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Bill BarnwellESPN Staff Writer
- Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
Today, I'm naming my All-Underrated Team for what we've seen so far in the 2021 NFL season. Last time we did this in 2019, I talked up players such as Matthew Judon, Austin Ekeler, Vita Vea, Fred Warner and others who have emerged with larger profiles over the ensuing two seasons. Hopefully, we'll see the profiles of the players on this year's list grow similarly in the years to come.
Of course, "underrated" is in the eye of the beholder. I suspect that just about everyone who reads this list will have a player or two they think of as underrated who isn't going to appear among the 24 players here. In most cases, I suspect the only difference is just that I think those players are already given plenty of attention as valuable contributors. Some rules I worked with in putting this list together include:
Have you played at the same level for a long period of time? Veterans such as Andrew Whitworth or Micah Hyde have been "underrated" for so long that they're appropriately rated now as excellent football players. This list tends to point out younger players and/or players who have changed their level of play versus what we've seen in years past, which includes the team's only quarterback.
Were you a first-round pick? If you're a first-rounder on your rookie deal, you're generally going to be expected to play at a high level. There's a first-rounder who makes it onto the roster here because he has emerged as one of the best players at his position and doesn't often get talked about in that conversation. A top-five pick such as Ja'Marr Chase or Nick Bosa isn't really underrated.
Have you been paid? If you racked up a big deal in free agency or from your team, you're already valued as a significant player at your position. Trey Hendrickson was underrated (by me and others) heading into this season, and he has been excellent for the Bengals, but he's also taking home $20 million, which tells you that he's already being treated as a valuable player. Most of the players here are on either rookie deals or contracts below their market value. One player just got a new deal, so I'm cheating a bit by sneaking him onto the list.
With that in mind, let's run through our team. We have 24 players from 15 different organizations, with a focus on trying to get in guys from some of the worst teams. We'll start on the offensive side of the ball and then work our way through the defense and special teams, beginning with a player who surprisingly ranked in the top 10 at his position before suffering a season-ending injury:
Quarterback: Jameis Winston, Saints
Yes, we're starting with a player who is done for the season with a torn ACL, but it's virtually impossible to be underrated as a quarterback. Winston qualifies. Across his seven games this season, his 64.3 Total QBR ranks fifth in the league, nestled between Aaron Rodgers and Kyler Murray. Don't want to use QBR? Winston ranks seventh in passer rating and adjusted yards per attempt. For a guy who couldn't stop throwing interceptions in Tampa Bay, he posted a 14-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his seven 2021 starts.
If you want to give some of the credit for Winston's improvement to Sean Payton and the Saints' offensive line, that's fine. You also have to give Winston credit for succeeding with a mostly anonymous group of receivers. The 2015 No. 1 overall pick had Alvin Kamara, but he was otherwise throwing to Marquez Callaway, Deonte Harris, Adam Trautman and Juwan Johnson. At the very least, Winston -- a free agent in 2022 -- did enough to earn a repeat opportunity with the Saints next season.
Running back: James Robinson, Jaguars
Most everyone recognizes that Robinson is a decent back, but he has a Pro Bowl résumé as a runner this season. Playing in an offense with a passing game that might charitably be described as inconsistent, he has run 112 times for 568 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per clip. You might chalk that up to defenses not caring about the run, but DVOA adjusts for game score and situation, and his 31.4% DVOA is the league's best among regular backs.
Advanced metrics suggest that Robinson gets more than what's blocked. He's averaging 2.2 yards after first contact this season, which ranks fourth among runners with at least 100 carries. By the NFL Next Gen Stats, he has generated 66 yards more than an average back would have picked up on the same carries, which ranks fifth on a per-run basis and ahead of guys such as Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott.
Robinson doesn't offer much as a receiver, but he's a very good young player on a team without many of them.
Running back/wide receiver: Cordarrelle Patterson, Falcons
I don't think you can really make this list without Patterson on the roster somewhere. There's no one in the league quite like Patterson, who has been the best kickoff returner in football over the past decade and served as everything from a split-out receiver to an I-formation running back. But not even his family could have anticipated what he would do in his first season with Atlanta.
Patterson's primary role is as a running back, but the 30-year-old has been the focal point of Matt Ryan's passing attack when he's been on the field. He has been targeted on 33.3% of the routes he has run this season, making him the league's second-most frequently targeted player behind Christian McCaffrey. The four-time Pro Bowl returner has then averaged 9.9 yards per target, which ranks ahead of all other backs and would rank 13th among receivers.
