The NFL is a superstar-driven league, just like other major pro sports. But there are 22 starters for every team, not to mention special-teams players, who make invaluable contributions each and every week. So it’s easy for some darn good players to go unrecognized by the national media for their efforts.
Those are the players we’re targeting here.
Some players you may know. But even if you know their name there’s a good chance you don’t realize just how darn good they really are. These are the most underrated players for every team around the NFL.
Dallas Cowboys: Orlando Scandrick, cornerback
After the Cowboys let four leading defensive backs leave via free agency this offseason, Scandrick is the unquestioned leader for this revamped group. Originally a fifth-round pick out of Boise State, this nine-year veteran is extremely underrated. A guy who has been able to make big plays every year, he’s tallied 11.5 sacks and eight interceptions in his career, and four interceptions the past two years he’s played. At the age of 30, Scandrick still has plenty of gas left in the tank and will be heavily relied upon this year by Dallas.
New York Giants: Sterling Shepard, wide receiver
With so much attention given to Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall, Shephard’s value is somehow overlooked. But let’s not forget, this kid came right into Big Blue’s offense and produced at a high level right off the bat. Making Victor Cruz practically irrelevant, he caught 65 passes for 683 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016. If Shepard can stay healthy and continue improving his craft, then the sky is the limit to what he can accomplish in the NFL.
Philadelphia Eagles: Brandon Graham, defensive end
When people talk about the top edge defenders in the NFL, it’s rare that Graham’s name is included anywhere in the conversation. Because Graham doesn’t have the huge sack totals (no more than 6.5 in a single year) of Von Miller or Khalil Mack, he’s underrated in a huge way. But don’t let those stats fool you — this guy is a freaking stud. Extremely powerful setting the edge against running plays, Graham also possesses a quick get-off that allows him to consistently apply pressure on passing plays.
Washington Redskins: Ryan Kerrigan, outside linebacker
One of the Iron Men of the NFL, Kerrigan hasn’t missed a single start since entering the league as a first-round rookie out of Purdue in 2011. Kerrigan has also produced at a very high level every year, racking up an average of 54 combined tackles, nearly 10 sacks and over three forced fumbles per year. While Kerrigan’s run defense isn’t as strong as his pass-rushing abilities, he’s still one of the most consistent outside linebackers playing in a 3-4 scheme the NFL has to offer.
Buffalo Bills: Tyrod Taylor, quarterback
If you’ve been keeping track of news surrounding Taylor this summer, then you might be a bit confused as to why he’s on this list. He’s struggled at times during training camp and had a bad game in Week 2 of the preseason against the Eagles. But don’t think for a second this guy isn’t capable of playing the quarterback position at a high level. In two years as Buffalo’s starter, Taylor has completed 62.6 percent of his passes while throwing 37 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions. And he’s done that with a receiving corps that has been underwhelming, which he’s dealing with once again in 2017.
Miami Dolphins: Byron Maxwell, cornerback
Maxwell was the butt of many a joke during his 2015 campaign with the Philadelphia Eagles. And let’s not sugarcoat the fact that he was just awful that year. But he was also playing out of scheme, which for some players is a death knell. Now back in his comfort zone in a zone-heavy scheme with the Dolphins, Maxwell’s career is taking off again. The veteran cornerback had a strong 2016 season and has looked the part of a No. 1 corner this summer as well.
New England Patriots: Marcus Cannon, right tackle
One of the biggest reasons Tom Brady has been able to play into his 40s is that he’s consistently had excellent protection from his offensive line. After being used as a rotational fix-it guy for most of his career — playing when others were injured — Cannon is now of the key members of this group. For the first time in his career, Cannon was a full-time starter last year, manning the right tackle position. In addition to being a darn good pass blocker, Cannon was one of the NFL’s elite run blockers in 2016. No wonder he landed a huge multi-year extension last year.
New York Jets: Robby Anderson, wide receiver
The top guys on New York’s defense are well known and valued highly. Offensively, the Jets are a mess. But we had to chose someone, and that underrated someone is easily Anderson. This is a kid who came into the NFL last year as an undrafted rookie out of Temple and put up 587 yards and two touchdowns receiving. He’s clearly the best receiver on New York’s roster right now and has the potential to become much more than that with some competent quarterback play.
