This picture is not of Deangelo Williams, in fact, this is a picture of Jarius Byrd taking down the Pro Bowl running back. A rookie from Oregon, he currently has more interceptions than he has starts, (seven starts to eight interceptions.) There are many unheralded players like Jarius who are having excellent years, but who aren't getting any publicity because they're playing for teams that are surrounded with disappointment. These are the teams who won't make the playoffs, (I determined the teams who won't make the playoffs are those with currently three or less wins.) These are the ten Most Underrated Players on the ten teams not going to the playoffs.
It'd be easy just to say James Laurinaitis as the most underrated, but Laurinaitis is only a rookie, and although he is having a good year, Oshiomogho Atogwe has been a consistent force for the Rams for the last four years. Oshiomogho Atogwe was drafted in 2005 and sat on the bench the entire year. He started every game the following four years without missing a single game since from injury. He's been one of the only positions that has any consistency on the struggling Rams, and despite racking up 18 interceptions and 300 tackles over the last four years, few people even know his name.
A year ago David Hawthorne was sitting on the bench. This year, David Hawthorne is still sitting on the bench, and yet he leads the Seattle Seahawks in tackles and interceptions, and is second on the team in fumbles forced and sacks. Despite only starting four games this year, David Hawthorne is a rising star for the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks used the fourth overall pick in the draft this year on a linebacker, Aaron Curry (who has started every game) and he is not preforming as well. David Hawthorne was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent from TCU. He has preformed so well, Seahawks defensive coordinator Tim Ruskell is considering switching to a 3-4 next year to keep Hawthorne on the field.
There are few bright spots on the 1-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, injuries have crushed this team, but Clifton Smith has been a lone consistent sign of promise. You've probably never heard of Clifton Smith, because he is a kick returner, and I realize that says a lot about the Buccaneers, but Clifton Smith is a top five kick returner in the NFL. Clifton Smith is only a second year running back out of Fresno State. Because he is lacking in blazing speed (4.56 40 yard dash), Clifton Smith relies on excellent field vision and great cut backs. He is second in the league with an average return of 30.1 yards, he is second only to speed demon Percy Harvin. While Percy Harvin has run multiple kickoffs for touchdowns, Clifton Smith only has one touchdown in the last two years, despite being second in average return in 2009, and fifth in 2008. Although Clifton Smith rarely breaks one, he is incredibly reliable, and on a team that is this weak, reliability is something they will be desperate for.
Being a Lions fan, it's painful to say there are very few bright spots on the team this year, but besides finally winning a game, few players have preformed exceptionally well. However, one of the players who has showed glimpses of exceptional promise, is second year defensive end Cliff Avril. Despite only starting eight games over the last two years, he has 7.5 sacks and five forced fumbles. He is second on the team in sacks, and was second on the team last year as well. Unfortunately, this says a lot about the Lions, but because they have so little talent, every sack is purely an individual feat, because it is not the result of defensive double teams on another player. So every one of Cliff's stellar plays have been created purely through his own determination. There are several young potential future stars on the Lions, and Cliff Avril is certainly one of them.
Andre Carter has been an exceptional defensive end for nine seasons now, but he doesn't nearly get the credit he deserves. Andre Carter has racked up 60.5 sacks over the last nine years, but playing for the 49ers and now the Redskins, few people have even noticed. With the signings of Albert Hanyesworth and drafting of Brian Okrapo many people forgot about Andre Carter, but Andre Carter leads his team with eight sacks. His eight sacks ranks sixth in the league. Typically the sack leaders, are sack specialists who don't get many tackles, but Andre Carter is a multidimensional defensive end who also racks up many tackles. He leads all defensive linemen with 42 tackles, and over the last nine years has averaged 40-50 tackles which is phenomenal for a defensive linemen. Meanwhile sack specialists like Dwight Freeney average 25-30 tackles. The Redskins have typically been a team chalked as underachievers, but Andre Carter is one of the few who has surpassed expectations.
When people think about the Raiders defense, Nnamdi Asomugha is usually the person that comes to mind. But Kirk Morrison has been the real force in the defense that keeps them from utter embarrassment each week. Kirk Morrison is a fifth year linebacker our of San Diego State. Drafted in the third round, he led the Raiders in tackles his rookie season. For the last five years he has led the Raiders in tackles. He has ranked eighteenth, eleventh, twelfth, fifth, and this year third in the league in tackles. Most people would just say this is because the Raiders are so poor at defense, and so there are more opportunities for tackles. But over the last five years, there have only been four other players with over 100 tackles on the Raiders, and all of those players were different. Meanwhile Kirk Morrison has made over 110 tackles every year. When Kirk Morrison hits the free agent market in 2010, look for him to be the second coming of Jonathan Vilma who had great success with the Saints.
In a year where everything seems to be going wrong, the only relative strength of the Chiefs has been their rushing attack. So when Larry Johnson was suddenly cut, many people wondered what the Chiefs were thinking. If they'd stuck up with Larry Johnson's constant injuries and complaining for so many years, why would they suddenly cut him now? The answer is the emergence of Jamaal Charles. Despite only 160 carries over the last two years, he's rushed for 600 yards, an average of over 5.3 yards a carry. Also, Jamaal Charles has showed incredible receiving abilities by being second on the team in receptions, as a backup running back! He is a dangerous threat catching, running, and has an excellent combination of strength and speed, and just to add to his value he also ranks in the top 15 for kick returns. I wouldn't be surprised if the Chiefs greatly improve as the year goes on because Jamaal Charles will take much of the pressure off Matt Cassel.
Jason Jones is a second year defensive tackle out of Eastern Michigan, who was asked to be a part of the rotation to fill the massive shoes of Albert Hanyesworth. Jason Jones weighs in at 280 pounds, a far cry from the 350 pounds that Hanyesworth is, but Jason Jones has been playing far above his weight. Despite only starting three games over the last two years, Jason Jones has racked up nine sacks over those two years and currently leads the team this year. He's also made over 45 tackles in the past two years which shows his versatility. Jason Jones will never be recognized as a Pro Bowl player, but he was asked to fill an incredibly difficult role, and so far he has preformed admirably. .
The Browns are another team that have frankly struggled in every category. They rank 32nd in every offensive category but rushing attack where they rank 26th. One of the only players to shine (not named Josh Cribbs,) is Dave Zastudil. Dave Zastudil is the Browns punter and he is second in the league with 25 punts inside the 20. This is impressive because the Browns offense barely moves the ball, so that means that the team relies heavily on Dave Zastudil to give the other team bad field position, because their defense can't stop anybody.
Even though Jairus Byrd's name is becoming more commonly known everyday, that is only a result of his incredible success. He has been one of the biggest surprises of 2009, and is a surefire Pro Bowl pick in his rookie year. Jairus Byrd is a first year full safety drafted from Oregon in the 2nd round. He has gotten at least one interception in his last five games, and two interceptions in three of those games. He didn't start until week three, but has still piled up 34 tackles and eight interceptions. Jairus Byrd is not going to be underrated for long.