With the Super Bowl less than seven days away, the names Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews will continue to be talked about ad nauseam over the next week. So for one article, let’s focus on some of the other players in this year’s title game that are on their way to becoming future stars. You know, the “little guys” of the big game. (Actually, there’s nothing “little” about B.J. Raji so pardon my poor choice of words.)
1. Tramon Williams, CB, Packers
Williams has already arrived, so it’s kind of cheap to call him a “future star.” He made the Pro Bowl this year and received a contract extension a few months ago, so obviously the Packers and the rest of the league are well aware of how good he is. That said, it wasn’t until this year before he really emerged as one of the best corners in the league, so it’s fair to talk about his future prowess. He intercepted a career-high six passes and has three picks in the postseason alone. His two interceptions of Matt Ryan in the Divisional Round turned that game on its head and basically catapulted the Packers to an easy victory. There isn’t a more underrated matchup than his upcoming battle with Steelers’ receiver Mike Wallace in this year’s Super Bowl. (Assuming that Charles Woodson covers Hines Ward, that is.)
2. Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers
The second-year receiver out of Ole Miss has already made headlines this season with his deep-threat ability. Observers were worried about how the Steelers would cope after trading Santonio Holmes to the Jets last offseason, but Wallace has made everyone forget about the former Super Bowl MVP. He finished the regular season with 60 catches for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns, which included seven 100-yard games. He’s a rising star on an already stacked Steelers team and should be a player to keep an eye on for years to come.
3. B.J. Raji, DT, Packers
When the Packers hired Dom Capers to be their defensive coordinator in 2009, one of the big questions that everyone had was how he would address the nose tackle position. Ryan Pickett was the closest thing Capers had to a NT, even though he was a better fit in a 4-3 scheme. In the ’09 draft, there was a player perfect for NT in Capers’ 3-4 alignment, but whether or not Boston College’s B.J. Raji would fall to the Packers at No. 9 was the question. He did, and after spending his rookie season being hampered by an ankle injury, he’s now a core member of Capers’ defense. In the postseason, he’s recorded five tackles, one sack and has even returned an interception for a touchdown. More importantly, he’s been a disruptive force in the middle of Green Bay’s defense, as both a run-stuffer and a pass-rusher. He’s quickly becoming one of the best nose tackles in the game and could have a big Sunday going head-to-head with Pittsburgh backup center Doug Legursky.
4. Maurkice Pouncey, C, Steelers
It’s a shame that Pouncey won’t play in this year’s Super Bowl, because he had a terrific rookie season. He’ll miss Sunday’s game after suffering a high ankle sprain in the AFC title match against the Jets, but I had to talk about him anyway. He was Pittsburgh’s top offensive lineman all season and while Doug Legursky played well against the Jets in relief of Pouncey, the Steelers are at a distinct disadvantage offensively this Sunday. That’s how good Pouncey has been this season.
5. James Starks, RB, Packers
Starks made a name for himself when he carried the ball 23 times for 123 yards while adding two receptions for nine yards in the Packers’ Wild Card win over the Eagles. After rushing for only 66 yards on 25 carries against the Falcons, he chipped in 74 yards and a touchdown against the Bears in the NFC title game. His 263 rushing yards are the most by any running back in the playoffs this season and while some of that can be attributed to how fresh he is (he only carried the ball 29 times during the regular season), he’s obviously the most explosive back that Green Bay has. He’s added another dimension to the Packers’ offense and has provided them with more balance, which is something Green Bay was missing in the regular season. He could just be a postseason fluke but at 24, there’s reason to believe he could emerge as the Packers’ every down back for years to come.
Comment Fodder: Who are some other players in this year’s Super Bowl that you could see being a star one day in the NFL? How about Steelers’ rookie wideout Antonio Brown or Packers’ linebacker Erik Walden?