Dolphins, Bucs signal-callers lead the way for All-Underrated Offense
Players can be underrated for all sorts of reasons. They can play for bad teams that garner little national 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 reason, it's only fair 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 Offense; the All-Underrated Defense can be found here.
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. Hopefully, they'll earn a bit more ink to their names.
Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins; Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yes, more has been expected of Tannehill than he's delivered since the Dolphins selected him eighth overall in the 2012 draft. But when you look back at Miami's 2013 season, it's pretty impressive that Tannehill, who played quarterback for just two seasons at Texas A&M, kept his head above water at all. The bullying scandal effectively ripped apart the left side of an offensive line that wasn't all that great in the first place, new receiver Mike Wallace and Tannehill needed time to get their deep routes together, and the coaching staff didn't always put Tannehill in the best position to succeed, and he still threw 24 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. He was one of the most effective play-action quarterbacks in the NFL last year (seven touchdowns and one interception), so of course, the Dolphins ran play-action just 14.8 percent of the time, 21st in the league. Tannehill has a way to go, but he's better than you might think he is.
Glennon is now battling with Josh McCown for the starting job in Tampa Bay, but he acquitted himself rather well in a similarly dysfunctional situation in 2013. As a rookie, Glennon supplanted Josh Freeman and threw 19 touchdowns to nine interceptions under the watch of a head coach in Greg Schiano who had no business being a head coach and in an offensive structure that doesn't exactly help its quarterbacks. Glennon will most likely have to ride the bench for a while, given Lovie Smith's comfort level with McCown, but he's exceeded expectations so far -- and if he can get a bit quicker in the pocket (40 sacks -- yikes), he might be starter-quality over time.
DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys; Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
Murray put together his best season to date in 2013, ranking second in Football Outsiders' season-cumulative efficiency metrics and first overall in play-by-play production. He also gained 1,121 rushing yards on just 217 carries. Built more like a receiver than a running back, Murray is injury-prone but very elusive -- according to Pro Football Focus' charting, he caused 37 missed tackles as a rusher and 16 more as a receiver. Dallas' offensive line is rapidly improving, so as long as Murray stays healthy, his arrow is pointing up.
Not many people talked about Morris during the Redskins' 3-13 debacle of a season, but the second-year back displayed an impressive consistency as everything around him was falling apart. He gained 1,275 yards on the ground despite a subpar offensive line (left tackle Trent Williams excepted), and only Marshawn Lynch, Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy and Eddie Lacy caused more missed tackles as a running back than Morris' 46. He should be a major force in Jay Gruden's balanced offense.
Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers; Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers; Riley Cooper, Philadelphia Eagles
Yes, Nelson just got a new $39 million contract extension, but he's still relatively underrated in that most people think that his statistical excellence has more to do with the greatness of Aaron Rodgers than his own abilities. But in the seven games Rodgers missed in 2013, Nelson was still effective, catching 36 passes for 504 yards and seeing time in the slot after Randall Cobb was lost to injury.
Brown is the latest speed receiver in the Pittsburgh tree, and 2013 was his best season. He caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards and finished fifth overall in Football Outsiders' receiver metrics. As for Cooper, he became a perfect foil for Michael Vick and Nick Foles in Chip Kelly's offense, because he can effectively beat man coverage (a must in Kelly's mind), and he's a surprisingly fast player with excellent route awareness and good blocking skills.
Jerricho Cotchery, Carolina Panthers; Marlon Brown, Baltimore Ravens
With more three-receiver sets in the NFL now than ever before, slot receivers are essentially starters. And Cotchery, after some big-time years with the Jets a few years back and two unimpressive seasons with the Steelers, became Ben Roethlisberger's primary slot weapon in 2013, catching 33 passes for 500 yards and six touchdowns from the inside. Only Wes Welker and San Diego's Eddie Royal (another underrated receiver in 2013) caught more slot touchdowns.
Brown was a pleasant surprise in Baltimore's dwindling offense in 2013 -- the undrafted rookie from Georgia caught 33 slot passes for 311 yards and five touchdowns. He also has potential as an outside receiver, and he'll certainly learn some new tricks from Steve Smith.
Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins; Timothy Wright, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
When free agent signee Dustin Keller was lost in the preseason with a horrid knee injury, it was up to Clay to step in, and the third-year player did just that with a career year in which he caught 69 passes for 759 yards and six touchdowns. He'll make $645,000 in the last year of his rookie contract in 2014, and the Dolphins would be wise to wrap him up with a new deal sooner than later.
Wright followed Greg Schiano from Rutgers to Tampa, proving that he can thrive in limited offenses just about anywhere. He did just that in 2013, ranking highly in every possible advanced efficiency metric and showing promise as a blocker despite his "big receiver" status. The Bucs signed Brandon Myers and drafted Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but Lovie Smith has said that he still has plans for Wright, who caught 54 passes for 571 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie.
King Dunlap, San Diego Chargers; Anthony Collins, Cincinnati Bengals
Selected in the seventh round of the 2008 draft by the Eagles, Dunlap didn't start more than a handful of games per year in Philadelphia until 2012, when he was tied to the last and most disastrous year of Andy Reid's Eagles tenure. Always more a mauler than a technician, Dunlap nonetheless thrived in his first year in San Diego. His skill set was perfectly attuned to the quicker passing offense presented by new head coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, and he gave up just three sacks and three quarterback hits in 333 passing snaps. Dunlap missed five games last season, but the Chargers see a bright future for him ... if his history of concussions doesn't get in the way.
Tampa Bay's huge offseason free-agency haul included Collins, who, like Dunlap, engineered a career year after several seasons of anonymity. In 673 total snaps last year, Collins gave up no sacks, one quarterback hit and 13 quarterback hurries. Collins will do a great job protecting the Buccaneers' quarterback du jour, and Andy Dalton may wind up wishing that he'd given some of his new money to keep Collins around.
Louis Vasquez, Denver Broncos; Matt Slauson, Chicago Bears
San Diego's offensive line experienced a major uptick in efficiency last season, but there's no doubt things would have been even better had the Chargers been able to hold on to Vasquez, who had a marvelous first year in Denver. Yes, Peyton Manning makes his linemen better with his quick release and unreal understanding of enemy defenses, but you don't do what Vasquez did in 2013 without a lot of talent of your own. In 1,443 snaps, from the first game of the season through the Super Bowl, Vasquez didn't allow a single sack and gave up just two quarterback hits. And those two hits came in one game -- Week 15 against San Diego. Other than that, it was just about impossible to get past Vasquez's pass protection.
Who would have thought that the Bears' offensive line would improve as much as it did in 2013 after years of leaky protection and questionable run-blocking? Getting Jermon Bushrod to play left tackle helped, and rookie right guard Kyle Long was outstanding, but let's not overlook Slauson, the former Jet who signed a one-year deal with Chicago before the 2013 season and played well enough to parlay that into the four-year, $12.8 million contract he signed in January. Like Vasquez, Slauson is flat-out reliable -- he hasn't missed a game since the 2008 season, and in 2013, he allowed just two sacks and nine quarterback hits in 1,070 total snaps. Slauson is also a powerful run blocker.
Nick Hardwick, San Diego Chargers
Centers aren't just supposed to be good -- they also need to be smart. Outside of quarterbacks, no player on the field needs to better understand plays and protection calls, and there are few who have done it better than Hardwick since he came into the league in 2004. Philip Rivers is one of the most exacting and demanding leaders on any NFL team, and he trusts Hardwick implicitly. It was thought after the 2013 season that Hardwick may be considering retirement, but he decided to come back for one more go. It's a good thing, because the veteran is still as good as he is smart. He blocked the run very well as Ryan Mathews enjoyed a career year, and opposing defensive linemen barely touched Rivers if Hardwick was blocking them last year -- he allowed no sacks and just two quarterback hits. That wasn't a product of San Diego's new fast-paced offense, either -- in Norv Turner's last season of seven-step drops in 2012, Hardwick allowed three sacks but only four quarterback hits.