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For what we’ve seen thus far in the 2021 NFL season, I’m announcing my All-Underrated Team today. The last time we did this in 2019, I included guys like Matthew Judon, Austin Ekeler, Vita Vea, Fred Warner, and others who have risen to prominence in the two seasons since. Hopefully, the profiles of the players on this year’s list will develop in the same way in the years to come.
Of course, the term “underrated” is subjective. I’m guessing that almost everyone who sees this list will have a player or two they consider underappreciated who won’t be among the 24 players on this list. In most situations, I believe the main distinction is that I believe those guys are already recognized as important contributions. The following are some of the rules I used to compile this list:
Have you consistently performed at the same level for a long time? Andrew Whitworth and Micah Hyde, for example, have been “underrated” for so long that they are now properly ranked as superb football players. This list, which includes the team’s sole quarterback, tends to highlight younger players and/or players who have altered their level of performance from previous years.
Were you drafted in the first round? If you’re a first-round pick on your rookie contract, you’ll almost certainly be expected to perform well. A first-round pick makes the team because he has emerged as one of the finest players at his position, despite the fact that he is seldom included in that debate. Ja’Marr Chase or Nick Bosa, both top-five picks, aren’t exactly undervalued.
Have you been compensated? If you signed a huge contract in free agency or with your current club, you’re already regarded as a key player at your position. Trey Hendrickson was undervalued (by myself and others) entering into this season, and he’s been great for the Bengals, but he’s also making $20 million, so he’s already a quality player. The majority of the players are on rookie contracts or contracts that are below market value. Because one of the players just signed a new contract, I’m cheating a little by including him on the list.
Let’s go through our squad with that in mind. We have 24 players from 15 different companies, with a particular emphasis on bringing in players from the poorest clubs. Starting with a player who surprisingly ranked in the top 10 at his position before suffering a season-ending injury, we’ll work our way through the offense, defense, and special teams, beginning with a player who surprisingly ranked in the top 10 at his position before suffering a season-ending injury:
QB | RB | WR | TE OT | G | C | K | P EDGE | DT | LB | CB | S EDGE | DT | LB | CB | S
Yes, we’re beginning with a guy who is out for the season due to a ruptured ACL, but being underappreciated as a quarterback is almost impossible. Winston meets the criteria. His 64.3 Total QBR in seven games this season is fifth in the league, behind Aaron Rodgers and Kyler Murray. If you don’t want to utilize QBR, there are other options. Winston’s quarterback rating and adjusted yards per attempt rank sixth and eighth, respectively. Despite the fact that he couldn’t stop throwing interceptions in Tampa Bay, he had a 14-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in seven starts in 2021.
It’s OK if you want to give Sean Payton and the Saints’ offensive line credit for Winston’s progress. Winston also deserves credit for achieving success with a primarily unknown collection of receivers. Alvin Kamara was the No. 1 overall choice in 2015, but he also threw to Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris, Adam Trautman, and Juwan Johnson. Winston, who will be a free agency in 2022, accomplished enough to earn a second chance with the Saints next season.
Robinson is well-known as a capable running back, but he also has a Pro Bowl resume as a runner this season. He has ran 112 times for 568 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry, in an offense with a pass game that may be charitably characterized as erratic. You might blame it on opponents not caring about the run, but DVOA takes into account game score and scenario, and his 31.4 percent DVOA is the highest among regular backs in the league.
Robinson seems to obtain more than what is blocked, according on advanced measures. This season, he is fourth among runners with at least 100 runs with an average of 2.2 yards after first contact. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he has accumulated 66 yards more than an ordinary back would have on the same runs, ranking him sixth in terms of yards per carry and ahead of players like Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, and Ezekiel Elliott.
Robinson isn’t a very excellent receiver, but he’s a very good young player on a club that doesn’t have many.
I don’t believe you can compile this list without include Patterson at some point. Patterson, who has been the top kickoff returner in the game for the last decade and has played everything from split-out receiver to I-formation running back, is unmatched in the league. But not even his family could have predicted what he would do in Atlanta’s first season.
Patterson’s traditional position is running back, but when he’s on the field, the 30-year-old has become the focal center of Matt Ryan’s passing offense. He’s been targeted on 33.3 percent of the routes he’s ran this season, putting him second in the NFL behind Christian McCaffrey in terms of targets. The four-time Pro Bowl returner has since averaged 9.9 yards per target, which places him first among all backs and 13th among receivers.
