Even in the NFL, there are players who don’t get the name-checks and face-time their talents deserve. At every position, even the most glamorous ones, there are guys who have earned recognition, but they simply don’t get it. Maybe they’re laboring away on bad teams, or the light is just coming on after a few years in the league, or circumstances are changing for the better around them. Based on Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics, conversations with people around the league and a lot of tape study, here’s a team of players on offense you should be watching more than you may have been. We’ll follow up tomorrow with an All-Underrated defense that could actually stop these fellas.
Quarterback: Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
We know, we know. Every year, it’s supposed to be the breakout year for Bradford, and it never really is. But there are reasons to believe that this will be the year that the first overall pick of the 2010 draft makes good on all his potential.
It’s hard to remember now after his three mediocre NFL seasons, but at Oklahoma, Bradford looked at times like a young version of a more mobile Tom Brady -- able to roll out quickly to elude pressure, and hit the correct shoulder of a receiver 40 yards downfield. He’s been beset by bad offensive lines and indifferent targets through his first three seasons. Now, he’s got Tavon Austin, who the Rams will line up along the formation to create schematic advantages. He’s got a new tall target in tight end Jared Cook, formerly of the Tennessee Titans. Chris Givens started to make a name for himself as a deep threat in that offense last season. If Austin Pettis can improve as the third-down/possession guy, Bradford could finally have an array of targets to match his talents.
Bradford has never had a season in which he’s thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, and he was at his most efficient in 2012. Last season, Bradford finished higher in Football Outsiders’ season-cumulative metrics than Joe Flacco, and FO’s three-year similarity scores compare him to Donovan McNabb and Matt Ryan in their formative years.
Running Backs: Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots/C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills
When Aaron Hernandez did what he did, the first schematic question for the New England Patriots was this: How will they replace what Hernandez did for them regarding formation diversity? Hernandez lined up everywhere from fullback to slot to split wide, and he was effective in every instance. Ridley could take Hernandez’s place as the “moveable chess piece” in Josh McDaniels’ offense. The third-year back from LSU was one of the most efficient per-play backs in the NFL last year, and he could have even more of an impact in an offense suddenly desperate for targets.
Buffalo’s offense is not desperate for targets. Whoever wins the Bills’ quarterback job (hint: It’s E.J. Manuel) will have Stevie Johnson, rookie Robert Woods and undersold red zone target Scott Chandler. But Spiller will be the key to an offensive resurgence under new head coach Doug Marrone, especially when Manuel takes over at quarterback for the long term. Manuel has the best ability of any quarterback in this draft class to run option packages, and Spiller is one of the NFL’s most dynamic backs in space. Add in schemes that force defenses to hesitate, and Spiller becomes even more terrifying.
Fullback: Bruce Miller, San Francisco 49ers
If fullbacks are on the way out of the NFL, as many will tell you, someone forgot to tell the 49ers. And in the offense created by Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman, Miller is an incredibly important cog. Not only is he a dynamic blocker, perfectly attuned to the team’s power/counter/trap blocking schemes, but he’s also a sure bet to line up all over the place -- especially in the 49ers’ Pistol plays with quarterback Colin Kaepernick -- and further upset potential defensive adjustments. Sometimes, to appreciate a player’s true value, you have to turn away from the stats and watch the tape. Miller is the ideal example of such a player.
Receivers: Golden Tate, Seattle Seahawks/Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Seahawks have been waiting for Tate to break out since they selected him in the second round of the 2010 draft out of Notre Dame. Tate had to learn the hard way that playing in the NFL was an intellectual step up from catching Jimmy Clausen’s crappy jumpballs, and he found himself benched for a time early in his career. But he started to come on late last season, and in training camp this year, he’s looked truly special. While the Seahawks are perturbed that they may not have Percy Harvin for most or all of his season, they also feel that Tate can do many of the things they planned for Harvin, and that Tate could be nearly as explosive. It wouldn’t be a shock for those in the know -- Tate was one of the league’s best speed slot targets in 2012.
"He's played inside and outside -- he can do all that stuff," Pete Carroll recently told me. "There are no restrictions on what Golden can do -- we can get him downfield, he's tough on catches up the middle, he makes plays in traffic and he's a terrific guy with the ball in his hands. We'll do everything with him."
