Whether it's young players who finally see the proverbial light go on, veterans playing over their perceived limits or potential stars making their way, every NFL season sees players who provide hidden value to their teams -- players who are crucial, even though they're not recognized on a national scale. In an effort to right that particular wrong, here are nine players impressing at the halfway mark of the 2014 NFL season.
Kyle Orton, QB, Buffalo Bills
The Bills had no choice but to replace EJ Manuel with Orton, as Manuel's play was hurting Buffalo's entire offense. But the extent to which Orton has improved the Bills' offense since he took the starting job is, quite frankly, startling. Only Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have a higher quarterback rating (per Pro Football Focus) since Week 5 than Orton, and while he hasn't put up the same incendiary numbers as those future Hall-of-Famers, he's been very efficient -- throwing two picks against eight touchdowns, despite taking 15 sacks in that time period. The Bills may be looking for a new franchise quarterback in the 2015 draft, but they certainly have an excellent bridge guy in Orton.
Justin Forsett, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Forsett, who was the Seahawks' seventh-round draft pick in 2008, had never rushed for more than 619 yards in a season before the Ravens signed him to a veteran minimum contract in April. Through nine starts this season, he already has 609 rushing yards, and he's caused 16 missed tackles on just 113 rushing attempts, placing him sixth in the league in that category behind DeMarco Murray, Arian Foster, Le'Veon Bell and LeSean McCoy. He's also been an excellent target in the passing game under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
Kelce has seen just 273 snaps this season, which is kind of amazing, because he's so tough to defend when he's out there. He leads all tight ends in yards per pass route run, he's caught all three of the passes he's been thrown 20 or more yards in the air for 73 yards and a touchdown and he ranks third in Football Outsiders' per-play efficiency metrics.
"He’s done a nice job," Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said of Kelce in early October. "His expectation level is high, our expectation level for him is high. ... We just continue to monitor his progress and give him a handful of things each and every week and just allow him to go play.”
The third-round pick out of Cincinnati in the 2013 draft is coming into his own, and for a team that has no touchdown receptions among its wide receivers, that should equivocate to more playing time over time.
Jeremy Maclin, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Many thought that Chip Kelly would struggle to keep his deep passing game together after DeSean Jackson was released in late March. But Maclin, who missed the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL, leads the league with five touchdowns on passes thrown 20 yards or more, and only Jackson and Indianapolis' T.Y. Hilton have more yards on such passes than Maclin's 334. Maclin, who signed a one-year contract before the 2014 season, is about to cash in bigtime, and he's one of the main reasons Philly's passing game might hold up with Mark Sanchez replacing the injured Nick Foles.
Donald Penn, LT, Oakland Raiders
Most people though that Penn was done in the NFL after his disastrous 2013 season, when he allowed 12 sacks, six quarterback hits and 28 hurries for the Buccaneers. But the Raiders took a flyer on him, and Penn responded by working his ass off in the offseason, creating some fairly shocking results -- through eight games and 505 snaps (he's played every single snap this season), Penn has allowed just one sack, one hit and 11 hurries for his new team. Penn has also been a great help to rookie left guard Gabe Jackson, who's making moves of his own.
Sen'Derrick Marks, DT, Jacksonville Jaguars
Things haven't gone as the 1-8 Jaguars would have liked this season, but they do have a number of young players who are developing into special talent. Only Gerald McCoy, Kyle Williams and Ndamukong Suh have more total pressures this season than Marks' 24, and the tape matches up with the stats -- Marks is an elite disruptor from the three-tech position, and he splits double-teams as well as anyone in the league.
“I feel like I’m playing at a high level and I haven’t slowed down from when I first started playing, so I feel like I am getting better and I’m just going to continue to work at doing that,” Marks told the media in London on Wednesday, where the Jaguars are preparing to play the Cowboys. Dallas' estimable offensive line had best get ready for a serious challenge from this veteran.
Robert Ayers, DE, New York Giants
The Giants always want players who can make an impact in multiple gaps, and that's why New York signed the former Bronco to a two-year, $4 million contract in April. Ayers has been quite the bargain, amassing three sacks, 12 hits, 16 hurries and 14 run stops. He was particularly effective in the Giants' Monday night loss to the Colts, putting up a sack, six hits and six hurries in that game alone.
Antonio Cromartie, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Remember when Cromartie was a physically talented but wildly inconsistent player for the Chargers and Jets? Whatever happened after he signed a one-year, $3.25 million deal with the Cardinals in March, it's really paying off. Cromartie has been one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league this season, flourishing in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' system, but he's been especially ridiculous over the last four weeks. Since Week 5, Cromartie has allowed nine catches in 23 targets for 90 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions, for an opponent passer rating of 11.4. That's a Defensive Player of the Year pace, on the team with the NFL's best record.
Pernell McPhee, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
Among the NFL game-tape cognoscenti, McPhee is one of those players who's been underrated to the potential point of overrating for years, except that he keeps getting better. Through nine games, McPhee has four sacks, 10 hits and 21 hurries, and only Justin Houston and Ryan Kerrigan have more total pressures among 3-4 outside linebackers. It's first year as a straight-up rushing linebacker, and he's about to see the end of a rookie contract that will pay him $645,000 in base salary this season. Someone's going to pay a lot for his services in 2015.