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NFL's unsung heroes in 2022 season: Spotlighting 1 overlooked/surprise contributor from each AFC team

On Thursday, Feb. 9, NFL Honors (9 p.m. ET. on NBC/NFL Network/Peacock) will spotlight the stars from the 2022 season. But what about the players whose key contributions flew under the radar?

Nick Shook is recognizing one unsung hero from each team, with the selections ranging from surprise difference-makers to players who don't get the attention they deserve. Today, he reveals the AFC honorees.

Baltimore Ravens
10-7 · 2nd in AFC North
Demarcus Robinson
WR · Year 7

I could easily fill this spot with Devin Duvernay, an overlooked receiver who also did a solid job in the return game when called upon, but I'm going with a personal favorite whom I've long seen as a player poised to produce with more targets. Robinson spent the first six years of his career filling the WR3/4 role in Kansas City, never seeing more than 59 targets in a season while consistently producing between 250 and 475 receiving yards each year. I figured he'd get more looks in Baltimore, where the Ravens have lacked weapons outside and traded Marquise Brown to Arizona last offseason. Instead of fully breaking out, Robinson finished with another solid season: 48 receptions, 458 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He's my unsung hero, though, because he did this while again playing a secondary role with a team that ended up trotting out three different quarterbacks in 2022. No matter the passer, you can count on Robinson as a quality supporting cast member. That deserves some praise.

Buffalo Bills
13-3 · 1st in AFC East
Gregory Rousseau
DE · Year 2

The disappointing finish to Buffalo's season left me wondering if things might have gone differently if Von Miller hadn't torn his ACL. Miller was excellent in his first season with Buffalo, and the Bills certainly missed him over the past two months. On the plus side with Buffalo's defensive front, Rousseau seems to be building toward a prosperous future. After recording four sacks as a rookie, Rousseau doubled that total in 2022 despite playing in four less games. PFF graded him as the 20th-best edge rusher in the NFL, and I have a feeling he'll end up even higher in future seasons. This kid is just getting started.

Cincinnati Bengals
12-4 · 1st in AFC North
Tee Higgins
WR · Year 3

Much is made of Ja'Marr Chase, but if 2022 proved anything about the Bengals' receiving corps, it's that Cincy boasts more than just the phenom receiver. When Chase missed a stretch of midseason games due to injury, Higgins found himself as the Bengals' new No. 1 receiver and the focus of additional defensive attention. Instead of wilting, Higgins embraced his new role, breaking 100 receiving yards in consecutive games (Weeks 11 and 12) against a division rival (Pittsburgh) and last season's top AFC seed (Tennessee). With Chase missing four total games from Week 8 through 12, Higgins caught 26 passes for 371 yards and two touchdowns, playing a huge part in the Bengals' midseason return to true contender status. By the time Chase returned, the Bengals were rolling. Much of that is due to Higgins, an excellent receiver who just happens to play alongside one of the league's very best.

Cleveland Browns
7-10 · 4th in AFC North
Jacoby Brissett
QB · Year 7

This one is easy. Brissett joined the Browns and quickly learned he wouldn't just be taking backup reps with his new team. Instead of leaning on a built-in excuse of being QB2, Brissett embraced the job, digesting Kevin Stefanski's offense and executing as well as he possibly could. In 11 starts, Brissett completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,608 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions, establishing a productive connection with fellow new arrival Amari Cooper and keeping the Browns afloat in a situation that would doom plenty of other teams. He also brought with him a mastery of the QB sneak, tying for the second-most successful sneaks with 32 since the start of the 2020 season, per The Athletic's Kalyn Kahler. Brissett became a beloved figure in Cleveland because of his selflessness, willingness to physically sacrifice to keep the chains moving, and his ability to keep the Browns competitive while their franchise quarterback served his suspension. You won't find a more heroic teammate than Brissett.

Denver Broncos
5-12 · 4th in AFC West
Alex Singleton
LB · Year 5

I initially chose Pat Surtain II for this, but his first-team All-Pro designation shows that he's getting his proper due. Singleton, however, still flies under the radar, even after he just put together his best professional season. The folks over at PFF weren't sleeping on Singleton: They graded him at 79.1 overall, good enough to land just outside the top 10 in linebacker grades across the league. This came as a result of injuries forcing Denver to elevate the quiet offseason addition who joined the Broncos as a depth defender and special teamer; he ended up starting 12 games and leading the team in tackles with 163. He'll be a free agent March, and after playing an important part for a stellar (but ultimately wasted) Broncos defense, Singleton should attract some attention on the open market. He's certainly earned it.

