Every team in every sport has that player knowledgeable fans love and other people in other cities know nothing about. With so many players on so many teams, some are bound to go unappreciated or slip through the cracks a little.
Sometimes it just takes a while for a player to get well known.
Here's a look at one player from each NFL team who is underappreciated by fans, coaches and the media.
Smith has toiled in obscurity for almost his entire career with the Steelers, anchoring a defensive line that has opened holes for great linebackers like James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Joey Porter, among others.
Smith plays in a system that makes defensive ends important but doesn’t make them responsible for big plays like sacks or interceptions. Smith, along with current linemates Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, do the heavy lifting so the linebackers and defensive backs can make the big plays.
He has been a huge reason the Steelers have had one of the league’s top defenses during the last decade. It’s certainly no coincidence that their performance drops off when Smith’s not in the lineup.
Hillis literally burst onto the scene last year for the Cleveland Browns, who haven’t been able to grow a running back in years and have relied instead on retreads like Jamal Lewis. Hillis came over from Denver and quickly made Browns fans forget the guy he was traded for: Brady Quinn.
Hillis is a big back with surprising speed and great toughness who finds holes or blazes his own trail if necessary. Still, he hasn’t gotten a ton of respect from fans who believe he was a one-hit wonder. The 2011 Madden cover boy might be one of the better-kept secrets in the NFL and certainly isn’t mentioned among the league’s top backs.
2011 will be a big season for Hillis as he tries to cement his status as a top NFL runner. Even though the résumé isn’t long, Hillis certainly should be recognized for being the best player in an offense that often left him hanging.
Benson almost wasn’t re-signed by the Bengals after being their best contributor the last two seasons. As Carson Palmer has been hurt or struggled, Benson took the offense on his shoulders and carried it.
You’d think it would merit an extension for big money. Instead, Benson almost had to leave town.
He has completely reinvented and revitalized his career since leaving behind a disappointing stint in Chicago where he couldn’t get yards and struggled to be effective as a feature back. Benson got the wake-up call and has enjoyed a renaissance in the Queen City.
Now that he’s back, Benson will likely be expected to shoulder the load again as the team tries to find a new quarterback now that Carson Palmer has quit the game. Perhaps now CB will get the credit he deserves.
Redding plays on a defense full of big names (Haloti Ngata, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, etc.), but he plays very big on that defense. Like Aaron Smith in Pittsburgh, Redding’s work is unnoticed but vital to the team’s success.
Adept at opening holes for rushing linebackers, Redding can also hold on to multiple blockers at the same time, which has made Ngata a bigger nuisance in the middle. Redding's steady play and sturdy frame have stood up to a long pounding over the years, but he has never seemed to miss a beat.
Redding will be back in 2011 to try to help the aging Ravens defense get another big year out of their staunch veterans. He’ll no doubt be a big part of their success or failure, even if his contributions remain shrouded in the dark.
Garrard has had a good but quiet career in Jacksonville, has endured a lot of rumors of being replaced and now seems to be facing the final moments of his Jacksonville tenure as Blaine Gabbert develops into the team’s future passer.
Still, Garrard’s accomplishments are hard to ignore if you take the time to look. He’s not Michael Vick, but he plays a similar style and has been very effective with it. Garrard has always had pretty decent statistics without any star receivers on his team, something Vick has with DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.
If and when Garrard leaves the Jaguars when Gabbert takes over, he should land on his feet somewhere. I wonder what he would do on a team that had some good receiving talent.
Washington was a favorite in his Pittsburgh days and became a dependable target for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. After the Super Bowl, Washington parlayed that success into a nice payday with the Tennessee Titans.
Since then, he’s fallen off the radar. He wasn’t truly appreciated in Pittsburgh because he was playing behind star receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. With the Titans, he has been unappreciated because he’s been stuck with quarterbacks like Kerry Collins and Vince Young.
It will be interesting to see what he will accomplish with Matt Hasselbeck and eventually Jake Locker under center, but what you can be sure of is that Washington has the talent to be a starting receiver in the NFL. He just hasn’t gotten the full opportunity.
Mathis plays on a defensive line where Dwight Freeney gets most of the headlines. Recently, Mathis has been carving out a bit of a name for himself too, but he’s been effective for a long time and has been a big part of why Freeney is hard to double-team.
Mathis is a playmaker in his own right and is very good at sacking the quarterback. Last year was probably his best season to date, but his body of work prior to it is also very good.
It seems like a lot of defensive ends are overshadowed by linebackers on their teams, but in Mathis’ case, he’s mostly an unknown because of Freeney and because his team’s main identity is one of a stellar offense, plus a defense that just keeps up.
