina’s games this season. In three of those games, opposing tight ends went for at least 88 yards.

Signs certainly point towards Kendricks having a big game. That may not come in the form of a slew of big plays. Still, Kendricks will be a big target in the red zone, and on third downs.

Ron Parker, safety, Kansas City City Chiefs

The Kansas City defense has certainly had some struggles this season, but has been much better in recent weeks. Parker’s presence has been a big reason for that improvement.

Parker has been in on 29 tackles, tied for third on the team. He’s also defended six passes, which is second on the team. While Parker has yet to record an interception, he has forced two fumbles.

We also can’t discount the possibility that Parker will haul an interception in this week.

Opposing quarterback Blake Bortles has thrown nine picks this season. Only Fitzpatrick and Keenum have thrown more.

With or without an interception, though, Parker figures to be a big part of Kansas City’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. He can help shut down the running game, forcing Bortles to pass the ball. When that happens, Parker can make a big impact, regardless of whether he intercepts any passes.

Dontrelle Inman, wide receiver, San Diego Chargers

Philip Rivers is going to chuck the ball around. He has attempted 91 passes over San Diego’s last two games. Against a Tennessee secondary that has had its struggles against opposing receivers, there’s no reason to think that Rivers won’t continue down that road.

Inman has been a big play target over the last two games. He’s hauled in only seven passes, but those have gone for 130 yards, or nearly 19 yards per reception.

Even better, he hasn’t been doing this against bad defenses. Inman caught three passes for 58 yards against the Atlanta Falcons, and four for 72 yards against the Denver Broncos and their famous “no fly zone” defense.

Travelling across the country, we certainly can’t expect the Titans to be any better than Atlanta and Denver were at home.

Tennessee will have to respect Inman downfield. Like Stills, Inman’s presence will open up the field for the likes of Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry underneath. We should also expect him to help the cause directly with a few big plays.

Larry Warford, right guard, Detroit Lions

If the Lions are going the beat the Minnesota Vikings, running the ball well will be a necessity. Warford  should be a big part of that.

Despite the loss, Detroit actually ran the ball well in Week 8 against the Houston Texans. Theo Riddick averaged better than five yards a carry. So, like the rest of the line, Warford did his job. Unfortunately, the people who devised the game plan did not do their jobs. Riddick only carried the ball 11 times.

That has to change against the Vikings.

Over the last two weeks, the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears given the NFL something of a blueprint on beating Minnesota.

The Eagles ran the ball 21 times for 95 yards. Those were both season highs against the Vikings, although only briefly. The following week, the Bears carried the ball 28 times for 156 yards. Not coincidentally, Philadelphia and Chicago handed the Vikings their only two losses on the season.

Minnesota has handled some of he best receivers in the game, so Matthew Stafford shouldn’t be throwing 41 passes again. The spotlight should go on Warford — who’s been one of the NFL’s top guards all year.

Michael Pierce, defensive tackle, Baltimore Ravens

If the Ravens get nothing else out of the season, they can be happy with the play of Pierce. The rookie defensive tackle looks like he’ll be a fixture on the Baltimore defense for years to come.

Pierce has two sacks, has been in on 16 tackles, and has been a big part of one of the NFL’s best run defenses.

Ben Rotethlisberger may not play. If Big Ben does suit up, he’ll be hobbled. With Le’Veon Bell, the Pittsburgh Steelers figure to have a run heavy offense against Baltimore. How well Pierce holds his blocks and allows the Ravens’ linebackers to run free will have a lot to say in who wins this game.

Fortunately, he’s done well throughout the 2016 season.

Additionally, while Pierce doesn’t play a traditional pass rush position, he can certainly contribute. The Steelers will either have a hobbled Roethlisberger, or inexperienced Landry Jones under center. If Pierce can find his way into the backfield, he’ll have a big hand in disrupting the Pittsburgh passing game, as well.