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One Secret Superstar for all 32 teams

Why are great players underrated in any sport?

There are all kinds of reasons. In football, it could be that the guy playing your position is even better than you are, and he’s been doing it longer. Maybe we only have the attention span for one great player at your position Maybe you’re on a team that doesn’t get much national praise, or you’re part of a unit that… well, stinks… and you’re one of the few bright spots. Or, you’re just getting started on the ascent, and the world hasn’t quite caught up yet.

No matter the reason, there are many NFL players who ply their trade at an exceedingly high level, and they’re not given their proper due. Here, we look to rectify this in 32 individual instances with the most underrated player for every NFL team. Some of these guys have been doing it the right way in the shade for a long time for their teams; a few are new in their uniforms.

No matter why, all 32 of these NFL players deserve more love than they get, and here’s why. Here is every NFL team’s most underrated player.

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Thomas first found himself on my radar as I was watching the 2022 class of pass-rushers — only Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. had more total pressures in the FBS in 2021 (82) than Thomas’ 77. The Cardinals took the San Diego State alum with the 87th pick in the third round of the 2022 draft, and Thomas responded well in his rookie campaign. He had three sacks, three quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback hurries in just 155 pass-rushing snaps, and it seemed that the more he played, the more productive he was.

At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, Thomas can disrupt from any gap — he spent most of his time on the edge, but with J.J. Watt retired and Zach Allen off to the Broncos (more on him in a minute), and the Cardinals’ defensive front pretty barren overall at this point, maybe Thomas might kick inside more often and do more of what he did to 49ers right guard Spencer Burford and quarterback Brock Purdy on this Week 18 sack.

(Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

(Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports)

The Falcons selected Texas running back Bijan Robinson with the eighth overall pick in the 2023 draft, and that makes sense — when you have the best prospect at his position since Adrian Peterson, he’s going to go highly in his draft. But Atlanta already had a back of some esteem in Allgeier, the BYU alum who the Falcons took in the fifth round of the 2022 draft. Allgeier was quite the revelation in his rookie campaign, gaining 1,74 yards from scrimmage and 4.9 yards per touch in an offense where the passing game wasn’t a factor. Allgeier faced seven or more defenders in the box on 182 of his carries, the fifth-highest rate in the league, and he gained 900 yards with 611 yards and three touchdowns on those loaded-box carries.

Perhaps the Falcons envision a thunder-and-lightning duo with Robinson and Allgeier; the second-year man certainly qualifies as a thunderback. He averaged 3.58 yards after contact per carry in 2022, and forced 51 missed tackles. Even when everybody knew he was getting the ball, it was no fun for any defense to deal with Allgeier’s acceleration and contact balance.

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

The Ravens took Madubuike in the third round of the 2020 draft out of Texas A&M, and while he made an impact at times as a rotational player in his first two NFL seasons, 2022 was really his breakout year. That’s when he six sacks, four quarterback hits, 22 quarterback hurries, and 25 stops on just 684 total snaps. Moreover, Baltimore’s defense got after the quarterback far more effectively when Madubuike was on the field — the Ravens’ sack rate went from 5.8% to 8.5% when he was part of the equation, and the pressure rate jumped from 23.6% to 34.7%. Not that on-off splits are ever due to just one player, but in this case, Madubuike’s ability to not only soak up double teams, but also to move through those two-man blocks to provide pressure made an obvious difference for others on those defensive lines. At 6-foot-3 and 293 pounds, No. 92 is a big bag of lunch for any blocker (or blockers) to deal with.

The GOAT would not disagree.

Not that Milano is underrated in an NFL sense — he made first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career last season (Full disclosure: I voted for him there), and he recently signed a two-year, $28.33 million contract extension — but the 2017 fifth-round pick out of Boston College has become one of the league’s most valuable linebackers, and that’s not discussed often enough. In 2022, Milano totaled five sacks, 24 quarterback pressures, 89 solo tackles, 57 stops, and he allowed 59 catches on 81 targets for 500 yards, 389 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, three interceptions, six pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 73.1. There isn’t much that Milano doesn’t do at a very high level.

This pick-six against the Titans in Week 2 shows how Milano’s combination of field sense and athleticism pays off on the field.

The Panthers ranked 25th in Defensive DVOA last season, but they are putting together a defense with some important players, and none more so than Luvu, who the team first signed in 2021 as an undrafted free agent who had spent a few seasons with the Jets. Carolina gave Luvu a two-year, $9 million contract extension in 2022, and it’s safe to say that either the Panthers or some other team is going to pony up a lot more than that before or after he becomes a free agent in 2024.

