NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Most Underrated Players in NFL History
It takes more than mere greatness to be considered one of the most underrated players in pro football history.
It takes bad timing and bad luck. It takes years of playing the wrong position for the wrong team in the wrong league at the wrong time. To make our list, a player must contribute to a winning effort while putting up bad stats, misunderstood stats or no stats. He must either play for teams so good that they overshadow his accomplishments, or teams so bad that he had to do it all by himself.
"Underrated" is in the eye of the beholder, so let's establish some ground rules for these rankings:
- No Hall of Famers or recent Hall of Fame finalists. It's hard to be underrated when you've been immortalized. Active players who are Hall of Fame shoo-ins are also excluded. Even Joe Thomas.
- No Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, running backs or wide receivers. Even the least heralded of them get plenty of recognition.
- No 1960s Packers, 1970s Steelers, 1980s 49ers, 1990s Cowboys or 2000s Patriots. Sorry, Jerry Kramer! Being part of an era-defining dynasty brings with it a base-level acclaim that the players on this list cannot match.
After that, players are ranked based how underappreciated they are, not how great they are. You will find some familiar Hall of Fame snubs on this list (like Jim Marshall, pictured above), but also plenty of players who were even snubbed from the Hall of Fame snubs, plus some current players who aren't getting their due.
And you're never going to guess who's No. 1.
25. Steven Jackson, RB, Rams
It's hard for a running back to be underrated. Even unspectacular ones manage to rack up a few 1,000-yard seasons and get drafted early in fantasy leagues. Running backs suffer none of the "didn't win the big game" biases that color our perception of quarterbacks. Even pesky third-down backs and gritty fullbacks may seem underrated until you realize how many of them become local heroes. C'mon, who doesn't love Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert?
So it takes a remarkable streak of hard luck for a running back to make this list.
Steven Jackson arrived in St. Louis just as the Greatest Show on Turf was deteriorating into the Most Miserable Slog in the Midwest. MVP-caliber seasons (1,528 yards, 90 receptions, 16 total touchdowns in 2006) early in his career gave way to annual 1,100-1,200 yard, low-touchdown grinds as the Greatest Show Rams retired one by one and the team fell to 2-14 and 1-15.
Jackson then moved on to Atlanta just after the collapse of the Mike Smith playoff teams but before the rise of the current Dan Quinn contenders. He finished his career by doing something almost impossible: signing with the Patriots as a veteran role player during one of the few years they didn't reach the Super Bowl.
Jackson finished his career with 11,438 rushing yards (18th all-time) and 15,121 total scrimmage yards (21st all-time). He's the Rams' all-time leading rusher with almost 3,000 more yards for the franchise than Marshall Faulk or Eric Dickerson. He reached the playoffs as a rookie backup in 2004 and a 32-year-old backup in 2015, but zero times in the decade in between.
Jackson probably helped you win a fantasy title or two, but he would be remembered for so much more if he wasn't always on the wrong team at the wrong time.
24. Louis Wright, CB, Broncos
Let's face it: An entire All-Underrated Team can be assembled using only Broncos defenders.
Randy Gradishar. Karl Mecklenburg. Steve Atwater. Tom Jackson. The Hall of Fame has turned up its nose on all of them. Super Bowl victories? Defensive Player of the Year awards? Anchoring defenses with catchy names like the "Orange Crush?" It doesn't matter: If you are a Broncos defender, you might as well forget about a bust in Canton.
But here's the thing: Gradishar, Mecklenberg and Atwater are famous for being snubbed. That's its own kind of recognition. And Jackson spent a generation as a pre- and postgame show staple, which puts him in a whole different category.
Poor Louis Wright has a hard time even making the Broncos' overcrowded All-Snub Team. Now that's underrated.
Wright earned a second-team All-1970s nod from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even though several of his signature years were in the 1980s. He was an All-Pro for the Orange Crush defenses of the 1970s, and then he stuck around to play for the 1986 Broncos Super Bowl team. The 6'2" Wright was renowned as a run-stuffing cornerback—that's him tackling Walter Payton in the photo—but he also intercepted 26 career passes, even though opposing quarterbacks spent much of his career avoiding him.
In his prime, Wright was often mentioned in the same breath as Hall of Famers Mel Blount and Mike Haynes. But Wright never posted massive interception totals, and his teams ended up on the receiving end of a pair of Super Bowl beatings.
