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Most underappreciated players of 2018: Eagles' Kelce leads top 5

Former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin exemplifies one of my very favorite parts of football: Talent, along with development and opportunity, can combine to create a higher-impact player than his draft position would suggest. Baldwin's recent release from the 'Hawks appears to be the end of an improbable but incredibly inspiring career, as he went from undrafted rookie in 2011 to the NFL's receiving touchdowns leader in 2015. Having earned a Super Bowl ring and two trips to the Pro Bowl, Baldwin will always be remembered for proving just how underappreciated he was upon entering the league.

So, who else falls into this category?

Here's how I'm defining my list of 2018's most underappreciated players: First, I removed all 2018 rookies since it's too early in their careers for me to tag them as underappreciated. Then I trimmed the field to players drafted in Round 3 or later who have been to no more than two Pro Bowls (like Baldwin). Once sorted, I used something I'm calling the contribution metric to identify which of these players brought the most to the table.

To sum it up without getting overly technical, contribution metric is the value I have assigned to each player's production during the 2018 season. The metric encompasses a value for every snap by each player and reveals each player's contribution to the team's overall win total.

Here's my list of the five most underappreciated players of 2018, none of whom are among the 10 highest-paid players at their respective positions:

1) Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles

Drafted: Sixth round (No. 191 overall), 2011
Pro Bowls: Two (2014, 2016)

Kelce had the highest win-contribution metric for any center in the NFL last season. My favorite stat on him: No center kept opposing defenders at least five feet from his quarterback on passing downs more than Kelce last season (24.1%; next closest was 18.8%). Measuring O-line play this way helps quantify "stopping pressure" or "clean pockets" and it shows Kelce set the standard for elite at his position last season.

2) Kevin Byard, S, Tennessee Titans

Drafted: Third round (No. 64 overall), 2016
Pro Bowls: One (2017)

Byard's versatility earned him the sixth-best contribution ranking among safeties in my model last season. He had four interceptions (tied for seventh-most in the NFL) in 2018 after picking off eight passes in 2017 (tied for most in the NFL). While he had half as many INTs in '18 compared to '17, he faced far fewer targets in '18 as teams were avoiding his coverage (he was targeted 54 times in '17, and 32 times in '18, per my model), which helps show how he changed the way offenses tried to attack the Titans' defense. Against the run, Byard allowed the second-fewest yards to opposing ball carriers when he was in on a tackle (among safeties). There's no way for me to know the defensive assignments on each play without knowing the calls that coordinator Dean Pees made, but I can use computer vision to see that when Byard tackled a rusher (either by himself or assisted), the opposing offense was only able to earn an additional average of 0.9 yards on the play (that's 0.8 yards less than the combined average of the top 20 qualifying safeties).

3) Akiem Hicks, DE, Chicago Bears

Drafted: Third round (No. 89 overall), 2012
Pro Bowls: One (2018)

The Bears were the NFL's best scoring defense (17.7 points allowed per game) last season. Chicago's exceptional perimeter pressure and interior pressure and elite coverage in the back end all combined to produce the most takeaways (36) and fewest touchdowns allowed (27) along with the third-most sacks (50) in the league. While it's true that the sum of all of the value components is the reason for the Bears' league-leading results, Hicks' individual contribution metric ranked fourth among interior defensive linemen in my model last season. Pro Football Focus credits him with 51 pressures (tied for ninth-most among interior D-linemen) and 34 run stops (second-most among interior D-linemen) last season, which helps give context to his value. My favorite computer vision note from my model? Hicks' ability to get within five or fewer feet from opposing quarterbacks (a proxy for pressure) increased in the second half of games last season. Only two other interior defenders ended the season getting "faster" as games went on.

4) Desmond King II, CB, Los Angeles Chargers

Drafted: Fifth round (No. 151 overall), 2017
Pro Bowls: None

King not only made exceptional 2018 contributions as a corner, but also added value on special teams as a punt returner. The Chargers fielded six or more defensive backs on a higher percentage of snaps than any other team in 2018, making their DBs, along with the responsibilities of those DBs, somewhat unique. King defended offensive players who lined up in the slot on a high volume of snaps and his man was targeted at a high rate, but King responded by allowing a low number of catches and yards. Of the 77 total targets opposing quarterbacks threw to his mark in any alignment, King only allowed 23 to be caught. King ranked 12th in my overall corner contribution in 2018 in large part due to his performance in the slot.

5) Adam Humphries, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Drafted: Undrafted, 2015
Pro Bowls: None

Note: Humphries signed with the Titans this offseason, but his inclusion on this list is based on his performance with the Bucs in 2018.

Only two wide receivers with more than 100 targets in 2018 had a higher reception percentage than Humphries (72.4), who made 76 catches for 816 yards. Context is important here because the Bucs did pass at the sixth-highest rate (63.1% of plays) and it certainly helps to be working in a receiving corps that includes Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson. However, Humphries spent more than 82% of his snaps in the slot. I used computer vision to track his slot performance against other high-volume slot receivers (21 receivers had at least 50 targets in the slot last season) and it showed he was able to get at least five feet from defenders at the time the ball arrived at the fifth-highest rate.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cynthiafrelund.

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