Breakdowns

The NFL’s Most Underappreciated Players: NFC North

With such a large roster size in the NFL, 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 so many incredible players, fans can sometimes get too caught up in stats and numbers when acknowledging players. Whether due to their position, a lack of flashy numbers, or because they are 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 will be showing some love to players throughout the league who are being overlooked and underappreciated. This week, we turn our focus to the NFC North:

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Chicago Bears

Bilal Nichols, DL

Since 2018, the Chicago Bears have consistently been one of the better defenses in the league. Having players such as Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith has allowed them to continue their success on the defensive side of the ball. While players like Mack and Smith have dominated the headlines, Bilal Nichols has been one of their most effective players on defense. Nichols has seen time at different spots on their defensive line, including nose tackle and a 3-4 defensive end. Nichols is a player who has been on an upward trajectory, seeing an increase in production every season.

It was another productive season for Nichols in 2020, when he played 58% of their defensive snaps, a career high. This was an increase of 17% from 2019. His increase in playing time paid off as he finished the season in the top five of multiple categories for his team. He finished second in sacks (6), which was also tied for 11th best among all defensive linemen in the league. He also finished second on the team in QB hits, and was fourth on the team in pass rushing productivity. He was just as effective against the run, where he had the fifth-most defensive stops in run defense. He also finished with the third-lowest average depth of tackles (min. 100 run defense snaps). This is a great statistic that shows that he is not only not getting pushed back against the run, but is also shedding his blocks and getting to the ball quickly.

His Approximate Value (AV) is another thing that has continued to increase every season, which helps back up that he has been on an upward trajectory. He saw a career high in AV (8) in 2020, which was ranked T-4th highest on the team, and T-3rd highest on the defense. In 2019, he finished T-6th on the team, and T-5th on the defense. In 2018, he showed his potential, finishing T-2nd among all rookies on the Bears in AV, trailing only first-rounder Roquan Smith. His 2018 AV, also was good for T-11th on the team, and 8th on the defense.

Bilal Nichols has proven to be an absolute steal, considering the Bears snagged him in the fifth round of the 2018 draft. He has not cost the Bears a lot of money, either. He has never had a cap hit higher than $900,000, due to him being on his rookie contract. That’ll change this year, since he has a cap hit of $2,257,872 in 2021. Nichols is entering a contract year in 2021. Look for him to continue his upward trajectory and earn an extension after the season.

Detroit Lions

Amani Oruwariye, CB

The Detroit Lions had a tough season in 2020, finishing fourth in their division for the third straight season. The Lions have a new coach in Dan Campbell and a new QB in Jared Goff, so there is optimism heading into next season. Someone who offers optimism for next season but is not getting a lot of recognition is Amani Oruwariye. Oruwariye was a former fifth-round pick in the 2019 draft out of Penn State, and he started 15 of 16 games at cornerback in 2020. He played 92% of snaps, a huge jump from his 19% in 2019. He showed flashes in 2020 that makes him a very interesting piece for their defense moving forward. Oruwariye needs to be more consistent in 2021, but he has shown that he has the ability to be a good player for this defense.

Oruwariye saw a big increase in production in 2020. He did not play much in 2019 due to injury, however he started 15 of 16 games in 2020. He even played the second-most snaps on their defense, and had the most amount of press coverage snaps on the team. There were some very positive things to come out of his increase in play time, and some not so good. For example, he had the lowest completion percentage allowed on the team (54.7%), which also ranked him 11th out of 103 CBs. He was targeted the most times of all the CBs on the team, so it is encouraging to see his completion percentage allowed so low. On the other hand, he allowed 17.6 yards per reception allowed, which was 102 out of 103 CBs. Although his completion percentage allowed was impressive, he was letting up big plays when the ball was completed. People tend to focus on the negative, and that is a big reason why he is not getting as much recognition. But the reality is, if he can be more consistent and limit these big plays, he is going to be a solid player for them. He ranked 11th out of 103 CBs in the league in completion percentage allowed, which should not be swept under the rug. He showed the flashes in 2020. He even led the team in pass breakups and forced incompletions. Although it wasn’t all perfect in 2020, it was a very encouraging season for Oruwariye. Especially when considering he did not play much in 2019, his rookie season.