What makes the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Luvu so interesting in the context of any modern defense is that you can put him just about anywhere on the field. He’s listed as a linebacker, but he’s shown the ability to win off the edge as a pass-rusher, cover in space, and get after run fits as a two-level defender. Here, in Week 2 against the Giants, Luvu blew through the slide and dropped Saquon Barkley for a two-yard loss.

(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

(Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Jackson was selected by the Bears in the fourth round of the 2017 draft out of Alabama, had a couple of well-deserved Pro Bowl and All-Pro seasons early on, and then fell off the map in 2020 and 2021 as his coverage ability dropped precipitously. Unfortunately, this process started right after Jackson signed a four-year, $58.4 million contract extension in January, 2020 that made him the league’s highest-paid safety at the time. Injuries and COVID played a part in Jackson’s decline, and though he also missed the last five games of the 2022 season due to a foot injury, Jackson looked his old self after two years of persona non grata status.

Jackson allowed seven touchdowns with no interceptions and astronomical opponent quarterback ratings in 2020 and 2021, but in 2022, he gave up just eight catches on 16 targets for 97 yards, 23 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, four interceptions, three pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 69.0 — the lowest he’s allowed since the 54.9 he gave up in his All-Pro season of 2018. However the turnaround happened, it was nice to see No. 4 patrolling the deep third as some may have assumed he never would again.

(Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)

(Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bengals took Pratt in the third round of the 2019 draft out of North Carolina State, and since then, he’s earned a bit of a (though not enough of a) name as one of the NFL’s best linebackers. Certainly in tandem with Logan Wilson, Pratt makes up the league’s best linebacker tandem you’re not talking about enough. 2022 was Pratt’s best professional season to date, as he totaled a sack, eight quarterback pressures, 77 solo tackles, 41 stops, and 43 catches on 60 targets for 408 yards, 277 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, two interceptions, four pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 76.2.

On this deflection of a Josh Allen pass to Dawson Knox in Cincinnati’s divisional playoff win over the Bills, Pratt roved from the A-gap to curl/flat responsibility, which kinda sums up his effective versatility.

(Syndication: Palm Beach Post)

(Syndication: Palm Beach Post)

The Browns did a lot this offseason to redefine a pass rush that previously consisted of Myles Garrett and very little else, adding Za’Darius Smith, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Okoronkwo to that line, and putting new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in charge of it all. Smith and Tomlinson, the former Vikings, are more known entities, while Okoronkwo is far less of a household name. Maybe that changes this season, as the ex-Texans edge-rusher seems to be on the brink of greatness. 

The Rams took Okoronkwo out of Oklahoma in the fifth round of the 2048 draft, and he played a rotational role through his first three NFL seasons. The one-year, $3.25 million deal he signed with the Houston Texans in 2022 was the best possible thing that could have happened to him — he basically doubled his snaps, and his production went through the roof, especially at the end of the 2022 season. From Weeks 13-18, Okoronkwo’s five sacks and 24 total pressures had him in the NFL’s top 10 in both categories, and the development showed up on tape.

The Browns bet on that upside with a three-year, $19 million contract with $12.49 million in guarantees. What they got is an ascending edge-rusher at 6-foot-2 and 253 pounds who can beat tackles with everything from a killer inside spin move…

cowboys-mike-mccarthy-tony-pollard-ef-hutton-tv-commercial

(AP Photo/Brett Duke)

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy recently compared Pollard to the old E.F. Hutton commercials, implying that when Pollard speaks, everybody listens.

“Tony always asks excellent questions because we’re doing some things differently protection-wise, a little different as far as our coursework and things in the run game,” McCarthy said. “And Tony has a really good feel of how things fit together, and he’s a great, great example for our young players.”

All good, but Pollard’s production on the field speaks louder than anything else. Selected in the fourth round of the 2019 draft out of Memphis, Pollard was mostly a rotational back in his first three NFL seasons, but 2022 was his breakout campaign — he gained 1,378 yards from scrimmage, averaged 5.9 yards per touch, scored 12 touchdowns, and made his first Pro Bowl.

