The NFL’s most underrated offensive players

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In the NFL, players are underrated for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes, they’re second banana to a superstar whose deeds take up all the oxygen. Other times, it may be that the player has to climb up the depth chart as a little-regarded contributor, and the media hasn’t caught up yet. It’s also possible that the player has an incandescent talent that’s hidden by an unfavorable scheme. And it could also be that the player has had one great season, and everyone’s waiting to see if it’s a fluke.

If we were to assemble a team made out of underrated players, how far could that team go? Given the talent on this All-Underrated offense, we tend to think that opposing defenses would not enjoy their prospects.

Quarterback: Davis Mills, Houston Texans

(Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports)

Mills was the eighth quarterback taken in the 2021 draft; the Texans selected him with the 67th overall pick in the third round out of Stanford. Mills’ injury history, relative lack of mobility, and at times inconsistent play made him backup material in the eyes of many, but the backup quickly became a starter in Houston’s highly undefined quarterback situation — he took that title in Week 3 and never really looked back. Only Mac Jones had more touchdown passes (24) than Mills’ 16 among rookies, only Trevor Lawrence (97.3) and Trey Lance had higher passer ratings than Mills’ 88.8, and only Jones (67.3%) Had a higher completion rate than Mills’ 66.8%.

Where Mills showed the most skill in his rookie campaign was as a deep passer — in his rookie season, he completed 20 of 42 passes of 20 or more air yards for 643 yards, six touchdowns, one interception, and an NFL-high passer rating of 123.5. That NFL-high deep passer rating is among all quarterbacks, not just rookies.

Moreover, these deep shots weren’t just Mills targeting wide-open receivers. He has a knack for hitting his targets in stride, in tight windows, even when under pressure. This 30-yard pass to Nico Collins against the Titans in Week 18 is a compelling example. Mills throws the ball over the head of dropping edge-rusher Harold Landry, and where only Collins can get to it. Mills looks to have the starter’s spot in hand in 2022, and that projects more positively than you may think.

Running back: Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers

(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Running backs under Kyle Shanahan in San Francesco are a lot like running backs under Mike Shanahan back in the elder Shanahan’s days with the Denver Broncos. Like father, like son? Yes, when you have a varied and multiple run scheme that can bring out the best in every back on your roster. Elijah Mitchell, the rookie selected out of Louisiana with the 194th overall pick in the sixth round, was the latest.

Mitchell gained just 24 yards in his first preseason, but started the regular season off right, becoming the first back in NFL history to rush for more than 100 yards in his first game after being selected in the fourth round or later. Gaining 104 yards on just 19 carries was just the start; Mitchell finished his rookie season with 1,132 yards and six touchdowns on 262 carries, adding 19 receptions for 137 yards and a touchdown. Mitchell ranked 11th among all backs in the NFL last season with 42 missed tackles forced, and only Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, Dalvin Cook, and Joe Mixon had more runs of 10-plus yards than Mitchell’s 31. 901 of Mitchell’s 1,132 rushing yards came after contact, which ranked fifth in the league.

On this 13-yard run against the Rams in Week 18, Mitchell does a great job of beating the run-centric box count, getting to the second level with power and quickness. Also, when you watch linebacker Troy Reeder (No. 51) take the wrong gap, you start to understand why the Rams were so happy to add Bobby Wagner to their roster this offseason.

Running back: Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills

(Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bills selected Singletary out of Florida Atlantic in the third round of the 2019 draft, and though he doesn’t project as a true workload back at 5-foot-7 and 203 pounds, he had his best season in 2021, gaining 977 yards and scoring 10 touchdowns on 214 carries. He also caught 47 passes for 266 yards and a touchdown — so, while he didn’t define Buffalo’s run game, he did a lot to help the offense along. Singletary’s 51 missed tackles forced ranked seventh in the league, he had 22 carries of 10-plus yards, and 650 of 977 yards came after contact. He’s not a power guy, per se — Singletary makes big plays happen with speed and elusiveness.

This 16-yard touchdown run against the Patriots in the wild-card round is a great example — Singletary eludes Bill Belichick’s defense with two evil jump cuts, and then, it’s off to the races.

Receiver: Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

(Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Seahawks have an undefined quarterback situation for the first time since 2011 after the Russell Wilson trade; neither Drew Lock nor Geno Smith project as top-tier starters unless there’s a miracle in the Emerald City. Whoever is Seattle’s starter this season will at least have the benefit of two top receivers in D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, and though most people know about Metcalf’s explosive play ability, Lockett seems to get lost in the conversation despite his considerable understanding of the nuances of the position. In 2021, Lockett caught 73 passes for 1,175 yards and eight touchdowns in an offense that was always synced up, to put it kindly. Lockett also led the league with 20 receptions of 20 or more air yards for 740 yards and five of his touchdowns.

