Not every player can make the Pro Bowl. Not every star can be a first-team All-Pro. Sometimes, players fly under the radar without accolades or awards, but that’s not to say they aren’t key contributors. These 10 defensive players are the most underrated in the NFL, led by J.J. Watt’s pass-rushing partner.
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10. David Amerson, CB, Oakland Raiders
Amerson came into the NFL with high expectations after picking off 13 passes in 2011 at N.C. State. He was a disappointment with the Redskins for the first three years of his career, but he played extremely well for the Raiders in 2015. He started 12 games, picking off four passes and knocking down 25 others with one forced fumble. He looked like the player he was expected to be out of college, and Amerson could be a real ballhawk in the Raiders’ secondary for years to come.
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9. Bennie Logan, DT, Philadelphia Eagles
Fletcher Cox got a massive contract this offseason, and rightfully so. But Logan is the other defensive tackle in Philadelphia who deserves a big deal. He doesn’t put up big sacks numbers like Cox, but he’s one of the best run-stuffers in the NFL. In 14 games last season, Logan had 55 tackles and one sack, consistently clogging up running lanes. Now, he’ll have an even greater impact with the Eagles moving to a 4-3 front that will get him on the field more with increased one-on-one matchups. Opposing running backs beware.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY SportsMark J. Rebilas
8. Patrick Chung, SS, New England Patriots
After a ending his first stint with the Patriots on a sour note in 2011 and 2012, Chung returned to New England in 2014 to put together back-to-back strong seasons. In 2015, he didn’t stuff the stat sheet, but he was among New England's best defenders. When playing close to the line of scrimmage, he finds the football effortlessly, making tackles in the backfield and ending rushing plays before they begin. He’s equally as important as Devin McCourty, who is the more-talked-about safety in New England.
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7. Malcolm Jenkins, DB, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles were fairly disappointing on both sides of the ball last season, but the defense was better than the offense. That’s partly because Jenkins was a versatile weapon in the secondary. He played both free safety and strong safety, while also covering receivers in the slot. Jenkins finished 2015 with 109 tackles, 10 passes defensed and two interceptions with three forced fumbles. He was constantly around the ball making plays, as evidenced by his numbers. Yet, for some reason, he doesn’t get nearly as much consideration as a top safety as he should.
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6. Tyrone Crawford, DT, Dallas Cowboys
For 15-plus games last season, Crawford played with a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. He didn’t miss a single game, making 35 tackles and recording a career-high five sacks. On a defensive line filled with now-suspended players and controversial ones (Greg Hardy), Crawford didn’t get much attention at defensive tackle. But he put up respectable numbers despite the injury. He’ll be a crucial player for the Cowboys this season as they’ll be forced to overcome two suspensions and the loss of Hardy. Crawford can have a Fletcher Cox-type impact for Dallas when healthy.
Getty ImagesMitchell Leff
5. Lavonte David, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
David is the perfect example of a new-age linebacker in the NFL. He’s not the biggest player at the position, but he is one of the fastest. He also knows how to make plays and find the football. In his fourth season as a starter in 2015, he had a career-high 147 tackles, 13 passes defensed, three interceptions and one forced fumble. He was a machine at outside linebacker and a huge part of the Buccaneers’ improved defense. Carolina's Luke Keuchly and Seattle's Bobby Wagner get most of the attention at linebacker, but David is right up there with them as a top playmaker.
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4. Ricardo Allen, FS, Atlanta Falcons
Prior to 2015, Ricardo Allen was an unrecognizable name to most football fans. That’s because he had never played a regular-season game before last season. He was nothing short of spectacularly surprising for the Falcons in 2015, though. Allen started 14 games, picking off three passes and racking up 68 tackles. He’s an undersized free safety but one who has no trouble finding the football. With a full offseason as the starter, Allen should continue to improve. He could stand to get better physically against the run, but he’s a rangy, valuable player in the secondary.
Getty ImagesSean Gardner
3. Chris Harris Jr., CB, Denver Broncos
The best cornerback for the Super Bowl champion Broncos is … Chris Harris Jr., not Aqib Talib. That’s not the way most perceive Denver’s cornerback situation to be, but it’s true. Harris doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the job he’s done in the secondary, shutting down opposing receivers not only in the slot but on the outside as well. Sure, he was mostly a nickel corner early in his career, but he’s expanded to become a lockdown boundary corner in the past two seasons. In 2015, Harris picked off two passes (one he returned for a touchdown), forced two fumbles and had 58 tackles.
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2. Reshad Jones, SS, Miami Dolphins
Jones is among the best safeties in football. Just last season, he was fourth in the NFL with 135 tackles (first among defensive backs) and picked off five passes, returning two for scores. There isn’t anything he can’t do as a safety, either. Jones lines up at both free and strong safety for the Dolphins, showing range and hitting ability. And when he does find himself around the ball, he makes plays. Jones should be a Pro Bowler in 2016, and not an alternate like last season.
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1. Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Houston Texans
J.J. Watt led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks in 2015, but his teammate Mercilus wasn’t far behind. Mercilus had himself a breakout season, bringing down the quarterback a career-high 12 times -- matching his total from the previous two seasons combined. He faced one-on-one matchups thanks to Watt constantly drawing double-teams, but Mercilus was strong against the run, too. His 52 tackles were also a career high, but he flew under the radar for much of the season. He has yet to make a Pro Bowl in his four-year career, but that will change in 2016. Jadeveon Clowney’s development and Watt’s constant disruption will only make it easier for Mercilus to get to the quarterback.