The Most Overrated and Underrated Players on All 32 NFL Teams

Gareth DerbyCorrespondent ISeptember 14, 2011

The Most Overrated and Underrated Players on All 32 NFL Teams

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    Almost every team has a guy who you think, "What do they see in him?"

    Almost every team has a guy who you think, "Wow, that's all the think he's worth? Why isn't he starting?"

    Here's a selection of one of each player from each roster in the National Football League.

    If it was close, I've included some nods to players who almost made the cut, both good and bad.

    I'm sure some people will vehemently disagree and insist that I've got underrated guys as overrated or vice versa. You're most free to passionately advocate for your guy in the comments section.

Buffalo Bills

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    Running back Fred Jackson

    (Also considered: defensive tackle Kyle Williams; quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick)

    Fred Jackson is an undrafted free agent who has outlasted Marshawn Lynch in Buffalo and usurped what should have been C.J. Spiller's starting gig at running back.

    In return, he's given the Bills 2,800 yards rushing at 4.5 yards per carry with 10 touchdowns, 1,000 yards receiving with four touchdowns, 1,200 yards as a kick returner, 200 yards as a punt returner and he's even thrown for a 27-yard touchdown.

    In short, he's done everything, knocked not one but two first-round running backs down the depth chart and even led the league in total yardage in 2009.

    He also happened to have done it in an almost unbelievably quiet fashion. If he'd accomplished the above in a higher-profile team, he'd be a superstar. 


    Running back C.J. Spiller

    Spiller has underwhelmed in his first two years in the league.

    Considering he was drafted ninth overall with a massive amount of fanfare, the productivity is worrisome considering he's running under exactly the same conditions as Fred Jackson.

    Compared to Jackson's 4.5 yards per carry, Spiller has only put up a career average of 3.8, to go with his one rushing touchdown. In the receiving game, he's tallied 142 yards.

    He's been useful as a kick returner, having 1,014 yards off 44 returns in 2010 with a touchdown, but Fred Jackson's 2009 season had Jackson net exactly the same 1,014 yards off only 41 returns.

Miami Dolphins

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    Wide receiver Davone Bess

    (Also considered: tight end Anthony Fasano, wide receiver Brian Hartline)

    Bess is reminiscent of the guy he replaced as the Dolphins' slot receiver, Wes Welker. He's small-ish, but gains separation in the slot through shiftiness and route-running ability.

    And like Wes Welker, he's shown up big in games against divisional rivals, including the New England Patriots.

    The guy hasn't put up ridiculous statistics, but neither did Welker at Miami. What he has done is become a great grafting receiver, particularly adept at putting pressure onto teams on third down. 

    He's also shown a nose for the end zone in his career, scoring five touchdowns in 2010 after two in 2009, and one his rookie year.


    Running back Reggie Bush

    While the Dolphins inherited Bush from the Saints, they traded for Bush and his rather large contract, meaning they also get to inherit some flak for having an overrated guy on the roster.

    Bush has underwhelmed in his NFL career, averaging 4.0 yards per carry as a running back and never quite elevating himself to feature-back status, despite his feature-back tag.

    He's admittedly useful as a decoy and someone to pose matchup issues for opposition defensive coordinators, but given his contract, he's still overpaid and overvalued.

New England Patriots

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    Cornerback Leigh Bodden

    On a team where it seems everyone becomes a household name, one of the only guys currently going under the radar is Bodden. That's partly because he was out injured for 2010 and partly because there are two highly draft young cornerbacks on the roster in Ras-I Dowling and Pro Bowler Devin McCourty. 

    But Bodden is only two years removed from a season where he led the league in minimizing yards after catch from his opposing wide receiver, and he also snagged five interceptions as the sole bright spot in a secondary that couldn't stop anyone.

    If he regains even half that form, he'll be a great bookend to McCourty.


    Wide receiver Deion Branch

     Deion Branch is a very productive undersized receiver in New England. However, put him in any other system with a quarterback who isn't Tom Brady, and he wilts.

    He started off his career in New England and was productive, including winning the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player for his 11-reception effort.

    He then forced his way out of Boston to play in Seattle, where he underwhelmed horribly despite having a decent enough quarterback in (a then-healthy) Matt Hasselbeck.

    Now he's back in New England and productive again, but that's mainly a feature of Brady's accuracy and the supernatural mental connection those two have.

