Every year, we know the stars who will shape the NFL season. We know Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow will impact the Super Bowl race, and we know non-quarterbacks like Justin Jefferson, Trent Williams and Micah Parsons will play huge roles in their teams' successes. They're stars for a reason.
Trying to determine under-the-radar difference-makers is a tougher task. First, we must define "under-the-radar." Are they under-appreciated? Do they play a position not often recognized? Do they have teammates who overshadow them? Do we just not know them ... yet? Have we forgotten about them? A mix of some or all of those things?
And then these players have to be able to make a big impact, too. Do they play a crucial position? Are they major question marks? Are they X-factors in teams or teammates reaching expectations? It's a delicate balance.
It's hard for quarterbacks to be under the radar. One could argue they are the radar. But four in particular -- for various reasons -- fit into this category right now.
1. Kyler Murray, Cardinals: No, Kyler Murray the player isn't under the radar, but Kyler Murray the situation is. Will he play in 2023, and if so, how much? Murray and didn't have surgery . The Cardinals are projected to be the worst team in the NFL, and if they're out of the playoff picture early, is there a compelling reason for Arizona to hurry Murray back? Furthermore, the Cardinals have their own pick and the Texans' pick in the first round in 2024, a class that features quarterbacks Caleb Williams and Drake Maye.
2. Brock Purdy/Trey Lance/Sam Darnold, 49ers: The fact that the team with the third-shortest odds to win the Super Bowl doesn't know who its starting quarterback will be speaks volumes about how much talent the 49ers have and how much Kyle Shanahan helps whomever is under center. Still, someone has to do it. Is is a quarterback battle? Is Purdy the shoo-in? What if Lance's athleticism wows in the preseason? This is a win-now team, and Purdy has proven he can win.
3. Sam Howell, Commanders: There aren't particularly high expectations surrounding Howell, a former fifth-round pick who started one game as a rookie. But consider this: The Commanders had downright awful quarterback play and still weren't eliminated from playoff contention until Week 17. There's enough talent on the roster for just passable play from Howell to be enough.
4. Baker Mayfield, Buccaneers: With Tom Brady gone, the Buccaneers will take a step back at quarterback, but they still have Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and they maintained a lot of talent on defense. They're not tanking. Like Howell's situation in Washington, just O.K. quarterback play could go a long way. Unlike Howell in the NFC East, though, Mayfield's NFC South is eminently winnable.
5. Damien Harris Bills: Over the past two seasons, Harris scored 12 touchdowns in goal-to-go situations, 10th in the NFL. If Harris can add physicality to Buffalo's rushing attack, that will take allow Josh Allen to rush less often in short-yardage situations and, in turn, be a huge plus to Buffalo's offensive versatility overall.
6. Cam Akers, RB, Rams: The Rams are in a strange place with few remainders of the 2021 title team -- Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and Aaron Donald chief among them -- but with a roster full of rookies and other unproven youngsters. Akers falls somewhere in between. He was the Rams' feature back during their Super Bowl run and then was eight months later. There's clear talent. He had three straight games of over 100 rushing yards to close last year. The Rams need that talent on display on a consistent basis.
7. Jamaal Williams, Saints: After 13 rushing touchdowns over his first five seasons combined, Williams exploded for a league-high 17 last year thanks to a massive red-zone workload. But he wasn't just a goal-line hammer. He carried the ball 262 times for over 1,000 yards, both blowing away previous career highs. A solid pass catcher as well, Williams will have a big role, one that will grow even more if Alvin Kamara .
8. David Montgomery, Lions: The Lions essentially swapped out Williams for Montgomery and D'Andre Swift for rookie Jahmyr Gibbs, giving themselves a completely new look in the backfield. Montgomery has posted at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage each of his four seasons, and he'll be playing behind one of the league's best offensive lines.
9. Rashod Bateman, Ravens: Bateman isn't the shiny new toy -- that's first-round rookie Zay Flowers -- and he isn't the biggest name -- that's Odell Beckham Jr. -- in the Ravens' wide receiver room, but he might have the biggest upside. In three full games before getting injured last year, he had 226 receiving yards and two touchdowns. The Ravens will throw more with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken, and Bateman's presence would be a huge help.
10. Chase Claypool, Bears: Claypool exploded out of the gates with 11 touchdowns as a rookie before falling out of favor to the point where midway through last season. The Bears gave up a second-round pick, so they clearly had big things in mind, but Claypool struggled. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy says Claypool is this offseason. He has the size and explosiveness to be a key part of this offense alongside D.J. Moore and Darnell Mooney.
