They say that the NFL is the most exciting sport in the United States, because on any given Sunday, a player or team can shock the world and pull off a big win over any other team. When it’s a player that very few people have heard of that comes through as the hero, it’s a really exciting experience.
Some of these players are just flashes in the pan that don’t get another chance to shine, while some of them are able to take the spotlight for the rest of their careers. Then, there are those players that you thought were done, only to prove that they still had something left in the tank.
With a multitude of injuries in 2015, there have been a lot of players tasked with stepping up and having their chance, maybe more than any other season we have seen. We’ve gotten to see a lot of breakout players because of it, but who has stolen the spotlight the most this season? Here are the top 15 NFL players that seemingly came out of nowhere to be studs.
15 Shaquil Barrett
Shaquil Barrett did not go drafted in 2014 out of Colorado State, but was given a chance by the closest team to be on their practice squad, the Denver Broncos. Barrett worked his way through the season and earned a spot on the 2015 roster backing up DeMarcus Ware. When Ware went down with an injury earlier this season, Barrett was thrust into the starting role, and he has been a pleasant surprise for Broncos fans. Barrett has tallied 4.5 sacks in his first 12 games with 40 tackles and three forced fumbles.
14 Ronald Darby
When the Bills drafted Ronald Darby out of Florida State with the 50th overall pick, they were hoping for someone they could develop into a starting cornerback, but they got a shutdown guy who was ready to go as a rookie. Darby was paired with Stephon Gilmore in the secondary, and the connection has been great. Darby has been tasked with going against the opponents’ top wide receiver, and he hasn’t disappointed. The stats don’t tell the story, but Darby has 60 tackled with two interceptions and 19 passes defended.
13 Allen Robinson
Allen Robinson had some decent expectations for the Jaguars when he was selected at the end of the second round in the 2014 NFL Draft. His rookie season was a bit of a disappointment, however, as he posted just 548 receiving yards and two touchdowns. 2015 saw Robinson get more snaps, and he has already blown away his rookie season. Through just 12 games, Robinson has already eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark, and has an incredible 11 touchdowns, and fantasy football owners that picked him up absolutely love the guy.
12 Richie Incognito
Richie Incognito was a solid player for the St. Louis Rams before making his way to Buffalo in 2009 and then Miami in 2010. Incognito was a Pro Bowler in 2012, but ran into some trouble off the field in a bullying incident that got him cut from the team in 2013. Incognito couldn’t find a landing spot for the 2014 season, but the Bills welcomed him back for the 2015 season. Now, it appears that Incognito is back to his Pro Bowl form and has been a huge find for the team that gave him a second chance.
11 James Jones
Back when he started out with the Green Bay Packers in 2007, James Jones was already a player that seemingly came out of nowhere. Jones then left the Packers after the 2013 season to sign with the Raiders, and had a mediocre season with 666 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Jones was then a free agent signed just before the season to come back to Green Bay after Jordy Nelson suffered an injury. With Davante Adams in the starting lineup, nobody expected Jones to put up good numbers, but he has surprised with 611 yards and seven touchdowns through 12 games played.
10 John Brown
In 2014, the Cardinals selected John Brown in the third round of the NFL Draft, but wasn’t expected to do much with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd ahead of him on the depth chart. Still, Brown had a decent season with 696 yards and five touchdowns receiving. Nobody could have expected that he would breakout in 2015 the way that he has as the third receiver, but Brown is doing just that with 895 yards and five touchdowns in his 12 games played. Brown just needs to get 33 yards per game to finish out the season to eclipse 1,000, and that shouldn’t be a problem.
9 Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson was an absolute beast for the Titans early in his career, and went over 2,000 in his second season in the league. Johnson’s productivity remained somewhat high, but he could never replicate his dominant season in 2009. Johnson went to the Jets in 2014 and it looked like his career was pretty much done when he rushed for just 663 yards and one touchdown. An incident in the offseason where he was shot almost assured his career was over, but the Cardinals gave him a chance this season and he shined. In 11 games, Johnson posted 814 rushing yards, 58 receiving yards and three touchdowns before an injury sidelined him.