Maybe Wright wasn't a Blount-level legend, but he deserves better than to be the forgotten man among the Broncos' forgotten men.
23. Lomas Brown, OT, Lions
Lomas Brown played left tackle for four Lions playoff teams. He started for an offensive line that helped Barry Sanders win two of his four rushing titles. He played in the run-'n'-shoot offense, which means he was on an island against the NFL's best pass-rushers on every snap for a half-decade—no tight end flanking him, no blocking back behind him.
Brown earned seven Pro Bowl berths and an All-Pro selection. But the run-'n'-shoot took away more than it provided, and the early 1990s Lions kept getting obliterated by better defenses in the playoffs. A new generation of superstar left tackles entered the league as Brown was peaking, and he spent the latter half of his career bouncing from team to team as Tony Boselli, Willie Roaf, Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones turned the blindside protector into an almost glamorous position.
Brown is now best known as a television personality. He is also infamous for admitting on ESPN Radio that he once purposely let Packers defender Sean Jones sack Scott Mitchell so the struggling quarterback would get knocked out of a game. The admission probably slams the door of the Hall of Fame on Brown forever.
But Brown was a unique and underappreciated player for over a decade on a team that nearly revolutionized the way football is played. He then went on to start at left tackle for the playoff-bound Cardinals and 2000 NFC champion Giants. He finally won a Super Bowl ring as a backup for the Buccaneers.
Brown did one thing terribly wrong in 18 NFL seasons, but for his teams to win as often as they did, he must have done an awful lot more right.
22. NaVorro Bowman, LB, 49ers
The rumors themselves were not surprising. The 49ers drafted linebacker Reuben Foster at the bottom of the first round. Bowman is coming off an Achilles tear in 2016. The 49ers are installing a new system and reshaping their roster. Why retain an expensive vestige of the last regime, or really the last three regimes?
Because he is one of the NFL's best defensive players, for one thing.
Bowman is a four-time All-Pro and tremendous all-purpose linebacker who emerged as a stalwart leader for teams that otherwise might have packed it in before Labor Day. He's not the kind of player a wise organization sheds to cut expenses.
Bowman makes this list because he has the makings of a player who will be underappreciated historically. He began his career at the tail end of Jim Harbaugh's great defensive teams, but he has since battled both injuries and the incompetence of the Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly experiments. He is now stuck in a rebuilding cycle that may take a few years. By the time the 49ers are great again, Bowman may be in his early 30s or on another team. And because versatility is his calling card, he'll never produce gaudy sack totals or climb any all-time leaderboards.
Nothing screams underappreciated like rumors you're about to be traded to make room for a late first-round pick. Bowman doesn't get the recognition he's due, and he may have to get used to it.
21. Eric Allen, CB, Eagles, Saints, Raiders
Eric Allen's job in Buddy Ryan's 46 defense was simple. He had to blanket a wide receiver in man coverage with no safety help on every play. Ryan would blitz between five and eight defenders, plus some water boys and maybe a few boo birds from the 700 level of Veterans Stadium. If the quarterback got rid of the ball before getting crushed, it was up to Allen to make a play.
Allen made a lot of plays. He intercepted 34 passes for the Eagles and 54 in his career. He returned eight interceptions for touchdowns, including four in 1993 and three during his age-35 season with the Raiders in 2000. Both of those seasons came, ironically enough, after Allen and Buddy were separated. There may be such a thing as too much blitzing, after all.
Allen has much in common with many others on this underrated list. His stardom was spread among three teams, robbing him of local hero status (or Hall of Fame momentum) in any one city. He played for teams that were more interesting than outstanding, from the Ryan and Rich Kotite-era Eagles to the Jim Mora and Mike Ditka Saints to Jon Gruden's Raiders. He was overshadowed by more famous teammates throughout his career.
But few cornerbacks spent more of their careers in the crosshairs than Allen. And few were better at making opposing quarterbacks pay for mistakes.
20. John Hadl, QB, Chargers
If John Hadl is remembered for anything these days, it's for one of the most disastrous trades in NFL history.
The Packers believed they were a veteran quarterback away from a playoff run in 1974, so head coach/GM Dan Devine acquired the 34-year-old Rams quarterback by surrendering a ransom of draft picks huge enough to cause even Ryan Pace to do a spit take: two first-rounders, two second-rounders and a third-rounder. Old-timers call it the Lawrence Welk trade after a television bandleader of the era who would begin songs by counting off "A one, and a two, and a three..."
