There are plenty of star players in the NFL who don’t get the recognition they deserve, even if they play a major role in their franchises winning football games. The NFL is a cut-throat business, with players getting criticized after every loss and not performing up to the value of their contract.
But what about the players that actually do live up to their salary, yet still face criticism on a weekly basis? Unless a team wins the Super Bowl, a star on an excellent organization appears to face the bulk of the criticism.
Are these players treated unfairly around the NFL? Regardless of the criticism, these players continue to perform week-in and week-out and play a massive role in leading their teams to victories. Let’s go around the AFC to find that one player for each team that is underappreciated or undervalued around the league.
Keep in mind the fan bases of said teams don’t undervalue these players, but fans around the league might if they are not watching every single snap of this player.
What does Lamar Jackson have to do to earn the respect he deserves? Since Jackson took over as the Ravens’ starter in Week 11 of the 2018 season, Baltimore is 37-12 — a .755 winning percentage. He’s the first quarterback in league history to reach 35 career victories before the age of 25 and is already seventh all-time in rushing yards (3,673) among NFL quarterbacks.
Jackson is the fastest quarterback in league history to reach 5,000 passing yards and 2,000 rushing yards (35 games), and his 10 100-yard rushing games are tied with Michael Vick for the most in league history. He also is the only quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season twice. His five games with 200 passing yards and 100 rushing yards are the most in league history.
Jackson gets a lot of flak for being a running quarterback, but he led the league in touchdown passes (36) and touchdown percentage (9.0) during his MVP season in 2019. He’s the only quarterback in NFL history with multiple three-plus passing touchdowns and 100-plus rushing yard performances in the same game. He recorded at least 200 passing yards and 50 rushing yards in seven games last season, tying his own mark (2019) and Randall Cunningham (1990) for the most such games in a season in NFL history.
Jackson is also the first player in NFL history to pass for 400 yards while also completing at least 85% of his passes in a game, and his 86% completion rate in that victory was the highest of any player in NFL history with at least 40 attempts. He also has more road playoff wins (one) than Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes!
When Jackson is on the field, the Ravens win. He’s highly underappreciated around the league.
There was only one player in the NFL who had three sacks and three interceptions last season — that would be Jordan Poyer. The Bills have an excellent secondary, but Poyer has been a rock on that unit for several seasons as he’s missed just two games in his five years in Buffalo.
Since joining the Bills in 2017, Poyer is the only player with 500 tackles (505), 15 interceptions (18), and 10 sacks (10). He’s the only player with 90 tackles and two interceptions in each of the last five seasons. Despite all this success, Poyer still hasn’t made a Pro Bowl but was a first-team All-Pro last year.
The Bills have plenty of stars on their roster. Poyer is one of them.
The Bengals’ passing game is one of the best in the NFL, but Joe Mixon is also one of the top running backs in the league. Even with a subpar offensive line, Mixon was still able to rush for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns — both of which were top five in the NFL.
Mixon is fifth in the NFL in rushing yards (2,938) and 10th in rushing touchdowns (33) since the start of the 2017 season. He has three 1,000-yard seasons in the last four years, and his 75.7 rushing yards per game is seventh in the NFL.
Cincinnati has great players on offense, but that passing game isn’t effective without Mixon being a workhorse back that he is.
Joel Bitonio is one of the best left guards in the game, yet his greatness doesn’t get talked about enough. Bitonio had one of his best seasons in 2021 in earning first-team All-Pro honors for the first time. In 600 pass-blocking snaps last year, Bitonio allowed just two sacks and 14 pressures with a pressure rate per dropback allowed of 2.3% — his lowest since 2018.
The top run-blocking left guard last season, Bitonio continues to improve his play each year as he enters the prime of his career at 30. His pressure rate per dropback of 2.3% over the last four seasons is why Bitonio has been an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in each of those years.
Bitonio deserves to be in the conversation as the best left guard in football. He’s that good.
Patrick Surtain II already demonstrated how good he’s going to be in Denver’s defense, as he is already showcasing why he’s a No. 1 cornerback in the NFL. Not only did Surtain have four interceptions and 15 passes defensed last season, but opposing quarterbacks targeting him completed just 53.3% of their passes and had a 51.7 passer rating against him as the primary defender.