Lockett was particularly dangerous last season on deep over routes, where he uses his sneaky speed and ability to take zones apart, even if the ball comes in late. Lockett is a good contested-catch receiver, even at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, because he understand coverages so well.

Whether from the slot or outside, Lockett has become one of the game’s most proficient and technically practiced targets in the NFL. No matter who his quarterback may be.

Receiver: Hunter Renfrow, Las Vegas Raiders

(Jenna Watson/IndyStar-USA TODAY NETWORK)

2021 was a rough season for the Raiders — between the Henry Ruggs situation and the Jon Gruden drama, one might not have blamed the team for folding up early. But under interim head coach Rich Bisaccia, the Raiders won their last four games of the regular season, finished 10-7, and made the playoffs. One primary reason for this was the effort of receiver Hunter Renfrow, who finished his season with 111 catches on 135 targets for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns. Renfrow led the team in all those statistics, and just because Davante Adams is now part of that offense, don’t assume that Renfrow will be relegated to the back seat. Adams may be the NFL’s best overall receiver, but when you have a guy like Renfrow who can nail down so many of the intricacies of the position, he’ll be a big part of your passing game on a no-matter-what basis.

Renfrow’s knack for the nuances show up on this 24-yard reception against the Colts in Week 17. Renfrow is inside an elongated bunch set, and Kenny Moore — one of the NFL’s best slot defenders — has Renfrow wherever he goes. And as good as Moore generally is, this isn’t a pleasant rep for him. Renfrow feints Moore with outside leverage, kicks it inside with a jab step, and slow-plays his crossing route, gaining acceleration as he goes. Renfrow will be the Raiders’ primary slot receiver in this new-look offense, and there are few better to do it.

Receiver: Cedrick Wilson, Miami Dolphins

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The Cowboys took Wilson in the sixth round of the 2018 draft out of Boise State, and it wasn’t until injuries really hit Dallas’ receiver corps in 2021 that he was able to shine. Wilson caught just 22 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns total in his first two NFL seasons, and he didn’t start a single game. But last season, he brought in 50 receptions on 71 targets for 664 yards and six touchdowns. The Cowboys wanted to retain Wilson in 2022 and beyond, but the Dolphins outbid them with a three-year, $22.8 million contract with $12.8 million guaranteed.

Last season, only Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, and Tyreek Hill had more touchdown catches from the slot among receivers than Wilson’s six. Now, the Dolphins have both Wilson and Hill, which could make that passing game extremely interesting.

Wilson showed his slot chops on this 73-yard touchdown pass against the Vikings in Week 8, working cornerback Mackensie Alexander off the snap, and then making life difficult for safety Harrison Smith later in the play by turning Smith around.

Tight end: Dawson Knox, Buffalo Bills

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2021 was a breakout year of sorts for Knox, the third-year man from Mississippi caught 56 passes on 80 targets for 685 yards and 11 touchdowns — last season, only Travis Kelce had more touchdown receptions among NFL tight ends. If he can solve his issues with drops — he had six last season — Know might find himself talked about as one of the elite players at his position.

Knox was especially effective last season on play designs that took him up the seam, where he could make contested catches. This 11-yard touchdown against the Patriots in the wild-card round is a great example.

It’s also fitting that with a quarterback in Josh Allen who’s such a dynamic deep thrower, Knox caught seven passes of 20 or more air yards — only Mark Andrews of the Ravens had more with nine among tight ends in 2021.

Left tackle: Jordan Mailata, Philadelphia Eagles

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Mailata was a work in progress when the Eagles got hold of him. Born in Bankstown, New South Wales, Australia, he was a rugby player whose athleticism caught the eye of the NFL, and he was scouted by Eagles line coach and run game coordinator Jeff Stoutland as he entered the International Player Pathway Program. Philadelphia selected him in the seventh round of the 2018 draft, and as he developed through some injury obstacles, Mailata became a presence as the Eagles’ starting left tackle over the last two seasons. He allowed just three sacks (down from seven in 2020), two quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback hurries in 511 pass-blocking reps in 2021, and he proved to be a rolling ball of butcher knives in the run game. He signed a four-year, $64 million contract extension last September that could prove to be a massive bargain if his development curve continues.

