Most fans can name the stars who did the most to propel this year's 12 NFL playoff teams into the postseason. Cam Newton. Russell Wilson. J.J. Watt. We see these players' highlights every Sunday, and then we watch them in commercials between plays.
But depth is a hugely important part of any playoff team, and there are many lesser-known names that will play important roles in determining who gets to Super Bowl 50. Here's a look at eight players who could break out on the national stage by making big plays in the postseason spotlight.
If you are an AFC or East Coast fan who hasn't had a chance to see the new-look, rocket-powered Seahawks, you're in for a treat. Lockett combines excellent receiving skills with blazing fast speed. Lockett caught 51 passes on just 69 targets for 664 yards and six touchdowns in his rookie season. That 74 percent catch rate ranked him among the NFL's top 10 receivers (minimum 50 targets), and that's particularly impressive because he wasn't catching a bunch of screens. The average pass to Lockett went 13.2 yards in the air; the NFL average for wide receivers was 11.3 yards, and no other receiver with a 70 percent catch rate was above 12.0.
But Lockett may be more impressive and more important to Seattle's success when it's time for him to return kickoffs and punts. Football Outsiders metrics rate Lockett as the No. 3 kick returner in the league this year, worth an estimated 6.9 points worth of field position over average, and the No. 4 punt returner at 7.3 points over average. He was a big reason the Seahawks ranked third in FO's special teams ratings, up from 19th in 2014.
Perhaps it is strange to say that Johnson will be a breakout star in the postseason, because his breakout really came three weeks ago. Johnson's Week 15 game against Philadelphia, which featured 187 rushing yards and three touchdowns, was the most valuable game by a running back all season according to Football Outsiders' metrics. Johnson has excellent speed, but also shows play-to-play consistency, finishing third among qualifying running backs with a 56 percent success rate on his carries. He's a well-rounded back who is dangerous as both a runner and a receiver, and he finished in the top 10 of Football Outsiders' DYAR metric (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) for both. That's impressive for a back who had only one game with more than 10 touches before Chris Johnson's injury in Week 12 thrust him into the starting lineup.
Wisconsin running backs have a terrible history in the NFL, from the Heisman flop of Ron Dayne to the struggling rookie year of Melvin Gordon. White gets around his awful Wisconsin runner pedigree by hardly ever carrying the ball on a handoff. White had only 56 yards on 22 carries this season, but he also caught 40 passes for 410 yards. Many running backs build their receiving numbers with meaningless dump-offs, but White had a first down or touchdown on 19 of those 40 receptions. As a result, he ranked fourth among running backs in receiving DYAR. The receiving back role has always been important in the Patriots' offense -- from Kevin Faulk to Danny Woodhead to Shane Vereen -- and White could be the latest to make an important postseason contribution.
Ten Carolina Panthers made the Pro Bowl this year, including four defensive players. Three of them are names you probably know: Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. You may not be as familiar with the fourth player, first-time Pro Bowler Kawann Short, but he was a very important part of the Carolina defense all year. Short had 11 sacks this season after just five in his first two seasons combined, along with four passes defensed. On running plays, Short made his average tackle after a gain of 1.6 yards, which ranked ninth among defensive tackles with at least 25 run tackles.
When the Texans chose Jadeveon Clowney with the first overall pick in the 2014 draft, Houston fans dreamed of the kind of havoc Clowney would create with J.J. Watt occupying two or three blockers on the other side of the pass rush. But as Clowney has battled injuries over his first two seasons, it is Mercilus who has more often played that role instead. In his fourth season, Mercilus finally blossomed as the player the Texans thought they were getting when they took him near the end of the first round of the 2012 draft. Mercilus had 12 sacks this season, tied for sixth in the league, after averaging six per year in his first three years. He also got into the backfield for a number of run tackles for loss. As a result, he was 10th among edge rushers with 23 defeats, a Football Outsiders stat that combines turnovers, tackles for a loss and tackles or passes defensed to prevent conversion on third down.
Knee and ankle injuries limited Shazier to just nine games as a rookie in 2014; this season, he lost four weeks to a shoulder injury. However, since his return in Week 7, he has been a stalwart presence in the middle of a Steelers defense that is much improved from last season. The Steelers ranked 11th in Football Outsiders' defensive DVOA ratings this year, and they are ninth since Week 7. Shazier has 20 defeats, tied for 13th among inside/middle linebackers, despite playing only 12 games.
Since Week 7, when they began their 10-game winning streak, the Chiefs have the second-best defensive DVOA in the league, trailing only Seattle. One of the lesser-known players who has contributed to that performance is Parker. The cornerback-turned-strong-safety has played a big role in Kansas City's ranking as the second-best defense in the league against tight ends according to DVOA, but he's also a versatile talent who can rush the passer and leads NFL defensive backs with five sacks. Combine his three picks, his passes defensed on third down and a couple of tackles for loss, and Parker has 20 defeats, tied for fifth this year among defensive backs. (Two other playoff defensive backs also have 20 defeats: Parker's rookie cornerback teammate Marcus Peters and veteran Pittsburgh safety Will Allen.)
Janis is not listed here because he's likely to make huge plays as a receiver: He's a deep threat whom Aaron Rodgers could barely connect with this year, with just two catches on 12 passes. But Janis could play a huge role in flipping field position in Green Bay's favor on punts. We ranked the Packers ninth in net punt value, and a big reason was Janis' success getting downfield as a gunner. Janis had 10 tackles on punts, third in the NFL. All 10 of them qualified as "stops," meaning that by FO baselines they stopped the opposing punt returner short of an average return. (Baselines are determined by the length of the punt and the location of the catch.) New England's Matthew Slater was the only other player in the league with more than seven punt stops this year.