NFL's unsung heroes in 2021 season: One player from each NFC 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. Today, he selects the NFC honorees. Click here for his AFC picks.

Arizona Cardinals
11-6 · 2nd in NFC West
Markus Golden
OLB · Year 7

Quick -- without Googling it -- do you know who led the Cardinals in sacks in 2021? No, it wasn't J.J. Watt. It wasn't Chandler Jones. That honor belonged to Golden, an overlooked rusher who finished with a team-best 11 sacks and tied for the team lead with five turnovers caused by pressure in 2021. The latter statistic also tied for the most by any defender in the NFL this season (min. 250 pass rushes), yet you likely didn't hear much about Golden. That's fine; he was just busy recording a QB pressure percentage over 11 and racking up 33 stops to go along with seven run stuffs. Golden's numbers are comparable with Jones' production in 2021, but only one gets the shine in the national sphere. The other (Golden) is getting it here.

Atlanta Falcons
7-10 · 3rd in NFC South
A.J. Terrell
CB · Year 2

The average football fan might have completely missed out on Terrell's second NFL season, because the 7-10 Falcons weren't exactly the lead-in topic to start every sports-talk show. That shouldn't diminish what was an excellent campaign for the young star. Terrell blossomed into a shutdown corner in 2021, allowing an opposing passer rating of under 50.0 and a completion percentage over expected of -14.6. His targeted expected points added was the best among all defenders in the NFL (min. 50 targets) at -29.4, meaning he was consistently denying opponents' opportunities to put points on the board. Terrell's ballhawk rate flirted with 22 percent, and when you add in three interceptions and 16 passes defensed, you have a corner on the verge of becoming a household name. Terrell won't fly under the radar for much longer.

Carolina Panthers
5-12 · 4th in NFC South
Haason Reddick
OLB · Year 5

The free-agent signee put together quite the first season in Charlotte. He finished with 11 sacks, giving him his second straight season with double-digit quarterback takedowns. Playing alongside standout edge rusher Brian Burns, Reddick was a Next Gen Stats stud, recording a QB pressure percentage of 11.5 (43 total pressures), 12 run stuffs, 52 stops and one turnover caused by pressure, to go along with 68 total tackles. Reddick ranked in the top 10 among rushers (min. 250 snaps) in stops and in the top 15 in stuffs, putting together a season that was about more than just getting after the quarterback.

Chicago Bears
6-11 · 3rd in NFC North
Darnell Mooney
WR · Year 2

Mooney's second season produced the jump the Bears hoped they'd see from him. He increased his totals in receptions (from 61 in 2020 to 81) and receiving yards (from 631 to 1,055), and he played in all 17 games, helping to fill a void left by Allen Robinson, who missed five contests in 2021. Most importantly, Mooney confirmed his place as a key part of Chicago's passing attack going forward. Mooney proved himself to be a consistent producer when defenses didn't challenge him at the line of scrimmage, gaining the sixth-most receiving yards versus off coverage (767) in 2021. He became a top offensive option despite playing with multiple quarterbacks, and he'll return as a key part of a Bears team still in search of additional playmakers.

Dallas Cowboys
12-5 · 1st in NFC East
Ced Wilson
WR · Year 3

An overlooked receiver in a star-laden offense, Wilson grabbed his opportunities with a vise grip, catching 45 of his 61 targets for 602 yards and six touchdowns and twice breaking 100 receiving yards in front of national audiences. The first time -- Dallas' heartbreaking 36-33 loss on Thanksgiving Day to the Las Vegas Raiders -- he hauled in seven passes for 104 yards, and the second time -- a Saturday night blowout win over Philadelphia -- he led all pass-catchers with 119 yards and two touchdowns on five grabs. He didn't get a ton of attention from opposing defenses due to the presence of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb, but when he was asked to fill in for them, Wilson followed through. He posted a catch rate over expected of +18.6 percent on targets of 10-plus air yards, the third-highest mark in the NFL (min. 20 such targets). Wilson is headed to free agency and is likely to find a new home (and a pay increase) with a team looking for a receiver who can contribute when called upon.