Daniels is one of the top tight ends in football and probably one of the best players you never hear about. He’s been a favorite target of Matt Schaub in Houston and has developed into a complete player on the same level as a Todd Heap or Heath Miller.
He gets overshadowed a lot by the contributions of Arian Foster, Schaub or receivers like Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter. Still, Daniels managed nine touchdowns during the past three seasons and has been a big part of why the team has had so much success with backs like Foster and Steve Slaton.
Daniels just got an extension, but he could do with some Pro Bowl recognition. In an era where versatile tight ends are becoming the rule, Daniels is one of the best. His biggest problem? There are a ton of other good ones in the AFC.
There aren’t a lot of players on the most celebrated team of the 2000s that you can say are unappreciated, but if you look hard enough, there are some players who don’t get a lot of notice.
Koppen is one of those guys. He’s been a steady member of the Patriots offensive line for the better part of a decade now and has been a big reason why Tom Brady has had great success. Brady is vulnerable because of his lack of mobility, but he rarely gets hit thanks to his offensive line.
Koppen is a big part of that line, as he plays center and makes the line calls.
Keller is now part of a hugely talented receiving corps that includes Santonio Holmes, Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason. Keller has been a big part of the Jets’ success in recent seasons and has developed himself into a complete tight end with good blocking and receiving skills.
He’s gone mostly unnoticed in New York because of the focus on Mark Sanchez, not to mention receivers Holmes and Braylon Edwards, but Keller is a great red-zone target for his quarterback and has been a big part of the team’s success in the running game.
Keller may have to take a back seat to the new trio of receivers, but he could still be a big part of the offense when one or two of those players get double-teamed. At that point, he’d likely be able to get open.
Fitzpatrick has quietly developed into one of the more consistent passers in the NFL on a team that has little else to get excited about. He seemed to really take to Chan Gailey’s system on offense last season, thriving with some young receivers and a mediocre running game.
With all of that success, it was mildly surprising that the Bills were considering drafting a replacement. Fitzpatrick is still young and has the perfect style for Gailey’s offense. He should become an even better player this year now that his receivers will have experience and the team has improved at other positions.
Fitzpatrick put up Pro Bowl stats last season and could put himself in the conversation if he can get some notice in a conference with some excellent elite passers.
Rarely do kickers get their due.
Carpenter is coming off a down season, but he’s been a valuable weapon for Miami since joining the team a few seasons ago. He’s a strong, accurate kicker who has bailed out an offense that tends to sputter the closer it gets to the goal line.
On a team that can’t score, a kicker can be the difference between the cellar or the top of a division. Carpenter hasn’t been able to singlehandedly put Miami in the playoffs, but he’s kept them more competitive than they would have been, as Chad Henne has gone through some serious growing pains.
Hopefully, Carpenter will rebound this season and put himself among the top kickers in the conference. There’s plenty of potential, but again, he will have to do most of the work himself since Miami has failed to improve its offense.
McGraw seemingly has been around forever. He’s not as fast as he used to be, but he’s still an effective playmaker and also a good veteran presence on a young Chiefs defense. McGraw can still step in and make plays too, although his job now is to primarily mentor younger guys.
McGraw has gone unappreciated for most of his career. He was once a very effective starting safety, but has since taken on a supporting role so he can continue playing football.
While McGraw may not have been the best player at his position, he’s certainly a steady contributor, and it’s a shame he’s spent his entire career without being noticed.
Wimbley came over from the Cleveland Browns and has been a solid contributor both before and after the move. Oakland has certainly been able to use his skills since some of its other linebackers have departed for various reasons.
Wimbley has gone unnoticed, however. Few outside of Cleveland or Oakland would likely be able to tell you his position or team, let alone his statistics. He doesn’t have anything that knocks your socks off, but Wimbley’s certainly a steady guy who’s made an impact on one of the most improved teams in the NFL.
It will be interesting to see if the emergence of Rolando McClain helps Wimbley put together more impressive statistics. Until now, Wimbley’s been mostly on his own to make plays from his position, so now he’ll have some very good help.
Punters never get much recognition; only two can go to the Pro Bowl. Punters almost never even get mentioned for Hall of Fame busts.
The only one who’s ever even come close to that is Ray Guy.
Still, punters can be important. They create field position mismatches and can really put a defense in position to make a play on an offense.
One of the best currently in the league is Scifres.
He gets lost in all of the talk about the Chargers' shut-down defense and Philip Rivers’ passing statistics, but Scifres is a big reason for that defense and is a great weapon for the rare occasions Rivers can’t get his team deep enough into enemy territory to score.
Like Ryan Fitzpatrick in Buffalo, Kyle Orton has to be feeling like the guy who showed up at the party but wasn’t invited.