New York Jets

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    Guard Brandon Moore

    (Also considered: nose tackle Sione Pouha, defensive end Mike DeVito, safety Jim Leonhard)

    Moore has emerged as a fantastic commodity beside All-Pro center Nick Mangold, controlling the line of scrimmage and allowing the Jets to have a seemingly impressive run game, no matter which running back is in the backfield.

    He's already pushing Logan Mankins for being called best guard in the division, but in a media-friendly Jets team full of quotable coaches and dramatic players, Moore has flown under the radar.


    Cornerback Antonio Cromartie

    (Also considered: quarterback Mark Sanchez, running back Shonn Greene)

    Cromartie had a tough offseason.

    With Rex Ryan and the Jets pursuing Nnamdi Asomugha unabashedly and with Cromartie knowing he was a free agent whose team seemed to want anyone but him, he must have felt like the red-headed stepchild of the Jets.

    However, he still has his proponents, especially when they take into consideration his penchant for picking up interceptions. 

    However, he gives up as many plays as he makes, and he's also never seen a potential tackle he didn't want to avoid like the plague.

    He's still a useful player but in the eyes of many, interceptions count for more than, well, actual play.

Baltimore Ravens

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    Defensive lineman Haloti Ngata

    (Also considered: linebacker Jarrett Johnson)

    Ngata is a wrecking ball who rivals Ndamukong Suh for destructive ability.

    However, Ngata's reputation is swamped somewhat by his fellow Ravens, including safety Ed Reed, inside linebacker Ray Lewis and outside linebacker/ defensive end Terrell Suggs.

    With all the bigger names on the team getting all the attention, Ngata seems to slip somewhat under the radar despite playing at an All-Pro level most of the time.

    For a guy who is unblockable at times, it seems unfair that most of the press goes elsewhere.


    Offensive tackle Michael Oher

    When you are in a position that doesn't usually get a lot of press unless you're doing something very, very well or very badly, it really helps to have a movie having you as a subject and that stars Sandra Bullock.

    Don't get me wrong, Oher's a good tackle. But he was definitely at his best on the right side, where he can be a road-grader.

    Unsurprisingly, he's been moved back to the right side for 2011 after a rough 2010 on the left. 

    But it's not ideal that a guy whose name features in "The Blind Side" isn't now protecting his quarterback's blind side.

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Fullback Brian Leonard

    Leonard isn't so much a fullback as he is an H-back, as he's a dangerous pass-catcher out of the backfield.

    It's in that role that he has carved out a niche for the Bengals, being the pass-catching, third-down back to Cedric Benson's feature back.

    His stats aren't impressive on the face of it, but you can almost guarantee that if he gets an 8-yard reception, it was probably 3rd-and-7. 

    Most teams would kill to have that kind of dependability.


    Safety Gibril Wilson

    Gibril Wilson didn't play for the Bengals in his 2010 season, so he's one year removed from his awful, awful year with the Miami Dolphins, where he was the worst culprit in the Dolphins secondary in terms of giving up 20-plus yard passes. 

    For those with a longer memory, the play where he whiffed on a 20-yard reception to Dallas Clark (which turned into an 88-yard touchdown) comes to mind. 

    So does Wilson's being cut one year after signing a $39 million, six-year contract with the Raiders.

    Yes. He's a guy who the Raiders cut after one year. And they kept Darrius Heyward-Bey and JaMarcus Russell around for multiple seasons.

Cleveland Browns

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    Tight end Benjamin Watson

    (Also considered: running back Peyton Hillis. quarterback Colt McCoy, utility Josh Cribbs, linebacker Scott Fujita)

    After a slow start to his career at the Patriots, Watson was a disappointment for Patriots fans, after not cashing in on his 6'3" frame and 4.40-second 40-yard dash time. 

    However, Ben Watson was a revelation last year, moving into a Holmgren-inspired West Coast offense and paying dividends.

    He racked up 763 yards on his 63 receptions, 10 of which were longer than 20 yards and that included one that was longer than 40. 

    Considering the overall lack of targets at the Browns this year, he should again get a lot of looks and a lot of yards, and improve upon the dour reputation he eked out in New England.


    Long snapper Ryan Pontbriand

    On a team full of overachievers and no-names, Pontbriand is one of the highest-paid players in his position in the NFL. 

    He's made two Pro Bowls, was drafted in the fifth round (for a position that's rarely drafted at all) and is sitting on a four-year, $2.5 million contract.