Mailata has an obvious knack last season for getting rolling in space, and just running over any unfortunate defenders who happened to be in his way. This rep against the Falcons in Week 1 ended very badly for Atlanta safety Richie Grant. Receiver Jalen Reagor doesn’t gain 25 yards after the catch on a 23-yard touchdown on a desperation heave from Jalen Hurts without Mailata’s splatter-shot blocking.

Right tackle: Brian O'Neill, Minnesota Vikings

(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

You could argue that O’Neill isn’t really underrated anymore — after all, he made his first Pro Bowl in the 2021 season, and the Vikings gave him a five-year, $92.5 million contract extension last September. But as he’s not frequently talked about as one of the NFL’s better right tackles, he makes our list regardless. Minnesota selected O’Neill out of Pitt in the second round of the 2018 draft, and O’Neill proved to be a plus-level pass-blocker from the start, with improvement in the run game over time. In 2021, he allowed just one sack, two quarterback hurries, and 19 quarterback hits in 605 pass-blocking reps.

An agile athlete with the technical ability to turn a pass-rusher around in short spaces, O’Neill is also excellent on the move when it’s time to run the ball. On this 66-yard Dalvin Cook run against the Ravens in Week 9, watch how he gets to the second level and just erases cornerback Anthony Averett along the way.

 

Left guard: Joel Bitonio, Cleveland Browns

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The Browns selected Bitonio out of Nevada in the second round of the 2014 draft and converted him from tackle to guard. Since then, Bitonio has been a bastion of consistency in a series of Cleveland lines that have had more than their share of personnel movement. The Browns may now have the NFL’s best guard tandem in Bitonio and Wyatt Teller, but it was Bitonio who was there all along. Outside of his 2017 season, when he gave up six sacks, Bitonio has never allowed more than three sacks in a season, and in 2021, he gave up just two sacks, two quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback hurries in 631 pass-blocking reps.

Bitonio has all the physical skills you want in a guard with his toughness and agility, but what sets him apart at this point in his career is his ability to diagnose different defenders and take them out of bad situations for his quarterback. Here, against the Packers in Week 16. watch how he deals first with defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster, and then, he takes out linebacker De’Vondre Campbell on a Baker Mayfield 24-yard pass to Jarvis Landry.

Bitonio is a four-time Pro-Bowler, and he made All-Pro in 2021 for the first time, but there still isn’t enough respect on his name for the quality reps he puts on the field.

Right guard: Chris Lindstrom, Atlanta Falcons

(AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

The spiky and inconsistent nature of the Falcons’ 2021 offensive line can be summed up with these numbers: Last season, rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield led all NFL guards with 11 sacks allowed. Right guard Chris Lindstrom, however, was one of just three guards (Halapoulivaati Vaitai of the Lions and Justin Pugh of the Cardinals were the others) who didn’t give up a single sack among those who played at least 50% of their offenses’ snaps. The Falcons selected Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick in the 2019 draft out of Boston College, and 2021 was the year in which Lindstrom was able to put it all together — he gave up just eight quarterback hits and 23 quarterback hurries in 661 pass-blocking reps. He also proved to be a good, technically sound run-blocker.

Lindstrom isn’t a “pretty” player — he won’t blow you away with his tape, but he finds ways to get the job done, over and over, in run-blocking and in pass protection. And in the end, that’s what you want, however a player gets there. On this quick pass to Cordarrelle Patterson in Week 4 against the Commanders, Lindstrom gets out of the box quickly, and takes linebacker Jamin Davis right out of the picture. That’s who he’s become.

Center: Ben Jones, Tennessee Titans

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The Texans selected Jones in the fourth round of the 2012 draft out of Georgia, but it wasn’t until the Titans signed him to a four-year, $17.5 million contract in 2016 that Jones started to become one of the NFL’s best centers. Tennessee gave Jones a two-year extension in 2019, and another one in March, because he’s just a set-it-and-forget-it guy at a crucial position. The Titans are a power-running team with a heavy play-action passing game, and while Jones doesn’t look like your prototypical headbanger, he can get it done against defenders who outweigh him considerably. And in pass pro? No problem. Over the last two seasons, Jones has allowed one sack, 10 quarterback hits, and 26 quarterback hurries. That’s a decent single season for a center.

At 6-foot-3 and 308 pounds, Jones needs to be technique-perfect to deal with the NFL’s bigger and better defenders. This rep against Bengals nose tackle D.J. Reader (another underrated player) shows how he does it. Instead of taking the 6-foot-3, 347-pound Reader head-on, Jones moves quickly to take Reader at an angle, giving him at least a draw from a leverage perspective. This allows running back D’Onta Foreman to crash through for a 10-yard gain.

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