Patterson also had seven touchdowns on 116 carries before sustaining an ankle injury that prevented him from playing in a rematch against his previous club, the New England Patriots. It’s no wonder that the Falcons melted down without him; Ryan has an 81.4 QBR when Patterson is on the field and a 29.5 QBR when he isn’t. I’m not sure how much longer Patterson can keep this up, but it’s been entertaining to watch.
Patrick, who signed a three-year, $34 million agreement with the Broncos earlier this month, has justified retaining a snap rate over 90% most weeks in the lineup, even after Jerry Jeudy’s return. Since the start of 2020, here are the stats for two receivers:
Test of Résumé Blindness
Patrick is the first player. Deebo Samuel is Player B. The 49ers standout is the superior player, having accomplished this on fewer routes and providing more as a runner, but Samuel is a far more well-known player, and their stats are almost similar.
Patrick is averaging 9.9 yards per target this season and is fourth in receiving DVOA despite playing alongside Teddy Bridgewater as his quarterback. Last season, he caught passes from Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien, and Kendall Hinton for an average of 9.4 yards per target. Patrick doesn’t have the kind of target share that superstar wideouts have, but he’s one of the league’s most efficient wideouts.
The Patriots’ free-agent receiver shopping spree has produced a mixed bag of outcomes. Given their salary, Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith haven’t been very remarkable, but Hunter Henry has been a red-zone danger, and Bourne has been a fantastic second receiving option behind Jakobi Meyers. Given that Bourne split between Damontae Kazee and Trevon Diggs for a 75-yard touchdown and a stunning leaping grab for a score against the Browns, you’ve undoubtedly seen enough of his two highlight-reel plays.
Even if those plays aren’t typical of his week-to-week position in the scheme, the former 49ers wideout has caught over 78 percent of his targets this season. His anticipated catch rate is 67.4 percent, which means he’s over 11 percent above average, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That’s the league’s third-best record, after only Christian Kirk’s and Patrick’s.
Given that the Patriots’ offense ranks 16th in offensive and passing DVOA, some of the excitement around them is overblown, but Bourne has outperformed his three-year, $15 million contract.
With Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Mixon, and Tee Higgins in the mix, Uzomah will never be the main center of an attack, but the 28-year-old makes the most of his chances. He has grabbed 27 of the 31 passes thrown his way this season, for an 87.1 percent catch rate after a ruptured Achilles. After Broncos tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, he is second in catch rate and catch rate above expectation. Both players catch shorter passes than the majority of their tight end counterparts, but Uzomah gets the ball more often, averaging 10.4 yards per target. He also contributes as a capable run-blocker.
Uzomah has received a significant rise from the $5 million or so he will earn in 2021 in the last year of his contract.
Steele struggled early in his first season with the Cowboys after La’el Collins missed the whole season with a hip injury. He improved as the year progressed. Collins was expected to return to the Cowboys in 2021, but when he was banned for five games, Steele stepped back into the lineup. The previous undrafted free agent was re-hired this time.
Steele has excelled in an every-down position, initially as a right tackle and more recently as a left tackle, stepping in for Tyron Smith. On the free market, excellent swing tackles command over $10 million per year; the Cowboys will pay Steele less than $6 million over the next three seasons. He’s one of the league’s most underappreciated players.
Another player has been pressed into action due to injury. Due to Ronnie Stanley’s ankle troubles, Alejandro Villanueva was forced to return to left tackle, making room on the right side for Mekari, who had spent the most of his time with the Ravens at center.
John Harbaugh praised Mekari’s performance throughout his first six starts, calling it “amazing.” He had a severe ankle sprain and was out for a month before returning for the Bears’ triumph on Sunday. Mekari is one of several guys helping the Ravens stay afloat in the AFC North despite a slew of injuries.
Hurst was Mekari’s predecessor as a utility worker in Baltimore in many respects. Hurst, who went to New Orleans in 2020, has started games for an injury-plagued Saints line this season at left tackle, left guard, and most recently right tackle. He’s been outstanding almost everywhere, surrendering just one half-sack in 500 offensive plays.
I’m cheating a little by having him out here at guard when he’s played more tackle in 2021, but he’ll probably end the season at left guard once the Saints get their great tackles back.
Smith took over the right guard position in training camp after being taken in the sixth round in April and hasn’t looked back since. The Chiefs were pleased enough with Smith’s performance that they sent veteran Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to the Jets before the deadline.
