Underrated NFL Players Who Can Swing Division Races

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJune 3, 2019

Underrated NFL Players Who Can Swing Division Races

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    In a game of inches, sometimes it only takes one lesser-known player to swing an entire division's fortunes.  

    Those non-household NFL names tend to flash warning signs before breaking out and helping to spur a team to the postseason. Think: safety Eddie Jackson last year when he feasted on opposing passers with six interceptions. It applies to veterans, too.

    Some of these underrated names have yet to make a Pro Bowl. Some aren't within the top 10 in terms of cap hit at their position. All of them are generally underappreciated outside their respective markets yet have shown signs of being able to dramatically alter the NFL's landscape. 

    Here is a look at a few said players who can swing divisional races next season, propelling their teams into playoff contention and keeping the race interesting well into December.   

Trey Flowers, Edge, Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Trey Flowers got a five-year, $90 million deal this offseason from the Detroit Lions, yet it was a quiet talking point. 

    That's a shame, too, as Flowers is one of the NFL's best-kept secrets. 

    He hardly garnered major headlines during his time with the New England Patriots, which is incredible considering the 2015 fourth-rounder won a pair of Super Bowls with the team. He developed into a devastating all-around player who was strong against the run (164 total tackles) and created pass pressure (21 sacks, minimum of 6.5 each of the last three seasons). 

    Expected to be the Swiss Army knife in the middle of Matt Patricia's defense, Flowers can hold his own against NFC North bullies such as the Chicago Bears and generate pressure against talented passers like Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Minnesota's Kirk Cousins. 

    These Lions only generated 43 sacks a year ago and relied on the sporadic presence of Ezekiel Ansah. With that era over, Detroit paid Flowers to be the X-factor in a tough division.

Carl Lawson, Edge, Cincinnati Bengals

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    The Cincinnati Bengals are built around the idea that pressure is the key to it all—hence the recent contract extensions for defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. 

    Yet it still isn't enough if Carl Lawson isn't on the field. 

    With Lawson playing just seven games a year ago because of a torn ACL, the Bengals only mustered 34 sacks and, at one point, were on pace to allow the most yards ever. 

    Yet Lawson's upside won't go underappreciated for much longer if he's healthy. As a rookie in 2017, the pass-rusher grabbed 8.5 sacks on a limited rotational basis and was quickly tabbed as a breakout candidate. New defensive coordinator Teryl Austin took over in 2018 and got fired midway through the season—but not before he asked Lawson to spend time at linebacker

    If Lawson is back, playing a bigger percentage of snaps (Michael Johnson is gone) at his best spot and new coaches play quality talents like William Jackson to their strengths, his ability to collapse pockets will also free up quarterback pressures for Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, fully altering the complexion of the unit. 

    With a new coaching staff in place and presumably having learned from the failed experiment last year, the Bengals have Lawson in a position to help swing the AFC North. He's capable of stuttering a Pittsburgh attack without Antonio Brown, as well as Baltimore and Cleveland teams with second-year quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield, respectively, who are still trying to adapt to the pros. 

Ryan Kerrigan, Edge, Washington Redskins

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    Ryan Kerrigan is "underrated" personified. 

    Fans outside Washington and perhaps the NFC East might not have a clue who he is. He's only made the Pro Bowl four times since 2011, has never been an All-Pro and barely makes the top 15 among edge-rusher cap hits in 2019. 

    That's downright incredible, considering the numbers: a whopping 84.5 sacks since 2011, including a minimum of 7.5 in every season, 11 or more four times and 8.5 or more in every season since 2014, with a career-high of 13.5 in there for good measure. 

    The fact that Kerrigan plays for the Redskins is perhaps the lone reason he isn't viewed in the same light as someone like the Denver Broncos' Von Miller. His constant pressure off the edge will be especially dangerous in the NFC East this year, where the Philadelphia Eagles have to worry about Carson Wentz's health and the New York Giants either have to cross their fingers over Eli Manning or start a rookie. 

    If the Redskins can get a game manager playing well under center and avoid the devastating injury bug it suffered over the past two seasons, Kerrigan will be the X-factor who can help win the NFC East. 

Jamison Crowder, WR, New York Jets

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    The New York Jets might be the biggest threat to the New England Patriots in the AFC East, and new arrival Jamison Crowder is no small part of that. 

    The 25-year-old receiver is a 2015 fourth-round pick and has had as many as seven touchdowns in a season. He's also put up 600-plus yards three times and north of 12 yards per catch over the last three years. Despite his deep speed and big-play ability, the Duke product has a 67.2 percent catch rate in four seasons. 

    Simply having Crowder on the field should change the complexion of the offense. Last year's starter in the slot, Jermaine Kearse, caught less than 50 percent of his targets. Only one Jets receiver scored more than two times, had more than 500 yards and averaged more than 12 yards per catch on a respectable clip of playing time (Robby Anderson). 

    Crowder doesn't necessarily have to put up monster numbers to swing a division race, either. If the respect paid to him by opposing defenses frees up Anderson and tight end Chris Herndon for more work, it constitutes a big win. Keep in mind, in the long run, all of that would propel the development of Sam Darnold under center. 

Adam Humphries, WR, Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    There's an arms race in the AFC South to keep pace with Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colt—and even Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans. 

    Adam Humphries might be the secret weapon for the Tennessee Titans. 

    Humphries quietly arrived via free agency after four years in Tampa Bay. The undrafted Clemson product was in a terrible situation yet managed 50-plus catches over his last three seasons and north of a 70 percent catch rate in each of his last two—the final one being a 76-catch performance with 816 yards and five touchdowns. 

    Not only is Humphries talented, but his fit in Tennessee also makes him a division-swinging presence. His ability to shake free and inhale targets could mean less exposure for the oft-injured Marcus Mariota and would prevent the need to turn to Ryan Tannehill under center.

    Schematically, it should create a huge opportunity for other targets such as Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, not to mention star tight end Delanie Walker and the tandem of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis in the backfield. 

    Again, his sheer stats won't necessarily blow away fans by season's end. Humphries' fit and abilities, though, could reshape the division.

Chris Carson, RB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The Seattle Seahawks goofed in the first round of the 2018 draft. The front office grabbed running back Rashaad Penny despite already rostering 2017 seventh-round pick Chris Carson. 

    It isn't too hard to see which one will have a bigger impact next year. 

    Carson flashed talent during his 49 attempts as a rookie, gaining 208 yards on a 4.2 per-carry average and catching seven of his eight targets. His sophomore year represented anything but a slump, as he blossomed into a 247-attempt player with 1,151 yards and nine touchdowns on a 4.7 per-carry average and catching 20 of his 24 targets. 

    For comparison's sake, Seahawks coaches weren't thrilled with Penny and gave him just 85 attempts. 

    While a rotation might be trendy and a nice idea for sustainability, Carson is a clear workhorse. And to win in the NFC West and keep quarterback Russell Wilson healthy and effective, the running game will have to take on an even bigger load with receiver Doug Baldwin no longer out there. 

    Carson's transition from underappreciated to household name would mean quite a bit in an NFC West with a loaded San Francisco offense, a proven innovator in Los Angeles (Sean McVay) and a No. 1 pick (Kyler Murray) with plenty of upside in Arizona.

    If the Carson can keep those offenses off the field and take pressure off Wilson, it would be enough to swing the division away from a team that made a Super Bowl appearance last year.