NFL's Most Overshadowed Stars
In every walk of life, there's always someone who's better at your chosen profession. Athletes face similar obstacles. Even the best are compared to those who came before them.
But this isn't meant to ignite another LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan argument. Wrong sport.
Instead, it's time to highlight those NFL players who are top-notch performers yet seem to be overshadowed because of the presence of more well-known teammates, the position they play or their situation.
None of those included are the biggest names on their respective rosters, but each continues to excel outside of the spotlight. They're overshadowed stars who deserve far more recognition for their performances.
Just Missed the Cut
Even those considered overshadowed can overshadow those who don't quite produce at the same level.
These eight deserve attention, but they fell just short of the being named true overshadowed stars:
- RB David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals: Obviously, Johnson's inclusion is relative since he's already considered one of the game's best running backs. Yet the Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell and Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott are usually mentioned as the game's best, and Johnson's abilities don't get enough attention.
- WR Willie Snead IV, New Orleans Saints: Even as the Saints' third option in the passing game, Snead finished fourth last season in receiving yards from the slot.
- WR Tyrell Williams, Los Angeles Chargers: The Western Oregon product experienced a career year in his second season with 1,059 receiving yards, but the Chargers are loaded at wide receiver with Keenan Allen, Travis Benjamin and 2017 top-10 pick Mike Williams.
- OG Kevin Zeitler, Cleveland Browns: Zeitler is one of the NFL's best guards, yet he's never been the best blocker along his offensive line, having played alongside Andrew Whitworth in Cincinnati and now Joe Thomas.
- DT Damon Harrison, New York Giants: Olivier Vernon, Janoris Jenkins and Jason Pierre-Paul all signed bigger deals within the past 15 months, yet Harrison sets the tone in the middle of the Giants defense as the league's best run defender.
- LB Markus Golden, Arizona Cardinals: The 2015 second-round pick has yet to establish himself as a full-time starter, yet his 12.5 sacks eclipsed Chandler Jones' 11 for the team lead.
- LB Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans: When the league's No. 1 defense includes J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing, Mercilus gets lost in the shuffle even though he's recorded 19.5 sacks over the last two seasons.
- S Duron Harmon, New England Patriots: The Patriots defense as a whole doesn't get enough credit for the team's success. Harmon in particular gets overlooked because he's not a flashy safety. But he graded as the best in coverage last season, per Pro Football Focus.
WR T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
Yet the Indianapolis Colts' T.Y. Hilton led the NFL last season with 1,448 receiving yards.
Even when the Colts offense is discussed, Hilton's name doesn't dominate the conversation. Instead, the plight of quarterback Andrew Luck is the main talking point.
Hilton is a premier receiver even though he doesn't fit traditional standards. Jones, Green, Evans and Nelson are 6'3" or taller. Hilton is the smallest among all of the targets mentioned at 5'9" and 180 pounds.
The Colts' WR1 also operates from the slot more than most of the league's top producers. Hilton finished second in the NFL last season with 745 yards from the slot.
Despite his slight frame and work inside the numbers, the 2012 third-round pick, who ran a 4.34-second 40-yard-dash at his pro day, is also the NFL's best vertical threat. Hilton led all receivers with 17 receptions that traveled 20 or more yards downfield.
Head coach Chuck Pagano expects even more from his top receiver as the team prepares for training camp.
"Scoring points, getting in the end zone more," Pagano said, per the Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder. "He can become a better route-runner. He can become better playing without the ball. Even at his stature, we're going to ask him to be involved when we do hand the ball off."
WR Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
Demaryius Thomas is the Denver Broncos' WR1. Or is he?
The Broncos feature a pair of consistent 1,000-yard receivers. Emmanuel Sanders may not be the intimidating presence his 6'3", 229-pound teammate is, but the 5'11" target is lightning-quick in and out of his routes with an uncanny ability to create separation.
Thomas led the Broncos last season with 90 receptions and 1,083 yards, yet Sanders proved to be more efficient with his 79 receptions for 1,032 yards. Not only did Sanders average 1.1 more yards per catch, but he only dropped one catchable target last season, which ranked second among all starting receivers.