    He's one of the best long snappers around, but he's still a long snapper. Is he really worth $825,000 this season?

    It's arguable he is, but he's still a rare luxury on a relatively no-frills team.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Defensive end Brett Keisel

    (Also considered: safety Troy Polamalu, inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, guard/center Doug Legursky)

    Keisel is one of the lynchpins of the Steelers defense, yet continually slips under the radar because he's overshadowed by the big names in Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.

    But his importance goes beyond name recognition; he's one of the reasons a guy like Joey Porter can slip off the roster and the next guy stands up with little or no dropoff.

    He shows all the skills to fit the LeBeau-penned defensive scheme, as he can shoot the gaps on passing downs, gap-control on run plays and can drop into coverage (witness the seven passes broken up and a 79-yard interception for a touchdown in 2010).

    He deserves more credit than he gets and was one of the reasons for the Steelers making the Super Bowl.


    Center Maurkice Pouncey

    (Also considered: quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Mike Wallace)

    Pouncey's good; don't get me wrong. And he's got a remarkable physical skill set worthy of his first-round pick status.

    But from the press he received (and his subsequent Pro Bowl selection), he's clearly rated extremely highly, and perhaps more highly than he warrants.

    In particular, it is worth noting that he was out for the Super Bowl, yet Doug Legursky slipped into the center role and played with aplomb. The Steelers ran particularly well against the Packers, despite Legursky being lined up nose-to-nose with one of the stronger players around in B.J. Raji.

    You do have to wonder a little whether Pouncey is that good when the next guy up stands in and the quality doesn't drop noticeably. 

Houston Texans

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    Free safety Danieal Manning

    In 2010, the Texans secondary bled yardage through every orifice, so it's no surprise that the decided to start anew in 2011.

    On of the moves they made was snapping up Manning, who also fills the spot at kick returner.

    Manning's versatility will be highly useful in Houston, as in his last year with the Bears he was dropping down into the nickel back role and was playing over the top at free safety in regular two-cornerback sets.

    He's also used to play both the regular Cover 2 deep-safety role and as the middle man in Cover 1 and Cover 3 looks, meaning he brings scheme versatility and a wealth of experience into a Houston defensive backfield that was awful at best.

    He never earned his share of the credit in the Bears defense, probably because the attention went on Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and, in more recent times, Julius Peppers and Israel Idonije.

    But his performance on the field, both in defense and on special teams, could allow him to explode as a senior member of an emerging backfield.


    Cornerback Kareem Jackson

    Kareem Jackson was the team's 2010 first-round pick (20th overall) and started every game for the Texans.

    That's the good news.

    The bad news was how often he was picked on, and never showed the kind of solidity a team with questionable safety play needs.

    He is young and bound to improve, but the fact he came in with high hopes and a first-round pick attached to him, along with a five-year, $13 million contract, means that anything short of a lights-out season from him will mean he's overrated.

Indianapolis Colts

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    Wide receiver Reggie Wayne

    Far too often in Wayne's career, words have been uttered to the effect that he's not that's all on Peyton Manning.


    While credit should go to Manning for making his receivers productive, Wayne's ability stands alone.

    Whereas the Colts as a team went backwards with Manning's current injury, Wayne stood up with a seven-reception, 105-yard night with a touchdown with Kerry Collins throwing at him.

    Much as how everyone forgets Marvin Harrison had 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns to his credit even before Peyton Manning was drafted, Reggie Wayne is underrated of his own right as a gifted, big, fast wide receiver with exceptional hands.


    Cornerback Jerraud Powers

    (Also considered: running back Donald Brown)

    I realize Powers had a pick last week, but the real reason he's overrated is that he's keeping Justin Tryon on the bench.

    There's also the argument that he was overdrafted with his third-round pick, but to Bill Polian's credit, Powers has been good enough to start without being benched for bad performance.

    It's just that the guy behind him might be a little better.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Outside linebacker Daryl Smith

    In a word, dependable.

    Since his rookie season in 2004, Smith has only missed four regular-season games and has only not started six possible regular-season games.

    In that time, he's accrued 569 tackles (461 solo), 18 sacks, one safety, 29 passes defensed, five interceptions and forced seven fumbles.

    That's only a touch inferior to draft-year mate Karlos Dansby, who signed a contract in 2010 to make Dansby the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL.


    Outside linebacker Clint Session

    Session had his detractors in his previous home, Indianapolis, as he occasionally dropped off tackles and generally lacked oomph as a playmaker.

