NFL1000: The Most Underrated Stars in the NFL

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutSeptember 27, 2017

NFL1000: The Most Underrated Stars in the NFL

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    There are many ways to discuss which players are the NFL's most underrated at any given time. There are late-round and undrafted rookies who show up every season to beat their projections. There are veterans stuck on bad teams and in bad schemes who perform well regardless. 

    But the most overlooked players are the ones who have become stars for their teams while flying under the radar, and their achievements aren't often brought up in common conversation. Perhaps they're mired in a depth chart situation but should be playing more. Perhaps they are lone standouts in bad units. Maybe they play an unglamorous position, and the only people who notice them are the ones who analyze game tape. Or they ply their trades on teams that are borderline unwatchable.

    Here at NFL1000, it's our job to highlight these players as their value increases so you can have a better sense of the guys who are picking up their games on teams you may not follow or doing so at positions you may not specifically watch. Based on the first three weeks of the 2017 season, and past performance, here are eight stars you should know if you don't already.

Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears

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    It seems that no matter how well Howard performs, you don't hear his name when the NFL's top running backs are mentioned. This is a mistake. The second-year man, a fifth-round pick in 2016 out of Indiana, gained 1,313 yards and scored six touchdowns on 252 carries, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and adding 29 catches for 298 yards and another touchdown for good measure last season. Through three games in 2017, he's already up to 197 yards and three touchdowns on 45 carries, with eight catches for 40 yards. This despite a quarterback situation that was questionable in 2016 and is execrable in 2017. Defenses are hardly afraid of Mike Glennon, which gives them the opportunity to stack the box against Howard.

    Sunday's 23-17 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Steelers was a perfect example of how much Howard has to do for the Chicago Bears offense to get anything going. Glennon was a perpetual screen passer, throwing for 101 yards on 15 completions, but the run game was solid, with 220 yards on 38 carries. Howard had 138 of those yards on 23 carries, and he scored two of Chicago's three touchdowns.

    At 6'1" and 224 pounds, Howard is a quick and decisive outside zone runner with good speed to the edge. As an inside runner, he can be patient but prefers to blow through gaps. More often than not, it takes more than one defender to bring him down.

    Howard may get fewer carries this season because rookie Tarik Cohen has added a new dynamism to the ground game, but make no mistake—Howard is the bell cow of the Bears offense, and without him, it wouldn't go anywhere.

DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins

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    One of the few highlights for the Miami Dolphins in their embarrassing 20-6 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday was the play of receiver DeVante Parker. Though Jay Cutler managed just 220 passing yards on 26 completions, Parker caught a team-leading eight of those passes for 76 yards and a touchdown. He has 12 catches for 161 yards on the season, and one wonders how well he'd do in a more expansive offense with a more consistent quarterback.

    Through his three NFL seasons, Parker hasn't performed at an elite statistical level, but he's also been hamstrung by Ryan Tannehill's inconsistencies and Cutler's limitations. Parker missed several deep balls from Cutler against the Jets because of miscommunications, but when he and his quarterback are on the same page, Parker has shown good route awareness and a knack for getting separation downfield. This season, Parker has been targeted eight times on deep passes, and three have been catchable, per Pro Football Focus. Parker has caught all three of those for 88 yards.

    Some receivers get buried in passing games that don't give them opportunities to succeed to their highest potential. That Parker is such a player shouldn't limit his public perception.

Marcus Gilbert, OT, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Steelers didn't have right tackle Marcus Gilbert in their Week 3 loss to the Bears because of a hamstring injury, and replacement Chris Hubbard allowed a sack, a quarterback hit and three quarterback hurries. Offensive linemen are often noticed in their absences, and this was the case with Gilbert, who hasn't allowed a single quarterback pressure in 69 pass-blocking snaps this season. Gilbert was present in Pittsburgh's Week 2 win over the Minnesota Vikings, and he proved once again that he's overcome the technical issues that occasionally plagued him earlier in his NFL career. When facing Minnesota's formidable pass rush, Gilbert showed a smooth backpedal and ability to "catch" edge-rushers before they could bend the pocket and get to Ben Roethlisberger.

    And in the run game, the 6'6", 330-pound Gilbert is as powerful as you'd want a man his size to be, using his strength and leverage to open gaps on the right side. Moreover, Gilbert is no fluke—in 484 pass-blocking snaps throughout the 2016 season, he allowed just two sacks, one hit and 18 hurries.

    What's most impressive about the seventh-year man out of Florida is how much and how well he's refined his pass-blocking technique. When he came into the league as a second-round pick in 2011, Gilbert was simply a huge guy who struggled with technique—he would lean too often and lose his balance because his foundation was not consistent. But the work he's put in is evident in his economy of motion, and over time, he's developed into a fine blocker.

Weston Richburg, C, New York Giants

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    It's no secret the New York Giants offensive line is below league-average at best and absolutely disastrous at worst—though left tackle Ereck Flowers is the primary problem, four out of the five Big Blue offensive line positions have not been defined at the right level of performance by the men who fill them.

    Richburg is the exception, and he has been since the Giants took him in the second round of the 2014 draft out of Colorado State. Richburg was a standout from his rookie season, but it's especially impressive what he's doing now with subpar line play around him. Centers tend to get the brunt of things when the guards to their left and right aren't consistent, and it limits the kinds of pass-protection schemes and combo blocks that can be performed. This has affected the New York passing game and rushing attack negatively over the last two seasons.

    But Richburg maintains his high quality of play no matter what. He's a dynamic move blocker in the running game, able to take on nose tackles at the line of scrimmage or hit the second level and deal with linebackers with accurate, timely blocks—an underrated attribute for any center. This year, he's allowed zero sacks, zero quarterback hits and one quarterback hurry in 125 pass-blocking snaps; last season, he allowed two sacks, one hit and eight hurries in 611 pass-blocking snaps.