11. Michael Pittman Jr., Colts: After 12.4 yards per reception across his first two seasons, Pittman notched just 9.3 last season in what was an offensive disaster with Matt Ryan at the helm. Now Pittman gets rocket-armed Anthony Richardson. Pittman proved he can be a legitimate No. 1 in 2021, and with his big body and catching radius, he should be a reliable option for Richardson right away.
12. Kadarius Toney, Chiefs: In the lone game Toney played at least 40% of the snaps for the Chiefs offense last year, he turned six touches into 80 yards and a touchdown. In the Super Bowl, he caught a touchdown and nearly returned a punt for another. The skill has never been a question here. Toney is electric with the ball in his hands, and Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes should figure out how to take advantage.
13. Jameson Williams, Lions: Williams fell off the radar a bit after missing much of his rookie season with a torn ACL and fell even further off this offseason after being . But when he returns, Williams should be able to be the Lions' top outside receiver and a complement to Amon-Ra St. Brown, especially given the Lions' otherwise-nondescript receiver room.
14. DJ Chark, Panthers: Chark burst onto the scene with a Pro Bowl second season, but injuries have limited him to just 28 of a potential 50 games over the past three campaigns. The Panthers also added Adam Thielen in free agency and drafted Jonathan Mingo in the second round, but Chark is a ready-made deep threat with 6'4" size and 4.34 speed. He should become an important target for Bryce Young quickly.
15. Michael Mayer, Raiders: Mayer was the top-ranking tight end in our draft rankings, but he wasn't the first (Dalton Kincaid) or even the second (Sam LaPorta) one taken. When they saw him falling, the Raiders traded up to get the former Notre Dame star. Following Darren Waller's departure, Mayer should step right into a big role on an offense whose quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo) and play-caller (Josh McDaniels) have shaped offenses around their tight ends.
16. Chigoziem Okonkwo, Titans: Okonkwo is the leading returning receiver for the Titans despite having just 450 receiving yards last year. That's how dire the pass catchers were in Tennessee. Along with fellow second-year pass catcher Treylon Burks and DeAndre Hopkins, Okonkwo hopes to provide this offense some explosiveness: His 14.1 yards per catch led all tight ends last year (min. 30 receptions).
17. Juwan Johnson, Saints: A non-factor in 2020 and 2021 as a wide receiver, Johnson switched to tight end in 2022, and it worked wonders. His seven touchdown catches were tied for third-most among tight ends, and eight of his 42 catches went for at least 20 yards. Derek Carr is at his best with a big, athletic wide receiver-turned-tight end -- Darren Waller, anyone? -- and Johnson has that profile.
18. Donovan Smith (OT), Chiefs: Needing to replace both tackles this offseason, the Chiefs spent big on right tackle Jawaan Taylor and opted for with Smith to protect Patrick Mahomes' blindside. Smith missed a career-high four games last year and posted his worst "beat percentage" since the stat began in 2017, but he has generally been rock-solid throughout his career.
19. Anton Harrison (OT), Jaguars: Jacksonville traded back multiple times before nabbing Harrison, who is expected to start immediate at right tackle after Cam Robinson's . Harrison is also potentially a Walker Little injury away from sliding over to left tackle, where he played at Oklahoma.
20. Andre Dillard (OT), Titans: Dillard was a 2019 first-round pick who never cracked the Eagles' starting lineup consistently. He lost all of the 2020 season to injury and hardly played last year either. When he did play in 2019 and 2021, he allowed a 10.6% pressure rate. To put that in perspective, the worst qualifying lineman last season, Greg Little, allowed 10.5%. The Titans gave Dillard , so they clearly see something there. They need him to prove them right.
21. Mike McGlinchey (OT), Broncos: McGlinchey got to protect former division rival Russell Wilson, and that's a big investment in a player that's had some ups and downs. McGlinchey was beaten on a career-worst 5.3% of snaps last season, and he allowed six sacks, tying the most of his career. He is, however, a very good run blocker, and Sean Payton's arrival in Denver should clean things up offensively.
22. Billy Turner (OL) Jets: Perhaps the most under-the-radar player on this list, Turner might not play much initially. But the starting tackles ahead of him are Mekhi Becton, who has played one game over the past two seasons, and Duane Brown, who will be 38 when the season begins. Turner, now Aaron Rodgers, can play both tackle spots and both guard spots. Don't be surprised if he's getting crucial snaps down the stretch.
23. Ryan Kelly (C), Colts: After three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons, Kelly wasn't quite his best last year, though the Colts' entire offense struggling didn't help. Now, in comes Richardson, who is the exact opposite of Matt Ryan in terms of playing style. New head coach Shane Steichen requires a lot from his centers -- Jason Kelce in Philadelphia, for example -- so Kelly is in an important spot.
24. Juice Scruggs (C), Texans: C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson are the rookies getting all the headlines, but Scruggs, a second-round center, will be vital in Stroud's success -- or lack thereof. Unlike Young in Carolina (Bradley Bozeman) or Richardson in Indianapolis (Kelly), Stroud doesn't have a veteran center helping him acclimate. Scruggs will have to grow up quickly.
25. Joe Tippmann (C), Jets: Rodgers has had plenty of solid centers throughout his career, and the Jets hope Tippmann, a second-round rookie from Wisconsin, can be the next. Given Rodgers' propensity to and improvise after the ball is snapped, Tippmann has a big ask in a year the Jets have big expectations.
26. John Michael Schmitz (C), Giants: Surprise! Another second-round center with key responsibilities immediately. Schmitz and Daniel Jones will have to mesh quickly after the Giants lost both of their main center options -- Jon Feliciano and Nick Gates -- in free agency.
27. Josh Uche (EDGE), Patriots: Last year, Uche had a league-best 21.1% pressure rate (min. 200 pass rush snaps). A pass-rush specialist in every sense of the word, Uche's 11.5 sacks were the most of any player who played no more than 400 snaps since at least 2007, which is as far back as Pro Football Focus snap counts go.
28. Odafe Oweh (EDGE), Ravens: The Ravens generated pressure on just 30% of opponent dropbacks last season, their lowest in the last six years. Oweh, a former first-round pick, will be charged with changing that. He had just three sacks last season after five as a rookie, and his pressure percentage fell as well. Oweh should be in line for starter duty, though David Ojabo could push him.
29. and 30. Dalvin Tomlinson (DL) and Ogbo Okoronkwo (EDGE), Browns: Tomlinson, Okoronkwo and Za'Darius Smith (who, as a 2022 Pro Bowler, is very much on the radar) are the top new pieces in an overhauled Browns front seven that also includes superstar Myles Garrett. Tomlinson is a quality run defender, and Cleveland desperately needs that after finishing 27th in defensive rush success rate. Okoronkwo is one I'm excited about: Last year, he produced 25 hurries on just 257 pass rush snaps, the ninth-best rate among 141 players with at least 250 pass rush snaps. Two of the players ahead of him -- Garrett and Smith -- are now his teammates. The Cleveland pass rush should be fun.
31. Gregory Rousseau (EDGE), Bills: In his second year, Rousseau doubled his rookie-year sack total (from four to eight) and raised his pressure rate to 15.2%, good for 13th among 141 players who had at least 250 pass rush snaps last year. Rousseau is immensely talented and just 23 years old. With Von Miller coming off a torn ACL, Rousseau must lead the Buffalo pass rush.
32. Jaelan Phillips (EDGE), Dolphins: Last season, 50 different players took at least 400 pass rush snaps. The fastest average time to apply pressure among those 50? Phillips at a blazing 2.29 seconds. Second on that list? Micah Parsons at 2.32. That's pretty good company. Phillips has 15.5 sacks through his first two seasons, and I wouldn't be surprised if he comes close to that this season alone.
33. Rashan Gary (EDGE), Packers: After breaking out in 2021, Gary was on track for a monster 2022 campaign -- his 19.9% pressure rate was best in the NFL among players who had at least 20 pass rush snaps per game -- . Gary's in the final year of his rookie deal, and how he comes back will be a huge factor in his next contract (whether it's with Green Bay or not) and whether the Packers can stay afloat in their first year post-Rodgers.
34. Marcus Davenport (EDGE), Vikings: Davenport had nine sacks in 2021 and looked to be turning the corner toward playing like the former first-rounder he is. Then he had just a half-sack last season. The Vikings took a chance on Davenport with a one-year prove-it deal. He hopes to prove he's the 2021 version of himself.
35. George Karlaftis (EDGE), Chiefs: Last season, 5.5 of Karlaftis' six sacks came after Week 11. With Frank Clark in Denver and Carlos Dunlap a free agent, Karlaftis must prove his late-season surge was a sign of things to come for the reigning Super Bowl champs.
36. Uchenna Nwosu (EDGE), Seahawks: Promoted to a full-time player after coming over from the Chargers, Nwosu did not disappoint: 9.5 sacks, 26 quarterback hits and a 14.9% pressure rate. Those last two figures both ranked in the top 10 among 50 players with at least 400 pass rush snaps. Is there another level Nwosu can get to? The Seahawks hope so.
