The NFL playoffs is the perfect showcase for the underrated player.
Unfortunately, the underrated players on bad teams continue to not see the publicity they deserve. But instead of lamenting their fates we’ll examine the talent across the league that has a chance to take things up a notch this winter.
The underrated players who could potentially guide teams on a Super Bowl run aren’t necessarily players invisible to the casual fan. A few of the following 10 players have already started breaking out this season. Those that qualify just have both the talent and opportunity to rapidly raise their current profile.
Since the playoffs still must wait on the final two weeks of the regular season, I left out fringe squads that could as easily make or miss the postseason. Sorry to those teams and fanbases, but this article would become so very dated by including guys who might not even advance to the playoffs. I chose from the eight playoffs locks and near-locks: Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers.
Patriots DE Chandler Jones: Jones closes out his second regular season as the Patriots’ best pass rusher but not exactly the dominant force this team has needed near the edge. The defensive end ranks fourth in sacks with 11.5 but is really New England’s only threat to consistently bring down the quarterback. When he’s not dominating opposing offensive tackles this defense is in trouble. Jones has been heating up over the past five games recording 14 of his 31 quarterback hurries on the season while impressing even more against the run game.
Colts CB Vontae Davis: Davis can be so filthy good sometimes and then a week later just terrible. When it comes to cornerbacks who could make it shutdown run in the playoffs, the proven upside CBs come to mind. We saw Davis shutdown Demaryius Thomas when Indy ruined Denver’s perfect season. He stifled Andre Johnson in Week 15, limiting him to two catches for nine yards on five targets into Davis’ coverage. If Davis strings together four games at this level and Darius Butler plays to his potential Indy would have the best cornerback tandem in the postseason. In a pass-happy NFL, this is crucial.
Broncos RB Montee Ball: Ball has made his share of follies at the pro level, be it fumbles or drops on swing routes and screens. Just some silly bad-concentration plays. But the talent is there and is why Peyton Manning keeps going back to him. Knowshon Moreno shined in the middle portions of the season and now Ball has caught up to him in snap count. The fresher rookie back should eat even more into Moreno’s carry total, after averaging more than 11 carries and 5 yards per carry from weeks 12-14.
Chiefs QB Alex Smith: It feels weird to call Alex Smith overrated considering he’s been extremely overrated for most of his career. Afraid to take many chances with the Niners and for the first half of this season with the Chiefs, it seemed fair to assume Smith’s conservative approach would limit KC in the long run. Well, the 2005 No. 1 overall pick has cut loose since the start of November and reminded everyone that, oh yeah, Andy Reid is quarterback wizard. Andy Reid actually injected huge value into A.J. Feeley and Kevin Kolb. Smith has looked like a whole new quarterback since the bye week at the start of November, recording three of his four biggest passing games and his three highest quarterback ratings.
Seahawks CB Byron Maxwell: The indefinite suspension of Brandon Browner left a major question into the Seahawks secondary, which shifts to sub-packages very little. It’s not often you find a 6-4 corner who can run with NFL receivers. Pete Carroll instantly inflated Maxwell’s snap totals in that CB2 role and the instant returns are encouraging. The 2011 sixth-rounder had never played more than half the team’s defensive snaps until Week 10, and now has taken every defensive snap over the past couple weeks. In Week 15, Victor Cruz could not haul in any of the three passes to him in Maxwell’s coverage. Meanwhile, Richard Sherman’s locking down another hapless receiver.
Panthers OLB Thomas Davis: Luke Kuechly became the household name last year but Thomas Davis has earned more recognition in 2013. Kuechly struggled in the Panthers primetime showdowns with New England and New Orleans, constantly trailing the opposing target yet Davis has been the one blanketing or throttling them before reaching the markers. Where’s his Defensive Player of the Year consideration? Like Kuechly, Davis was a mid-first round draft selection. However, this was in the way-back before injury plagued nears buried his name from the public conscience. Now he truly represents the Carolina defense’s swarming mentality. Davis currently ranks third among 4-3 outside linebackers in Pro Football Focus‘ coverage grade.
49ers CB Tramaine Brock: On a healthy 359 coverage snaps, Brock has quietly ranked in the top 10 cornerbacks for lowest passer rating into his coverage. Starting cornerback Tarell Brown’s injury has allowed Brock to start the past four games. However, even when Brown gets back to 100 percent Vic Fangio’s defense should feature a heavy dose of Brock as before. Brock greased the slopes to Matt Schaub’s benching with a pick-six back in Week 5, whatever role in the Niners secondary he fills this postseason, could also ball-hawk his way to ending a team’s season this winter.
Saints WR Kenny Stills: Stills got on Drew Brees’ good side by hauling a miraculous catch in the end zone that pulled New Orleans ahead in New England late back in Week 6. That trust carried through in the following weeks and Stills racked up 129 yards and two touchdowns in the very next game. Stills’ numbers may have fizzled out in recent contests with Robert Meachem getting back into the fold but no one on the team can touch his vertical threat. Sean Payton must know this, and I can imagine Stills ripping the top off opposing defenses again this postseason. Out of the top 10 receivers in yards per catch, Stills has by far the largest percentage of targets caught at 70.7 percent.