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.
2014 Fantasy Football Sleepers
Knile Davis - RB, Kansas City Chiefs
Davis is about as important a handcuff as you’ll find in the league. Davis would impact fantasy standings if Jamaal Charles goes down at any point. Davis picked up 81 yards and two TDs on 27 carries when Charles was resting Week 17 last season.
Terrance West - RB, Cleveland Browns
The rookie will need to beat out veteran Ben Tate for touches, but his upside is enormous. Browns running back coach Wilbert Montgomery recently told reporters, ''He has that Ricky Watters, Walter Payton, lure-you-to-sleep-on-the-sideline move that I can accelerate or play like I’m going to accelerate and come back inside. Those are traits I haven’t seen in a while.''
Dri Archer - RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
It’s possible that the undersized third-round pick is restricted to kick return duty in his rookie year. It’s also possible that Archer emerges as a dynamic RB/WR who could score anytime he touches the ball.
Lache Seastrunk - RB, Washington Redskins
The Baylor product is behind Alfred Morris and Roy Helu on the depth chart and has developed a reputation for having awful hands. He actually dropped 10 balls and only caught nine during his two years in college. That said, Seastrunk’s running ability would make him a fantasy asset if Morris goes down with an injury.
Ka’Deem Carey - RB, Chicago Bears
Carey is an all-around running back who is capable of stepping in and producing for fantasy owners if Matt Forte gets hurt. He’s the type of rookie who would be a hot commodity if he were drafted by a team without an elite running back.
Devonta Freeman - RB, Atlanta Falcons
There is a legitimate chance that Freeman will eventually start over Steven Jackson; the rookie's average draft position will skyrocket with a dominant preseason. The former FSU back should see the field a lot if he can handle pass protection.
Christine Michael - RB, Seattle Seahawks
Michael is an instant stud if Marshawn Lynch goes down. Either way, the Seahawks have hinted at a committee approach and Lynch’s brief holdout may not have helped matters for the veteran running back. Michael has the skill set to provide RB1 numbers if he receives enough carries.
Carlos Hyde - RB, San Francisco 49ers
Anyone who saw Carlos Hyde at Ohio State knew he wouldn’t get buried in San Francisco, even with a crowded backfield. He’s arguably the most talented rookie RB and is one Frank Gore injury away from fantasy stardom.
Tre Mason - RB, St. Louis Rams
Many fantasy owners are high on Zac Stacy entering the season. But ask anyone who drafted Daryl Richardson in 2013 if Jeff Fisher is afraid to make a change at running back. The dynamic rookie Tre Mason is too talented to ride the pine forever and he’d turn into a nice fantasy option if given carries.
Chris Polk - RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Even with Darren Sproles in town, Polk would hold a ton of fantasy value if LeSean McCoy were to miss time at any point. Chip Kelly’s offense turns RBs into fantasy stars and Polk is the clear-cut backup to McCoy.
Charles Sims - RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The rookie from West Virginia is expected to be an immediate handcuff to Doug Martin for fantasy purposes. Smith should contribute in passing situations early, but could steal carries from Martin as the season progresses.
Markus Wheaton - WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Wheaton is expected to inherit a starting gig with Jerricho Cotchery and Emmanuel Sanders gone. The sophomore from Oregon State has big-play ability and could easily emerge as a must-start fantasy option on a weekly basis.
Marqise Lee - WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Lee is a candidate to lead the Jaguars in receptions as a rookie, but his competition isn’t exactly elite. He should be able to rack up catches and yards with Jacksonville expected to be playing from behind more often than not.
Kenny Stills - WR, New Orleans Saints
Stills has a ton of breakout potential coming off a rookie season in which he posted 641 yards on 32 catches with five TDs. He’s a big-play threat on ever possession and should easily surpass the 46 targets he received last season. He might only need 50 catches to score double-digit TDs.
Kelvin Benjamin - WR, Carolina Panthers
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound, No. 28 overall pick is a perfect red-zone target and he could help the Panthers win games immediately. For fantasy purposes, he’s merely a WR3 or a WR4 until he proves he can be more than just a TD-dependent gamble on a weekly basis.
Tavon Austin - WR, St. Louis Rams
As a rookie in 2013, Austin only caught 40 passes for 418 yards and never really found a true role. He’s admitted that the adjustment from college to the NFL took a toll on him and he continuously dropped passes early in the season. If things click in his second year, Austin has the skillset to be a star.
Justin Hunter - WR, Tennessee Titans
The second-year receiver showed signs of his high ceiling last season with a few big games down the stretch. Hunter has the tools to develop into a WR1 in his prime and should play a prominent role on young Titans’ offense.
Jordan Matthews - WR, Philadelphia Eagles
DeSean Jackson’s departure opens the door for Matthews to step up. The 2014 season could turn into a perfect storm for Matthews to succeed with Jeremy Maclin coming off a torn ACL and Riley Cooper coming off a career season.
Eric Ebron - TE, Detroit Lions
The Lions turned heads when they selected Ebron No. 10 overall in May’s Draft. It might take a season or two for the UNC product to reach his potential, but Ebron is an elite fantasy TE in the making. He’s been compared to Jimmy Graham and has the skillset to live up to his lofty expectations.
Ladarius Green - TE, San Diego Chargers
The 6-6, 237-pound Green is an obvious red-zone target and has the tools to be an impact fantasy option if he receives ample targets. Antonio Gates, the incumbent TE in San Diego, is 34 and slowed significantly down the stretch in 2013. Green caught 17 passes for 376 yards and three TDs last season, highlighted by a three-game stretch in which he caught nine balls for 206 yards and two scores.
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.
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.