Menu

Football

These players make their teams thankful

As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day this week, let's take a look at the one player that each NFL team should be most thankful to have on its 53-man roster:

AFC EAST

BUFFALO BILLS: C.J. SPILLER, RUNNING BACK: Forced into shouldering a greater share of the load because of multiple injuries to opening day starter Fred Jackson, Spiller has proven to be much more than a mere change-of-pace back. With a 6.6 yards per carry average, Spiller is starting to justify being the ninth overall pick in the 2010 draft.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: RYAN TANNEHILL, QUARTERBACK: Elite pass rusher Cameron Wake has been the Dolphins' best player, but the quick development of Tannehill has to have the front office and first-year coach Joe Philbin smiling.

Tannehill played half his collegiate career at wide receiver, so he figured to have a steeper learning curve than his fellow rookie starting quarterbacks. He seems to be hitting the proverbial rookie wall, but he has shown enough flashes to give the Dolphins reason to believe they've found their franchise quarterback.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: TOM BRADY, QUARTERBACK: OK, this is a little too easy. The Patriots' pass defense is among the worst in the league. Tight end Aaron Hernandez, expected to be a top contributor, has missed most of the season with an ankle injury. Fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his forearm Sunday against Indianapolis. None of the Patriots' problems ever seem to matter, and it's mostly because having Brady behind center cures plenty of ills.

NEW YORK JETS: ANTONIO CROMARTIE, CORNERBACK: There's little question that the Jets came into the 2012 season with the best cornerback in the NFL. However, when Darrelle Revis suffered a torn ACL in Week 3, that top corner was lost for the season.

The Jets' "other" corner, Cromartie, has been so good in Revis' absence that he's deserving of a Pro Bowl start. He's shut down opposing No. 1 receivers nearly as well as Revis did.

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS: RAY RICE, RUNNING BACK: The Ravens' defense has taken a step backward this year, and that was the trend even before future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis' season-ending injury. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been excellent at times, but still inconsistent.

Rice is the one constant the Ravens have been able to rely upon. He's an excellent all-around back, and his workload figures to grow as the stakes get higher.

CINCINNATI BENGALS: A.J. GREEN, WIDE RECEIVER: Second-year quarterback Andy Dalton, despite mediocre arm strength, is developing quite nicely. It sure helps to have arguably the game's most talented young wide receiver in his arsenal.

Green is simply a fabulous athlete without a weakness. Imagine how effective he will be when the Bengals eventually find a big-play threat in the running game.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: TRENT RICHARDSON, RUNNING BACK: Fellow first-round quarterback Brandon Weeden has shown enough potential to give the Browns hope that they've solved a long-standing quarterback problem, but it's Richardson who is truly the elite talent on an up-and-coming Browns team.

With the strength to run over people and the speed to race past them, Richardson figures to become one of the league's top running backs really soon.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: RYAN CLARK, SAFETY: Clark has long been the Steelers' "other" safety. It's understandable, because that Troy Polamalu guy has been pretty good for quite some time. A calf injury has sidelined Polamalu for most of the season, but Clark has helped the Steelers remain one of the league's top secondaries. He has 67 tackles (52 solo) in nine games.

AFC SOUTH

HOUSTON TEXANS: J.J. WATT, DEFENSIVE END: In a 3-4 defense, ends don't usually put up gaudy pass-rushing stats. Most 3-4 defensive ends, however, aren't as gifted as Watt. He has 11 1/2 sacks through 10 games and is one of the leading candidates for not only NFL defensive player of the year, but also most valuable player.

Watt is the perfect 3-4 defensive end and he's only 23. He's going to help the Texans be a force in the AFC for quite a while.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: ANDREW LUCK, QUARTERBACK: Pre-draft hype indicated that Luck could be the best NFL quarterback prospect since John Elway. He has not disappointed anyone who held that opinion.

Put in the unenviable position of trying to replace Peyton Manning as the Colts' franchise quarterback, Luck is exceeding all rookie-season expectations by leading Indianapolis into playoff contention. Don't be surprised if he's considered a top-five quarterback as soon as 2013.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: CECIL SHORTS III, WIDE RECEIVER: There's not a lot to celebrate in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars are off to a 1-9 start. Star running back Maurice Jones-Drew is injured, and second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert has not developed as hoped.

