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Most underrated NFL player on each team

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the bulk of the offseason is in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to look forward to the 2018 season. Sure a lot can change between now and September, but we have a much better understanding of where teams and players stand heading into the summer.

We previously checked in on the most overrated player on each NFL team. Those are players who are seemingly thought about at a higher clip than their on-field performance might suggest. Here, we take a bit more of a positive approach in looking at the most underrated player for each team. Below, you will see a combination of youngsters who have already made an impact and grizzled veterans who simply have never received the recognition they deserve.

New England Patriots: Devin McCourty

It’s hard to believe that a player of McCourty’s ilk has earned just two Pro Bowl nods in eight seasons with New England. That very same span has seen him lead seven top-10 scoring defenses while being one of the primary reason the Pats have earned two Super Bowl titles and four AFC championships in those eight seasons. Having played both safety positions as well as cornerback, McCourty is about as versatile as they come. This makes him an extremely underrated figure for the Pats.

Buffalo Bills: Kyle Williams

While his Bills bordered on irrelevance during Williams’ first 11 seasons with the team, this defensive tackle was busy acting as one of the best defensive tackles in the game. The five-time Pro Bowler has also racked up an impressive 43.5 sacks during his stint in Western New York. He might not get a lot of play because of the Bills’ playoff drought prior to last season, but Williams has been among the game’s best defenders for north of a decade. That certainly should land him on this list.

Miami Dolphins: Josh Sitton

Much like Williams, this new Dolphins guard doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition that he deserves. Obviously, playing guard has a lot to do with that. They’re the enforcers in the trenches. Players that open up holes for running backs and help protect the quarterback. For a combined decade with Green Bay and Chicago, Sitton has done just that. He’s among the best run-blocking guards in the modern NFL and remains extremely productive at the age of 31. Now tasked with opening up holes for fellow ageless wonder Frank Gore, Sitton has started all but nine games over the past nine seasons. That’s just insane.

New York Jets: Isaiah Crowell

Signed to a minuscule three-year, $12 million deal back in March, Crowell acted the part of the Cleveland Browns’ best offensive weapon over the past three seasons. It’s a span of action that saw the former undrafted free agent from Alabama State average nearly 1,100 total yards and five scores per year. He also added a combined 87 receptions during that time. Now slated to be a three-down back for a Jets team that’s going to be relying on his skills with Sam Darnold likely set to see action, we can expect even more production from the still young 25-year-old Crowell moving forward.

Philadelphia Eagles: Jordan Hicks

On a defense that includes all-everything performers Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, it seems that Hicks gets lost in the shuffle. All he’s done since being selected in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft is continue to improve each and every season. The former Texas standout missed nine games to injury for the defending champs last season. Hence, why we didn’t hear a lot about him. Though, Hicks is one year removed from racking up 86 tackles, 11 passes defended and a whopping five interceptions from the middle linebacker position. Oddly enough, that wasn’t even enough to earn him a Pro Bowl nod.

Dallas Cowboys: Travis Frederick

If guard doesn’t get a lot of play, just imagine how those tasked with both snapping the ball and protecting the quarterback up the middle feel. Center is among the NFL’s most important positions, and very few have ever come to that realization. If this is indeed the case, Frederick himself has to be considered underrated. Dallas received a lot of flack after trading up for Frederick in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Since then, all he has done is earn four Pro Bowl nods and one All-Pro honor in five seasons. He’s what other younger centers aspire to be, and might very well be Dallas’ best offensive lineman.

Washington Redskins: Jamison Crowder

Not really known because of his slight 5-foot-9 frame and status as a mid-round pick from a basketball school (Duke), Crowder has made a name for himself as Washington’s most consistent pass catcher since entering the league back in 2015. During that span, the former Blue Devil is averaging 63 receptions for 747 yards. He’s also caught a mind-blowing 70 percent of the passes thrown in his direction during that span. Likely nothing more than a No. 2 receiver moving forward, Crowder should benefit from Alex Smith and his tendency to dink and dunk in the quarterback’s first season with the Skins. Look for a 1,000-yard campaign in 2018.

