Who Are the NFL's Most Underutilized Offensive Playmakers?
The NFL is rich with under-the-radar, underused offensive players. There is a good mix of positions that boast these players with running back, wide receiver and tight end being the main groups. A few of these guys are victims of having a talented player ahead of them on the depth chart, while others are somewhat head-scratching.
DeMarco Murray is one player who, while well-known, is being greatly underutilized by the Dallas Cowboys.
Murray is coming off of his best year statistically, a year in which he totaled 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns. Those numbers are certainly impressive, but he could have had well over 1,500 yards had the Cowboys given him more carries, but we'll get into those numbers in a bit.
Murray is just the headliner of the group, but he surely isn't the only one with special talent.
*All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference*
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles struck gold when they took Zach Ertz in the second round of last year's draft. They already had a very solid tight end in Brent Celek, but Ertz turned out to be a rather valuable pickup for the birds.
Not much was expected from Ertz, especially considering he was behind two proven players on the depth chart in James Casey and Celek, but his consistency helped him rise above the others.
By season's end, Ertz's role in Chip Kelly's offense had increased, but he was still a minimal part of the playbook. Granted, tight ends aren't often showcased in an offense like Kelly's, but given Ertz' natural ability and the fact that he averaged a touchdown every six catches as a rookie speaks volumes about his potential within the system.
With the 2014 season looming and a potential departure from one of Philly's top receivers in free agency, Ertz may find himself more involved in the Eagle's passing game when opening day rolls around.
Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals had quite a year in 2013, and they nearly made the playoffs after finishing 8-1 in their final nine games. Part of that impressive string of success was the emergence of Andre Ellington, a then-rookie running back who is hoping to have played his way into a starting role with the Cards.
The former sixth-round pick didn't get much of a chance to show what he was capable of until the second half of the season, but he turned in quite a game against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 8. Ellington's coming out party came in the form of 154 yards and one touchdown on just 15 carries.
Ellington has showed his worth as a starting runner in this league, and he finished last season with 652 yards on a mere 118 carries. He also averaged 5.5 yards per carry and totaled three touchdowns but not once did he have more than 15 carries in a game.
Ellington had a marginal slice of Arizona's playbook in 2013, but that likely won't be the case in 2014. He added another dimension to the Cardinals' playbook in the second half of last season, and he should be counted on as a bigger piece of the pie from the first breath of the 2014 season.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Cincinnati Bengals
Tyler Eifert's rookie season was relatively quiet thanks to the Cincinnati Bengals' incumbent starter, Jermaine Gresham, but he did impress. His stats may not fully reflect the impact he had, but his gradual assimilation into the offense throughout the 2013 season was clear.
The former first-rounder was only targeted 59 times during the regular season, a number that is sure to inflate in this coming season.
During Cincy's late-season playoff push, Eifert was referred to by then-offensive coordinator Jay Gruden as "the most underutilized player" on the Bengals, via Cincy Jungle, a truth that will change in 2014. With a full season under his belt and another full offseason, Eifert will continue to grow and develop into the star he's shown flashes of being.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have been a pass-first offense for a while now, but it's time that changed. DeMarco Murray has time and time again proven that he is an elite running back in this league, and it's time they gave him the reigns to the offense.
He does get more carries than the other runners on this list (217 in 2013), yet he is still vastly underutilized by the Cowboys.
Murray only had three games with 20-plus carries, all of which resulted in a Dallas victory. Conversely, the Cowboys were a disappointing 4-7 when Murray tallied less than 20 carries, and they surely would've had a better chance to win some of those games if Murray was given more touches.
The stat that most bolsters Murray's case for more carries is this: Dallas is an unblemished 11-0 when he has 20 or more carries, yet it has failed to make the playoffs each year since 2009.
This means that, out of the 37 NFL games he's played in, he only had 20 or more carries in 11 of them. C'mon, Dallas.
Murray finished with the 10th-most rushing yards in the NFL in 2013, but he had significantly less carries than the nine runners ahead of him. The NFL's leading rusher, LeSean McCoy, carried the ball 314 times for 1,607 yards in 2013.
If Murray carried the ball as many times as McCoy, he would've totaled 1,658 yards, making him the league's leading rusher. Admittedly, the Eagles did run McCoy a bit ragged by giving him that many carries, but he took that ball and ran with it (no pun intended), and it's not farfetched to think that Murray would have similar results given the opportunity.
Plain and simple, Murray has been criminally underused in the Cowboys' offense, and it's about time he was fed the ball more.
Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers
Ladarius Green has the unfortunate pleasure of playing second fiddle to Antonio Gates with the San Diego Chargers, but he has shown that he has the talent to be a productive tight end in the league. He was targeted just 30 times in 2013 and had 17 receptions for 376 yards (22.1 yards per reception) and a trio of touchdowns.
At 6'6" and 240 pounds, Green is a part of this new generation of long, athletic tight ends who have tremendous catching ability.
He's set himself apart from many other players with this athleticism and, as B/R's Ryan Riddle predicts, it's not going to be much longer before Green becomes Philip Rivers' new BFF.
Riddle also notes that it's his combination of size and speed that makes Green a nightmare matchup for most defenders, similar to the way Jimmy Graham inflicts damage on defenses.
Even though Gates' career is coming to a close, the Chargers look like they'll be just fine with Green. Especially in an offense like Mike McCoy's, Green could become one of the NFL's best receiving tight ends.
Leonard Hankerson, WR, Washington Redskins
Leonard Hankerson had an iffy first couple of years in the NFL, but this third and most recent season was where we saw what he could become. Hankerson struggled with injury for a good portion of the season and missed six games along the way, which surely stunted the growth we were seeing from him.
He was given more opportunities in the offense during the 10 games he did play in, although he was still having to split plays with Santana Moss and Josh Morgan on the depth chart. He will finally be fully healthy in 2014, and it should be his best season yet.
Now that Morgan will be a free agent and Moss is another year older, it should open up the door for Hankerson to make the leap and become an integral piece of Washington's offense. There's no better opportunity for him to prove himself than this offseason, and that could be what earns him a spot as the team's No. 2 receiver.
If Hankerson has a strong training camp and a solid showing in preseason, then there's no reason why he shouldn't be targeted more by Washington.
Joseph Fauria, TE, Detroit Lions
"Touchdown!" seems like an accurate way to describe Joseph Fauria's NFL career to date. Fauria was rarely targeted in the offense of the Detroit Lions, but it certainly paid dividends when he was. He scored seven touchdowns in 2013, which was more than any other Lion—except for Calvin Johnson (but who really expects to outperform him, anyway?).
The craziest part of Fauria's stat line is the fact that he was only targeted 30 times all season and had just 18 catches, nearly half of which resulted in touchdowns.
He also averaged 11.5 yards per reception his rookie year, and his seven scores were more than every other tight end in the league except for five. Those five players included the likes of Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez. That's pretty good company if you ask me, especially for a rookie.
The reason for his lack of targets last season is simple—he was sitting behind the talented Brandon Pettigrew. Well, Pettigrew is set to become a free agent next month and Fauria is ripe for the picking. He has certainly done enough to warrant a larger role in the offense, and it looks like he will get a chance to have it.