Patterson also scored seven touchdowns on 116 touches before suffering an ankle injury, which cost him a revenge game against his former New England team. It probably shouldn't be a surprise that the Falcons melted down without him; Ryan has an 81.4 QBR with Patterson on the field and a 29.5 QBR without him. I don't know how long Patterson can keep this up, but it has been fun to watch.
Wide receiver: Tim Patrick, Broncos
A player I'm sneaking onto this list just after he signed a three-year, $34 million extension with the Broncos earlier this month, Patrick has justified keeping a snap rate topping 90% most weeks in the lineup, even after Jerry Jeudy's return. Here are the stats for two receivers since the start of 2020:
Player A is Patrick. Player B is Deebo Samuel. The 49ers star is the better player, having done this on fewer routes and offering more as a runner, but Samuel is a much higher-profile player, and their numbers are virtually identical.
Patrick ranks fourth in receiving DVOA this season and is averaging 9.9 yards per target while playing with Teddy Bridgewater as his quarterback. He averaged 9.4 yards per target last season while catching passes from Drew Lock, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien and Kendall Hinton. Patrick doesn't attract the sort of target share superstar wideouts see, but he's one of the most efficient wideouts in the league.
Wide receiver: Kendrick Bourne, Patriots
The Patriots' free-agent shopping spree at receiver has yielded a mixed bag of results. Nelson Agholor and Jonnu Smith haven't been impressive given their salaries, but Hunter Henry has been a red zone threat and Bourne has been an extremely effective second receiver option behind Jakobi Meyers. You've probably seen plenty of Bourne's two highlight-reel plays, given that they featured him splitting between Damontae Kazee and Trevon Diggs for a 75-yard touchdown and a spectacular leaping catch for a score against the Browns.
Those plays aren't necessarily typical of his week-to-week role in the offense, but the former 49ers wideout has caught more than 78% of his targets this season. NFL Next Gen Stats has his expected catch rate at 67.4%, meaning he's operating at nearly 11% above expectation. That's the third-best mark in the league, behind only those of Christian Kirk and Patrick.
Tight end: C.J. Uzomah, Bengals
Uzomah is never going to be the focal point of an offense with Ja'Marr Chase, Joe Mixon and Tee Higgins in the mix, but the 28-year-old takes advantage when he does get opportunities. Coming off a torn Achilles, he has caught 27 of the 31 passes thrown in his direction this season for an 87.1% catch rate. He ranks second in catch rate and catch rate over expectation behind Broncos tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. Both players catch shorter passes than most of their tight end brethren, but Uzomah sees the ball more frequently, averaging a remarkable 10.4 yards per target. He also chips in as a very solid run-blocker.
In the final year of his deal, Uzomah has earned a meaningful raise from the $5 million or so he'll earn in 2021.
Offensive tackle: Terence Steele, Cowboys
Forced into duty for the Cowboys in 2020 after La'el Collins missed the entire season with a hip injury, Steele struggled early in his rookie season but improved as the year went on. The Cowboys were excited to welcome back Collins for 2021, but when Collins was suspended for five games, Steele moved back into the lineup. This time, the former undrafted free agent kept the job.
Steele has been very good in an every-down role, first as a right tackle and recently filling in for Tyron Smith as a left tackle. Excellent swing tackles get about $10 million per year on the open market; the Cowboys will pay Steele less than $6 million for the next three seasons. He's one of the most quietly valuable players in the league.
Offensive tackle: Patrick Mekari, Ravens
Here's another player forced into action by injury. Ronnie Stanley's ankle issues meant Alejandro Villanueva needed to move back to left tackle, opening up a spot on the right side for Mekari, who had spent most of his time with the Ravens at center.
Mekari was so good over his first six starts that John Harbaugh called his utility lineman's play "spectacular." He suffered a high ankle sprain and missed a month before returning for Sunday's win over the Bears. Mekari is one of the many players keeping an injury-riddled Ravens lineup afloat in the AFC North.
Guard: James Hurst, Saints
In many ways, Hurst was Mekari's predecessor in Baltimore as a utility lineman. Having moved to New Orleans in 2020, Hurst has started games this season at left tackle, left guard and most recently right tackle for an injury-hit Saints line. He has been great just about everywhere, allowing just one half-sack across 500 offensive snaps.
I'm cheating a bit by running him out here at guard when he has played more tackle in 2021, but once the Saints get their star tackles back, he will probably finish the season at left guard.
Guard: Trey Smith, Chiefs
An instant force after being drafted in the sixth round in April, Smith took over the right guard job in training camp and hasn't looked back since. Kansas City was satisfied enough with Smith's play to trade veteran Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to the Jets before the trade deadline.
