While both the Seahawks and the Patriots have their share of star power, both also have the ability to find talented young guys in the mid- to late rounds of the draft and develop them into skilled professionals—guys who had successful college careers, but didn’t have the highest pro prospects. Even Tom Brady was a sixth-round draft pick not even the Patriots thought would turn into the future Hall of Fame quarterback that he is. Here are five young players from each team to keep an eye on during the game.
1. #79 Garry Gilliam, OT
Penn State – Undrafted
Gilliam’s got the textbook underdog story. After redshirting his freshman year, he tore his ACL in 2010 and was forced to sit out the rest of the season and the following. Not much more than an afterthought in the Lions’ run-heavy offense, Gilliam was mostly used as a blocker in running situations and only caught eight career passes. That changed in his last season, in 2013, when he made the switch to offensive tackle to help the team in an area of weakness: He played in all 12 games. He tossed out his extra year of eligibility (due to the injury) and instead elected to enter the 2014 NFL draft—where he went undrafted. He got his chance, though, at the Seattle Seahawks training camp, before he was selected to the 53-man roster prior to the season. Though he’s not a starter on the O-line, Gilliam is a valuable substitute and has contributed significantly this season, even catching a touchdown pass in the NFC Championship game on a trick play. We don’t want to assume that can’t happen again, but at least keep an eye out for Gilliam to rotate in frequently when the starters need a breather.
2. #89 Doug Baldwin, WR
Stanford – Undrafted
Despite going undrafted in the 2011 NFL draft, Baldwin has become among Seattle’s best receivers. At Stanford, it wasn’t until his senior year that he became electric, leading the team in receiving yards and touchdowns. Baldwin signed a rookie contract with the Seahawks and contributed from the beginning, catching 51 passes for 788 yards and four touchdowns. Four years into his career, Baldwin still won’t post any videogame-type numbers, catching only 66 passes for 825 yards—both good for 42nd in the league—and three touchdowns. But it’s his reliability that makes him valuable. If Seattle is going to have any success throwing the ball on Sunday, you can almost be sure that Baldwin is going to be a part of it.
3. #54 Bobby Wagner, LB
Utah State – 2nd round
Wagner was so unheralded a prospect when he came into the league in 2012. At the time, though, people had their doubts: He was injury-prone, a little small, and still too raw—he didn’t start playing football until late in high school. But he had all the right tools, and since then, he’s developed into one of the best linebackers in the league. Despite missing five games with an injury (well, as expected), he was voted to his first Pro Bowl this year and was second on the team with 104 tackles in 11 games. The best example of Wagner’s impact on the team? The Seahawks were 6-4 and in a dogfight for playoff positioning when he was injured. Since he’s returned to the lineup, the Seahawks haven’t lost. As middle linebacker, often called the “quarterback of the defense,” Wagner will play a crucial role in shutting down the Patriots’ explosive, top-ranked offense.
4. #82 Luke Willson, TE
Rice – 5th round
Before the start of the season, no one outside of Seattle had probably ever heard of Luke Willson. A fifth-round pick out of Rice in 2013, the only real noticeable thing about him was that he spells his last name with two L’s. The tight end is not a particularly sexy position in football either, and there are only a handful of elites in the NFL. Willson hasn’t exactly dazzled so far in his two years in the league, catching only 42 total passes—but he has played an important role in the Seahawks’ multiple championship runs. Willson has been a security blanket for quarterback Russell Wilson this season, stepping up to catch important crunch-time passes. In the playoffs alone, he caught a 25-yard touchdown pass against the Carolina Panthers to put the game out of reach, and in the NFC Championship game he caught a key two-point conversion to seal an improbable comeback against the Green Bay Packers. Tonight, he’ll play a key role in pass protection and in blocking in the run game. And maybe in catching a pass for a late-in-the-game clutch play.