37. Kenneth Murray, Chargers: After having his fifth-year option declined, Murray enters the final year of his rookie deal in need of a big campaign. The former first-round pick has just two career sacks, and the Chargers allowed an NFL-worst 5.4 yards per carry last year. Murray's run stops were way down -- he had 66 in 2020 and 43 in 2022 -- and he missed seven tackles in the run game, as many as his first two seasons combined.
38. Nakobe Dean, Eagles: Dean slid all the way to the third round of the 2022 draft , but the former Georgia star will get to prove teams wrong this year after T.J. Edwards departed in free agency. Dean played just 37 defensive snaps as a rookie, so replacing Edwards and his 159 tackles (tied for sixth in the NFL) is a big task.
39. Cole Holcomb, Steelers: Holcomb has alternated between productive years and injury-impacted years, and the Steelers are hoping they get the former. Always an active tackler, Holcomb showed strides in coverage and had a pair of interceptions in 2021 before regressing in just seven games last year.
40. Shaquille Leonard, Colts: After three first-team All-Pro selections in his first four years, Leonard played in just three games last year, and his absence was felt: The Colts' defense was 21st in success rate and 30th in passer rating allowed. They were 19th in turnovers forced. Quite simply, they didn't create enough havoc. Leonard, nicknamed "Maniac," will bring some of that back.
41. Budda Baker (S) Cardinals: Similar to teammate Kyler Murray, Baker isn't so much an under-the-radar player as he is in an under-the-radar situation. A two-time first-team All-Pro, Baker as he looks to become the league's highest-paid safety. The Cardinals will likely fly under the radar this season, but keep an eye out for Baker potentially being on the move and shifting the defensive landscape wherever he lands.
42. Dax Hill (DB) Bengals: After losing Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell this offseason, the Bengals are overhauling their safety unit with Hill and free agent Nick Scott. Hill, a 2022 first-round pick, got what was essentially a redshirt year last year, playing just 123 defensive snaps. Lauded for his versatility coming out of Michigan, Hill should be an important part of Cincinnati's defense.
43. Tashaun Gipson (S), 49ers: Gipson barely sneaks under the radar, but that's through no fault of his own. Last season, he had five interceptions and allowed a 19.3 passer rating as the primary defender, the best of 267 defenders who played at least 200 coverage snaps. He's an absolutely terrific player for one of the league's best defenses, and he should be very much on our radar by now.
44. Jeff Okudah (CB) Falcons: The third overall pick in 2020, Okudah had a rough rookie year and a second year almost completely erased by injury. Then he showed really encouraging signs last year: 55.6% completion percentage as primary defender (71.4 in first two seasons) and 8.6 yards per attempt (11.9 in first two seasons). If he can stay healthy and continue to improve, will be a steal for the Falcons.
45. Tre'Davious White (CB) Bills: White was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2019 and a second-team selection in 2020. Then he tore his ACL late in 2021, played just six games last season and didn't appear quite himself. But he's only 28 years old, and players often look significantly better in their second year removed from a major injury. At his peak, White was a true lockdown corner and arguably the best one in the game.
46. JaQuan Brisker (S) Bears: Last season, Brisker became the first rookie to record at least 100 tackles and at least four sacks since Shaquille Leonard and Roquan Smith in 2018 and the first rookie defensive back to do it... ever. Not too shabby. Still, the Bears were last in scoring defense, 29th in total defense, and last in yards per attempt allowed. The Bears have made lots of upgrades, but if the defense isn't significantly better, it might not matter much.
47. Stephon Gilmore (CB) Cowboys: The Cowboys' offseason was relatively quiet, with a pair of trades for veterans -- Gilmore and Brandin Cooks -- as the most significant moves. After winning Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, Gilmore will be on his fourth team in four seasons. With Trevon Diggs as the top corner, Gilmore should have some easier assignments and more chances for big plays.
48. and 49. Emmanuel Moseley (CB) and Cameron Sutton (CB), Lions: Fellow newcomer C.J. Gardner-Johnson would have made this list, too, but his league high-tying six interceptions last season put him firmly on the radar. Moseley was solid for San Francisco before playing just five games last year. Sutton allowed a 46.8% completion percentage as the primary defender last year. Only James Bradberry and Sauce Gardner were better (min. 500 coverage snaps).
50. Reed Blankenship (S), Eagles: With Gardner-Johnson gone, Blankenship is in prime position to take over as a starting safety alongside Terrell Edmunds. Blankenship got a decent amount of playing time as a rookie and even picked off Rodgers, but being an every-down player is a big jump.