Smith fell in the draft over concerns about his health after dealing with blood clots in his lungs, but the Tennessee product has been a revelation for a Chiefs team that has needed to run more power concepts up front against two-high looks this season. The only concern has been penalties; he has racked up five holding calls.
Center: Creed Humphrey, Chiefs
The rookie playing next to Smith hasn't been too bad, either. Humphrey, a three-year starter at Oklahoma, has stepped into the NFL without missing a beat. I asked one NFL defensive coach what he thought after playing the Chiefs and he said that Humphrey "looks like he's been in the NFL for a decade already." That's high praise for any rookie, let alone a guy with the sort of microscope Humphrey has on him blocking for Patrick Mahomes.
The tackles have struggled for Kansas City, but Humphrey and Smith are two of the best draft picks the Chiefs have made since they drafted Mahomes in 2017.
Edge: Harold Landry III, Titans
Landry has been a solid pass-rusher over his first three seasons in the league, generating about six sacks and 15 knockdowns per season. His ability to be the No. 1 guy on a great defense was questionable, and with their pass rush struggling last season, the Titans shelled out big money in free agency for Bud Dupree to take over the primary role.
Well, Dupree has been limited to two starts by injury and has just one sack. Landry has leveled up without him. The 2018 second-rounder has already set career highs in sacks (10) and knockdowns (19) with six regular-season games left. His 17 hurries lead the NFL.
Edge: Charles Harris, Lions
We need to get one Lions player on this list. Despite being drafted in the first round by Miami in 2017, Harris never got regular time for the Dolphins and was traded to the Falcons for a seventh-round pick last year. Finding his way to the Lions this season, Harris has been a much-improved player. The primary numbers don't blow you away, as he has only four sacks and seven knockdowns, but he ranks 11th in the league with 12 hurries and is 19th in pass rush win rate.
There aren't many bright spots in Detroit right now, but the guys who have impressed are generally playing along the line of scrimmage. For a team that wants to build from the inside out, that's promising to see.
Let's follow the Lions player by getting a Texans player in the mix. Lopez, a sixth-round pick in April's draft, has been impressive as a two-down run defender for a team that quietly ranks 10th in the league in defensive DVOA. Houston has been above-average in power situations and boasts one of the league's best defenses at stuffing runners for no gain or a loss; having a nose tackle who can control the line of scrimmage makes that possible.
Lopez ranks seventh among interior linemen in ESPN's run stop win rate statistic, making him a nice find for a Texans team desperately lacking young talent.
Defensive tackle: Armon Watts, Vikings
The Vikings seemed set on the interior this season with Sheldon Richardson, Dalvin Tomlinson and Michael Pierce, but with Pierce sidelined by injury since Week 4, Watts has stepped up and made the tackle spot his own. Over his six games as a starter, he has three sacks, a tackle for loss, 20 tackles and two forced fumbles. He ranks 14th in the NFL in pass rush win rate among tackles.
The Vikings moved Richardson to defensive end for Sunday's win against the Packers after Danielle Hunter went down for the season, so even after Pierce returns, Watts seems to have won a starting job.
Linebacker: De'Vondre Campbell, Packers
Where did this come from? Over his first five seasons in the NFL, Campbell was a decent inside linebacker who seemed to struggle to translate his athletic skills in coverage. The 2016 Falcons draft pick allowed a passer rating of 104 or greater as the nearest defender in coverage in four of those first five seasons. After a season with the Cardinals saw him lose playing time as the year went along, the Packers scooped him up on a one-year, $2 million deal this offseason.
Campbell has been brilliant for the Packers at a position they've struggled to fill for years. In addition to being an above-average run defender, he has allowed a passer rating of just 74.2 as the nearest defender in coverage and leads all linebackers in coverage with a minus-16.4 expected points added (EPA) per play. The Packers rank seventh in the league in DVOA on throws to tight ends.
Campbell has been one of the league's biggest bargains this season, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Linebacker: Bobby Okereke, Colts
I could have picked a third Chiefs rookie here and gone with Nick Bolton, but I want to instead highlight the improvement of this third-year Colts defender. Indy let team leader Anthony Walker leave for the Browns this offseason, in part because the Colts felt Okereke was ready to be the man in the middle. Playing as an every-down defender for the first time in his career, the 2019 third-rounder ranks in the top 10 in tackles, stops, run stops and hustle plays, which are when a player runs 20 or more yards to make a tackle.