Keep in mind Surtain accomplished all these feats as a rookie, yet his performance seemed to go unnoticed outside of Denver. The best is yet to come for Surtain, who is rising into a leader on the Broncos defense.
Brandin Cooks is still one of the most productive wide receivers in the NFL despite being the top target of the rebuilding Texans. He’s reached 1,000 receiving yards in six seasons since entering the league in 2014, tied for the second-most 1,000-yard seasons in the NFL during that span. This all came with four different teams.
Cooks is the first player in NFL history to record three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons on three different teams and joined Brandon Marshall as the only player to have 1,000-yard seasons with four different teams. His 13.8 yards per catch is fourth in the NFL over the last eight seasons (minimum 500 receptions).
Having back-to-back seasons with 1,000 yards with the Texans is an accomplishment for Cooks, who is one of the more underappreciated wideouts in the game. Playing for four different teams in his eight seasons shouldn’t diminish Cooks’ value.
Widely regarded as the best slot cornerback in the game, it feels Kenny Moore’s value was underappreciated outside of Indianapolis until last season. Moore earned his first Pro Bowl nod after having 13 passes defensed and four interceptions, as opposing quarterbacks targeting him had a 72.5 passer rating when he was the primary defender — good for a slot cornerback. He also notched a career-high 102 tackles — which led all cornerbacks.
Moore’s 182 tackles over the last two seasons are the most among cornerbacks, and he is one of just five players with four interceptions in each of the last two years. Arguably the best tackling cornerback in football, Moore has continued to up his game each year.
Marvin Jones seems forgotten amongst the Jaguars wide receivers with the addition of Christian Kirk, but he’s been productive over the last several seasons. His 22 touchdown catches are 12th in the NFL over the last three seasons, and he is one of just five players with three seasons of nine-plus receiving touchdowns over the last five years (joining Davante Adams, Adam Thielen, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill).
A solid No. 2 wideout, Jones had 73 catches for 832 yards and four touchdowns last season in the Jaguars anemic offense. Those numbers should improve in Doug Pederson’s offense, as the Jaguars can use Jones’ deep-ball ability to their advantage (he led the NFL in yards per catch in 2017).
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The only tackle to make the Pro Bowl in each of the past three seasons, Orlando Brown’s value as one of the game’s top tackles is underappreciated. Brown allowed just four sacks and 37 pressures in his first season with the Chiefs, allowing zero sacks and just seven pressures over his last five regular season games.
The year prior to joining Kansas City, Brown played 389 snaps at left tackle for Baltimore and didn’t allow a single sack of quarterback hit. He can play both tackle positions, but his future is a franchise left tackle — a welcome addition for Kansas City.
Just 26 years old, Brown isn’t even near the prime of his career. Whenever he signs his long-term contract, it will become excellent value in a few years time.
Derek Carr always seems to be a target of criticism because of his 57-70 career record with the Raiders, even though he’s been a top 10-to-15 quarterback in the league for most of his career. Carr is one of just four quarterbacks to throw for 4,000 yards over the past four years, joining Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Patrick Mahomes.
His 17,410 passing yards are fourth in the league during that span while his 68.7% completion rate is second in the league amongst quarterbacks with over 1,000 attempts. The Raiders’ all-time passing leader, Carr has 31,700 passing yards since the start of 2014 — fourth in the NFL.
Carr’s criticism comes from the number of pick-sixes he throws (eight since the start of 2018 are tied for second in the NFL), and the lack of touchdown passes (90 since 2018 is just 14th in the league). He’s still a good quarterback and is also a franchise quarterback.
While Carr may be the fourth-best quarterback in his own division, that doesn’t mean he’s bad. Plenty of teams would take Carr as their quarterback.
Too much criticism is made over Justin Herbert never making a playoff start, even though he’s only been in the league for two seasons. Statistically, Herbert is off to the best start for a quarterback in NFL history.
What Herbert has been able to accomplish after two seasons has been phenomenal. He has the most completions (839) and passing yards (9,350) through the first two seasons of a career in NFL history, while also being the first quarterback to throw 30 touchdown passes in each of his first two seasons. Herbert also holds the Chargers’ single-season records for touchdown passes (38), passing yards (5,014) and completions (443) — all of which were set this past season.
