Each year, Pro Football Focus finds players across the NFL who they deem worthy enough to be labeled, "secret superstars." In other words, they are looking for players who aren't a household name, yet perform at a very high level. In 2012, the representative for the Browns was SS T.J. Ward. In 2013, the representative for Cleveland was OG John Greco.
This year, the honor belongs to DL John Hughes. Despite being a rotational player on the defensive line, he consistently made his presence known when he was in the game, drawing particularly high marks against the run. In fact, in PFF's depth chart grading, Hughes was valued higher than any of the starting defensive linemen on the team. PFF notes that Hughes made a drastic leap from 2012 to 2013 in terms of production, and they explain why:
That offseason Jauron was dismissed with the rest of the Browns’ coaching staff, and new defensive coordinator Ray Horton came in with his preferred 3-4 scheme. After being a defensive tackle on 83% of his snaps his rookie season, Hughes would play defensive end in a three-man front on 94% of his snaps in 2013. However, the difference between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense isn’t as strict as it used to be, and Horton’s defenses in particular can make use of multiple gap concepts on the same play. Therefore, Hughes still lined up in a 3-technique last season in addition to the classic 5-technique that you see from a 3-4 DE. And yet, by the end of the season, he was one of the best run defenders at his position.
How did he make this leap? The difference for Hughes in 2013 wasn’t where he lined up, but rather when. Over 91% of his snaps came on first and second down, primarily in the Browns’ base defense. Rarely was he asked to play in pass rush situations, and instead he could focus on his strength in the run game. Shortly after he was drafted, Hughes said "I use my hands well to get off blocks and I feel that is my strong suit as a player." He exhibited this skill many times last season. In Week 3 against the Vikings, for example, with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter, he controlled right guard Brandon Fusco, easily disengaged from the block, and dropped Adrian Peterson for no gain.
Playing as the rotational run-stopper that he was originally pegged for, Hughes finished with a +16.0 run defense grade in 2013. That tied for the seventh-best mark at his position, despite the fact that he played less than half the snaps of many of his peers. He increased his Run Stop Percentage from 6.9 in 2012 to 8.9 last season.
A former third-round pick, Hughes will now be playing for his third head coach -- Mike Pettine -- in as many years as he's been with the team. I think the defense will still find ways to suit his strengths, but still, it'll be hard to find reps for all of our talented defensive linemen. Keep in mind that Hughes saw extended playing time last year because he remained healthy while guys like Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant, and Billy Winn all missed time.