The Colts struggled stopping big plays earlier in the season, but Okereke has generated a respectable minus-3.1 EPA as the nearest defender in coverage. He's not on Darius Leonard's level, but Okereke has been an above-average starting linebacker for the surging Colts.
Cornerback: A.J. Terrell, Falcons
I don't want to put many first-round picks on this list because it's difficult for them to be underrated, but Terrell has a credible case as one of the NFL's best cornerbacks, full stop. The Falcons don't have him follow opposing receivers and have him mostly stay on the left side of the defense, but we see his impact in the numbers.
They rank sixth in the league in QBR on passes thrown to the right side of the field and 31st on throws everywhere else. Per the charting stats at Pro Football Reference, Terrell is allowing opponents to complete 50% of their passes while posting a 56.9 passer rating, which ranks fifth among corners.
There's not a lot to love on defense for Atlanta, but Terrell and Foyesade Oluokun are holding up their end of the bargain.
Cornerback: Kristian Fulton, Titans
The 2020 draft class was about as hit-or-miss as it gets for cornerbacks. First-rounders Jeff Okudah, CJ Henderson and Damon Arnette have struggled, but second-rounders Terrell and Trevon Diggs are two of the most valuable corners in football, and Fulton looks to be right behind them.
The 61st pick in that draft, Fulton moved into the starting lineup after the Titans rebooted their secondary this offseason. He has allowed minus-10.9 EPA as the nearest defender in coverage this season, while quarterbacks targeting him in coverage have posted a completion percentage 16.9% under expectation. That's the second-best mark for corners with at least 100 coverage snaps.
Fulton was on injured reserve with a hamstring injury, but the Titans were delighted to welcome him back over the past two weeks.
Cornerback/Safety: Kyle Dugger, Patriots
One more defensive back from the 2020 draft? Sure. Dugger is nominally a safety on paper, but he plays both safety spots and also chips in a fair amount of the time as a slot corner. When NFL Next Gen Stats identifies him as a slot defender, he has allowed a passer rating of just 35.2 and generated 13.2 EPA for the Patriots' defense, the latter of which ranks fourth in the NFL.
Bill Belichick finds a variety of roles for the defender with tremendous measurables, but alongside fellow All-Underrated Team candidate Adrian Phillips, Dugger might be best at shutting down opposing tight ends. He was among the defenders who helped slow down Falcons star Kyle Pitts in last week's shutout win over Atlanta.
Safety: Jevon Holland, Dolphins
Miami's secondary has been a disaster this season, but Brian Flores has to feel good about what he has gotten from his rookie second-round pick. The Dolphins coach has had no qualms about lining up Holland as a free safety or getting him in the box to help out against the run.
Forced into the starting lineup when Jason McCourty injured his foot in Week 4, Holland hasn't looked back, as he has defended six passes, picked up two sacks and recovered a fumble since. The Dolphins have felt the difference: They've allowed a 53.1 QBR with Holland on the field, with that figure rising all the way to 80.1 without him between the lines.
Safety: Nasir Adderley, Chargers
Life can be easier playing alongside Derwin James, but with the star safety healthy this season, the Chargers have felt a difference without Adderley in the lineup. When he has been sidelined by injury or taking a breather, the Chargers have been nearly 18 points worse by QBR.
With coach Brandon Staley generally preferring to play two-deep coverages, Adderley has almost always been playing the deep half, but he has been better as a tackler when called to do so. He has missed interceptions at times, which is the one thing keeping him from more significant national attention, but he's an exciting young player on a Chargers defense seemingly full of exciting young players.
Kicker: Evan McPherson, Bengals
It's a bit of a shame that two of McPherson's three misses this season were the attempted game winners against the Packers, because the rookie fifth-round pick has otherwise been excellent. He is 15-of-18 on field goals and 29-of-30 on extra points.
After adjusting for difficulty, Football Outsiders pegs the Bengals as the ninth-best team on field goals and extra points, which McPherson has handled exclusively. Cincinnati is also third in points added on kickoffs, where he ranks eighth in average among regular kickers.
Punter: Thomas Morstead, Falcons
At the death, we snuck a Jets player on the roster! Well, sort of. By the methodology over at Puntalytics, Morstead ranked as the NFL's third-best punter this season after adjusting for field position, game situation and EPA. The Jets responded to Morstead's impressive season by cutting the 35-year-old after the trade deadline.
The longtime Saints punter signed with the Falcons earlier this week, which makes Atlanta the only team on this list with three players. Given that teams such as the Ravens, Bills and Steelers rank at the bottom of the list in terms of performance by their punters, it's hard to imagine Morstead couldn't have helped a more competitive team.