New York Giants: Landon Collins

We understand full well that two-time Super Bowl champ Eli Manning and the diva that is Odell Beckham Jr. get all the play in the nation’s largest media market. But if it weren’t for Collins and both his on-field skillset and leadership ability, a sinking ship in the Big Apple would have been sending mayday signals. After surprisingly dropping to the second round in the 2015 NFL Draft, the former Alabama All-American has proven to be among the game’s best ball hawks. Over the course of his three-year career, Collins has forced 10 total turnovers and is averaging north of 100 tackles per season. Having already been given All-Pro honors, we fully expect Collins to soon be recognized among the NFL’s top safeties.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Telvin Smith

After putting up three tremendous seasons to start his career, Jacksonville rewarded Smith with a four-year, $45 million extension this past October. He responded by tallying his fourth consecutive 100-plus tackle campaign to go with three interceptions and a touchdown en route to the Florida State product earning his first Pro Bowl nod. In the mold of more athletic linebackers we see today, the 215-pound Smith fell to the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft. For some, he was viewed more as a safety because of a smallish frame. Instead, Smith set into motion a trend other teams are following at the linebacker position. Deion Jones in Atlanta and the recently drafted Fred Warner in San Francisco are two prime examples.

Tennessee Titans: Delanie Walker

Overshadowed for the vast majority of his seven-year career with San Francisco due to the presence of Vernon Davis, Walker has taken his game to the next level in Nashville. Considered a Swiss Army Knife option, the former college wide receiver is among the game’s best all-around tight ends. He’s recorded an average of 71 receptions for 831 yards in five seasons with the Titans. Walker has also turned into a plus-level blocker at the latter stages of his career. Despite this, he’s never bandied about among the best tight ends in the game. That title goes to the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Travis Kelce. He’s averaged more receptions per year than all three over the past five seasons.

Houston Texans: Whitney Mercilus

Three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt justifiably gets most of the press in Houston. He’s followed in one by former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. Now that Tyrann Matthieu is in Houston, we’re expecting him to be a much talked about figure. This shouldn’t take anything away from what Mercilus has done since the Texans selected him in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Prior to missing all but five games to injury last season, Mercilus had been a consistent pass-rush threat for the Texans. He recorded a combined 19.5 sacks in 2015 and 2016. He’s also averaging nearly eight sacks in the five full seasons the Illinois product has played. That’s some solid stuff.

Indianapolis Colts: Jack Doyle

Indianapolis just recently signed former Detroit Lions first-round bust Eric Ebron to a two-year, $13 million deal. All the while, Doyle has been out here playing tremendous football for the suddenly downtrodden franchise. The former undrafted free agent from Western Kentucky broke out big time in 2016, recording 59 receptions for 584 yards. Indy then rewarded the tight end with a three-year, $18.9 million deal in March of 2017. He responded by putting up a Pro Bowl campaign last season, catching 80 passes. One really has to wonder what the logic is in Ebron making more per season than Doyle. Yeah, that makes this pass catcher a vastly underrated figure.

New Orleans Saints: Michael Thomas

Pretty much like every receiver we see play with Drew Brees, Thomas doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He’s a product of the system. That’s been the calling card for every pass catcher to come through the Bayou during Brees’ Hall of Fame-worthy career. But we’re here to say that Thomas is a different monster than anyone who has come before him. In his first two seasons with the Saints, this former Ohio State standout has recorded 196 receptions for 2,382 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s also catching an absurd 77 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. Sure Brees’ excellence under center has played a role. But at this point, it’s hard to take anything away from this young receiver. He’s simply been studly.

Carolina Panthers: Mario Addison

Without the fanfare of a Julius Peppers or Luke Kuechly, Addison has carved out a nice little career for himself in Carolina. He’s recorded 6.5-plus sacks in each of the past four seasons and has combined for 20.5 sacks over the past two seasons. To put this into perspective, fellow pass rusher Von Miller has put up 23.5 sacks during that very same span. We understand that this isn’t the end-all stat for pass rushers, but it’s pretty darn telling. Despite this, Addison continues to fly under the radar as a non-star.

Atlanta Falcons: Deion Jones

Already among the game’s best cover backers, Jones is coming off a Pro Bowl 2017 camaign that saw him put up 138 tackles, 10 passes defended and three interceptions. That came on the heels of a rookie camaign in which Jones dominated to the tune of two interception returns for touchdowns and a total of five takeaways. He’s a true playmaker in every sense of the word. And it’s still simply astonishing that the former LSU standout was the sixth linebacker selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cameron Brate

Despite seeing Brate put up 57 receptions for 660 yards and eight touchdowns in 2016, Tampa Bay thought it made sense to exhaust a first-round pick on on a fellow tight end, O.J. Howard, during the 2017 NFL Draft. Howard responded by tallying just 26 receptions. For his part, Brate put up a 48-591-6 split en route to earning a six-year, $40.8 million deal this offseason. Needless to say, he’s among the most important figures on offense for Jameis Winston and Co. Even then, most won’t link Brate to the game’s best pass-catching tight ends.

