8 Underrated NFL Players Who Can Swing Division Races in 2020
Continuity often plays a pivotal role in a team's chances to win a division and make a playoff run.
The Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs serve as ideal examples. They built around the talent already on the roster until they reached the point where they were two of the NFL's best teams.
Yes, both franchises made significant moves last offseason before going on their impressive runs, but the core of their squads were built on homegrown talent, even those who aren't considered superstars.
Contending isn't just about standouts like Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. It's also about underrated players who serve as the roster's glue.
Quite a lot must be unpacked to establish parameters to name these individuals.
First, an underrated player by our definition is someone who hasn't made a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team. Yet, said player must be capable of creating an impact large enough to potentially swing a division race. This means they must play for teams who didn't win the division last season. Also, we're not looking at players added to the roster this offseason because they weren't with the team a season ago to be underappreciated when their squad wasn't as good.
With all of that in mind, the following eight players can swing the NFL's 2020 division races.
AFC East: Buffalo Bills S Jordan Poyer
The AFC East is now littered with young quarterbacks who must face two of the league's best secondaries, including the Buffalo Bills'.
Tom Brady served as the primary advantage for the New England Patriots over the last 20 years. The Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets have all made significant quarterback investments over the last two years, while the Patriots are finally unsettled at the game's most important position.
Thus, whichever team takes over the division will do so by consistently frustrating the likes of Sam Darnold, Jarrett Stidham and Tua Tagovailoa.
The Bills easily feature the league's most underrated safety tandem, though Micah Hyde made the Pro Bowl in 2017. His running mate, Jordan Poyer, has received little to no recognition despite being one of the most well-rounded players at his position.
Since joining the Bills during the 2017 campaign, Poyer has amassed 302 total tackles, including a career-high 107 last season, 22 defended passes and 11 interceptions. He set another career high last season with three forced fumbles.
Basically, Hyde and Poyer are interchangeable pieces who can line up in the box, play deep in coverage, cover the slot and even rush the passer on occasion. This type of flexibility will create confusion for young quarterbacks who aren't yet certain of what they're seeing pre- and post-snap. As such, Poyer, who has played in 47 of the 48 possible regular-season games with the Bills over the last three years, will help create the type of impact to potentially place the Bills atop the AFC East.
NFC East: Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup
So much of the Dallas Cowboys offseason has been centered on wide receivers other than Michael Gallup.
Amari Cooper became the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver in total contractual value when he signed a five-year, $100 million extension prior to the start of the 2020 league year.
Then the Cowboys drafted Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb with this year's 17th overall pick because owner/general manager Jerry Jones "just didn't want to miss him," per ESPN's Todd Archer.
Gallup quietly put together a 1,107-yard campaign in 2019 with quarterback Dak Prescott setting career highs with 4,902 passing yards, 30 touchdown tosses and an average of 8.2 yards per attempt.
Lamb remains an important part of this equation. Cooper is obviously the team's top receiving threat. The coaching staff, meanwhile, loves how it can use the rookie.
"He has the ability to move around and create favorable matchups," head coach Mike McCarthy said, per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Clarence E. Hill Jr.
McCarthy's point is important because it involves projection of utilization and how opponents will attempt to match the Cowboys' impressive wide receiver corps.
Gallup isn't just underappreciated on a national level. He'll be overlooked by defenses that will roll coverage toward Cooper or worry about where Lamb lines up. The third-year target can quietly go about his business and make secondaries pay.
This is significant since all three of Dallas' NFC East rivals finished among the bottom half of the league in pass defense last season.
AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers CB Steven Nelson
The Baltimore Ravens are the team to beat in the AFC North, and they're coming off a season in which the offense set an NFL single-season record for total rushing yardage.
So how can a cornerback swing the momentum to dethrone the reigning champions?
The answer is simple yet difficult to achieve: Cornerbacks with lockdown ability will allow defenses to commit more bodies to the box and slow down Lamar Jackson and Co.
Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick are already standout performers to give the Steelers one of the league's best secondaries, but Nelson is every bit as good without the recognition.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 27-year-old defensive back allowed only 33 receptions in 500 coverage snaps last season. He built on the success he experienced the prior season with the Kansas City Chiefs when Nelson ranked among the eight best cornerbacks with 20 forced incompletions, four interceptions and a 53.1 reception percentage allowed.
Nelson is a man-cover machine, which will allow the Steelers to do more as a defensive unit.
"When he’s been targeted, he's pretty much been shutdown," teammate Mike Hilton said during the 2019 campaign, per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler.
It's not just about slowing Baltimore's offense. The Steelers secondary has to shut down other divisional opponents that feature outstanding wide receivers in Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd.
NFC North: Chicago Bears LB Roquan Smith
The Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings outpaced the Chicago Bears in the NFC North last year despite the fact that the Bears finished in the top eight in total and scoring defense. Chicago's defense will likely have to be even better in 2020 to help offset its suspect offense.
The unit already has legitimate difference-makers in Khalil Mack, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson. However, Roquan Smith may be the most important piece of the puzzle moving forward because of how offenses in the division are currently constructed.
The Packers decided not to address their need for a starting-caliber wide receiver in free agency or the draft. Instead, they added to their running back and tight end stable. Smith will need to defend Aaron Jones in space and stop a 250-pound AJ Dillon from running downhill.
The Minnesota Vikings were one of three teams to run the ball more than they threw it last season. Their wide-zone approach requires linebackers to remain disciplined yet show enough athleticism to defend the run beyond the tackle box.
