NFL's unsung heroes in 2021 season: One player from each AFC team

On Thursday, Feb. 10, NFL Honors (9 p.m. ET. on ABC/NFL Network/ESPN+) will spotlight the stars from the 2021 season. But what about the players whose key contributions flew under the radar?

Nick Shook is celebrating one unsung hero from each team, starting with the AFC side of the league. Check back next week for the NFC honorees.

Baltimore lost running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill before the 2021 season even kicked off, requiring Ravens GM Eric DeCosta to comb the free-agent market for veteran replacements. In came Freeman, a running back who hadn’t done much to impress with the Giants in 2020 but found himself with an opportunity. Freeman capitalized, carrying the ball 133 times for 576 yards, posting his best per-carry average (4.3 yards) in a season with at least 100 attempts since 2017. Baltimore benefitted from Freeman’s relative resurgence, watching him gain 13 first downs against stacked boxes (per Next Gen Stats) and keeping its offense alive despite the losses. Freeman even scored a game-winning touchdown in Chicago that helped the Ravens stay in the playoff race at the time. Freeman’s far from the Pro Bowl talent he was in Atlanta, but he can still contribute, playing an important part in Baltimore’s banged-up offense in 2021.

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I’ll make an important note here: I chose Davis before he exploded for four touchdowns in the Divisional Round. Davis’ record-setting performance in that game wasn’t shocking to anyone who’s consistently watched these Bills. The second-year wideout posted nearly identical stats in 2020 and 2021 on a stacked receiving corps that also included Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley, among others. There’s an easy explanation for his production: Davis might be the perfect complement to big-armed quarterback Josh Allen. Including the playoffs, Davis caught 10 touchdown passes of 10-plus air yards this season, finishing second only to Cincinnati’s big-play star Ja’Marr Chase. Buffalo’s weaponry comprises of much more than just Diggs, and folks are going to get used to hearing Davis’ name.

Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins rightfully receive most of the attention among Cincinnati’s pass catchers, but Boyd can’t be ignored. The sixth-year pro has been a crucial part of Cincinnati’s passing game, especially in the area of the field often overlooked in favor of the highlight-reel deep shots. Boyd is averaging 14.8 yards per target on intermediate passes since Week 7 (including the playoffs), the second-highest mark in the NFL behind San Francisco’s Brandon Aiyuk. Entering the Divisional Round, Joe Burrow owned a perfect passer rating when targeting Boyd on intermediate passes, the only quarterback-receiver duo to do so. Their completion percentage over expected on such attempts stood at +24.5 percent (NGS), also the best mark in that span of time in the league. Boyd isn’t quite as important as Chase, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t deserving of recognition.

The Browns went through it offensively in 2021, operating an offense with an injured quarterback (Baker Mayfield) and a disgruntled receiver (Odell Beckham Jr.) who eventually forced his way out of town right after the trade deadline. Lost amid the drama was Njoku, a former first-round pick who appeared to be on borrowed time in Cleveland prior to the start of 2021 … before reversing the narrative with his play. Njoku led the Browns in receiving touchdowns (four), caught the most passes in a season since his second NFL campaign (36), set a new career-high for yards per catch (13.2) and caught three of his touchdowns on targets of 10-plus air yards, tied for the fourth-most among all tight ends. He also provided whoever was playing quarterback for the Browns (a group that also included Case Keenum and Nick Mullens) with a quality target for a team lacking in the area, coming through enough to rehab his reputation among the team’s faithful. Instead of packing his bags for free agency, Njoku might be in line for a new deal to stick around in Cleveland, a place the tight end says he wants to be “for the rest of my career.”

Denver knows how important Patrick is to its offense and rewarded him in November, giving the former undrafted free-agent signee a three-year contract extension worth up to $34.5 million. There’s a good reason for keeping Patrick in the Mile High City: He finished second in receiving yards for Denver this season with 734, and caught more touchdown passes (five) than any other Bronco. Patrick has proven to be a lucrative target along the sideline, averaging 16.9 yards per reception on passes outside the numbers in 2021, the fourth-highest mark, per Next Gen Stats (minimum 40 such targets). The Broncos have plenty of pass-catching talent with bigger brand names, but don’t overlook Patrick.

At 4-13, the Texans didn’t have a ton of positive moments to cheer for in 2021. But one rookie gave the organization reason to believe there are brighter days ahead at a position that was more uncertain than any other for Houston entering 2021. Mills’ first few professional outings were erratic, but once former coach David Culley decided to give the third-round pick the rest of the season in December, he settled in and played well, posting passer ratings of 92 or better in four of his final five games. Mills even led the Texans to a stunning win over the Chargers in Week 16, throwing two touchdown passes in the second-best game of his young career. His best game came in a close loss the Patriots in Week 5. The tape from those two contests offers proof Mills could end up being the Texans’ quarterback for more than just 11 games of a forgotten season.

