NFL Players Who Deserve More Hype Heading into This Season
There are all kinds of underrated players in the NFL, and they're underrated for all kinds of reasons.
Players can stand out on horrible teams and find their efforts lost in franchise malaise. They can also get limited snaps on a loaded depth chart, finding only so many opportunities to excel. Or, they have a small sample size to show and need more time before their true abilities become clear to the public.
Regardless of the reason, there are those who need their names in the spotlight more. Based on advanced statistics and film study, here are 12 guys you should know more about heading into the 2018 season—players who deserve far more hype.
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Cleveland Browns
When looking for players on the rise, it's always good to scout those who are leaving situations ill-suited to their talents. Last season, Tyrod Taylor was stuck in a Buffalo Bills offense coached by people who didn't play to his strengths. Once he had a bad game, they benched him for rookie Nathan Peterman, who responded by throwing five interceptions in one contest.
Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison treated Taylor like he was an average pocket quarterback as opposed to the mobile deep-ball threat he can be. There were few snaps on which play-action or any kind of run-pass option were featured.
As a result, Taylor's efficiency with the deep ball plummeted—in 2015 and 2016, per Pro Football Focus, he had one of the league's best quarterback ratings on passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air, with a 101.5 rating on 129 deep throws. That moved down to 83.3 on 58 deep throws in 2017, but that doesn't mean Taylor regressed.
Traded from the Bills to the Browns in March, Taylor won't be much more than a bridge quarterback in Cleveland if first overall pick Baker Mayfield has anything to say about it. But with a more schematically diverse play-caller in head coach Hue Jackson and a receiver group featuring Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry, Corey Coleman and David Njoku, Taylor has the opportunity to reclaim starting status.
He'll need to work on his touch with short and intermediate passes, but you'd think most teams with quarterback problems would like a guy who can run productively, throw deep and has a 51-16 touchdown to interception ratio over the last three seasons.
It's possible Taylor's best work is ahead of him.
Alex Collins, RB, Baltimore Ravens
A 2016 fifth-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks out of Arkansas, Alex Collins gained just 125 yards and scored one rushing touchdown on 31 carries in his rookie season. The Seahawks waived him in September last year, and after a brief stop on the Jets practice squad, Collins signed with the Baltimore Ravens as an afterthought.
Soon, he was pushing for reps in Baltimore's backfield, and when the 2017 season ended, he'd become one of the year's pleasant surprises, rushing for 973 yards and six touchdowns on 212 carries, adding 23 catches for 187 yards.
At 5'10" and 210 pounds, Collins is more of a "move" running back than an old-school thumper, but he's able to break through tackles with persistence. Last season, per PFF, he averaged 3.0 yards per carry after contact and broke 34 tackles on his 212 rushes. Moreover, Collins is a spectacular outside runner, as he uses his lateral agility and quickness to blast past defenders to get to the second and third levels.
Baltimore's offense was a disappointment last season, but Collins was the one player trending upward on a week-to-week basis.
Dion Lewis, RB, Tennessee Titans
In January, the NFL1000 scouting crew ranked Dion Lewis as the league's fourth-best running back, which seems like a curious designation for a guy who gained 896 yards and scored six rushing touchdowns on 180 carries. Lewis' 33 carries for 135 postseason yards added a bit of juice, but to understand what made him so effective in the New England Patriots' system, you have to watch the tape.
At 5'8" and 195 pounds, Lewis has a surprising, underrated ability to get yards after contact between the tackles. He's also an outstanding receiver and blocker, and when he wasn't in a rotation of backs, he proved more than able to take that responsibility. Last December, he gained 398 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns on just 83 carries, adding 17 catches for 127 yards and two TDs. He also ranked first in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics, both per play and cumulatively.
Signed by the Tennessee Titans to a four-year, $20 million contract in the offseason, Lewis will likely replace DeMarco Murray in a rotation with Derrick Henry. With Lewis as the speed back and Henry as the power guy, Tennessee will have one of the league's better rushing duos—and it's all predicated on Lewis' versatility and effectiveness.
Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
Selected by the Detroit Lions in the third round of the 2017 draft out of Northern Illinois, Kenny Golladay had quite the debut against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1. He caught four passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns, all while dealing with an ankle injury that had him listed as questionable that week.
"Babytron" made cornerback Justin Bethel's life miserable, beating him for a touchdown on a corner route and then smoking him downfield with a vertical stem up the right seam. The 6'4", 213-pound Golladay showed a combination of speed and athleticism that would give any defender nightmares.