Since becoming a member of the Broncos after four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the SMU product recorded three straight 1,000-yard campaigns, even with Denver's quarterbacks issues in recent seasons. As a result, he's earned two Pro Bowl berths.
Thomas still edges Sanders as the team's top target, but the Broncos have the league's most prolific duo with Sanders' skill set opposite the five-time Pro Bowl selection.
TE Greg Olsen, Carolina Panthers
Greg Olsen has been counted among the league's best tight ends for a long time. In fact, he's been the Carolina Panthers' No. 1 target for three of the past four seasons.
However, it took until his eighth campaign for him to earn a Pro Bowl berth, and he's still considered a step or two below the league's elite tight ends.
The New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski is the game's most complete tight end. The Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce is the most explosive target. The Washington Redskins' Jordan Reed creates the most mismatches. And a surprise candidate, the Minnesota Vikings' Kyle Rudolph, led all tight ends last season with 132 targets.
Olsen's consistency and reliability aren't sexy, yet he produces year after year as Cam Newton's top option. In fact, he's the first tight end in NFL history to record three straight 1,000-yard campaigns.
"He's a special man,'' Cam Newton said after Olsen surpassed 1,000 yards last season, per ESPN.com's David Newton. "One thing people don't realize about Greg is his knack for understanding football. His IQ is up there. It makes my job a lot easier, especially throwing to him."
The Panthers offense is built around Newton and his unique skill set. The quarterback is the 2015 MVP, and everything he does warrants attention. But Newton and the Panthers offense would not have experienced the success it has without Olsen being a steady presence in the passing game.
OT Donald Penn, Oakland Raiders
The Oakland Raiders feature one of the league's best offensive lines. Last season, only the Dallas Cowboys' lauded unit eclipsed the Raiders' front five.
The Cowboys' Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin are regarded as the best players at their respective positions, while the Raiders are viewed more as a group that's greater than its parts. However, this is a disservice to Donald Penn, who served as one of league's best left tackles for a long time.
Penn isn't the most athletic, polished or gifted blindside protector, yet he consistently gets the job done at a premier position.
Last season, the former undrafted free agent was only one of four offensive tackles to yield one sack on 350 or more pass-blocking snaps. He did so while dropping into his pass set 193 more times than the next-closest blocker, the Houston Texans' Duane Brown.
For nine seasons, Penn has manned the blind side—whether it was for the Raiders or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—and he has started 156 straight regular-season games.
Even though Penn's 2016 season was marred by the injury to quarterback Derek Carr on the one sack he did allow, the Raiders left tackle remains one of the league's most consistent performers. Penn's ability to pass protect is on par with that of Smith, Joe Thomas and Trent Williams, even if the Raiders blocker doesn't receive the same level of recognition.
DE Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals
It's hard to miss Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap. After all, he's 6'6", 280 pounds and one of the NFL's best edge defenders.
However, he's not even considered the best player along the Cincinnati Bengals defensive front. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is.
Atkins is a wrecking ball in the middle of the defensive line with the ability to overwhelm interior blockers. Defensive tackles with the skill set to consistently collapse the pocket are rare commodities.
Those coming off the edge to terrorize opposing signal-callers are more plentiful. After all, 16 edge-rushers finished last season with 10 or more sacks, while Dunlap managed eight. Atkins led all interior defenders with nine.
Despite a dip in Dunlap's overall production after he finished the 2015 campaign with 13.5 sacks, his presence became too much for most offenses to handle.
Dunlap tied for the best pass-rushing grade among 4-3 defensive ends in Bleacher Report's NFL1000. Completing a sack is merely one way to create adverse conditions for a quarterback. Extra hits, pressures and the length the defensive end presents in passing lanes can also prove to be problematic. Dunlap may not always get the quarterback on the ground, but he's disruptive.
With the combination of Atkins and Dunlap, the Bengals feature two of the league's most difficult defenders to block.
