There's a lot of talk around this time of year about All-Pro honors, Pro Bowl participants and other award winners, but NFL.com's Nick Shook reminded that those aren't the only players who positively impact their teams and the league.
Recently, Shook named one "unsung hero – someone who stepped out of the shadows to play a pivotal role – " for every NFC team.
He tabbed Kirk Cousins as the Vikings unsung hero in the quarterback's first season in Minnesota, pointing to the "circumstances he overcame" in his debut campaign. Shook wrote:
The Vikings were ravaged by injuries up front before the season even started, setting up Cousins for what would be failure for a hefty portion of quarterbacks. Cousins, instead, flourished despite facing the most pressures of any quarterback in the NFL (217) and enduring a 33.6 percent pressure rate (tied for fourth-highest in NFL among passers with at least 200 attempts), posting a 99.7 passer rating while getting sacked the 10th-most in the league (40). Of the quarterbacks who were pressured at 30 percent or more, only three posted higher passer ratings: Patrick Mahomes (113.8 with 30 percent pressure rate), Matt Ryan (108.1 with 31.2 percent pressure rate) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (100.4 with pressure rate of 30.4 percent). Of that group, Cousins posted the highest difference between expected completion percentage and actual at 5.3 percent, per Next Gen Stats. He was still pretty darn good, Vikings fans.
As for the Vikings NFC North rivals, Shook highlighted Lions safety Quandre Diggs, Packers linebacker Kyler Fackrell and Bears center Cody Whitehair.
Whitehair doesn't get the credit he deserves as the center on a Chicago line that is one of the more cohesive groups in football. Whitehair ranked 10th among centers in 2018, per Pro Football Focus, and was the leader of a group that tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks allowed with just 33. With Whitehair snapping the ball to him, [Mitchell] Trubisky (and the Bears offense) should continue to improve in the years to come.
View the best exclusive images shot by team photographers of Vikings defensive line during the 2018 season.
Vikings NFC North rivals have questions heading into 2019
The NFC North has long-since been a competitive division, it seems almost every season that the race could be a close one between multiple teams for the division title.
The 2018 regular season concluded with just one team, Chicago, making the playoffs, and the Bears were eliminated in the Wild Card round.
Steve Silverman, an NFL contributor for Forbes, recently delved into questions that face each of the Vikings division rivals heading into the 2019 season. Silverman wrote:
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, as all three opponents have enough firepower to take the crown away from the Bears next year.
Silverman opined that questions surround the Bears kicking situation as well as their defense, which was dominant under Vic Fangio, who was hired as the Broncos next head coach after the season.
It is no longer Fangio's defense, since he moved on to become head coach of the Denver Broncos. Former Indianapolis [Head Coach] Chuck Pagano takes over, and while he is an affable individual who knows he has excellent personnel, he will undoubtedly make some scheme changes. Will that have a positive or negative impact on this important unit? It all needs to play out.
And as for the Lions? Silverman said it will be interesting to see how Detroit fares in year two under Head Coach Matt Patricia. He said that "perhaps" Patricia will have more success in 2019 but that he "needs a legitimate game-changing pass rusher" this offseason.
Ezekiel Ansah is a free agent and it's difficult to see him staying in Detroit. Even if he did, the Lions still need help at the position.
Lastly, Silverman looked at the Packers, who finished 6-9-1 and will be under the new direction of Head Coach Matt LaFleur after Mike McCarthy was relieved of his duties.
The Mike McCarthy era ended before last season was over, and it will be up to new coach Matt LaFleur to reinvigorate Aaron Rodgers. If he can do that and Rodgers stays healthy, there's no reason Green Bay won't be formidable.
LaFleur has legitimate credentials in that he has worked with Matt Ryan and Jared Goff and gotten excellent results.
On the field, the Packers biggest needs are on defense, which is where they have been for the majority of Rodgers' career. They could use a dominant edge pass rusher, a hard-hitting, playmaking safety and a tough defensive end who can dominate against the run.