It’s a cold world we live in, so grab a blanket. When you’re a multimillion dollar player in the NFL, you’re subjected to justifiable criticism, but also to that which is unjustified. So where’s the line, you ask? Well, it should be in the objectivity of analyzing a player’s value to both their respective team and the league as a whole, but it’s not realistic to assume everyone would be willing to put their feelings aside long enough (or for any amount of time) in order to sort through the minutia of the what, the why, the when and the how.
After all, isn’t the word “fan” short for “fanatic”?
It’s that same passion, however, that makes the sport fun, but no, it’s not always fair and never will be. But in the spirit of said fairness, let’s look around the NFC at one player for each team who is either outright overlooked by most or furiously undervalued, of which there is no shortage in the NFL.
His contract is what most will point at here, but all that tells you is the Cowboys value Elliott — not necessarily those watching from home or in the stands. For three seasons now, there has been a resounding yell from outside of the organization to replace Elliott with talented young backup Tony Pollard, but it remains Elliott’s throne in North Texas and, despite belief to the contrary, he remains one of the best running backs in the NFL. His revamped training regimen in 2021 led to an explosive start to the season that was darkened by injury later in the year, rushing for more than 1,000 yards (1,289 yards from scrimmage) with a torn PCL, while many halfbacks around the league couldn’t muster those numbers on healthy legs.
I don’t know why the Bears suddenly dislike applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks, but here we are. The team traded away All-Pro linebacker Khalil Mack to the Los Angeles Chargers and you’d think that would add value to an already valuable piece like Robert Quinn, but things are going awry on that front. Quinn isn’t looking to leave, but rumor has it the Bears are open to trading him and now the two are at a bit of an impasse. Quinn is one-time All-Pro himself who reestablished himself on a one-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys and who went on an absolute tear in 2021 — to the tune of 18.5 sacks — and it’s time the Bears recognize what their defense would look like without he or Mack on the field to help Roquan Smith and Eddie Jackson.
This has always plagued me as one of the most perplexing, annually. Sure, the Buccaneers know what Mike Evans is worth and boy do they ever appreciate him. The problem is, in my opinion, is in how Evans isn’t mentioned nearly enough as it relates to where he places in the echelon of receiver-dom around the league, despite having now logged 1,000-yard campaigns in all eight (!!) of his NFL season (no matter who the QB was at the time). The underappreciation could be a byproduct of being so elite for such a long period of time that it’s sort of like the “power line theory”, in that you know they’re there but you don’t actually ever “see” them unless you look for them. Well, that’s a shame, because Evans was and is arguably still a top 5 wideout heading into 2022.
You know who the headline talent is for the Rams. Admittedly, it’s hard to not, when the defensive roster is stacked with names like Jalen Ramsey, Aaron Donald and more. But as Von Miller takes his talents to Buffalo for 2022 and beyond, it’s maybe time to give some love to Robinson, who stepped up in a big way to help the Rams take home a Lombardi Trophy this past season. He was active in all 20 games for the Rams last season, starting in 17 of them, and delivered career-highs in both tackles and sacks in 2021. His name isn’t the glitziest, especially considering he didn’t join the team until 2020, but if he equals or betters his production in 2022 — watch out.
Do Seahawks fans love Lockett? Yes, unequivocally, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the world truly understands just how devastating he can often be for opposing defenses. With all eyes on the future of DK Metcalf in Seattle, and having now seen Russell Wilson shipped away to the Denver Broncos, it’s looking more and more like Lockett’s offense going forward. There isn’t much he can’t do from the aspect of explosiveness — always just one move away from blowing the lid off of an NFL contest. But there also feels like there’s a part of the football fanbase who thinks he’s a product of Wilson, and that is a view he can instantly change in 2022, if he can help either Geno Smith or Drew Lock put up numbers.
You don’t hear a lot about Gary outside of Wisconsin, and that’s just weird. This is a linebacker who’s proven he gets better with time, going from two sacks with no starts as a rookie in 2019 to five sacks with four stars in 2020, upping his production yet again when he earned 16 starts in 2021 — racking up 9.5 sacks and 47 combined tackles along with two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and 19 quarterback hits. His potential helped fuel the divorce from Za’Darius Smith, clearing the way for Gary to truly make a name for himself in one of the biggest markets in football, and then maybe more people will notice his due north trajectory.
Chandler Jones, Budda Baker and J.J. Watt are names you know very well, but what about Thompson? After all, what he did for a stout Cardinals defense in 2021 was worthy of a Pro Bowl nod, in my opinion, but a large part of acquiring that honor involves actually being known by lots of NFL fans (an ongoing and unfortunate quirk to the voting process). Thompson has elevated from being a supplemental draft pick by the Cardinals in 2019 to a starting safety in the league that gets the job done, and in a big way. He had a career-best campaign last season — by a green mile — including three interceptions, seven pass breakups and 121 combined tackles in just 12 starts. It makes you wonder what he has up his sleeve for 2022, but pay closer attention and you’ll find out.