Even the Detroit Lions have two talented tight ends in T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James that opposing linebackers must handle.
The 2018 overall eighth pick has the skill set to excel against each of these opponents after recovering from last season's shoulder labrum tear.
"I saw unbelievable growth from him [in 2019]," Bears inside linebackers coach Mark DeLeone said of Smith, per the Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Potash. "From the first game to the 13th game, saw growth in him on and off the field. I see a 22-year-old guy who is only going to continue to improve."
AFC South: Tennessee Titans TE Jonnu Smith
Every opponent the Tennessee Titans face will intend to stop last year's leading rusher, Derrick Henry. It's how the Titans build off their ground-and-pound attack that will determine how successful they can be in the AFC South and the playoffs.
A.J. Brown led all rookies and the Titans last season with 1,051 receiving yards. Jonnu Smith finished third on the team with 439 yards. The tight end's utilization should increase dramatically during his fourth season.
A year ago, Smith forced 14 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The number ranked third behind last year's first- and second-team All-Pro tight ends, George Kittle and Travis Kelce.
Both Kittle and Kelce had at least 85 receptions, which more than doubled Smith's output—in Kelce's case his 97 receptions nearly tripled Smith's 35 snags—which makes the Titans tight end's forced missed tackle total even more impressive.
Smith should grow into an integral cog in Tennessee's offense because the team can keep its tight end on the field whether it's going to run or pass the ball.
This allows the play-action game to be very effective, especially when the unit can rely on Smith to threaten the seam and create after the catch.
The more weapons that emerge in Tennessee's passing game will make the Titans more difficult to defend in a division where they must outpace the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts, now led by Philip Rivers.
NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers C Ryan Jensen
Centers are often overlooked even though they initiate every play and must work cohesively with the quarterback and at least four other blockers on a down-by-down basis.
Ryan Jensen's importance to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2020 campaign shouldn't be dismissed.
Tampa Bay's offense must get on the same page quickly after adding Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Jensen will play an integral part in forging this group into a cohesive unit.
He must establish a rhythm with Brady regarding their exchange while also helping set line protections.
"These minute details so far that I've seen him be concerned with, from something as small as [whether I wear a glove] to cutting on the fourth step, not the fifth step, on a route, it's stuff like that where I'm sure he carries himself through his life like that," Jensen told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer of Brady.
The 29-year-old blocker is one of the league's most powerful and nastiest pivots, which makes him an ideal center for the Buccaneers.
Jensen will compete regularly against the division's talented defensive tackles. The Carolina Panthers drafted Derrick Brown with this year's seventh overall pick. Jensen will battle the New Orleans Saints' Malcom Brown. And the Atlanta Falcons could line up Grady Jarrett or Marlon Davidson as a 1-technique depending on how new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris utilizes his sub-packages.
Preventing interior pressure will be vital to make sure Tampa Bay maximizes Brady's final years.
AFC West: Las Vegas Raiders DE Maxx Crosby
The Las Vegas Raiders finished in the bottom 10 of the league with 32 sacks despite selecting defensive ends with first- and fourth-round picks in the 2019 NFL draft.
Fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby can't be blamed, though. The rookie led the Raiders with 10 sacks. In fact, Crosby was one of two rookies, as well as the Jacksonville Jaguars' Josh Allen, to reach double-digit sacks.
His continued maturation under the supervision of new defensive line coach Rod Marinelli will be vital to any success the Raiders experience in the same division that features the reigning Super Bowl champions.
The Raiders finished 7-9 last season despite the defense's inability to apply consistent pressure. Crosby's contribution and development are vital to slow down Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the division's quarterbacks.
Mahomes is deadly when he works outside the structure of Kansas City's offense. In truth, there's no way to stop the Super Bowl LIV MVP because he's going to make plays. But applying pressure and making him uncomfortable certainly helps a defense's cause.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers will feature starting quarterbacks who are still learning the ropes. Drew Lock will be full-time starter for the first time, while Justin Herbert is expected to eventually take over for Tyrod Taylor. Pressure can destroy a young signal-caller's confidence.
NFC West: Arizona Cardinals RB Kenyan Drake
Kliff Kingsbury's offense was at its best last season when it...*gasp*...ran the ball.
The Arizona Cardinals' spread attack became extremely effective after they traded for running back Kenyan Drake. Kingsbury called spread formations and forced the defense to counter with light numbers in the box, and Drake capitalized by slashing through opponents.
Drake ran for 110 or more yards in three of his eight appearances with the Cardinals and averaged 5.2 yards per carry during that stretch. Pro Football Focus graded the 26-year-old as the NFL's third-most efficient running back after he was traded.
His success is an extension of what the Cardinals can achieve in their second year with Kingsbury and quarterback Kyler Murray leading the way. Plus, the organization traded for four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
Murray and Hopkins will create even more opportunities for Drake.
"I definitely feel with the dynamic weapon Kyler is, teams [won't] run-blitz maybe as much as they would like to or be able to fill the box up as much as they would like," the running back told reporters. "... And then also you add the weapons that we have on the outside, just specifically DeAndre Hopkins, who adds another weapon on the outside that takes away from guys being in the box.
"The less players they have in the box, the easier it is to run against that box."
The Cardinals are young and talented. They'll be a tough opponent for anyone to face. Arizona may not win the NFC West outright, but it is going to have a say in the race. Drake will likely run wild considering the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks finished in the bottom half of the league in yards per carry allowed.