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Every NFC Team’s Most Underrated Player in 2022

From linemen to the secondary to a fullback and even one QB, here is one player on every NFC team that doesn’t get as much credit as they deserve.

As we said in Thursday’s AFC column, identifying an “underrated” player is a truly subjective exercise. A player I might find underrated, you might simply see as a replacement player. Who I might see as a replacement player could be Pro Football Focus’s third-highest-graded interior pass rusher. This is the beauty of the NFL.

I once talked to a former Bengals scout about a moment when he was watching tape on a player. Marvin Lewis walked by, and the scout said (I’m paraphrasing a bit): Look at this defensive lineman. Isn’t what he’s doing terrible? Lewis said: Actually, this is what he’s supposed to be doing. Lewis stayed and explained the intricacy of the defense that actually required the odd maneuver to succeed. It cemented in the scout’s head the idea that we so often look at this game through different lenses. Without communication, we’re doomed to sit here staring at a manifestation of our own world believing it’s everyone’s universe.

So, I encourage you to reach out. I tried my best to show my work and explain why each player was underrated, hoping that we’ll enter this exercise together understanding that a borderline Pro Bowler can be underrated, just like a backup tight end can be underrated.

Washington Commanders

Sam Cosmi, right tackle

Cosmi allowed four sacks during his rookie season in Washington, though the Commanders seemed to trust him in the running game, calling plays to his outside right shoulder more frequently than all but nine other teams in the NFL. Cosmi played in only nine games last season, but seemed to possess the requisite mean streak in the running game and the ability to flush pass rushers out of the pocket. He’ll have his hands full with Carson Wentz, a quarterback who tends toward hero ball in the pocket and could extend plays beyond a reasonable length. That said, if we’re to isolate his numbers on scheduled, on-time dropbacks next year, my guess is that Cosmi will fare quite well.

Dallas Cowboys

Malik Hooker, safety

Hooker was a great gamble last year for the Cowboys, who plucked the first-round pick from the Colts after a disappointing end to Hooker’s rookie contract. Hooker was one of Dallas’s best run defenders last year, accounting for almost 50 yards saved versus an average position player. The Cowboys gave up almost half an extra yard on carries in which Hooker wasn’t on the field. He was, essentially, an additional, rangy linebacker in certain formations but also had the ability to swoop down and drop the hammer from the free safety spot whenever he was up top. As a pass defender, he also improved significantly. Hooker saw the most direct targets of his career last year but dropped his opposing QB completion percentage by almost 25% from his career best. Though the safety position has been devalued of late, two years and $7 million is a steal for a player who should be logging significant time this year.

Philadelphia Eagles

Jordan Mailata, tackle

I think this is a good opportunity to take a step back and realize what the Eagles have in Mailata. In 2018 he was flown to IMG to train with performance coaches to see whether they could convert him into a football player. Mailata knew what “offensive tackle” was only after seeing the movie The Blind Side. Three years later we were watching him in a game against the Saints, admirably dueling against Cam Jordan, one of the best defensive players in football. Mailata wasn’t getting any help on stretch runs to his inside shoulder against Jordan, which is sort of unfathomable when you consider that he was a rugby player three years ago. He’s making about as much as the eighth-best tackle in the NFL despite already playing like one of the best five, with the sky being the limit.

New York Giants

Daniel Jones, quarterback

Our only quarterback on either conference’s list this year, Jones hasn’t gotten an opportunity like the one he currently has, with one of the best matchup-generating offensive minds in football as his head coach and a rising star position coach as his offensive coordinator. The Giants are in for a three-year build at the least (there is no way co-owner John Mara will go two-and-out with yet another head coach). Jones, who did not have his fifth-year option picked up, is guaranteed only one of those years, even if the franchise desperately wants him to win the job long-term. Before his injury last year, Jones had a career best on-target throw percentage, and while his bad-throw percentage was also a career high, so was his drop percentage (5.5%). A nonfunctioning scheme and, perhaps, some inherent mistrust could have plagued him. There is a Jones hive out there in the NFL that still believes in, and likes, the quarterback better than some more popular names on the fringe of NFL starterdom.