The trade went how you might expect a lopsided midseason deal for an aging quarterback to go. But Hadl had to do something to make the Packers think he was worth two armfuls of draft picks. That "something" was throwing for more than 29,000 yards and going to four AFL All-Star Games and a Pro Bowl with the Chargers and then leading the Rams to a 12-2 record in 1973.
Hadl played quarterback, halfback, defensive back and punter for the University of Kansas. The Lions drafted him as a running back. Hadl signed with the Chargers instead, and Sid Gilman built him into the trigger man for an offense from which all modern offenses descended. The converted all-purpose athlete became one of the fathers of modern quarterbacking.
He then became a staple of trivia questions and All-Time Worst Trades listicles, as the Lawrence Welk trade overshadowed an even more impressive moment in Hadl's transaction history. The Rams acquired him from the Chargers in 1973 in exchange for defensive end Coy Bacon. Both players were Pro Bowlers the previous year. There would not be another exchange of current Pro Bowlers in the NFL until the Broncos and Redskins exchanged Champ Bailey and Clinton Portis in 2004.
Teams kept doing something special to get their hands on Hadl. He should be remembered as more than a throwback to the era when Lawrence Welk references were topical.
19. Neal Anderson, RB, Bears
The easiest way to be overlooked by history is to replace a legend just after a franchise has peaked.
Neal Anderson replaced Walter Payton. He took over as the Bears' featured offensive weapon after the Super Bowl Shuffle years. Anderson was not Payton, and the later-era Mike Ditka Bears could never approach the heights reached by the 1985 Bears. So Anderson cranked out a few 1,000-yard seasons and played in some Pro Bowls, and that was that.
But Anderson was an extraordinary talent. He had the speed to get to the edge and beat defenders down the sideline, the power to plow through tackles, the elusiveness to make things happen in the open field and receiving chops to rival contemporaries Roger Craig or Thurman Thomas.
Anderson's 1,000-yard seasons came in a primitive offense with a rudimentary passing game. He was usually the Bears' best rusher and receiver in his prime years, catching 40-50 passes per season from Mike Tomczak or the young Jim Harbaugh. Many of those catches occurred down the field, with Anderson serving as a de facto possession receiver.
The most similar current player to Anderson is Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell, but Bell plays in a modern offense that amplifies his production instead of suppressing it. He also doesn't play in the shadow of a legend. Anderson became a footnote to the Ditka era, but fans who saw him play know he was far more than that.
18. Jahri Evans, OG, Saints
In Jahri Evans' four All-Pro seasons (2009-12), the Saints ranked first, sixth, first and second in the NFL in total yards. They would rank first in the NFL in yardage four other times while Evans was a starter. Drew Brees endured an average of just 24 sacks per season in Evans' All-Pro seasons, despite typically dropping back to pass over 650 times per year.
Much of the Saints' offensive success in Evans' prime years is rightfully credited to Brees. But the diminutive Brees would not have been able to lead the Saints to a Super Bowl and several seasons as top contenders without a clean pocket, particularly right in front of him. Evans, the best pass-protecting guard of his era, was charged with making sure pass-rushers didn't get close enough to Brees to bat his passes down, let alone sack him.
Evans is still playing at a high level; the Packers hope that he can do for Aaron Rodgers what he did for Brees. Guards don't make the Hall of Fame unless they win multiple Super Bowls or play forever. Evans is a long shot to do either, which is a shame. For a few years, he was not only the best guard in the NFL, but the most important.
17. Johnny Robinson, S, Chiefs
Johnny Robinson's credentials make you want to drive to Canton, kick down the Hall of Fame's door and clear a spot for his bust yourself.
Six All-Pro selections. Two 10-interception seasons, with 57 career interceptions. A Super Bowl ring and two AFL championships. Membership on various All-1960s teams.
To understand why he is not in the Hall of Fame, you must familiarize yourself with both the era he played in and the vagaries of Hall voting.
The AFL was an eight- to 10-team league, so All-Pro selections were easier to come by. The best teams in the AFL proved to be NFL-caliber, but the bottom of the league was populated with a nearly bankrupt franchise or two, so the best players clumped on the best teams and stood out from the crowd.
