The NFL has its share of underrated players. With the salary cap working to ensure competitive balance, and rookie wages more or less predetermined, having a roster full of underrated players can be the difference from a last place finish or a berth in the playoffs. New England just won the Super Bowl with Julian Edelman and Malcolm Butler ending up playing huge roles in the Pats' victory. Thanks in large part to these underrated players, the Patriots pulled out a win in last season's Super Bowl.
Some underrated players can be Pro Bowl caliber players like Jason Witten, and still struggle to get their fair share of attention. Others, like the venerable Ike Taylor and scrappy Rob Ninkovich, are lucky to have NFL careers with so much productivity. Most players can be considered to be underrated when their respective teams know of their importance to the team, but most fans and others around the league are less aware of their productivity. Some underrated players are stars in their home towns, but thanks to their youth and inexperience many people don't know much about them. Thanks to the salary cap, there are others who are lucky enough to earn roster spots but don't seem content to just be a name on the depth chart. These are the players who put up some big numbers without breaking the bank and ruining a team's "cap".
Most of these underrated players will put up some serious numbers, only to get snubbed when it comes time to selecting for the Pro Bowl. This happens every season, adding to the ranks of the underrated. The following 20 players are all examples of what constitutes being underrated. There are many stars on this list, but in all cases there are other players who happen to get more attention. These players are the best of the underrated.
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20 Ike Taylor, CB - Pittsburgh Steelers
Ike Taylor has had a long career spent with just one team, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Taylor's body might finally be showing some signs of wear, but his value to the franchise has still been hard to define. Taylor was not exactly destined to be NFL material when he was playing collegiate football at Louisiana-Lafayette. Taylor was a tremendous athlete, coming into the draft with a 4.18 second time in the 40-yard dash.
Taylor was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 125th pick of the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft. Although Taylor has not been selected to participate in the Pro Bowl, he has been one of the most consistent members on the Steelers defense.
19 Alshon Jeffrey, WR - Chicago Bears
Alshon Jeffrey was able to open many eyes with his collegiate play at South Carolina in the competitive SEC. At South Carolina, Jeffrey was once rated as the top recruit in the SEC, earning runner-up recognition for the 2010 Biletnikoff Award after making 88 catches for 1,517 yards. Jeffrey was pretty well known in the professional ranks. He had the 4.5 second 40-yard dash speed and 215 pound body to go along with his long 6-foot-3 frame. His combination of size and speed, made him a can't miss type of prospect heading into the 2012 NFL Draft.
The Bears selected Jeffrey in the second round. He took a season to get adjusted, but has been looking like a bargain the last couple of years. In the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined, Jeffrey has caught 174 passes for 2,554 yards and 17 touchdowns. This is quite an impressive tally, considering Jeffrey has pretty much been Jay Cutler's second receiving choice. With Brandon Marshall moving on from Chicago, Jeffrey won't be on this list for long.
18 Greg Olsen, TE - Carolina Panthers
Greg Olsen has spent a good amount of time playing in relative obscurity, since his days as a college player when he transferred from Notre Dame to the University of Miami.
Olsen ended up being drafted by the Chicago Bears, with the 31st selection in the first round. He started in only four games as a rookie, but still managed to have 29 catches and 391 yards. Since joining the Carolina Panthers in 2011, Olsen has become one of Cam Newton's favorite targets. He keeps improving his productivity each year he has been with the Panthers, leading up to the 84 catch, 1,008 yard season he had last year. Olsen earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2014 and could if he continues his improvement, he certainly will have more, but will be under the radar with tight end phenoms like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.
17 Marshal Yanda, G - Baltimore Ravens
Marshal Yanda entered the draft with little expectations and ended up being selected by the Baltimore Ravens in the third round, with the 86th pick.
Yanda has been a force since entering the NFL, getting enough attention to get selected to four Pro Bowls. He is one of the best pulling guards in the league, with the ability to knock people off their feet when he has a full head of steam. Yanda has been a consistent performer on the Baltimore Ravens offensive line. Since the Ravens struggled in 2013 with a zone blocking scheme, things improved last year with more mauling by Yanda, and the key addition of Justin Forsett. Yanda played a big part in helping Joe Flacco get a Super Bowl ring, and continues to do all the grunt work on the Ravens' offensive line.