Pollard also ranked third in the NFL in yards per carry after contact with 3.76, behind only Breece Hall of the Jets and Rhamondre Stevenson of the Patriots, and his 19 runs of 15 or more yards also ranked third in the league, behind only Cleveland’s Nick Chubb and Saquon Barkley of the Giants. Add in his 51 forced missed tackles, and you have what looks very much like a complete back.

A good receiver, Pollard was also great on sweeps from the slot, as he showed on this 11-yard touchdown against the Texans. With Ezekiel Elliott out of the picture, it’s clear that Pollard is the main man in Dallas.

Denver Broncos: DL Zach Allen

The Broncos did a lot to solidify their pass rush, both interior and exterior, with the agreement to sign former Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Zach Allen to a thee-year, $47.75 million deal with $32.5 million guaranteed. It’s a significant bet on an ascending player.

The Cardinals took Allen in the third round of the 2019 draft out of Boston College, and Allen was off to a relatively unremarkable start to his NFL career through his first two seasons. But then, J.J. Watt came to the Valley of the Sun in 2021 with a few ideas on how to be a multi-gap disruptor, and Allen was a willing disciple. The 6-foot-4, 281 Allen had his best season to date in 2022, with six sacks, 15 quarterback hits, and 14 quarterback hurries in 427 pass-rushing snaps. Allen’s sacks came everywhere from the edge to aligned over the guards to true nose-shade alignments — so, like his mentor, he’s developed into a guy who can harass quarterbacks from any place you’d like.

On this sack of New England’s Mac Jones in Week 14, Allen gave rookie left guard Cole Strange an evil inside/outside move, while Mr. Watt edged around the Patriots’ offensive line to get to Jones from the other side. They met at Jones, which was a nice touch.

The recent addition of Frank Clark does something for a Denver defensive front in need of pass rush, but it’s Allen who could be the primary disruptor.

Detroit Lions: EDGE James Houston IV

(Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports)

(Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lions took Michigan pass-rusher Aidan Hutchinson with the second overall pick in the 2022 draft, and Hutchinson paid off well in his first NFL season with 11 sacks and 53 total pressures. But Hutchinson wasn’t the only quarterback disruptor who came to the Motor City last year — there was also Houston, selected in the sixth round out of Jackson State. Houston didn’t even see the field until Week 12 against the Bills, but from then through the end of the regular season, Houston wasn’t just Detroit’s most productive -ass-rusher — he was one of the NFL’s best. His eight sacks tied for fourth in the league, and his 17 pressures rounded everything out quite well. Not bad for a rookie.

Three of Houston’s eight sacks came against the Bears in Week 17, and on this takedown of Justin Fields, Houston had one of the better effort sacks of the season, and was rewarded with a forced fumble. One wonders what he’ll be able to do with a full NFL season of edge reps.

Green Bay Packers: CB Rasul Douglas

(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

The Eagles selected Douglas in the third round of the 2017 draft out of West Virginia, and after three unremarkable seasons in Philly and one with the Panthers, the Packers signed him to a one-year, $990,000 deal in 2021 — basically a vet minimum deal, as nobody expected much. But it was a case of right time/right place, as Douglas became a revelation in Titletown. In 2021, he allowed 34 catches on 66 targets for 360 yards, 114 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, five interceptions, seven pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 46.3 — the lowest for any NFL cornerback who played at least 50% of his team’s snaps.

Douglas was rewarded with a three-year, $21 million contract that’s still a pretty decent underpay, as he’s no one-year wonder. In 2022, and in a defense that hasn’t always made sense from a coverage perspective, he still allowed just 49 catches on 73 targets for 536 yards, 183 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, four interceptions, seven pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 84.0.

Here’s one concept that did make sense against the Dolphins in Week 16 — Douglas starting off pressing Tyreek Hill, and then moving back to pick off Tua Tagovailoa’s pass to tight end Mike Gesicki.

Houston Texans: CB Tavierre Thomas

The Texans made former 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans their head coach in part because they’d like to redefine a defense that finished 22nd in DVOA last season, though the ranking of 12th in Weighted DVOA may portend an upswing in 2023. Ryans has some interesting pieces in his new secondary — cornerbacks Derek Stingley and Shaquill Griffin, and safeties/slot defenders Jimmie Ward and Jalen Pitre. But it would be unwise to overlook Tavierre Thomas, the veteran undrafted free agent from Ferris State (go Bulldogs) who signed a two-year deal with the Texans in 2021 after a few invisible seasons with the Browns.