Kansas City Chiefs: Dee Ford

It’s pretty much Justin Houston who gets most of the play on Kansas City’s defense. And for good reason. He’s averaging nearly 11 sacks over the past five seasons. This doesn’t mean that Ford, a first-round pick back in 2014, hasn’t been solid as a secondary pass-rush option behind Houston. Prior to missing all but six games of last season to injury, the former Auburn standout tallied a career high 11 sacks back in 2016. At 27 years old, Ford is just now hitting his prime. Expect multiple double-digit sack campaigns here moving forward.

Los Angeles Chargers: Casey Hayward

It was just a couple short years ago that Hayward was cast aside by a Green Bay Packers squad that could really use his services right about now. That came a few seasons after the now 28-year-old cornerback recorded six interceptions as a rookie. Ultimately, the Chargers taking a chance on the Vanderbilt product has paid off big time. He finished last season having yielded a 59.6 quarterback rating when targeted and as the top grade cornerback, per Pro Football Focus’ official metrics. That led to the Chargers signing Hayward to a well-deserved three-year, $33 million extension this offseason.

Oakland Raiders: Donald Penn

Despite having earned a Pro Bowl appearance as Derek Carr’s blindside protector back in 2016, Penn was not given anywhere near the credit that was deserved by the Raiders’ organization. That led to the veteran left tackle holding out last summer. Ultimately, Penn signed a two-year, $18.7 million extension this past September and went on to earn his second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance. He’s now anchored an offensive line that has allowed 36 sacks of Carr over his past 30 starts. Surprisingly, this didn’t prevent the Raiders from selecting an heir apparent to Penn in the form of Kolton Miller in the first round of last month’s draft. Yeah, Penn is the NFL’s version of Rodney Dangerfield. That much is clear.

Denver Broncos: Case Keenum

Given the success he had last season in replacing an injury-prone Sam Bradford, it’s absolutely shocking that Keenum settled for a free agent deal with Denver that includes $25 million. After all, Bradford himself got $15 million guaranteed on his deal with the Cardinals. A career backup, Keenum dazzled onlookers last season for the Vikings en route to leading the team to an 11-3 record in 14 starts. He completed 68 percent of his passes for nearly 3,500 yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions during that span.

Los Angeles Rams: Andrew Whitworth

It was somewhat shocking to see Cincinnati let Whitworth walk in free agency last offseason. Here’s a guy that started 164 of a possible 168 games during his 11 seasons with the team. He also earned an All-Pro nod and three Pro Bowl appearances with the team during that span. Once transitioning to the Rams last season, Whitworth put up arguably the best season of his career. He earned All-Pro honors en route to helping Los Angeles’ pass protection in front of Jared Goff. The former No. 1 overall pick was sacked just 25 games in 15 starts compared to going down 26 times in seven starts as a rookie. Obviously, Whitworth played a huge role in this.

Seattle Seahawks: Doug Baldwin

Never really mentioned among the game’s best receivers, all Baldwin has done is improve each and every season he’s been in the NFL since Seattle signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent back in 2011. He’s coming off 2017 campaign that saw the former Stanford star record 75 receptions for 991 yards and eighth touchdowns. Over the course of the past three seasons, Baldwin is averaging a stat line of 82-1,063-10 while catching north of 70 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. What makes this so remarkable is that he’s done this with a quarterback in Russell Wilson that is both a run-heavy player and more comfortable throwing between the hash marks or down the field. This makes Baldwin one of the game’s most underrated players.

Arizona Cardinals: Deone Bucannon

A safety when selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Bucannon has morphed into one heck of a full-time linebacker. He transitioned primarily to that role in 2016, recording 89 tackles. Then, this past season, the former Washington State standout recorded an interception to go with two forced fumbles in 12 games. He’s not seen as an elite-level defender. But Bucannon definitely sets the physical tone for a Cardinals front seven that has needed it at the linebacker position. He likely won’t ever be a Pro Bowl. This doesn’t mean that Bucannon’s importance to the Cardinals isn’t there.

San Francisco 49ers: DeForest Buckner

Buckner has earned the nickname “Defensive Player of the Year” within the 49ers’ organization in recent months. There’s a very good reason for this. The former top-10 pick from Oregon is among the best players at his position in the NFL. He put up 61 tackles, five passes defended and three sacks from the defensive tackle position last season. In no way does that come close to telling the entire story here. According to Pro Football Focus, Buckner tallied the most quarterback hits (19) among interior defensive linemen last season. These pressures will certainly find a way to turn into consistent sack numbers moving forward. And at 6-foot-7, 300 pounds Buckner has the frame to be a dominating force for years to come.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Alejandro Villanueva

Outside of making his own kind of news during the National Anthem protests, Villanueva has largely flown under the radar. A former Army member, Villanueva entered the league back in 2014 without much fanfare. He was not drafted, ultimately finding a spot as a reserve for the Steelers. Since then, it’s been all sorts of great to see this left tackle grow as Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside protector. Last season saw Villanueva start all 16 games for a second consecutive time, earning his first Pro Bowl nod in the process. He’s now likely considered a top-five left tackle in the NFL and was just given a four-year, $24 million extension by Pittsburgh last year. He’s a prime example of hard work paying off.

