Inside AFC South: Most Underrated Players
Phillip B. Wilson
They typically don’t get noticed when postseason awards are bestowed upon NFL players, which usually means they’re overlooked.
Being underrated is one thing, but don’t call them under-appreciated by their respective AFC South Division teams.
Here’s a look at four key contributors for the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans.
Patrick Starr, State of The Texans
When you look at the Texans, the importance of inside linebacker Zach Cunningham often goes unnoticed. Cunningham has eclipsed the century mark in tackles the past two seasons, including a team-high 142 in 2019.
Not a prototypical linebacker, Cunningham is a slashing and attacking defender that uses his instincts and quickness to slow offenses. His overall speed allows Cunningham to get sideline to sideline with ease and to make plays, which means he's one of the most vital players on the defense.
Cunningham is entering the last season of his rookie deal, and he will demand significant money to stay in a Texans uniform. The former second-round selection has not only improved each year, his ability to drop into coverage, get his hands on breaking up passes, and creating negative plays makes him an all-around linebacker that is a real playmaker.
Phillip B. Wilson, AllColts
Offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo might not seem like an underrated player, considering he’s played arguably the most important O-line position in protecting the quarterback’s blind side for nine seasons and was rewarded in March with a two-year, $33-million extension. That made him the NFL’s highest-paid left tackle, a distinction that lasted five weeks until the Texans gave Pro Bowl left tackle Laremy Tunsil a three-year, $66-million extension.
Since being selected 22nd overall in 2011, Castonzo has been continually overlooked for postseason honors — much to his surprise he was named a Pro Bowl alternate last year, but he didn't get promoted to the AFC roster. It's the first time he's ever had a whiff of the Pro Bowl.
Pro Football Focus has continually graded Castonzo favorably, listing him as the Colts’ most underrated player in November, then repeating that distinction in late May, based on his consistency. Castonzo, 31, was one of two Colts offensive players who didn’t miss a snap in 1,077 plays in 2019 and was ranked by PFF as the NFL’s No. 2 left tackle, and ninth offensive lineman overall. He’s been graded a top-five offensive tackle in two of the past three seasons.
“The decision by Castonzo to stave off retirement for at least one more year, keeping one of the best offensive lines in the NFL intact, was one of the biggest developments in what has been a busy offseason for Indianapolis,” writes PFF’s Ben Linsey. “The fact that Castonzo has never made the Pro Bowl is more of an indictment on the selection process than it is on Castonzo's play. He has been one of the most reliable left tackles in the game for years now, grading at 76.9 or higher in every season of his career excluding his rookie campaign in 2011. He may not be the best player on that offensive line anymore with the emergence of (guard) Quenton Nelson as one of the league's best young players, but Castonzo's consistently strong play is still under-appreciated up front for the Colts.”
John Shipley, JaguarReport
When thinking of underrated Jaguars, slot cornerback D.J. Hayden is the first player who comes to mind. The former 2013 first-round pick bounced around teams throughout the early stages of his career, earning the bust label after fizzling out in Oakland and in Detroit. But in 2018, Jacksonville signed Hayden to be their full-time nickel replacement for the departing Aaron Colvin, and the rest is history.
In two seasons in Jacksonville, Hayden has proven to be a versatile and dependable slot cornerback thanks to his sound play vs. the run, a knack for contesting short and intermediate passes, and his ability to blitz the quarterback. Thanks to his high-level of play in 2019, Hayden caught the eyes of Pro Football Focus, who tabbed him as NFL’s 10th-best cornerback in 2019.
"The Jaguars run a lot of single-high, man-to-man coverage, and Cover-3 zone, and Hayden flourished within this scheme by allowing the fewest passing yards (210) of any qualifying cornerback," PFF wrote. "Like McCourty, Hayden is also one of four players at his position who has not allowed a touchdown pass all season."
According to PFF, Hayden tied with Richard Sherman by allowing the third-lowest yards per reception average among cornerbacks (8.4) to go along with the NFL's 20th-best passer rating when targeted (74.2). In 2019, Hayden recorded six pass deflections, one forced fumble, two sacks, five quarterback hits, and a career-high five tackles for loss.
"He is a very tough individual, physically and mentally," Jaguars defensive coordinator Todd Wash said during his final 2019 press conference. "That is some of the things that we talk about that you have to be to play this game. I think he is underrated. I think we said this a couple weeks ago, what he allows us to do in the run game … He can cover slots man-to-man. I would definitely say he is underrated for how important he is for our scheme.”
David Boclair, AllTitans
DaQuan Jones’ primary job is to hold his ground, and the veteran nose tackle has done exactly that.
He has not gone anywhere. A fourth-round pick in 2014, Jones became the senior member of the Titans defense when Jurrell Casey was traded to Denver in March.
Jones never has been to the Pro Bowl. He never has been named an All-Pro. He never has garnered Defensive Player of the Year consideration. But there he has been, right in the middle of Tennessee’s defensive line. A starter since his second season, he has played 76 out of 80 games in the past five seasons.
In the Titans’ scheme, Jones’ primary job is to occupy blockers so that others, particularly the inside linebackers, can run free and make tackles. He has averaged just over 44 tackles per season and has notched six sacks since he became a starter.
Those who know have recognized his contributions. Courtesy of a three-year, $21 million deal he signed in 2018, Jones has been one of the Titans’ highest-paid players in recent seasons (he is one of eight who will make at least $7 million in base salary this season). And among Tennessee players who logged at least 200 snaps last season, Pro Football Focus rated him fourth-best overall on defense (fifth against the run, fourth in the pass rush).
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)