5. #20 Jeremy Lane, CB
Northwestern State (La.) – 6th round
This one might be a stretch. If no one outside of Seattle had heard of Willson before last year, then no one outside of maybe the coaches in Seattle and diehard fans had heard of Lane. Lane was selected in the 6th round of the 2012 draft out of Northwestern State, a small school in Louisiana that plays in the FCS (commonly referred to as Division II). Even here, Lane wasn’t a standout, starting in only 14 career games. But he did benefit from a strong senior campaign, with 42 tackles and two interceptions. Today, he still hasn’t developed into a starting corner yet, and, if known, perhaps it’s for calling out Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski in a recent interview with the Seattle Times, saying Gronkowski wasn’t very good and could be easily covered. While Lane isn’t a starter, he will likely get some time covering the slot in multiple wide-receiver sets, where the Patriots will frequently use Gronkowski. The question is whether Lane can back up his smack, or if Gronkowski will torch him like he has to so many other defensive backs.
1. #66 Bryan Stork, OL
Florida State – 4th round
The Patriots are one of the hardest organizations to understand in the NFL. Head coach Bill Belichick is notoriously secretive when it comes to organizational moves. No one really knows what he’s planning and yet no one is surprised when he makes a move such as trading away Pro Bowl offensive lineman Logan Mankins last year for what seemed like very little in return. But the Patriots didn’t seem to miss a beat, as Stork, a rookie fourth- round pick, stepped in and became an O-line starter. Stork had a successful career at Florida State, playing 51 career games and winning the Rimington Trophy in 2013, given to the nations best center. While it’s often a thankless position, it’s also an extremely important one nonetheless. Tonight Stork will play a key role in protecting quarterback Tom Brady and opening up holes for the rushing attack.
2. #35 Jonas Gray, RB
Notre Dame – Undrafted
Gray’s rushing stats at Notre Dame don’t speak as well to why he’s an asset: While he rushed for only 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns in his entire collegiate career, it was his powerful frame that gave him a shot in the NFL. After spending an unsuccessful stint at the Miami Dolphins’ training camp, a whole season on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad in 2013, and even more practice weeks with the Patriots early this season, he finally made a roster in October. Coming seemingly out of nowhere, Gray broke through with a ridiculous 37-carry, 201-yard performance against the Colts, leading many to anoint him the next great Patriots running back. Unfortunately for Gray he missed a team meeting after oversleeping and did not play the following week. And aside from an 11-carry, 62-yard game in week 15, he’s fallen back into a platoon role in the Patriots’ stable of running backs. Although he hasn’t appeared much in the postseason yet, the good news is Belichick is good at surprises. There’s as equal a chance he’ll see a few snaps as there is to having another big game.
3. #81 Tim Wright, TE
Rutgers – Undrafted
After going undrafted in 2013, Wright came to the Patriots from Tampa Bay, as part of the Logan Mankins trade. He had a comparatively successful rookie season with the Buccaneers, when stacked against his whole college career: In four seasons, he caught 50 passes for 596, but did 54 for 571 in one season with the Bucs. This season, even though he was behind stud Rob Gronkowski, he still managed to haul in six touchdowns on the year. Don’t expect big numbers from Wright on Sunday, but with the Seahawks turning most of their focus toward stopping Gronkowski, Wright could get a few looks his way.
4. #94 Chris Jones, DT
Bowling Green – 6th round
Another former castoff, Jones was a workhorse during his career at Bowling Green, playing all four years on the defensive line, finishing with 157 career tackles and 28 sacks— including 12.5 his senior year alone. Despite his collegiate success, Jones was selected by the Houston Texans in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, but was cut before the start of the season. But one team’s trash is another’s treasure, as Jones has found himself a nice home in New England, becoming a regular starter along a stout defensive line that also features the massive Vince Wilfork. Jones will have his hands full on Sunday, as he and Wilfork will have to close the rushing lanes if the Patriots are going to have any chance of containing Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks’ dangerous ground game.
5. #91 Jamie Collins, LB
Southern Mississippi – 2nd round
Like Wagner, Collins found his way to the bright lights of the NFL from a relatively small school. Southern Miss doesn’t frequently produce NFL players, but Collins earned it, amassing a whopping 314 tackles in 52 career games. In only his second year in the league, he has already established himself as a reliable starter on the Patriots’ defense after replacing longtime starter Jerod Mayo (out with an injury) and recording 116 tackles this season. Collins has a big task ahead of him, as he’ll have to contain both the mobile Russell Wilson and the powerful Marshawn Lynch, who is almost impossible to bring down on one’s own. If the Patriots win, a strong performance from Collins will likely have been a contributing factor.
Main photo by Keith Allison, Flickr; lead photo by Philip Robertson, Flickr.