Thomas became a fixture in Houston’s secondary as a slot defender in that first season, and his 2022 was even better in a lot of ways. He overcame a quadriceps injury in the first half of the season to allow 14 catches on 27 targets for 89 yards, 51 yards after the catch, and an opponent passer rating of 59.0. Thomas had no interceptions and just one pass-breakup, but the tape tells the story of his ability to nuke potential big plays before they happen. This demolition of Colts receiver Parris Campbell on return motion was just one example.

Indianapolis Colts: WR Alec Pierce

Speaking of Colts receivers…

In 2022, between Matt Ryan, Nick Foles, and Sam Ehlinger, Indianapolis’ quarterbacks were good for just 13 completions of 20 or more air yards for 452 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. To put that in perspective, Josh Allen of the Bills led the NFL with 41 deep completions for 1,386 yards, 12 touchdowns, and seven interceptions. So, if there’s any receiver getting things done downfield in that severely risk-averse passing game, it’s notable. That is the case for Pierce, who caught seven of those deep passes for 243 yards and the lone touchdown.

The 2022 second-rounder from Cincinnati should have quite a few more downfield opportunities with Anthony Richardson’s laser rocket arm. and based on catches like this, where he just basted Commanders cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, Richardson should find Pierce to be an esteemed friend on such concepts.

Jacksonville Jaguars: DL Roy Robertson-Harris

(Syndication: Florida Times-Union)

(Syndication: Florida Times-Union)

The Jaguars have a stacked defensive line, with (the other) Josh Allen and Travon Walker as the headliners, but there were some underrated guys on that line in 2022 — Dawuane Smoot, who’s now a free agent, put a serious charge into things, and Roy Robertson-Harris was also a factor. Last season, Robertson-Harris tallied four sacks, nine quarterback hits, 24 quarterback hurries, and 36 stops for his best season to date. An undrafted free agent out of UTEP, Robertson-Harris spent his first four NFL seasons with the Bears, signed a three-year deal with the Jaguars in 2021, and got a three-year, $30 million contract extension with the team in February.

Robertson-Harris can blow things up all over the line as a pass-rusher and as a run-stopper, and if you’re throwing a quick pass into his general area, as Patrick Mahomes did to Travis Kelce in the divisional round of the playoffs, that’s probably not a good idea, either.

Kansas City Chiefs: EDGE Charles Omenihu

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Like a lot of players, Charles Omenihu got better when he was coached by former 49ers defensive coordinator and new Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans. Omenihu, selected in the fifth round of the 2019 draft out of Texas, was a decent rotational pass-rusher for the Texans for 2 1/2 seasons. But when the 49ers traded for him in November, 2021, the light went on. Now, Omenihu will ply his trade with the Chiefs in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, on a two-year, $16 million contract.

Last season, the 6-foot-5, 280 pound Omenihu had seven sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 43 quarterback hurries in just 475 pass-rushing snaps. He’s more of a multi-gap pass-rusher than a run defender, and that’s fine, because he’s become quite good at the whole pass-rushing thing from all over the place. Spagnuolo loves to bring chaos with his fronts, so he’ll have fun with Omenihu.

His two sacks against the Seahawks in the wild-card round of the 2022 playoffs certainly prove that point. The first came with 2:31 left in the third quarter. Omenihu was aligned to the center’s left shoulder in a nose shade look, and at the snap, he rushed all the way around the right tackle to take the ball out of Geno Smith’s hand.

Las Vegas Raiders: WR Jakobi Meyers

As is the case with most former Patriots assistants of any stripe, Las Vegas Raiders head coach Josh McDaniels seems to want as many players as possible who understand the Patriot Way. So, the Raiders gave former Pats receiver Jakobi Meyers a three-year, $33 million deal with $21 million guaranteed.

Of course, Meyers has already thrown one touchdown pass to the Raiders, albeit inadvertently:

So, there’s that. Meyers joins a receiver group that was already stacked with Davante Adams, Hunter Renfrow, and rookie tight end Michael Mayer, so former Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo  has all the targets he could want — and very few excuses.

Last season, Meyers caught 67 passes on 96 targets for 804 yards and six touchdowns in a misbegotten offense run by Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. Explosive plays were few and far between, but Meyers still managed to get his.

Meyers can get open from just about everywhere — from outside, the slot, and the backfield. He’s a complete receiver who will add a lot to McDaniels’ passing game.

Maybe just leave the throwing of the football to others.

