Players can be underrated for all sorts of reasons. They can play for bad teams that hold little interest, they can start their careers slowly and find themselves subsequently ignored when they turn it around, or they can be outstanding at positions where there's an huge base of marquee talent among the league's 32 teams. Whatever the reasons, it's always good to combine stats and tape to bring to the fore those players who are bringing it on a consistent basis without the recognition they deserve. Here's our 2014 All-Underrated defense; the All-Underrated Offense will follow presently.
One thing's for sure -- those who believe the Jacksonville Jaguars are on the upswing despite their recent lack of success might be on to something. Jacksonville is the only team with three players on ours, and each of them -- defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, linebacker Paul Posluszny and cornerback Alan Ball -- has played at a high level without the namechecks others at their positions generally receive. Yes, a handful of these players have Pro Bowl nods and reasonably large contracts to their credits, but that's not really the criteria here. These are players who just aren't talked about enough in our minds -- players who should continue to make a real difference to their teams in future. And hopefully, with a bit more praise to their names.
Kendall Langford, St. Louis Rams/Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans/Sen'Derrick Marks, Jacksonville Jaguars
You'll hear nothing but praise for the Rams' projected starting four of Chris Long, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and first-round pick Aaron Donald, and justifiably so -- there may not be a more talented defensive line in the game. But before we start crowning Donald as a 16-game starter, let's go back and look at the year Langford had in 2013, because he was quite the boss. He set career highs in sacks (5.0) and solo tackles (36), while matching his career high in passes defensed with four. He added 27 run stops and 23 total quarterback pressures.
Casey will be one of the most underrated tackles in the game until he gets the mega-bucks contract he so richly deserves. Last season, only Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh had more total pressures than his 54, and he added 24 run stops to that total. He'll play some end in Ray Horton's 3-4, which will give him opportunities for even gaudier numbers. As for Marks, he's become a tremendously disruptive interior lineman with violent hands and tremendous field speed -- you don't often see 6-1, 300-pound guys run down speed receivers like Indy's T.Y. Hilton, but the tape doesn't lie. Marks gets from Point A to Point B in a big hurry.
3-4 Defensive Ends
Cedric Thornton, Philadelphia Eagles/Mike Daniels, Green Bay Packers
There were several personnel issues with Billy Davis' first-year conversion to a 3-4 defense in Philadelphia, but Thornton wasn't one of them -- the third-year undrafted free agent from Southern Arkansas really showed up in his first season as an NFL starter. He's not an elite pass-rusher per se, but he had 36 total stops and 48 solo tackles and was consistently a force on that defense. Daniels was another player who stood out on a defense with its share of troubles; he amassed 6.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and 26 quarterback hurries on just 49 percent of the Packers' overall defensive snaps. He'll get more of a chance to play in the base defense this season.
4-3 Defensive Ends
Willie Young, Chicago Bears/Rob Ninkovich, New England Patriots
Young got a bit lost in the parade of first-round picks that comprised Detroit's front four last season, but in his first season with any NFL starts, he racked up 3.0 sacks and an impressive 48 quarterback hurries -- only Minnesota's Brian Robison the aforementioned Robert Quinn had more. The Bears signed Young to a three-year, $9 million deal in the offseason, and he'll most likely continue to be one of the NFL's better bargains. Ninkovich gets the nod over Chandler Jones, for all you Patriots fans, because he plays the run at a higher clip and his pressure numbers are pretty amazing -- he had 50 quarterback hurries in 2013.
Timmons has been a bit underground during the Steelers' two straight 8-8 seasons, but he's been a rock on a defense that used to be talked about a lot more. He was active against the run and pass in 2013. As for Freeman, there are few inside linebackers more productive, and he's done it behind three- and four-man fronts. In his second NFL season, the former CFL knockabout from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor increased his totals in sacks (5.5), interceptions (two), and solo tackles (93).