Orton was largely ignored after a strong rookie season in Chicago where he came off the bench and held his own. He moved on to Denver and thrived in Josh McDaniels’ offensive system, only to be overshadowed again by the drafting of college phenom Tim Tebow. After a strong 2010 season, Orton was placed on the trading block.
About the nicest thing that can be said is that he hasn’t been traded for peanuts and has a heavy price tag on him.
Orton is a strong, accurate quarterback who can put up huge numbers in a pass-oriented offense. Once traded, he will hopefully get a steady starting job and get some of the credit he deserves.
Williams is finally getting some recognition after a great 2010 season, but he’s a better corner than most people will probably ever give him credit for being. He’s developing nicely now that he’s gotten some consistent playing time, but unfortunately, he plays on a team that already has two studs in the secondary (Nick Collins at safety and Charles Woodson at corner).
Williams is an instinctive player who can make plays and probably could be a starter on most teams in the NFL. He is also a good return man, which makes him an even more dangerous player than the typical cornerback.
If he can put together another solid season, Williams should start to get some more recognition. As it is, he’s one of the most underrated players in the NFL.
Tillman is another player who’s quietly put together a great career. He’s developed into a fine starting corner in Chicago, has been an important piece of the Bears’ staunch defense and is a big reason they managed to reach the NFC Championship Game in 2010.
Still, Tillman flies under the radar outside of Chicago because of the number of good corners in the NFC and the NFL as a whole. Much of the focus falls on guys like Nnamdi Asomugha and Darrelle Revis, but Tillman is one of many corners who also performs at a Pro Bowl level regularly.
Smith blossomed last season but still has room to improve during his career (he’s young, so there’s time).
Smith’s certainly gone unnoticed for a couple of reasons. One, he is still developing, and two, he plays in Detroit. The entire team could go unnoticed sometimes, but it is starting to make some noise.
The Detroit secondary has needed help for several years. Smith has brought a fierce style, plus some good speed and instincts to the team at the corner position. He should improve as more weapons are added around him.
Smith was a surprise success last season and shouldn’t be written off this year as Detroit looks for its first winning season in a long time.
McNabb is one of the most skilled quarterbacks in the NFL, but his career has been marred by a lot of strange incidents and the thankless job of playing in a city that’s extremely hard on its sports stars.
He is one of the more athletic players at the position but suffered a lot last year behind a patchwork line, along with an under-talented receiving corps and running game. His age also contributed to a steep decline in Washington.
Now with a talented Minnesota squad that seems to be a quarterback away from being a contender, McNabb has the chance to restart his career and get himself on track. He’ll have an adoring fanbase if he does that and will hopefully get some recognition for the work he’s done in his long career.
Harper is on a star-studded team in New Orleans that has finally emerged from a decades-long gloom as a consistent and powerful contender. A big part of that success is with the offense led by Drew Brees.
Still, the defense is becoming quite a force to be reckoned with as well.
Harper is a big piece of that puzzle, emerging as a top safety in the NFL last season. He’s likely to become a household name soon, but for now he remains underrated and underappreciated. He’s a ball-hawk and a hard hitter. Harper could soon be ranked among the top players at his position.
On his own team, a lot of what he does is overshadowed by Darren Sharper, the veteran safety who’s one of the best-known playmakers in the NFL. But Harper is the future and should soon be a Pro Bowl participant on a regular basis.
Carolina is a team in transition, but its offense has always been about the running game. The addition of Cam Newton should help the running backs be even more effective than before.
DeAngelo Williams rightly gets a lot of credit for Carolina’s ground success, but Stewart is a big part of it as well and has become an excellent change-of-pace player for the Panthers. Stewart would start on most teams, so he’s a big luxury in Carolina.
There were some who thought the team would let Williams go and proceed with Stewart as the feature back, but Williams was tendered a contract and will return. Stewart has become a quiet piece of the team’s success, but he’s a very important cog in the offense as the team looks to get back on track after a few bad seasons.
Faine has played on some bad teams and some better teams, but he’s always been a very consistent player who almost always seems to be subbing for someone or ready to be replaced. He’s finally found a home in Tampa Bay.
Offensive linemen have a tough time being noticed if they aren’t high draft picks or big busts, so Faine being a relative unknown isn’t uncommon. He’s a stellar center, however.
Now that Faine has found a home, hopefully he’ll garner some attention. There are a lot of great centers in the NFL, so it will be difficult—but with an improving team like the Buccaneers, it’s certainly possible he could get some props for his work.
Fullback is an unappreciated position that’s starting to become phased out by several teams electing to use a bigger running back in those spots or allow a tight end to do the job.
For teams that still regularly employ a fullback, it’s an important position. Mughelli is one of the best of a dying breed of player. He doesn’t put up flashy statistics, but he does know how to block very, very well.
He’s a big reason why the Falcons have had such a great offense, because he opens big holes for Michael Turner and also has the ability to keep Matt Ryan’s jersey clean by not exposing him to a ton of hits. Mughelli is like an extra lineman in passing situations. That’s something that will be important this year since Harvey Dahl has departed for St. Louis.
There was a time when Samuel was one of the most coveted corners in the NFL.
Now, he’s the third-best guy on his own team.
It shows how good of a teammate and a person he is that he hasn’t made a huge fuss about a trade now that he’s basically going to be a part-time piece.
Samuel is a starting corner on any other team. He’s one of the best cover guys in the NFL and has the ability to make a ton of big plays each season. He’s fast, instinctive and doesn’t get fooled very often.
It will be interesting to see how Samuel performs in a backup role or in nickel and dime packages, but he definitely gives the Eagles the best No. 3 corner in the NFL.
Kitna is another guy who’s had an unappreciated career. He was a big starter with Seattle but never really seemed to mesh with that system. Then he moved on to Cincinnati in time to have a couple of steady seasons before being replaced by Carson Palmer.
Then he became the backup in Dallas, which turned out to be important for the Cowboys since Tony Romo had some trouble staying healthy for a full season.
Kitna is one of those guys who's hard not to root for because he does everything the right way. Like some others on this list, he’s not the most talented, but he is someone who deserves some recognition.
Cooley burst onto the scene early in his career when the Redskins were competitive under Joe Gibbs, but he’s since fallen off the radar as the team has struggled. Still, he’s a great player in a unique position.
Although a tight end by definition, Cooley plays more of a halfback position that lets him move from tight end to fullback to running back depending on the play. He’s great at all three jobs and is one of the more valuable players in the NFL.
Hopefully once the Redskins find and develop a true quarterback of the future, they will be able to give Cooley the recognition he deserves. Until then, it’s time he was recognized again as one of the better offensive players in the league.
Pierre-Paul may finally be getting his due now that he’s due to become a starter. Up to this point, he’s been an excellent platoon player and part-time contributor who hasn’t been noticed much on or off of his own team.
Pierre-Paul’s got excellent skills and was a highly touted draft prospect before getting buried on a supremely talented defensive line.
This is his big chance to have a breakout season and help the Giants back to the playoffs. If he can do that and show his playmaking skills in 2011, Pierre-Paul will go from an unknown to yet another Giants defensive end everyone recognizes.
Haggans, like Jon Kitna, has had a career full of being upstaged by someone else. With Pittsburgh, it was Joey Porter who always drew the headlines and the praise. Then he was let go for another great linebacker, LaMarr Woodley. Haggans moved to Arizona and was soon upstaged again by Porter.
Through it all, Haggans has been a steady force on the outside. He doesn’t pile up the sacks or other statistics—never has—but he is a quiet playmaker who takes pressure off a secondary and off the bigger names on his team.
He’ll be counted on again in 2011 as Arizona tries to revamp its defense. Haggans is still there and will still be an important piece even if no one hears much about him.
With all of the turnover in the Eagles secondary, it was surprising to see Mikell let go so easily; he quickly caught on with St. Louis though.
Outside of Philadelphia, he’s not well known, but he is very good.
Mikell is another fast safety who can hit and make big plays. He’s getting better each season and will likely energize a St. Louis secondary that’s lost a couple guys.
Mikell could, with a good year, put himself in Pro Bowl consideration. He’s lucky to not be in the AFC with Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed and also lucky to be out of the shadow of all of the great corners in Philadelphia.
Now he’ll get to really show why he is an important defender in the NFL.
Miller was a big part of Oakland’s return to respectability last season and helped the Raiders overcome their lack of true receiving talent by being a great blocker and also a fine receiver. He became a great safety valve for Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski in 2010 and will need to be the same for Tarvaris Jackson in 2011.
Miller was a surprise free agent. Most thought Oakland would make a big push to bring him back, but the Raiders elected to move on and may pay for it. Seattle gains a good tight end who will bring versatility to its offense. Miller also gives Jackson a good target as he works with a new group of underrated receivers.
Davis isn’t underrated; he’s considered among the top tight ends in the NFC.
But he’s slowly becoming overshadowed in San Francisco by Michael Crabtree and Frank Gore. Lost in all of that is the fact that Davis has been a favorite target of quarterback Alex Smith and has been more valuable as a receiver than Crabtree so far.
Davis doesn’t need a breakout season—he just needs some recognition for the job he’s done. He didn’t mesh well with Mike Singletary, but he still managed to be a top contributor. Davis will likely do better with Jim Harbaugh in charge and could be poised for a huge season.