Inside the AFC South: Most Underrated Players
Every Saturday, reporters covering the AFC South teams for SI.com’s NFL community will weigh one aspect of the division as it relates to each of the franchises, the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.
This week we look at each team’s most underrated player:
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.
He 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 a possible 80 games over 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).
-- DAVID BOCLAIR, AllTitans
When you look at the Texans, the production and importance of inside linebacker Zach Cunningham often go unnoticed. Cunningham the past two seasons has eclipsed the century mark in tackles with 142 in 2019 to pace the defense.
Not a prototypical linebacker, Cunningham is a slasher and attacker who uses his instincts and quickness to slow offenses. His overall speed allows him to get sideline to sideline with ease and make plays making him one of the most vital players on the defense heading into the 2020 season.
Cunningham is entering the last season of his rookie deal, and he will demand significant money to keep in a Texans uniform. The second-round selection has only improved year to year, and his ability to drop in coverage, to break up passes and to create negative plays makes him an all-around linebacker and a real playmaker at the position.
-- PATRICK D. STARR, State of the Texans
Offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo might not seem like an underrated player, considering he’s played arguably the most important O-line position and protected the quarterback’s blind side for nine seasons. In March, he was rewarded 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.
But since being selected 22nd overall in 2011, Castonzo was continually overlooked for postseason honors until last year — when much to his surprise he was named a Pro Bowl alternate. He didn’t get promoted to the AFC roster for that game, but it’s the first time he got 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 one 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.
-- PHILLIP B. WILSON, AllColts
When thinking of underrated Jaguars, slot cornerback D.J. Hayden almost always is the first to come to mind. The 2013 first-round pick bounced around teams throughout the early stages of his career and earned the bust label after he fizzled out in Oakland and then in Detroit. But in 2018, Jacksonville signed Hayden to be their full-time nickel replacement for Aaron Colvin, and the rest is history.
In two seasons in Jacksonville, Hayden has been a versatile and dependable performer thanks to his sound play versus the run, a knack for contesting passes in the short to intermediate areas of the field, and his ability to get to the quarterback as a blitzer. Thanks to his high-level of play in 2019, Hayden caught the eyes of Pro Football Focus, which tabbed him as the 10th best cornerback in the NFL in 2019.
According to PFF, Hayden also 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.
-- JOHN SHIPLEY, JaguarReport