Houston Texans
3-13-1 · 4th in AFC South
Jalen Pitre
S · Rookie

2022 was another tough year for the Texans, but some of their young talent showed signs of a promising future. Pitre wasn't perfect -- in fact, at times his aggression cost the Texans -- but throughout the season, the rookie safety was constantly in on the action, poised to make plays on the ball. Pitre finished with five interceptions, eight passes defensed, 147 tackles (five for loss), one sack and one fumble recovery, amassing a quality statistical résumé in his first NFL season. The second-round pick started all 17 games and provided the Texans with the kind of back-end hammer they've sorely lacked in their secondary over the last few years. He has plenty of room for growth, but the tape he put together in 2022 showed his potential matched his draft status -- and honestly, he's fun to watch.

Indianapolis Colts
4-12-1 · 3rd in AFC South
Rodney McLeod
S · Year 11

It was a rough season in Indianapolis, but lost in the maddening disappointment that flooded the Colts was a quality defensive campaign. Bigger names like DeForest Buckner succeeded as expected, while a lesser-known veteran in McLeod quietly put together one of the best seasons of his 11-year career. McLeod finished with a career-high eight passes defensed, two interceptions and a career-best 96 tackles, playing in all 17 games. It's a shame the Colts' offense had such an ugly season, because despite finishing 15th in total defense, Indianapolis had a competitive unit. Instead of receiving praise, McLeod's sterling campaign will end up going overlooked -- except in this space.

Jacksonville Jaguars
9-8 · 1st in AFC South
Evan Engram
TE · Year 6

I could name a number of overlooked Jaguars -- Foye Oluokun, Andre Cisco, Rayshawn Jenkins, etc. -- who made key contributions to their unlikely run to the Divisional Round. Engram gets the nod here, though, because of a few factors. First, he left New York for Jacksonville after underwhelming as a former first-round pick -- and no, do not point to his questionable Pro Bowl selection in 2020 as proof he produced. However, Engram reversed his narrative in 2022, becoming an important weapon in Jacksonville's revamped offense, setting career-high marks in receptions (73) and receiving yards (766) while finishing with four touchdown grabs. His importance was never bigger than just before halftime on Super Wild Card Weekend, when he ran a sharp stick nod over the middle, sliding between three defenders and allowing Trevor Lawrence to find him for a crucial touchdown to cut Los Angeles' lead to 27-7. The Jaguars went on to win that game in stunning fashion, and Engram played a huge part in their comeback, just as he did for much of their turnaround in 2022.

Kansas City Chiefs
14-3 · 1st in AFC West
Jerick McKinnon
RB · Year 9

The departure of Tyreek Hill meant the Chiefs needed to find some new options for Patrick Mahomes. McKinnon's emergence as a pass-catching nightmare was likely not atop anyone's list of expectations. McKinnon existed as a rotational back early in 2022, but emerged as a legitimate threat in the passing game when he rattled off a streak of six straight games with one or more receiving touchdowns. McKinnon's trips to the end zone became as frequent as the arrival of each week's game, and it wasn't until the playoffs that he finally failed to score, going without a target for the first time all season. He's already done enough -- 56 catches for a career-best 512 yards and nine touchdowns -- to earn my respect.

Las Vegas Raiders
6-11 · 3rd in AFC West
Mack Hollins
WR · Year 6

Davante Adams compiled one of the quietest 1,500-yard seasons in recent memory, a product of the Raiders' overall struggles that produced a 6-11 record. While Adams put up stellar numbers once again, Las Vegas often ran into second-half issues with throwing the ball to him. That's where Hollins came through, serving as a surprisingly effective second receiver for Derek Carr and setting career-high marks in receptions (57) and receiving yards (690) while tying his single-season high with four touchdowns. Hollins was such a productive receiver, it seemed at times as if Carr was intentionally looking his way, even if the reality was opposing defenses were often dedicating many resources to taking Adams out of the running. Either way, Hollins stepped up when his number was called.

