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Pick 6 of possibly surprising playoff performers

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Pick 6 of possibly surprising playoff performers

OK, so the name Tom Brady probably rings a bell. Ray Lewis, too. If either makes a key play in the AFC championship game Sunday, no one would be shocked one bit.

Same goes for Brady's top receiver on the New England Patriots, Wes Welker. Or Lewis' longtime partner on the Baltimore Ravens defense, safety Ed Reed.

Over in the NFC championship game, all eyes will be on Atlanta Falcons wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones or tight end Tony Gonzalez, not to mention San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick - he of the run-for-a-long-touchdown-then-kiss-your-biceps move - or All-Pro defenders Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith.

Established playmakers, all. Keep this in mind, though: More than 150 other guys will be wearing NFL uniforms in Foxborough and Atlanta this weekend. Here are some less-heralded guys who could play important roles in the conference title games and, if their team makes it, the Super Bowl:

- Shane Vereen, Patriots RB: With superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski out with a broken left arm, and running back Danny Woodhead sidelined with a bum thumb, Vereen starred in last weekend's 41-28 win over Houston. He scored three touchdowns in that game, after accumulating five TDs in his NFL career up to that point. Precisely the type of anonymous player New England seems to come up with season after season.

- Rob Ninkovich, Patriots DE: Good as he's been all regular season, he just doesn't have the name recognition that, say, mammoth defensive tackle Vince Wilfork does. Yet there was Ninkovich - who appeared in only eight games over his first three NFL seasons - making a leaping interception, then grabbing an onside kick against the Texans. ``I was blessed to be able to stick around in the league a couple years without really doing anything,'' Ninkovich said. Spoken like a true Bill Belichick find, eh?

- Corey Graham, Ravens CB: Lauded mainly for his special teams play, he had only four interceptions and 10 starts in his first five NFL seasons, all with Chicago. But Graham emerged to help an injury-depleted Baltimore secondary, intercepting Peyton Manning twice in last weekend's 38-35 double-overtime win at Denver - he returned one for a touchdown; the other set up the game-ending field goal. And he can talk the talk. His self-assessment this week: ``I am a pretty savvy corner.''

- Bernard Pierce, Ravens RB: He's a rookie, he's playing behind Ray Rice, and he was limited by a knee injury against Denver. So why is Pierce on the list? Well, for one thing, he showed what he can do by gaining 103 yards on only 13 carries in the first round of the playoffs against the Colts. He also ran for 123 yards on 14 carries against the Giants in Week 16. And finally, we asked Ravens defensive end Arthur Jones - a candidate for this group himself - which less-than-famous teammate could make a mark, and he quickly mentioned Pierce. ``He reminds me a lot,'' Jones said, ``of Jamal Lewis.''

- Kroy Biermann, Falcons DE: Best known so far for being married to one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, the fifth-round draft pick out of Montana in 2008 could be vital to keeping Kaepernick at home. The top-seeded Falcons didn't generate a pass rush or succeed in containing Russell Wilson in a 30-28 win over Seattle last weekend; it didn't help that John Abraham left after only 15 snaps because of an injured left ankle. With Ray Edwards released, Biermann got a starting job full-time, and he can make plays when dropping into coverage. Other Falcons to watch: WR Harry Douglas is often ignored because of Jones and White, but he caught a 22-yard pass on the last-minute drive that produced the go-ahead field goal against the Seahawks; RB Jacquizz Rodgers, who is basically sharing rushing duties with Michael Turner and made a key block on a blitz during that drive.

- Tarell Brown, 49ers CB: Owner of 11 interceptions in six NFL seasons, he's got a little streak going at the moment. Overshadowed by All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Carlos Rogers, Brown picked off Aaron Rodgers in a 45-31 win over the Packers last weekend - ending a 183-pass stretch without an interception by last season's NFL MVP - and also grabbed one in San Francisco's division-clinching win over Arizona in Week 17. Other 49ers to watch: The entire offensive line, which opened gaping holes for Frank Gore and Kaepernick against Green Bay; LB Ahmad Brooks, an afterthought on a team with Willis, Bowman and Smith but quite capable of making a play that'll make someone say, ``Hey, who's he?''

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter athttp://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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Online:http://pro32.ap.org/poll andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Baltimore Ravens select QB Lamar Jackson with the 32nd overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft

Baltimore Ravens select QB Lamar Jackson with the 32nd overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft

Ozzie Newsome is closing out his last NFL Draft as the general manager of the Ravens with a bang.

After trading down twice from the 16th spot to draft TE Hayden Hurst with the 25th overall pick, the Eagles traded their 32nd overall pick to the Ravens where they selected QB Lamar Jackson. In return, the Eagles will receive the Ravens' 2018 2nd-round and 4th-round picks in addition to their 2019 2nd-round pick. 

The former Heisman Trophy winner has proven success in the air and on the ground. While at Louisville, Jackson had 9,043 passing yards and 69 touchdowns. He also rushed for 4,132 yards and 50 touchdowns.  

The first-round selection shows the Ravens are planning for the post-Flacco era.

Standing at 6' 2",  Jackson's build isn't up to typical NFL QB standards and scouts were concerned with his accuracy. What he does have in his favor is speed. His NFL comparison is to that of Michael Vick. 

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Baltimore Ravens select Hayden Hurst with the 25th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft

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Baltimore Ravens select Hayden Hurst with the 25th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft

The pick is in! 

With the 25th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Ravens have selected tight end Hayden Hurst.

Hurst, an ex-minor league baseball pitcher, walked on at South Carolina at 21-years old and finished his three-year career with 100 receptions, 1,281 yards and three touchdowns. 

Standing at 6' 5", Hurst ran a 4.67 40 yard dash, recorded a 31.5 vertical jump and a 7.19 three cone drill at the combine. 

"His fearless play demeanor combined with size, strength and athleticism make him a well-rounded prospect with the versatility to line up all over the field. He's sure-handed and could become a young quarterback's safety blanket if he improves elements of his route running. He should see early snaps and has the ability to become a good combination tight end." according to his draft profile

While Hurst is starting his career at 25-years old, he will provide tight end support that the Ravens have yet to address in free agency. It also doesn't hurt that QB Joe Flacco has a tendency to favor his tight ends.

Welcome to Ravens Nation, Hurst.