Rookie wide receiver Justin Blackmon finally broke through with an exceptional game Sunday against Houston, but the consistent offensive producer all season has been the unheralded Shorts, who has compiled 642 receiving yards. He and Blackmon could become a formidable receiving tandem for Gabbert's successor.

TENNESSEE TITANS: CHRIS JOHNSON, RUNNING BACK: Failing to top 24 rushing yards in four of his first five games, Johnson has been fantastic ever since. He's rushed for 862 yards overall and a 5.1-yard-per-carry average.

In other words, Johnson is elite again. That sound you heard was a huge sigh of relief from the Titans' front office, since he's due $35 million over the next four years.

AFC WEST

DENVER BRONCOS: PEYTON MANNING, QUARTERBACK: The Broncos won a playoff game last season, but, let's face it: They were a mediocre 8-8 team that wasn't ready to seriously challenge the big boys.

Signing Manning changed all that. Showing no ill effects from multiple neck surgeries that sidelined him all last year, the former Colts superstar has a realistic chance of leading Denver to the Super Bowl. He just might be the league MVP.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: JUSTIN HOUSTON, LINEBACKER: The second-year outside linebacker has been an impressive edge rusher, compiling seven sacks through the first 10 games. Solid pass-rushing, 3-4 outside linebackers can be hard to find, but it looks like the Chiefs hit a home run when they drafted Houston last season.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: CARSON PALMER, QUARTERBACK: OK, maybe the Raiders gave up a bit too much when they acquired Palmer from Cincinnati in the middle of last season, but how would they even be able to move the ball without Palmer this year?

He has thrown for better than 300 yards in five of his 10 games, and for a total of 3,035 overall. It hasn't led to many wins, but at least Palmer generates offense. The Oakland running game, following the obligatory Darren McFadden injury, has not.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: DONALD BUTLER, LINEBACKER: The Chargers are probably headed for an offseason makeover, with the way things are going downhill. No matter who becomes the next Chargers coach, he'll definitely keep Butler around as a defensive cornerstone.

Butler has 67 tackles (45 solo) and just seems to always be around the ball and making plays. Underachieving San Diego could use a few other such players.

NFC EAST

DALLAS COWBOYS: DEMARCUS WARE, LINEBACKER: The whole is sometimes not as great as the sum of the parts for the Cowboys, whose individual talent rivals that of some top NFL teams. The best of the talented individuals, though, is Ware.

The guy consistently gets to the quarterback. He has at least a half-sack in nine of the Cowboys' first 10 games. He has also forced four fumbles. Ware is one of the NFL's top difference makers.

NEW YORK GIANTS: VICTOR CRUZ, WIDE RECEIVER: Proving that his breakout 2011 season was no fluke, Cruz has been every bit as effective this year. He's legitimately a top-five NFL receiver who is just entering the prime of his career.

Eli Manning's recent struggles are a cause for concern with the Giants, but he's bound to turn things around soon, and Cruz will quickly be back to putting up insane statistics.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: LESEAN MCCOY, RUNNING BACK: Despite their second consecutive disappointing season, the Eagles still have plenty of individual talent. Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson make up a formidable young receiving tandem, but it's McCoy who is the most vital cog in the offense.

With coach Andy Reid likely on his way out, a new coach will probably lean a bit more on the running game. With McCoy in the fold, that would be a good way to go.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: ROBERT GRIFFIN III, QUARTERBACK: Compared to Carolina Panthers 2011 rookie Cam Newton because of his strong arm and running ability, Griffin actually looks like the superior young quarterback. He has better accuracy, and his poise and leadership qualities seem stronger, too.

The only worry is that, at 217 pounds, the more slightly built Griffin might not as easily avoid injury as Newton, who, at 245, is fullback-tough. If Griffin stays healthy, though, he's going to be a top-five quarterback as early as next season.

NFC NORTH

CHICAGO BEARS: CHARLES TILLMAN, CORNERBACK: Teammate Tim Jennings has a league- best eight interceptions, but Tillman has been the best defensive player on one of the league's best defensive units, even though he has just two interceptions.

Tillman has made like Darrelle Revis this season and been the ultimate shutdown corner. He's given enemy No. 1 receivers fits all year, and he's in the running for NFL defensive player of the year.