Smith was passed over in the draft due to health concerns after pulmonary blood clots, but the Tennessee product has been a surprise for a Chiefs club that has needed to run more power concepts up front against two-high looks this season. Only penalties have been a source of worry; he has piled up five holding calls.
The youngster who has been paired with Smith has also performed well. Humphrey, a three-year starter at Oklahoma, has made an immediate impact in the NFL. After playing the Chiefs, I asked one NFL defensive coach what he thought of Humphrey, and he said Humphrey “looks like he’s been in the NFL for a decade already.” That’s tremendous praise for any rookie, much alone one who is under the same scrutiny as Humphrey while blocking for Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs’ tackles have struggled, but Humphrey and Smith are two of the better draft decisions they’ve made since Mahomes was taken in 2017.
Over his first three seasons in the NFL, Landry has averaged around six sacks and 15 knockdowns each season. His ability to be the No. 1 player on a strong team was questioned, and the Titans paid significant money in free agency for Bud Dupree to take over the lead position after their pass rush struggled last season.
Due to injuries, Dupree has only made two starts and has just one sack. Without him, Landry has progressed. With six regular-season games remaining, the 2018 second-round pick has already established career highs in sacks (10) and knockdowns (19). His 17 hurries are the most in the NFL.
He’s the latest Titan to have a strong contract year, putting the team in a conundrum between paying two pass-rushers huge money or letting Landry join Jack Conklin and Corey Davis on the way out.
One Lions player needs to be added to this list. Despite being picked first overall by the Dolphins in 2017, Harris never saw meaningful action with the team and was sold to the Falcons for a seventh-round selection last year. Harris has been a significantly better performer since joining the Lions this season. Although his main stats aren’t impressive (four sacks and seven knockdowns), he ranks 11th in the league with 12 hurries and 19th in pass rush victory rate.
There aren’t many bright spots in Detroit right now, but the players that have stood out are mostly on the offensive line. That’s encouraging to see for a squad that wants to grow from the inside out.
Let’s add a Texans player to the mix to follow the Lions guy. Lopez, a sixth-round selection in April’s draft, has been a standout two-down run defender for a squad that ranks 10th in defensive DVOA in the league. Houston has been above-average in power situations and has one of the greatest defenses in the league at stuffing runners for no gain or loss, which is made possible by having a nose tackle who can control the line of scrimmage.
Lopez is ranked eighth among interior lineman in ESPN’s run stop win rate metric, making him a good pick for a Texans squad in urgent need of youth.
With Sheldon Richardson, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Michael Pierce on the interior this season, the Vikings were set on the inside, but with Pierce out since Week 4, Watts has stepped up and taken over the tackle post. He has three sacks, a tackle for loss, 20 tackles, and two forced fumbles in six games as a starter. He has the NFL’s 14th best pass rush victory rate among tackles.
After Danielle Hunter went down for the season, the Vikings switched Richardson to defensive end for Sunday’s victory against the Packers, thus Watts seems to have secured a starting role even if Pierce recovers.
What was the source of this? Campbell was a solid inside linebacker in his first five seasons in the NFL, but he struggled to adapt his athleticism to coverage. In four of his first five seasons as the closest defender in coverage, the 2016 Falcons draft choice allowed a passer rating of 104 or higher. Following a season with the Cardinals in which he saw his playing time dwindle as the season progressed, the Packers signed him to a one-year, $2 million contract this summer.
Campbell has been outstanding for the Packers in a position where they have battled for years to find a suitable replacement. He tops all linebackers in coverage with a minus-16.4 expected points added (EPA) per play, in addition to being an above-average run defender. As the closest defender in coverage, he has allowed a passer rating of only 74.2. In terms of DVOA, the Packers are ninth in the league when it comes to tight end passes.
Campbell has been one of the league’s best values this season, and a trip to the Pro Bowl wouldn’t be surprising.
I could have gone with Nick Bolton, a third-year Chiefs rookie, but I’d rather spotlight the growth of this third-year Colts defense. Because the Colts believed Okereke was ready to be the guy in the middle, they allowed team captain Anthony Walker go for the Browns this summer. For the first time in his career, the 2019 third-round pick ranks in the top 10 in tackles, stops, run stops, and hustle plays, which are tackles that require a player to go 20 yards or more.