Los Angeles Chargers: C Corey Linsley

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Centers are underrated under the best of circumstances; even a guy like Jason Kelce who gets himself out there in interesting and funny ways doesn’t get the props he deserves for his Hall of Fame-level play. What we can look at with centers is how well they do their jobs, and Linsley is right up there with the best.

The former Packers center signed a five-year, $62.5 million contract with the Chargers in 2021, and he’s been worth every penny of that over the last two seasons. He hasn’t allowed a single sack in his 1,325 pass-blocking snaps with the team — just three quarterback hits and 14 quarterback hurries — and if you want to get past him or around him to deal with a run play, good luck with that. Linsley’s combination of power, technique, and second-level movement is truly special, and puts him right up top at a position that doesn’t get enough praise.

Los Angeles Rams: LB Ernest Jones

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

The Rams are clearly in a rebuilding phase, which leaves them a bit shy on underrated players. But Jones, selected in the third round of the 2021 draft out of South Carolina, qualifies. He can close to the quarterback as a blitzer from two levels (Jones had three sacks and 12 quarterback pressures in his rookie season), he’s effective in coverage (check out the interception of Derek Carr below), and he’s improved as a run defender.

As the Rams look to overhaul their defense, at least they have Jones as an ascending player as they start to fill things in around him.

Miami Dolphins: CB Kader Kohou

(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Texas A&M-Commerce has a pretty decent NFL legacy, developing such stars as Harvey Martin and Dwight White for the next level, and perhaps Kader Kohou will be the next name on that list. The Dolphins stole him as an undrafted free agent last season, and all Kohou did in response to that leap of faith was to respond magnificently to a lot of pressure. He was the team’s most targeted defender by far with 115 (cornerback Xavien Howard ranked second with 87), and he allowed just 74 catches for 718 yards, 314 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, one interception, 10 pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 83.9.

A truly versatile defender right away (which will hold him in good stead with new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio), Kohou played well everywhere from outside corner to the slot to the box to some overhang/safety roles. Most specifically, Kohou’s ability to follow, gain leverage with, and attack receivers in press coverage sets him up well for success in any defense. Especially if he can turn some of those deflections into interceptions!

Minnesota Vikings: RB Alexander Mattison

(Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports)

(Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports)

Mattison, selected by the Vikings in the third round of the 2019 draft out of Boise State, has never seen more than 134 carries in a season through his NFL career. Last season, as the second man in a rotation with Dalvin Cook, he had just 74 carries, totaling 283 yards and scoring five touchdowns on the ground. Mattison’s prospects look to change significantly after Cook’s recent release, and he appears to be ready for the jump. On those 74 carries, Cook was good for eight explosive plays (10 or more yards), he averaged 2.76 yards after contact per carry, and he forced 23 missed tackles. About half of them may have come on this 11-yard run against the Bears in Week 18, when Mattison seemed determined to take Chicago’s entire defense with him.

Mattison isn’t quite as explosive as Cook, but he is absolutely the kind of hammerhead back you can go with in critical situations. Head coach Kevin O’Connell has said that he sees Mattison as an every-down back, and now, it’s time to find out.

New England Patriots: EDGE Matthew Judon

(Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)

(Photo by Nick Grace/Getty Images)

Does Judon get some props for his excellent play? I mean, the ex-Ravens pass-rusher did get a four-year, $54,5 million contract with the Patriots in 2021, so that’s progress. And when Bill Belichick put him on the field, it was more in a structured edge role than the roving he did in Baltimore. That was to great effect, as Judon had a career-high 14 sacks and 64 total pressures in 2021. All he did in 2022 was to up the ante with 17 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, and 38 quarterback hurries. Only Haason Reddick, Nick Bosa, and Myles Garrett had more quarterback takedowns in 2022, and Judon’s 69 total pressures (nice) put him 11th in the league.

Judon is also a smart and adept run defender; his ability to spot gaps and react to and through them quickly serves him as well in that aspect as it does when he’s pinning his ears back after the quarterback. Cleveland’s Nick Chubb would be hard-pressed to argue the point.

New Orleans Saints: CB Alontae Taylor

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

The Saints got Taylor in the second round of the 2022 draft out of Tennessee, and the rookie proved to be a natural in Dennis Allen’s aggressive, man-heavy coverages. Last season, Taylor allowed just 29 catches on 64 targets for 283 yards, 87 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, no interceptions, 10 pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 58.3. Among rookie cornerbacks who played at least 20% of their teams’ snaps, only Sauce Gardner allowed a lower passer rating at 53.9, and Taylor’s was the fifth-lowest in the league, regardless of tenure.

