Each NFL season breakout stars emerge, but every year there are also players flying just under the radar who won’t garner the recognition that their play and value to their team deserves.
It’s easy to point to incoming rookies who look the part, but sometimes harder to mine the “Secret Stars” that are sometimes overshadowed by the other superstars on their own team, or are buried on rosters of abysmal teams that don’t receive national notoriety.
To get a true sense of the NFL’s secret stars entering the 2022 regular season, Heavy surveyed a dozen current NFL players, coaches, scouts, and executives for the players who don’t get the recognition they deserve.
Ben Jones, C, Tennessee Titans
“He’s been a really good center his whole career, he’s just overlooked sometimes because zone offenses get more laterally on blocks than guys just mauling vertically. Ben’s just a consistent, solid starter, and a very good zone-blocking center.” – NFC Offensive Lineman
Jones has certainly been the anchor of the Titans’ offensive line, and a key cog in paving the way for Derrick Henry to become one of the most prolific running backs of this era.
Last season, Jones only allowed one sack in 1,160 offensive snaps, while surrendering only 26 total quarterback pressures. Pro Football Focus lists Jones as the No. 8 ranked center in the league.
Tennessee, after trading A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles in a draft night blockbuster, may be more committed to the ground game than ever in 2022. That could give Jones plenty of opportunities to build on his 79.9 run-blocking mark from PFF and his name recognition.
Keenan Allen, WR, Los Angeles Chargers
“He’s just a really good, sound, all around wide receiver who has the ideal size you want, and he produces every single year.” – NFC Personnel Executive
Keenan Allen surpassed 1,100 yards in four of the past five seasons, yet somehow rarely cracks lists of the top wide receivers in the NFL.
In 2021, Allen made the Pro Bowl after catching a career-high 106 passes for 1,138 yards and 6 touchdowns. As Pro Football Focus points out, Allen is a prolific Yards After The Catch (YAC) weapon, averaging 3.4 per catch, and Justin Herbert produced a 92 passer rating when targeting him.
A five-time Pro Bowler, Allen stands to significantly bolster his own resumè as Herbert continues to cement his place among the NFL’s premier quarterbacks.
C.J. Mosley, LB, New York Jets
“C.J. Mosley is a guy who’s gotten hurt, so he isn’t on a lot of people’s radar, but there’s no denying that he is a damn good linebacker.” – AFC Quarterbacks Coach
Mosley is a magnet for the football, and when healthy, one of the heart and soul players in the Jets’ front-seven.
In 2021, Mosley produced 167 total tackles, including 130 solo, along with 2.0 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. A four-time Pro Bowler, Mosley has exceeded 100 total tackles in five of the past seven seasons, and five of his last fully-healthy campaigns.
If the Jets’ defense is to make major strides in 2022, Mosley figures to play a vital role.
Cordarrelle Patterson, RB/WR, Atlanta Falcons
“His first season as a running back was very dynamic and very, very explosive. I thought he was their entire offense in Atlanta. Sure, they have Kyle Pitts and Russell Gage, but Patterson made plays that won them games.” – NFC Offensive Lineman
Already one of the most electrifying return specialists in the game, it took until landing with the Atlanta Falcons for a team to truly unlock Patterson’s potential.
Primarily used as a gadget player through his first eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, Las Vegas Raiders, New England Patriots, and Chicago Bears, the Falcons were the first team to deploy Patterson almost exclusively as a running back. The 31-year-old rewarded the Falcons’ faith with the most productive season of his career.
In 2021, Patterson rushed for 618 yards and 6 touchdowns, while adding 52 receptions for 548 yards and 5 more scores through the air. Patterson averaged 10.5 yards per reception, and rattled off an impressive 20 explosive runs of 10 yards or more, while averaging 2.95 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. There’s a chance Patterson could see an even expanded role in 2022.
Brian O’Neill, OT, Minnesota Vikings
“O’Neill’s coming off his first Pro Bowl, Minnesota added a really good coaching staff, with a scheme that fits his skill-set perfectly. Plus, Dalvin Cook is fully healthy and could be in for a monster season.” – NFC Tight End
Rebuilding the offensive line remains a point of emphasis for the Minnesota Vikings, after last year’s unit finished ranked No. 23 in the NFL, by Pro Football Focus, but O’Neill is one of this group’s centerpieces.
In 2021, O’Neill only allowed one sack and one quarterback hit in 1,140 total offensive snaps, while garnering a 73.4 overall grade from Pro Football Focus.
Now that Cook is healthy, if the star running back has a career season, obviously O’Neill and the rest of the Vikings’ offensive line will get their share of notoriety for clearing the path for his production.
CeeDee Lamb, WR, Dallas Cowboys
“When I watch CeeDee Lamb, it’s crazy to me that he doesn’t get labeled or the notoriety for being quite as impactful as he is. He’s a guy that in the grand scheme of things is truly under the radar.” – AFC Offensive Coordinator
The Dallas Cowboys told the world everything they should need to know about Lamb’s upside when Dallas traded top wide receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns this offseason.
Lamb is certainly an ascending talent, after catching a career-high 79 passes for 1,102 yards and six touchdowns in his second season, in 2021. With Cooper dispatched to the Browns, Lamb rises to the top of quarterback Dak Prescott’s target hierarchy.
While Lamb dropped 7 passes last season, and that is certainly an issue he must overcome, Prescott produced a 94.1 passer rating on Lamb’s 116 targets during the 2021 campaign. Unless the Cowboys add a veteran receiver between now and Week 1, Lamb has the chance to be even more prolific in 2022, as the focal point of Dallas’ vertical passing game.