-- Players come out of the woodwork nearly every Super Bowl and become difference-makers. Football is a game of attrition, and that attrition means we're always just one snap away from someone new becoming a focal point of a game plan. Think Chris Matthews in Super Bowl XLIX, an under-the-radar Seattle Seahawks receiver who caught four passes for 109 yards and a touchdown in Seattle's loss to the New England Patriots.
We took a look at this year's under-the-radar prospects who are likely to make a big play in Super Bowl LI for the New England Patriots or Atlanta Falcons, using?Football Outsiders' definition of a prospect:
While we'd love to ramble on about Atlanta's speed on defense, most of the Falcons' rookies have played so much they're no longer eligible for consideration. With that said, here are the less-senior players who we think could be difference-makers on Feb. 5 in Houston:
Elandon Roberts, LB
Not quite a full-time player for the Patriots just yet, Roberts missed only 7.9 percent of his tackle attempts this season. The rookie, a sixth-round pick out of Houston, was part of the reason New England decided veteran LB? Jamie Collins was expendable. Collins was dealt to the Browns during the season, giving Roberts?a much bigger role.
The Falcons' offense relies heavily on the play-action pass, as it ran play-action more than any other team in the regular season (27 percent of pass plays) and was second in the NFL in yards per play-action pass play. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan loves to stress the second level of the defense and force defenders to make a decision on how to cover things. Roberts, nominally New England's fastest linebacker, will be a key player in this game.
The question is: Will he be able to recognize the play-action and stick to his assignments, or will he dive down and allow QB? Matt Ryan?to find open receivers?
Austin Hooper, TE
Hooper is one of the Falcons targets Roberts will have to watch in coverage. The tight end successfully acquitted himself in a low-usage role after being part of a run-heavy offense at Stanford. A third-round pick in the 2016 draft, Hooper had the second-highest DVOA of any qualifying tight end this season at 46.7 percent. And while much of that rating is about the offense he plays in, Hooper is a capable receiver in his own right. He attacks the ball at the catch point and is quicker than you'd expect a player of his size to be.
Hooper is one of a few different tight ends Atlanta plays with, and he became more of a full-time player down the stretch after Jacob Tamme was placed on injured reserve. Hooper will make a huge difference on running downs. He is good enough to make contested catches and also is a good enough blocker to help on the edge.
Valentine, a third-round pick out of Nebraska in the 2016 draft, has been utilized to help bully the middle of the field. He offers little as a pass-rusher, with just one sack and four hurries this season, but his 6-foot-2, 320-pound frame helped?control the Steelers' running game, along with Patriots defensive lineman? Alan Branch's domination of Steelers center? Maurkice Pouncey, as?the Patriots limited Pittsburgh to just 54 rushing yards in the AFC Championship Game. Valentine stuffed a couple of goal-line runs early that forced the Steelers into a field goal attempt.
Atlanta's running game gashed opponents often in the regular season, but with center Alex Mack's health in question for this game,?the Patriots will have an opportunity to take advantage on runs up the middle. Atlanta was fourth in adjusted line yards up the middle,?while New England was only 13th in adjusted line yards allowed up the middle. This will be a strength-on-strength matchup, and since Mack might not be at 100 percent, a big performance by Valentine could help shift the game.
A core special-teamer, Neasman took over for first-round rookie safety Keanu Neal late in the NFC Championship Game. Neal, as far as we know, is in no danger of missing the Super Bowl. But since he left the NFC title game, let's look at the depth here.
Neasman was a walk-on at Florida Atlantic who played both nickel cornerback and safety. But he was already 25 years old and ran a 4.68 40-yard dash at his pro day, so Neasman was off the radar at draft time. However, he also ran a 6.78-second three-cone drill time that is well above average for a safety in the combine.
The Falcons were pleased enough with Neasman's prowess to promote him to the active roster at midseason, so he already has jumped a couple of safeties on the depth chart. We're not saying he's a future star, but Neasman does have a path to playing time in the Super Bowl, and his short area change-of-direction skills give him a chance to make an impact if he does get on the field.