NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2022" -- voted on by the players themselves -- kicked off on Sunday, Aug. 14. Players ranked 100-51 were revealed Sunday over the course of five hours, with each one-hour episode unveiling a new set of 10 honorees. Five players made their "Top 100" debuts -- David Montgomery, Jimmie Ward, CeeDee Lamb, Justin Tucker and Kyle Pitts -- in Episode 1 (Nos. 100-91). With that in mind, NFL Network's Cynthia Frelund provides her own ranking of the 10 most underrated players in the NFL.
At the end of May every year, I pick the most underrated player from each team using a formula that includes several statistical and position-specific factors, such as salary, Pro Bowl honors and All-Pro selections. A few folks from that list, particularly the wide receivers, have since gotten paid, so they've received the recognition they deserve.
For this exercise, I wanted to take a different approach to defining "underrated." So I looked at the biggest disparities between a player's win share and his mentions (I used a combination of social tools, text analytics and search results between August 2021 and July 2022) to identify the 10 players we don't talk about enough based on their performance.
Mailata has been one of the biggest win-share rocket ships in my whole 20-season sample. Since the former rugby player was picked in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft, he’s become the Eagles’ starting left tackle and earned a four-year, $64 million extension in 2021. He ranked fifth among tackles in win share last season and earned Pro Football Focus' third-highest grade at the position. My favorite computer vision metric on Mailata is his second-contact win rate (stopping a defender who keeps trying to penetrate the line after being successfully stopped once). He ranked first in the league in that metric last season. Mailata also had the second-fastest burst-stop rate in 2021 (stopping a defender within his first 3 yards traveled).
Interior D-line love coming up! In his five NFL seasons, Tomlinson has never had a PFF defensive grade below 74.9, which is above average. Computer vision shows that Tomlinson pushed a center or guard into the quarterback’s pressure halo (the 6-foot circle around the QB) at a career-high rate last season and at the third-highest rate among interior defenders. Stopping the run is his forte, but adding some extra push on passing downs figures to keep adding to his value.
Simmons had a career year in 2019 and received the franchise tag a couple times before finally getting a long-term deal last year, but I feel like we don’t see a ton of lists that show he’s continuing to perform at an elite level. Well, he has indeed, ranking among the top five safeties in win share in each of the past three seasons and third overall at the position in that time period. Simmons has recorded at least 20 defensive stops in each of the past three seasons, per PFF. That is a solid number of stops for a safety to amass. The main reason he’s on this list, though, is that computer vision shows he’s been the second-best safety in coverage over the past three seasons.
I like that Thornhill has All-Pro-level expectations for himself this season, but I love that it seems like all he needs to get back to top-end safety status is consistency with his straight-line and change-of-direction speeds -- like what we observed from him prior to his ACL tear late in the 2019 campaign. From the training camp footage I have measured thus far, Thornhill’s change-of-direction and hip-adjustment speeds are closer to what we saw in his rookie year, as opposed to 2020 or last season. Yes, it’s only camp -- and a teeny sample size, at that -- but I'm looking for clues here! I do think the logic is sound, though, because we saw up-and-down play from him last season that lined up with when his speeds were and weren't at 100 percent. The pairing of him with Justin Reid this season reflects a smart strategy for how to best implement two-safety shells.
My models are high on Terrell, forecasting him as CB5 for 2022. Last season, his was the only win share on the Falcons' defense that ranked in the top 25 in any position (min. eight games), and he was CB7. Pro Football Focus shows that he allowed a league-best 0.37 yards per coverage snap. Computer vision shows that his change-of-direction speed, hip-adjustment-to-pass percentage and fatigue metrics all rank among the top five at the position.
I could argue offensive linemen should make up this whole list, but in the spirit of positional diversity, I limited myself to just two. Andrews particularly excels in one key area: His ability to recover. When a defensive lineman made contact with him, to the point where his center of gravity moved unfavorably, Andrews responded to that destabilization by efficiently re-establishing his center of gravity. As a result, he was one of the best run- and pass-blocking centers in the league last year. When you consider that he had not played a full season since 2018, and he had a rookie QB to help, it's easy to see Andrews was a key contributor to the Pats' offensive stability. He forecasts to be a big help this year, as well, serving as an anchor between New England's two young guards.
Perhaps it’s because the Jamal Adams trade was such a big deal that we don’t talk as much about the Seahawks' other starting safety ... especially considering Diggs has posted a higher win share than Adams since the former Jet arrived in Seattle. Pro Football Focus shows that since 2019, Diggs has intercepted 21.6 percent of passes thrown into his coverage (No. 1 among safeties), with the total, 11, tied for third at the position. Computer vision trends show that defensive back play has changed a lot over the past five seasons in terms of how many DBs are on the field at the same time (the use of five or more has increased 23 percent league-wide). Consequently, the space safeties occupy has changed, as well. Diggs has clearly responded well to this shift, with his playmaking prowess earning him the second-best ranking when it came to win share in coverage last season.
Higgins' running mate, Ja'Marr Chase, gets most of the attention in the Bengals' receiving corps, but don't sleep on the third-year pro out of Clemson. Higgins is my WR11 in fantasy PPR leagues, and his upside is massive. Last season, he had the 10th-best win share among wideouts ... while battling a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. Higgins' +9.8 percent catch rate over expected paced the league last year, per Next Gen Stats. Computer vision backs this up, as defenders were within 3 yards of him when he was targeted at the 12th-highest rate. I also love this note from PFF: Higgins had eight receptions of 15-plus yards on inaccurate targets in 2021 -- fifth-most in the NFL. We saw a lot of receivers break the bank this offseason. If Higgins continues the level of production we saw in his second season -- in an offense that will likely depend on a high volume of passes -- the Bengals will need to get out their checkbook sooner than later.
Allen is my WR10 (in PPR leagues) for the 2022 season. Last year, his win share ranked him at WR18. However, tracking his win share over the previous five seasons moves him all the way up to WR7. Allen ranks seventh among qualified pass catchers in total yards of separation during that five-year period, per computer vision. He might not be the NFL's flashiest pass catcher, with gaudy YPC and TD totals to boast about, but his impact on the Chargers' offense is indisputable: Allen's off-ball win share (when he wasn’t targeted, but drew away coverage to create better situations for other pass catchers) ranked sixth-best in the league. With Mike Williams coming on strong (he’s my WR17), especially as a field-stretching scoring threat, Allen’s off-ball value helped the Bolts win games -- even if it didn't necessarily help your fantasy team.
Tucker has never made the Top 100, which is wild considering he’s the most accurate kicker in NFL history (six consecutive seasons over 89.7% on field goals) and holds the league record for longest made field goal (66 yards). His accolades speak for themselves, so I'm going to just make a mini list real quick:
- Most seasons with 30 made field goals (7).
- Only kicker in NFL history to hit at least one FG from 20-29 yards, 30-39 yards, 40-49 yards, 50-59 yards and 60+ yards in a single game (vs. Lions, 2013).
- Fastest kicker to reach 1,000 points (2019).
- Fastest kicker to make 300 career field goals (2021).
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