The rest of the season didn't go quite like that, though Golladay had his moments between bouts with injury. When he was on the field and healthy, he surprised cornerbacks on the edge with a subtle understanding of routes from the snap—it was especially impressive how he gained separation with movement in his first few steps—and a gliding second-level speed that made big plays possible.
Golladay caught just 28 passes for 477 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie campaign, but this is no one-hit wonder—in a high-volume passing offense like Detroit's, any receiver will get his reps, and Golladay has more ability than most.
Kendall Wright, WR, Minnesota Vikings
In 2017, Kendall Wright led the Chicago Bears in both receptions (59) and receiving yards (614) in a passing offense that was staid and easy to diagnose. It was also without elite targets outside of Wright, which didn't help rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.
The most interesting thing about Wright's status as the Bears' leading receiver was that he spent most of his time in the slot. That's an indictment of Chicago's 2017 outside targets, but it's also an indication that even in a broken offense, Wright could get open easily for big plays with speed off the line and the ability to torque his body outside of coverage within route concepts.
Wright's 2018 prospects are exciting because of the setting he's stepping into after signing a one-year, $1 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings. With Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen as the primary outside receivers, Wright can kick inside in three-receiver sets and benefit from one-on-one-matchups in the middle of the field and up the seams.
This configuration could make him one of the league's most productive slot receivers once again—and in a far better situation.
David Njoku, TE, Cleveland Browns
There wasn't much for the Cleveland Browns to crow about in their 2017 offense—when you become the second team in NFL history to finish a season 0-16, that sets the narrative. Cleveland's passing game, in the hands of rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, ranked ninth in attempts but 22nd in yards, 28th in touchdowns and led the league in interceptions.
It's hard to find a standout in such a disaster, but tight end David Njoku did so frequently, and with a new quarterback battery that includes free-agent veteran Taylor and first overall pick Mayfield, things could be looking up soon for the second-year man from Miami.
Taken with the 29th overall pick in the 2017 draft, Njoku fits the prototype of the "big receiver" tight end who's more about the full route tree than staying in and blocking, and he showed flashes of great potential in Cleveland's broken passing game.
The Browns lined Njoku up everywhere from in the formation to wide as the "X" receiver isolated on the opponent's best cornerback, and when he was presented with a half-accurate pass, which wasn't often, he displayed great in-line speed, a developing sense of route awareness and a knack for getting open in traffic.
Njoku caught just 32 passes for 386 yards and four touchdowns. Don't be surprised if all of those numbers double in 2018.
Chris Jones, DE, Kansas City Chiefs
Justin Houston and Tamba Hali had been the rock stars of the Kansas City Chiefs defensive line for some time, but with both players fading in recent years and Hali's release from the team in March, it's time for a new leading face on that line. Fortunately for the team and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, Chris Jones seems more than able to take on that title.
At 6'6" and 308 pounds, Jones is listed as a defensive tackle, and though he is an effective run-stopper, he's not just a power pig responsible for cleaning things up in the middle so other defenders can get things done. Playing on either shoulder of the left guard or over the guard's head, Jones amassed 6.5 sacks in his second season last year, as well as a ton of pressures, with an impressive set of moves designed to use his upper-body strength.
Jones can negate a blocker with an arm-over move as he rushes past his opponent. He's strong enough to demolish a lineman with a straight-up bull rush, at which point he'll turn on the jets and get to the quarterback. In other instances, he'll shove a blocker aside and take the clear path for negative yardage. And in Sutton's multiple fronts, he also has the ability to rush off the edge.
In just two NFL seasons, Jones has become one of the league's most exciting, complete defensive linemen.
Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
When a third-round draft pick amasses 20 sacks over his first two seasons, you'd expect buzz around his name. But when he's part of what looks to be the NFL's best, most talent-stacked defense, public awareness is more complicated.
Such is life for Yannick Ngakoue, selected out of Maryland in 2016. He had an immediate impact on the Jacksonville Jaguars defense in his rookie year, putting up eight quarterback takedowns and showing an impressive ability to stop the run. And last season, per Pro Football Focus, Ngakoue had 70 total pressures as he made life even more difficult for opposing blockers.
Ngakoue is almost comically fast off the snap—if the left tackle doesn't get his hands up quickly to counter his outside move, Ngakoue can rush right past him. A bit raw from a technique standpoint when he came into the league, Ngakoue is learning the little things: how to fool a blocker with an inside counter, how to close to the pocket with efficiency and how to diagnose the play and use his speed as a positive on every down as opposed to getting washed out with a more reckless style.
And as athletic as he is, the Jaguars can use him in three-linemen formations and rush him from linebacker depth, making life even tougher for whoever's trying to block him.
