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

On Monday, I used context-based models to identify the most underappreciated player on each AFC team in 2019, which you can see here, along with an explanation of my methodology.

Now let's move on to the most underappreciated player on each NFC team:

Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals
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Budda Baker
Budda Baker
Arizona Cardinals · SS

I challenge you to find a player who was more versatile than Baker in 2019. Next Gen Stats shows the following snap distribution for Baker (this is about to become a meaty sentence): 647 snaps at safety, 174 as an outside linebacker, 155 as a slot corner, 39 at inside linebacker, 31 as an edge defender, 12 at left corner and 10 on the right. That's 1,068 snaps that pretty much required him to be a defensive coordinator on the field. My spatial model shows that Baker's ability to stop and/or limit runs when he was playing safety ranked 12th best in the NFL last season. With their smart offseason acquisitions, including No. 8 overall pick Isaiah Simmons, who also has a versatile college resume, the Cardinals' defense figures to be much more efficient in 2020.

Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons
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Grady Jarrett
Grady Jarrett
Atlanta Falcons · DT

Jarrett's ability to stop the run made him an extremely efficient member of the Falcons' defense, as he tied for the NFL lead with 20 run stuffs last season (per NGS). My spatial models show that his ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks ranked fifth (in pressure-rate percentage) among interior defenders.

Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers
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D.J. Moore
D.J. Moore
Carolina Panthers · WR

Moore quietly ranked ninth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,175), with all four of his games of 100-plus receiving yards coming after Week 8. Further, he tied for fifth in receiving first downs (63). For fun, I'll note that Moore had more receiving yards than DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs. For nerdiness, I'll note that Moore's win-contribution metric ranked 16th among wide receivers in 2019.

Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears
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Akiem Hicks
Akiem Hicks
Chicago Bears · DE

One way to see how pressure fronts work best together is to look at the Bears last season. NGS shows that in the first three games of 2019, Khalil Mack earned a pressure on 16.4 percent of pass rushes. But then Hicks missed Week 4 with a knee injury and went on injured reserve with an elbow injury suffered in Week 5, and from Week 4 on, Mack was only able to generate pressure on 8.7 percent of pass rushes. It's worth noting that Hicks did play a little in Week 5 and came back in Week 15, so this is an imperfect measurement, but the point still stands: When offenses have to account for the potential of pressure coming from many directions, the number of double (or triple) teams decreases, and strategic play-calling can often benefit the defense. I also wrote about Hicks last season, if you want more evidence.

Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys
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Chidobe Awuzie
Chidobe Awuzie
Dallas Cowboys · CB

While Byron Jones' free agency resulted in his departure from Dallas, the other Cowboys corner, Awuzie, has been far less talked about despite forcing 18 incompletions in 2019 (third-most in the NFL, per PFF). Defensive fronts and backfields influence each other's efficiency levels, and the combination of Jones, Awuzie and the defensive front -- DeMarcus Lawrence, specifically -- created more value for all three than each individual would've had alone. This season, the Cowboys' high-potential offense will likely require the defense to stop the pass in order to maximize its ability to play a complementary role. This means the coaching staff is likely trusting Awuzie will continue his levels of production from 2019, even replacing Jones with second-round rookie Trevon Diggs, who will have to be strong out of the gate.

Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions
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Tracy Walker
Tracy Walker
Detroit Lions · DB

When defensive fronts and backfields work together well, the result is fewer points allowed, fewer first downs allowed, more sacks and interceptions and a whole lot more pressures (even if they don't turn into sacks). The Lions' defense tied for the second fewest sacks (28), ranked third-worst in terms of pressures generated (per my computer vision) and allowed 26.4 points per game (26th). This is my way of saying that the defense was not a source of strength, and the front didn't help the back, or vice versa. Walker led the team in tackles as a safety (100), and his ability to limit yards earned when he was targeted in coverage ranked 10th among safeties who play the same positions ... but Walker did it without the kind of up-front help some of the guys ranked ahead of him had.

Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
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Za'Darius Smith
Za'Darius Smith
Green Bay Packers · OLB

Smith was a really productive free-agent acquisition in 2019 by the Packers. NGS shows that he was able to pressure opposing QBs at the second highest overall rate in the NFL (14.8 percent) among those with a minimum of 250 pass rushes. Versatility in alignment also allowed for an extremely efficient use of his skills, as he had even better results when aligned on the interior. His inside pressure rate of 19.4 percent was the highest in the NFL (minimum of 100 interior pass rushes), with the next closest player standing more than five percentage points lower (Stephon Tuitt, 14.1 percent).

Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles Rams
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Tyler Higbee
Tyler Higbee
Los Angeles Rams · TE

In the last five weeks of the 2019 season, Higbee led NFL tight ends in receiving yards (522), receiving first downs (25) and yards after the catch (265). With the Rams moving on from receiver Brandin Cooks and running back Todd Gurley this offseason, Higbee's versatility in the passing game in terms of alignment and reliability figures to be even greater in 2020.

Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings
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Anthony Harris
Anthony Harris
Minnesota Vikings · DB

When a coach with a mind like Mike Zimmer's places the franchise tag on an undrafted free-agent safety, he makes picking the Vikings' representative for this article super easy. Thanks, coach! Not only did Harris tie for the NFL lead with six interceptions last season, but my computer vision shows that among safeties who play a position like his, he allowed the fewest reception yards. This means he either didn't allow the reception or limited it to the fewest yards after the catch. (This is one of the ways I measure "coverage" statistics -- and he's really good here.)

New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints
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Marcus Williams
Marcus Williams
New Orleans Saints · FS

Last season, PFF counted Williams as only allowing one touchdown while earning four interceptions on 21 targets with a 47.8 passer rating allowed in 2019. In three seasons as a Saint, this under-the-radar safety has 10 interceptions. Last season, my win-contribution metric rated Williams as the sixth most valuable safety in the league.

New York Giants
New York Giants
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Dalvin Tomlinson
Dalvin Tomlinson
New York Giants · DE

NGS shows that Tomlinson earned 19 run stuffs -- those are plays when a defender tackles an opposing rusher for a gain of zero or negative yards -- in 2019, tied for third in the NFL. This helped the Giants' defense allow the fourth-lowest rushing average (3.86 yards per attempt) despite allowing the eighth-most yards per game (377.3).

Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles
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T.J. Edwards
T.J. Edwards
Philadelphia Eagles · LB

This undrafted free-agent rookie signing last season paid huge returns for the Eagles' defense in the form of the highest tackle rate among linebackers with a minimum of 100 snaps in the NFL (20 percent, or 22 tackles on 110 defensive snaps) and the second-best run defense grade among linebackers in the NFL per PFF's grading system (90.3). A fun note here: His salary ranks 297 among 350 linebackers, per Over The Cap -- but that will not be the case in his next contract, should he continue this level of production.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
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K'Waun Williams
K'Waun Williams
San Francisco 49ers · CB

In the Divisional Round playoff game against the Vikings, Ahkello Witherspoon allowed three receptions on four targets for 70 yards and a touchdown (per PFF). Williams stepped in to replace him and allowed only one reception on two targets for 7 yards. While that was just one game, it's an interesting note on the team's road to Super Bowl LIV. The main reason Williams is on this list is because of his work stopping opposing passers in the middle of the field. PFF shows that Williams allowed only 8.1 yards per reception against the slot (second-lowest among qualified players at the position) and gave up only 18 first-down receptions on 63 targets in the regular season.

Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks
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Quandre Diggs
Quandre Diggs
Seattle Seahawks · SS

Diggs played only five games with the 'Hawks last season after being traded from the Lions, but in that short time, he earned three interceptions to go along with three passes defensed and a fumble recovery. Seattle's injury-plagued defensive front was not a reliable pressure generator (28 sacks, tied for 29th), meaning Seattle could get even more value in 2020 out of the 20th-ranked safety in terms of pay (per Over The Cap).

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Lavonte David
Lavonte David
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · OLB

With the most tackles on the team (122 -- the next closest Buccaneer had 91), 10 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and an interception, David was the kind of productive middle-of-the-field defender Todd Bowles knows how to best deploy. PFF counted his coverage grade as 91.4, which was the highest among linebackers last season (among those with a minimum of 100 snaps).

Washington Redskins
Washington Redskins
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Terry McLaurin
Terry McLaurin
Washington Redskins · WR

I tried to keep the number of 2019 rookies on this list to a minimum, because one season of data is a rather small sample size. However, McLaurin, a third-round 2019 selection, was a real bright spot in the Redskins' offense and figures to be an integral figure for Washington going forward. NGS shows that McLaurin had 30 receptions of 10-plus air yards for a total of 696 yards and six touchdowns last season. No other Redskin had more than nine receptions of 10-plus air yards. McLaurin's catch rate on passes of 10-plus air yards was 57.7 percent, which ranked 12th in the NFL (among those with a minimum of 40 such targets).

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter@cfrelund.

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