Usually at this time of the year when the Pro Bowl rosters are revealed, I write an article about the changes I would make, but since this is one of the years where I mostly agree with the results, I decided to just broaden this topic and talk about the most underrated players at every single position. To determine that I obviously look at this year’s Pro Bowl rosters, but also consider public perception and coverage they receive among fans. Because they will make the trip to Orlando, I still took off guys like Grady Jarrett, Matt Judon and Budda Baker, who I didn’t expect to make the cut. So I always present my top candidate for a player who deserves more recognition and then offer three alternative names, who I think don’t get their due. I excluded rookies here, because people might not have really gotten around to watch them yet. So this is my list:
Quarterback – Josh Allen
I know that players from Buffalo rarely get talked about and there are plenty of guys for this Bills organization that deserves a piece of the cake here, but since everybody is so obsessed with the quarterbacks – why is nobody talking about this guy? Everybody went nuts for Baker Mayfield when the Browns went 7-8-1 last year and Daniel Jones got a nickname as the savior of New York as soon as he threw his first NFL pass, but the young gunslinger who has delivered in the clutch a bunch of times for a 10-5 Wildcard team is just sneezed at. Josh Allen has thrown for over 3000 yards with 20 touchdowns compared to nine interceptions. He is also third behind only Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray among quarterbacks with over 500 yards on the ground and leads those guys with nine more touchdowns that way. His ability to keep defenses honest by stretching the field with the big ball, as well as his ability to extend plays or convert crucial third downs with his legs is what gives this team a viable offense. Yes, John Brown has had a career year for the Bills and rookie running back Devin Singletary has improved throughout the year, but they have no size threat on the perimeter and outside of Brown & Cole Beasley, their receiver production has been limited to under 400 combined yards. That’s even more impressive when you consider that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll switched to a more quick-tempo, 11 personnel-heavy approach mid-season and they would only average 105 yards on the ground without Allen’s individual production.
Honorable mentions: Kirk Cousins, Sam Darnold and Carson Wentz
Runningback – Joe Mixon
It definitely takes something out of this statement of Joe Mixon being the most underrated running back, when Bill Belichick says during the week that he considers the Bengals standout “probably the best back in the league”, but I had this name written down before that and I still don’t know how good this kid is. Obviously not a lot of people are watching a 1-14 Bengals squad without A.J. Green and that has brought Andy Dalton back off the bench, but this young man is a rising star. Watching him come out of Oklahoma back in 2017 with some off-field concerns, I thought people didn’t look at him enough because of the guys who were selected ahead of him – Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook. This guy had some Barry Sanders-esque sequences for the Sooners at 225 pounds. I was highly intrigued by his combination of elusiveness, power and simply feel for the game. Mixon came into the league as an all-around three-down back, who could run any scheme as well as protect the passer and contribute in the passing game as much more than a pure checkdown option. After a rather forgettable rookie campaign, where the Bengals went 7-9 and had five games of scoring less than ten points, the young man went for over 1400 scrimmage yards and nine TDs, while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. This year Mixon is once again stuck in a situation, where the team and especially the offense have really struggled, while running behind one of the worst O-lines in the NFL. Still, he been one of the bright spots with his physical running style to break tackles and before battling the flu last week, he had gone for 342 combined yards against the Browns and Patriots.
Honorable mentions: Austin Ekeler, Philip Lindsay and Kenyan Drake
Wide Receivers – Courtland Sutton
To think everybody went nuts for all these young teams, who accumulated talent over the last few years – why is nobody talking about the Broncos? They have a top ten defense in terms of yards and points allowed despite being without a 12-sack Bradley Chubb for almost the entire season, by the end of the next week most likely a consecutive 1000-yard rusher in Philip Lindsay, a rookie gunslinger in Drew Lock and a number one wideout, who is emerging as a young star in this league. I had Courtland Sutton as a fringe first-round pick ahead of the 2018 draft, with my only real question mark being his high drop rate due to poor catching technique and how much he could improve in the pros. I loved his size, athleticisms and physicality both as a blocker and at the catch point. He entered his rookie campaign behind Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. As the year went along and Thomas was traded to Houston mid-season, the then-rookie wideout became a bigger part of the Bronco offense and displayed his skill-set. This year his development and due to coming up just short in a few of the early contest, the organization decided to trade Sanders, betting on their young crew of receivers. Despite catching passes from three different quarterbacks this year and being part of an offense that really struggled to move the ball through the air for large stretches, Sutton has already put up 1060 receiving yards and six TDs, averaging 15.6 yards and having six receptions of 40+ yards even though he is more of your typical X-receiver in that offense. Oh, he has also dropped less passes than guys like Michael Thomas and Zach Ertz, plus he is a devastating run-blocker on the outside.