Earlier in the season, the Colts struggled to stop big plays, but Okereke has a decent minus-3.1 EPA as the closest defender in coverage. Okereke has been an above-average starting linebacker for the resurgent Colts, while he isn’t quite on the same level as Darius Leonard.
I’m not going to include many first-round selections on this list since it’s impossible to be underrated in the NFL, but Terrell has a strong argument to be one of the finest cornerbacks in the league. Although the Falcons don’t have him pursue opposing receivers and instead like to keep him on the left side of the defense, his effect can be seen in the stats.
They have the sixth-best QBR on passes thrown to the right side of the field and the 31st-best QBR on passes thrown anywhere else in the league. Terrell is allowing opponents to complete 50% of their passes while posting a 56.9 passer rating, which ranks fifth among cornerbacks, according to Pro Football Reference’s charting stats.
Atlanta’s defense isn’t very impressive, but Terrell and Foyesade Oluokun are sticking up their half of the bargain.
Cornerbacks in the 2020 draft class were as hit-or-miss as they come. First-round picks Jeff Okudah, CJ Henderson, and Damon Arnette have underperformed, while second-round picks Terrell and Trevon Diggs are two of the game’s most valued corners, and Fulton seems to be right behind them.
After the Titans revamped their secondary this summer, Fulton, the 61st selection in that draft, was promoted to the starting lineup. As the closest defender in coverage, he has allowed minus-10.9 EPA this season, while quarterbacks targeting him in coverage have completed 16.9% fewer passes than expected. For corners with at least 100 covering snaps, this is the second-best score.
With a hamstring injury, Fulton was placed on injured reserve, but the Titans were thrilled to see him return in the last two weeks.
Is there room in the 2020 draft for one more defensive back? Sure. On paper, Dugger is a safety, but he plays both safety positions and also chips in as a slot corner a lot of the time. When he’s classified as a slot defender by NFL Next Gen Stats, he’s allowed only 35.2 passer rating and created 13.2 EPA for the Patriots’ defense, which ranks fourth in the league.
This week’s essentials include: • Check out the full schedule » | Check out the standings » • Every team’s depth chart » • Injuries » | Transactions » • Rankings of the Football Power Index » Additional NFL coverage »
Bill Belichick uses the defender with exceptional measurables in a number of ways, but Dugger, along with fellow All-Underrated Team contender Adrian Phillips, may be best at shutting down opposition tight ends. In last week’s shutout victory against Atlanta, he was one of the defenders who helped slow down Falcons standout Kyle Pitts.
Despite the fact that Miami’s secondary has been a catastrophe this season, Brian Flores must be pleased with what he has received from his rookie second-round choice. Holland has no problems about being lined up as a free safety or coming into the box to assist against the run, according to Dolphins coach Adam Gase.
Holland was thrust into the starting lineup after Jason McCourty’s foot injury in Week 4, and he hasn’t looked back since, defending six passes, picking up two sacks, and recovering a fumble. The Dolphins have noticed the difference: with Holland on the field, they’ve allowed a 53.1 QBR, which has risen to 80.1 without him between the lines.
Playing alongside Derwin James might make life easier, but the Chargers have seen a difference this season with the talented safety back in the lineup. The Chargers have been roughly 18 points poorer when he has been out by injury or taking a break.
Coach Brandon Staley prefers two-deep coverages, thus Adderley has nearly always been on the deep half, but he has been a superior tackler when called upon to do so. He has a habit of missing interceptions, which is the only thing preventing him from garnering more national recognition, but he’s an intriguing young player on a Chargers defense that seems to be full of them.
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It’s a pity that two of McPherson’s three misses this season came on game-winning attempts against the Packers, since the rookie fifth-round selection has been fantastic otherwise. He has a 15-of-18 field goal percentage and a 29-of-30 extra point percentage.
Football Outsiders ranks the Bengals as the ninth-best club in the league on field goals and extra points, which McPherson has handled solely. Cincinnati is also third among regular kickers in points added on kickoffs, where he is sixth in average.
We got a Jets player onto the squad at the last minute! In a way, yes. After controlling for field location, game circumstances, and EPA, Morstead ranks as the NFL’s third-best punter this season, according to Puntalytics’ methodology. Morstead’s outstanding season prompted the Jets to release him at the trade deadline.
The former Saints punter just signed with the Falcons, making Atlanta the only club on the list with three players. Given that the Ravens, Bills, and Steelers are among the worst teams in terms of punter performance, it’s hard to believe Morstead couldn’t have aided a more competitive club.
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