Game Theory

NFL's most underappreciated players: Jordan Poyer, Courtland Sutton, Alex Highsmith among AFC picks

One of my favorite offseason tasks is to scour every NFL roster and identify the most underappreciated player on each team using my context-based models. In the fast-paced NFL season, it's easy to focus on superstars or skill-position players who help us win in fantasy football, but one of the most useful applications of analytics is to view every game from the previous campaign through the lens of a total-contribution metric to see where teams earned an edge that perhaps didn't get as much attention as it should have during the season. With that in mind, here's how I came up with my list of the most underappreciated players ...

First, I calculated and then ranked each player's season-long contribution metric by team. To sum it up without getting overly technical, contribution metric measures each player's production during the 2020 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. After making those calculations, I ranked each player's salary by position (contract data via the Over The Cap) to add some context around who was being "underappreciated." I gave priority to players who did not switch teams this offseason (since it's hard to be underappreciated by a team you haven't played for yet). Then I weighted players drafted in Round 2 or later who have been to no more than two Pro Bowls. That said, the most critical component to this method is contribution metric.

Just like I did in this space last year, here is one player from each AFC team that my model flagged as being underappreciated.

Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
J.K. Dobbins
J.K. Dobbins
RB · 22 years old

I am guessing I won't be able to include Dobbins on this list after the coming season, so I am going for it now. Next Gen Stats credit Dobbins with the fourth-most rushing yards over expected last season (222), and his 7.0 yards per rush outside the tackles was not only the highest average but he was also the only running back to have an average over 6.0 yards on such runs (min. 50 attempts). His seven rushing touchdowns against stacked boxes were tied for fifth in the NFL. If that weren't enough, when he wasn't the subject of a play (ball-carrier or target), Dobbins was still extremely productive. To approximate a measurement for pass-protection impact, I counted all running backs making contact and at least holding their defender for one second. Dobbins ranked 10th-best at holding his defender for at least a second by percentage last season and got better in each game he played. 

 

My models also love safety Chuck Clark, who had 10 QB pressures -- third-most among defensive backs, per NGS. Jamal Adams (25) and Malcolm Jenkins (13) were the only other two to hit double-digits; this is some elite company to be in.

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
Jordan Poyer
Jordan Poyer
S · 30 years old

When your team has a quarterback like Josh Allen who leads an efficient offense and constantly threatens to stretch the field, the defense needs to be even better in coverage to secure wins (because teams will have to throw to keep and/or catch up). Since joining the Bills in 2017, Poyer has been one of the league's top coverage safeties. Pro Football Focus ranks him seventh-best in coverage since 2017 with a 92.9 rating, while allowing opposing passers a 77.5 passer rating, the fourth-lowest at the position over that span. This past season, Poyer's combined impact on both rushing and passing downs complemented the offense most efficiently since his best season in 2017. This means his individual win-share metric (which is a context-based value) as a percentage of the defense's as a whole matched that of 2017 (despite his individual, uncontextualized stats being lower).

Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals
Jessie Bates
Jessie Bates
S · 24 years old

The computer-vision data bears out that single-high safeties who are able to change direction and adjust their hips to the ball (each in under 0.8 seconds) create more pass disruptions (incomplete passes, interceptions, pass breakups) -- and Bates checks both of those boxes. Don't let his somewhat-moderate total of three interceptions in 2020 fool you. Of the 34 passes thrown his way in coverage, Bates allowed 19 receptions and had 12 pass breakups, which is impressive work. Furthermore, against the run, he traveled the most distance per snap at the safety position. Pro Football Focus had him as the only safety with an 80-plus run grade and 90-plus coverage grade in 2020.

Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
Wyatt Teller
Wyatt Teller
OG · 26 years old

Last season, the Browns averaged 6.15 yards per play with Teller on the field versus 5.54 without him. Baker Mayfield was blitzed at a 35.7 percent rate with Teller on the field, but only felt pressure 17.8 percent of the time, per Next Gen Stats. Without Teller? Mayfield faced a 29.3 percent blitz rate and a 20.7 percent pressure rate. On rushing downs, according to defender-contact measurements that track how an offensive lineman maintains and creates space, Teller held space for his rusher at the second-best rate among all guards last season. Need more? Pro Football Focus gave him the best OL grade in run blocking (93.6) and overall play (92.9). 

Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos
Courtland Sutton
Courtland Sutton
WR · 25 years old

Yes, Sutton missed nearly the entire 2020 season with a torn ACL, so that factors into his placement here. But considering how effective he was in his last full season of action, Sutton still feels underappreciated. In 2019, Next Gen Stats show that the Broncos wideout earned the third-most yards on deep targets (20-plus yards) with 427, and his +17.1 catch rate above expected on deep targets was fourth-best. He also forced 16 missed tackles on receptions, which was tied for fourth-most among WRs, per Pro Football Focus. I believe Sutton deserves to be on this list because his forecasted win share for 2021 ranks ninth-best among receivers (remember it's a combined on- and off-ball rate). But if you're still not buying Sutton due to the injury last season ...


It seems only right to also spotlight a CB here, especially since this defense forecasts to be nasty in 2021, so mark this name down: Bryce Callahan. Last season, Callahan was one of just three defenders to take at least 150 snaps at each of the left, right and slot corner positions -- and he ranked no worse than seventh-best in any position. In the coming season, he figures to primarily play nickel, where his win share projects to rank in the top three at the position.

Houston Texans
Houston Texans
Jordan Akins
Jordan Akins
TE · 29 years old

Per Next Gen Stats, Akins averaged 3.7 yards of separation per target in 2020 (sixth-most among tight ends) and his +6.2 percent catch rate over expected ranked fourth (both min. 40 targets). With a lot of changes to this offense for 2021, Akins' ability to create space could be a potential source of reliability and strength.

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
Mo Alie-Cox
Mo Alie-Cox
TE · 27 years old

While he hauled in 31 of his 39 targets (for 394 yards and two touchdowns) and averaged 1.9 yards per route run in 2020 (highest on the Colts, per PFF), Alie-Cox was actually even more productive when he wasn't the subject of a pass. His productivity in pass blocking (based on percentage of snaps) was only surpassed on the team by three-time All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson

Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars
Brandon Linder
Brandon Linder
C · 29 years old

On 341 pass blocking snaps in 2020, Pro Football Focus had Linder allowing zero QB hits, only one sack and just three hurries for a total of four pressures. He also earned the highest pass-blocking grade among centers (87.6), which matches my computer-vision results showing that he prevented defenders from entering a 3-foot halo around his QB at the best rate amongst centers on passing downs. It seems Urban Meyer is giving us some major clues about his desire to run the ball (drafting running back Travis Etienne in the first round) and protect No. 1 overall selection Trevor Lawrence as he adjusts to the NFL game, which makes Linder's role even more impactful.

Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs
Derrick Nnadi
Derrick Nnadi
DT · 25 years old

As measured by how many yards an opposing rusher gained when running within 3 yards of a defensive player, Nnadi was king last season, shutting down ball carriers at the highest rate among all interior defenders. PFF gave him a 81.7 grade in run defense, one of the best marks among interior defenders. The fit between Nnadi and Chris Jones is pretty masterful, which lends credence to the thought that Chiefs GM Brett Veach is underrated. Jones earned PFF's second-highest pass-rush grade among interior defenders (93.1 -- only Aaron Donald posted a higher figure at 93.6). This DT duo is even more productive than the sum of the parts because Nnadi and Jones complement each other so well.

Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders
Johnathan Hankins
Johnathan Hankins
NT · 29 years old

In each of the last three seasons, Hankins played the most snaps among Raiders interior defensive linemen. In each of the past two seasons, Hankins is one of just seven interior D-linemen in the league to have a tackle rate of at least 7.0 percent with 600-plus snaps. His impact in the run game, as measured by how many yards an opposing ball carrier earns when running within 3 yards of a defensive player, ranked third-best (by percentage) among interior defenders in 2020.

Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers
Uchenna Nwosu
Uchenna Nwosu
OLB · 24 years old

I don't always love small sample sizes, but this one is intriguing because of the potential for a breakout in 2021 following Melvin Ingram's departure. Three years into his NFL career, Nwosu has finished each season with a pressure rate over 12 percent and at least 20 QB pressures, but he's never logged more than 169 pass-rush snaps in a season (NGS). His career pressure rate is 13.4 percent, which is the sixth-highest in the NFL since 2018 (min. 400 pass rushes). While this rate will likely dip a bit with an uptick in snaps, it does project to be in the top third in the league because of Nwosu's top-10 burst (speed over first 3 yards traveled).

Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
Myles Gaskin
Myles Gaskin
RB · 24 years old

Use in the passing game -- both as a target and pass blocker -- drives Gaskin's productivity results. Next Gen Stats show he averaged 2.0 receiving yards per route run last season (third-most among RBs who ran at least 150 routes). It sounds weird to say, but there are only about 15 running backs who add consistent (and high) production in the passing game as a target and as a blocker, and Gaskin rates eighth in passing production at the position. Furthermore, his +35 rush yards over expected were the most on the Dolphins in 2020. 


Another player who shows up strongly in my model is OLB Andrew Van Ginkel, who amassed 5.5 sacks in fewer than 500 snaps. In the first 3 yards traveled, Van Ginkel had a top-seven speed on the pass rush. And his per-snap win share on rushing downs ranked eighth-highest at his position.

New England Patriots
New England Patriots
Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones
CB · 27 years old

Jones' best year to date in coverage was 2020, as he earned a career-best PFF grade of 80.8. He played 730 snaps, the fourth-most on the Patriots' defense, with 451 of those coming in the slot (most on the team). Jones' ability to turn to, and run toward, the ball (measured by his hips facing the ball/pass catcher) ranked ninth-best among all corners and sixth among slot corners. 

New York Jets
New York Jets
John Franklin-Myers
John Franklin-Myers
DE · 24 years old

NGS shows that Franklin-Myers racked up 27 quarterback pressures in 2020, which was tied with Terrell Basham for the second-most on the team (only Quinnen Williams had more with 32). My computer vision measures that his recover rate (measured by when he's contacted by an offensive player, then maneuvers around them, continuing his path to the quarterback) at 11th-best in the NFL in 2020. I'm thinking this is a player Robert Saleh will be able to make good use of this season, especially with the rest of the additions along the front.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
Alex Highsmith
Alex Highsmith
OLB · 23 years old

In his rookie season, the third-rounder made a tackle on nearly 10 percent of his snaps (9.9 percent tackle rate). This was the second-highest rate among edge defenders last season (min. 400 snaps). While I don't expect his rate to stay that high -- with the departure of Bud Dupree, he'll play a higher volume of snaps and have a more visible role that will command more attention -- but I do expect big things to continue. The two main reasons for that: 1) In terms of his speed in the first 3 yards traveled, Highsmith ranked in the top 10 percent in 2020; and 2) his hips stayed facing the quarterback even after contact at a rate in the top 15 percent (this helps predict recovery and pursuit of pressure).

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
Anthony Firkser
Anthony Firkser
TE · 26 years old

Apparently, AFC South tight ends were quite underappreciated in 2020. Only one other TE had a higher catch rate over expected in 2020 than Firkser's +9.1. His 39 receptions for 387 yards and a touchdown may not seem like crazy-high numbers, but they came on just 348 offensive snaps. Interestingly, Firkser wasn't asked to contribute much in pass pro (just three snaps), but his blocking on rushes improved as he took more reps. With Jonnu Smith now a Patriot and a new offensive architect in Tennessee, Firkser's role could expand significantly in 2021.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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