Every team in serious contention for the Super Bowl has its share of secret superstars on the roster. And any personnel executive worth his or her salt will tell you that the construction of that roster must be done with the expectation that the guys at the bottom of the roster will ascend to the top over time. It's done primarily through the draft, though depth can also be compiled through free agency to a degree. No matter how it happens, scouts, coaches and general managers really make their money by the effectiveness with which they acquire and develop those players who come up from the later rounds (or no rounds at all) and eventually gain traction.
The NFL regular season opener between the Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers will involve several such players, and we'd like to kick off the 2014 version of the All-22 by featuring four players you may not know now but should see more of over time.
Green Bay Packers
Running back DuJuan Harris
The Packers added muscle to their high-octane offense when they took Alabama running back Eddie Lacy in the second round of the 2013 draft. Lacy brought a new element of toughness and consistency to a team that had relied on Aaron Rodgers to a disproportionate degree at times, and that balance showed in the 2013 season. Lacy gained 1,178 yards and scored 11 rushing touchdowns on 284 carries, but as impressive as he was last season, the back to watch this season could be Harris, the undrafted free agent out of Troy who spent his rookie season with the Jaguars in 2011 before the Packers picked him up. Harris had a cup of coffee in 2012 and missed the entire 2013 campaign with a ruptured patellar tendon, but he has come back strong in 2014. According to Pro Football Focus, he caused defenders to miss 10 tackles on his 31 carries, and the tape backs it up. At 5-foot-7 and 197 pounds, Harris has an enticing blend of elusiveness, straight-line speed and surprising power.
"He’s a different guy," Rodgers told me this week. "We have James [Starks] and Eddie [Lacy] who are bigger backs who can make you miss, but they also run with power. DuJuan does it with making you miss. He’s a little scatback; he’s got really good feet. He’s tough to corral in space and in tight quarters too. He has really good moves. He’s a smart guy; he can block in the pass protection. He can block guys a lot bigger than he is and I think he’s figuring it back out. He’s getting his legs underneath him, and he’s looking like he did a couple seasons ago when he was our feature back."
"You never have enough running backs in this league," said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. "I mean, it’s a very demanding position. It’s something that obviously you’re getting hit the majority of the time for your job responsibilities, so it’s great to have DuJuan back. It’s tough to see one of your guys going through the season ending with an injury. He’s responded very well and he looks great."
Harris frequently looked great this preseason, but this seven-yard run with 2:58 left in the first quarter in Green Bay's 34-14 Week 4 preseason win over the Chiefs stood out to me. Harris read the gap well and quickly, reacted with a cool little side-step as things started to close down, and hit the line with tremendous quickness. People in the league will tell you that when it comes to running backs, it's speed through the hole that counts, not speed to the hole. And Harris, as a dynamic change-of-pace back for one of the NFL's best offenses, has what it takes to be a real factor.
Defensive end Mike Daniels
Daniels was a relative steal in the fourth round of the 2012 draft because NFL teams weren't quite sure what to do with him. At 6-1 and 291 pounds, Daniels didn't really fit any easily accessible type -- he wasn't big enough to be a traditional interior lineman against the run, and most teams who select 3-4 ends for their base defenses prefer more height. Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert once told me that 6-3 is roughly the low bar at that particular position. Still, Daniels was productive enough in college to deserve a shot somewhere, and in Dom Capers' multiple fronts, Daniels found ways to succeed at both end and tackle, depending on whether the Packers were playing base or substitution defense. He amassed two sacks in his rookie season but really came alive last year, racking up 6.5 sacks on just 553 snaps and tallying six quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries. Daniels does it with atypical upper-body strength and tremendous movement skill from gap to gap.
"He really took a jump between years one and two, and we expect him to take another jump between two and three," Rodgers said. "He’s a talented guy. He’s a leader and he doesn’t have your prototypical defensive line body; he’s a little shorter, but he makes up with it with a really high motor. He’s a tough guy, he can get off blocks, shed blocks, rush the passer well. He uses his hands pretty effectively. He’s the guy that gets our defense going."
"Mike is one of the all-time attitude-type players that you just love having on your football team. He’s one of the individuals that’s here year-round, working out, just can’t get enough of it. His passion, his love for football, and his work ethic -- it all just lines up and this is the result."
Here was the result when the Packers played the Eagles last November: Daniels lined up on the outside shoulder of right guard Todd Herremans, took a couple of quick steps and used a vicious rip move to get inside center Jason Kelce's left shoulder. He closed quickly on quarterback Nick Foles, and that was that. The Packers are planning to use Daniels in more base packages, and if his snap count moves up to the 700-800 range, you could be looking at an emerging Pro Bowl-level talent.
When the Seahawks traded 2009 first-round bust Aaron Curry to the Oakland Raiders in October of 2011, it was a case of trying to make the best of a seemingly safe pick gone horribly wrong. Curry was the fourth overall player taken in the 2009 draft, and the Wake Forest linebacker's inability to remotely live up to his selection hastened the demise of then-general manager Tim Ruskell. When Pete Carroll and new GM John Schneider exhausted their own options with Curry's limited potential, they sent him to Oakland in the first move the Raiders made after Al Davis' death. Seattle received two draft picks in return for Curry, which they turned into defensive tackle-turned-offensive guard J.R. Sweezy from North Carolina State (seventh round, 2012), and LSU cornerback Tharold Simon (fifth round, 2013). It's early yet, but seeing as Curry is now out of the league and Sweezy and Simon might be two of the NFL's breakout young players in 2014, it's safe to say that the Seahawks got the better of this deal.