Los Angeles Chargers
10-7 · 2nd in AFC West
Josh Palmer
WR · Year 2

The Chargers spent much of the 2022 season playing without Keenan Allen and/or Mike Williams, forcing Justin Herbert to rely on lesser-known targets. One of those targets was Palmer, a wideout who played a marginal role in his first NFL season before more than doubling his yardage output out of necessity in Year 2. Palmer finished with 72 catches for 769 yards and three touchdowns, filling in and capitalizing on the opportunity. Los Angeles was clearly a better team with Williams and Allen both available, but Palmer deserves commendation for doing a solid job of replacing them when required.

Miami Dolphins
9-8 · 2nd in AFC East
Jaelan Phillips
OLB · Year 2

We spent the vast majority of 2022 raving over Miami's revamped offense and Tua Tagovailoa's (temporary?) improvement, but lost in the Dolphins' tumultuous run to the playoffs was the play of Phillips, an edge rusher whose stat line was misleading. Phillips finished with 1.5 less sacks than the 8.5 he posted in his rookie season, but the tape tells a different story. Phillips was a relentless rusher, recording 61 tackles, 25 QB hits, 49 QB pressures (11.9 percent QB pressure rate), 46 stops (tackles that result in a successful play for the defense) and one turnover caused by pressure. He should continue to play an important role in Miami's defense as one of its best young players.

New England Patriots
8-9 · 3rd in AFC East
Jakobi Meyers
WR · Year 4

New England's second season with Mac Jones under center didn't go as planned, and their final record stands as proof of the disappointment (which extended well beyond quarterback). One player who didn't underwhelm was Meyers, who led the team in receiving with a healthy 804 yards despite clear issues existing within the Patriots' offense throughout 2022, so much so that the Pats are apparently bringing Bill O'Brien back to man his old offensive coordinator post. After finally reaching the end zone for the first time in his career in 2021, Meyers did so plenty in 2022, recording six receiving touchdowns while playing in the NFL's 20th-ranked passing offense. He outperformed lauded offseason addition DeVante Parker and still found a way to make a difference even while the Patriots struggled to get out of their own way.

New York Jets
7-10 · 4th in AFC East
D.J. Reed
CB · Year 5

Sauce Gardner receives most of the attention when it comes to the Jets' secondary; with a name like Sauce, it was bound to happen. (Yes, his elite play in Year 1 had something to do with it, too.) Those who watched the Jets consistently in 2022 will quickly state that Reed was darn good this season, as well, making for quite a cornerback tandem that had the Jets in a great spot early before injuries undercut their postseason chances. Reed's first season in New York made the Jets' front office look wise: The 26-year-old posted career highs in tackles (80) and passes defensed (12), adding an interception and a forced fumble. Every time I turned on a Jets game, he flashed on the screen. We spent much of the first half of the 2022 season raving about New York's young draft picks (e.g., Gardner, Breece Hall, Garrett Wilson and Jermaine Johnson II), but their free-agent decisions weren't too shabby, either. I'm excited to see Reed play for New York again in 2023 under the direction of Robert Saleh. He's the tough, physical type of cover man who reminds folks that playing cornerback is about more than just finesse.

Pittsburgh Steelers
9-8 · 3rd in AFC North
Alex Highsmith
OLB · Year 3

T.J. Watt's Week 1 pectoral injury dealt a significant blow to a Steelers defense that was expected to be the team's strength in 2022. What folks didn't realize was that former Charlotte standout Highsmith was about to break out. A favorite of mine since watching his workout at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, Highsmith blossomed in 2022, adding the strength he needed entering the league and blending it with his athleticism to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. Without Watt, Highsmith recorded 22 tackles (five for loss), 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Once Watt returned, Highsmith truly took off, finishing with 14.5 sacks, a QB pressure rate of 13.8 percent (a product of the NFL's fifth-most total pressures) and tying for the league lead in forced fumbles with five. Pittsburgh's decision to let Bud Dupree walk two offseasons ago and replace him with Highsmith has paid off.

Tennessee Titans
7-10 · 2nd in AFC South
Ryan Stonehouse
P · Rookie

It's rare to consider a punter as any kind of hero, but Stonehouse isn't just any punter. The undrafted rookie from Colorado State stepped into the starting role in Tennessee and showed off his gigantic leg, finishing 2022 with a record-breaking gross punt average of 53.1 yards, shattering the mark set by the legendary, multi-talented Sammy Baugh set way back in 1940. That was good enough to earn him a selection to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team. Stonehouse gets the nod here because of how he so often flipped the field for a Titans team that came apart offensively.

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