Whether in the slot, or playing overhang roles, Taylor is aggressive when he needs to be, and he can also hang back and wait for things to develop. It’s not easy playing press in the slot no matter how experienced you are; you’re vulnerable to receivers who can move to both sides, and the boundary is no longer your friend. But on this PBU against Van Jefferson of the Rams in Week 11. Taylor took it all in stride.

New York Giants: CB Adoree’ Jackson

(Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports)

(Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports)

It took Jackson a bit longer to find his stride; he was selected by the Titans with the 18th pick in the 2017 draft out of USC, and while he was decent in Tennessee’s secondaries over four seasons, he wasn’t yet spectacular. The Giants gave him a three-year, $39 million contract in 2021, and he’s played very well for Big Blue in two different defenses — under Patrick Graham in 2021, and Wink Martindale in 2022. As Martindale loves to run man coverage out there with a high blitz rate, it helps that in 2022, Jackson allowed just 16 catches on 35 targets for 187 yards, 46 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, no interceptions, seven pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 72.0 when in man coverage.

Those man reps weren’t always in press, either — Jackson also proved to be an off-man expert, as on this refusal of a Zay Jones touchdown against the Jaguars in Week 7.

New York Jets: CB D.J. Reed Jr.

Rookie cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner got all the kudos in the Jets’ secondary last season, and there’s nothing wrong with that — the 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year was about as good as any cornerback in the league, no matter what coverage he was playing. But there’s more to be said than has been said about D.J. Reed, who the Jets stole on a three-year, $33 million contract in 2022. Reed was on the open market despite the fact that he had played exceedingly well for the Seahawks in 2020 and 2021.

The former fifth-round pick of the 49ers in 2018 out of Kansas State has undoubtedly found his ideal home in Robert Saleh’s defense — last season, he allowed 47 catches on 83 targets for 467 yards, 120 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, one interception, 12 pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 75.7. If you wanted to avoid Sauce, throwing to Reed’s side of the field didn’t produce more positive options. As he showed on this deflection of a Josh Allen pass to Stefon Diggs in Week 9, Reed ran run with the best receivers, and he has the recovery speed to avoid getting turned around.

Philadelphia Eagles: EDGE Josh Sweat

The Eagles’ 70 regular-season sacks in 2022 marked the third-highest single-season total in pro football history per Pro Football Reference. Only the 1984 Bears and the 1989 Vikings had more, and this is from a site that has sack totals tracked back to the pre-AFL era. Those four- and five-man fronts helped Haason Reddick lead the NFL with 21 sacks in the regular and postseason, but the second man on that Philly list with 15 was Josh Sweat. Adding in his nine quarterback hits and 27 quarterback hurries, and you’re dealing with quite the disruptive force.

Sweat, who the Eagles got in the fourth round of the 2018 draft out of Florida State, put together his career-best season mostly on the edges opposite Reddick, but at 6-foot-5 and 263 pounds, he’s also proven more than capable of kicking inside and blowing up potential passing plays. On this sack against the Titans in Week 13, Sweat worked right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere all the way around the arc, coming up with Ryan Tannehill as his reward. Sweat also had a career-high 36 stops last season, so his value as a run defender should also be considered.

Pittsburgh Steelers: EDGE Alex Highsmith

Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt are the rockstars of the Steelers’ estimable defensive line, and for good reason — but in Alex Smith, Pittsburgh has another pass-rusher who has been exponentially more effective in each of his three NFL seasons. Taken in the third round of the 2020 draft out of Charlotte, Highsmith started his NFL career as a rotational player with two sacks and 21 total pressures in his rookie campaign.

Those numbers shot up to nine sacks and 38 pressures in 2021 as Highsmith graduated to a starting role, and in 2022, it all came to a head. That’s when Highsmith put up 15 sacks and 55 total pressures, looking at times like one of the league’s better and more multi-faceted edge defenders. Highsmith can bring a fearsome bull-rush to any tackle, but he’s just as adept at jumping multiple gaps inside to disrupt, and as Carolina’s Ickey Ekwonu discovered in Week 15, Highsmith has quite the killer spin move.

With Watt, Highsmith, and the recently signed Markus Golden (who almost made this year’s underrated list right here), the Steelers have as formidable an edge trio as you’ll find in the NFL.

