SI's All-Underrated NFL Team: Players who don't get the credit they deserve
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 deep in marquee talent around the league. The combination of advanced stats and tape study can help with pinpointing the players who are bringing it on a consistent basis without the recognition they deserve. To that end, here's SI.com's 2015 All-Underrated Team, the players we believe are under the radar and shouldn't be.
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 the future.
Quarterback: Ryan Fitzpatrick, New York Jets
Fitzpatrick, who will act as the Jets' starter during Geno Smith's recovery from a broken jaw, really isn't a downgrade, which says as much about Smith as it does about Fitzpatrick. But Fitzpatrick's talents do fit this Jets offense, and though he has never been a spectacular player, he does get short shrift at times for what he can do. Fitzpatrick is what he is and nothing more: a low-risk journeyman who knows his limits. That would be problematic in a passing offense with more deep balls thrown around, but tight end Jeff Cumberland may have been the Jets' best deep threat in 2014, and second-round rookie Devin Smith is the only real speed option among Fitzpatrick's targets.
For the Texans in 2014, Fitzpatrick posted the NFL's ninth-highest quarterback rating and finished 17th in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics for his position—and opponent adjustments would mitigate the impact of the six-touchdown game Fitzpatrick had against the Titans' pass defense. And by the way, he's not a horrible deep thrower: Last season, he completed 20 of 38 passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air for 687 yards, six touchdowns and three picks. You just have to understand what you have and what you don't with a quarterback like this. Fortunately, new Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey had Fitzpatrick for three years in Buffalo from 2010 through 2012, Fitzpatrick's most prolific seasons to date, although he did lead the league in picks in 2011. Gailey needs to understand how to keep his quarterback between the boundaries.
Steady, Jets fans. All hope is not yet lost.
Running back: Jeremy Hill, Bengals
Nobody had more rushing yards in the second half of the season than Hill. The rookie out of LSU ran for 929 yards and six rushing touchdowns over that span—not bad for a second-rounder. His sophomore year figures to be an extension of that strong finish, as the Bengals have smartly decided that he's going to be their bell cow back. Hill has a punishing running style with good second-level speed, and he'll get the reps he needs to be a statistical star in this offense.
Receivers: Donte Moncrief, Colts/Jordan Matthews, Eagles
While T.Y. Hilton is Andrew Luck's best deep threat (and rookie Phillip Dorsett will add sparkle to the Colts' passing game once he gets the hang of the NFL) and Andre Johnson is a smart veteran addition as a high-volume possession receiver, Moncrief could very well be the man to watch in 2015. The third-round rookie from Mississippi caught 32 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns, and at owners meetings, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano intimated that you could see a lot more of him down the road. Moncrief has the combination of size and athleticism that can stand out in a high-volume passing game.
Matthews became the second-most prolific slot receiver (behind Green Bay's Randall Cobb) in the NFL in his rookie season. Chip Kelly saw Matthews in a slot role, and he was right. The Vanderbilt product caught 64 slot passes for 835 yards and eight touchdowns in his rookie season, trailing Randall Cobb as the NFL's most productive slot receiver. The Eagles went three-wide on 66% of their offensive snaps, eighth-highest in the NFL, so expect Matthews's numbers inside to continue.
Tight end: Travis Kelce, Chiefs
Kelce's profile was dragged down by Kansas City's far-from-productive passing game last season, but he ranked fourth overall at his position in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics and tied for the team lead with five receiving touchdowns. What he isn't going to get—and what nobody else in this offense is going to get as long as Alex Smith is the quarterback—is a wealth of deep-ball opportunities. In 2014, Kelce caught all three deep passes that were thrown to him, for 73 yards and a touchdown. He's a great player in Andy Reid's offense, but could be even more somewhere else.
Offensive line: Tackles—Andrew Whitworth, Bengals; Ricky Wagner, Ravens. Guards—Kelechi Osemele, Ravens; Trai Turner, Panthers. Center—Corey Linsley, Packers
By virtue of pressures allowed, the 33-year-old Whitworth was the most efficient pass blocker in the NFL in 2014. He allowed no sacks, one quarterback hit and eight quarterback hurries in 533 total passing snaps. Whitworth isn't an athletic marvel, but he can play guard and tackle with equal aplomb, and few linemen use leverage better. Wagner was the unsung hero of Baltimore's outstanding offensive line, allowing two sacks and 23 total pressures in his second NFL season. Not bad for a fifth-round pick. Similarly, Osemele excelled in both run and pass blocking last year, and he may be the main man at guard next year if Marshal Yanda bows out after his contract year. Turner was a perfect fit for Carolina's run-heavy offense, and the LSU alum was a pile-driver in his rookie season when he was healthy. As for Linsley, he acquitted himself very well in his first NFL start, which just happened to be at Seattle in the season opener. He went on to allow just two sacks in 1,216 total snaps and help pave the way for a rebirth in Green Bay's running game.
