HOUSTON -- What are the defining terms of being considered "underrated" in professional sports? In years past, underrated players would often be starters that never received the same accolades as more prime players.
That might not be the definition today. Role players could have a bigger impact than a team's regular starter. The same could be said for those who work in a starting role, but maybe are a veteran on their third or fourth roster.
Entering 2022, the Houston Texans have a plethora of candidates that would meet the underrated criteria. After back-to-back four-win campaigns, no one expects much from Houston's roster. Will it be better than last season? Perhaps.
The expectations are high under new coach Lovie Smith to say the least. Maybe that's a good thing when looking at the broad picture.
Everyone knows the three major stars in Houston entering training camp. Brandin Cooks would be considered underrated among receivers after posting six 1,000-yard seasons in eight years. Offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil still is considered a top 15 player at his position despite being limited to five games. Defensive end Jonathan Greenard graded out as the 11th ranked pass-rusher by Pro Football Focus following his second season.
In the big perspective, Greenard and Cooks are underrated. On the Texans, they're cornerstones of the franchise. As for the title of most underrated, that belongs to nickel defender Tavierre Thomas.
Stats would back that up as well.
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Undrafted out of Ferris State, Thomas spent the first three seasons with the Cleveland Browns before joining Houston last offseason. One year in Smith's zone-heavy formation proved that scheme fit matters to a player's development and success.
Thomas earned the team's highest coverage grade last season by PFF at 76.1 He allowed allowing a 61.9 completion percentage on 42 targets. He also finished with a top-three slot coverage grade and allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap (0.50).
His PFF grade of 77.6 was the team's second-highest behind Greenard's 82.9. He ranked top 10 among slot defenders in coverage and against the run. Thomas also kept Smith's 18-year streak alive of a Smith's unit recording a defensive touchdown.
In Week 16 against the Los Angeles Chargers, Thomas intercepted Justin Herbert and returned it 48 yards for the score. It would be the dagger in a 41-29 upset at home, thus ultimately playing a factor in Los Angeles missing the postseason.
Houston is hoping last season was the start of a promising career for Thomas at NRG Stadium. The team agreed to a one-year extension prior to the season's conclusion, thus keeping him through 2022.
Thomas isn't at the same level of Indianapolis Colts Kenny Moore II or Cincinnati Bengals Mike Hilton, but there isn't much of a gap between him and several others. Philadelphia Eagles Avonte Maddox (72.8), Chargers Bryce Callahan (60.0) and Los Angeles Rams Troy Hill Jr. (60.1) all graded significantly lower than Thomas.
Their status in the league isn't in question. Thomas' one year is officially under the microscope.
It's too soon to say that Thomas is a star in the making. It's also too late to say he's under the radar. There's a middle ground between the two. That term is "underrated.''