Right guard J.R. Sweezy
Put simply, Sweezy was one of Seattle's few liabilities in its first Super Bowl championship season. Not that it was all his fault -- Sweezy told me this week that before he was selected by the Seahawks to play guard, he'd never played a single offensive snap at any level of football. Not at North Carolina State, not as a star linebacker at Mooresville High, and certainly not as the North Carolina 3A wrestling champion, though that last designation perhaps provided a glimpse of his NFL future. Sweezy started five games in his rookie season and was then pressed into service as the team's starting right guard for every game of the 2013 season -- Week 1 right through the Super Bowl. Sweezy gave up one sack, four quarterback hits and 25 hurries last season -- not bad overall numbers, but tape showed him to have a large number of "blocked-back" moments, in which he was simply physically overwhelmed by the defender he was blocking. It was a pretty severe adjustment.
"You get to the point of the draft where there is a certain level of athleticism, and there is a cutoff," Schneider said in April, 2012, minutes after Sweezy was taken, when asked why the Seahawks didn't just, you know, draft a guard who had played guard before. "Here’s a guy who is really tough, aggressive, quick defensive lineman who the staff at N.C. State would tell you, ‘This guy has a chance to be a really good offensive lineman, too.’ Once we heard that, we asked [offensive line coach] Tom Cable to fly down there and work him out and spend some time with him, and he came back raving about the workout. There are certain guys that have a certain defensive mentality that you would like to have on your offensive line, and he’s in that category."
As Sweezy told me this week, re-learning the mentality was one of the big adjustments -- he now has to set and protect instead of firing out all the time.
"It was a complete 180," he said. "It was a complete switch in my mind, these situations where I need to be patient versus when I can be aggressive like I was on defense. It's just understanding offensive line, and I'm just trying to progress and progress to do that."
Based on his 2014 preseason, however, the kid's got it down. Sweezy had dropped down to 295 pounds at the end of last season, but he's bulked back up to 310 at 6-5, and he's now setting the tone at the line of scrimmage far more often. More than ever, he's deciding the leverage battles from the word go. He's also far more pinpoint when asked to hit the second level, as linemen are frequently asked to do in Cable's aggressive zone system.
"Definitely. I've been learning this offense for -- this will be my third year, and I'm finally to the point where I'm comfortable and I understand it," Sweezy said. "Inside, outside -- anything you want to know about the offense, I finally understand fully. I gained a little weight, so I'm feeling good, and feeling like an offensive lineman. It's what I've been trying to do, and I'm still making a progression. This year, I'm more confident. Coming into camp, I knew what I wanted to do. Not to say I've done it all, but I'm looking at safeties and looking at linebackers, and I just know more."
If you want a witness to Sweezy's development, ask Chicago Bears rookie defensive tackle Will Sutton, who got a brief but embarrassing lesson in leverage on a Russell Wilson pass to running back Christine Michael with 10:33 left in the first half of Seattle's Week 3 preseason win. Sweezy took a couple steps back, engaged Sutton, and then started pushing him forward and to the left side. This gave Wilson a clean break as he moved in the pocket, which was enhanced when Sweezy gave Sutton a "cockroach block" and knocked him right on his ass.
Cornerback Tharold Simon
Simon first popped up on my radar when I attended Seahawks minicamps this offseason and noted that Carroll wouldn't stop talking him up. Even for the effervescent Carroll, the amount of hype directed at the LSU alum, selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft, made me wonder if Simon might be the next great Seahawks defensive back to come into the NFL under the radar and in the later rounds. Of course, the Seahawks have a cottage industry of such players -- Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell were taken in the fifth and sixth rounds of the 2011 draft, respectively, and safety Kam Chancellor was a steal in the fifth round of the 2010 draft. Then, when Sherman said over the summer that Simon had the potential to be "the next me," my ears really perked up.
Simon missed his rookie season with a foot injury and will miss the Packers game with what Carroll called a minor knee procedure on Wednesday (ah, the joy of writing long tape pieces as the final injury updates come in), but his development is something to watch in the short and long-term, given Seattle's unusual ability to turn late picks into Pro Bowl defensive backs.
"He secured our confidence," Carroll told me earlier this week about Simon. "He played really well. He played very well technique-wise. We love the range that he has. His ability on the deep ball was really demonstrated throughout camp and in the offseason. We feel very comfortable with him playing."
When I asked Sherman where Simon currently lands on the "Sherm Scale," he said, "I didn’t know that existed."
Still, 'Coach Sherm' was eager to summarize Simon's potential:
"I’d say he’s right on track to being a great corner in this league. He’s so long, so rangy, so athletic. Obviously, he gets vertical in a hurry. It only takes him one step and he’s vertical. He knows how to use his length at the line of scrimmage. He’s a hybrid of [former Seahawks cornerback] Brandon Browner and myself. He has a little more physicality at the line than I have and a little more sturdiness but he also has the hips and the ability to go up for the ball and to move in that dynamic way that allows him to put himself in position to make plays on very difficult passes. I think he’ll be a great corner once it’s all said and done."
Simon showed this twice in Seattle's 41-14 preseason win over the Chargers -- first when he missed a potential interception and had to hear it from Sherman on the sideline, and later when he trailed San Diego receiver Dontrelle Inman in a red-zone situation. Watch how the 6-2, 202-pound Simon works Inman through the play -- he lines up in straight press, redirects his receiver to gain inside position, walls Inman off with his range while turning his head to watch the ball, and jumps the play for the pick. Simon then returned the interception 105 yards for a Seattle touchdown, though the score was overturned by an illegal contact call that the league later ruled erroneous.
It's something all four of these players have learned over time, and you'll see the results this season.