Moore’s fifth professional season saw him earn his first Pro Bowl selection, but he’s far from a household name. That didn’t matter to the defensive back in 2021, a season in which he matched his career-high marks in interceptions (four) and passes defensed (13). Moore’s Next Gen Stats profile doesn’t paint a picture of a shutdown corner, but he was an opportunistic one, and he really thrived against the run. Moore’s eight run stuffs (a run stopped for 1 or fewer yards) tied with Kansas City’s L’Jarius Sneed for the most among cornerbacks. Moore proved to be a corner who wasn’t afraid to stick his nose into the run game and played well enough in coverage to earn recognition. In a defense featuring at least a couple of well-known stars, Moore rose to an important role in 2021.

Agnew didn’t play a full season and didn’t see a massive volume of touches in 2021, but he was certainly explosive, reaching 15-plus miles per hour on 22 special teams touches (tied for the 12th-most such occurrences in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats). Agnew found the end zone in three different scenarios — as a rusher, a receiver and a returner — and provided sparks for the talent-poor Jaguars in a difficult season.

Center is among the most important and difficult positions to play in the NFL, which makes Humphrey’s debut season that much more impressive. The second-round pick stepped into the role and manned it deftly from the start, earning Pro Football Focus’ highest grade among all pivots. He thrived in the run game, helping serve as a reliable road grader for the Chiefs’ rotating cast of runners, which gained +166 rushing yards over expected on attempts outside the numbers this season. Patrick Mahomes is the face of the franchise, but Chiefs fans can rest comfortably knowing their team has a stellar young center to snap it to the star quarterback and protect the franchise for years to come.

Zay Jones was a pleasant surprise in Las Vegas’ offense and was nearly my choice here, but it’s extremely difficult to choose him over the player who has a phrase — “Third-and-Renfrow” — built around his reliability on the most important down. Renfrow led the Raiders in receiving yards (1,038) despite averaging just slightly over 10 yards per reception, racking up team highs in catches (103) and touchdowns (nine) while proving himself to be worthy of plenty of attention from Derek Carr. No player was more of an essential part of Las Vegas’ sixth-ranked passing offense than Renfrow, whose route running stumps defenders and whose hands consistently help the Raiders move the chains.

Cook is good for an untimely drop here and there, sure, but the veteran still played a significant role for a Chargers team that fell just short of the postseason. Cook caught 48 passes for 564 yards and four touchdowns in 2021, his 13th NFL season. Three of those scoring grabs came on passes outside the numbers, tying for the fourth-most among tight ends. Justin Herbert had plenty of options in the passing game, as Mike Williams and Keenan Allen each broke 1,100 receiving yards, but Cook still put together a quality season at 34 years old.

Ogbah has quietly been an important part of Miami’s defense in each of the last two seasons. The edge rusher recorded his second straight campaign with nine sacks in 2021 to go along with 41 tackles — and he added a bit of a nose for the ball, recording a career-high 12 passes defensed. Ogbah’s 54 quarterback pressures were the ninth-most among all edge defenders, per Next Gen Stats, amounting to a QB pressure rate over 11 percent. He added 35 stops and six run stuffs, capping the résumé of a player who has been remarkably consistent in his last two seasons. Time for the pending free agent to cash in on the open market.

In an offense that included Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith and Kendrick Bourne, Meyers emerged as New England’s most productive receiver in 2021. The former undrafted free-agent signee led the Patriots with 866 receiving yards, averaging 10.4 yards per reception and finally ending his NFL touchdown drought, ultimately finding the end zone twice. He proved to be a reliable target in the clutch, catching 22 passes when aligned in the slot on third or fourth down in 2021, the second-highest total of such receptions in the NFL (behind only Las Vegas’ Hunter Renfrow). Meyers isn’t a name you’d immediately think of when considering the Patriots, but he was an important one in Mac Jones’ first professional season.

The Jets struggled through their first season under head coach Robert Saleh for a number of reasons, but Berrios wasn’t one of them. Berrios finished fifth in receiving yards among Jets pass catchers, but found an important role as a gadget player down the stretch. His two touchdown rushes on attempts outside the tackles tied with San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel for the second-most among receivers this season, and he also provided value in the return game, averaging 30.4 yards per kick return (including one touchdown return) and picking up 13.4 yards per punt return. Not a bad season for a player heading into free agency.

This rookie tight end has an incredibly bright future in Pittsburgh, provided the Steelers can find an adequate replacement for Ben Roethlisberger. Freiermuth’s first season with the Steelers was a productive one, a campaign in which the Penn State product caught 60 passes for 497 yards and seven touchdowns. His highlight-reel touchdown grab helped lift the Steelers to a win over the Browns in Week 8, and his two-touchdown performance got them another win a week later over the Bears. Freiermuth proved to be versatile, too, catching four of his touchdown passes when aligned wide, the most by any tight end in the NFL. He’s already drawn comparisons to Steelers hero Heath Miller, and he’s been in Pittsburgh for less than a year. Expect Freiermuth’s jersey to fly off the racks in the Steel City.

The Titans were the only team in the NFL to have three defenders record eight or more sacks each in 2021. Two of those names — Jeffery Simmons and Harold Landry — might ring a bell, but it’s unlikely the average fan would be able to list Autry without the help of the internet. Those watching the Titans know how important Autry was in his first season with Tennessee, a campaign in which he matched his career-high in sacks while posting a 2.2 percent sack rate, the 10th-highest mark among all edge defenders (minimum 400 pass rushes, including the playoffs).

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