Baltimore Ravens: Alex Collins

Baltimore seems to have so much faith in this former Seattle Seahawks fifth-round pick that it didn’t draft a single running back this past April. Given that the Arkansas product is coming off a 2017 campaign in which he gained nearly 1,200 total yards and six touchdowns, that makes a whole lot of sense. In fact, Collins averaged a startling 4.6 yards per rush in his first season with the Ravens. He’s now slated to be the team’s featured back this coming season. If so, a 1,500-yard campaign is not completely out of the question. Remember, Collins tallied nearly 1,700 total yards and 20 touchdowns in his final season with Arkansas back in 2015. He’s capable of shouldering the load in Baltimore.

Cincinnati Bengals: Giovani Bernard

Cincinnati has made it more than clear that Bernard doesn’t fit into the team’s long-term plans. It selected a troubled Joe Mixon in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft before doubling down at this position in the mid rounds of last month’s draft with Miami’s Mark Walton. It’s a clear indication that the Bengals don’t see Bernard as a fixture on offense in the coming years. That could very well be a major mistake. Not a traditional three-down back, Bernard is more of the modern variation of players at this position. That is to say, he provides production both running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. A former second-round pick, Bernard averaged about 1,000 total yards and five touchdowns in his first five NFL seasons. That includes a combined 230 catches and a 70-plus reception percentage. If not in Cincinnati, Gio will continue to shine as an underrated player elsewhere moving forward.

Cleveland Browns: Tyrod Taylor

Buffalo Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor in NFL Week 4

At one point last season, Taylor was actually benched in favor of then rookie signal caller Nathan Peterman, who ultimately went on to throw five first half interceptions in his only start of the year. This almost cost the Bills their first playoff appearance since Bill and Hillary Clinton were roaming the White House. It goes to show us how little Buffalo valued Taylor. Despite this, the new Browns starter has a proven track record of success. He’s put up 65 total touchdowns compared to 16 interceptions en route to boasting a 22-20 record as a starter over the past three seasons. Now on a Browns team with much more talent to work with on offense, we fully expect Taylor to continue this high level of performance over the short term. It’s still a crying shame that he’s so darn underrated.

Minnesota Vikings: Harrison Smith

Speaking of underrated, Smith was initially snubbed from the Pro Bowl last season after Pro Football Focus graded him out as the best overall player in the NFL. That’s next level insane. It also tells us a story of a Pro Bowl game that’s vastly overrated and a player in Smith who might be the most underrated in the sport. The former Notre Dame standout is coming off a 2017 campaign that saw him record 78 tackles, 12 passes defended, five interceptions and 1.5 sacks. He’s quite simply one of the top two or three safeties in the game with Earl Thomas and Kevin Byard. Unfortunately, Smith doesn’t get anywhere near the same credit for the otherworldly difference he makes on the NFL’s best defense.

Green Bay Packers: Kenny Clark

The numbers themselves might not be too great for this former first-round pick. After all, Clark has recorded a grand total of 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in two NFL seasons. But as an interior defensive lineman, disrupting the offensive backfield has been the UCLA product’s primary goal. This is where he’s excelled beyond anyone’s highest expectations. In fact, Pro Football Focus graded him out as the best Packers defender last season and one of the top-five run stuffers in the game. It’s in this that Clark’s dirty work has not gone unnoticed around the football world.

Detroit Lions: Darius Slay

Rarely mentioned among the game’s best corners, all Slay has done in his five seasons with the Lions is…slay it (okay, bad pun). The former Mississippi State standout recorded an NFL-high eight interceptions to go with 60 tackles and an absolutely absurd 26 passes defended last season. He also allowed a 58.1 passer rating when targeted en route to earning All-Pro honors. We’re finally starting to see Slay get the recognition he deserves. Despite this, there’s no real talk about him being among the game’s best corners.

Chicago Bears: Jordan Howard

Any talk surrounding the Bears looking to trade Howard earlier this offseason was simply hogwash. Relying on a young quarterback under center, there was never really any reason for Chicago to even think about moving its best offensive player. A fifth-round pick out of Indiana back in 2016, Howard has put up nearly 2,900 total yards and 16 touchdowns in two seasons. He’s also averaging 4.6 yards per rush and has caught 52 balls during that span. At a time when most of the focus surrounding young running backs has gone to the likes of Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley, Howard has been nearly as impressive.