LB Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers
Melvin Ingram was destined to earn the label of first-round bust after starting only 12 games and registering six sacks through his first three seasons. The South Carolina product exploded onto the scene during the 2015 and '16 campaigns with 18.5 sacks.
The Los Angeles Chargers organization rewarded Ingram with a four-year, $66 million contract this offseason. Yet he's not even considered the team's best defender or pass-rusher.
Unlike Ingram, Joey Bosa dominated from the moment he stepped onto an NFL field. Granted, the 2016 third overall pick had his debut delayed due to a contract squabble. Even so, the Ohio State product managed 10.5 sacks in 12 games on the way to Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
"He's the speed guy," Bosa told the team's website about Ingram (via ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams). "He can get off the ball and just run right around you. You saw that over [and over again] last year."
The best way to gauge a player's talent is by the reputation he builds among his opponents. Kansas City Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz referred to the Chargers defender as an underrated pass-rusher and one of the best he's faced.
Ingram was particularly good last season on third down, where he was the league's fourth-best edge defender in pass-rushing productivity, per Pro Football Focus (via Instant NFL Updates).
With Bosa now the focal point of the Chargers defense, Ingram will receive more opportunities to capitalize when rushing the passer, and he's more than capable of taking advantage.
LB Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks built a legendary defense with a catchy nickname. The Legion of Boom helped lead the franchise to its first Super Bowl victory in 2013.
Bobby Wagner is a machine at middle linebacker. But the unit's leading tackler isn't among the top three or four names mentioned when it comes to Seattle's top performers—others among the loaded group receive far more attention.
Cornerback Richard Sherman helped define the defense's philosophy with his ability to shut down one side of the field and his attitude as the most vocal player on the Seahawks roster. Earl Thomas redefined how the free safety position is played in today's NFL with his sideline-to-sideline speed and ability to erase mistakes. Defensive end Michael Bennett is a terror as a versatile pass-rusher, whether it's off the edge or along the interior. And strong safety Kam Chancellor sets the physical tone.
Meanwhile, Wagner developed into a premier off-the-ball linebacker and amassed 645 tackles during his five seasons. He even led the NFL with 167 total tackles last season and finished first among inside linebackers with 24 quarterback pressures.
"I watched the guys before me like Ray Lewis and Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher and all those guys," Wagner said, per the Seattle Times' Jayson Jenks. "When all is said and done, I want to be in that area and be in that realm. That's what I strive for: I strive for being those guys."
Wagner is well on his way to achieving his goal, even if he doesn't warrant the same type of attention those aforementioned linebackers did.
CB Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos' Chris Harris Jr. is the NFL's best cornerback. Don't believe it? Bleacher Report's NFL1000 ranked Harris as the league's top shutdown corner.
Despite Harris' dominance, he's not even the highest-paid defensive back on Denver's roster. Aqib Talib makes $1 million more per year on average, per Spotrac. Talib's six-year deal also includes $1.5 million more in guarantees compared to Harris' five-year contract.
Talib is a 2008 first-round pick, a four-time Pro Bowler and earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2016. So did Harris, but he earned the "defensive back" designation because of his ability to shut down slot receivers as a top-notch nickel corner.
At 5'10" and 199 pounds, Harris may be viewed as a liability against bigger targets, yet he finished second last season in fewest yards allowed per snap in man coverage (3.7).
The one-time undrafted free agent is far more versatile with better pure coverage skills when compared to his teammate. Sure, Talib is bigger (6'1", 205 lbs), longer and more physical. Harris is far quicker with better feet, recognition and the ability cover the slot with the same effectiveness as outside the numbers.
"They go together, Chris, Aqib, those guys in the back, they hold coverage so we can get there, and we get the rush to make the quarterback have to get rid of the ball," outside linebacker Von Miller said in January, per ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold. "We all work together with that. That's what makes our defense."
In doing so, Harris doesn't receive enough recognition for his level of play. Instead, the more recognizable names found on the roster, like Miller and Talib, receive far too much of the credit even though Harris developed into an elite cover corner.
Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus on Twitter unless otherwise noted.