Robinson was one of those players. But so were teammates like Len Dawson, Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell, Curley Culp and Jan Stenerud, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
That's where the politics of Hall voting come in. Once an arbitrary number of players from a historic team get enshrined, the committee moves on in search of underappreciated players from other franchises. That may be unfair to players like Robinson, Jerry Kramer and L.C. Greenwood, but there are dozens of other great old players clamoring for their chance who didn't enjoy the glory of playing for a "team of the decade."
Robinson is a staple of Hall of Fame Snubs lists, and he certainly has his case. On this All-Underrated list, he is in very good company.
16. Derrick Mason, WR, Titans, Ravens
Derrick Mason recorded four 1,000-yard seasons for Jeff Fisher teams and four more for the Baltimore Ravens. 'Nuff said, right?
No modern coach suppressed passing offenses quite like Fisher, and no team produces offensive stats that look like they come from the early 1930s quite like the Ravens. Mason's 95-catch, 1,200-yard seasons translate to 115-catch monsters in more pass-oriented schemes. Put him on the Tom Brady-led Patriots, and Mason might have invented a new branch of mathematics.
Mason also caught 49 postseason passes and was one of the game's best return men for a few years. He was one of the first true slot receivers of 21st-century NFL offenses.
Slot specialists such as Julian Edelman and Victor Cruz are now considered valuable components to the modern passing game. Fifteen years ago, similar receivers were gimmicky undersized role players. Mason was frequently his team's most valuable offensive player, but he and Steve McNair made their short pitch-and-catch passes look a little too easy.
The NFL is now full of receivers like Mason, but few of them are as productive as he was for over a decade. And none of them produce the numbers he generated in less hospitable systems.
15. Steve Wisniewski, OG, Raiders
Steve Wisniewski played guard on a Raiders team that moved in the middle of his career and was just good enough to remind you it was not in the same class as the great Raiders teams that preceded it.
We could just trudge onward to the next player right now. The least glamorous position on the field, a so-so team, a franchise move—Wisniewski pulled three lemons on the recognition slot machine.
Wisniewski reached eight Pro Bowls and was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-Decade team for the 1990s, so he's not exactly obscure. But his Hall of Fame candidacy has been stuck in semifinalist limbo. One look at the logjam forming outside the entrance to Canton tells you Wisniewski isn't moving up the ladder anytime soon.
No one plays guard expecting fame and accolades, least of all Wisniewski, who is worthy of all the gritty cliches you can sling at him. The best we can offer is a little bit of credit where a lot is due.
14. Kent Hull, C, Bills
Modern centers don't get the credit they deserve.
Jeff Saturday had to translate Peyton Manning's spur-of-the-moment audibles into protection schemes a split second before the snap. He's rarely mentioned as an all-time great. Tom Nalen protected John Elway in a pair of Super Bowl victories and helped trigger a zone-blocking revolution as part of Alex Gibbs' influential offensive lines. But a double whammy—playing center and playing for the Broncos—has kept him miles from Hall of Fame consideration.
And then there is Kent Hull, the first center to achieve greatness in a no-huddle offense. He was a participant in four Super Bowls and a member of two All-Pro teams. Hull never lived to see himself make a Hall of Fame semifinalist list, as he died of liver failure at age 50 in 2011.
Hull started his professional career with the USFL's New Jersey Generals, where he helped Herschel Walker rush for 2,411 yards in one 18-game season. He arrived in Buffalo at the same time Marv Levy was revolutionizing NFL offense with the help of Jim Kelly, Andre Reed and Thurman Thomas.
The Bills were among the first teams to frequently operate without a huddle. That made Hull one of the first centers to make line adjustments on the fly. The system helped make Hall of Famers of Kelly, Reed and Thomas. It made the Bills of the early 1990s the greatest team to never win a Super Bowl.
Perhaps Hull would be in the Hall of Fame if the Bills had won even one Super Bowl. Maybe not, seeing as Nalen has not had much success. Hull was not just a great lineman but a groundbreaking one. His franchises just kept ending up on the wrong side of history.
13. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
If Marlon McCree hadn't fumbled that interception in the playoffs after the 2006 season, everything might have been different.
If McCree doesn't cough up that fourth-quarter pick, the Chargers beat the Patriots, and perhaps Philip Rivers leads a team that went 14-2 in the regular season to the Super Bowl. Maybe that victory gives them the psychological edge they need to beat the undefeated Patriots in their 2008 playoff rematch. Maybe Rivers takes his place among the all-time greats. Maybe there is still an NFL team in San Diego.