Herbert’s 2021 season was one of the best for a second-year quarterback in NFL history. He completed 65.9% of his passes for 5,014 yards with 38 touchdowns to 15 interceptions for a 97.9 passer rating — becoming just the third player to throw for 5,000 yards in a season in one of his first two years (Patrick Mahomes and Dan Marino are the others).
Herbert showcased how good he was on fourth down last season, going 15 of 22 for 197 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions (126.5 rating). He certainly wasn’t the reason Los Angeles hasn’t made the playoffs in his two seasons.
Just 24 years old, Herbert has franchise quarterback written all over him. He’ll earn plenty of opportunities to create a playoff legacy.
Certainly valuable in Miami, Mike Gesicki doesn’t seem to get the respect amongst the game’s top tight ends. Listed as a tight end on the depth chart, Gesicki finished fifth in the league in receptions (73), eighth in receiving yards (780), and fourth in yards per catch (10.68) amongst his position. If Gesicki is actually considered a tight end, he’s one of the best pass catchers at his position.
Here’s the issue with Gesicki’s status as a tight end. Gesicki lined up in the slot on 412 snaps last season — the most amongst all tight ends. He also lined out wide on 218 snaps and as an actual tight end on 140 snaps. Gesicki is a tight end by position, but his value comes as a receiver.
Even with the Dolphins’ revamped receiving unit, expect Tua Tagovailoa to target Gesicki across the middle of the field a lot this year. Gesicki could be in for a huge season — and finally earn expect around the league as a top tight end.
Matt Judon’s always been one of the underrated pass rushers in the game, showcasing how good he was for the Patriots last year. Coming out of the gate flying, Judon had 6.5 sacks in his first five games with the Patriots — the most through five games to start a season in franchise history. His 12.5 sacks matched Chandler Jones (2015) and Mike Vrabel (2007) as the most in a season under Bill Belichick.
A Pro Bowl selection in each of the last three years, Judon is one of the game’s best pass rushers. He never seems to be in the conversation amongst the elite of the league, but is entering his best football as he turns 30 this year.
Braxton Berrios was a bright spot on a bad Jets team last season — and arguably the best return man in the NFL. Berrios was just one of 13 players who finished in the top-three in kick and punt return average since the merger, averaging 30.4 yards per kick return (first in NFL) and 13.4 yards per punt return (second in NFL).
A first-team All-Pro returner last season, Berrios led the NFL in kick return average and had the longest kick return in the league last year (102 yards). The Jets have arguably the best return man in the league, which largely goes unnoticed due to the lack of returns around the league.
Berrios is a fixture in New York, a special teams weapon few teams can possess.
Drops are no longer what fans focus on when it comes to Diontae Johnson, who earned his first Pro Bowl appearance last year. Johnson finished with 107 catches for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns for the Steelers, emerging as the go-to pass catcher in an offense that badly needed his talents.
Emerging as one of the game’s top young wideouts, Johnson registered 75-plus yards receiving in eight games in 2021, which was tied for the fifth-most in the NFL. He has recorded five or more catches in 12 straight games, which is the second-longest active streak in the NFL (Cooper Kupp has 21 straight).
Johnson has 254 receptions over the last three years (ninth in NFL), and his 2,764 yards rank in the top 20. He’s also one of 15 receivers with 20 touchdown catches in that span.
Emerging into a No. 1 wide receiver, it’s easy to see how good Johnson can be in Pittsburgh. He’s not considered amongst the best in the game, but that can soon change.
The Titans were wise to pay Harold Landry in free agency, keeping him in the fold with Jeffery Simmons as one of the league’s top pass-rushing duos. Landry had a breakout season with the Titans in 2021, as he finished with a career-high 75 tackles, 12 sacks, and 22 quarterback hits — earning his first Pro Bowl appearance after four seasons in the league. Landry also recorded a career-high 57 pressures and finished with 41 hurries.
Improving in quarterback hits and tackles every season, Landry has become more consistent in getting to the quarterback. Just 26 years old, Landry is becoming one of the most feared pass rushers in the AFC.
Tennessee fans know how good Landry is, but he’s yet to get fully recognized around the league as well. Outside of a free agent deal, the league has yet to see what Landry provides for the Tennessee defense.