NFL's Most Underrated Players Heading into 2014
Underrated, overrated, or just rated? It's a slippery slope of subjectivity.
There are certainly players all over the league who deserve more credit than they receive, but why? And how much? Those are the tricky, narrow roads we navigate in this discussion of underrated players.
One good place to start: players who have received their due, either in the form of a Pro Bowl or All-Pro selection, should be left off the list. Less those requirements, there is no set path for discovering who does and does not belong on our list.
Perhaps they are outshined by players on their own team or by other players at their position. Perhaps their job isn't to earn the glory but instead to help their teammates produce. Among myriad other circumstances, there are plenty of ways for a talented player to get less than the amount of respect they deserve.
Here is a short list of some of the most underrated players in the league.
Rob Ninkovich, New England Patriots
"Do your job." It's been the mantra of the New England Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick for years. Few have embodied that phrase quite like defensive end-outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich.
He has rushed the passer, set the edge against the run, dropped into coverage, and otherwise carried out everything that's been asked of him. He has racked up 22.5 combined sacks in the past three seasons, with eight in each of the past two campaigns. He has played at least 900 defensive snaps in each of the past three seasons (913 in 2011, 930 in 2012, 1,114 in 2013), according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
There's an intangible greatness to Ninkovich; Whether it's a late forced fumble or a momentum-changing sack, he seems to be around the ball during the key plays in the game.
It's not always flashy with Ninkovich, but it's always steady. The Patriots gave him his due last season in the form of a three-year, $15 million contract extension. So clearly, they know his true value. It's time the rest of us caught up.
Golden Tate, Detroit Lions
Nothing says "underrated" like your own team giving you a "laughable" offer as a free agent. Veteran wide receiver Golden Tate may have been playing for pennies on the dollar with the Seattle Seahawks, but instead, he'll bask in a five-year, $31 million contract with the Detroit Lions.
Tate led the Seahawks in receptions (64), receiving yards (898) and receiving touchdowns (5) in 2013. He will certainly be playing second fiddle in Detroit to all-world wideout Calvin Johnson, but that may work out in his favor, with some of the attention focused elsewhere in the passing game.
Tate was the "X" (boundary receiver lined up on the line of scrimmage) in Seattle, but he'll be moving around a lot more in Detroit, according to Justin Rogers of MLive.com, which could also help free him up by getting him in favorable matchups.
He's also switching from a Seahawks team that ranked 31st in pass attempts to a Lions team that ranked fifth. Tate has improved on his numbers in each of his four years in the league, and 2014 could be no different.
Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns have changed head coaches and defensive coordinators like some of us change T-shirts, but that hasn't stopped young defensive end-outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard from becoming a pass-rushing sensation. Neither has the arrival of high-priced free-agent signee Paul Kruger or the team's selection of Barkevious Mingo with the sixth overall pick in 2013.
Sheard stormed on to the scene with 8.5 sacks as a rookie and has taken a step back in each of the following two years (7.0 sacks in 2012, 5.5 in 2013), but he has remained the team's sack leader in each of his three years in the NFL.
With head coach Mike Pettine adding his exotic pass-rush schemes and blitz packages to the Browns defense, this could be a big year for Sheard.
Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers
What's in a name?
Tight ends are increasingly lining up wide, and while it may be a curse if you're Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, it could be a blessing for someone like Panthers tight end Greg Olsen—and certainly for his quarterback, Cam Newton.
Olsen is not a great blocker, but he doesn't have to be. His team-high 73 receptions were fifth-most among tight ends in 2013, and his team-high six receiving touchdowns tied for eighth-most among tight ends.
He may have to keep up his heroics if the Panthers' pass attack is going to make any progress. The Panthers lost their top four wide receivers this offseason, leaving Olsen as the lone security blanket for Newton.
Brandon Boykin, Philadelphia Eagles
As the NFL has shifted more and more to the passing game, teams have been required to stockpile depth in the defensive backfield. These players may not play every down, but they have to be capable of contributing on every down in a variety of ways.
Slot cornerbacks have it tougher than perimeter cornerbacks—not in the degree of difficulty of their assignments, but in the amount of space they have to cover and the additional toughness required in defending the run.
Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin has showcased his abilities as a slot cornerback for the past two seasons but came on particularly strong last season by making plays on the ball all over the field.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he registered six interceptions and 10 pass break-ups on the season. PFF's Ben Stockwell explains why Boykin's ability to make plays on the ball stands out from other cornerbacks:
The presence of big plays in a corner's repertoire often comes at the expense of gambling and giving up big plays in return, but this wasn’t the case with Boykin. He only surrendered one completion in excess of 50 yards all season, a 66-yarder to Rod Streater in what was statistically his worst performance of the season (6/9, 123 yds).
Perhaps if Boykin played more often, he would get the respect he truly deserves. Until that happens, he will remain a hidden gem in the Eagles defense.
Jared Odrick, Miami Dolphins
Jared Odrick was drafted by the Miami Dolphins with the 28th pick in the 2010 draft to be the anchor of a 3-4 defensive line. Fast forward four years and Odrick will finally be getting his opportunity to play a full-time role on the Dolphins defensive line, but not in the way the team had originally imagined.
Jeff Ireland and Tony Sparano, the front office and coaching staff that drafted him, are both out the door, and the Dolphins are now running a 4-3 defensive front.
Regardless of scheme, Odrick has been productive for the Dolphins, logging 15.5 sacks over the past three years from a variety of alignments, but primarily on the inside of the defensive line. His ability to disrupt the passing game from the inside has helped his fellow defensive linemen, like Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon, to "clean up" the sacks rushing from the perimeter.
Odrick is underrated because he makes life easier for his teammates, despite not getting much individual glory.
Danny Woodhead, San Diego Chargers
At 5'9", Danny Woodhead can go under a lot of things. The radar happens to be one of them.
Woodhead is a useful player regardless of the situation. He had 182 total touches (106 carries, 76 receptions) for 1,034 yards and eight total touchdowns last year. He put up those numbers despite a breakout year from running back Ryan Mathews, who just happened to have his first fully-healthy NFL season in Woodhead's first season in San Diego.
The Chargers certainly understand his value: Woodhead played 375 of his 504 snaps either in pass protection or running a pass pattern; The other 129 snaps were either as the ball-carrier or as a run-blocker.
Woodhead is a jack-of-all-trades who excels in the passing game, the mold for any running back who wants to earn significant playing time for his team. Woodhead may always be part of a two- or three-back system, but he will always have value on an NFL roster.
Nickell Robey, Buffalo Bills
He went from undrafted free agent to key contributor. It took Bills cornerback Nickell Robey less than five months to complete that journey, and now, Robey may be as close to a "sure thing" as the Bills have in their secondary.
At 5'8" and 165 pounds, Robey is rather undersized for an NFL cornerback, but that didn't stop him from making plays all over the field as a rookie. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Robey yielded only 10.6 yards per reception into his coverage, never once allowing more than 60 receiving yards in a game or four receptions in a game.
Playing as a nickel corner in the Bills' subpackage, Robey will have to improve his tackling technique (10 missed tackles in 2013 tied for 19th-most among all corners despite only playing 629 snaps) if he wants to remain effective on the inside, but he has already laid the foundation for a good start to his career as a cover corner.