16 Nate Solder, T - New England Patriots
Quality left tackles are hard to come by in the NFL, and the New England Patriots appear to have a good one in Nate Solder. Solder is able to use his long arms and great size, 6-foot-8 and 320 pounds, to keep defenders at bay. Solder was a durable player at Colorado, starting in every game during three seasons of play after he switched to tackle, but Solder was still a raw prospect.
Solder ended up being the second tackle taken in the 2011 NFL Draft. The New England Patriots have been rewarded by Solder's consistency. Last season, Tom Brady was only sacked 21 times with Solder protecting his blind side. Solder has been solid in pass protection and has been able to use his power and speed to push defenders off the ball or take out defensive backs in the open field. Thanks to Solder, Tom Brady can do his thing and continue to grab all the headlines at the same time.
15 Anquan Boldin, WR - San Francisco 49ers
Anquan Boldin has been able to make many tough catches throughout his career, despite being the second receiver. A standout quarterback in high school, Boldin was converted to wide receiver in college where he played for Florida State in his junior and senior seasons before moving on the the 2003 NFL Draft. Boldin was a terrific athlete, but his combine times were quite slow.
The Arizona Cardinals took notice and selected Boldin with the 54th pick overall. He has since carved a niche as one of the league's most dependable possession receivers, thanks to his great size, adequate speed and impressive hands. Boldin has 940 receptions for 12,406 yards and 70 touchdowns in his 12 seasons as a pro, but he has only been selected to three Pro Bowls. Boldin has been consistent, with at least 1,000 receiving yards in seven NFL seasons, and has been no stranger to making a big catch. He has been so good at getting tough yards that his lack of big yardage plays contributes to him being underrated.
14 Jason Peters, T - Philadelphia Eagles
Jason Peters certainly has impressive size, 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds, and superior athleticism that enable him to do a good job protecting the quarterback, but his dominant play at the left tackle position is often easy to overlook.
Peters went undrafted in 2004 and finally caught on with the Buffalo Bills, where he learned how to play tackle. He moved into the starting lineup in 2006 and became the starting left tackle in 2007. He started to draw some attention in Buffalo, eventually landing in Philadelphia when contract issues forced him out in 2009. Peters has been selected to seven Pro Bowls, but still hasn't gotten the respect he deserves thanks to his contract issues and some poor decisions off the field. He is still one of the most dominant left tackles in the game today.
13 Antonio Brown, WR - Pittsburgh Steelers
Despite leading the league in receptions and receiving yards in 2014, many sports fans still do not know much about Antonio Brown. Brown played in relative obscurity at Central Michigan, being named a first-team All-American as a punt returner in 2008 and 2009. He had enough speed to help anchor a state champion 4x100 relay team at Norland High School in Miami, Florida.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Brown in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft with the 195th pick. Playing with a chip on the his shoulder, Brown has become the league's best receiver that very few people know. In five NFL seasons, Brown has already amassed 390 receptions for 5,259 yards and 28 touchdowns. He has added 2,496 return yards and 4 scores in the return game. Since 239 of his receptions and 3,197 yards of receiving have come in the last two seasons, there is no telling how much Brown will be able to pad his stats.
12 Rob Ninkovich, DE - New England Patriots
The New England Patriots have a habit of finding overachievers on the defensive side of the ball. Rob Ninkovich proved he had the motor to make big plays while he was in college at Purdue. He tied a school record with four quarterback sacks in a game as a junior and repeated the feat against the same opponent, Indiana, in his senior year.
Ninkovich was selected with the 135th pick of the 2006 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints. He bounced around to the Miami Dolphins and back to the Saints, before finally catching on with the New England Patriots. Ninkovich had only 29 tackles in his first 5 seasons playing for different teams. Since becoming a Patriot, he has had 347 tackles in a span of 5 seasons. Continuing to improve, he has registered 24 quarterback sacks and 7 forced fumbles in his last three seasons.
11 Aqib Talib, CB - Denver Broncos
Aqib Talib is used to having to prove himself after coming out of the basketball school of Kansas. At Kansas, he led the nation in pass deflections and had six interceptions as a sophomore. In his senior year, he caught four touchdown passes as a wide receiver and was a unanimous All-American selection as well.