DETROIT LIONS: CALVIN JOHNSON, WIDE RECEIVER: Fantasy football owners will lead you to believe that Johnson's having a down season, given that he's only gotten into the end zone three times. Of course, those people don't bother to mention that he has 65 catches for 1,117 yards, which, you know, are kind of an asset to the Lions.

If he merely continues at his current pace, Johnson would finish 2012 with 104 catches for 1,787 yards. How many NFL receivers wouldn't sign up for that kind of season?

GREEN BAY PACKERS: JAMES JONES, WIDE RECEIVER: How many teams can afford to lose a Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver like Greg Jennings and hardly skip a beat on offense? That's what James Jones (as well as second-year receiver Randall Cobb) has enabled the Packers to do.

Jones had been the Packers' fourth option or so in the passing game during his previous five years with the franchise. He was perhaps better known for dropping passes than catching them. That's all changed this year, as his 42 catches are eight shy of a career high and his drops have disappeared.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: ADRIAN PETERSON, RUNNING BACK: When Peterson tore is ACL in late December last season, it was questionable whether he'd be ready for the start of the 2012 campaign.

Peterson did answer the bell on opening day, though, and he incredibly looks better than ever. He leads the NFL with 1,128 rushing yards through the first 10 games, averaging 5.8 per carry.

NFC SOUTH

ATLANTA FALCONS: MATT RYAN, QUARTERBACK: Atlanta has been making the transition from a run-first to a pass-first team, and Ryan's development - his five interceptions against Arizona on Sunday aside - has enabled the Falcons to enjoy their greatest success while making the transition.

It remains to be seen whether Ryan and the Falcons will finally carry that success over into the postseason.

CAROLINA PANTHERS: LUKE KUECHLY, LINEBACKER: The rookie isn't necessarily the best player on his team, but he's been a sure tackler and has averaged nearly one tackle-for-loss per game. In short, Kuechly has been exactly what the Panthers expected he'd be when they picked him in the first round.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: DREW BREES, QUARTERBACK: Only one team (the 1992 San Diego Chargers) has ever started an NFL season 0-4 and reached the playoffs. The Saints have a chance to be the second.

New Orleans has had to endure the season-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton, as well as the six-game suspension of interim head coach Joe Vitt. Now that things aren't so volatile for the Saints, Brees has led them back into contention at 5-5. It's significant, because nobody really wants to face their high-powered attack in the postseason.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: DOUG MARTIN, RUNNING BACK: Martin has really hit his stride in the past few weeks, and he's a threat to win the NFL rushing title as a rookie. Often compared to the Ravens' Ray Rice during pre-draft analysis, Martin has been even better than his clone thus far.

Wide receiver acquisition Vincent Jackson has been an enormous help, too, but Martin's instant effectiveness has probably been the main reason quarterback Josh Freeman has recaptured 2010 form.

NFC WEST

ARIZONA CARDINALS: DARYL WASHINGTON, LINEBACKER: Mostly a run-stuffer in the middle during his first two seasons with Arizona, Washington has maintained those abilities while also making bigger impact plays this season. Washington has 73 solo tackles and eight sacks through 10 games, making him the rare inside linebacker who is a pass-rushing threat.

ST. LOUIS RAMS: DANNY AMENDOLA, WIDE RECEIVER: A healthy Sam Bradford at quarterback has been the main reason for the Rams' improvement, but the diminutive Amendola has been a godsend at slot receiver for a team that severely lacks weapons in the passing game.

Amendola, cast aside earlier in his career by Philadelphia and Dallas, has 50 catches in just seven games, making him Bradford's go-to guy.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: FRANK GORE, RUNNING BACK: Reports of Gore's demise have proven to be quite premature. Through 10 games, he has rushed for 831 yards. Without that kind of production from the running game, quarterback Alex Smith's limitations would make it difficult for the 49ers' offense to be playoff- caliber.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: MARSHAWN LYNCH, RUNNING BACK: Seattle has to be thrilled with the performance thus far of rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, who looks like the real deal. Lynch gets the nod here, though, because it seems he's under appreciated.

How many people would list Lynch among the game's top five running backs? Probably not as many as there ought to be, since he's second in the league in rushing. He's run for better than 100 yards in six of his team's 10 games, and he's reached at least 85 yards rushing in nine of the 10. He's not flashy, but he's productive and dependable.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sports writer since 1985.