Chicago Bears: Jerrell Freeman, inside linebacker
Chicago’s defense in general is underrated, especially the front seven. The man who runs the show is Freeman, who was one of the very best inside linebackers in all of football last year. While Freeman isn’t a dynamo in the run game (though he did still rack up 110 tackles in 12 games last year), he’s exceptionally gifted against the pass. Possessing elite instincts and a tremendous knowledge of the game, he makes his bones defending tight ends and anyone else who comes across his zone in the middle of the field.
Detroit Lions: Glover Quin, safety
The Lions generally aren’t the best defensive team. Now that top pass rusher Kerry Hyder has been lost for the season, the team’s ability to defend the pass will be tested all the more. Thank goodness Detroit still has Darius Slay, a top cornerback, and underrated veteran safety, Glover Quin. Since coming over from Houston in 2014, Quin has intercepted 13 passes and gotten his hands on 21 more. Not bad for a fourth-round pick out of New Mexico back in the day.
Green Bay Packers: Jordy Nelson, wide receiver
When the people on your television screen talk about the top receivers in football, they rarely mention Nelson. It’s always Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, Odell Beckham and maybe Dez Bryant. Those guys are all great. But the fact that Nelson isn’t mentioned in the same breath is criminal. This is guy who, in the past three years he’s played (missed all of 2015), racked up 280 receptions for 3,990 yards and 35 touchdowns. Those are elite numbers, folks. Nelson is an elite receiver. Period. End of story.
Minnesota Vikings: Sam Bradford, quarterback
Whenever people talk about Bradford’s NFL record-breaking performance last season, it always includes an asterisk. It’s no secret that Bradford threw a ton of short passes. He only averaged seven yards per attempt, which puts him in the bottom half of the league. It’s widely assumed that Bradford must not be a good deep passer, given his history. But Bradford is actually very good throwing deep, too, ranking third in passer rating and first in accuracy on deep throws last year, per Pro Football Focus. He’s really one of the NFL’s better quarterbacks, rather than the first-round bust many think he is.
Baltimore Ravens: C.J. Mosley, inside linebacker
One of the NFL’s best linebackers against the run, Mosley is no slouch covering on passing downs, either. A three-year starter since entering the NFL as a first-round pick out of Alabama, Mosley has certainly lived up to the hype. He’s racked up 360 combined tackles, six interceptions, seven sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries in 46 games to start his career. He leads one of the most imposing defenses the NFL has to offer after Baltimore brought in significant help via free agency this offseason.
Cleveland Browns: Kenny Britt, wide receiver
Did you realize that Britt is still just 28 years old? It’s crazy, because it feels like he’s been in the league forever. Entering his ninth season overall and first with the Browns, the former first-round pick is carrying some momentum with him after finally eclipsing 1,000 yards receiving last year. And he did it on a terrible Los Angeles Rams team that featured a terrible rushing game and terrible quarterback play. Now in Hue Jackson’s system, perhaps now is the opportunity Britt needs to break out for real.
Cincinnati Bengals: Carlos Dunlap, defensive end
Coming off somewhat of a down season compared to his 2015 campaign, Dunlap should not be forgotten about when discussing the most disruptive pass rushers in the game today. Entering his eighth season and fifth as a full-time starter, all Dunlap has done the past four years is rack up 37 sacks and 11 forced fumbles. Though he could stand to play a bit better against the run, Dunlap is nevertheless an invaluable piece to Cincinnati’s defensive front.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Stephon Tuitt, defensive end
Coming out of Notre Dame in 2014, Tuitt was one of the most intriguing prospects in that draft class. When he barely made an impact as a rookie, many were quick to write him off as a pro. But Tuitt ended up coming back stronger than ever in 2015 and has been a full-time starter ever since. Even if the national media doesn’t give this 24-year-old star his props, the Steelers certainly know what a gem they have. They hope to ink the defensive end to a contract extension before the start of the upcoming season.