Detroit Lions
3-13-1 · 4th in NFC North
Amon-Ra St. Brown
WR · Year 1

The Lions entered 2021 with what was essentially a no-name cast of receivers for Jared Goff. New arrival Tyrell Williams was only able to play in one game before he was released, and the rest of the group consisted of second-year wideout Quintez Cephus (a personal favorite whose season was cut short by injury), Kalif Raymond, free-agent pickup Trinity Benson, Tom Kennedy and fourth-round pick St. Brown. The former five-star recruit from Southern California power Mater Dei took advantage of the opportunity, appearing in all 17 games and steadily improving down the back stretch of the season. St. Brown posted consecutive 100-plus-yard games in his final two outings as part of a 90-catch, 912-yard debut campaign that also included five receiving touchdowns. Much of this was earned after Detroit's Week 7 bye, building plenty of positive momentum going into Year 2. The Lions have to be excited about St. Brown's potential.

Green Bay Packers
13-4 · 1st in NFC North
Rasul Douglas
CB · Year 5

Linebacker De'Vondre Campbell also has a strong case for this spot, but I'm going with Douglas because of how well he performed in clutch situations. Douglas played in 12 regular-season games for Green Bay and recorded an interception in a third of those games, finishing with five interceptions and returning two for touchdowns. Most of those picks came in key moments, denying opposing offenses chances of taking late leads and sending them home losers. Douglas immediately made a difference upon arriving in Green Bay as an in-season addition and sustained it throughout the campaign, posting the seventh-highest ballhawk rate among defenders (min. 50 targets) at 20 percent, including playoffs, per Next Gen Stats. He stepped in to fill a massive void left by an injury to Jaire Alexander and helped Green Bay earn the NFC's top seed. Heroic, indeed.

Los Angeles Rams
12-5 · 1st in NFC West
Sony Michel
RB · Year 4

Acquired from the Patriots via trade following Cam Akers' Achilles injury last summer, Michel needed some time to get his feet under him in Southern California, which diluted his season-long statistics. That's not important here. Michel stepped up when it mattered most, keying a late-season run that saw the Rams overtake the Cardinals for the NFC West title. During Los Angeles' five-game winning streak in Weeks 13-17, Michel tied for first in the NFL in total carries, ranked second in rushing first downs gained and tied for sixth among running backs in yards per attempt (4.6). His rushes over expected percentage jumped from 25.3 percent in Weeks 1-12 to 32.0 from Weeks 13-18, while his yards per carry also saw a slight boost from 3.9 to 4.2. In that stretch of time, Michel twice broke 120 rushing yards. His clutch output helped get the Rams back on track with enough time for Akers to make a surprise return and boost Los Angeles' path to the Super Bowl.

Minnesota Vikings
8-9 · 2nd in NFC North
Tyler Conklin
TE · Year 4

This honor could also go to K.J. Osborn, who finished with seven touchdowns in 2021, but I'm going with Conklin because of the importance of the tight end to Minnesota's offensive attack. While Osborn operated as Minnesota's third receiver in a group that also included Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, Conklin was TE1 -- and he still caught 61 passes for 593 yards and three touchdowns. He filled a vital role in an offense that often relies on play-action, adding to the unpredictability of Minnesota's wide zone attack by catching 38 passes when aligned tight, the third-most among tight ends in the NFL. Conklin was more than just an in-line safety valve -- he was a weapon who was able to strike in traditional running sets.

New Orleans Saints
9-8 · 2nd in NFC South
Marquez Callaway
WR · Year 2

Another season without Michael Thomas meant the Saints had to turn elsewhere for targets in 2021. In stepped Callaway, who gave Saints fans a preview of his potential with some highlight-level preseason play, then found a way to lead the team in receiving yards (albeit without topping 700) while also playing with four different quarterbacks. The 2021 season was a complicated challenge for the Saints offensively, but Callaway was a bright spot, finishing with a career-high 698 yards and six touchdowns in 17 games. Those numbers don't come close to the league's top receivers, but the Saints weren't exactly working with a premier, talent-laden offense. Callaway proved to be a downfield threat, catching all six of his touchdowns on passes of 10-plus air yards (tied for eighth-most touchdowns on such receptions in the NFL). New Orleans will surely hold out hope Thomas can again be an important contributor, but Callaway did a solid job of filling in for him in 2021.

New York Giants
4-13 · 4th in NFC East
Devontae Booker
RB · Year 6

Here's a fun trivia question to run by your pals: Who led the Giants in rushing in 2021? No, it wasn't Saquon Barkley or Devontae Booker -- it was both. The two backs tied at 593 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns each, and Booker ended up being the more efficient of the two, averaging 4.1 yards per carry (Barkley finished with 3.7). Booker also broke off runs of 10-plus yards on 17 percent of his attempts against a neutral box, per NGS, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL (min. 40 rushes). There weren't a ton of positive results for the Giants offensively this season, but Booker can consider 2021 to be a personal success.

