Being a fan of an NFL team usually comes with a hatred for another team or two. Kansas City Chiefs’ fans hate the Oakland Raiders, Cleveland Browns’ fans hate the Pittsburgh Steelers, and teams like the Patriots are hated by a wide range of fans.
While there are reasons to hate every team that is not your favorite, there are players across the league worth rooting for. Some players beat the odds and make it to the NFL after a tough life, while others recover from an injury to make it back to the league. Some players are just good people. This list will have a player for the AFC East and North teams with the remaining AFC teams and NFC to follow in future columns.
Buffalo Bills: Kyle Williams. Williams has been an anchor for the Bills’ defense since earning the starting job early in his rookie year in 2006. Finally, on his seventh defensive coordinator and fifth head coach, the longest-tenured Bills player finally got to the playoffs in 2017, the first appearance for the Bills since 1999. The episode of “NFL Turning Point” for Week 17 shows just how loved and respected Williams is by his teammates after he scored a touchdown on offense in their final regular season game. The same episode shows the emotional impact that reaching the playoffs had on him and his love of the game.
Miami Dolphins: Frank Gore. A lot has changed in the NFL since 2005. Players like Shaun Alexander were the top of the league and Jerry Rice had just retired prior to the start of the season after attempting one last go with the Denver Broncos. One thing that hasn’t changed since 2005 is Frank Gore. The fifth all-time leading rusher in NFL history continues to juke out Father Time and put up consistent numbers as he continues to age. Now with his third team, Gore looks to put up another solid season before he hangs up the cleats. A season with at least 500 yards will give Gore an NFL record of 14 consecutive seasons of 500-plus yards. Currently, he is tied with Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith for the record.
New England Patriots: Rex Burkhead. When Burkhead signed with New England in 2017, I said this was one of the underrated signings in the league. Burkhead fits the team very well as he can do it all. He became the first player since 1977 to catch a touchdown pass and block a punt in the same game. Burkhead was also one of the main organizers when young cancer patient Jack Hoffman got to run for a touchdown a the 2013 spring football game for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The play caused Hoffman and Burkhead to meet President Barack Obama and the play was named “Best Moment” at the 2013 ESPY Awards. He also was the player to injure Tom Brady at practice, so it makes him even better in my book.
New York Jets: Teddy Bridgewater. The 2016 season was supposed to be Teddy Bridgewater’s breakout season with the Minnesota Vikings. Coming off of a division championship in 2015, the Vikings looked poised to establish themselves as one of the NFC’s top dogs. Then Bridgewater went down in a non-contact injury. The Vikings suffered more injuries and finished 8-8. He started the next season still not cleared for NFL practice. Finally, Bridgewater was cleared to practice again on Oct. 26, 2017. A few weeks later, he was called up to the active roster. In Week 15, Bridgewater entered the game in relief of Case Keenum as the Vikings had a sizable lead on the Bengals. The home crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium gave the quarterback a standing ovation in his first time on the field since Jan. 10, 2016. The Vikings did not resign Bridgewater and he went to the Jets instead. He will compete with Josh McCown to be the starter as the Jets groom the rookie, Sam Darnold.
Baltimore Ravens: Justin Tucker. Kickers are people too and Justin Tucker is one of the league’s best. The undrafted player out of Texas holds the NFL record for field goal percentage and is 2 percent higher than the next closest kicker, Dallas Cowboys’ Dan Bailey. If Tucker keeps it up, he will go down as one of the greatest kickers of all time. Maybe he also will get into the Hall of Fame.
Cincinnati Bengals: Moritz Böhringer. Böhringer became the first European player to be selected in the NFL Draft without playing college football when the Minnesota Vikings selected him in 2016. He was released after spending two years on the Vikings’ practice squad. The Bengals signed him and now the German tight end is attempting to make the active roster in his third year. He also gets to keep the umlaut (the two dots above the “O” in his last name) on his jersey like the cedilla (the tail on the “C”) on Pierre Garçon’s jersey to give him a unique nameplate.
Cleveland Browns: Duke Johnson. Johnson might be the most underrated running back currently in the NFL. In today’s NFL where running backs who can catch are more and more vital, Johnson excels. He was the first running back since Hershel Walker to record at least 500 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons. With Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb joining him in the backfield, the Browns on paper have a solid backfield as they try to bounce back from the disastrous 0-16 season.
Pittsburgh Steelers: James Conner. If Ryan Shazier had a chance to play this season, he would be the guy, but Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert said that he would not be able to play this season. The Steelers restructured his contract to guarantee nearly his entire 2018 salary right away with the rest coming over the course of the season. Very cool move. The healthy Steelers player to root for is James Conner. Conner was the ACC Player of the Year in 2014 for the Pittsburgh Panthers. Then in 2015 he tore his MCL in the season opener and missed the rest of the year. On Thanksgiving that year, Conner found out that he had cancer. Conner fought the disease and returned for the 2016 season. He then declared for the draft and the Steelers took him in 2017. Now the cancer survivor is the backup to one of the league’s best in LeVeon Bell.
Luke Peterson is the sports editor of the Leavenworth Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org