His 2020 AV backs up the narrative that he was very good at times, but then poor at times as well. He finished with an AV of 4, which ranked him T-6th on the team, and T-2nd on the defense.

As a former fifth-rounder who is still on his rookie deal, Oruwariye only has a cap hit of $930,526 in 2021. Oruwariye will become an unrestricted free agent in 2023, so he has time to prove that he deserves a second contract with the Lions. Although Oruwariye showed flashes in 2020, he is going to need to be more consistent and limit big plays in the future. As mentioned earlier, people tend to focus on the negative; however, Oruwariye did a lot of great things last season, and he deserves to be recognized for that.

Green Bay Packers

Darnell Savage Jr., Saf

The Green Bay Packers have been very competitive for the past two seasons due to their high-powered offense and a rock-solid defense. Prior to 2019, their defense was mediocre, and it put a lot of pressure on the offense. This caused the team to put a major emphasis on improving the defense, and one of their most underrated moves to improve their defense is drafting Darnell Savage Jr. out of the University of Maryland in the first round of the 2019 draft. Savage was exactly that at the University of Maryland and he has continued to be a productive player in the NFL.

Savage had a good rookie season in 2019, and he was able to build on that in 2020. He was very effective versus both the run and the pass, and he finished top two on the team in multiple categories. He finished second in tackles and first-contact tackles, tied for second in pass breakups, and even had the second-lowest completion percentage allowed on the team (53.1%, min. 25 targets). He also T-1st on the team in fewest TDs allowed, and had the highest percentage of INTs per coverage attempt (12.5%). His four interceptions led the team and was T-5th in the NFL.

His AV (6) was also solid in 2020, as it ranked him T-10th on the team, and T-4th on the defense. His 2019 AV (5) was good for T-9th on the team, and T-5th on the defense. It is encouraging to see the AV improve from 2019 to 2020, as it shows he became even more valuable to the defense in 2020.

Savage has a cap hit of $3,413,915 in 2021, which is an absolute bargain considering how impactful he is for their defense. At just 24 years old, he has quietly become one of the game’s best young defensive players, and the Packers should try to keep him on their team as long as they can.

Minnesota Vikings

Irv Smith Jr., TE

The Minnesota Vikings’ overall record may have regressed in 2020, but their offense was still one of the best in the league. They finished ranked fourth in total yards and they finished 11th in points scored. One player on their offense who does not get too much attention is Irv Smith Jr., their tight end. Smith tends to fall under the radar for a couple of reasons. First of all, the Vikings have some big-time players on offense in Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson. Secondly, Smith has played alongside Kyle Rudolph throughout his career, which has limited his production. Although he has not been a consistent starter for the Vikings so far in his career, he has still done a lot of good things for the team.

In 2020, despite only playing 13 games and starting seven of them, he led all tight ends on the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns. In addition, he only dropped one pass all season, proving to be a very reliable receiving option. He also led the team with the highest receiving grade according to Pro Football Focus. He also had the third-most receiving yards and receiving touchdowns on the team. He had the fifth-most receiving yards out of all tight ends in the league who played 13 games or less last season.

His 2020 AV was not great, however it still ranked him T-7th on the team. His low AV can be attributed to the fact that he did not start many games, and he only played in 13 games.

Smith is set to have a cap hit of $1,581,392 in 2021, which is due to him being on his rookie contract. At just 23 years old, Smith has shown flashes of impressive ability, and he will finally have the opportunity to get more playing time. This is due to Rudolph leaving the team via free agency. With an increased role and experience in the offense, expect Smith Jr. to increase his production significantly and gain more recognition in 2021.

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