SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Surprise NFL standouts who are playing key roles with their teams

Tyrann Mathieu, Vontaze Burfict, Josh McCown and Danny Woodhead are among the players helping their teams in unexpected ways.

Tyrann Mathieu was a third-round gamble. Nobody wanted Vontaze Burfict. Josh McCown's career as a journeyman NFL quarterback was ostensibly over, and he was coaching high school football in North Carolina. And Danny Woodhead? He's been overlooked forever.

They are the unlikely reliables, under-the-radar overachievers who are helping keep playoff dreams alive for their teams. The household names will always be key, but for clubs that reach the postseason, it's often the unexpected players who bubble to the surface with major contributions.

For the San Diego Chargers, one of five 5-6 teams in the hunt for the last AFC wild-card berth, the diminutive Woodhead has been invaluable. The 5-foot-8 running back had two pivotal catch-and-carry gains in San Diego's monumental, season-saving upset of Kansas City last Sunday.

Woodhead had proved himself in New England as a key member of Tom Brady's arsenal, but he didn't seem like a spectacular acquisition when the Chargers signed him last spring. He has been outstanding, already notching career bests in catches (59), receiving yards (469) and touchdown catches (five), most among NFL running backs.

"I didn't get a Division I offer out of high school, obviously didn't get drafted, didn't even get invited to the combine," said Woodhead, in his sixth season. "But you know what? That's just part of life, man. You get frustrated at those points. But when those things happened, I just kept working harder and didn't let it bother me."

Surely Burfict understands that determination. He's a standout weakside linebacker for the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals, who play at San Diego on Sunday. Once projected to be a top prospect from Arizona State, he flopped at the 2012 scouting combine, running the slowest 40-yard dash of any linebacker (5.09 seconds) and coming up empty when asked about his lack of discipline on and off the field.

After going undrafted, Burfict reached out to Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis, calling and writing him in hopes of getting a chance to crack Cincinnati's roster. While in Arizona for his daughter's wedding, the coach made a side trip to visit Burfict and was impressed enough that the Bengals signed him to a modest three-year, $1.4-million deal that included a $1,000 signing bonus.

Safe to say Burfict was worth the risk. He leads the Bengals with 118 tackles, and two weeks ago was the AFC's defensive player of the week with 15 tackles in a rout of Cleveland. On one play, he pulled the football loose from Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya and recovered it for a 13-yard fumble return for a touchdown.

Like Burfict, Mathieu had a robust list of issues in college. The defensive back nicknamed "Honey Badger" was kicked off Louisiana State's team last season following multiple failed drug tests. He was enormously talented but too troubled for some NFL teams. Unlike Burfict, however, Mathieu had a strong performance at the combine, running a 4.5 40, and came across as genuine to coaches and media.

"I didn't have everything together back in college," Mathieu said at the time. "I had everything together as far as football, but when it came to my social life, my personal life, I didn't have everything intact. I didn't have my emotions intact. Spiritually, I wasn't intact. Once you take football away, you are able to work on the person. These last six months, that is all I had was Tyrann the person. I attacked the person, I attacked my issues."

Mathieu, the Cardinals' starting free safety, has attacked his issues and the opposition. Arizona, which plays at Philadelphia on Sunday, has won four in a row, and is tied for second in the NFC West. Mathieu was the NFL's defensive rookie of the month in October, collecting 21 tackles in four games, with an interception, a sack and five passes defensed. Coach Bruce Arians said the Cardinals have been discussing using Mathieu to return punts.

In terms of circuitous routes to the field, McCown has them all beat. The quarterback wore the uniforms of six NFL teams between 2002 and '11, and had a season with the Hartford Colonials of the United Football League in 2010. After he was released by San Francisco in September 2011, he became an assistant coach at Marvin Ridge High in Waxhaw, N.C.

But McCown's NFL career wasn't over. Chicago twice brought him back as a reserve, and he has been an amazing find, more than picking up the slack while Jay Cutler recovers from a groin injury. In five games, McCown has seven touchdowns, one interception and a 100.8 passer rating.

"I have been comfortable with [McCown] from the beginning," Bears Coach Marc Trestman said. "We just keep going along."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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