NFL Handicapping: Unheralded Players
by Robert Ferringo - 8/7/2009
Brett Favre mows his lawn and it’s front-page news. Chad Johnson changes his name and he ends up just chewing up airtime. Terrell Owens doesn’t do something crazy and there are op-eds discussing his mental state. Well, Favre isn’t playing this year. Johnson is a good receiver for a team that’s won about five games per year the last two seasons. And Owens had nearly as many dropped passes (10) last year as his quarterback had touchdowns (11).
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But a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive tackle, Maake Kemoeatu, went down for the season yesterday and it barely warranted more than a passing mention in the national media. What is going on here?
For those of you not familiar with Kemoeatu he is an absolutely grizzly bear. He is 6-feet-5 and 345 pounds and is the fulcrum on which the Carolina Panthers defense pivots. Carolina was a 12-win team and one of the top seeds in the NFC last season and they just lost one of their six or seven most important players. In a word, they are screwed. They were No. 20 in the league in rushing defense last year with their best run-stuffer plugging the middle. But now that he’s gone Jon Beason won’t be as free and clear. Without him making plays the defense is going to struggle. And if the defense struggles that will put more pressure on Jake “I Think I Can Fit It In There” Delhomme.
So when Carolina goes 6-10 this year, John Fox gets fired, Julius Peppers splits, Delhomme is run out of town, and this team heads into a rebuilding mode it won’t be all because of Kemoeatu’s Achilles tear. But I can guarantee you that it had a serious impact.
If you weren’t a Carolina Panthers fan you probably wouldn’t have much of a reason to follow Kemoeatu’s ankle. But I can say that this guy was squarely on my list of most underrated and underappreciated players in the NFL. He is one of those guys that doesn’t make all of the highlights, doesn’t chew up airtime, isn’t the focus of talk radio maniacs, and generally isn’t someone who your fantasy team is relying on. But let me tell you: when you have your cold, hard cash on the line he is the type of guy who just makes serious plays and does the things that you need to win a wager.
Travis Laboy, erstwhile linebacker for Arizona, is one of those guys. He hits people. Hard. He takes on blockers. He bats down passes. He makes special teams tackles. And in the Super Bowl he was the guy who tackled Willie Parker in the end zone for a safety. Just a player making plays.
Domata Peko, Cincinnati nose tackle, is one of my favorite players in the league. Brandon Ayanbadejo, the Baltimore special teams ace, is one of the best special teams hitters I’ve ever seen. Yeremiah Bell, Miami safety, joins Kerry Rhodes in the AFC East as two of the best up-and-coming defensive backs in the league. These are the guys that winning teams are made of. And these are the guys I want my money on.
Here is my list of the most unheralded and underrated players in the NFL. I have one for each team. Enjoy:
Dallas: Marc Columbo, OT – You can’t be underrated or unknown on the Cowboys. But Columbo might be. Dallas is good because they can score. They can score because their offensive line is overwhelming. Columbo is Exhibit A.
N.Y. Giants: Jeff Feagles, P – It’s nearly impossible to be underrated when you’re on the Giants. But what Feagles does leaving the ball inside the 10 and 15 is art. He was a Pro Bowler last year so it’s not like he’s not getting his just due. But he’s not exactly a household name despite being one of New York’s top weapons.
Philadelphia: Chris Gocong, OLB – The pressure will be on Gocong even more now that Stewart Bradley is done for the year. I think he’ll be up to the task.
Washington: Chris Horton, S – Horton was third stringer last year but when he got an opportunity he was excellent. Just one of those guys that is always around the ball and seems to be playing faster than everyone else.
Chicago: Dusty Dvoracek, DT – When he’s healthy the Bears defense is an entirely different animal. He’s just rarely healthy. He’s a poor man’s Chris Hovan.
Detroit: Terrelle Smith, FB – If you look at Smith’s resume all you’ll find is 1,000-yard rushers and top running games. Just a classic fullback that lives for contact.
Green Bay: James Jones, WR – Donald Driver and Greg Jennings get the love, but the Pack has an elite passing game because they have three top flight guys that can all beat you, not just two.
Minnesota: Ben Leber, LB – On a defense full of All Pros this guy is the one below the radar. He just makes big plays and when he hits people, they feel it.