Honorable mentions: Kenny Golladay, D.J. Chark and John Brown
Tight-End – Dallas Goedert
I think the tight-end position is one of the toughest to evaluate because you always have to consider the role they play for an offense in terms of being an in-line blocker, a big slot receiver or even help out in protection. With that being said, it is even hard for an official non-starter at that spot to gain the recognition they deserve. Philly’s Dallas Goedert is constantly overlooked because he is seen as backup tight-end because of Zach Ertz, when the Eagles actually run more 12 personnel than almost anybody in the league, especially with all their injuries amongst the receiving corp. At 64 percent on the year, Goedert is playing pretty much starter snaps. I already loved him coming out South Dakota State, where he already stood out against FCS competition thanks to his size, athleticism and hands, but when I look at him now, I think almost half the league would like to have him over their current options. Right now he is PFF’s highest-grade blocker at the tight-end position, while also leading everybody with an average of almost eight yards after the catch. Overall he has caught 54 balls for 542 yards and five touchdowns for an Eagles offense, which puts him behind only Ertz in all that categories and way ahead of any of their receivers, who have been available to them recently. We also saw what he can do as the top option in last week’s game against the Cowboys, when Ertz was fighting through a rib injury and Goedert for nine catches, resulting in 91 yards and a touchdown.
Honorable mentions: Austin Hooper, Nick Boyle and Jack Doyle
Offensive Tackle – Ryan Ramczyk
While it has been tough to get Pro Bowl votes in the NFC due to guys like Tyron Smith, David Bakhtiari, Lane Johnson and still recently Trent Williams, there have been some mistakes that third spot at least. Saints left tackle Terron Armstead has been a Pro Bowler these last two years despite being outplayed by the opposite book-end and playing in eight less games than him. According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan Ramczyk is the second-highest graded offensive tackle in the league behind only Lane Johnson. He hasn’t allowed a single sack on almost 1000 total snaps and ball-carriers average a league-high 6.5 yards running off right tackle for the Saints. Coming out of Wisconsin, this young man was ready technically and physically to step into the league and play, which he did when he took over for long-time veteran Zach Strief in the season-opener as a rookie in 2017. After starting four games at left tackle, Ramczyk moved to the right side and he his missed just one game since then. Since the NFL changed the All-Pro format to true left and right tackles recently, the then second-year guy received some second-team recognition, but I still don’t believe people give him the credit he deserves. There is him, Lane Johnson and Mitchell Schwartz that are in the race for the best RT in the game today and there isn’t really anybody else in that conversation for me. Ramczyk is even more important to the Saints’ success when you consider the way they have run the ball behind him and that the O-line has kept both their quarterbacks clean, since they both operate mostly from within the pocket.
Honorable mentions: Ronnie Stanley, Brian O’Neill and Matt Feiler
Interior offensive lineman – Brandon Linder
If there’s one thing that really bothers me about all those Pro Bowl ballots, it is the obvious lack of understanding for offensive line play. While you would think that unlike receivers and backs, where the majority of the votes go to the guys with the best stats, the big guys would be judged more on their play, with linemen it is mostly about public perception and the previous honors these guys have received. Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey is now going to his fourth straight all-star game and he was one of the best young centers in the league not too long ago, but at this point he only gets to go to Orlando based off his name, since there are far more deserving candidates in the AFC. I recently read that Pro Football Focus actually didn’t even have Pouncey as one of the top 32-graded centers in the NFL this year, when there are only 32 teams. Mitch Morse should have taken his spot both of the last two years and Brandon Linder has quietly been one of the best at the position for a while now. While the Jags offense has been a little stagnant this year, they are still averaging 4.5 yards per rush and Leonard Fournette has quietly had a pretty nice bounce-back season. While he missed ten games of the previous two years, Linder has missed just one snap for all of 2019 and he has surrendered only one sack over that three-year stretch now. He is excellent at creating movement on double-teams with his guars and stays square in protection. Jacksonville has done a pretty nice job building the O-line around him via the draft and free agency, but injuries have led to a lack of consistency. They have already secured their “center”piece with a monster deal worth 52 million dollars a couple of months ago.