As it’s the recurring theme on this list, Al-Shaair is being penalized — from a notoriety standpoint — largely because of whom he’s surrounded by. That doesn’t change the fact his potential is sky high, and that could pay off handsomely for him soon. Entering a contract season with the 49ers, he’s looking to show all 32 teams he’s not simply the rotational player he has often been in his early career in San Francisco. When injury struck the defensive side of the ball, Al-Shaair stepped up and logged 13 starts, exploding onto the radar of opposing offensive coordinators and into the chest plate of ball-carriers alike. If you haven’t heard of him just yet, well, that sort of makes my overall point here, now doesn’t it?
Yes, the Eagles have a shiny new defensive toy and everyone can’t wait to unbox it, namely All-America rookie linebacker Nakobe Dean. But in wondering if Dean can duplicate his championship-caliber ways at the professional level, Edwards is seemingly being overlooked, and that’s simply not OK. The Wisconsin star is coming off of a breakout season at the position, having earned his way to the starting role as a former undrafted free agent who paid his dues on special teams before being elevated to some real defensive action. His last two seasons alone have seen him produce 200 combined tackles and three sacks in 16 starts, so Dean and any other challengers will find it difficult to immediately shove Edwards to the side.
This isn’t anything new to Winston. For while it’s fair to point out he’s a former first overall pick who hasn’t panned out as one, it’s also fair to note he’s been doubted his entire career, despite a lot of the talent he has that balances out the mistakes. He’s also rebranded himself well, for the most part, in a Saints uniform, and that’s why they continually view him as the bridge at the position in the post-Drew Brees era. A torn ACL ended his chances to prove them correct in 2021, but a new deal shows they still believe in him even when most fans and pundits do not. But as Aaron Rodgers and the Packers were reminded last season, never assume you’re going to walk all over Winston.
Admit it, unless you truly follow the Vikings, you probably have no clue who Brian O’Neill is or, at minimum, you don’t know his exact value to this club. The team’s fans definitely know, as does Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook, two players O’Neill routinely protects and opens lanes for. What’s strange is that despite landing a five-year deal last September and a Pro Bowl honor in 2021, if you toss his name out in a random conversation about the best offensive tackles in the game, you’ll get blank, confused stares by most involved in the debate. O’Neill gets the job done, and quietly, which is just fine by him and his teammates, but let’s all appreciate his contributions.
Yes, I’m in the mood to give offensive linemen their credit, so let’s move from O’Neill to Leno in Washington. Neither Morgan Moses nor Trent Williams are walking out of that tunnel at FedEx Field in the future, so that leaves it on a player like Leno to step up and fill some rather sizable shoes — literally and figuratively speaking. He’s most remembered for giving up the sack that turned out to end the career (via retirement) of Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he’s much more than that. Is he Williams or Moses? No, but when he’s absent, the Commanders notice. That’s why they awarded him a three-year extension en route to him playing in 100% of the team’s offensive reps in 2021, ending the season as the team’s highest-graded OL and the NFL’s second-highest graded in pass pro — so acknowledge him.
No, Daniel Jones isn’t as bad as most make him out to be, so let’s start there. Granted, he’s made plenty of mistakes in a Giants uniform as he battles to be the heir to Eli Manning, but he’s also made magic despite the team — to now — having showed it could not care less about putting together an offensive line to protect him. So as he enters an all-important season in 2022 that will determine his NFL future, we’re likely about to discover if the problem is Jones or if it was Dave Gettleman and Joe Judge, because if Brian Daboll can’t bring the best out of Jones, it’s uncertain who can. That said, if Jones wasn’t around, the Giants would be much worse than they have been, and you can look at how 2021 unfolded if you need proof of this.
It’s safe to say Lions fans would’ve been just fine if Walker was replaced, but the team disagrees with their assessment. Could he do more? Sure, considering he had just one interception last season and three in his four years with the Lions, but he’s also become a full-fledged starter who has 319 combined tackles in 34 total starts, and that’s led to Detroit granting him a three-year extension through the 2024 season. So fans of the Lions have to choose a side when it comes to Walker: either cheer him on and hope he improves his takeaways or write him off and be upset the former third-round pick is still around for what might be another three seasons.
While many on this list can readily tell you just how unappreciated they are and/or feel they are, few can deliver that message quite like Moton. Fact is, this is one of the best offensive linemen in all of football, but because he plays on one of the worst offensive lines in all of football, he’s often lumped into the unit’s poor play by the undiscerning eye. His four-year extension shows just how much the team understands his value, and that was a wise move, because no quarterback would be able to stand up straight for the Panthers if Moton isn’t around. He didn’t miss any offensive snaps over the past two seasons, and he routinely grades out very well (aces) at the offensive tackle position, so stop pretending he isn’t doing his job simply because others to the side of him may not be.
I’ll cap this list off with another offensive lineman, a group often devalued, underappreciated and or downright criticized unfairly as they try to quietly do their work on a weekly basis. This time, it’s Lindstrom who gets my nod, a former first-round pick of the Falcons (2019) that you don’t often hear about. He finds himself in a similar situation to that of Moton, in that Lindstrom is the business end of the stick for an offensive line in Atlanta that otherwise wouldn’t have one at all. He gave up zero sacks in 2021, but played in 99% of the team’s offensive snaps last season. So when you saw Ryan getting up off of the ground, it wasn’t Lindstrom’s fault. And all he does is get better as his career rolls along, albeit behind the dark curtain of Falcons failures as of late.