    Richburg's stats and tape would be impressive if he were the man in the middle for the NFL's best set of blockers; it's more remarkable what he's able to do with a limited offense and so little help from side to side.

Preston Smith, OLB, Washington Redskins

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    Don't look now, but the Washington Redskins defensive line is trucking the competition, and it looks to be a real problem for every offense it faces. Ask Derek Carr and the Oakland Raiders, who were limited to 128 yards in a 27-10 loss Sunday night. Carr was sacked four times and harassed constantly by that line.

    Ryan Kerrigan is the most well-known of Washington's edge-rushers, but it's fellow linebacker Preston Smith who leads the team with four sacks, per Pro Football Focus, which counts half-sacks as full sacks. Smith has eight pressures ein 60 pass-rushing snaps, and he's just as good against the run, with four stops in 34 run snaps. The third-year man from Mississippi State, a second-round pick in the 2015 draft, has an estimable array of pass-rushing moves, but the bull-rush is probably his go-to strategy.

    At 6'5" and 265 pounds, Smith has the upper-body strength to put offensive tackles on skates, and because he primarily lines up on the right edge, he's facing opposing left tackles most of the time. So, it can't be all about power; Smith also has to use hand moves and foot fakes to get the job done. He's got a nice inside counter, and he can shock blockers with a powerful hand strike. Against the run, he knows how to use his hands to disengage from blockers and close to the ball-carrier quickly.

    Smith isn't yet a known commodity among NFL fans outside the nation's capital, but he's a star on the rise, and he's a key part of a line that could be one of the league's best this season.

Darius Slay, CB, Detroit Lions

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    The last time you saw Darius Slay on the field, it was probably when he was picking off two Matt Ryan passes in the Detroit Lions' close loss to the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. Slay took advantage when Ryan's throw to running back Tevin Coleman was a bit early and bounced off Coleman's hands, and he did the same to receiver Mohamed Sanu when Sanu let the ball slip through his grip. Slay was targeted 12 times and allowed seven catches for 68 yards, zero touchdowns and a passer rating of 34.7.

    Slay was in the right place at the right time for those two interceptions, and his field awareness is one of the reasons the fifth-year man out of Mississippi State is one of the best cornerbacks you're probably not talking about. The 6'0", 190-pound Slay has the size to deal with bigger receivers on the outside, and he can play his man from the jam at the line of scrimmage all the way up the boundary.

    It's no mistake that in three games this season, Slay has allowed just 14 catches on 24 targets for 132 yards, zero touchdowns, 39 yards after the catch and an opponents' passer rating of 38.9. Slay had a few rough patches in 2016 when his aggressiveness got the better of him, and he allowed five touchdowns and an opponents' passer rating of 92.6 on 64 targets.

    But when Slay plays within himself, he's got the talent to be one of the game's better pass-defenders. That's what he has been so far in 2017.

Bryce Callahan, CB, Chicago Bears

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    Slot cornerbacks, especially slot corner specialists, don't generally get the credit they deserve until and unless they move outside. That's old-school thinking, and in a league in which teams are putting five or more defensive backs on the field more than 60 percent of the time, sub-package defenses are the new base, and inside cornerbacks are just as important as their more well-regarded teammates.

    Over the last two seasons, few slot cornerbacks have been as effective as Chicago's Bryce Callahan, an undrafted player from Rice who came into his own in 2016. With injuries and ineffectiveness all around him in the Bears defensive backfield, Callahan was a rare bastion of consistency, allowing nine slot catches on 18 targets for 126 yards, just nine yards after the catch and an opponents' passer rating of 72.9.

    Callahan has become more of a featured part of the defense this year, and he's responded well—he had just 141 coverage snaps in 2016, but he's already got 78 this season. In those 78 snaps, he's allowed six catches on 13 targets for 39 yards, 12 yards after the catch and an opponents' passer rating of 53.0.

    Callahan has mastered the slot while more "talented" cornerbacks struggle with the nuances of the position because he reads two-way go concepts well, and once he locks on to his assigned receiver, he runs the route nearly as well as they do. He also has good field sense and knows when to pull off his own assignment to help in coverage.

    So, it's time to stop marginalizing slot cornerbacks. Give Callahan your attention.

Jaquiski Tartt, S, San Francisco 49ers

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    When the San Francisco 49ers selected Jaquiski Tartt out of Samford in the second round of the 2015 draft, it seemed like they were impressed with his athleticism, but they weren't quite sure what to do with him. Tartt played a hybrid defender role in his first two seasons, but with the addition of new defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, Tartt found his ideal role. Saleh was a defensive quality control coach for the Seattle Seahawks from 2011-13, so he learned firsthand the importance of a great deep safety to any defense by watching Earl Thomas, one of the masters of the position.

    Saleh decided Tartt was going to be his Thomas, and he put the third-year defender in center field for the 49ers' Cover 1 and Cover 3 base defenses. Tartt has the speed to come up and help against the run and the agility to peel back to cover deep receivers, and he also has the agility and field speed to move quickly to either sideline.

    He's not at Thomas' level yet, but this season, Tartt has allowed just six catches on 11 targets for 56 yards with an interception. That pick was an acrobatic takeaway of a deep Cam Newton pass in which Tartt was originally beat downfield, but he used his closing speed to make up the difference and leaped to catch the ball with one hand. He is also a forceful run-stopper, an aggressive player who leaves no doubt as to his intentions to stop his opponent.

    It takes a certain mentality to be the last line of defense against NFL receivers, and Tartt clearly has it. He could well be the league's next great deep safety.