Honorable mentions: Richie Incognito, Mitch Morse and Joe Thuney
Edge Rusher – Za’Darius Smith
How in the world did this guy not make the Pro Bowl? I get that there are a few great edge rushers in the NFC, including a long underrated stud himself in Cameron Jordan and a spectacular rookie in Nick Bosa, but Za’Darius Smith might have been the best edge defender in the entire league this year. The Green Bay Packers made a philosophical change when they moved on from the conservative Ted Thompson after 13 years and handed the reigns to Brian Gutekunst, who has made a bunch of untraditional moves, such as trading away first-round picks and actually being big spender in free agency. His biggest acquisition this offseason has been Za’Darius Smith coming over from Baltimore. More of a rotational piece for most of his time with the Ravens, Smith put up a career-high 8.5 sacks last year and cashed in with a four-year, 66 million dollar contract. He has already redeemed himself with 13.5 sacks as well as leading the league with 69 total pressures and he is third with 17 tackles for loss. Together with another free agent in Preston Smith, this group of edge rushers looks completely different than a year ago under Mike Pettine. Za’Darius has been an excellent run-defender for the Pack, while being moved around a bunch on passing downs to create havoc. I love his speed-to-power move from a wide nine alignment and then countering that with cross-chops or two-hand swipes. However, as great as he has been individually, he has become a leader for this group and been the guy whose energy everybody is looking to feed off.
Honorable mentions: Jerry Hughes, Harold Landry and Yannick Ngakoue
Interior defensive lineman – D.J. Reader
Interior defensive line is a position that doesn’t get a lot of recognition outside of superstars like Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox, but this guy is on a different level of being forgotten about. As far as 3-4 defensive linemen go, who primarily play in-between the guards, D.J. Reader is one of very best at his job. Numbers will never tell the whole story with a guy like him, because he keeps his linebackers clean in the run game by occupying blockers and doesn’t put up huge sack numbers. However, at close to 350 pounds, Reader is outstanding at two-gapping solo blockers or torqueing his body to withstand double-teams, as well as riding down the line on zone-runs and either reaching out for the ball-carrier or forcing a cutback. While he while never be an elite pass rusher at his size, Reader has really improved his value to the team by moving around on passing downs and creating push by bull-rushing his man back into the quarterback’s lap or landing a quick swipe to clear his blocker instantly. That has led to a career-high 2.5 sacks and he has been in the middle of several other collisions at the opposing quarterback. With J.J. Watt out since week eight, the big man leads all Texans D-linemen with over 60 percent of the defensive snaps. The 25-year old has also been a big reason why the Houston defense has at least found a way to remain average despite being without their three-time Defensive Player of the Year and being banged up in the secondary all season long.
Honorable mentions: Derek Wolfe, Larry Ogunjobi and Michael Pierce
Outside linebacker – Matt Milano
Here we have another unsung hero from that stingy Buffalo defense, Obviously I have remained a big fan of Tremaine Edmunds in the middle of that unit, but he was a first-round pick and at least stands out with his unique size, but a fifth-round linebacker from Boston College who was labelled as undersized going into the draft process, just won’t get the recognition he deserves if sports media doesn’t give it to him. And those guys rarely come through. Matt Milano has now reached exactly 100 combined tackles and is an excellent run-defender when it comes to twisting his body to search through traffic or playing assignment-based football, but what makes him special in my opinion is his work in coverage. In Sean McDermott’s scheme there are a bunch installs and wrinkles to counter against the staples of the opposing passing game and make quarterbacks hold the ball against them. Edmunds is a great fit for that sinking backer in the middle in Tampa-2 because of his length, while Milano does a nice job taking away easy throws into the flats or carrying guys down the seams to complement their safeties. He hasn’t picked off any passes this season compared to his three INTs last year, but he has once again deflected nine passes and simply done his job. The coaches also don’t shy away from putting the versatile young defender one-on-one with tight-ends as the single receiver to one side in a 3-by-1 set or shadowing guys out of the backfield. Last year that led to the lowest passer rating allowed into coverage at the position. He is a major contributor for the number two scoring defense with over 90 percent of the snaps taken.