But McCree did fumble. And let's not place the full burden of history on his shoulders, as Marty Schottenheimer, Norv Turner, the Chargers front office and Rivers himself had a hand in making the team a playoff also-ran during those peak years. But what peak years they were: 14- and 13-win seasons, annual playoff appearances, routine 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown seasons. As the Chargers faded, Rivers kept them in the wild-card picture and became the franchise's only recognizable public figure.
Those who like to shout "first-ballot Hall of Famer" about Rivers do not know how the Hall of Fame works. Rivers lacks several quarterback prerequisites for enshrinement: playoff glory, all-time records and, most importantly, momentum from a regional fanbase and media. By the time Rivers is retired for five years, the "San Diego Chargers" will be as relevant as the Dayton Triangles, and Hall voters will be too busy rubber-stamping Tom Brady and Drew Brees to get to a guy from a lost city who couldn't win the big one.
Rivers' excellence, longevity and ability to barely dodge immortality make him the John Hadl of his era. The difference between the great and the all-time great is often a matter of timing and luck. Rivers had neither, but he possessed just about everything else.
12. Jimmy Smith, WR, Jaguars
Twenty years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars were one of the marquee organizations in professional sports, and Jimmy Smith was one of their brightest stars.
Time has been hard on both of them. When the team inducted Smith into the Pride of the Jaguars ring of honor last year, it was the strange case of a moribund franchise honoring a former receiver still on parole for succumbing to the demons of addiction.
But things were different in the long-ago 1990s, when the sports universe belonged to teal-emblazoned expansion franchises and a youngish Tom Coughlin received a binder full of press clippings from the mother of a wide receiver ready to call it quits after injuries derailed his Cowboys career. Coughlin gave Smith a tryout, then kickoff return duties, and then teamed him with Mark Brunell and Keenan McCardell to create one of the most dangerous passing attacks of the late '90s and early 2000s.
Smith produced nine 1,000-yard seasons in 10 years, including two 100-plus-catch seasons in an era when they were still relatively uncommon. He enjoyed one of the greatest receiving games in NFL history: 15 catches, 291 yards and three touchdowns against the historic 2000 Ravens defense. The Jaguars upset John Elway's Broncos and reached the AFC Championship Game as a second-year expansion team and then went on to three more playoff berths, culminating in a 14-2 season.
Addiction soon began consuming Smith's career, and then his life. He was arrested four times after his abrupt retirement. The Jaguars, meanwhile, slowly descended to their current status as the NFL's punching bag. For years, the team couldn't even harken back to its glory days properly, as Smith's Pride of the Jaguars induction was delayed until he was sober and no longer under house arrest.
Jacksonville's all-time leading receiver is now beginning what he calls the "second chapter in his life." Perhaps it's time we look back on how much of an impact he and his Jaguars had on the NFL two decades ago.
11. Sam Mills, LB, Saints, Panthers (and Stars)
A Hall of Fame voter once warned me that "every town has its linebacker."
That voter meant every fanbase has a beloved old defender, renowned for his toughness and leadership, that they swear belongs in the Hall of Fame. An all-underrated team like this one can get flooded with Zach Thomas, Hardy Nickerson, Tommy Nobis and Tedy Bruschi types if we don't get a little choosy.
Sam Mills rises above the rest of the gritty linebacker pack, at least when it comes to being underrated, because three of his greatest seasons have been erased from history. Mills and Reggie White were the USFL's two greatest defenders ever. Mills was a USFL All-Star in all three seasons of the league's existence, and he led the Philadelphia and Baltimore Stars' Doghouse Defense (coached by Jim Mora) to a pair of league titles.
Mills followed Mora to New Orleans and led the Dome Patrol linebacking corps, which brought the Saints franchise its first playoff appearances. Then it was off to Carolina, where he earned an All-Pro selection for leading the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game as a second-year expansion team during his age-37 season.
Mills looks like just another local hero linebacker in the encyclopedias, albeit a good one. But three of his best seasons are not listed in the encyclopedias. The USFL may not have been the NFL in terms of quality, but being the Luke Kuechly of a league that featured Herschel Walker, Jim Kelly and Steve Young should count for something. Here on the All-Time Underrated List, it counts for a lot.
10. Ron McDole, DE, Bills, Redskins
There's underrated, underappreciated and overlooked. And then there is plain old forgotten.