Shorts has always found it tough to get the recognition he deserves – he went to Mount Union college, a Division III school best known for producing Pierre Garcon, and he managed to transcend his fourth-round status in his second season of 2012 by amassing more receiving yards and touchdowns than Justin Blackmon, the Jags’ first-round pick last year. He also had 17 receptions of 20 yards or more last season, which tied him with Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin, Randall Cobb, Mike Williams, and Julio Jones. Only Tampa Bay’s Vincent Jackson had a higher yards per reception total than Shorts (who tied with San Diego’s Danario Alexander at 17.8), and it’s important to remember that Shorts did what he did last season while catching passes from Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. Not bad for a guy who is still paying off his student loans.
Tight End: Brandon Myers, New York Giants
Myers was a little-known fountain of efficiency in an Oakland Raiders offense that generally possessed too little of that attribute in 2012. Now that he’s in New York, the Giants plan to take him vertical, and this should be fun to watch.
"I think at the Raiders he was more of an intermediate receiver," Giants tight ends coach Mike Pope recently said. "And now our passing game does allow the tight end to get more vertically down the field -– flag routes, double seam routes, post routes. And he appears to have the skills to get those balls. He has a little bit of a jet that can accelerate and go get a ball that is a little deeper. You may not think he is going to reach it, but he has that little bit. So we are very interested to see him in pads."
Eli Manning hasn’t had a consistent target at that position for a while, and Myers seems to fit the bill.
Offensive Tackles: Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals/Will Beatty, New York Giants
Put simply, Whitworth is a “War Daddy.” He’s missed just eight possible starts since the Bengals selected him in the 2006 draft, and 2012 may have been his best season. He allowed just three sacks, and a total of three hits and hurries in 992 total snaps, protecting a young quarterback in Andy Dalton who is still learning to deal with pressure. Whitworth started the 2012 season 20 pounds lighter and struggled early as a result, but he was nails down the stretch.
The Giants proved that they understood Beatty’s value by re-signing him to a five-year, $38.75 million contract in February. Beatty was finally able to transcend the injury issues that bedeviled him through the early parts of his career, and he gave up just four sacks and 4.5 hits/hurries in 951 snaps last year. He needs to cut down on the penalties (10 total), but Eli Manning won’t have to worry too much about his blind side if Beatty stays healthy over the next few seasons.
Offensive Guards: Andy Levitre, Tennessee Titans/Chris Chester, Washington Redskins
Levitre was a force for the Buffalo Bills’ underrated line from 2009 through 2012 -- he never missed a game and always performed at a very high level. Now, former NFL offensive lineman Mike Munchak, the Titans’ head coach, will benefit from Levitre’s acumen. There are few cleaner technicians in the game, and it showed on the field in 2012 -- in 1,007 total snaps, Levitre allowed just 1.5 sacks, didn’t permit a single hit or hurry and had just nine blown blocks. The Titans made him the fourth-highest paid guard in the NFL, but he’s still a relatively unknown name, even among interior linemen.
As for Chester, how about this? Protecting a rookie quarterback in Robert Griffin III, with one of the most roll-right offenses in the NFL, he didn’t allow a single sack and had just nine blown blocks in 1,032 snaps. The veteran benefitted from the amazing job turned in by offensive line coach Chris Foerster, who adeptly mixed zone-slide protection with option and Pistol plays that made Washington’s offense so dynamic in 2012, but you still have to beat your man when the whistle blows.
Center: Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders
Wisniewski seems to be unheralded for a few reasons -- he played his rookie season with a torn labrum, and he’s not a natural guard. The Raiders’ offensive line is generally tough to watch these days, and it doesn’t help that Wisniewski’s uncle Steve is one of the best offensive linemen of his era. But the younger Wisniewski put together an impressive second professional season at center, displaying an increased sense of how to use his power and technique on over 1,000 snaps.
“A lot of downhill stuff; a lot of power stuff and plenty of inside zone stuff,” Wisniewski said in April of the team’s blocking schemes under new line coach Tony Sparano. “It’s stuff that I think that we know how to do already. We’ll work on some little footwork things that Tony will have that will probably be a little different than two years ago, but it’s stuff we know how to do. Move people off the ball, double teams, pull and smack somebody, and [play] good downhill football.” It’s not clear if the Raiders are equipped to do that as a team just yet, but their center is a natural for such concepts.