20. Sam Bradford – Minnesota Vikings
Sam Bradford was one of the sexiest draft prospects of all time. His first two Sooners seasons were sublime: 86 touchdowns vs. 16 picks, and the grace of a Phoenician swashbuckler. Then came a debilitating shoulder injury that cost him most of his junior year. He still went #1 overall to the Rams, and proceeded to have a very lackluster four years in St. Louis. But he’s been a revelation with Minnesota, who took a flyer on him after erstwhile franchise savior Theodore Edmond Bridgewater went down, down like a mythical Fall Out Boy pugilist. Bradford’s been completing basically every single pass since that time, guiding a relatively meek Vikings offense to more wins than they deserve. He’ll always be as fragile as one of your grandmother’s porcelain figurines, but when he’s right, he sure can go 13/18 for 145 yards and a touchdown.
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19. Thomas Davis – Carolina Panthers
Fellow Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly gets all the headlines (and shirtless GEICO commercials), but prime Davis was every bit the player his fellow defender is. He plays on the strong side of the defense, which means fewer opportunities to rack up stats, but Davis has proven to be a rock in the Carolina front seven since he was drafted all the way back in 2005. This could be a Hall-of-Famer in the making, but he’s almost never talked about.
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18. Jonathan Stewart – Carolina Panthers
I’m left wondering how good a consistently healthy Jonathan Stewart could have really been. He’s missed so many games to injury, that it’s not hard to project an extra few thousand rushing yards onto an already very strong career. Obviously durability is a skill – especially in the NFL – but Stewart makes this list because I feel his talent as a runner has been underrated. He was part of the two-headed monster Carolina backfield with DeAngelo Williams early in his career, racking up an insane 10 TDs and 836 yards as the second back on that team his rookie season. Sadly, the bad injuries hit just five years into what was on track to be a storybook career. Despite all the setbacks, Stewart is still chugging along at age 30, no easy feat for any running back.
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17. Gerald McCoy – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With the name of a kindly old Nebraska senator, you’d half expect McCoy to be some sort of teddy bear. But that’s far from the truth. In fact, if you were performing some Bizzaro-World defensive lineman Build-A-Bear, you would fill him with basically all the qualities of Gerald McCoy. He’s a five-time Pro Bowler, so he ain’t overlooked by everyone, but he’s certainly not getting the level of credit due to him. Famous Jameis gets all the headlines for Tampa Bay (he’s a QB, duh), but Tampa would still be stuck in a woeful rebuild if it weren’t for the ferocious mauler in the middle.
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16. Aqib Talib/Chris Harris Jr. – Denver Broncos
It’s impossible to separate these two lockdown corners, because they’ve been equally essential to the rise of the dominant Broncos pass defense. They’re constantly playing in the shadow of Von Miller, who is almost as good at football as he is at being a millionaire hipster. All kidding aside, Miller is amazing, but he wouldn’t rack up all the sacks without these two sticky-fingered technicians velcroed to opposing wideouts. Plus, Aqib Talib basically has the best name ever. Good enough that we’ll forgive him for getting straight torched by Jordy Nelson in college:
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15. Eric Berry – Kansas City Chiefs
This one is painful to write, because Berry suffered yet another catastrophic injury in the Chiefs’ Week 1 beat down of the Patriots. But nothing was as catastrophic as the cancerous lump discovered in 2014 in the safety’s chest that turned out to be Hodgkin’s disease. Less than seven months after that diagnosis, Berry was cancer-free, which is amazing. That story is not told enough, forget the fact that he’s also one of the best safeties in recent memory. It’s hard to imagine anyone making yet another comeback in 2018 after tearing his Achilles tendon, but knowing Mr. Berry, I wouldn’t be surprised.
