For the majority of lay fans, a team is composed of the good players who people universally believe are the reason why the team is good, and bad players who routinely get their mistakes magnified during broadcasts and local talk radio shows. The middle tier is less discussed, despite their utmost importance. Most of the best NFL teams are great because of a foundational middle tier of players who, for one reason or another, are considered “middle tier” because we don’t pay enough attention to their individual efforts to ascertain how important they really are in the grand scheme of things.
So that’s why we’re here. “Underrated” is a difficult word to pin down but I like to think of an underrated player as one who does not get discussed frequently despite being either a tremendously valuable asset (low-round pick, UDFA outperforming their deal) or a veteran who provides an essential function.
See here for the NFC, and we'll give a rundown of the most “underrated” player for every AFC club below.
James White, RB
If Bill Belichick had his way, there would be no singular person we think of when we talk about the Patriots and everyone would be on the list. But I singled out White because of the myriad things he does well. He’s a great receiver (76% catch rate on nearly 100 targets in 2019) and can function adequately in the slot or out wide. He’s an essential satellite player for the Patriots to utilize in order to diagnose defenses. He plays almost all of his snaps on passing downs (meaning that his presence often serves as a clue to opposing defenses) yet New England still manages to gain nearly 5.5 yards per play on passing downs where he is on the field. He is also a good pass and run blocker, which was exceptionally important for a Patriots team that featured a largely immoble 40-plus-year-old quarterback under center last year.
Jordan Poyer/Micah Hyde, S
This may be a bit of a cop-out here, especially since Hyde made a Pro Bowl in 2017, making him properly “rated” at least once in his career. But let’s view this as a public service announcement of sorts. How many people consider the Bills to have one of the better safety tandems in the league? Both have missed fewer than 11 tackles, kept opposing QB completion percentages below 70 and, combined, the pair have contributed roughly 50 snaps in various blitz packages, helping to diversify the looks seen by opponents.
Folorunso Fatukasi, DL
You can watch Adam Gase gush over the 2018 sixth-round pick here (as well as a play where he pushes the Dolphins’ center so far into the backfield that the offensive lineman tackles his own running back). While Fatukasi only logged one sack in 2019, he was consistently in the backfield making plays on limited snap opportunities. That included seven tackles for loss, three QB hits, two quarterback knockdowns and five pressures. This, from a sixth-round pick who offers tremendous value.
Steven Parker, S
The Dolphins claimed Parker off waivers just as the regular season was beginning, and got 14 games (and four starts) out of the undrafted free agent. Here’s where the value comes in: Parker was in on about a third of Miami’s snaps (with two games in which he played more than 90% of snaps) and allowed an opposing completion percentage of 53.8 and an opposer passer rating of 83.8. He misses a low portion of tackles (relatively, considering sample size) and can play free safety, in the box or at slot cornerback. He is emblematic of the kind of player Bill Belichick would require to keep a versatile defense from skipping a beat, which Brian Flores seems to have taken to heart here.
Patrick Ricard, FB/DL
Patrick Ricard played (deep breath)....184 snaps in the backfield, 82 as an “inline” blocker, 56 snaps in the slot, 26 snaps out wide, one snap as an offensive lineman, 139 snaps as a defensive lineman, 42 snaps on kick returns, eight on punt returns and 59 on field goal block. And ... he’s really good at all of it. See here.
Stephon Tuitt, DE
The Steelers give up more yards per rush when Tuitt is off the field than they do when Cameron Heyward, undoubtedly their best defensive lineman, is off the field. Tuitt, over six games last year, had seven quarterback hits, two quarterback knockdowns, 10 pressures and 3.5 sacks (two of which were against Russell Wilson, one of the hardest quarterbacks to bring down in the NFL). A torn pec cost him 10 games.
J.C. Tretter, C
While Joel Bitonio may be Cleveland’s best and most decorated offensive lineman, Tretter has been quietly consistent but has not been recognized since his All-Ivy nod in 2012. Tretter has not missed a snap since joining the Browns three years ago and, amid a notably bad season for the unit in 2019, he was solid in pass protection and committed just two penalties over the course of 1,042 snaps.
