5 Most Underrated Players in the NFL According to Advanced Stats

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IMay 16, 2013

5 Most Underrated Players in the NFL According to Advanced Stats

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    On Wednesday, we ran down the five most overrated players in the NFL based on advanced statistics.

    Today, we'll take a stab at identifying five of the most underrated players using the same criteria.

    The growing popularity of advanced-stats sites such as Pro Football Focus, Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats has helped both analysts and fans understand and evaluate players on a much deeper level. While completions, rushing yards and tackles help form the building blocks of statistical basis for each player, new, advanced stats are peeling back more and more layers on the evaluation process.

    And just as we saw five players whom the national consciousness still overrates, advanced stats can help shine a light on those who are vastly unheralded.

    In the following slides, we'll review five of the NFL's most underrated players based on advanced stats.

    Note: All Pro Football Focus links require a subscription to view.

Bernard Pierce, RB, Baltimore Ravens

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    Had he not been stuck behind Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice during his rookie season, Bernard Pierce could have joined the likes of Alfred Morris, Trent Richardson and Doug Martin as first-year wonders running the football. 

    While Pierce's surface numbers (532 rushing yards, 47 yards receiving) don't jump off the page, his rookie season was actually vastly underrated.

    In fact, Pierce ranked as one of the game's hardest running backs to tackle. 

    According to Pro Football Focus, Pierce finished third among running backs in elusiveness rating, which measures a running back's ability to create using yards after contact and missed tackles forced. Only C.J. Spiller and Isaac Redman were better in 2012.

    The numbers at Football Outsiders agreed. According to FO, Pierce finished fifth at the position in broken-tackle rate (16.5 percent) and 13th at the position in defensive-adjusted value over average (DVOA). 

    Pierce might not be in a position to overtake Rice on the Ravens' depth chart, but he's certainly earned a bigger role in 2013. Difference-makers have their way of getting onto the field regardless of circumstance, and that's exactly what Pierce was as a rookie. 

Randall Cobb, WR, Green Bay Packers

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    In a receiving corps featuring Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings and James Jones, Randall Cobb's star shined brightest for the Green Bay Packers in 2012. 

    While his receiving totals of 80 catches for 954 yards and eight scores wasn't overwhelming, advanced statisticians fell in love with how Cobb impacted the entire game last season. 

    The numbers at Pro Football Focus were good across the board.

    Cobb ranked 11th in receiver rating (119.5; quarterback rating when throwing at Cobb), second in deep passing catch rate (caught 62.5 percent of passes thrown over 20 yards), fourth in slot catch rate (caught 77.8 percent of targets from the slot) and 11th in yards per route run (2.26, or 954 yards on 422 routes). 

    Translation: Cobb was a supremely efficient receiver for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to target, mostly because he was productive on both intermediate slot routes and deep attempts. He also made the most of his opportunities in a crowded receiver group. 

    And the PFF numbers don't even factor in Cobb's 132 rushing yards on just 10 attempts (seven of which went for first downs) or his 1,256 yards of return value on kicks and punts from last season.

    Advanced NFL Stats actually had Cobb as their sixth-best overall receiver in win probability added, third-best in success rate and first in catch rate. Only Cobb and Andre Johnson were in the top 10 of each category last season.

    Football Outsiders also took notice of Cobb's overall impact. FO had Cobb as their ninth-best receiver last season in DVOA, which measures value per play. 

    Few receivers in the game are as well-rounded and efficient as Cobb. It's only a matter of time before he's a bona fide star. 

Muhammad Wilkerson, DE, New York Jets

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    While the likes of J.J. Watt and Geno Atkins were redefining production at their respective defensive-line positions, Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson was putting together a similarly fantastic season of his own in 2012.

    At Pro Football Focus, Watt finished as the top-graded 3-4 defensive end, but Wilkerson was a solid No. 2. Had Wilkerson's contributions come in 2011, he would have graded out as the best at his position. 

    Overall, Wilkerson was nearly twice as good against the run as Justin Smith, the No. 3 defensive end, and he finished as one of only three 3-4 defensive ends to be ranked in the top eight of run stop percentage and pass-rushing productivity

    PFF isn't the only advanced-stats site that recognized Wilkerson's efforts. 

    Advanced NFL Stats had Wilkerson as their No. 6 overall defensive end (3-4 or 4-3) in win probability added and No. 3 in expected points added (EPA). His success count, which sums the number of plays from a given player that result in positive EPA, was second (71) to only Watt (121).

    Watt and Atkins deserve all the praise they received for last season, while Wilkerson has been in their shadow. However, he was as dominant as any down lineman not named Watt or Atkins in 2012. 

Lawrence Timmons, ILB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Ask around about who the NFL's best inside linebacker was in 2012, and you'll get answers like Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman and maybe even a Daryl Washington or Luke Kuechly. 

    While each player has the right to be in that conversation, advanced stats point to Lawrence Timmons as a prime candidate for the crown. 

    According to Advanced NFL Stats, no linebacker in the NFL added more win probability than Timmons last season. In terms of expected points added, only Von Miller beat out Timmons. 

    Per Pro Football Focus, Timmons provided more total pressures (28) than any other inside linebacker in the NFL. Overall, he finished fifth in pass-rushing productivity and fifth in tackling efficiency, making him one of only two inside linebackers to rank in the top five (Brandon Spikes). 

    He also joined Washington as the only two inside linebackers to tally 10 or more quarterback hits and tackles for loss last season, and only London Fletcher had more interceptions than Timmons' three. 

    Timmons doesn't have a lot of name recognition in the national sense, but he deserves it. Few at his position are more versatile or disruptive. 

Kerry Rhodes, S, Free Agent

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    Just how underrated is former Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes? It's the middle of May, and he still doesn't have a place to call home for the 2013 season. 

    The advanced stats will have you wondering why that's the case.

    Advanced NFL Stats ranked Rhodes as their No. 2 safety in win probability added and No. 4 in expected points added last season. His 11 passes defensed were tied for the fifth-highest total and four interceptions were good for a tie for fourth at the safety position. 

    In fact, Rhodes was one of only three safeties to record at least one sack, 10 passes defensed and four interceptions. 

    Pro Football Focus was just as high on Rhodes, who graded out as their fourth-best safety. Only Eric Weddle, Jairus Byrd and Reshad Jones received a higher grade last season. 

    Rhodes will be 31 years old in August, but his statistical measures from 2012 show he can still play, and at a high level at that. Eventually, some team is going to get a cheap and vastly underrated safety option this offseason.