In a team sport like the NFL, individual performance is hard to judge.
Often, every player on the field is at least partially responsible for the success or failure of a given play. And that's the beauty of the sport. It's a team battle, where each player relies on his fellow soldiers to get the job done. If his blockers fail, the star quarterback fails. If the nose tackle doesn't do his unheralded, sumo-job at the line, then Clay Matthews can't stand over a downed passer, posing in his trademark sack celebration.
But as amazing and unique the team focus makes football, it also poses some difficulties. A major one is effectively quantifying individual contributions to a team effort, particularly for back-stage positions like offensive linemen and special teams players. Stats like touchdowns and sacks can be very deceiving. Sure, they're the successful end points to a play, but it's naive and unfair to credit that success to just one player.
For instance, in the 2000s, Steven Jackson annually ranked at the top of the league in yards rushed per game, and yards from scrimmage. But he rarely collected the touchdown and yards per carry numbers to match. If you watch Jackson play with an educated eye, you'll immediately realize that he's an elite-level athlete and performer. But if you judged him on his performance statistics alone, yards per carry (4.2 YPC career) and touchdowns (just under seven per season), he'd seem like a much more average player.
Jackson's stats are misleading. The team he plays for, the St. Louis Rams, are one of the game's worst, and his weak supporting cast no doubt affects his on-field impact. Since he took over as the Rams' starting running back in 2005, he's earned three Pro Bowl elections, yet St. Louis has never posted an above .500 record, and they've ranked in the bottom third of the league in point differential in six of the last eight seasons.
Just like the passing game, running backs rely heavily on their blockers. Until they can get past the line of scrimmage, they're at the mercy of the earth movers in front of them. They need enough time to take the hand-off and build up speed before they can really do their own job—picking up yards once they've actually started running.
In Jackson's case, his blockers were among the four worst groups in the NFL from 2007-11. In that period, Rams linemen never ranked better than 26th in the league, and they often posted bottom-three ranked stuff percentages (percent of times the running back is tackled behind the line) and power success rates (how often a running play is successful at picking up a short first down).
After taking a closer look at Jackson's team, his once mediocre-looking stats now appear extraordinary. How did he do so much with so little?
And there lays the problem with measuring individual player performance in the NFL—at least on the surface. So many of the game's top players are overlooked annually, and without using a more in-depth analysis of their performance, it would be difficult to appreciate their contributions.
In sports, like the MLB and NBA, where players are largely the focus, stats can provide a much more honest and detailed view of individual performance. Now, in the Sabermetrics era, Major League Baseball fans can use a spectrum of tools to appraise their favorite players, from batting average and ERA to dWAR and fielder-independent pitching (FIP). The same goes for the NBA, where readily available counting and rate stats can tell you pretty much everything you want to know.
For the most part, NFL fans are still left to use antiquated measures to examine the game—passing yards, rushing touchdowns, etc...But sites like AdvancedNFLStats.com and FootballOutsiders, are starting to pop-up. They're aiming to accomplish what Tom Tango, Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs did a few years ago for baseball: help the sports world properly credit players for their contributions.
After using a more in-depth analysis to find the NFL's real top performers, I've concluded that the following players are the game's most underrated.