    Session slipped into free agency, where he was picked up by the Jaguars to the tune of $30 million in a five-year deal.

    He was clearly the Jaguars' premier free-agent signing and meant to be a marquee player, but $30 million seems a little rich for a guy with four interceptions and 1.5 sacks to his credit.

Tennessee Titans

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    Offensive tackle Michael Roos

    (Also considered: wide receiver Kenny Britt)

    Roos is one of the understated heroes of the Titans' run game and a direct contributor to the success of Chris Johnson.

    While a lot of running backs get most of their yards between the tackles (and thus off the back of the effort of the guards and center), Chris Johnson gets a ridiculous percentage of his gains running off tackle. 

    A lot of that is from his speed, but a great deal of the success is due to Roos, too. Roos gets out and up to seal off the defensive end and/or linebacker, and Johnson's away to the races.

    While Chris Johnson gets a lot of the publicity, Roos deserves a lot of the credit. He doesn't get it, so he makes the underrated list.


    Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck

    After having seen Hasselbeck's first game for the Titans, it seems apparent that he's not quite the player he once was.

    He looked labored behind center and had one of the ugliest passes go for a bizarre touchdown that showcased Kenny Britt's talent and Hasselbeck's occasionally ineptitude.

    Hasselbeck may well be fairly productive this year, but it's more than likely a combination of the unstoppable combination of Chris Johnson and Kenny Britt than Hasselbeck himself, at this point.

Denver Broncos

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    Wide receiver Eric Decker

    Decker happens to be behind the mercurial Eddie Royal on the depth chart at the moment, but showed a strong flash in Week 1 with a three-reception, 56-yard effort.

    That isn't a flash in the pan, however, as his rookie season had a remarkable 17.7 yard-per-reception average, too, albeit over only six receptions.

    He did have a fumbling problem his rookie year, fumbling one of his receptions and two of his kick returns, but in reply he had a 25.3-yard kick-return average and a remarkable 25.6-yard punt-return average.

    In short, the guy is dynamic and if Eddie Royal is as hit-and-miss as he is at times, Decker will pick up some of the slack of offense.


    Wide receiver Eddie Royal

    If Decker is going to profit, it will be at the direct expense of Royal.

    After a fantastic rookie season where Royal was pushing 1,000 combined offensive yards, Royal seemed to go backwards in a big way.

    He had his job usurped by Jabar Gaffney and then Brandon Lloyd, and he's ripe to have yet another wide receiver come in over the top and steal his starting position.

    When he plays well, he can be unstoppable, so the lack of consistency is a killer to his rating.

Kansas City Chiefs

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    Brandon Carr

    Carr happens to be the least-known of the two Brandons at cornerback, the other being Flowers.

    Yet Carr surrenders nothing to Flowers in ability; in fact he has almost twice as many passes broken up last season than Flowers (25 to 14).

    While that might suggest that opposition quarterbacks just picked on Carr, Flowers actually had more tackles than Carr (65 to 57), meaning that they must have been targeted relatively similarly.

    If a guy is in the same defensive system and has comparable success to Brandon Flowers, he's doing pretty well, name-recognition notwithstanding.


    Matt Cassel

    Cassel has been a quarterback who definitely has his favorite receivers. 

    In New England it was Wes Welker and Randy Moss (to the detriment of everyone else), and in Kansas City it has been Tony Moeaki and Dwayne Bowe.

    But in 2011, Moeaki is out with injury and Bowe has gone AWOL, with only two receptions for 17 yards. 

    That meant Cassel is floundering, and unless someone fills the void Cassel is going to be dumping off ineffectively to his running backs all season.

Oakland Raiders

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    Offensive tackle Jared Veldheer

    Veldheer had a strange start to his career, for after being scouted as a tackle, he started his first game for the Raiders at center.

    He soon migrated outward, eventually ending up starting at the premier left tackle spot, and did so with aplomb.

    It's no surprise, then, that the Raiders' run game is resurgent after Veldheer's addition. His flexibility, general ability and willingness to do what is necessary for the sake of the team means he's underrated as a player.


    Cornerback Stanford Routt

    Routt has, in the same breath, one of the easiest and yet hardest jobs in the NFL.

    He has to replace Nnamdi Asomugha, which is painful for any young defensive back.

    But on the other hand, he's able to do it behind a defensive line, featuring Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Lamarr Houston and Matt Shaughnessy, that routinely slaughters opposition quarterbacks.

