Game Theory

NFL's most underappreciated players: One for each AFC team

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 shine as it should have during the season.

With that in mind, here's how I came up with my list of 2019's 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 2019 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. However, the most critical component to this method is contribution metric.

Here is one player from each AFC team that my model flagged as being underappreciated. Click here to see the most underappreciated player on each NFC team.

Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
·
Matt Judon
Matt Judon
· OLB

Judon's value goes beyond his raw totals in pressures (though his 33 QB hits did rank fourth in the NFL in 2019) and sacks (9.5). His play must be contextualized based on what he is asked to do. First of all, you must focus on his production as a true outside linebacker (where more than 80 percent of his snaps take place), especially now that Calais Campbell is on the team. Secondly, you have to use data to help understand the strategy of when his key pressures occurred. Five of Judon's sacks came on third down. With the way the Ravens worked last season -- specifically, the uniqueness of their offense -- the value Judon brought, especially after the loss of Za'Darius Smith, shored up a key spot in the front. With Campbell up front this season, look for Baltimore's overall sacks and pressures to increase.

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
·
Jordan Poyer
Jordan Poyer
· FS

I love safeties who can force turnovers. Poyer's five takeaways (two interceptions and three fumble recoveries; tied for 12th-most in the NFL) last season show impressive production in some traditional stat categories. However, some not-so-traditional stats show even more value. My favorite metric from his computer-vision-derived information is help in the run game, where he ranked eighth-best among safeties. Also, fun fact: The combination of Poyer and fellow Bills safety Micah Hyde increases the value of both players. When I put them on different teams (dorky things data scientists do), they don't drive as much individual value.

Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals
·
Tyler Boyd
Tyler Boyd
· WR

There weren't many bright spots in the Bengals' offense last season (Joe Mixon was one of the few), but it seems Boyd isn't getting the respect he deserves. He ranked sixth in the NFL last season with 661 receiving yards from the slot, per Next Gen Stats. When you add in the context of Cincinnati's extremely subpar offensive line and A.J. Green's season-long absence, Boyd's impact starts to come into focus. For rookie QB Joe Burrow, Boyd's on- and off-ball impact will be a key in the passing game.

Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
·
Joel Bitonio
Joel Bitonio
· OG

PFF graded Bitonio as the eighth-best guard in the NFL last season (min. of 300 snaps played), which makes me really happy because my computer-vision model ranks him seventh. In both rushing and passing situations last season, he didn't have a single game where he ranked lower than 11th. Now, insert rookie tackle Jedrick Wills likely next to him and free-agent acquisition Jack Conklin on the opposite side ... Yeah, Baker Mayfield's happy.

Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos
·
Justin Simmons
Justin Simmons
· FS

If you were scratching your head about the franchise tag being placed on Simmons, you probably weren't alone, but here's what you need to know: Not only did Simmons have the lowest passer rating allowed in coverage in 2019 (32.1 per PFF, min. 15 targets), but he also has the second-longest active-snap streak in the NFL at 2,024 consecutive snaps (trailing only Malcolm Jenkins, per NGS). In case you were wondering, it's hard to play all the snaps and boast the lowest passer rating against.

Houston Texans
Houston Texans
·
Duke Johnson
Duke Johnson
· RB

Last season, Houston passed on 71.8 percent of plays with Johnson on the field. While he still managed nearly 5 yards per carry and averaged 9.3 yards per reception, the Texans' lopsided play-calling made them predictable. But with the acquisition of David Johnson, Houston now boasts two versatile backs who will make it harder for opponents to know what's coming. The offense will need the boost this balance provides to help offset the loss of DeAndre Hopkins.

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
·
Justin Houston
Justin Houston
· OLB

In his first season on the Colts, Houston led the team with 11 sacks. (No other Colt had more than five.) I know what you're thinking: How can a four-time Pro Bowler, former All-Pro and single-season sack leader be underappreciated? Well, there seems to be the notion that big-ticket free agents are rarely worth the market price. But worth is a function of cost, and in 2020, Houston will account for only the 29th-highest cap value among edge rushers, per Over The Cap.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars
·
Andrew Norwell
Andrew Norwell
· OG

Guards -- and O-lines in general -- are hard to quantify for a number of reasons, including a lack of reliability in the run game. Norwell's 2019 season needs to be contextualized quite a bit, because at first look, the surface-level data suggests it potentially was his worst as a pro. However, he primarily served as a pass protector last season (second-most pass-blocking snaps among guards, per PFF), and the majority of those snaps were in horrible situations where opponents knew the Jags were throwing. If Jacksonville is better able to disguise run versus pass in 2020, Norwell's positive impact will be clearer for people who don't track guards with computer vision.

Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs
·
Tyrann Mathieu
Tyrann Mathieu
· FS

I called Mathieu the best value signing of the entire offseason last summer, and I had to write this here because I annoy my producer about this constantly, so why stop now? PFF counts his 51 receptions allowed as the fewest in the NFL among qualified safeties last season, and his run-stopping ability ranks seventh-best, per my computer vision. The latter was even better in previous seasons with Arizona and Houston, which merely reflects a different strategy in K.C., not an erosion in Mathieu's capability.

Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders
·
Nick Kwiatkoski
Nick Kwiatkoski
· ILB

As far as the AFC is concerned, Kwiatkoski is the only player who was not on his current team in 2019 to make this list. One reason I'm making an exception with him is because I wanted to show how the Raiders' offseason moves have included players who project to drive real value at really smart contractual prices (19th-highest average salary per year of 129 ILBs, per Over The Cap). Last season with the Bears, Kwiatkoski kept opposing passers to an 85.5 rating (seventh-best among 69 linebackers with at least 25 targets, per PFF), meaning his potential impact is more valuable than his cost.

Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers
·
Casey Hayward
Casey Hayward
· CB

I've written about Hayward being underrated before. Still, I feel like the two-time Pro Bowler rarely gets mentioned among the game's top corners, so I will keep doing my part until that problem is solved. Hayward continues to produce, year after year. As PFF astutely pointed out, he surrendered more than 50 receiving yards in a game just once last season. My models add even more context to this: All of the injuries in L.A.'s secondary last season ramped up the pressure on Hayward, and yet he still produced at a rate that ranks no less than fourth in the league among CBs in coverage and on rushing downs. This season, add in Chris Harris Jr., as well as a cleaner bill of health from others, and ... look out, opposing passers!

Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
·
Ryan Fitzpatrick
Ryan Fitzpatrick
· QB

Usually, I talk about how well a defensive player fares when he enters the 5-foot halo around a quarterback who is attempting to pass, but in the case of Fitzpatrick, he was able to overcome this pressure and help earn first downs and touchdowns at the fifth-highest rate in the league. Factoring in that none of his surrounding skill players ranked better than 25th in win share by position, and this is even more impressive. Furthermore, even if Fitz hits the bench, the value of a backup QB with his proven skill set and level of experience is even more impactful in a season with a lot of preseason prep questions.

New England Patriots
New England Patriots
·
Jonathan Jones
Jonathan Jones
· DB

Passes thrown to middle-of-the-field targets (between the numbers) while Jones was in coverage resulted in incompletions at the fifth-highest rate among corners in the NFL last season, per my computer vision. His lack of interceptions is not an accurate indicator of his efficiency in coverage, as spatial measuring shows that his impact in both the passing and rushing phases of the game helps stop opponents' drives. Jones has the highest run-stopping contribution metric among corners in the entire AFC East -- yes, part of that is attributed to where he lines up. But it just goes to show that -- surprise, surprise -- New England has been deploying Jones in a smart and effective way.

New York Jets
New York Jets
·
Brian Poole
Brian Poole
· CB

According to PFF, Poole allowed just a 71.6 passer rating in coverage in 2019 (17th-lowest among CBs who faced at least 25 targets). My spatial model (computer vision) adds that Poole's ability to cover passes intended for the middle of the field is where he's most valuable and drives his 2020 impact forecast. With his new deal, Poole still only ranks 36th among 317 corners in pay this season (per Over The Cap), yet my model projects him to perform like a top-10-to-15 corner.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
·
Stephon Tuitt
Stephon Tuitt
· DE

Tuitt's 14.1 pressure percentage when lined up as an interior defender ranked second in the NFL to Za'Darius Smith's 19.4 percent (min. 100 interior rushes), per Next Gen Stats. My spatial data shows that the ability of the Steelers' entire front to generate pressure may have resulted in T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree combining for 26 sacks, but it was caused by pressure from multiple directions simultaneously, which Tuitt was a key in generating.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
·
Jeffery Simmons
Jeffery Simmons
· DT

The only AFC rookie to appear on this list is a player you need to know. Simmons' ACL injury caused him to miss the first six games of the Titans' season in 2019, but his ability to shut down potential rushers and pressure opposing passers in the back half of the campaign was huge for Tennessee. I put his contributions in that order because, with Jurrell Casey being traded to Denver, Simmons will be counted on by Mike Vrabel and Co. to be the Titans' primary run stopper. I'm not too concerned about the 6-foot-4, 305-pounder filling that role, considering my computer vision already ranked him among the top 13 interior defenders in the league. He also has the potential to be an elite pass rusher -- PFF credited him with three pressures on 11 rushes in his NFL debut (Week 7 vs. Chargers), which is ridiculous and unsustainable, but still a fun figure.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

See all the Action

See all the Action

Replay every game all season.