Breakdowns

The NFL’s Most Underappreciated Players: NFC East

With so many players on each NFL roster, it can be easy for the public to overlook some contributing players throughout the league. Not everybody can be Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Donald. In a league filled with incredible players, fans can sometimes get too caught up in stats and records. Whether due to their position, a lack of flashy numbers or being overshadowed by a star player on their team, there are several valuable NFL players who don’t get their deserved share of the limelight. 

In this series, we have been showing some love to players around the league who are being overlooked and underappreciated. This week’s edition: AFC West.

SEE ALSO:

Most Underappreciated: AFC EastAFC NorthAFC South | AFC West

DALLAS COWBOYS:

MICHAEL GALLUP, WR

The Dallas Cowboys had a tough season in 2020, but there is hope for a much better season in 2021 due to a return from quarterback Dak Prescott. The Cowboys will lean on Prescott and their talented offense to win games. One player from their offense that has fallen under the radar is wide receiver Michael Gallup. The Cowboys have a star WR1 in Amari Cooper, and in 2020 they drafted a highly touted receiver in Ceedee Lamb. This has caused people to forget about Gallup, who is a talented receiver that does a lot for this offense. He is a third-year pro who has started 36 of 48 career games, including 15 of 16 in 2020. Gallup lines up mostly as a boundary receiver and they like to put him backside on 3×1 formations as well. Gallup is a smart receiver who knows how to attack a DB’s leverage when stemming his routes, and does a good job of being physical at the top of his routes to create separation.

Despite not having Prescott for the majority of 2020, Gallup still had a solid season. He put up a respectable 59 receptions, 843 yards and 5 touchdowns. He finished top four on the team in multiple categories, including receiving yards (third), receiving yards after contact (second), receiving TD’s (T-first), and receptions (fourth). In addition, he proved he can be a big-play option for the team. This was evident as he led in contested catches (T-first), explosive pass plays (15-plus yards) (T-first), highest average depth of throw, and highest yards per reception. He also led the team in receiving snaps and he had the highest percentage of deep targets (min. 30 targets), emphasizing his importance to the offense. It is important to remember that Gallup played last season without Prescott. In his last full season with Prescott, he put up 66 receptions, 1,107 yards and 6 touchdowns.

His 2020 approximate value (AV) was also solid, finishing with an AV of 6. His AV ranked him T-third highest on the team. His 2019 AV was better, with a 9, and that put him at T-fifth on the team. Cooper also finished with the same AV that season. Six of the players who were tied or above him on that list were Pro Bowlers, and the only ones who weren’t were Prescott and DeMarcus Lawrence, two of the most highly touted players on the team. In 2018, Gallup finished with the highest AV of all the team’s offensive rookies in (tied with Conor Williams), while only starting 8 games that season. He finished that season with the second highest AV on the team of all players who started 8 games or less (tied with Damien Wilson). Gallup’s combined AV from 2018-2020 ranks him as the seventh-most valuable player on the Cowboys and fourth-most valuable offensive player in that span. Every player above him on that list has made at least one Pro Bowl.

Gallup enters a contract year in 2021, where he carries a cap hit of $2,665,495. With a crowded wide receiver room, it will be interesting to see how both the Cowboys and Gallup approach his contract situation. Gallup may potentially want to go somewhere else where he can be the first or second receiving option on a team. Expect the Cowboys to push to keep Gallup for the future.

NEW YORK GIANTS:

DEXTER LAWRENCE, DL

Although 2020 was not the ideal season for the New York Giants, the team should be happy with the significant improvement on the defensive side of the ball. They were ranked 9th in points allowed and 12th in total yards allowed in 2020. This is a huge improvement from 2019, when they ranked 30th in points allowed and 25th in total yards allowed. The Giants added a couple of impactful players on defense prior to last season, such as James Bradberry and Logan Ryan, however they also saw improvements from some of their returning defensive players. Leonard Williams is someone who received a lot of praise from the public for his jump from 2019, deservingly so. However, this caused Dexter Lawrence’s second-year jump to fall under the radar. Lawrence was the 17th pick in the 2019 draft, and he has been very productive so far in his career.

In his second season in the league, he flourished alongside Williams. He saw improvements in every aspect of his game, ranked highly in multiple team categories in 2020, including finishing T-2nd in sacks (4) and generating the second-most amount of total pressures on the team. He had the fourth-highest pass rush win rate (12.4%, min. 100 snaps) and had the fourth-highest pressure percentage (8.9%). Pro Football Focus gave him the second-highest pass rush grade on the team (min. 100 snaps). He also was great in the run game. He finished the season with 37 solo tackles (T-10th of all DL in the league) and 14 assisted tackles (T-12th of all DL in the league). He did all this while only playing 60.04% of defensive snaps in 2020.

