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NFL - US Sports: Unsung heroes

Everyone know the star quarterbacks in the NFL, while the likes of Aaron Donald get plenty of attention, but some crucial figures can still go relatively unnoticed.

This off-season has proved to be a lucrative one for wide receivers across the league, but other positions hold much lower profiles.

Brian Allen (Center - Los Angeles Rams)

It's easy to go unnoticed when you're a member of the star-studded Rams roster that oozes ostentation on a daily basis. But die-hard fans in Los Angeles know exactly how important Allen was to their Super Bowl run.

Building chemistry with a new QB is crucial and Allen quickly established enough with Matthew Stafford to have the ex-Detroit Lions star proclaiming that his center "thinks like a quarterback" while lauding his in-game protection calls.

He certainly shone in the opening few weeks of the season when, in three games against dominant defensive tackles Akiem Hicks, DeForest Buckner and Vita Vea, Allen only allowed two pressures and one sack.

The former fourth-round draft pick, whose Wikipedia page must be one of the most sparse of any recent Super Bowl starter and winner, ought to have been mentioned more in the running for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.

He started nine games for Los Angeles in 2019 until a season-ending knee injury and did not see game action at all in 2020 before returning to the Rams' lineup in 2021.

Allen started 16 of 17 regular-season games and all four playoff games, playing a total of 1,181 snaps in 20 games - the sixth-most on the Rams offense.

Matt Feiler (Guard - Los Angeles Chargers)

When the Chargers signed Feiler in free agency ahead of the 2021 season, their offensive line play was in desperate need of improvement.

His first season in L.A. could hardly have gone any better as Pro Football Focus handed him a run block grade of 93.4 through the first four weeks.

And he continued to make the sort of stonewall moves in pass protection that get highlighted in postgame team meetings.

The deal he signed now looks like a bargain and it will be even more of a steal if they decide to shift him from left guard to right tackle this season, as has been discussed by coach Brandon Staley.

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Braxton Berrios (Kick Returner/Wide Receiver - New York Jets)

Berrios was a pleasant surprise to Jets fans in what was again a pretty dismal year for the troubled franchise that has now gone 11 years without a playoff appearance.

New York claimed him off waivers after he was cut by their division rivals, the New England Patriots, in 2019 and he rarely got much of a chance to shine on offense until injuries bit the team hard in 2021.

But he was already building quite a resume as a dangerous kick returner - arguably emerging as the best in the NFL. Berrios was just one of 13 players who finished in the top-three in kick and punt return average since the league merger.

An All-Pro first-teamer on returns, he led the NFL in kick return average (30.4 yards) and had the longest kick return in the league last year (102 yards).

But some of his growing number of offensive touches were almost as memorable as that length of the field effort against the Jacksonville Jaguars and he eventually amassed 46 catches for 431 yards and two touchdowns in a breakout year.

Clay Johnston (Linebacker - Cincinnati Bengals)

Most Bengals fans knew little about Johnston when he made one of the biggest defensive stops of the AFC champions' season in a taut playoff battle with the top-seeded Tennessee Titans in Nashville.

Claimed off waivers as late as 9th November, Johnston had played a handful of defensive snaps for Cincy before he took to the field for the Titans' two-point conversion attempt with the scores tied at 6-6 in the second quarter.

Putting the ball in the hands of the NFL's best running back, Derrick Henry, seemed like a good idea until Johnston shot into Tennessee's backfield to make a stout defensive stop just shy of the goal line.

His Bengals teammates and coaches were quick to praise his timely effort after the game, which could have panned out so differently had the Titans gone 8-6 up at that point.

Despite not making his Bengals debut until late November in Las Vegas, Johnston tied for second on the team with six special-teams tackles - another facet of the game that often goes 'unseen' by fans, but not by coaches.

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