Talib, a tremendous athlete and competitor, was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 20th overall pick in the 2008 Draft. In eight seasons of play, two of which were cut short by injuries, Talib has 27 interceptions and 86 pass deflections. He is coming off two of his most productive seasons as a pro, logging 105 tackles, 8 interceptions and 30 pass deflections in 18 games played. In 2014, he also returned two interceptions for touchdowns. Talib has only been selected to two Pro Bowls and thanks in part to being drafted by Tampa Bay and time lost from injury, his improvement has gone unnoticed.
10 Frank Gore, RB - Indianapolis Colts
Frank Gore was a steady performer for the San Francisco 49ers even though he has only cracked the league's top three rushers once in 2006, with 1,695 yards. He was lucky to have such a successful NFL career following the recovery from a torn ACL that he suffered as a sophomore at the University of Miami. Gore finished his Hurricanes career with 1,975 yards of rushing and 17 touchdowns in limited action. At the 2005 NFL Draft Combine, Gore tried to silence critics that thought he had lost a step by running a respectable 4.55 second 40-yard dash.
Gore was a steal for the 49ers, who drafted him in the third round. Gore has since established himself as the top rusher in 49ers franchise history with 11,073 yards in 10 seasons with San Francisco. Gore also has 64 rushing touchdowns and only 25 lost fumbles in 2,784 rouches. Gore has been selected to five Pro Bowls and has earned his share of acclaim, but there always seems to be other running backs who steal his thunder. He's the definition of consistency with eight seasons with over 1,000 yards. He'll hope to do that with the Colts this coming season.
9 Alex Smith, QB - Kansas City Chiefs
Alex Smith will never be confused with Brett Favre. He will not allow himself to take such chances. Since coming into the league from Utah, Smith has become known more for his efficiency than taking chances by throwing into tight windows downfield. At Utah, he passed for 2,952 yards with 32 touchdowns and ran for another 631 yards in his senior season. In two seasons as a starter at Utah, Smith only had seven interceptions, showing an efficiency that he would carry over to the next level.
Smith was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 1st overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft. Although Smith was an exceptional athlete with a high football I.Q., some scouts thought he might struggle under center. Smith has become a steady starting quarterback in the NFL. For his career, Smith has completed just over 60% of his passes for 20,858 yards, 122 touchdowns and 76 interceptions. He has even passed for 6,568 yards with 41 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions since joining the Kansas City Chiefs.
8 Connor Barwin, LB - Philadelphia Eagles
Connor Barwin is a dynamic football player with exceptional speed, explosive strength and solid football instincts.
Barwin was drafted by the Houston Texans in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft. He struggled somewhat with the Texans, but did enough damage in 2011 to produce 11.5 sacks. Since becoming a member of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, Barwin has 123 tackles, 19.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 15 pass deflections to his credit. Barwin was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2014, and if he continues to improve it will not be his last.
7 DeAndre Levy, LB - Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions defense has always been more about the defensive line with Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh, but DeAndre Levy has been right behind them making most of the tackles. Levy is not big, exceptionally fast or even that quick, yet all he does is make tackles and make plays.
The Lions have been rewarded by Levy's performance. Levy has been a tackling machine, amassing 618 tackles in six seasons of play. In 2013, Levy even added six interceptions and 15 pass deflections, proving that he can also play in the passing game just like he is able to play in run support. He is a steady performer for the Lions on a defense that has had its share of ups and downs.
6 Alfred Morris, RB - Washington Redskins
As the Washington Redskins struggle with stability at the quarterback position, the offense continues to revolve around Alfred Morris. Morris has good size, exceptional balance, and a good burst, enabling him to be as effective at running between the tackles as he is outside of the box. He has a low center of gravity and a solid 220 pound body, enabling him to break his share of tackles and squeeze between blockers for extra yards.
Morris was a steal in the 6th round of the 2012 Draft and made an immediate impact on the Redskins, with a 1,613 yard rushing season in his rookie year. He has gained over 1,000 rushing yards in each season. For his brief career, Morris has 3,962 yards rushing to go with 28 touchdowns. He has started to gain a little attention, earning a selection to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014.
