The concept of "underrated-ness" changes from year to year. Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha(notes) used to be underrated until he got a new contract and became the financial yardstick by which Mr. Darrelle Revis(notes) wanted to be measured. Steven Jackson of the Rams used to be underrated, but now that all eyes will be on Sam Bradford(notes), people will remember just how good this guy was back when St. Louis could win more than three games per season. The 10 names below belong to players who haven't received their due for one reason or another – they may have been buried on depth charts or in rotations. Maybe they were stuck in systems that didn't fit their skills. Sometimes, it's just about luck and timing. But each one of these players has the ability to be a marquee name under the right circumstances.
Denver Broncos QB Kyle Orton(notes) – Orton has been an afterthought in Denver, trapped as he has been between the departing Jay Cutler(notes) and the media crunch around Tim Tebow(notes). But when he was traded for Cutler in a mega-deal, the ex-Bears quarterback responded by putting up the best numbers of his career (both traditional and sabermetric) for the Broncos in 2009. Excelling as he did for a mercurial coach and an offense in flux last season, Orton was rewarded with an extension that will pay him $8.1 million guaranteed over the 2010 and 2011 seasons. While most assumed that the Orton extension reflected a lack of faith in Tebow's short-term prospects, it was just as much about a quarterback who learned to succeed in the face of chaos.
Green Bay Packers RB Ryan Grant(notes) – People attending Short Attention Span Theater have only a bit of time to think about the Packers, and if you believe the NFL Network these days, 75 percent of the aggregate energy spent in Green Bay is spent pining for Brett Favre(notes), and the other 25 percent is spent wondering if Aaron Rodgers(notes) can measure up (as if we didn't already know that he could). Those a bit closer to reality know of Ryan Grant's value to the offense. While Grant's blocking has always been suspect, he was a tremendously efficient back in 2009, ranking second in Football Outsiders' DYAR (cumulative efficiency) metric (only Chris Johnson was better), and fourth in FO's DVOA (play-by-play) stat.
New Orleans Saints RB Pierre Thomas(notes) – Thomas may be an even better under-the-radar back from an efficiency perspective. The Saints are always highly rated as a passing team, and justifiably so. But one of the keys to their Super Bowl run last season was a rushing attack that stepped up time after time on the rare occasions that Drew Brees(notes) was misfiring. You'll remember his amazing play in the NFC championship game, where he fumbled and recovered his own fumble while banging for the end zone. He also ranked first overall in DVOA among running backs, and this might finally be his feature-back year.
Dallas Cowboys RB Tashard Choice(notes) – Here's a guy who won't be a feature back unless lots of people get hurt. Choice is buried on the depth chart behind Marion Barber(notes) and Felix Jones(notes), but he's the best rusher the team has on first and third downs, in the draw plays offensive coordinator Jason Garrett likes to run, and in the receiving game. Choice is also a lead candidate to take snaps in Dallas' Razorback (i.e. Wildcat) formations, when Felix Jones replicates the stuff he used to do with Darren McFadden(notes) at Arkansas. This is a guy who could (and would) be the lead back on at least 10 NFL teams ... on a "right now" basis. A tremendously productive and versatile back, his time should be now.
San Diego Chargers WR Malcom Floyd(notes) – You'll notice that while Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has at least been meeting with the representatives handling left tackle Marcus McNeill(notes), he's been relatively quiet about receiver Vincent Jackson's(notes) threats to hold out the entire season if he doesn't get the long-term deal he wants. There is a lot of thought around the league that as good as Jackson is, adjusting for Philip Rivers'(notes) excellence is a wise thing to do. Would Jackson be as effective in a less dynamic system with a quarterback who didn't have an equivalent skill set? In addition, Smith has guys like Floyd and Legedu Naanee(notes) on his roster to pick up the slack. Nannee is more the inline possession guy, but Floyd has proven his ability to get downfield and make plays; he's averaged 17.2 yards per reception in each of the last two years. That's very important in Norv Turner's vertical offense, and if Floyd can continue his good work from 2009, Jackson will start losing leverage.
Minnesota Vikings TE Visanthe Shiancoe(notes) – A quick note for all you folks bailing water because Sidney Rice(notes) and Percy Harvin(notes) won't be there to catch footballs from Everybody's All-American: Don't forget about Shiancoe. He saw better numbers under Favre in 2009, but it's worth noting that Shiancoe also ranked highly in DVOA and DYAR in 2008, when Gus Frerotte(notes) (yeah, Mr. Stadium Concussion himself) was the Vikings' main quarterback. Shiancoe has quietly moved into the Gates/Gonzalez/Clark level of efficiency, but his skills won't be undersold when he's the one bailing Lord Favre out week after week.
Tennessee Titans DE Jacob Ford(notes) – With the departure of Javon Kearse, Albert Haynesworth(notes) and Kyle Vanden Bosch(notes), the Titans' front four has become an anonymous – though effective – group. Ford has been the leader of the pack. The Titans drafted Derrick Morgan(notes) to be their sack specialist of the future, but Ford put up 5.5 sacks last year despite the fact that he played about half of the team's defensive snaps. In the short term, he's a guy to watch on Sundays and as an IDP threat in your fantasy leagues.
Atlanta Falcons DE Kroy Biermann(notes) – The Falcons have been looking for the complement and eventual successor to rush end John Abraham(notes) for years. Of course, the thought was that Jamaal Anderson(notes) would take that role, but the 2007 first-round pick out of Arkansas has been a bust. In the meantime, Biermann – who was selected in the fifth round a year later – impressed last season with five sacks in a situational role. Now that Anderson has put on weight for a switch to a swing end/tackle role, and Biermann has been tearing it up in the preseason, look for Biermann to get a better shot at the big time.
Carolina Panthers LB Jon Beason(notes) – Between Barrett Ruud(notes), Curtis Lofton(notes) and Jonathan Vilma(notes), the NFC South is packed with great inside linebackers. Maybe that's why people don't talk as much about Beason; it's tough to come up with another reason. In 2009, Beason finished behind only Ruud, Patrick Willis(notes) and London Fletcher(notes) in total defensive plays, and ranked sixth, tied with Kirk Morrison(notes), David Hawthorne(notes) and Karlos Dansby(notes), with 26 Defeats (an FO stat that measures plays which stop the offense from gaining first-down yardage on third or fourth down, stop the offense behind the line of scrimmage, or result in a fumble or interception). The Panthers are still figuring out their front four, a fact that makes Beason more important to his team than ever as he moves between the weak side and the middle in different defensive packages.
Kansas City Chiefs DB Brandon Flowers(notes) – The Chiefs' defense has been a mess for the last few years; only endbacker Tamba Hali(notes) has been a consistent standout. But with the selection of safety Eric Berry(notes) in the first round this year, some real athleticism and game intelligence has found its way to Kansas City. Another player to watch is Flowers, whom the Chiefs selected in the second round of the 2008 draft. While Flowers showed some impressive characteristics in his rookie season, he really matured in his second year. He tied with Cincinnati's Leon Hall(notes) for fifth in the NFL in passes defensed, and bumped his interception total from two to five. With Berry playing center field in that defensive backfield, Flowers' Pro Bowl potential may finally be unlocked.