Chicago Bears

Darnell Mooney, wide receiver

I am in a bit of a kerfuffle with Bears Twitter at the moment, over my take that Justin Fields is in trouble and should flag down an Uber for the next flight out of town before his career gets seriously damaged. That said, I can still appreciate Mooney, who thrived in one of the most broken offenses in the NFL last year. His abilities after the catch are borderline reminiscent of vintage Odell Beckham Jr., allowing him to turn vacant space into a very dangerous weapon. I’ll venture to guess that if Chicago pulls off any stunning upsets this year, it will be in games where Mooney goes off. Four of his six best games were wins in Chicago last year, including a five-catch, 125-yard performance against the Lions in which he was virtually unguardable.

Detroit Lions

Amon-Ra St. Brown, wide receiver

I imagine Lions fans reading this list are saying, “Uhhh, yeah, we know he’s good.” I’m putting him on this list because I think he’s underrated from a global NFL perspective. I think St. Brown might be one of the 10 best receivers in the NFL. A 90-catch season with a 75% catch rate in that offense last year was borderline heroic. Remember the touchdown he scored against the Falcons on a pass from Tim Boyle? St. Brown settles between two defenders with almost no plausible window of time to receive a pass. Boyle throws it anyway. And he throws it high and directly into the path of the defender nearest the sideline. Somehow, St. Brown plucks it over the head of the Falcons player and pushes his way through two tacklers to score. I think St. Brown could be as instrumental in Jameson Williams’s success this year as Tee Higgins was for Ja’Marr Chase in 2021.

Green Bay Packers

Elgton Jenkins, tackle

Jenkins had an eight-game body of work last year for the Packers with his most significant outing coming in a rainy game against the Seahawks. In that game, Jenkins was playing left tackle and did give up a sack, however, by my clock, Aaron Rodgers was near 3.8 seconds in the pocket, Davante Adams was, effectively, triple-teamed and the most enticing route was a slow-developing wheel concept that still needed more time. Jenkins was deep in his drop and the defensive end had an advantageous amount of space to work with. If that is his only negative check mark from starter’s snaps at a key position, I think he can consider that game, and his 2022 season, a success. The Packers have an assembly line for good offensive line talent, so the fact that Jenkins will be an above-average starter this year is not a surprise. He appears to get to the second level so quickly, which, when you’re running outside zone or relying on a quick, cerebral passing game to pick up easy first downs, is essential for netting additional yardage.

Vikings fullback C.J. Ham

Minnesota Vikings

C.J. Ham, fullback

What’s cool about a Dalvin Cook highlight video is that it’s also a C.J. Ham highlight video for the same price. Every year I make it a point to feature at least one fullback on this list because they are more essential to the NFL now than they have been in more than a decade. The Vikings ran more fullback-friendly formations than almost any team in football, with Ham seeing the field on a third of the team’s total snaps. Ham is supremely athletic, ideally built for the position and caught 17 of 18 targets last year, solidifying himself as a valuable checkdown option for the efficient Kirk Cousins. What fullback can do this? Come on.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Donovan Smith, left tackle

Smith has gotten better as a player each year, allowed just one sack in 2021 and never accrued more than five holding penalties (he had three last year). While right tackle Tristan Wirfs gets most of the accolades, Smith has been a quiet and steady presence for the Buccaneers since making the All-Rookie team as a second-round pick out of Penn State in 2015. While the Buccaneers prefer to run up the gut most frequently and may prefer Wirfs in gotta-have-it third down situations, it’s interesting that the Bucs have had more success running between the left guard and tackle and the left tackle and end, than the opposite side. Smith nets the Buccaneers roughly a yard per play. As an aside, we obviously can’t put Mike Evans here, but according to NFL GSIS statistics, he makes the Buccaneers a full 1.14 yards better per play just by virtue of stepping on the field. Smith isn’t far behind, though, and he compiled one of the best pass-blocking grades in the NFL a year ago, per Pro Football Focus’s rankings.

Atlanta Falcons

A.J. Terrell, cornerback

Some of the names on this list will seem more obvious, given that our definition of underrated can be a shifting one. Maybe it’s a player we know about, but have yet to fully appreciate. I still can’t get over this stat on Terrell from PFF last year: Over a four-game stretch, he gave up one or fewer receptions and fewer than 10 total receiving yards. In addition to 81 tackles and a sack, Terrell gave up a 50% completion rate over 86 targets. It appears the word is out: Don’t throw at the Falcons’ No. 1 cornerback if you don’t have to.

