Who Is the NFL's Most Underrated Player at Every Position?
While big names and superstars sell tickets, the difference between winning and losing in the NFL lies in the details that go unnoticed.
Every year, dozens of players are elected to the Pro Bowl with more deserving players sitting at home, because they do not grab as many headlines as their more popular counterparts.
Here are the most underrated players.
Quarterback: Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys
Few players take more flak for their team's shortcomings than Tony "LeBron" Romo.
Not only does Romo put up big-time numbers and make breathtaking throws on a regular basis, but he is more "clutch" than Cowboys fans give him credit for.
Think back to Week 2, when Romo came back into the game against the vaunted 49ers defense with a bruised lung to win the game.
Does he make his share of facepalm-inducing mistakes at the end of games? Sure. But the reality is that Romo is responsible for the success the Cowboys do enjoy, rather than the man standing in the way of them taking the next step and becoming perennial Super Bowl contenders.
After all, he had 31 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions last year.
Bottom line, if Cowboy fans do not want Tony Romo as their quarterback because he is not a "winner" (whatever that means), there are at least 25 other teams that would let him be their quarterback in a heartbeat.
Tight end Jason Witten said it best:
I think Tony Romo is an elite quarterback who gives you a chance to compete for a championship.
Right Guard: Brandon Moore, New York Jets
If I were to ask you to name all of the top pass protectors in the game, names like Jake Long and Joe Thomas would come to mind; but I would bet a pretty penny that Brandon Moore, the Jets right guard, would never come to mind.
While Brandon took a step back in his run blocking last year because he was recovering from knee surgery, he made up for it in his pass protection: Moore was the only guard in the league to not let his quarterback hit the ground once in all of 2011.
Before his injury, Moore was a blocker for some great rushing attacks in New York, including the Jets' top-ranked rushing attack in 2009.
With a year of recovery time under his belt, Moore should return to being one of the best all-around guards in the NFL.
Center: Chris Myers, Houston Texans
The Texans had, quite easily, the most dominant offensive line in football last year, and Chris Myers is a big reason why.
Myers may be a bit undersized, but his quickness and smarts are what make him a perfect fit in the Texans' zone-blocking system. He doesn't make too many highlight reels with bone-crushing blocks, but he is always in the right place at the right time and can make plays in space.
The Texans' running game was particularly impressive on inside runs last year, which is hardly a coincidence. Again, despite being undersized, Myers can handle just about any defensive lineman in his way.
It is also no coincidence that the Texans made Myers a higher priority to re-sign than Mario Williams.
Left Guard: Andy Levitre, Buffalo Bills
After continuing improvement following a stellar rookie season in 2009, Levitre's stock took a bit of a dip when he was forced to play left tackle last year due to injuries to other players.
Now that the Bills have either Cordy Glenn or Chris Hairston to take over at left tackle, Levitre can return to the left guard position where he has been rather dominant.
While the Bills' offensive line has struggled to remain healthy over the last few years, Levitre has had an impressive track record of health and is the most reliable lineman on the Bills roster.
Left Tackle: Duane Brown, Houston Texans
We may as well get as many Texans in here as possible, because quite frankly, this unit deserves more recognition than they are getting.
Simply put, Brown is a top-tier left tackle on the league's best offensive line.
Duane was named second-team All-Pro, which is selected by the Associated Press, but was denied a trip to the Pro Bowl—which is a glorified popularity contest.
Quarterback Matt Schaub knows just how important Brown is to the Texans' offense:
Duane has certainly got better over the years. He’s got to deal with (Robert) Mathis and (Dwight) Freeney twice a year and obviously there are other great defensive ends he has to deal with. He’s gotten better and better. I got to believe he’s one of the most physical, meanest in the League. I think he’s prided himself on being one of the best and earning that respect. It’s slowly coming. The respect for him is behind where his talent level is at and how much he means to our team.
Now that Brown is back at practice after suffering a scary injury in training camp, the Texans are ready to pick up right where they left off last year.