Ron McDole falls into that final category.
McDole was a starting defensive end for two of history's legendary defenses: the AFL champion Buffalo Bills of 1964 and '65 and Washington's "Over-the-Hill Gang" of the early 1970s. McDole's Bills defenses held opponents to fewer than 3.1 yards per carry across three consecutive seasons. The Over-the-Hill Gang fielded one of the most ferocious pass rushes of its era, notching 53 sacks in 1973.
McDole, nicknamed "The Dancing Bear" because of his boogie on the dance floor rather than his on-field footwork, was known as more of a run defender than a pass-rusher. But run defense was king in the era when McDole played, and his 16-year career is littered with big plays: 12 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries, two touchdowns, three safeties and a pair of sacks in the 1966 AFL Championship Game.
McDole is not known for much of anything anymore, as his AFL stardom came before the Super Bowl era and his Redskins heroics predated the era of Joe Gibbs and the Hogs. McDole played 251 professional games as a defensive lineman, a remarkable feat in any era that should not be forgotten. Players like McDole are what all-time underrated lists exist for.
9. Mike Kenn, OT, Falcons
Mike Kenn began his career playing left tackle for a lumbering 1970s power-running offense. He rose to Pro Bowl status playing left tackle for a single-back, Joe Gibbs-style 1980s offense. He became an All-Pro playing blindside protector in an early 1990s run-'n'-shoot offense.
So Kenn basically had three careers. Actually, make that four careers.
Kenn was one of the leaders of the NFL Players Association during the era of replacement players and court battles over free agency. Without Kenn, there might not be free agency in the NFL, to say nothing of limitations on practice conditions and other initiatives that make pro football less dangerous than it was decades ago.
Those accomplishments may soon finally land Kenn in the Hall of Fame. A longtime semifinalist, his case is about to be handed over to the Veterans Committee, which has done a fine job recently of correcting oversights from Kenn's era.
But the former NFL Man of the Year award winner and two-time All-Pro should not have had to wait so long. Kenn is one of the NFL's all-time great players and leaders, and his impact ranges far beyond his playing career.
8. Bryant Young, DT, 49ers
Quick: Name the 49ers' all-time sack leader.
Nope, not Charles Haley. Not Fred Dean. Not one of the Jim Harbaugh-era guys.
It's Bryant Young, who recorded 89.5 sacks for the 49ers, 23 more than Haley. No one else is even close.
Young played for some great 49ers teams, including a Super Bowl-winning squad as a rookie in 1994. But he didn't play for the legendary 49ers teams. Young played for the teams that slowly slid from George Seifert to Steve Mariucci to oblivion.
Young was a devastating interior pass-rusher who recorded 30 sacks in the three-year span from 1998 through 2000. He once sacked Dan Marino twice on the first two plays of a game—a remarkable achievement, as Marino was one of the least sacked quarterbacks in NFL history. Young started his career as the NFC Defensive Rookie of the Year and ended it as a four-time winner of the Len Eshmont Award, the 49ers' team award for character and leadership.
If he started his career a decade earlier or a decade later, Young would have anchored the defense for one of history's great teams or helped push the Harbaugh 49ers over the top in the Super Bowl. One of the greatest defenders in the history of a storied franchise, Young is just another victim of bad timing when it comes to getting the reputation he deserves.
7. London Fletcher, LB, Rams, Bills, Redskins
"It pissed me off," Fletcher replied. "Even now I still get pissed off. I still don't know that people gave me my due respect for my production. It was a motivating factor for a number of years in my career. That feeling never really went away."
Success came early for Fletcher, recognition late. He started for the Rams in their Super Bowl seasons at the beginning of his career and then earned Pro Bowl berths for Washington from 2009 through 2012 when he was in his mid-30s. But no one remembers the Greatest Show on Turf for its defense, and Fletcher spent the prime of his career playing for mediocre Bills teams.
Fletcher followed Gregg Williams from coaching stop to coaching stop, serving as the sometimes controversial, always effective defensive mastermind's field marshal. Fletcher intercepted 23 passes and recorded 39 sacks as a do-it-all middle linebacker. He played 256 career regular-season games, never missing a start due to injury.
With his career spread evenly across three teams and zero All-Pro selections (a consequence of playing in the same era as Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher), Fletcher is a Hall of Fame long shot. That may tick him off. But this list is all about giving overlooked players their due respect.
