Matt Forte has quietly compiled almost 5,000 combined rushing and receiving yards in his three NFL seasons.
Matt Forte, tailback: You have to wonder how many people outside the NFC North realize that in his first three NFL seasons Forte has accumulated nearly 5,000 combined rushing and receiving yards. Forte's quiet personality and smooth style tend to deflect attention rather than attract it, but the fact remains he has been one of the NFL's most productive running backs over the past three seasons. In fact, he is one of six NFL players to record at least 3,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards since 2008. The other names on that list -- Frank Gore, Steven Jackson, Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice -- tell you what kind of company Forte should be considered in.
Cliff Avril, defensive end: It's hard to go a minute without hearing about the Lions' now-vaunted defensive line. The discussion starts with All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, continues with new partner Nick Fairley, then shifts over to veterans Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch. If he's lucky, someone will mention Avril, who has more sacks over the past three seasons than any of them. (Granted, he has a two-year head start on Suh and three on Fairley, but you get the point.) Avril has recorded 19 sacks in 41 games since joining the Lions in 2008, one of 29 NFL players to do so over that stretch.
John Clayton built a team of good players performing under the radar who deserve recognition. Clayton
Josh Sitton, guard: Packers veteran Chad Clifton was named to the 2010 Pro Bowl team, but most football people will tell you Sitton long has been the team's best offensive lineman. He hasn't missed a snap since the start of the 2009 season, the only Packers player on offense or defense to accomplish that feat. Sitton is without question the Packers' most powerful run-blocker, helping the Packers average 4.48 yards per carry up the middle in 2010, according to NFL statistics. He has elevated his pass-blocking to a near-equal status. Recognition outside of Green Bay has been fleeting, but he was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2010 and was named the league's best offensive lineman by NFL Alumni.
Ben Leber, linebacker: Some players stand out as superstars. Others fill in behind. Leber falls into the latter category, and that is by no means an insult. In five seasons with the Vikings, Leber displayed a deep, if not spectacular, skill set that is critical to any good team defense. He called defensive signals when middle linebacker E.J. Henderson was injured. He finished 2007 with five sacks, had seven pass breakups in 2008 and led the NFL with four fumble recoveries in '08 -- all while playing 79 of a possible 80 regular-season games. Leber might depart via free agency, but close observers know how good he is.