Auden Tate, WR
This is a difficult one, seeing as the Bengals were very properly rated as a unit last year and that their best players, outside of Carlos Dunlap, were brought in during a miniature offseason spending spree. I was tempted to put Darius Phillips here, given his phenomenal play down the stretch, though the sample size (one “complete” game in particular) wasn’t enough. Still, a 37% opposing completion percentage on a handful of heavily-targeted appearances ain’t bad. As for Tate, he was solid as a blocker and while the catch rate was bad for a player who logged heavy snaps (50%) he did make more out of his time with the ball than expected, with a plus-rated xYAC. When he’s single covered against an inferior, smaller defensive back (see: Baltimore game from 2019) he can make people pay.
Duke Johnson, RB
Duke Johnson has played 16 games in all five of his pro seasons. His 2019 (and career, really) was another example of teams overthinking things. Houston did not need to accumulate more running back talent (bringing in David Johnson in the DeAndre Hopkins deal) when they could simply give Johnson more carries. His NYoA (net yards over average) on every carry was the highest among Texans, meaning that Houston gained an average of 6.36 yards per rush with Johnson on the field, and 4.37 yards per rush with Johnson off the field.
Ben Jones, C
Anyone with a mechanical understanding of the Titans’ offense understands how difficult it is on the interior lineman to block the scheme effectively. Last year, Jones did it better than almost anyone. Jones has only missed one game in his career, and in 2019 he was graded Pro Football Focus’s second-best center. NFL GSIS stats show that the Titans ranked fifth in the league in runs straight up the gut, averaging almost nine yards per carry. Also the gaps immediately to Jones’s right and left fared pretty well too.
Kenny Moore, DB
Moore, who plays a majority of his snaps in the heavily-trafficked slot, is arguably the strongest member of the Colts’ developing young secondary. He doesn’t miss tackles (just five altogether in 2019), he logged a pressure or a sack on almost a third of his blitzes and he kept his opposing quarterback rating to a reasonable 76.8. His four-year, $33 million deal is starting to look like a bargain.
Brandon Linder, C
Arguably one of the best picks of the Dave Caldwell era, Linder may have had his best season in 2019 (Pro Football Reference’s approximate value ranking seems to agree). One of the best indications of a player’s value—to me—is trust from the coaching staff, and no team in the NFL ran right up the middle behind the center more than the Jaguars in 2019 (165 attempts, which is more than TRIPLE the next most utilized gap).
Juan Thornhill, S
Tyrann Mathieu is obviously the heart and soul of this Chiefs defense, but Thornhill can lay claim to some other essential organ. His rookie season produced three picks, an opposing completion percentage below 50, significant snaps at free safety, box safety and slot cornerback, and five pass breakups. In Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, safeties have to be cerebral and versatile, and Thornhill fits the bill.
Garett Bolles, T
I may be in the minority here, but I think it’s noteworthy that Pro Football Focus noted a year over year improvement each season for Bolles and, despite Denver’s lack of confidence (they declined his fifth-year option), he is above replacement level at the tackle position and that is hard to find. Pro Football Focus graded Bolles as the 14th best run blocker and 19th best pass blocker among all qualifying tackles, which, again, in this market is not easy to find. Would you rather deal with Bolles and continue to ride this slower-than-desired ascension, or spend a pair of first-round picks on someone like Laremy Tunsil, who is better, but not two first-round picks better?
Hunter Renfrow, WR
While I wasn’t wild about Renfrow’s catch percentage at first, glance given his role, a broader look at receiver numbers across the league shows him in line with other elite talent. His ability to maneuver to the sticks wasn’t just highlight reel fodder, he’s gaining more yards after the catch than he should. The Raiders’ offense as a whole is gaining more per passing play with Renfrow on the field. As Las Vegas’s offense continues to diversify, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Renfrow’s situation become more advantageous in the slot.
Desmond King II, CB
King’s targets were cut in half after a stunning Second-Team All-Pro campaign in 2018 and while his numbers are not as good, his versatility and pass rushing ability from the slot are well above replacement level. The former fifth-round pick and three-star recruit out of high school is the kind of necessary foundational piece that most good secondaries feature.
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