6. Henry Ellard, WR, Rams, Redskins
Henry Ellard spent the first five seasons of his NFL career returning punts and putting up humdrum receiving stats. In his most prolific early season, he caught 54 passes for 811 yards and five touchdowns.
It's not that Ellard, an Olympic-caliber triple-jumper with 4.4 speed, didn't know what he was doing. But his Rams had a running back named Eric Dickerson and quarterbacks named Dieter Brock and Jeff Kemp. Passing wasn't really their thing.
The Rams eventually acquired Jim Everett and opened up their offense, transforming Ellard into one of the NFL's most dangerous deep threats. He recorded four consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 1988 through 1991, a rare feat at the time. Jerry Rice and John Taylor may have been the greatest receiving tandem of that era, but Ellard and Flipper Anderson were the most explosive pair of deep threats.
Ellard moved on to Washington in 1994 and enjoyed a late-career renaissance, averaging 61 catches and 18.8 yards per reception over a three-year span in his mid-30s.
The Hall of Fame eluded Ellard for several reasons: comparisons to Rice, the Rams' move to St. Louis (it takes hometown writers and buzz to mount a campaign) and those five early seasons in a ground-and-pound offense. Ellard was an Antonio Brown-level talent in his prime, but his teams were in no hurry to get him the ball.
5. Isiah Robertson, LB, Rams, Bills
If Isiah Robertson is famous at all, it's for being "posterized" by Earl Campbell in one of the most famous NFL Films highlights of all time.
Roberston is the guy getting head-butted in the sternum and knocked backward by Campbell before the running back's jersey gets torn off. One of the greatest defenders of his era reduced to stuntman status in Campbell's action movie—all it takes is a moment to make a player underrated forever.
Robertson was one of the NFL's fastest linebackers in the 1970s. He was a Pro Bowl regular, two-time All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1971. He intercepted 25 career regular-season passes and two more in the postseason. He ran a Sonny Jurgensen pass back 59 yards in the fourth quarter to seal a Rams playoff win over the Redskins in 1974. But no highlight clip of that play can be found on the internet.
Robertson's Rams made a habit of reaching the playoffs every year and losing to the Vikings or Cowboys. When the Rams finally earned a Super Bowl berth, Robertson was in Buffalo, playing for another playoff also-ran.
Robertson is so poorly remembered that it was hard to find a decent photo of him in our archives. Hence, the Campbell video. It's better to be remembered for one of the most painful moments in your career than to not be remembered at all.
4. Ken Anderson, QB, Bengals
Kenny Anderson may be the most "so underrated that he's overrated" player in NFL history—a darling of the stat-head community and common first-guy-mentioned when Hall of Fame snubs come up.
Anderson was the first quarterback to successfully orchestrate the beta version of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense for multiple seasons. He led the Bengals to a pair of playoff appearances in 1973 and 1975, Joe Montana's high school senior and Notre Dame sophomore seasons. In an era when 50 percent completion rates and 20-interception seasons were common for Pro Bowl quarterbacks, Anderson's 64.9 percent completion rate and quarterback ratings above 90 look like temporal anomalies.
Anderson went on to duel with Walsh and Montana's 49ers in Super Bowl XVI. Victory propelled Montana to superstardom, while defeat left the 32-year old Anderson to play out the string as a high-percentage passer for a rapidly disintegrating franchise.
Anderson is no Hall of Famer—the middle of his career is a morass of ordinary-at-best seasons—but he was a pioneer and an innovator. If Anderson had failed, the 49ers may never have lured Walsh away from the Bengals staff. Who knows what the NFL might have looked like then?
As for being so underrated he's overrated, well...that's extremely underrated, which justifies Anderson's ranking here.
3. LeRoy Butler, S, Packers
There's a statue outside of Lambeau Field commemorating the Lambeau Leap, perhaps the most recognizable and beloved (except to Packers opponents) end-zone celebration in the NFL.
The statue portrays jubilant Packers fans in tundra-weather gear appearing to cradle a player who just pounced into the stands. But there is no player; fans themselves get to "leap" into the statue for photo ops.
So LeRoy Butler, innovator of the Lambeau Leap, is excluded from his own statue.
That, dear readers, is underrated.