Ngakoue looks to be a future sack leader on a defense that could propel its franchise to a Super Bowl for the first time. Maybe then he'd get the recognition he deserves.
Carl Lawson, OLB/DE, Cincinnati Bengals
Carl Lawson was on the field for about half of the Cincinnati Bengals' snaps in his rookie campaign, per ESPN.com's Katherine Terrell, and primarily as a right-side outside linebacker or defensive end, depending on the scheme. Lawson's coverage skills were lacking when he came out of Auburn, which was the primary reason he wasn't on the field more—because when he was in his assigned spot, he made a big difference.
The rookie garnered 8.5 sacks in those limited opportunities with a seemingly chaotic style in which he combined hellish speed and power when he turned back toward the pocket. It's a rough go for any left tackle facing him, especially when Lawson adds a hand swipe or bull rush to the last few steps of his run before he gets to the quarterback. When Lawson's dialed in from a technique perspective, he's nearly impossible to stop.
Now, head coach Marvin Lewis wants him on the field more in a hybrid role in which he may play different depths of the field and cover, per Terrell. Lawson could also be moved around the formation to rush from different angles in a defense run by new coordinator Teryl Austin.
That's all well and good if Lawson can become more versatile, as long as Lewis and Austin don't take too many snaps away from his doing what he does best, because he's one of the NFL's more intriguing young edge-rushers—especially at a position where it generally takes a full season for players to get the hang of the pro game.
William Jackson, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
Selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the first round of the 2016 draft out of Houston, William Jackson lost his entire rookie season to a torn pectoral muscle. He got on the field for 2017 and had as good a year as anyone could've expected.
Essentially a rookie, Jackson proved the interception is far from the ultimate statistical bar for evaluating pass defenders. He had just one pick in 15 games and five starts, but per Pro Football Focus, he allowed an opponent passer rating of 36.1—only Jacksonville's A.J. Bouye had a lower passer rating allowed. Moreover, he didn't allow Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown—quite possibly the game's greatest receiver—to catch a single pass in two games.
Jackson has incredibly quick feet off the line of scrimmage, and his agility allows him to follow receivers throughout their routes regardless of their speed or size. And when he is targeted, he takes an aggressive attitude toward the ball without sacrificing coverage for the desire for a takeaway. And his recovery speed—the ability to correct course on the fly and stick with a receiver through the end of a route—is already among the league's best.
There's no question Jackson has the potential to be one of the NFL's top cornerbacks, because he already is—and he established that in his first season on the field.
Tre'Davious White, CB, Buffalo Bills
Marshon Lattimore of the New Orleans Saints was the NFL's most talked-about rookie cornerback in 2017, with good reason—the Ohio State alum picked off five passes and played at a lockdown level nearly all year. However, there's an argument to be made that the Buffalo Bills' Tre'Davious White, taken in the first round out of LSU, had an even better season. Certainly, White has as much potential as any cornerback who's come into the league in recent years.
It's difficult for rookie pass defenders to excel in both zone and man coverages. Generally in college, you're running fewer complicated concepts. But with the Bills, White was great regardless of the coverage. Per Pro Football Focus, he allowed an opponent passer rating of 72.6 in his zone, and when he switched to man coverage, he allowed a 58.3 rating. Either way, he backed up his four interceptions and 18 passes defensed with outstanding coverage throughout the season.
Whether he's playing deep coverage to the boundary or matching up with a bigger receiver in the red zone, White has the raw speed and movement skills, as well as the schematic versatility, to be one of the game's best pass defenders over the next few years.
Tre Boston, S, Free Agent
Forget hype. Tre Boston needs a job.
It's an odd situation for the former Carolina Panthers and Los Angeles Chargers safety, who put up a career-high five interceptions in 2017. Yes, he's part of a soft safety market that includes Eric Reid and Kenny Vaccaro. But Boston has the ability to do one thing every team desperately needs: He can play center field in the defense's deep third, running to either side of the field to help with coverage and contesting speed receivers on post and vertical routes.
Boston has visited the Colts and Cardinals, per ESPN's Josina Anderson and Adam Schefter, and Arizona head coach Steve Wilks was Boston's defensive backs coach with the Panthers in 2015 and 2016. It would seem to be a good fit, but again, any team without a clear center field safety would do well to check out Boston.
Per Pro Football Focus, he allowed just three receptions on 12 passes he was the target of last season, and he deflected and intercepted more passes than he allowed to become catches.
Boston's employment status is a mystery, but some team will get a major bargain when it does sign him.