Carolina Panthers

Jeremy Chinn, safety

This is part declaration, part projection. Chinn grew as a player in Year 2, lowering his completion percentage against and opposing quarterback rating, as well as his missed tackle percentage. I think Chinn’s value needs to also be placed in the context of Carolina’s defense. Only two teams blitzed more than the Panthers last year, and a lot of that fell on the safeties. Chinn wasn’t necessarily playing centerfield while the cornerbacks blindly rushed the backfield (Carolina’s top cornerbacks didn’t blitz, at least according to Pro Football Reference’s advanced statistics), but he was rushing the backfield a lot (46 blitzes, four hurries) and then having to protect his corners on passing downs. It’s a lot to ask of a second-year player, and to see his overall game improve under those circumstances is impressive.

New Orleans Saints

Pete Werner, linebacker

There’s a good chance the Saints have the best linebacking core in football this year, with Werner set to step in and command starter’s snaps now that Kwon Alexander is out of the picture. There is something immediately revelatory about watching Werner on film. He looks the part. He’s making shoulder tackles while his opposite hand is jacked up by an offensive lineman. He’s ripping through blocks from much larger blockers and admirably filling running lanes. Check out this video for some CliffsNotes, and watch the snap against the Giants where he holds Daniel Jones in the pocket, forces him to check down to Saquon Barkley then tackles Barkley, which is really difficult to do in the open field.

49ers tight end Charlie Woerner catches a pass in warmups.

San Francisco 49ers

Charlie Woerner, tight end

If you are to take Pro Football Focus’s grades to heart, the 49ers not only have one of the best tight ends in football (George Kittle), but they also have two of the best 12. Woerner wasn’t heavily utilized last year, coming in on about a quarter of the 49ers’ snaps and 75% of their special-teams snaps. But when he was in, he flashed his ability to block the scheme exceptionally well, which, for a franchise that needs movable pieces in the backfield to dictate certain looks, is essential. Someone like Woerner proves his value when Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk don’t have to put as much wear and tear on their own bodies and can be freed up as more natural matchup-creating pass catchers. Go back and rewatch his game against the Bears, in which he was used on 80% of the team’s snaps, and you’ll find an adept blocker who was a focal point on certain wide runs. On passing plays that he was on the field for, San Francisco’s passing offense was 1.1 yards better per play.

Arizona Cardinals

Jalen Thompson, safety

Kliff Kingsbury called him one of the best open-field tacklers in the NFL, which I can only assume will become more of a premium as offenses continue to prioritize both speed and open space. Thompson told the team’s website he’s eyeing a Pro Bowl bid this season, which is not simply some generic positive platitude spewed by each and every player this time of year. In 2022, Thompson played in all 17 games, logged 121 tackles (one fewer than Colts star linebacker Darius Leonard) and picked off three passes. Thompson fills gaps better than many linebackers in the league and has single-handedly rescued a Cardinals defense that has tried and failed from a personnel standpoint to toughen up against the run (26th in yards per attempt last year). My favorite stat? Out of 128 tackle opportunities last year, Thompson missed … eight. A 5% missed tackle rate. Absolutely incredible. He’s one heck of a bargain at $2.5 million this year.

Los Angeles Rams

Greg Gaines, defensive tackle

I know I write about Kyler Murray’s disastrous pick-six from his own end zone a lot—maybe it’s just burned into my brain—but I’m still blown away by Greg Gaines’s ability to draw blocks from three separate offensive linemen at once while sharing a line with Aaron Donald. So I decided to pull up a random play—any play—from the 2021 season to see if Gaines did something special. The result? A Week 5 game against the Seahawks. Gaines was sandwiched between two zone blockers, he somehow uppercut his way toward the ballcarrier and helped create a traffic jam that trapped the running back for only a yard gain. Gaines doesn’t get blown off the line of scrimmage, he’s deft on his feet and knows how to set the table for Donald. What could be more valuable for the Rams right now?

Seattle Seahawks

Poona Ford, defensive lineman

Ford was one of the few people I’ve seen hit Derrick Henry and force the mammoth running back backward. One of the premier run defenders in the NFL, Ford has never had more than two sacks per season or nine quarterback hits, but his true brilliance is in short-range situations. He has the active hands and movement style of an elite pass rusher mixed with the devastatingly squatty frame of a pesky nose tackle. When combined, this creates a player quick enough to penetrate outside zone, strong enough to take on fullbacks, agile enough to dodge cut blocks and with a high enough motor to take down screen passes. NFL GSIS statistics had Ford as their most valuable defender, with the Seahawks averaging almost half a yard better against the run with Ford in the lineup.

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