In recent Super Bowl history, a bevy of role players have been key to their team’s overall success in the biggest game of the year. Fringe starters like Dexter Jackson (Buccaneers) and Malcolm Smith (Seahawks) have come out of nowhere to capture MVP honors. For as much deserved press as Tom Brady receives, where would he be without Kevin Faulk, Adam Vinateri and — most recently — James White?
The Super Bowl offers these types of players the chance to take center stage and make a name for themselves. Here are 6 candidates that could leave their lasting imprint on Super Bowl LII:
Eagles — Chris Long — DE
This Philadelphia squad looks a lot like those New York Giants teams that memorably gave Tom Brady a ton of problems. The secondary is opportunistic, linebackers excel in coverage, and they’re led by a speedy and athletic group of pass rushers. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham get most of the praise, but the veteran leadership of Long can’t be overlooked. The former second overall pick will be playing in his second consecutive Super Bowl after playing as a member of the Patriots team that won last season. He’s been heating up over the past few weeks, and has a chance to make a big impact on Sunday. Opponents of the Patriots find the most success when they get to Brady early and often.
Patriots — Deatrich Wise — DE
A persistent pass rush will be crucial for the New England defense as well. Matt Patricia’s rag-tag group has come alive over the last couple months of the season, despite dealing with several injuries to key contributors. They’ve gotten a big boost from Wise, a rookie from Arkansas that has totaled 4.0 sacks in his last five games. New England doesn’t feature nearly as many impact pass rushers as the Eagles do, so getting pressure from anybody helps. The Pats can get Nick Foles off of his game with a couple of early sacks.
Eagles — Mack Hollins — WR
Looking back at New England’s recent history in the Super Bowl, it almost always seems like their secondary gets burnt by an unexpected receiver. Taylor Gabriel broke Malcolm Butler’s ankles on a go-route last year. Chris Matthews had 109 yards and a touchdown for Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX, and gained just 176 yards for the rest of his career. Simply hearing the name “David Tyree” or “Mario Manningham” invokes awful flashbacks for the New England faithful. This trend can partially be attributed to New England’s ability to stifle opposing stars. Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz will be watched closely, opening up the door for other guys on the field. Hollins is a speedster that can get behind the secondary in a hurry. If Philly dials up a deep ball, Hollins could be on the receiving end.
Patriots — James White — RB
White knows about stepping up in the Super Bowl after his 14-catch performance against Atlanta last year. He’s since been buried underneath a crowded New England backfield, but the Patriots might have been waiting for the opportune time to unleash the former Wisconsin Badger. White is being used this year similar to how the Patriots deployed him last season. White was used sparingly towards the end of the regular season in each of the last two years, but has exploded in the playoffs. In White’s last five playoff games, he’s recorded seven touchdowns on 39 total touches. He’s fresh and ready to go for the biggest game of the year.
Eagles — Halapoulivaati Vaitai — T
Starting in the place of nine-time Pro Bowler Jason Peters is Vaitai, who will have his hands full with the New England defensive front. Bill Belichick will likely want to avoid the tackle on the opposite side (All-Pro Lane Johnson), so expect the Patriots to target the former fifth-rounder instead. Keeping Foles clean and opening up running lanes will be key to Philly’s success. If Vaitai can keep up his recent level of play, the Eagles offense can settle into a nice groove from the onset.
Patriots — Stephen Gostkowski — K
Throughout the process of analyzing, predicting, and number crunching, there lies one constant that remains unscathed — the Patriots ALWAYS play close games in the Super Bowl. All seven of the Super Bowls they’ve appeared in during the Brady/Belichick-era have been decided by less than a touchdown. With a backup quarterback playing for the other team, this could finally be the year the Patriots blow a team out, but don’t count these feisty Eagles out just yet. Philly’s defense will keep it close, opening the door for some late game heroics. Gostkowski has been one of the league’s top kickers for years, but hasn’t been able to solidify himself in New England lore like Vinatieri did. The 12-year veteran is money under pressure, and will cash-in big if given the opportunity.
Sources: Stats per Football Reference, Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports, David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports, Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports, Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports, Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports, Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports