The Most Underappreciated Positions in Sports

Laura Depta@lauradeptaFeatured ColumnistNovember 11, 2015

The Most Underappreciated Positions in Sports

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Offensive linemen and relief pitchers don't get enough credit for the work they do, not by a long shot. In fact, there are quite a few positions in team sports that don't.

    Certainly, all positions are important to a team effort. Linebackers and safeties, infielders and outfielders, guards and forwards, centers and wingers—they're all important. The following just don't get nearly as much love as they probably should. They are the anti-quarterbacks, if you will.

    Maybe they're not scoring the most points or spending as much time on the field, or perhaps fans just don't realize all the work they actually do.

    Whatever the case, these athletic positions should get more recognition. Let's give them some now.

Honorable Mention: Caddy

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    OK, so a caddy isn't an actual athletic position. Still, caddies are out on the green with their golfers, weathering every hole, every stroke. 

    Caddies do more than carry clubs—they provide valuable advice, course knowledge and support throughout a tournament. It's unlikely all fans realize the importance of their contributions.  

    Jordan Spieth is famously complimentary of his caddie, Michael Greller. After winning the U.S. Open in June, Spieth said, "That was probably the best work Michael has ever done this week to get me through. At Augusta I was on and making everything and striking the ball fantastic. He was the one that got me through this week when I wanted to get down when things weren't going well," per Sam Weinman of Golf Digest.

Goalkeeper

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    Goalkeepers aren't as underrated as some other positions, but it's true, in both soccer and hockey, they typically only get credit if they are superb. For instance, Tim Howard, Manuel Neuer, Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist are all well-known athletes.

    Still, good luck naming many others. In soccer and hockey, as in most sports, the ones scoring the goals get the most credit. However, as Howard proved in the 2014 World Cup, the goalie can be instrumental in a game's trajectory. The outstanding play of Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford helped his team to a third Stanley Cup in six years.

    Not only that, but many sports fans might not be aware of the range of duties goalies take on. In soccer, the goalkeeper is the last line of defense, but he is also in the unique position to see the entire field. He acts as a sort of field general, directing the defense on set pieces, communicating with teammates and helping with swings or resets.

Tight End

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    The tight end is an underrated position in football when it's not a primary scoring weapon (cough, Rob Gronkowski).

    That is to say, a primary function of many tight ends is to block, rather than score touchdowns. The best all-around tight ends can do both, but too often the focus is placed on the offensive production only.

    For instance, though Week 9 Chicago Bears tight end Martellus Bennett is 13th in the league in receiving yards at his position, and his yards per reception have declined from last year (10.2 in 2014, 8.8 in 2015). 

    Still, his role as a blocker is important, too. Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase said, per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, "He's almost as good as a lot of left tackles and right tackles in the NFL. He is that good of a pass protector."

Catcher

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    Most sports fans know the catcher is an important position in baseball, but do they realize how much the catcher actually does? In 2012, retired catcher Tim McCarver told David Waldstein of the New York Times, "It's the hardest position to play, by far. People don't realize half of what goes into it."

    The catcher is responsible for working with the pitcher to determine what pitches are thrown. His defensive importance spans beyond just throwing out runners trying to steal and also includes pitch framing.

    Not to mention, the catcher's is one of the most physically challenging positions in all of sports. The stress on the legs, joints and back is substantial. Oh, and they often get hit with speeding baseballs, so there's that. Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin told Waldstein, "I was hit directly in the Adam's apple last year, and for a second you're scared for your life."

    On top of all that, major league catchers need to maintain a high batting average to retain their spot in the lineup.  

Fullback

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    Running backs often take on the workhorse role in football, and that is sometimes a role that goes without due credit. Still, running backs who gain a lot of yards and/or score a lot of touchdowns get their fair share of the spotlight.

    Those who spend most of their time blocking, however, are less heralded. The fullback is a bit of a dying breed in today's NFL, but there are those out there who make big, yet quiet, contributions to their teams.

    Take fullback Anthony Sherman for instance. When most people think of the Kansas City Chiefs' run game, they think of Jamaal Charles (or did, until this happened). However, the Chiefs showed a commitment to Sherman, signing him to a three-year extension in November 2014.

    At the time, head coach Andy Reid said, per Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star: 

    In this offense—which isn't the case in a lot of offenses in today's football—the fullback ends up being an important part of that. And with that, they've got to be good blockers and they've also got to be able to catch the football. He can do all of that and then on top of that, be one of your top special-teams players.

Stay-at-Home Defenseman

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    Like in soccer (more on that soon), defense is underrated in hockey. Although, for what it's worth, it could be argued each hockey position is seen as more important simply because there aren't as many athletes on the playing surface at one time. 