Philadelphia Eagles
9-8 · 2nd in NFC East
Javon Hargrave
DT · Year 6

Hargrave carries with him deserved name recognition, but that doesn't preclude him from making this list. The reason: His production was important to Philadelphia's chances of success, especially when Fletcher Cox struggled to get it going early in 2021. Hargrave filled that void nicely, recording six of his 7.5 sacks in the Eagles' first five games (his strip-sack of Dak Prescott resulted in a touchdown for Cox in Week 3). Hargrave was strong all season long, recording the most QB pressures among interior defensive linemen with 60 (including playoffs). His three turnovers caused by pressure tied for the most among all interior defensive linemen. Philadelphia should be happy to have him as one half of a dynamite interior tandem, even if Hargrave -- who earned his first career Pro Bowl nod this season -- doesn't get as much recognition as six-time Pro Bowler Cox.

San Francisco 49ers
10-7 · 3rd in NFC West
Brandon Aiyuk
WR · Year 2

San Francisco's turnaround forced the football world to take note of the heroics of do-everything playmaker Deebo Samuel, who certainly deserved the attention. But lost in the praise for Samuel was Aiyuk's career-best season, in which he caught 56 passes for 826 yards and five touchdowns. Aiyuk certainly benefitted from sharing the field with Samuel, but he also did his part when targeted, making both the easy and difficult grabs to help the 49ers' offense keep moving. Aiyuk racked up 254 receiving yards on slant routes this season (including playoffs), the most in the NFL. When it came time for San Francisco's Cinderella-like postseason run, Aiyuk was there to make a difference, too, catching nine passes for 135 yards in the 49ers' three playoff games. He finished third in receiving in an offense that also included Samuel and all-world tight end George Kittle, and he didn't trail them by much. Aiyuk was challenged by his coach to be better in his second NFL season, and he answered the call.

Seattle Seahawks
7-10 · 4th in NFC West
Jordyn Brooks
OLB · Year 2

Don't look now, but the first-round pick Seattle spent on Brooks in 2020 appears to have been well worth it. Brooks piled up an incredible 183 tackles -- the second-most in the NFL -- in 17 games in 2021, and it didn't take long when watching the Seahawks to notice the impact he has on a game. Brooks is seemingly always in the right place to make a play, no matter the situation, and he finished fifth among NFL linebackers in stops (76). His stat line was very similar to that of lauded teammate Bobby Wagner, and he even outperformed Wagner in a couple of categories (QB pressures, run stuffs). He's another name you'll want to become accustomed to hearing, because his arrow is firmly pointed upward.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13-4 · 1st in NFC South
Leonard Fournette
RB · Year 5

Fournette's selection isn't surprising and might not even pass the smell test for an "unsung" hero, but he's here because of how integral he was to the Buccaneers' offense. After struggling to get on board with Tampa's title pursuit in 2020, Fournette flourished in 2021, leading the team in rushing yards (812, with eight touchdowns) and finishing fifth in receiving yards (454, with two touchdowns). Fournette finished fourth in the NFL in receiving yards gained after the catch when aligned in the backfield at 295, proving he’s more than just a ball-carrying bulldozer. His 10 total scores ranked second on the team behind only Mike Evans, and his value was on full display late in the season, when he wasn't on the field due to injury. Fournette returned in time for Tampa Bay's Divisional Round game and scored two touchdowns in the loss. That result shouldn't define his importance to a Buccaneers offense that, at full strength, was loaded with talent.

Washington Commanders
7-10 · 3rd in NFC East
Jonathan Allen
DT · Year 5

Chase Young and Montez Sweat receive plenty of attention for their exploits, but the less glamorous defensive interior featured the contributions of the guy who I believe was Washington's most important (yet unheralded) player. Allen finished fourth among interior defensive linemen with 55 quarterback pressures, recorded nine sacks (2.2 percent sack rate), forced two turnovers via pressure and posted eight run stuffs and 44 stops. Allen proved himself to be a reliable interior defender despite the unit failing to live up to its sterling defensive reputation in 2021 (Washington finished 22nd in total defense).

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