Butler was the NFL's most dangerous all-purpose safety for much of the 1990s. He covered receivers (38 career interceptions). He blitzed (20.5 sacks). He played the run with authority (721 career solo tackles). He helped the Packers win a Super Bowl. But outside of Wisconsin, his accomplishments were mostly forgotten shortly after his career ended in 2001.
Butler has never even been a Hall of Fame semifinalist, and it's not going to happen for him soon. An ever-growing backlog of outstanding safeties is queuing up outside Canton, as Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed will soon join John Lynch and Brian Dawkins. Butler is all but guaranteed to get lost in the shuffle.
Butler's defensive accomplishments might have brought him to the cusp of immortality, but don't underestimate the power of that Lambeau Leap. The Packers were a team with more history than identity when Butler arrived. They were the Yale football of the NFL, their glory years moldering in history books. Lambeau Field was an icy outpost; the Packers still played a handful of home games in Milwaukee back then.
Brett Favre may be the player most responsible for bringing spectacle and success back to Titletown, but Butler brought back celebration.
2. Jim Marshall, DE, Vikings
There are no official sack statistics before 1982, but the Minnesota Vikings credit Jim Marshall with 127 career sacks.
That's a higher sack total than Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis. It would rank 16th all-time, except that if we allow Marshall's sacks into the record, we would have to make room for Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene and others.
Yes, Marshall amassed that sack total by playing forever—he started 270 games (plus 19 playoff starts) from 1961 through 1979. He was an iron man for a powerhouse franchise that reached four Super Bowls while playing many of their home games in arctic conditions. That's not something to hold against a player.
Marshall reached just two Pro Bowls. Teammates Alan Page and Carl Ellar were held in higher regard. It was the era of great defensive lines with catchy names—the Rams had the Fearsome Foursome, the Cowboys the Doomsday Defense, the Steelers later added the Steel Curtain, and so forth—and Marshall was the Ringo Starr of the Purple People Eaters, the guy who once ran the wrong way for a touchdown and was happy just to be in the band.
But c'mon: 289 regular-season and postseason starts, 127 sacks and four Super Bowl appearances, yet the Hall of Fame turns up its nose at Marshall as just a pretty good defender with a long career?
The career active leader in games started by a defensive lineman is Julius Peppers with 227. Peppers will have to play three more seasons to catch Marshall, and Peppers' starts are non-consecutive. Oh, and sub-packages were pretty rare in the 1960s and 1970s, so Marshall didn't leave the field much. Also, the field was often a block of ice.
There will never be another player like Marshall. Maybe he wasn't the best defender on the field for any one play, but he stayed on that field for an entire generation.
1. Frank Ryan, QB, Browns
Frank Ryan led the NFL in passing touchdowns twice. He led his team to an NFL championship. He once threw three touchdowns in a shutout victory in a title game. He won 65 percent of his NFL starts.
Unless you live in Cleveland or are over 50, you probably have never heard of him.
Ryan was Jim Brown's quarterback and then Leroy Kelly's quarterback. Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield was on the receiving end of many of Ryan's touchdowns. But don't write him off as some 1960s product of the system. Ryan threw five touchdown passes and ran for a sixth to beat the Giants and lead the Browns to the NFL championship in 1964. He then led three fourth-quarter comebacks to bring them back to the playoffs in 1965. With Warfield hurt nearly all of that season, Ryan helped make a Pro Bowler out of receiver/punter Gary Collins.
Ryan made three Pro Bowls, but All-Pro status was blocked by a couple of guys named Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. His career was cut short by injuries suffered in the first of those three Pro Bowls. The Colts accused Ryan of running up the score in the 27-0 championship rout of 1964. A Colts defender delivered some payback in the all-star game. Ryan needed surgery and was in constant pain for the rest of his career. Yet he still led his team to the playoffs three more times.
The Pro Football Reference Similar Players tool compares Ryan's five-year peak to that of Joe Theismann. That makes sense: Both started their careers late, played with workhorse running backs, won a championship and had their careers curtailed by vicious hits.
But everyone remembers Joe Theismann.
There have been many better quarterbacks than Ryan in NFL history. But none accomplished more than Ryan while receiving less acclaim. By being overshadowed by Brown, achieving his greatest success just before the dawn of the Super Bowl era and getting stuck behind the Tom Brady and Peyton Manning of your grandfather's generation, Ryan earned the title of the NFL's All-Time Most Underrated Player.
Let's hope the fame doesn't go to his head.