As the final quarter of the regular season unfolds, here are 10 out-of-nowhere players who have made a much bigger name for themselves in 2011:
Laurent Robinson, Dallas, receiver -- He has more catches (42) and receiving yards (626) than the Cowboys' presumed No. 1 receiver, Miles Austin, more touchdowns (seven) than Tony Romo's favorite target, tight end Jason Witten (five) and the same number of scoring receptions as big-play receiver Dez Bryant. Not bad for a fifth-year receiver who's already playing for his third NFL team, and who entered 2011 with just four touchdown catches in his first four seasons.
Robinson has scored all seven of his touchdowns in Dallas' past six games (the Cowboys are 4-2 in that span), and his 14.9-yard average catch trails only Bryant's 15.5-yard average among Cowboys with at least 10 receptions. With a whole month of the season remaining, Robinson has established career highs in every major receiving category.
Aaron Maybin, New York Jets, defensive end -- The Jets this season have done the resurrection job on Maybin's career that Rex Ryan bragged he could do on Vernon Gholston's in 2009. I suppose one out of two ain't bad when it comes to pass-rushing former first-round picks from the Big Ten. Nicknamed "Mayhem,'' Maybin has been a playmaking terror for the Jets of late, leading the team with six sacks and four forced fumbles despite appearing in just nine of his team's 12 games and receiving a fraction of the playing time.
That's six more sacks and three more forced fumbles than Maybin produced in his entire 27-game, two-year stint in Buffalo, which took him 11th overall out of Penn State in 2009. Maybin has three sacks in New York's past two games, both wins, and his fourth-quarter strip sack of Rex Grossman on Sunday in Washington was the pivotal play in securing the Jets' 34-19 victory.
Victor Cruz, New York Giants, receiver -- Funny, but I don't hear anyone lamenting the loss of Steve Smith via free agency in New York any more. That's because Cruz has exploded onto the scene for the Giants this season, with the second-year undrafted talent ranking fourth in the league with 1,076 receiving yards, and his six catches of 40 yards or more tying for best in the NFL with the likes of deep threats Calvin Johnson, Mike Wallace and A.J. Green.
Cruz didn't catch a single pass as a rookie in 2010 (although he did sparkle in the preseason), and he started this year at the bottom of New York's receiving depth chart. But he took advantage of his opportunity when Dominik Hixon went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 2 and he now leads the Giants in receptions (62), yards, touchdowns (seven) and average catch (17.4 yards). He's already the guy Eli Manning looks for on big downs, and I'm starting to really like his understated salsa dance end-zone celebrations.
DeMarco Murray, Dallas, running back -- Despite not getting any significant playing time until Week 7, Murray is a lock to run for 1,000 yards and lead all rookie rushers. His 872 yards on the ground includes a 5.5-yard average gain, tied for the league lead among running backs with at least 100 carries. Despite having 27 fewer attempts, Murray has gained the same amount of yards as the great Adrian Peterson, his fellow former Oklahoma Sooner.
But Murray wasn't a first-round pick like Peterson. He was taken in the third round this year, 71st overall, the sixth running back selected. The five rushers taken ahead of him have combined for 1,035 yards, just 163 more than what Murray has managed alone. Though he has cooled off somewhat in the past three games, Murray had a four-game streak where he averaged a ridiculous 10.1, 9.3, 6.3 and 6.8 yards per carry, sparking a 3-1 Dallas run.
Kyle Arrington, New England, cornerback -- The first-place Patriots rank last in the league in yards allowed (412.1) and pass defense (310) this season, and their secondary has been in a near-constant state of flux. But amid all the trouble has been the impact play of Arrington, who leads the NFL with seven interceptions with three-fourths of the season in the books.
Arrington went undrafted out of Hofstra in 2008, and spent parts of two years with Tampa Bay. But the Patriots picked him up during the season in 2009 and he has proved to be a solid find. He had just one interception in his first 24 games with New England, but has at least one pick in five different games in 2011, and his 12 passes defensed also lead the Patriots.
Andre Roberts, Arizona, receiver -- It may have escaped notice, but the Cardinals are one of the hotter teams in the NFL, winning four of their past five games after a sluggish 1-6 start. That resurgence has been partly due to the increasing contributions made by Roberts, a 2010 third-round pick out of The Citadel. Roberts had just 24 catches for 307 yards as a rookie, when he was the team's primary punt returner, but he has comfortably topped both of those totals through 12 games this year, with 33 receptions for 419 yards.
Over the course of Arizona's recent 4-1 spurt, Roberts has emerged as one of the Cardinals' most reliable targets, catching 20 passes for 286 yards, including his second career 100-yard game in Sunday's upset of Dallas (six receptions for 111 yards, including a 40-yarder). In addition to being Arizona's third-leading receiver this season, he might be a Cowboys-killer in the making, given that both of his career 100-yard games have come in home wins over Dallas.
Doug Baldwin, Seattle, receiver -- The Seahawks threw a ton of money at Sidney Rice in free agency, but they're actually getting more bang for their buck from Baldwin, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Stanford who was one of Andrew Luck's go-to targets. Baldwin was judged too small (5-10, 189 pounds) and slow to be selected, but none of that really matters now that he's leading Seattle in receptions (38), yardage (625) and per-catch average (16.4).
Baldwin has exhibited toughness and the ability to make the difficult catch in traffic, and his season-high eight-catch, 136-yard, one-touchdown day against the Giants in Week 5 led Seattle to its biggest road win of the year.
Reggie Bush, Miami, lead running back -- I think we're all big enough to admit that Bush has somewhat proven his point. He can be fairly productive as a team's No. 1 running back, staying healthy and consistent despite more carries and more wear and tear than he absorbed in his five seasons in New Orleans. Bush has started all 12 games, gaining a career-high 667 rushing yards on 155 carries, already 86 yards more than his previous high of 581 in 2007.
Bush has a pair of 100-yard games this season, including an even 100 in Miami's 34-14 beatdown of Oakland at home on Sunday, and his 4.3 average rush is also very respectable. While he remains a decent pass-catching threat out of the backfield for the resurgent Dolphins, his primary role has been as Miami's top ground gainer, and he's on pace to play all 16 games for the first time since his rookie season of 2006.
Red Bryant, Seattle, defensive end -- The fourth-year Seahawk has been a kick-blocking machine this season, with an NFL-high three field goal attempts swatted away and one extra point. But the 6-4, 329-pound Bryant isn't just a one-trick pony. He has played solidly all season on Seattle's defensive front, contributing 24 tackles, one sack and one interception in his 12 starts.
Bryant blocked a field goal and an extra point in Week 12 at home against Washington, after blocking two Phil Dawson field goal attempts in a 6-3 loss at Cleveland in Week 7. He has been one of the bright spots in Seattle this year, and the Seahawks are currently 3-1 in the season's second half, climbing to 5-7 to remain on the outer reaches of wild-card contention.
T.J. Yates, Houston, quarterback -- Granted, Yates has only played about six quarters so far as a rookie, so it's a stretch of sorts to include him on a list of surprise players who have been producing for far longer. But with both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart gone for the season, Yates is the guy in Houston now and he's going to get all the playing time he can handle the rest of the season.
So far, the fifth-round pick is handling it just fine, leading the first-place, playoff-bound Texans to seven-point wins in a relief role of Leinart at Jacksonville, and in his first career start at home against Atlanta. He hasn't been spectacular, but solid works just fine for Houston about now. Yates is 20 of 40 for 258 yards and one touchdown, and he's taken good care of the ball, throwing no interceptions and losing just one fumble. If the wins keep coming for the Texans, Yates is going to get the save for Houston's 2011 season.