Defensive Line: Ends—Olivier Vernon, Dolphins; Ryan Davis, Jaguars; Mike Daniels, Packers. Tackles—Tom Johnson, Vikings; Bennie Logan, Eagles
With Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh killing offensive lines on one side of Miami's front four this season, Vernon will get a whole bunch of single-teams in his fourth NFL season, and he's got the talent to take advantage. His sack totals dropped from 11.5 in 2013 to 6.5 last year, but he had 48 total pressures, and he's going to get home a lot more often with Suh in the middle of that line. I've previously detailed Davis's impressive ability to get pressure from multiple gaps, and he could play a bigger part in Jacksonville's pass rush in 2015 with first-round pick Dante Fowler's season-ending knee injury. Daniels is a similar hybrid player in a more diverse front on a defensive line that isn't what it used to be. He stood out in 2014 with 44 total pressures in just 794 total snaps.
Johnson is a situational pass-rushing tackle who impressed in 2014 with his ability to strike quickly at a blocker and get free with leverage and strength. The former CFL veteran racked up 30 total pressures as a rotation player last season, tying him with Carolina's Kawann Short and Dallas's Henry Melton for 13th-best among all NFL defensive tackles. As for Logan, no defensive tackle had more solo tackles last season than his 44, and he led the NFL in run stops at tackle with 33. He's the man who makes that great front seven go.
Linebackers: Outside linebackers—Jabaal Sheard, Patriots; Derrick Morgan, Titans; Sio Moore, Raiders. Inside linebackers—Avery Williamson, Titans; Christian Kirksey, Browns
We'll classify Sheard as a linebacker here, since that's what he played in Cleveland over the last two seasons, but he's really more of an "endbacker" pass rusher and run-stopper, which he'll be doing in Bill Belichick's defense. Few coaches better understand how to maximize a player's attributes, and Belichick got a player in Sheard who can be especially effective as a strong-side run-stopper. He'll be a major part of New England's rebuilding defense this season.
Morgan is still seen by some as a bit of a disappointment—that's what happens when you're taken in the first round of the 2010 draft and have just 23.5 total sacks in your first five seasons. But he had an outstanding year in 2014, totaling 43 pressures, just one short of Tamba Hali's total and good for 15th among all 3–4 outside linebackers, and the Titans rewarded Morgan by re-signing him to a four-year, $27 million contract this off-season. Moore is less a pure pass rusher and more a 4–3 do-it-all guy, and that's what he did in 2014. The second-year player was a star in blitz situations and improved as a run-stopper and coverage player.
Few may be familiar with Kirksey's game, but the rookie from Iowa flashed on the tape as the kind of range player who could be extremely valuable over time as a nickel inside linebacker. Don't sleep on his development in Cleveland's improving defense. And Williamson was a real asset in Ray Horton's blitz-happy Titans defense, showing range and impressive tackling ability.
Cornerbacks: Chris Culliver, Washington Redskins; Josh Norman, Panthers; Brice McCain, Dolphins
Culliver was one of the quieter defections from San Francisco's roster this off-season (it's tough to keep track of it all), but his absence will be felt in the 49ers' secondary as he helps shore up Washington's leaky pass defense. The Redskins signed him to a four-year, $32 million contract in March, and that was smart business—only five starting cornerbacks allowed an opponent passer rating lower than Culliver's 66.5 last season. Norman came on for the Panthers late in his rookie season, and there's a lot more to his story than his recent training camp fight with Cam Newton. The third-year man from Coastal Carolina allowed a paltry 53.2 opponent passer rating last season, with just 27 catches for 291 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions on 58 targets. He's got the potential to be named along the greats at his position.
The Steelers lucked out when they were able to trade with the Eagles for Brandon Boykin, another exceptional slot cornerback, because the loss of McCain to the Dolphins in free agency would have hurt otherwise. Pittsburgh's defense was an atypical disaster against the pass in 2014, but it wasn't McCain's fault. He allowed a 70.5 passer rating and no touchdowns on 35 slot targets last season.
Safeties: George Iloka, Bengals; Reshad Jones, Dolphins
It took the highly athletic Iloka a while to get the hang of the NFL, but there's no doubt that 2014 was his breakout season, especially as a pass defender. According to Pro Football Focus metrics, no safety in the league with over 500 total snaps had a lower passer rating allowed than Iloka's 18.4. He allowed just 12 catches, 176 yards and no touchdowns on 31 targets, with three picks and six passes defensed. The 45-yard reception he allowed in the wild-card round to Hakeem Nicks of the Colts was an outlier. The fact that Iloka's run defense is just as good underscores that this is a player ready to move to the upper echelon at his position. Jones missed the first four games of the 2014 season to a PED suspension but managed three picks in 767 total snaps. He's also an underrated run defender and a great weapon in blitz packages.