5 Jason Witten, TE - Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys fan base knows how important Jason Witten is to the team, even though many casual NFL fans are pretty quick to label him average. With Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Gates and Vernon Davis representing the past and future at the tight end position, very little attention has been focused on Witten.
In 12 productive seasons of play, Witten has 943 receptions for 10,503 yards and 57 touchdowns. He has been selected to 10 Pro Bowls and has been an All-Pro 6 times. He also has four 1,000 yard seasons and has had four seasons with at least 94 receptions. The problem is that Witten has always been more consistent than spectacular and that has not always resulted in a significant amount of big plays. In the same number of seasons, Gates has about the same yardage (10,014) with fewer receptions (788), but has 99 touchdowns as well.
4 Russell Wilson, QB - Seattle Seahawks
It is hard to call Russell Wilson underrated, but his productivity is not exactly near the top of the league. Russell Wilson is not concerned with yards or touchdowns on his own stat line, preferring instead to produce wins without personal glory. Coming into the draft, there were questions about his height and presence in the pocket. Wilson just goes out and performs, with the intention of breaking perceptions.
Wilson was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Wilson has played a role with the Seahawks, being asked to hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch while making an occasional play downfield. What many people have not come to realize is how successful Wilson is at making that big play. His career quarterback rating of 98.6 is impressive considering his limited opportunities. He has 72 passing and 11 rushing touchdowns in only three seasons of play and has averaged almost 8 yards per pass attempt, completing 63.4% of his passes. Wilson has even rushed for a total of 1,877 yards while passing for over 3,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. He makes his point by winning even if his stats contribute to him being underrated.
3 Philip Rivers, QB - San Diego Chargers
The fiery leader of the San Diego Chargers has been recognized with five trips to the Pro Bowl, yet he always seems to have a place in line when it comes to comparing the AFC's great quarterbacks. The Chargers ended up with Philip Rivers when Eli Manning balked at becoming a Charger, leading to a trade with the New York Giants that included the swapping of their first round picks.
Although Manning has won two Super Bowls with the Giants, Rivers has the better stats. Rivers has a career quarterback rating of 95.7, along with 36,655 yards of passing, 252 touchdowns and only 122 picks. Despite all his individual success as a quarterback, the Chargers have been unable to add more significant wins to his resume. Rivers continues to toil in the shadows of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and even the man he replaced in San Diego, Drew Brees. Despite lacking Pro Bowl caliber offensive linemen and wide receivers, Rivers continues to put up impressive stats. If the Chargers can make a push for a Super Bowl instead of a push for L.A., Rivers might get the legacy he deserves. If not, he will remain underrated.
2 Steve Smith, WR - Baltimore Ravens
Steve Smith spent most of his career playing in relative obscurity at Carolina. Being rather small in stature and from humble beginnings, Smith has played football with a chip on his shoulder and a passion that is unequaled. Smith ended up being selected with the 74th overall pick in 2001 by the Panthers.
Smith has had a solid NFL career, with 13,262 yards of receiving on 915 receptions thus far in his 14 years of play. He has 73 touchdowns and has totaled over 1,000 yards of receiving eight times so far in his career. He also prides himself in being able to block and wants to be a big part of every play when the game is on the line. Smith seems rejuvenated in Baltimore and his solid season in 2014 went a long way towards making a statement for his future in Canton.
1 Jordy Nelson, WR - Green Bay Packers
Believe it or not, 2014 was the first time Jordy Nelson was selected to the Pro Bowl. Nelson is a receiver who can do it all, with adequate size to be an effective blocker, terrific speed, great concentration, work ethic, and of course, a great pair of hands.
Nelson had another solid season with impressive totals of 98 receptions, 1,519 yards, and 13 touchdowns. He didn't make the Pro Bowl before, despite racking up 1,314 yards receiving in 2013, and 1,263 yards receiving with 15 touchdowns in 2011. Nelson has 43 touchdowns in his last four seasons of play, averaging about 16 yards per reception during this same time. If he continues to perform at such a high level and Aaron Rodgers remains at the helm in Green Bay, Nelson will go from making this list to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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