    The fact is that with a good run game chewing up clock and scoring points at one end, and the fearsome pass rush when the Raiders are defending their own line, Stanford Routt may look like he's Nnamdi Asomugha without actually playing like Nnamdi Asomugha.

    That in itself will be overrating Routt.

San Diego Chargers

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    Nose tackle Antonio Garay

    Garay had a breakout year in 2010 after a few years bouncing around in practice squads or injured.

    Despite playing in the unglamorous 3-4 nose tackle position, Garay amassed 48 tackles and an impressive 5.5 sacks, and generally helped shore up a defensive line that gave other teams strife.

    He's started 2011 well, too, getting four tackles and a sack in the first game.

    He might not quite have household-name recognition, but if he keeps up with his 2010 and early 2011 form, he deserves it.


    Wide receiver Vincent Jackson 

    (Also considered: wide receiver Malcom Floyd)

    Vincent Jackson did himself a disservice in 2010 by holding out, as he sat out while Philip Rivers seemed to continue without skipping a beat.

    When he came back he was productive again, but the damage had been done. The seed of the idea is that maybe it wasn't Jackson's talent, but instead Rivers's arm, that did the most work in San Diego.

    He's still a 240-pound, 6'5" freak who runs a blisteringly quick 4.45-second 40, but you have to wonder whether Rivers would be mega-productive with pretty much anyone.

Dallas Cowboys

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    Tight end Jason Witten

    Jason Witten was accused by Terrell Owens of conspiring with Tony Romo to take TO out of the game.

    It's more likely that Witten is just a far, far more reliable receiving asset than Owens.

    That's carried through into 2011, where he racked up yet another 100-yard game, this one a six-reception, 110-yard effort in a losing battle against the Jets.

    That fits with his overall productivity, as three of his last four seasons have seen him hit 1,000 yards. Of the seasons where he was the undeniable starter, he hasn't gained fewer than 750 yards.

    Bear in mind his last season (all 94 receptions, 1,000 yards of it), was done with two different starter quarterbacks, one of whom was definitely not Tony Romo.

    What conspiracy, TO?


    Quarterback Tony Romo

    Romo throws for a lot of yardage, and he gets touchdowns at a fair clip.

    His career quarterback rating (yes, that inferior old device) is a highly respectable 95.6 and his completion rate is 64.1 percent.

    So why overrated?

    He's a flat-track bully. He rips bad teams and racks up easy yardage and touchdowns, but tightens up horribly when he needs to be at his best.

    Whether it's fumbling as a holder, throwing stupid passes into Darrelle Revis or generally throwing ill-advised passes or taking bad sacks, he finds a way to slump at just the wrong moment.

New York Giants

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    Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks

    Nicks is rated highly. But I'm still going to say he's underrated, as he's truly an elite receiver at this point, yet isn't quite recognized as one by enough people.

    In only two years and a game in the league, he's put up almost 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns under his belt, which means he's ahead of the curve set by Marvin Harrison.

    With that kind of production, and with that kind of potential development ahead of him, he'll start being mentioned in the same breath as Andre and Calvin Johnson.


    Quarterback Eli Manning

    Eli says he's not a 25-interception quarterback.

    News flash: When you throw 25 interceptions in a season (and fumble a further seven times and lose five of them), you're a 25-interception quarterback.

    He's good enough to get the ball out quickly and (mostly) into the hands of his own players, but he's made to look better than he is by guys like Nicks and the other list of great wide receivers and tight ends he's had through New York in his time.

Philadelphia Eagles

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    Safety Jarrad Page

    Jarrad Page flew under the radar because most of the offseason attention was paid to the shuffle of cornerbacks of Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

    Quintin Mikell's departure was surely one of the worries for the Eagles' front office at the end of last season.

    Jarrad Page was an unrestricted free-agent tender in New England. However, the new collective bargaining agreement made Page a free agent, and he was lost when he signed to the Eagles.

    In his limited time in New England (he was hurt), he had a pick and generally looked like a solid investment for the Patriots, so it was no surprise that Belichick slapped the tender on him while it was available.

    It was even less surprising that the Eagles came calling in free agency, and he's responded by elevating himself to the top of the depth chart for the team.

    While he won't have the interest of Samuel or Asomugha, he may well have the impact, and he certainly won't have the paycheck.


