It's always more fun to put together lists of underrated players (like we did for offense and defense) than it is to decide who in the NFL is getting more money, recognition or playing time than they deserve. It's also not always as cut-and-dried as you might think. It's easy to look at a stat line -- even a line of advanced stats -- and come away with a story that isn't altogether accurate. Some players are dealing with injuries, while others are at odds with their head and position coaches over seemingly incompatible schemes.
Brandon Flowers, the former Kansas City Chiefs and current San Diego Chargers cornerback, is a good example. In 2013, new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton deserved all the praise he got for turning the Chiefs defense around, but his decision to play Flowers much more in the slot (22 slot snaps in 2011, 15 slot snaps in '12, and 272 slot snaps in '13) backfired mightily. Flowers looked like a fish out of water more often than not, and it was partially this that led to his release from the team in mid-June. The Chargers, who had the NFL's worst secondary by far in 2013, picked Flowers up and will use him more where he belongs in the upcoming season -- outside, alternating between press coverage and zone concepts.
That said, there are times when a player is in the right scheme, and is coached well, and is paid well ... and just isn't delivering the goods. Here, sadly, are a few of those players at each defensive position (our All-Overrated offense is set to publish Tuesday).
The Lions took Fairley with the 13th overall pick in the 2011 draft, but refused to exercise his fifth-year option when it came up in March. Though you'll hear a lot about his "breakout campaign" in 2013 (six sacks, 14 quarterback hits, 21 quarterback hurries), Fairley also dealt with weight issues last season -- something that general manager Martin Mayhew brought up around the time that the option was declined.
"I'd like to see his commitment to the offseason program improve, and see him on a consistent basis," Mayhew said, per MLive.com. "It's voluntary, but if he's not training with us, I'd like to see him training somewhere."
New head coach Jim Caldwell said in June that he'll decide for himself if this is an issue.
“He’s got a clean slate with us. I haven’t seen that yo-yo yet. He’s working hard, he’s excited about what he’s doing and he’s going to demonstrate the great player that he’s capable of being.”
This is a potential breakout year for Fairley, but he's got to want it all the way through. If that happens, he's in line for a monster contract somewhere.
As for Peko, the formerly dominant tackle saw his overall totals go down fairly precipitously after the torn ACL that ended fellow tackle Geno Atkins' season on Oct. 31.
The Packers hope that Peppers will find new strength to his game as a super-sized linebacker who will rush the passer from multiple positions, but as a straight pass-rushing end and occasional tackle for the Bears in 2013, Peppers alternated between occasionally dominant play and disappearing acts. It's possible that Green Bay will help Peppers find more productive roles -- they'd better hope so after signing him to a three-year, $26 million contract with $7.5 million guaranteed -- but it's also possible that moving around that much adds too many variables too soon for a reversal of fortune in 2014. As for Raji, he'll move back to nose tackle in 2014 (that's where he belongs), and it's hoped that his two underwhelming years as a ginormous end and occasional tackle on passing downs will be forgotten.
Ware was behind the positional eight-ball last season in Dallas, where defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin had Ware playing end instead of pass-rushing linebacker for the first time in his career (it was one of Kiffin's many disastrous decisions). We'll see if a return to his optimal position in Denver will bring Ware's greatness back. He needs to be outside the tackles so that he can use his turn around the edge.
A.J. Hawk, Green Bay Packers/Wesley Woodyard, Tennessee Titans
There were those who would tell you Hawk enjoyed a breakout year in 2013 after years of relative disappointment ... but the tape didn't really show it. Nor did the Packers, who asked him to take a fairly sizeable pay cut in March. Yes, he had a career-high five sacks last season, but three came against Baltimore's trainwreck offensive line. Hawk is a tackle-stat machine who plays hard, but let's hold off on the major kudos just yet.
Woodyard was a rare and interesting player in Denver -- his ability to read gaps and bring quarterback pressure from inside made him a real asset. Now that he's off to Tennessee under defensive coordinator Ray Horton, we'll see if he can make an impact as an every-down defender -- Horton likes to put his base players in different positions, meaning the new import may not sub out as much. Woodyard started losing reps due to injury in Week 14 last season, and he didn't have a sack or quarterback hit after Week 5. He could be a legit starter; he could be a boom-and-bust system guy.
Greenway had three interceptions in 2013, his most since '09, but that was largely the result of opportunity -- he was targeted 88 times, the most for any outside linebacker, and allowed a 77.3 percent catch rate, 829 yards and four touchdowns. He'll likely alternate between the middle and weak side in 2013 after taking a $1 million pay cut.
Kruger rang up a lot of quarterback pressures for the Browns after signing a five-year, $40.5 million contract with $20 million guaranteed after his Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, but the pressure is on to do more than that in his second season in Cleveland. Under new head coach Mike Pettine, Kruger will continue to play the left outside linebacker role, and with a base salary of $7 million, the team will want more than 4.5 sacks -- hurries be damned.
Woof. Finnegan's 2013 season for the Rams was an unmitigated disaster, one that he put on former St. Louis defensive coordinator Tim Walton to a large degree. We're not so sure. Last season, Finnegan allowed a 136.0 quarterback rating when covering outside on 199 targets, giving up 26 catches for 353 yards and four touchdowns. In the slot, he allowed a 131.9 rating on 24 targets, giving up 19 catches for 248 yards and three touchdowns. In both categories, he ranked among the bottom three of cornerbacks who had taken at least 25 percent of their team's snaps. He wasn't that much better in 2012, but the Dolphins are taking a chance with a two-year, $11 million deal. We hope there are some easy escape clauses in that one.
Taylor admitted that he was "so-so" in 2013, but added that he was hurt by the $4.5 million pay cut the Steelers gave him in the final year of his current deal. Taylor is a very engaging guy and one of the smarter players at his position, but the numbers match up with the tape, and they really weren't good last season -- he led the league among cornerbacks with 1,043 passing yards allowed, only three cornerbacks were targeted more than Taylor's 113 times and only Arizona's Jerraud Powers gave up more receptions than Taylor's 71. The 34-year-old Taylor may have a future in the NFL, but it also might be time for him to think about broadcasting.
M.D. Jennings, Chicago Bears/Dashon Goldson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bears signed Jennings to a one-year deal to help fix their dumpster fire of a safety situation, but it's unknown how he'll provide a serious improvement. He looked out of place far too often in Dom Capers' Packers defense last season, giving up 16 catches on 18 targets for 181 yards, with five touchdowns allowed and no picks.
As for Goldson, we're willing to suspend judgment regarding his 2013 performance because Tampa Bay's coaching situation was such a disaster, and neither offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan nor defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan put their players in optimal position to succeed. But when you sign a guy to a five-year, $41.25 contract with $22 million guaranteed, as the Bucs did with Goldson before the 2013 season, and you're looking at a starting free safety with a $6 million base salary and a $3 million roster bonus, you want more than a 121.4 quarterback rating allowed, with four touchdowns given up and no picks to show for it. Goldson should rebound in Lovie Smith's defense, but if not ... well, at least his deal was front-loaded.
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.