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14. Alex Smith – Kansas City Chiefs
I know, I know. I can already hear you typing with glee in the comment section, “Dude can’t even throw the ball 20 yards downfield.” Well, I guess you’d find a way to misspell one of those words, but that’s not the point. What is the point is that Alex Smith wins football games. Want to call him a game manager? Fine by me; there are plenty of QBs who can’t even manage a single drive. All Smith has done since he arrived in KC is go 43-20, complete 65% of his passes, and carry a 4:1 TD-to-interception ratio, which all adds up to a 93.5 rating. Every quarterback is a system quarterback to some degree, and Smith just needed to match up with a coach and scheme that fit his talents. He’s done just that with Andy Reid in Kansas City. And though Smith’s only 2-4 in the playoffs, you can hardly pin that on his own play, as he’s been even better come the postseason: 12 TDs to just 2 picks for a 94.5 QB rating, to go along with 207 rushing yards. Patrick MaWho?
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13. Joe Thomas – Cleveland Browns
In truth, I could fill this entire list with offensive linemen. But that would be boring as shit. It takes years of excellence for an O-lineman to get recognized (by anyone except Robert Mays, at least). Partly it’s because there are so few recognizable stats on which to grade linemen – which is why we often resort to citing consecutive games started. Normally I’d say that’s a lame stat, but what Thomas has done in terms of consistency is remarkable – on Sunday he played in his 10,000th consecutive snap for the Browns. That’s just insane. Through that time he’s withstood a grade-two LCL year, three MCL strains, and two high ankle sprains. Tough as nails.
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12. Andrew Luck – Indianapolis Colts
Rookie year Andrew Luck certainly would not have made this list. He was the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, a prospect coming into the league with more hype than anyone since Peyton Manning. But that was a long time ago. And despite Luck’s three Pro Bowl appearances, he’s generally not considered in the first or second tier of quarterbacks. But look at the teams he’s been surrounded with. T.Y. Hilton and Frank Gore are the two best offensive players he’s ever played with. Hilton is a nice talent, but he’s a fairly one-dimensional wideout, while Gore is a solid but unspectacular tailback in the twilight of his career. Luck has had terrible O-lines and defenses, along with some very questionable coaches. The fact that he’s won 11 games three times is astonishing, and the pathetic nature of the Colts this season only hammers home his value.
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11. DeAndre Hopkins – Houston Texans
Nuk has been among the top-10 NFL receivers since his second year in the league. His problem? He has played with a putrid progression of Texan QBs, who have tanked his value. Despite playing with flat-out bad passers, Hopkins has managed to get his, racking up three straight 76+ catch seasons (arbitrary endpoints be damned). Houston has already made a QB change this season, so their issues are far from over, but at least Deshaun Watson is progress over Tom Savage. Expect another year akin to his 111/1521/11 year back in 2015.
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10. Damon “Snacks” Harrison – New York Giants
The rise of Snacks is a thing of legend, so perhaps he’s not long for this list. If you tuned in to the Giants’ Monday night beatdown at the hands of the Lions, you heard Al Michaels detail the unlikely rise of a giant – from stocking shelves at Wal-Mart to an undrafted signee by the Jets. His rise culminated in a First-Team All-Pro selection last season, and he was rewarded with a fat five-year, $46.25 million contract by the Giants. This guy will gobble up the interior of an offensive line, and still have enough room for seconds.
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9. Dont’a Hightower – New England Patriots
Any time Bill Belichick gives someone a four-year deal with $19 million guaranteed, you know that dude can ball. Hightower has been the relatively anonymous bastion of a solid Pats defense since they took him 25th overall in the 2012 Draft. If you follow New England, you know how rare it is that they even pick in the first round at all – they usually trade down and stockpile picks. Hightower was finally recognized with a Pro Bowl selection last season, and I would imagine it will be the first of several. Usually we look at NWE and just give credit to the coach and QB, but guys like Hightower are what make that team hum.
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8. Mike Wallace – Baltimore Ravens
Hats off to Mike Wallace. He’s never been elite, never been First-Team All-Pro, never led the league in anything meaningful. If anything, he’s been known as a burner who relies on pure speed to blow the lid off defenses. But he’s consistently been a very good #2 receiver who creates space for his offense with speed and explosiveness. And consistently might be an understatement – Wallace has literally missed one game in a nine-year career. He’s racked up more than 7,300 receiving yards and 53 touchdowns to go along with a 15 yards-per-reception average.