Atlanta Falcons: Ricardo Allen, safety
One of the most underrated players in the NFL, Allen played more than any other safety in the league last season. He also played more in coverage than any other safety in the league. Not bad for a young man who came into the league as a fifth-round pick out of Purdue and didn’t even see the field as a rookie in 2014. Allen took over as the full-time starter in 2015 and has racked up 158 tackles and five interceptions since then.
Carolina Panthers: Shaq Thompson, linebacker
On a team of superstars and stars in the making, Thompson is often overlooked. Though, to be fair to him, he does play with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, two of the best in the business. The 2017 campaign is shaping up to be Thompson’s breakout party, however. He’ll likely play next to Kuechly in nickel sets instead of Thomas, and he excels in coverage, where his speed comes in handy. The former first rounder out of Washington has registered somewhat forgettable stats in his first two years. We expect that to change soon.
New Orleans Saints: Mark Ingram, running back
It’s strange to call a former Heisman Trophy winner underrated, but we’re doing it. Ingram has shared the backfield with other running backs his entire NFL career. But whenever he’s given the opportunity to shine, he has come through. Over the course of his six-year career with the Saints, the former Alabama star has averaged 4.4 yards per carry. And that’s counting his two first seasons, when he averaged 3.9 yards per carry. On top of that, Ingram is extremely underrated for his ability to catch the ball. He’s caught 149 passes for 1,012 yards and four touchdowns — a large portion of that coming in the past two years.
Everyone’s talking about Adrian Peterson in New Orleans these days, but we must not discount just how good Ingram is. It’s going to be fascinating to see how Sean Payton divides the workload in 2017.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cameron Brate, tight end
If you’re looking for an in-line tight end who can block a defensive end in the run game, Brate’s not your guy. But if you’re looking for a straight-up pass-catching stud, look no further than this underrated star in the making. Last year, which was his third in the NFL, this former undrafted Harvard grad caught 70 percent of his targets. He finished with 57 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. Now he’s being teamed up with O.J. Howard to give Tampa Bay tremendous options in the passing game along with DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans.
Houston Texans: Whitney Mercilus, outside linebacker
It’s really not fair what Houston has assembled up front defensively. Everyone knows about J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing. But despite the fact that Mercilus has 19.5 sacks in his past 31 regular-season games he’s not mentioned enough as one of the keystone players for the Texans. Make no mistake about it — without Mercilus the Texans would not be able to sport the best defense in the NFL. He’s just as important as any player on Houston’s roster and was the driving force behind their run last year without Watt.
Indianapolis Colts: Frank Gore, running back
The Inconvenient Truth. He’s already a top-10 all-time running back in the NFL. Yet Adrian Peterson — who is well below Gore on the all-time rushing list — is always the guy people talk about as the best running back of this generation. Talk about disrespectful. Gore has toiled away on some pretty bad teams, which might have something to do with how he’s viewed. But the fiery competitor has not put up 13,065 yards and 74 touchdowns on the ground by accident.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Allen Robinson, wide receiver
Through no fault of his own, Robinson is in a terrible situation. His quarterback, Blake Bortles, has been suffering a gradual breakdown that’s gotten worse than anyone could have imagined this preseason. As Bortles’ breakdown started to unfold last year, Robinson’s stats took a tumble, too. He ended the season with 73 receptions for 883 yards and six touchdowns — not bad numbers, by any measure. But let’s not forget this is a young man who caught 80 balls for 1,400 yards and a league-leading 14 touchdowns in 2015. Imagine what he could do with competent quarterback play.
Tennessee Titans: Delanie Walker, tight end
Extremely underutilized during his tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, Walker has been the most consistent offensive weapon on Tennessee’s roster since arriving in 2013. Not surprisingly, Walker’s statistics have gotten a boost since the arrival of franchise quarterback in the making, Marcus Mariota. The past two years, Walker has hauled in 159 passes for 1,888 yards and 13 touchdowns. Entering his 12th year in the NFL, this 33-year-old deep threat is still as spry as ever before and figures to be a huge weapon once again for the Titans.