San Francisco 49ers: LB Dre Greenlaw

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Bask in the 49ers’ heyday in the early 2010s, the team had a linebacker duo of Patrick Willis and MaVorro Bowman that rivaled any in the league. And it always seems to be the case that if we’re recognizing one half of a duo, we tend to give the other half short shrift. That was true of Bowman, and it’s true today of Dre Greenlaw, who the 49ers got in the fifth round of the 2019 draft out of Arkansas, and who has become one of the best in the game at his position. While Fred Warner is the consensus best linebacker in the NFL, there’s no opponent who risks sleeping on Greenlaw, either.

Last year, Greenlaw had a career-best season with a sack, six quarterback pressures, 125 solo tackles, 71 stops, and 87 catches allowed on 111 targets for 708 yards, 453 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, one interception, six pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 95.5. Basically, Greenlaw was close to the action at all times, and he was up to any challenge.

Seattle Seahawks: WR Tyler Lockett

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

From 2019 through 2022, Lockett ranks 16th in the NFL in targets with 466, ninth in receptions with 339, and tied for sixth in touchdowns (35) with Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown. Thing is, you don’t often hear Lockett’s name when we discuss the league’s most refined and productive receivers, but he’s earned such consideration after putting up these numbers in offenses that haven’t always been passing-friendly. All Lockett does every season is show up and produce, and his efforts were buttressed, surprisingly enough, by Geno Smith’s command of a series of offenses that Russell Wilson seemed to have on lock for a decade.

Specifically, as Smith was one of the league’s best deep passers in 2022, he needed a primary target for all those throws of 20 or more air yards. Lockett was quite happy to comply, and he caught 10 deep passes last season on 19 attempts for 304 yards and six touchdowns. Once again, proof that Lockett doesn’t need an abundance of opportunities to produce at a top-tier level — his 19 deep targets was exactly half thrown to Tyreek Hill, the NFL’s leader in that category, but only Davante Adams and A.J. Brown had more deep touchdowns.

No matter where he lines up on the field, and no matter how you defend him, Lockett will use his comprehensive command of the subtleties of his position to roast you.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: CB Jamel Dean

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Selected in the third round of the 2019 draft out of Auburn, Dean has been a remarkably consistent cornerback for the Buccaneers since his rookie season — outside of a 2020 season in which he got his lunch eaten at times, he’s held up well in all possible situations, whether playing outside or in the slot. Last season, he allowed just 34 catches on 68 targets for 412 yards, 120 yards after the catch, five touchdowns, two interceptions, six pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 81.3. The five touchdowns allowed aren’t a great look, but you have to match tape to advanced metrics, and let’s just say that there were times with Tampa Bay’s defense where you weren’t quite always sure what was going on out there.

Tennessee Titans: DL Denico Autry

(Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports)

(Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports)

Autry is going into his third season with his third NFL team, which seems odd for a player who’s been as productively versatile as long as he has. An undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State who spent his first four seasons with the Raiders, Autry really started making his mark after the Colts signed him to a three-year, $17,8 million deal in 2018. Autry had two double-digit sack seasons with Indy through 2020, and he did so from just about every gap. He’s continued that through the first two years of the three-year, $21,5 million deal he signed with the Titans in 2021. Though he missed time with a knee injury in 2022, he still amassed eight sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 3 quarterback hurries in just 388 pass-rushing snaps.

Whether on the edge or inside, Autry (No. 96) just has a knack for blowing up your blocking schemes and getting to the quarterback. And he shows no signs of slowing down when healthy, though he’ll turn 33 on July 15.

Washington Commanders: Safety Darrick Forrest

2022 was effectively a rookie season for Forrest, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2021 draft out of Cincinnati, but saw just 26 defensive snaps and 15 in coverage then. Washington saw fit to bump that up severely to 849 snaps and 508 in coverage last season, and Forrest responded quite well. Playing everywhere from outside cornerback to the box to the slot to free safety, Forrest allowed 25 catches on 46 targets for 308 yards, 119 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, four interceptions, five pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 68.0 — sixth-best among all safeties playing at least 50% of their defenses’ snaps.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Forrest’s 2022 season is how much he improved as it went along. He was in a bit over his skis to start, and that resulted in some out-of-position busts against the run and the pass. But as things progressed, Forrest became much more of the kind of deep-third player who could be trusted to make the big play at the right time. This athletic interception of a Jalen Hurts deep attempt to A.J. Brown in Week 10 is one such example.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire

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