Atlanta: Tyson Clabo, OT – I want this guy on my team. He just absolutely mauls people and has a savage mean streak.
Carolina: Thomas Davis, LB – Since my man on the DL is done for the year I’ll go to Option 2: Davis. Finally has found a niche after switching from safety and can do it all.
New Orleans: Jonathan Vilma, LB – He was kind of unceremoniously dumped out of New York because they thought he couldn’t play the 3-4. But this guy is as good as any MLB in football and is a key part of New Orleans’ defense.
Tampa Bay: Chris Hovan, DT – The definition of a high motor guy, Hovan is the heart of the Bucs defensive line. People forget that he was an All Pro player in Minnesota in 2002 and he just…does…not…stop.
Arizona: Tim Hightower, RB – Tough to find anyone that hasn’t gotten love for the Super Bowl runners-up. But I still think Hightower is undervalued. With better line play I think he could be an 1,100-yard back. Kind of a poor man’s Marion Barber.
St. Louis: Oshiomogho Atogwe, CB – If you don’t know, this kid is one of the best corners in the league. He’s at the point where teams don’t even bother to throw his way.
San Fran: Justin Smith, DE – He’s a poor man’s Jared Allen and has been toiling on bad teams (Niners, Bengals) his whole career. Reminds me of perennially underrated Bills end Aaron Schobel.
Seattle: Lofa Tatupu, LB – No one on Seattle really jumps out, to be honest, so I’ll go with Tatupu. People know that this kid is top-notch, but I still don’t think he gets his props as one of the best middle backers in the league.
Buffalo: Roscoe Parrish, WR/KR – Just get him the damn ball. Good things always happen when Parrish gets touches and he is one of the most elusive players in the sport.
Miami: Matt Roth, LB – This guy is a sledgehammer and should get a ton of credit for his seamless shift from DE to OLB. He has a lot of upside.
New England: Kevin Faulk, RB – Like the Giants and Cowboys, it’s nearly impossible to find a guy on these teams that isn’t “known”. But Faulk’s whole career has just been making clutch plays at big times. Last year he had more yards after catch than Randy Moss.
N.Y. Jets: David Harris, LB – After a down second year I think Harris will come back strong. Sky is the limit for this kid, who excels at wrapping up after first contact.
Baltimore: Haloti Ngata, DT – Perhaps the most underrated defensive player in football, Ngata has deserved at least a couple Pro Bowl bids. Absolutely dominates the point of attack and has to be doubled at all times.
Cincinnati: Domata Peko, DT – This guy is an animal. The Bengals D-line has been Downy soft for years. But you watch this guy and he just control the line of scrimmage. He had 108 tackles from this spot last year. Think about that. He’s outstanding.
Cleveland: Phil Dawson, K – This guy has been one of the best in the business for the past decade. The NFL accuracy average for a kicker is 82 percent. Dawson has topped that in seven of nine years.
Pittsburgh: Aaron Smith, DE – The quintessential team player, Aaron Smith has been exceptional for several seasons. Just does his job and is very good every single week.
Houston: Eric Winston, OT – Even though the Texas line has been a wreck through the entire franchise history, Winston has very quietly become a really good right tackle.
Indianapolis: Freddy Keiaho, LB – One of the few Colts backers that packs a punch. Filled in well last year and was always around the ball.
Jacksonville: Brian Williams, CB – Versatility is his key. He can play safety. He can play corner. And he’s just solid at both.
Tennessee: Ahmard Hall, FB – Former Marine of the best young fullbacks in the league. Heavy blocker and has great hands as well.
Denver: D.J. Williams, LB – On a defense full of bullfighters (“Ole!”) Williams is a bull. I thought about Kyle Orton here. Mark my words: Orton will have a big, big year.
Kansas City: Jarrad Page, S – Kid flies around the ball and lays the lumber. I still think Dwayne Bowe is really underrated and poised for an Andre Johnson-like breakout year.
Oakland: Kirk Morrison, LB – The only guy, other than Nnamdi Asomugha, that makes plays for Oakland’s defense. Averaged eight tackles per game for last 48 games.
San Diego: Jamal Williams, NT – Would have been Darren Sproles if not for his breakout in the playoffs. Williams, like our other DT’s, is critical to the SD defense.
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