DeAndre Levy, LB Detroit
Levy was drafted out of Wisconsin back in 2009. The third round pick has emerged into a defensive leader for the Lions. He became a full-time starter in 2011 and recorded 109 tackles. Levy is so valued by his teammates and the organization that he was named the Lions MVP in each of the past two seasons. He recorded a career high 151 tackles last season and was named a second-team All-Pro.
Corey Graham, CB Buffalo
Graham was a small-school product playing his college football at FCS New Hampshire. The Bears thought enough of him to draft him in the fifth round in 2007 and by 2011 Graham was an All-Pro and playing in his first and only Pro Bowl. He won a Super Bowl ring with Baltimore in 2012 and signed a 4-year, $16 million deal with Buffalo prior to last season. He is a solid corner who does not give up a lot of big plays.
Thomas Davis, OLB Carolina
A first team All-SEC and consensus All-American as a senior at Georgia in 2004, Davis had everything going for him. He was the 14th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, but suffered torn ACL injuries in three consecutive seasons, 2009, 2010, and 2011. No player in the league had ever come back from three such injuries, but Davis has proved everyone wrong. He has recorded 100-plus tackles in each of the past three seasons, was a Pro Football Focus second-team All-Pro in 2013, and won the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award last season.
Brandon Marshall, OLB Denver
There is Brandon Marshall the receiver whom most NFL fans know. Then, there is Brandon Marshall the linebacker. Drafted in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft by Jacksonville, this Marshall was released by the Jags and was a practice squad player his first season. When the Broncos needed someone to fill in for Von Miller, Marshall was signed to the Broncos practice squad in 2013. Last season, he came into his own with 113 tackles, two sacks, and an interception. He’ll start this year along with Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
Mike Adams, SS Indianapolis
Adams is another small-school guy with loads of potential. He played collegiately at Delaware and was an undrafted free agent who signed with San Francisco in 2004. Adams was used sparingly until he signed with Cleveland in 2007. He started 32 games in five seasons with the Browns before moving over to Indy prior to the 2014 season. Last year, he started all 16 games and recorded 87 tackles and five interceptions.
Sen’Derrick Marks, DT Jacksonville
Marks is a huge talent. He was a freshman All-American at Auburn and eventually declared for the NFL Draft after his junior season. The 6-2, 294-pound Marks was drafted in the second round by Tennessee in 2009 and signed by the Jags in 2013. He recorded 44 tackles, including 8.5 sacks last season. Marks did suffer an ACL injury in the 2014 season finale but his rehab has been going well and he is hopeful to start the season for Jacksonville. He will play a big role in how much the Jags defense improves.
Marques Colston, WR New Orleans
Colston enters his 10th season in the NFL, all with the Saints, and has amassed one of the strongest, yet unnoticed, resumes in the game. He has averaged 74 catches and 1,000-plus yards per season mostly playing second fiddle to guys like former New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. Colston’s production has tapered somewhat over the past two seasons, but he is still one of the NFL’s elite receivers.
Cameron Heyward, DE Pittsburgh
The son of Craig “Ironhead” Heyward a long-time NFL fullback, Cameron was a first round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers back in 2011. He has slowly turned into a force to be reckoned with in the Steelers defensive scheme. Last year, he enjoyed his best season with 53 total tackles and 7.5 sacks. Heyward needs to have another great season with the retirement of Jason Worilds and an aging James Harrison.
T.J. McDonald, FS St. Louis
A key to the improvement of the Rams defense, the 6-3, 217-pound McDonald recorded 84 total tackles last season to go with two sacks and an interception. The son of former USC All-American and 13-year NFL veteran, McDonald can cover a lot of ground. He is physical in defending the run and has the range, height, and size to cover receivers.
Matt Forte, RB Chicago
Forte is easily the most overlooked running back in the league. All he has done is rush or over 1,000 yards in five of seven seasons. In the other two he rushed for 929 and 997, respectively. He is also one of the best receivers out of the backfield in the NFL. Last season, Forte caught 102 passes for 808 yards and four TDs. In seven NFL seasons, Forte has accounted for well over 10,000 yards of total offense and 57 touchdowns.