Honorable mentions: Demario Davis, Lavonte David and Jamie Collins
Inside linebacker – Jordan Hicks
As far as offseason acquisitions go, there aren’t a lot that have been better than this one. Everybody went crazy over Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, but nobody has gotten return of investment than what they got for guys like Za’Darius Smith and Jordan Hicks. After Hicks was inserted into the starting lineup in the middle of his rookie season with the Eagles and had an excellent year two, he missed a combined 13 games of the last couple of years and signed a four-year contract with Arizona. The Cardinals linebacker is fifth in the league with 136 combined tackles and while I don’t believe that this is the most telling statistic all the time, especially for a defense that is on the field a whole lot, he has truly been all over the field for his new team. Not only has he taken ball-carriers down behind the line of scrimmage 11 times, but he has also been on point with his angles towards the sideline on runs to the edge and sniffed out a bunch of screen passes. Hicks has also shown a knack for the ball with his three picks, two forced fumbles and another one recovered. An additional six passes broken up and the fact he hasn’t missed a single snap on defense all year long make him one of the more valuable linebackers in regard to his team out there. Arizona might have the 31st ranked defense in yards allowed, but if Budda Baker didn’t get voted into the Pro Bowl and Chandler Jones didn’t just take the league-lead in sacks, they could certainly have up to three guys on this list.
Honorable mentions: Eric Kendricks, Corey Littleton and Jayon Brown
Cornerback – Troy Hill
When the Rams decided to move on from Marcus Peters and Aquib Talib, who had been on IR at that point, they obviously tried to make room for Jalen Ramsey, as they were working on a blockbuster deal to acquire that true shutdown corner. With that being said, I think a lot of it also had to do with their confidence in this fifth-year man. Troy Hill was inserted into the starting lineup back in week six and he has been one of PFF’s highest-graded corners since then, as he has actually outperformed Ramsey according to their metrics. While I would really only put a couple of names above the former Jaguars CB, his partner in crime has had an excellent season. Hill has intercepted two passes and deflected another eight, while also adding a sack to his resumé. He is allowing less than half the pass thrown his way to be completed and he has only been flagged once for each defensive holding and pass interference, leading to a loss of 20 yards. His performance has been even more impressive considering that teams have actively tried to avoid Ramsey and targeted the Rams’ number two corner, but he has held his own. Wade Phillips has started to play more man-coverage in general since this duo has been out there for him, going back to more of what has been his bread and butter going back to his days with Chris Harris Jr., Aquib Talib and Bradley Roby during his tenure in Denver. To be able to do that takes a lot of trust in your corners however and his guys look like they are up for the challenge.
Honorable mentions: Chris Harris Jr, Quinton Dunbar and J.C. Jackson
Safety – Justin Simmons
I already talked a bit about the Broncos and the young core they have built on offense, but that defense is filled with emerging talents as well. That reaches from an already proven commodity in Bradley Chubb over an under-the-radar second-year linebacker in A.J. Johnson to what should have been a Pro Bowl safety in Justin Simmons. The fourth-year man out of Boston College has recorded four interceptions and a safety-leading 14 more passes broken up. He has been limiting big plays through the air all year long for a defense that is still top ten in both yards and points allowed, surrendering a passer rating of just 38.1 individually. After having a down-season in 2018, Simmons has shined as more of prototypical free safety under Vic Fangio in Denver. I was very high on him coming out of college due to his high football IQ and the 26-year old’s athleticism has been apparent ever since he first stepped on an NFL field, as he picked off a couple of passes in just three starts as a rookie and also blocked a kick. Back in 2017 I called for Simmons to earn more playing time for a Broncos defense that was just coming off a Super Bowl run and he has taken full advantage of the opportunity he was given. Now about to enter his first phase of free agency, he will be looking for a lucrative long-time deal to stay at Mile High, since guys who can patrol the deep middle and be secure tacklers on the back-end aren’t easy to find.
Honorable mentions: Jordan Poyer, Jaquiski Tartt and Anthony Harris