When you think of the Jaguars, you think of Maurice Jones-Drew, Justin Blackmon, Blaine Gabbert, and the new owner’s new mustache. The most valuable player on the defense is a guy few fans around the nation know — Daryl Smith. He stops the run, defends the pass, and is one of those guys who is on just about every play. Smith had 107 tackles last season and has played in at least fourteen games in all eight seasons of his NFL career. MJD’s contract gets all the ink, but Daryl Smith is the guy GM Gene Smith should be most concerned about locking up with a new deal.
Get your money's worth
If you’re going to put together an “Overrated” and “Underrated” list on anything, you have to properly define what the words mean. In the case of FoxSports.com’s “10 Most Overrated and 10 Most Underrated NFL Players”, I’ve used the following criteria: 1. Media Hype and/or Attention (Like Danny Woodhead didn't receive coming out of college) 2. Salary 3. The reality of who the player is now, versus the perception of who he once was. With no further adieu, here’s this year’s list over underrated players. -- Peter Schrager
Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens
Last year at this time, we were all laughing at Eli Manning for suggesting he was an elite quarterback worthy of the same breath as Tom Brady. This year, Joe Flacco’s catching heat for saying he belongs in that conversation. He does. Fantasy football stats be damned, he’s taken Baltimore to two AFC Championship Games, has won four career playoff games on the road, and was a Lee Evans drop away from beating the Patriots up in Foxborough in last year’s AFC Championship Game. He throws the best deep ball in the NFL and has the respect of his teammates. It’s time we start respecting him, too.
Carl Nicks, G, Buccaneers
It’s awfully hard to be the highest paid offensive guard in football and still be underrated, but it’s as if the media doesn’t want to acknowledge just how darn good Nicks was in New Orleans. Forget Sean Payton or Jon Vilma. Nicks’s absence will be what’s felt most in the Big Easy. A mauling big man who simply overwhelms the biggest defensive tackles in the sport, Nicks turned the Tampa offensive line from good to great in the matter of a signature back in March.
Justin Smith, DE, 49ers
There are very few defensive players in this sport that offensive coordinators build entire gameplans against. DeMarcus Ware is one, Darrelle Revis is one, and Justin Smith is one. Smith gets respect, but isn’t often in the conversation of "Best Defensive Players in the NFL," and he should be. He’s the engine to that top-ranked 49ers defense. An absolute bull, he’s nearly impossible to block both on the rush and the pass. Teams lose sleep over Justin Smith.
Darren Sproles, RB, Saints
Ask someone to name the most valuable running backs in the game, and you’ll hear laundry lists including Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Arian Foster, Ray Rice, and LeSean McCoy. Darren Sproles’ name ought to be on that list, too. Sproles had a huge season for the Saints in 2011, totaling an unheard of 2,696 all-purpose yards (1,313 from scrimmage). On just 87 carries, Sproles ran for more than 600 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry. He also was 7th in the NFL in receptions. He does it all. Not only was Sproles a worthy replacement for Reggie Bush in the Saints offense, but he was all Bush was and more. He’s an outstanding NFL running back.
Geno Atkins, DT, Bengals
Though it’d be fair to assume that Ndamukong Suh is the best young pass rushing defensive tackle in football based on media attention, it’s a faulty assumption. Geno Atkins doesn’t have a marketing deal with Subway, isn’t the subject of a GQ profile this month, and doesn’t have his own Fathead. Yet. But he’s right up there with Mr. Suh in the argument for the best young defensive tackle in the league. Atkins had eight sacks in 2011, the most in the league, and made his first Pro Bowl. He’s still only 24 and is only getting better.
Duane Brown, T, Texans
When Brown was drafted in the first round in 2008, many draft pundits rolled their eyes. He wasn’t ready, he wasn’t a first round talent, and he wasn’t a left tackle. Sure enough, in five years with Houston, Brown’s started every game he’s played in and in 2011, was selected as a second-Team All-Pro. He’s a road paver who protects the pass with great ability. Not a household name, just yet, but soon will be. Worth the 26th overall pick of the 2008 Draft? You better believe it. The Texans know this — they backed it up with a handsome contract extension last week.
Johnathan Joseph, CB, Texans
Joseph signed a monster contract with the Texans last offseason and responded with the first Pro Bowl season of his career. In 2011, he intercepted 4 balls and locked down opposing No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis for the NFL’s second best unit. Long overshadowed by teammate Leon Hall in Cincinnati, Joseph emerged as one of the best cover corners in the league in 2011. Still just 28-years-old, there’s plenty more to come. The Texans boast one of the best defenses in the entire league. Joseph, though often overlooked, is one of the game’s top corners.
David Diehl, T, Giants
Not many players have started at left tackle for two different Super Bowl championship teams. David Diehl’s one of those guys. But it’s not his work at left tackle that makes Diehl so valuable to the Giants; it’s his work at all positions on the offensive line. New York runs a complex offensive line scheme with various permutations, sets, and combinations. Diehl’s versatility — the ability to easily slide into either tackle or either guard position — makes him an absolutely vital part of the team’s offensive gameplan. He’s a team leader who’s rarely injured. Underrated, for sure.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seahawks
Sherman was a lightly regarded fifth round pick out of Stanford last year who stepped up and delivered for the Seahawks. It’s a defensive backfield that stars one of the top safeties in the game in Earl Thomas, and two punishing big men in cornerback Brandon Browner and safety Kam Chancellor. Sherman gets the least headlines of the four young players, but could end up being the very best of the bunch. He lines up against No. 1 wideouts and does the job well. More to come in 2012.