Right Tackle: Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay Packers
Yes, Bulaga was a first-round pick, which warrants a fair amount of expectations in and of itself, but I get the feeling that most NFL fans (who even know who Bulaga is) consider him to be a "pretty good" tackle. In reality, Bulaga may be the best right tackle in the game right now.
After a somewhat shaky rookie season, Bulaga found his stroke in 2011 and transformed from being a liability to a matchup advantage.
When the team released Chad Clifton earlier in the offseason, coach Mike McCarthy was so comfortable with Bulaga on the right side of the line that he elected to keep him there and move Marshall Newhouse to the left side to fill Clifton's void.
If Bulaga has another 2011-like season, he will eventually be recognized as one of the best tackles in the game.
Wide Receiver: Greg Little, Cleveland Browns
As bad as the Browns' offense was last year, it did have at least one bright spot in receiver Greg Little, a second-round pick out of North Carolina.
In just his rookie season, Little showed some separation ability that could make him the top receiver on the Browns, but poor play at quarterback held Little back from putting up the kind of numbers he is capable of—despite leading the Browns in catches and yards.
Because he missed all of his senior season at UNC due to a scandal, Little dropped to the second round of the 2010 draft. Now that he is starting to regain his footing and playing football again, he could improve by leaps and bounds in his sophomore campaign.
Perhaps Brandon Weeden can get Little the ball more effectively and take advantage of his talents—but until the fantasy production comes along with his talent level, he will continue to fly under the radar.
Running Back: Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
Mathews gets a bad rap because he has struggled to stay healthy, but the bottom line is that he has the potential to be one of the best backs in the game.
Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who crunches more tape than anybody else who is not employed by an NFL team, thinks Mathews has top-five ability:
I think he’s quick. I think he’s got short-area burst. I think he’s got some speed. There’s nothing about the way he runs that I don’t like. … I think in terms of running skill set, if I’m to look at backs in the league, I think he could be a top-five guy.
Whenever Greg Cosell talks, it pays to listen. If Greg thinks Mathews can rise to the top of the NFL with some luck in the health department, it will probably prove to be true.
Tight End: Brandon Pettigrew, Detriot Lions
Despite being a first-round pick back in 2009 (and producing like one), Pettigrew is rarely grouped in the same category as some of the other top tight ends in the league.
In 2011, he caught an astounding 83 passes for 777 yards, which are astounding numbers for a tight end. He is also a competent run blocker in his own right, which is becoming more and more of a rarity among NFL tight ends.
Now that Stafford finally seems to be over his injury concerns, Pettigrew will soon get the amount of respect his numbers suggest he deserves.
4-3 Defensive End: Chris Long, St. Louis Rams
When Long first entered the league in 2008 as a high first-round pick, quite frankly, he looked like more of a bust than a player that could become an asset down the road.
However, Long has really come on over the past two years, as his sack totals have increased from just five in 2009 to 8.5 in 2010 and 13 in 2011. In addition, he can hold his own in the run game and play on all three downs.
Pleased with Long's continual improvement over the years, the Rams awarded him with a huge extension worth nearly $50 million.
It is up for debate as to whether Long is worth quite that much money, but there is no question that he is now in the upper-echelon of 4-3 defensive ends.
3-4 Defensive End: Brett Keisel, Pittsburgh Steelers
Because of the nature of this position—as these types of players rarely put up big sack numbers and are noticed by casual fans—there are a glut of players that are eligible for this spot.
I decided to give Keisel the nod here, because of how long he has been able to keep playing at a high level. He has also played in the shadow of Aaron Smith for his entire career, who has since retired. The time is now for Keisel to shine as the leader of the Steelers defensive line.
At age 33, Keisel is a cornerstone of the Steelers defense as a pure run-stuffer in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme.
Plus, he has an insanely awesome beard that makes Brian Wilson's look like peach fuzz.
Defensive Tackle: Geno Atkins, Cincinnati Bengals
The fact that Atkins only made the Pro Bowl as an alternate is a crime. Atkins was one of, if not the, most disruptive defensive tackles in the game.