Arizona Cardinals: Markus Golden, outside linebacker
Though he’s not yet a household name around the nation, Golden will be soon if he has another season like the one he put together in 2016. As a rotational second-year player out of Missouri last year, Golden broke through with 51 total tackles, 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Now as a starter playing opposite the more recognizable Chandler Jones, who had 11 sacks of his own last year, Golden needs to prove he’s no one-year wonder.
Los Angeles Rams: Jared Goff, quarterback
We cannot stress enough just how awful Goff was last year as a rookie. However, we also cannot stress enough just how awful Jeff Fisher has been throughout his career at developing quarterbacks and featuring quarterback-friendly offenses. Now with Sean McVay — who made Kirk Cousins look like an NFL demigod last year in Washington — Goff has a chance to prove he’s worth the king’s ransom the Rams paid trading up to land him No. 1 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Goff was viewed by many as an excellent prospect heading into that draft. He’ll prove himself, one way or another, this year. We’re betting he’ll bounce back nicely.
San Francisco 49ers: Trent Brown, right tackle
There are some talented players on San Francisco’s roster already gaining national recognition. The most talented player that most outside of Northern California likely aren’t aware of is Brown. A seventh-round pick by San Francisco in 2015, Brown became a full-time starter last year. He’s a mountain of a man, at 6-foot-8 and 360 pounds. And if you need any proof he’s supremely talented, look no further than what Von Miller had to say about this not-so-gentle giant.
Seattle Seahawks: Tyler Lockett, wide receiver
The Seahawks have quite the pint-sized, lightning-in-a-bottle weapon in this former Kansas State star. A true burner, Lockett can take any given play to the house for six points (like this). In his first two seasons, Lockett has scored 10 touchdowns — seven receiving, one rushing, one punt return and one kickoff return. After sustaining a brutal leg injury last year, Lockett is finally back practicing with his teammates just in time to get ramped up for the regular season.
Denver Broncos: Ronald Leary, right guard
The Broncos landing Leary this offseason was one of the more underrated moves of free agency. As a four-year starter for Dallas, he proved more than capable of paving superhighways for running backs and isn’t a bad pass protector. When Leary was brought in to Denver, it was the hope that he’d be able to play left guard. However, Max Garcia was struggling on the right side, so Leary made things easy and is now on the right side. His versatility is just one more reason Leary is underrated, despite being one of the best run-blocking guards in the game.
Kansas City Chiefs: Chris Jones, defensive end
Talk about a young pup who has some humongous paws. This young man, drafted in in the second round last year out of Mississippi State, has the makings of a superstar in Kansas City’s 3-4 scheme. Jones started to come into his own even as a rookie in 2016. He started 11 games, tallying 28 combined tackles and two sacks. None of those numbers really reflect the kind of talent and impact he’s going to have as a full-time starter going forward. Keep an eye out for this youngster, who’s going to be a key defender for years to come if he can stay healthy. That’s something to monitor, however, as he’s coming off a knee scope last month.
Los Angeles Chargers: Brandon Mebane, nose tackle
One of the best nose tackles in the NFL, Mebane is valued by those who understand how pivotal his role is in Los Angeles’ defense. However, he also plays on a front seven that features some nationally recognized players who rack up sacks. Plugging holes in the running game is crucial but not nearly as sexy as taking down quarterbacks. But to think Mebane is a one-trick pony wouldn’t be correct, either. He pushes the pocket inside as well as any nose tackle and has 16.5 career sacks to show for it in his 10-year career.
Oakland Raiders: Gabe Jackson, right guard
The Raiders sure as heck don’t have any doubt about Jackson’s value. The former third-round pick out of Mississippi State landed a huge contract extension at the end of July that locks him up through the 2022 season. In fact, Derek Carr took less money so that the Raiders could do that deal. But on a bigger scale, Jackson isn’t as well known as other players on his team, including fellow guard Kelechi Osemele, who was the team’s prized free-agent acquisition last year. If Marshawn Lynch is going some big things this year for Oakland, you can bet Jackson will have a lot to do with his success.