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7. Rob Kelley – Washington Redskins
“Fat Rob Kelley” (or “Thick Rob Kelley” as I like to call him) is hardly a household name. He’s pretty clearly not the prototype for a 2017 running back – he looks straight out of the ‘80s. And maybe that’s what I love about him so much. But he’s been quite productive, whether you like that or not. He was a UDFA out of Tulane, which is pretty cool because like eight zillion guys are drafted every year. He managed to find the end zone seven times last year, and though he will struggle to get the 20-carry load that he deserves, he’s a valuable chunk of the Washington Redacteds’ offense.
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6. Marshal Yanda – Baltimore Ravens
If Cris Collinsworth has a mini orgasm every time he says your name, you’re probably good at football. The way that the Sunday Night Football commentator bellows YAWN-DUH every time this stalwart lineman pancakes another unwitting tackle brings true joy to viewers everywhere. Yanda is one of those O-linemen who should be getting praise heaped upon him, but sadly he’ll just be another relatively anonymous Hall-of-Famer, toiling away to keep Joe Flacco upright, for better or for worse.
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5. Pierre Garçon – Washington Redskins
Well, tell me about the escargot special and refill my water glass, because the Garçon is putting in work. He’s far from the sexiest receiver, but damn is he consistent. He was an excellent #2 in Washington, and now is the go-to guy on a surprisingly not terrible 49er team. He’s got some of the best hands in the league, and makes up for just moderate athleticism (for the most athletic position in sports) with route-running savvy and impeccable body control. He might turn in his best season yet under Kyle Shanahan this season.
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4. Aaron Donald – Los Angeles Rams
Pro Football Focus rated Donald as the best NFL player coming into 2017. Not the best defensive lineman. Not the best defender. The. Best. Player. Period. And if you’re one of the 500 people who has watched a Rams game over the last few years, you know PFF is right. The dude chews up and spits out linemen like so much Big League Chew (just kidding, Big League Chew turns to gum soup). Is he underrated because of the position he plays? Maybe! I don’t know. But I do know that he should get WAY more recognition. He’s every bit as good as J.J. Watt, if not at self-promotion, at least at football.
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3. Earl Thomas – Seattle Seahawks
Earl Thomas might be the best safety of all time. He’s been the best player on a dominant Seahawks defense for years, but the fact that he was part of the Legion of Boom actually reduced his perceived impact on the field. He certainly gets credit, but not nearly as much as he should. He’s one of the greatest athletes of his generation, but playing in the secondary doesn’t get him nearly the accolades that being a pass rusher or offensive player would. Just look at how much Seattle’s defense fell off last year when he went out – Thomas deserves as much credit as any defensive player of the last 20 years.
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2. Michael Crabtree – Oakland Raiders
Crab has had a weird career. He was super-hyped coming out of Texas Tech, where he shattered almost every Red Raider record, along with every Longhorn heart. Once drafted by the Niners, he had a long holdout, which might have colored some people’s views of him. But he’s been a consistently dynamic wideout, racking up 85+ receptions on three different occasions and now establishing himself as an indispensible weapon for Derek Carr and the Raiders. Since joining Oakland, he’s accumulated 186 catches for 2,088 yards and 20 TDs in just 34 games. He’s matured into both a leader in the locker room and a model wideout, helping elevate Carr and the Raiders to an elite offense.
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1. Alex Mack – Atlanta Falcons
One surefire way to be underrated is to play for the Cleveland Browns. That’s exactly what Mack did for seven seasons, snapping the ball to a series of dismal signal-callers. But since joining the Falcons in 2016, Mack is finally starting to get some of the exposure he has deserved all along. He was an essential piece that then-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan demanded the Falcons sign, because the wunderkind play-caller knew he needed Mack to help execute the zone blocking scheme that would free up the twin powerhouse of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. If you watch Atlanta, focus on the center when you can – you’ll see a dynamic, mobile lineman who moves mountains in the middle and uses his massive intellect to help his QB diagnose what the defense is doing.
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