Under the radar NFL stars: WR, TE, defense

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
11:15
AM ET
These under the radar stars have played as well as anyone at their respective positions this season. Let's take a closer look at how these emerging stars have found success.

Wide receiver: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers' fourth-year wide receiver entered Week 13 with the NFL lead in receptions while trailing only Calvin Johnson in receiving yards. Brown's 51 receiving first downs accounted for 35 percent of the Steelers' team total in that category, the fourth-highest percentage in the NFL.
Antonio Brown
Brown

Brown added five receptions and 59 yards to his impressive 2013 season totals on Thanksgiving. That makes 12 straight games with at least five receptions and fifty receiving yards for Brown. The last player with a streak that long in a single season was Laveranues Coles in 2002 (13 games).

Tight end: Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Julius Thomas has 10 receiving touchdowns in 10 games, tying Shannon Sharpe's franchise record for receiving touchdowns in a season by a tight end. The all-time record for touchdowns by a tight end was set in 2011 by Rob Gronkowski with 17. Two are tied for second with 13.
Julius Thomas
Thomas

Thomas' impact on the Broncos' offense is not limited to his work down near the goal line. Peyton Manning is having an historic season but isn't the same without his star tight end on the field.

Manning has a Total QBR of just 32 in the 90 action plays that Thomas hasn't been on the field this season.

For the sake of comparison, Manning has a Total QBR of 93 in 71 action plays without his favorite slot receiver, Wes Welker.

Defense: Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have drafted defense with their last two first round picks and the strategy appears to have paid off. After allowing more than 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground in 2011, the Panthers are on pace to allow around 1,300 yards and four rushing touchdowns in 2013.
Star Lotulelei
Lotulelei

Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has played a huge role in that turnaround. The Panthers are allowing 3.4 yards per rush and 1.6 yards before contact with Lotulelei on the field. Carolina’s defense has allowed 4.6 yards per rush and 3.0 yards before contact per rush with Lotulelei off the field.

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