In the regular season, Atkins had 7.5 sacks without being on the field for every snap, which is quite an impressive number from a interior defensive lineman.
But sack numbers still do not do justice to how disruptive he was; he was pressuring the quarterback on a consistent basis and drawing double teams.
As he gains a larger role in the defense (and the Bengals stay relevant for more than one year in a row), he will be mentioned with the likes of Haloti Ngata as one of the best all-around defensive lineman in the game.
Inside Linebacker: David Harris, New York Jets
While Bart Scott's mouth gets him all of the headlines in New York, the reality is that Harris is—by far—the superior player to Scott.
Instinctive and powerful, Harris is everything you want in an inside linebacker. He rarely finds himself out of position and is one of the leaders on the Jets' defense.
Outside of Darrelle Revis, Harris has been the Jets' best defender over the past three years and was voted team MVP in 2010.
3-4 Outside Linebacker: Jarret Johnson, San Diego Chargers
When Johnson was in Baltimore, he lived in virtual anonymity while Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed got all of the credit for the Ravens' defensive success.
However, Johnson was a better player than his modest sack numbers would indicate, especially against the run. He also provided consistent pressure off the edge as a pass-rusher.
Most importantly, Johnson is durable, having played in a Baltimore franchise-record 129 games in a row, which is a big reason why the Chargers signed him in the offseason.
If he can just take a little bit of pressure off Shaun Phillips and be stout in the run game, he will give the Chargers everything they are hoping to get out of him.
4-3 Outside Linebacker: Michael Boley, New York Giants
Between the talent-laden defensive line and deep secondary of the Giants, most experts point to the linebacker position as the weak point in the Giants' defense—but Michael Boley is certainly not a liability.
What separates Michael Boley from other linebackers is his incredible athleticism for a position that is starting to require it more and more.
If you were wondering how the Giants were able to virtually shut down the Patriots offense in their regular-season meeting (not the Super Bowl, where Rob Gronkowski was hurt), it was mostly because of Boley's ability to match up with the Pats' tight ends.
Boley is the ideal linebacker in today's NFL, with athleticism combined with the ability to play in space—all while respecting the run.
Cornerback: Derek Cox, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars made huge strides in improving their pass defense last year, and Derek Cox's rise to prominence is a big part of that.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cox boasted a catch rate of just 39 percent, lower than that of Darrelle Revis, Lardarius Webb, Brent Grimes, Johnathan Joseph and Richard Sherman.
This is not to suggest that Cox is better, or as good as those players (he did miss time due to injury to help his numbers), but there is no question that when healthy, Cox is one of the best players on the Jaguars.
The sooner the Jaguars can become relevant again, the faster Cox will get the recognition he deserves.
Safety: George Wilson, Buffalo Bills
All of the attention is now focused on the new-and-improved defensive line for the Bills, but their secondary is also better than most realize—especially at strong safety.
Wilson does just about everything well, from coming up to play the run to dropping into coverage. He has great range and closing speed, especially for someone labeled as a strong safety.
B/R's Matt Miller ranked Wilson as his No. 2 strong safety in the NFL in the B/R 1000 series.
Since entering the league in 2004 as an undrafted free agent, Wilson is knocking on the door to becoming one of the game's elite players.
Kicker: Jay Feely, Arizona Cardinals
In addition to probably being the best tackling kicker in football, Feely has quietly made 43 out of 51 field goals in his two seasons in Arizona.
Because he is on a stagnant Cardinals offense, Feely does not get the same amount of opportunities as others, but he has been quite consistent over the past few seasons.
Punter: Brandon Fields, Miami Dolphins
Andy Lee and Shane Lechler get all of the recognition for being the biggest boots in the NFL, but Miami's Brandon Fields has quietly become one of the best in the business.
With the ability to punt the ball up to 70 yards and average 48.8 yards per attempt, Fields has one of the strongest legs in the game.
The Dolphins rewarded Fields with an extension over the offseason. His presence will be even more important when the Dolphins finally decide to break in Ryan Tannehill.