In terms of AV, he has been very effective since 2019. In 2020, he finished with an AV of 8, which was T-3rd on the team. He finished the season with the same AV as Leonard Williams, who finished the season with 13 sacks. This helps show how impactful Lawrence is. He may not have eye-popping numbers, especially in sacks, but he is truly one of the most impactful players on their defense and on their team. His 2019 AV was also impressive, as he finished with an AV of 7, which was T-2nd on the defense. His 2019 and 2020 AVs back up the fact that he did improve in 2020, and he is one of the best players on this team despite the lack of recognition.

Lawrence may not be the flashiest player, and may not put up flashy numbers, but he has become one of the game’s best young interior defensive lineman in the entire league. He is still playing on his rookie contract, where he will have a cap hit of $3,613,102 in 2021. Lawrence is just 23 years old, and he has already proven to be one of the best players on the team’s defense. Expect Lawrence to be in blue and white for many years to come.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES:

RODNEY MCLEOD, SS

It was a season to forget for the Eagles, when they finished 4-11-1, last in their division. The Philadelphia Eagles enter 2021 with optimism due to a new head coach, Nick Sirianni, and the first full season with exciting second-year quarterback, Jalen Hurts under center. The Eagles will also be returning a bunch of key players from last year’s squad, including Rodney McLeod. McLeod mans their strong safety position, and he has been one of the most consistent players since he joined the team in 2016. He has started every game he has been active for with the Eagles, and he is someone who does not come off the field unless he suffers a significant injury.

McLeod ranks ninth on the team, and fifth on the defense in combined AV since 2016. It is also important to acknowledge that three of the five defenders ahead of him on this list played in at least 70 games, where he only played in 62.

McLeod had another very productive year in 2020. He played the third most snaps on the team, while only playing in 13 games. He played 100% of snaps up until he got hurt in Week 13, and then missed the rest of the season. Although he was not targeted much (22 targets), he showed how effective he can be in coverage. He finished with the lowest completion percentage allowed (min. 10 targets) on the team at 54.5%. He finished with the highest forced incompletion percentage (min. 10 targets) at 22.7%. He had the lowest passer rating allowed in the NFL (min. 10 targets). He also had the least yards allowed in coverage (99) (min. 10 targets). This all led him to having the highest coverage grade on the team, according to Pro Football Focus.

McLeod will be an unrestricted free agent in 2022, and it would not be surprising to see the Eagles let him walk. This is due to the fact that he is already 31 years old, and he has only played in two full seasons since he has been with the team (2016, 2019). Seeing McLeod leave would be tough for the Eagles considering how impactful he has been for the defense over the years. He played every snap in the 2017 playoffs, when the Eagles won the Super Bowl. He was even named captain in 2020. Look for McLeod to have another impactful season in 2021.

WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM:

COLE HOLCOMB, LB

The Washington Football Team were a surprise playoff team in 2020, winning their division with a mediocre 7-9 record. At the end of the day, they made the playoffs and they put up a great fight in the first round against the eventual Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Football Team relied on their stellar defense to win games in 2020. Their defense is filled with talent, especially along the defensive line. Due to the defensive line getting so much attention, other players on the defense, such as Cole Holcomb, tend to get overlooked. Holcomb was drafted in the fifth round of the 2019 draft by the Washington Football Team. The former UNC product has been able to quickly make an impact for the Football Team.

Holcomb’s value was shown when the team played five games without him in the lineup. In the five games Holcomb missed, the Football Team went 0-5 and let up 30 points or more in four of those games. This was a defense that was ranked fourth in the league in points allowed and second in yards allowed. Although it may not be a direct result of him being out of the lineup, it is still telling that the defense struggled so much without him in the lineup. Due to him missing a bunch of games this past season, he did not put up a ton of great statistics, which is partly why he is being overlooked. Despite missing five games, he still finished with the third-most tackles on the team and had the second-lowest average depth of tackle for a LB on the team. In addition, his versatility as a pass rusher was evident in 2020. He had the fifth-highest percentage of pass rushes resulting in a sack by an off ball LB in the entire league in 2020 (7.8%).

His 2020 AV (6) ranked him T-5th on the team. He also finished first on the team in AV of all players who played in 11 games or less. His 2019 AV (6), ranked him T-2nd on the team. It is encouraging to see that his 2020 AV was just as high as his 2019 AV, when he played in five fewer games in 2020.

Holcomb is currently playing on his rookie contract, where he will have a cap hit of $908,721 in 2021. This is a bargain for someone who has been a solid contributor for the team, and especially someone who is on an upward trend. Look for Holcomb and the Football Team’s defense to build on last year and have another strong year.

  • All stats from Pro Football Focus unless marked otherwise
  • Approximate Values from Pro Football Reference
  • All contract information received from Spotrac.com
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