Throughout the NFL season, the Daily Herald has kept tabs on the progress of local players performing at the highest level of their sport. We have told the stories of practice-squad members trying to make it onto rosters, and we have profiled veterans who have made a good living holding off younger players year after year.
To conclude our series, here's our list of the area NFL players who stood out most in 2013, as well a list of players who could be on their way to bigger and better things in 2014. All players are listed in alphabetical order, with their high school or university in parentheses:
Top area performers:
Colts left tackle Anthony Castonzo (Lake Zurich): The 25-year-old Castonzo has started 40 consecutive regular-season games for the AFC South champions. Castonzo allowed only 4 sacks in the 2013 regular season, according to Pro Football Focus data.
Colts tight end Coby Fleener (Joliet Catholic): The second-year pro from Stanford was the Colts' second-leading receiver, catching 52 passes for 608 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich (Lincoln-Way Central): The rock-solid Ninkovich equaled his career high in sacks (8) and recorded a career-best 91 tackles for New England, the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
4. Raiders middle linebacker Nick Roach (Northwestern University): The ex-Bear thrived in his first season in Oakland, leading the club in tackles (112) and notching a career-high 5½ sacks.
5. Saints running back Pierre Thomas (Thornton Fractional South): Thomas rushed for 549 yards and 2 touchdowns on 147 carries and added 77 catches for 513 yards and 3 TDs for New Orleans, for whom he has played for all seven of his NFL seasons.
Chiefs left guard Jeff Allen (Chicago King): A second-year pro from Illinois, Allen started 14 regular-season games for Kansas City, which rolled to a wild-card berth.
Cowboys right tackle Doug Free (Northern Illinois): He returned to form this season, finishing 2013 as Pro Football Focus' 18th-ranked tackle.
Chiefs tight end Sean McGrath (Carmel): Picked up by Kansas City just one week before the start of the regular season, McGrath became one of the Chiefs' key performers at his position, catching 26 passes for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns.
4. Cardinals RB Rashard Mendenhall (Niles West): The former Steelers tailback led Arizona in carries (217), rushing yards (687) and rushing touchdowns (8). Still only 26 years old, Mendenhall is slated to be an unrestricted free agent.
Raiders right tackle Tony Pashos (Lockport): Out of the NFL in the 2012 regular season, the 33-year-old Pashos returned to start 12 games for Oakland in 2013.
Players to watch in 2014:
Chiefs right guard Jon Asamoah (Rich East): The Illinois product started first nine games of 2013 before giving way to Geoff Schwartz. Asamoah, 25, has made 41 career starts, and he will be an unrestricted free agent this spring.
Packers left tackle Bryan Bulaga (Marian Central Catholic): The 24-year-old Bulaga will aim to return in 2014 after missing this season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. A 33-game starter in his NFL career, Bulaga is entering the final year of his contract.
Raiders wide receiver Andre Holmes (Conant): In the most extended playing time of his career, the 25-year-old Holmes caught 25 passes for 431 yards and 1 touchdown in 10 games for Oakland in 2013. He started three of the Raiders' final four contests.
4. Seahawks outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield (North Chicago): A backup on a loaded Seattle defense, Schofield could hit the free-agent market this off-season. He has shown pass-rush ability, and he will only be 27 next season.
Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien (Fremd): A shaky performance in a key home matchup vs. Minnesota landed Tolzien on the bench after three games (two starts) in the Green Bay lineup. However, he flashed potential when given a chance to play. He'll need to cut down on turnovers, but there is a place for him in the NFL, and he could vie to be Aaron Rodgers' backup in 2014.
• Mike Wilkening has covered the NFL for more than a decade. You can read his work at Pro Football Talk, The Linemakers at Sporting News and NBC New York, among other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @mikewilkening. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.