8 Rishard Matthews
If Rishard Matthews would have slipped any farther in the 2012 NFL Draft, he might not have even been picked up at all, since he was taken 227th overall by Miami in the final round. Before this season, Matthews posted his best year with just 448 receiving yards and two touchdowns. That has changed in 2015 as Matthews has been given a chance to get more playing time, and through 11 games played already had 662 yards and four touchdowns. With Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker to go along with him, the Dolphins now have a legitimate receiving corps.
7 Tyrod Taylor
Nobody expected Tyrod Taylor to be a starting NFL quarterback when he was drafted in the sixth round back in 2011 by Baltimore. Taylor spent his first four seasons with the Ravens, going 19-for-35 in passed with 199 passing yards and no touchdowns. Taylor surprisingly got the nod to be Buffalo’s starting quarterback when the 2015 season started, and he has been impressive through 12 games with a 64.9 completion percentage, 17 touchdowns, just four interceptions, 318 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.
6 Travis Benjamin
In the famed 2012 NFL Draft Class, Travis Benjamin was an afterthought when he was selected 100th overall in the fourth round by Cleveland. In his first three seasons, Benjamin only had 41 receptions for a total of 717 yards and five touchdowns. In 2015 alone (12 games), Benjamin has hauled in 54 catches for 826 yards and five touchdowns. Before this year, Benjamin was primarily a punt returner but has really stood out as a deep threat that seems to be the favorite target for Johnny Manziel. Now that Manziel’s back in the saddle, expect Benjamin to finish strong for Cleveland.
5 Josh Norman
This is now Josh Norman’s fourth season in the NFL, but this year has certainly been his breakout year. Norman was drafted in the fifth round back in 2012 by the Panthers, and was moved into the top corner spot this season. Norman has responded by being a shutdown corner, and increasing his career interception total from three to seven this season. Norman has already earned a Defensive Player of the Week and Defensive Player of the Month award, so it seems that he will be heading to the Pro Bowl unless than Panthers make the Super Bowl.
4 Thomas Rawls
If you didn’t go to Central Michigan University, then you probably didn’t know who Thomas Rawls was coming into 2015. Rawls was undrafted, but scooped up by Seattle to become their new backup running back. Rawls got his chance to be a full time starter after Marshawn Lynch went through some injury problems, and he has been killing it. Through the first 12 games of his career, Rawls has amassed 786 rushing yards, 76 receiving yards and five touchdowns, easing the mind of Seahawks fans that were worried about Lynch’s future.
3 Dion Lewis
Coming out of Pitt in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dion Lewis was selected in the fifth round by Philadelphia, spent two seasons there and then bounced around to Cleveland and Indianapolis. It looked as if Lewis’s career had ended since he only had 171 rushing yards and 21 receiving yards in his career, but then Bill Belichick gave him a chance with the New England Patriots. Lewis played in seven games for the Pats, collecting 234 rushing yards and 388 receiving yards with four touchdowns. Lewis earned a two year contract with the team and was on his way to a great season before it ended with an injury.
2 Gary Barnidge
Gary Barnidge has been a beast at tight end for the Cleveland Browns this year, but not many people know that he’s actually 30 years old. Barnidge spent his first five NFL seasons with the Panthers as a fifth round pick, and never really got the opportunity to stand out. Barnidge was picked up by the Browns in 2013, but it wasn’t until this season that he became a star. Barnidge only had 603 receiving yards in his career coming into this season, but has 817 of them through just 12 games in 2015 to go along with seven touchdowns, earning a three year contract in December.
1 Devonta Freeman
Devonta Freeman wasn’t a highly touted prospect coming out of Florida State, and was selected in the fourth round by the Atlanta Falcons in the 2014 NFL Draft. Even coming into this season, nobody could have expected the type of output that Freeman would produce as he was the backup to Tevin Coleman on the depth chart. Freeman got a chance early in the season when Coleman went down to injury, and Freeman has responded as one of the top running backs in the league. Through 12 games, Freeman had 811 rushing yards, 476 receiving yards and 11 total touchdowns. This also made him the biggest fantasy football free agent pickup of the year.