    Moving on. Like soccer teams that can use offensive and defensive midfielders, hockey teams can have offensive and defensive-minded defensemen, aka stay-at-home defensemen. 

    These guys generally spend more time protecting their end of the ice and are particularly useful during penalty kills. At the risk of making an obvious statement, and just like any other sport, defense matters. The Dallas Stars scored 3.6 goals per game in the 2014-15 regular season, second most in the NHL, and failed to make the playoffs. 

    Nicklas Grossmann, a stay-at-home defenseman for the Arizona Coyotes, made headlines recently not for his defensive skill, but because he uncharacteristically scored two goals in one game.

Holder and Long Snapper

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    When is the only time the holder gets any attention in football? Probably when he does something wrong, right? Who doesn't remember that bobbled snap of Tony Romo's in the 2007 playoffs? 

    In truth, many specialized roles in sports—including the holder and long snapper—often get overlooked since those players are not on the field all the time. In June 2014, Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun wrote the Baltimore Ravens had used the same holder and long snapper for most of the previous four seasons. Morgan Cox was (and still is) the long snapper, and Sam Koch, the punter, holds many of the set kicks.

    Per Wilson, Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg talked about the importance of consistency on special teams. Of Cox in particular, Rosburg said, "Perhaps the fan watching the game won't know him, but I trust you, all the specialists around the league, the guys playing special teams, know where the good snappers are. And it's not just the snap. It's also in punt particulars. It's the protection in being able to block."

    In terms of Koch, the Ravens proved their appreciation with a five-year extension in July.

Relief Pitcher

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    Where would the Kansas City Royals be without their bullpen? The World Series champions had the second-best bullpen ERA in MLB in 2015.

    Relief pitchers in general don't get a lot of credit, particularly since they often come into games with runners on base.

    Take New York Mets closer Jeurys Familia, for instance. With a 1.85 ERA and 43 saves, he was one of the best closers in baseball all year. He will also be remembered for becoming the first player in MLB history to blow three saves during the World Series. What most people probably won't remember is much of the fault in those blown saves lied with defensive mishaps and inherited runners.

    As a closer, Familia doesn't get enough credit, but an argument could also be made that middle relievers get even less. Middle relievers can perform very well, getting out of jams and setting up their closers, but since they don't start or finish games, they become forgettable.

Punter

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    To a certain degree, all kickers in football are underrated, but at least field-goal kickers have the opportunity to experience the glory (or agony) of deciding a game. For instance, Adam Vinatieri is a famous name in football. His is a name fans know and remember for postseason heroism that has included two Super Bowl-winning kicks.

    Punters, though, don't get a lot of love in the NFL or college football. Field position is one of the most important elements of a football game, and punters have a great deal of control over it. If a punter can pin a team deep in their own territory with regularity, he gives his team a significant advantage.

    Meanwhile, and following an emerging theme, it seems we only really talk about punters when they mess up (Exhibit A: Michigan's Blake O'Neill). 

Full-Backs in Soccer

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    Because of the low-scoring nature of soccer, those with a tendency to score goals get a lot of glory (Lionel Messi, anyone?).

    Defenders in general are thus underrated, but right- and left-backs in particular should get more credit. Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos and FC Barcelona's Gerard Pique are famous names in soccer, but both play primarily central defense, generally getting more touches on the ball and serving in more controlling roles. 

    Bayern Munich's Philipp Lahm has played right-back for much of his career but also sees time as a defensive midfielder. Bayern manager Pep Guardiola said of Lahm in 2013, "Philipp Lahm is perhaps the most intelligent player I have ever trained in my career. He is at another level," per Tim Palmer of SB Nation

    Barcelona's Jordi Alba is one of the most talented young left-backs in soccer, but he's probably not in the top five of most famous names on that team. 

    Full-backs must have incredible speed in addition to great defensive and containment skills. Like every player on the field, they have an important role, but theirs is not as flashy and is largely confined to one side of the field. 

Most Linemen

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Most lineman in football don't get nearly enough credit for their contributions. And of course, most often the only time you hear about the offensive line in particular is when things aren't going well (right, Tennessee Titans?). 

    The fact offensive lines get blamed anytime the run game stalls or quarterbacks don't have enough time to pass proves how valuable these players are. Yet, it often seems the left tackle is the only position getting talked about, or at minimum, getting the most praise.

    Likewise, how many football fans could name a defensive lineman not named J.J. Watt? Certainly the dedicated ones could, but the fact remains if you're not scoring touchdowns, you're not getting as much recognition. In 2014, Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox said succinctly, "People don't give us the credit we deserve," per Matt Lombardo of NJ.com.

    Really, one need look no further than the play of Alabama's offensive and defensive lines in the decisive victory over LSU for proof of just how much talented units at the line of scrimmage can accomplish.