    Cornerback Asante Samuel

    Asante Samuel is a Cover 2 cornerback.

    He hates being called that and went ballistic at press and fans in New England who dared mention those words to him, but it's true.

    He's at his best in off-coverage, watching the quarterback in his backpedal and hoping for an opportunity to jump a route and pick off a pass underneath. It's what he does, and what he's good at.

    He doesn't tend to play deep (and thus needs a good safety over the top), and he doesn't tend to want to tackle.

    Andy Reid knew this two years ago, and when quarterback Donovan McNabb was surplus to requirements, Reid apparently offered Samuel and McNabb to the Raiders in exchange for Nnamdi Asomugha. The Raiders were interested, but McNabb vetoed a trade to the Raiders, or so the story goes.

    Now Reid has his man Asomugha, and you can only imagine that the move to get Rodgers-Cromartie as well is something of an indictment on Asante Samuel. 

Washington Redskins

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    Wide receiver Jabar Gaffney

    Jabar Gaffney is a battler.

    He's gone from being a four-year underproductive receiver in Houston, to being a solid third wide receiver in New England, to being a chain-moving maestro in Denver and has now emerged as a starting wide receiver in Washington.

    He's done it with good hands, good route-running and just enough athleticism to put pressure on a defense's weak spots.

    Gaffney rarely rates a mention in the press, but he should be considered for the dependability he brings a team. By earning a starting spot he's given himself plenty of reps in which to cement his new reputation.


    Cornerback DeAngelo Hall

    Hall is a hit-and-miss player.

    He's got devastating athleticism and has won the unofficial fastest man in the NFL competition at the Pro Bowl.

    However, he's also prone to jumping routes and missing badly, being burned on as many occasions as he's come up with a big play.

    Four every game where he annihilates a Jay Cutler with four interceptions, there are three where he gets torched at least once through his own impatience and overaggressiveness.

    He does get interceptions, and those who rate players solely by box scores see plenty of picks to his name. What they miss are the touchdowns he gives up over his head when he whiffs on a read.

    Hall is one of those reasons why rating a cornerback solely on interceptions is a bad idea.

Chicago Bears

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    Running back Matt Forte

    At first glance, Forte's career rushing yards-per-carry average of 4.0 might put some off his overall value.

    As a running back in a Mike Martz scheme, he has really come into his own, in case you missed it.

    Rushing the ball in 2010, Forte accumulated 1,069 yards and six touchdowns at 4.5 yards per carry, and also added a 547 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver.

    With Martz at the helm, Forte's upped his levels of productivity and has really grown in his role as dictated by the offensive scheme.


    Safety Brandon Meriweather

    The Patriots cut Brandon Meriweather because of his penchant to play out of position and not play with an appropriate level of discipline or timing.

    Now he finds himself earning starter pay in Chicago on a one-year contract in what is primarily a Cover 2 defense, based on discipline and timing.

    Ruh roh.

    Nobody doubts his ability or his physical attributes, as he runs a 4.47-second 40-yard dash and can hit hard enough to knock out tight ends, but his head wasn't there as he freely admitted doing his own thing and freelancing.

    Somehow he's made two Pro Bowls, but under Bill Belichick, on occasions he couldn't even make the field.

Detroit Lions

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    Defensive end Cliff Avril

    Avril is the fourth part of a defensive line that features Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch, and is probably the lesser name of the bunch.

    Yet it would surprise a lot of people to learn that since his rookie year in 2008, Avril has more sacks than any of his linemates.

    With his 8.5 sacks, five defensed passes and fumble forced in 2010, Cliff Avril doesn't just make up the numbers; he's a legitimate threat of his own accord.


    Wide receiver Nate Burleson

    Burleson is a deep-threat wide receiver whose productivity ebbs and flows with the relative strength of his quarterback.

    While a truly elite receiver like Larry Fitzgerald will find a way to be productive no matter who is at quarterback, Burleson is a step below his production. 

    So while he put up 600 yards with six touchdowns in 2010 (and five receptions for 60 yards last week), he's effectively only reflecting the quality of quarterback.

    That is something less than his reputation, so he's overrated.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Cornerback Antoine Winfield

    Winfield lacks the obscene interception totals of some cornerbacks, but he's slowly accumulating quite a resume to his name.

    He's become a multi-talented threat, tackling with solid technique and rarely slipping off, as well as being able to get to the quarterback and pick off the odd pass.

