The running back who takes it 70 yards to the house gets the glory, but where's the applause for the pulling guard? The quarterback who throws the perfect deep ball for a game-winning TD gets the postgame interview, but how come no one's talking to the running back whose blitz pickup allowed the QB to step into that throw? And don't even get us started on special-teams players.
There are countless, thankless positions in the NFL. A secret society, if you will. But no more. It's time to recognize the best at doing all the little things that add up to victories.
Best punt team gunner
Kassim Osgood, San Diego Chargers
Since NFL rosters are limited to 53 active players, skill position players are often coached to become gunners once they get to the pros and most have never handled that responsibility before. The gunners align out wide on the punt team, where a wide receiver would line up on offense, and their primary responsibility is to make the tackle. Simple, right? Not so much. You try going up against two aggressive players from the secondary who are pretty much allowed to do anything they want to you. If a gunner can't make the tackle, he at least has to force the returner to run sideways and give the rest of the punt team time to make a play. Osgood is the best gunner in the NFL thanks in large part to his size, quickness, speed and toughness. Not only is he quick off the ball and able to speed-release inside, he is physical enough to use his hands well and press the corners off his body. Osgood usually sees a double-team, but even that rarely stops him.
Best punt team slot
If you play the slot on a punt team in Cincinnati, Cleveland or Pittsburgh you will face Ed Reed, the best punt rusher in the NFL, twice every season. If his up-and-under move doesn't get you, then his outside speed rush will. That being said, during Shea's days with the Browns he held up best against Reed and even dominated him at times. Reed, also an All-Pro safety, dreads going against Shea knowing that Shea can block him. Shea is currently injured and not on an NFL roster, but his performances against Reed are enough to put him on this list anyway.
Best personal protector
Sean Morey, Arizona Cardinals
The personal protector (or PP, as he's often referred to) is the quarterback of the punt team. His duties include calling the protection and scanning from the inside out to pick up any stray punt rushers. Morey has also been a gunner but stands out as one of the best PPs in the NFL in recent years. His intelligence and football savvy allow him to make the proper call, look out for rushers and then act as a third gunner in coverage. Morey does a great job of protecting and then freeing himself, avoiding holdups at or near the line of scrimmage, and getting down the field quickly to get in on the tackle.
Best punt return vice
Sean Jones, Cleveland Browns
The vice has many responsibilities on the punt return team. His primary goal is to stalemate a gunner and keep him from making a tackle, and since there are few rules governing what can be done to a gunner, the vice is one of the most enjoyable positions to watch in any given game. He can legally hold when his hands are inside the frame of the gunner, push all he wants, or pick the gunner up and throw him out of bounds. If the gunner is pancaked to the ground, though, the vice must allow him to get back up and start the process over again. Some vices are also asked to rush a punt from the edge or inside the punt box. Jones is the best in the NFL at the position. He is athletic enough to rush from anywhere on the field and his toughness and strength allow him to physically abuse gunners. They either get thrown out of bounds or are trapped by Jones and the corner and have nowhere to go. Jones is asked to contribute on only a few special-teams plays per game, but he plays with aggression and intensity on every one of them.
Ryan Pontbriand, Cleveland Browns
The name of the position is self-explanatory, but most fans don't realize the responsibilities long-snappers have when it comes to blocking and coverage. The accuracy of long snaps is critical to getting a punt off cleanly in any conditions, especially so in windy conditions. That split second it takes to adjust to an off-target snap can be the difference between a blocked punt and a ball landing inside the 10-yard line. The same goes for shorter snaps on field goals and PATs. Most NFL kickers and punters have a rhythm to their motions and the snap is a big part of that. Pontbriand is one of the most accurate long-snappers in the NFL, is a good blocker, and can cover kicks and make tackles. The accuracy, velocity and rotation on his snaps are huge assets in the unpredictable weather in Cleveland, making him the top snapper in the NFL.
Best blocking tight end
Daniel Graham, Denver Broncos
Graham is a tough, competitive player who is still developing, which is a scary thought considering he's already the best blocking tight end in the league. He has the versatility to align at both the "H" and "Y" positions and has a strong, powerful body that can get movement in the run game. He has the natural strength to match up either in line against a defensive end or on the edge versus an outside linebacker. Graham has good initial quickness off the line of scrimmage while understanding angles and body position. He knows how to use his hands while working hard to sustain and finish blocks when creating run lanes. Graham's value, like that of any good blocking tight end, simply can't be ignored.
Best blocking wide receiver
Hines Ward, Pittsburgh Steelers
One of the most competitive receivers in the NFL, Ward is tough and physical in his blocking. To be the best you have to want to do the little things, and blocking downfield for a running back or fellow receiver is one of the hidden aspects of the game for wide receivers. Those blocks are what allow an offense to acquire hidden yards at the ends of runs or after the catch, yards that allow teams to keep scoring drives alive and increase time of possession. Ward is excellent at peeling back and looking to pick off unsuspecting defenders. Opposing players will tell you that you had better keep your head on a swivel when playing Pittsburgh, because Ward truly loves getting knockout blocks on defenders. The biggest key to being a great blocking wide receiver is having the drive to do it well and no receiver in the NFL enjoys this aspect of the game as much as Ward does.
Best pulling guard
Brian Waters, Kansas City Chiefs
Waters is tough and aggressive and has very good athleticism. He is a physical player who plays with a mean streak but plays smart, understands blocking angles and has good instincts for the position. He has good initial quickness out of his stance with very good balance and control off both short and long pulls. He can locate targets in open space and maintain his pad level on contact. He is a mauler who works hard to finish blocks in space. He is a Pro Bowl player and easily one of the best blockers both in line and out in space in the NFL.
Best corner blitzer
Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He isn't the only cornerback in the league who excels off the edge but Barber has been the most productive over the longest period of time. He times his blitz extremely well and doesn't show his hand until the last possible instant. While he isn't going to run over pass-blocking running backs, he is very adept at utilizing his quickness to sidestep blockers. Barber closes with aggression and is a sure tackler who can cause turnovers when he arrives at the passer.
Best RB at picking up the blitz
Edgerrin James, Arizona Cardinals
While James was not called upon to perform this skill as much last season in Arizona as he was in previous years with the Colts, his performance protecting Peyton Manning during his time in Indianapolis was very impressive. James is tough and competitive with the size, strength and power base to defeat bigger blitzing linebackers. He has excellent vision to spot players coming at him and is quick to step up and take on the challenge. James also does a nice job of chipping a pass-rusher on his way out of the backfield and then quickly getting out into his route as a receiver.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.