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 South:
- Most Underappreciated: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South
ATLANTA FALCONS: FOYESADE OLUOKUN, LB
2020 was a rough season for the Atlanta Falcons, as they finished with their worst record since 2013. Although it was a season to forget for the Falcons, the emergence of Foyesade Oluokun gives them something to celebrate. Atlanta selected Oluokun in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft from Yale University. The former Ivy League LB had a career year in 2020 starting 14 games after having failed to start more than 7 in his first two seasons.
Oluokun’s defensive snap count percentage took a huge jump as well. He played 48% in 2018, 30% in 2019, and an impressive 83% of defensive snaps in 2020. Oluokun is often overlooked due to his late draft selection and his recent emergence to the starting lineup. Atlanta also has one of the worst defenses in the NFL and possesses a better offense than defense with much of the praise and hype surrounding Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, and the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Kyle Pitts.
Not only was 2020 a breakout year for Oluokun, but he became one of the most productive players on the team. In fact, he led the Falcons in tackles, was T-3rd in sacks, 3rd in tackles for loss (TFL), and 4th in total pressures. He also led the Falcons, and the NFL, in forced fumbles while finishing 8th highest of all LBs in solo tackles.
His Approximate Value (AV) was an 8, good for T-5th on the team and the 3rd highest on the defense. This was a huge improvement from his prior seasons where he didn’t get the volume he received in 2020.
Oluokun has done everything the right way so far in his career. Oftentimes when players are picked in the later rounds, they are expected to carve out a role on special teams before getting a chance to shine on offense or defense. Oluokun did just that in 2018 and 2019 playing 41% of the special team snaps. He showed himself to be a valuable piece on the roster and when his number was called to step in on defense, he shined. In 2021, he enters the final year of his rookie contract with a cap hit of $2,219,658 this season. The Falcons are getting an incredible deal with him as fellow LB, Deion Jones, just inked an extension to a 4 year, $57 million contract. Oluokun, with a full, normal offseason, should pick up where he left off in 2020 and has a chance to get a very hefty deal next offseason.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: DONTE JACKSON, CB
Carolina struggled, again, in 2020 marking the third straight year the Panthers have ended the season with a losing record. Star RB Christian McCaffery missed most of the season and the offense clearly had a capped upside during the campaign. Much of the talk surrounding the Panthers this offseason was the trade for Sam Darnold from the Jets. The former third overall pick will be taking over the starting QB job in Carolina this season with a plethora of weapons at his disposal. Because of their struggles in 2020 and the questions and excitement around this offense, the defense gets overlooked.
One player that continues to fly under the radar is CB Donte Jackson. In his 3-year career, Jackson had started 39 of his 43 games and has quietly become one of the best players on this defense since being selected in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Jackson recorded 10 interceptions in his career so far which is T-5th in the league in that span. That’s more picks than the 2019 DPOY Stephon Gilmore who is widely considered a top 3 CB. He also finished with the lowest completion percentage (55.9%) and recorded the highest forced incompletion rate while leading the team in interceptions with 3. Jackson was second on the Panthers in pass breakups and most forced incompletions. According to Pro Football Focus, he is most impressive verses out routes, hitch routes, and go routes.
Jackson’s AV score of 5 was good for the 8th highest on the team and the 4th highest on the defensive side of the ball. The underrated corner did miss two games so his AV would have been significantly higher if he had stayed healthy throughout the season. Since entering the league, he has never finished below 8th on the team in AV.
Jackson is entering the final season of his rookie contract in 2021, where will have a cap hit of $2,838,005. Look for Jackson to continue producing for the team next season, and earn a contract extension in the future.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: ERIK MCCOY, OC
No one is going to dismiss the importance of Drew Brees leaving the team via retirement. However, the Saints have a ton of talent on both sides of the ball that should allow them to stay competitive in 2021. One player who is returning that is not getting enough recognition is OC Erik McCoy.
The offensive line tends to get overlooked due to its lack of flashiness, and people usually analyze the line as a unit rather than individual parts. McCoy is a lineman that deserves a ton of recognition for the success New Orleans has had the past few seasons. As the team’s starting center, he is the leader of the line and has started every game of his 35-game career.
The former second-round pick has been very impressive in his young career and built upon that in 2020. He was a staple in the line all season, allowing the least amount of sacks, the lowest pressure percentage, and was tied for the least amount of QB hits allowed. He took a step forward in 2020 by cleaning up his penalties decreasing from 8 in 2019 to just 3.
According to Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Values, McCoy has been very valuable so far in his career. In 2019, he ranked 7th on the team in AV, with a score of 8. Every player above him on the list was a Pro Bowler that season. He also led all the team’s rookies in AV. This ranked him T-9th highest out of all OL in the NFL, and it was T-1st amongst rookie linemen in the NFL. In 2020, he was just as effective, finishing with an AV of 8 once again. This was good for T-6th highest on the Saints and T-8th highest out of all OL in the NFL.
A reliable, productive center is a very important piece for NFL teams, and, like McCoy, fail to get the praise and recognition they deserve. McCoy has been an indispensable part of their offense and is a tremendous value for the front office with a cap hit of just $1,659,901. With a new leader under center for the Saints in 2021, McCoy won’t be a player Sean Payton and the coaching staff will have to worry about.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: ALEX CAPPA, OG
The reigning Super Bowl champs are coming into 2021 with high expectations as they are bringing every starter back from last year’s team. The Buccaneers have a ton of talent at many different positions making it easy to overlook some of the others. OG Alex Cappa is one of those players being undervalued in 2021 after starting every game for the champs in 2020. Cappa was selected by Tampa Bay in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft out of Humboldt State and started all 13 games he was active for in 2019.
Cappa played extremely well for the Buccaneers in 2020, allowing 0 sacks. An outstanding number. It’s even more impressive when considering he had the most pass-blocking snaps on the team. Cappa also plays a very clean game finishing with just 3 penalties in 2019 and 2 in 2020.
His AV score was a 10, T-3rd highest on the team. He finished above popular players such as Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. He was able to make huge improvements from 2019 when he finished with an AV of 7, T-6th on the team. His consistency on the right side was indescribable for rookie Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay’s first-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Wirfs was able to play with a clear head knowing he had a steady, reliable player in Cappa alongside him.
At just 26 years old, Cappa has become an extremely important player on the Buccaneers’ offense. They are going to need him to stay healthy if they are going to repeat their success in 2021. Cappa is entering a contract year in 2021, where he has a cap hit of $2,381,426. Look for the Buccaneers to extend Cappa in the near future.