    In 2010, he racked up almost a hundred tackles, had two sacks, batted down five passes, picked off two, had 41 return yards and forced two fumbles.

    He deserves to be in the same conversation as division-mates Charles Woodson or Tramon Williams.


    Donovan McNabb

    McNabb got a free pass from the 2010 season because he was part of a mega-dysfunctional Washington Redskins team that self-destructed.

    It also didn't help him that his No. 1 receiver to start the year, Joey Galloway, was cut midseason for lack of production, and he generally struggled to throw to guys who could catch or function in a way expected of an NFL player.

    But in 2011 he has no excuses, and he has a receptive coach who is trying to grease the wheels by having the team run an offense familiar to him. So when he has an awful, awful game, it's on his own head.

Green Bay Packers

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    Nose tackle B.J. Raji

    B.J. Raji is completely overshadowed by the big names on the Green Bay defense, particularly Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Clay Matthews III.

    However, far more attention needs to be paid to Raji, for he is a true terror in the trenches.

    He often rocks the pocket and flushes the quarterback into areas where Matthews can get to him. 

    It's only when Raji pulls out a highlight-reel play (like his pick-6 last year) that he gets any press in a star-studded Packers defense.


    Clay Matthews III

    Matthews is a gifted blitzer, perhaps the best in the league at it. Notice I said "blitzer," not pass-rusher. 

    His pass-rush moves seem to be...uh, run really fast around the outside. 

    And that's about it.

    He's also not particularly good against the run, not particularly good shedding blockers and not particularly good in coverage.

    He's brilliant in Dom Capers's defensive scheme because Capers puts him in a position to blitz and get to the quarterback when he's uncovered, but he'd disappear in a scheme where he's having to shed his own blocks.

Atlanta Falcons

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    Linebacker Curtis Lofton

    Curtis Lofton seems to be Atlanta's little secret.

    He's a tackling machine in a way similar to New England's Jerod Mayo, but Lofton has shown himself more than capable of making big plays, too.

    In his short career at middle linebacker, he's notched up 273 tackles, three sacks, eight passes defensed, one pick and six fumbles forced.

    He also has resiliency, as he hasn't missed a game in three full seasons.


    Defensive end Ray Edwards

    Edwards lucked into getting to Atlanta, as he's gone from being the bookend defensive end opposite Jared Allen at the Vikings to being the bookend defensive end opposite John Abraham at the Falcons.

    This means that he has a good chance to replicate the stats he had in Minnesota.

    But the suspicion is that his production at Minnesota was because Allen drew so much attention. Now he's got a big-money contract, and it's unclear whether he's quite worth it.

Carolina Panthers

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    Wide receiver Steve Smith

    Remember this guy?

    Once upon a time he was a punt returner who took on offensive snaps and became unbelievably productive as an undersized, lightning-quick receiver.

    After a succession of quarterbacks incapable of throwing the ball downfield, Smith's production as a deep threat disappeared and it wasn't his fault. There's only so much a deep threat can do with a guy who can't throw deep, after all.

    But now he's got a rookie quarterback with a cannon arm, and suddenly he's ridiculously productive again. 


    Cam Newton

    That rookie quarterback with a cannon arm? Yeah, he's got some gifts.

    But he's not quite 422-yards good. 

    That's on Smith, because Newton just rolled up and threw it downfield, and Smith went out and fetched it. It's a good start, and it'll be a productive pairing, but it's more about Smith than Newton.

New Orleans Saints

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    Running back/returner Darren Sproles

    Sproles is almost impossible to entirely take out of the game. 

    If he's not running the ball well (remember that, Colts?), catching it out of the backfield, flexed out into the slot, returning punts, returning kicks...

    You get the idea.

    Yet he doesn't seem to get the credit he deserves, because he's always been a complimentary back, whether it be to LaDainian Tomlinson or Pierre Thomas.

    But in even that limited role, he's a game-winner.


    Safety Roman Harper

    Harper's a solid safety, but he was always better with Darren Sharper in the backfield with him to take up the slack.

    Sharper's skills covered over Harper's lack thereof, but now Sharper is gone and Harper is the senior partner to Malcolm Jenkins, he struggled to handle the changeover.

    He's caught out by being a step too slow and being a touch reactive rather than anticipatory, yet people still associate his name with how he played with Sharper beside him.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Quarterback Josh Freeman

    In 2010, Freeman was pushing to be considered the second-best quarterback drafted in 2009.