3-4 Outside Linebackers
Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills/Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns
Technically, Hughes will move to end in Jim Schwartz's 4-3 defense after a great 2013 campaign in Mike Pettine's multiple fronts, but let's hope Buffalo doesn't pull a DeMarcus Ware here and turn Hughes into a full-time end. Like Ware, Hughes is at his best rushing relatively unobstructed off the edge. It's more likely that Schwartz will use Hughes as a satellite player on passing downs, which may decrease his snap total, but not his overall efficiency -- especially with all the talent on this front four. As for Sheard, he kept respectable sack totals in his 2013 move from defensive end to outside linebacker with 5.5, adding 28 hurries and three batted passes.
4-3 Inside Linebackers
Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars/Vincent Rey, Cincinnati Bengals
Yes, Posluszny made his first Pro Bowl in 2013, but the second-round pick of the Bills in 2007 had an absolutely insane 2013 season for the Jaguars, and it seems like nobody's talking about it. Only San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman had more run defeats than Posluszny's 14 among all inside linebackers, he allowed one touchdown and had two interceptions on his 66 targets, and his 122 solo tackles marked a career high. There are times when inside linebackers are simply tackle magnets, and other times when they really earn those stats. Posluszny earned everything he got in 2013.
RANKINGS: WRs | TEs | Safeties | CBs | D-tackles | Pass rushers | QBs | OL
As for Rey, he got three starts and less than 400 total snaps in relief of Rey Maualuga in 2013, but he immediately impressed, and he'll get a shot to start this season. Rey flows aggressively to the ball to either side against the run, he brings pressure from different gaps with good timing, and he's got the agility and recovery speed to excel in short and intermediate coverage. He has the potential to be a true full-field defender as a true starter.
4-3 Outside Linebackers
Thomas Davis, Carolina Panthers/DeAndre Levy, Detroit Lions
Talk of the Panthers' linebacker corps frequently started and stopped with Luke Kuechly last year, and as great as Kuechly was in 2013, that's a shame, because Davis matched him in overall efficiency. In his first season as a 16-game starter since 2008, Davis had four sacks, two interceptions, eight passes defensed, and 85 solo tackles in 2013. Not too shabby for a guy who suffered three ACL tears in his two previous seasons. Levy proved to be one of the best cover linebackers in the league last year with his six interceptions and 15 passes defensed; he added 85 tackles to his season and was responsible for 48 defensive stops.
Byron Maxwell, Seattle Seahawks/Alan Ball, Jacksonville Jaguars
Maxwell didn't see much time in Seattle's secondary until after the suspensions of Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond, but when he got his shot, the sixth-round pick in 2011 allowed a miniscule 47.8 quarterback rating in the second half of the regular season. Maxwell was undressed a bit on the postseason, but he came out of nowhere to add his name as a starter to the best secondary in football.
Ball was taken in the seventh round of the 2007 draft by the Cowboys, who sure could have used him last year. The Jaguars took the former free safety and moved him to right cornerback, where he started all 16 games in 2013. Ball has excellent pattern-reading skills and tackles well, and he'll be a key cog in Jacksonville's development.
Brandon Boykin, Philadelphia Eagles/Chris Harris, Jr., Denver Broncos
Slot cornerbacks are underrated as a matter of course, because there are some who think that if you're not playing outside, you're not a starter. That's not the case in today's NFL, when teams play more nickel and dime than base defenses. And when Boykin hit the slot for the Eagles in 2013, there were few better -- he picked off six passes and allowed a 57.8 quarterback rating in 353 snaps. Harris was a major part of a defense that helped the Broncos get to the Super Bowl, but the torn ACL he suffered in the playoffs against the Chargers set the Broncos' secondary into a tailspin. Harris allowed no touchdowns and a 65.6 passer rating on 393 regular-season slot snaps.
Antrel Rolle, New York Giants/Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
Rolle has alternated between cornerback and safety -- and between great play and boneheaded mistakes -- throughout his career. But in his 16 starts and 1,155 snaps for the Giants in 2013, Rolle was at his very best, picking off six passes, while allowing one touchdown and adding a career-high 80 tackles to the mix. McCourty is another converted cornerback who saw his first full season as a free safety and played extremely well at that position. The Patriots are talking with McCourty about a long-term extension, and he's earned a rich one.