    In 2011, Freeman might just be pushing to be considered the No. 1.

    He has an ideal frame at 6'6" like Ben Roethlisberger, but is even more mobile and has a similar arm. If he can have a second season of 95-plus quarterback rating, he'd be asking to be let in the door of the elite quarterbacks club.


    Running back LeGarrette Blount

    Blount surprised many last season as he was an undrafted free agent who stuck to a roster and became a starter.

    A nice story for sure, and his stats of 1,000 yards at five yards per carry demand some respect.

    However, it's worth wondering just how much of a product he is of Freeman's wonderful 2010 season.

    Freeman's arm strength meant the secondary had to play deeper than they'd like, and his mobility meant the linebackers couldn't take their eyes off him.

    That opened lanes for Blount, and it's worth noting that even fullback Earnest Graham earned five yards per carry with Freeman in the pocket. 

Arizona Cardinals

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    Linebacker Daryl Washington

    Washington quietly put together an outstanding rookie campaign, featuring 78 tackles, one sack, one pick returned 39 yards, and two passes broken up from his 11 starts, 16 games.

    He's come back as a sophomore in the same vein, with seven tackles, one pick returned 16 yards, and one pass defended in his first game of 2011.

    Keep an eye on him.


    Joey Porter

    Porter was admittedly fairly productive last season, getting five sacks.

    However, at some point or another he has to tip over that edge, and once he does, he's toast.

    It happened to Jason Taylor a year or two ago, it happened to Willie McGinest, and it happened to Mike Vrabel last year.

    So why is it worrisome for Porter? Well, he only got his five sacks in a powder-puff division playing against some awful quarterbacks. That can't bode well, even if he did get a sack his first week of 2011.

St. Louis Rams

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    Safety Quintin Mikell

    Mikell never got the props he deserved in Philadelphia for being the guy who cleaned up all of Asante Samuel's messes. Samuel was exceedingly good at sitting on short routes and jumping them. Everything else, he left to Mikell.

    It's no surprise, then, that in Samuel's years in Philadelphia, Mikell's pass-defending stats skyrocketed.

    He went from a then-career high of five passes broken up in 2007 to nine in 2008 (with three picks), 13 in 2009 (two picks) and 15 in 2010 (three picks).

    He brings that ability to the Rams and has already shown up in another facet, blitzing, registering a sack in his first game.


    Offensive tackle Rodger Saffold

    A lot of ink was unleashed about Saffold, as he was an unexpected pick at the top of the second round of his draft year.

    Much of it was sourced in Indianapolis, as the Colts invested a first-round pick on a defensive end (when they already had Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney), while they arguably needed a strengthened offensive line.

    When Saffold started his rookie season and was surprisingly good, tears were shed.

    However, Saffold seems to have fallen off a bit, and perhaps the initial scouting putting him closer to a third- or fourth-round level were more accurate. He may pull through, but it could be a rough transition from gifted rookie to seasoned pro.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Defensive lineman Justin Smith

    If Smith played elsewhere, he'd have a lot more attention.

    He's had a phenomenal run, notching up at least six sacks in eight of his 11 seasons. He's also started off 2011 with a bang, getting another two sacks to his tally.

    It seems the guy's only crime is playing on the West Coast.


    Safety Donte Whitner

    Oh, Donte Whitner. 

    He's a tackling machine, and there is no qualms about his ability to be around the ball.

    It's just that he's around the ball so often that you'd think he'd do more with it.

    He just lacks that...something...the thing that makes Troy Polamalu special. Whitner is always likely to scrag down the ball-carrier, but not much else.

Seattle Seahawks

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    Defensive end Chris Clemons

    In case you missed his 2010 season, Clemons was a quarterback destroyer.

    He amassed 11 sacks on top of his 49 total tackles. He also forced a fumble and generally made a nuisance of himself to opposition offenses.

    Given it was the first season where he started 16 games and he's been nominated a starter again in 2011, he has a good chance to repeat and cement his reputation.

    But at the moment, he's underrated solely because people blinked.


    Wide receiver Sidney Rice

    Unlike Clemons, Rice has had plenty of opportunities and has only risen to the occasion once, in 2009.

    It was a spectacular 2009, but you do have to wonder what happened the rest of the time.

    Given he's a wide receiver and how often one-season wonders happen at that position, you'd have to be suspect that he'll be able to get back to that form in an new city, with a new giant contract, new quarterback and new division.