10 min read

NFL's Most Underrated Players Since 2000

The definition of the word underrated means something, or someone has not received the merit, recognition or praise it deserves. In the NFL, production usually speaks for itself.

Yet, some players still manage to slide under the radar. That's why I want to point out a few of the more underrated players since 2000 … and why they are underrated.

Most Undervalued Players Since 2000

Brandin Cooks

He’s so underrated that four different franchises traded him away. He doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for a number of reasons.

Overlooked Coming Out of College

Cooks played his college football at Oregon State, and in his three years there, his team went 3-9, 9-4, and 6-6.

He was drafted in the first round but was the fourth wide receiver to be picked; after Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and Odell Beckham Jr. Watkins, Evans, and OBJ have won Super Bowls. Cooks has not.

No Home Base

Cooks hasn’t played anywhere long enough to establish an affinity with a team’s fanbase. He played three seasons with the New Orleans Saints, one with the New England Patriots, two with the Los Angeles Rams and. three with the Houston Texans (the NFL version of being in the Witness Protection Program). Now, Cooks will be with the Dallas Cowboys.

Not the Brand Name

Cooks was rarely his team’s No. 1 receiver before he got to Houston. Remember, he played on teams with Jimmy Graham, Michael Thomas, Rob Gronkowski, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp. This year, he plays alongside CeeDee Lamb.

Cooks played with quarterbacks Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Deshaun Watson. It’s hard to stand out alongside such talent.

Bad Luck

He hasn’t had the greatest luck or timing.

The Saints won a Super Bowl a few years before Cooks was drafted and 11 games the season before he arrived. But the team went 7-9 in all three seasons that Cooks played for them.

The Patriots won the Super Bowl the year before Cooks arrived but lost the Super Bowl the one season he was with them.

The Rams won the Super Bowl in 2022, two years after trading Cooks.

Consistently Good

Cooks hasn’t made a Pro Bowl appearance, despite his stats matching up with players with far more on their resumes.

Let's compare his stats to those of Mike Evans.

In his first nine seasons, Cooks played 132 NFL games (nearly 15 games/year) and played 7,410 offensive snaps (74.8 percent) of his team’s snaps. Evans has played 7,883 offensive snaps (78.6 percent) in 137 games.

Cooks has 964 targets, while Evans has 1,185 targets. When he does get looks, Cooks reels them in. He caught 65.4 percent of his targets, while Evans has a reception on only 57.6 percent of his. Cooks averages 8.9 yards per target, while Evans averages 8.8.

Cooks has 630 catches in his career, Evans 683.

Super Bowl Opportunities

In Super Bowl LIII, Cooks caught eight passes for 120 yards. The Rams had only 260 yards of offense in that entire game (so Cooks had 46 percent of his team’s offense). Cooks had six receptions for first downs, his teammates only had eight others. 41 of his yards came after the catch.

In particular, Cooks shined in the second half of that Super Bowl. He had six receptions for 103 yards while being blanketed by the best corner in the game that year, Stephon Gilmore.

Cooks had his shots to be a Super Bowl hero and champion, but they didn’t materialize.

Gilmore jumped for an interception on the 3-yard line that was thrown a little short of the targeted Cooks, all but sealing the Rams' fate.

Cooks also had chances with Brady and the Patriots a year earlier in Super Bowl LII. Early in the second quarter, Brady found Cooks for a 23-yard gain, but Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins leveled Cooks with a huge hit, appearing to contact Brandin’s helmet. Cooks lay motionless on the ground for a minute and eventually was able to walk off the field under his own power. He didn’t return to the game due to concussion protocol. So New England played the last three quarters without their best wide receiver and their best corner (Malcolm Butler). The loss of Cooks may have been as devastating as the decision not to utilize Butler.

Key Comparison

Cooks has statistics that look very similar to a contemporary with a little more luck, Julian Edelman. Edelman gets the endorsements, the name and face recognition. 

Brandin Cooks   Julian Edelman
132 Games 137
630 Receptions 620
8,616 Receiving Yards 6,822
13.7 Yards/Reception 11.0
49 TD Receptions 36

Kevin Williams

One of my main arguments for certain players being underrated is their lack of a recognizable name, or nickname that is used in place of a first name.

Kevin Williams was a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings with the ninth overall pick in the 2003 draft. You might sarcastically say Williams was so underrated that the Vikings let their time elapse before making the pick.

He had a terrific career. He played 13 years in the NFL, the first 11 in Minnesota, where he was a six-time Pro Bowler and made five All-Pro teams.

But for a few years, he wasn’t even the only Williams to play DT for the Vikings — there was Pat Williams. It was easy to confuse the two. Together, they led the Vikings to be No. 1 in the NFL in run defense for three consecutive seasons (2006-2008).

Key Comparison

Williams had everything but needed a more recognizable name, you know, like Ndamukong Suh.

They basically had the same career. Williams had one more Pro Bowl appearance. They both were All-Pro in five different seasons.

Kevin Williams Ndamukong Suh
203 Games 199
63 Sacks 71.5
370 Solo Tackles 392
10 Forced Fumbles 5
13 Fum. Recoveries 9

Suh won a Super Bowl and played in three total.

My point is Williams is underrated. Was he that much worse than contemporaries like Hall of Famers Richard Seymour and Warren Sapp? Isn’t Williams on par with more well-known players like Fletcher Cox and Geno Atkins? He is but isn’t as recognizable and distinct as Cox, Atkins, and Ndamukong.

Alex Smith

Alex Smith is not only underrated because of his last name — Smith. He is underrated because when people remember and talk about Smith, they talk about his life-threatening injury to his right leg that nearly resulted in amputation. They talk about and remember his incredible rehabilitation and commitment that allowed him to play in 2020.

I know what many of you are saying now. How could a player who was drafted No. 1 overall in his draft class be underrated? Smith was the first player picked in the 2005 draft by San Francisco. This meant that the Niners selected Smith over some local guy named Aaron Rodgers. Really, it became almost a national joke that Smith was taken so far ahead of Rodgers.

People remember Smith, but almost no one talks about how damn good a quarterback he was!

Smith played under so many different head coaches and offensive coordinators in his first three years that it took him time to get his footing in the league.

And he missed his fourth season — 2008 — on injured reserve due to a broken shoulder.

Beginning with the 2009 season, Smith played 142 games and was 88-48-1. He completed 64.1 percent of his passes, with 180 TDs and 78 INTs with a passer rating of 91.1.

In the wild-card game after the 2013 season, Andy Reid’s Chiefs traveled to Indianapolis to play the Colts. Smith completed 30 of 46 passes for 378 yards, with four TDs and no interceptions. He also rushed eight times for 57 yards. Ultimately, it was a loss, as the Colts defeated the Chiefs 45-44.

He missed his age-24 season with a broken shoulder. He missed his age-35 season with a scary infection. And he won five of six starts for Washington in 2020 at 36.

Key Comparison

Andy Reid coached Smith and Donovan McNabb. There wasn’t much difference statistically between them.

Alex Smith Donovan McNabb
174 Games 167
99-67-1 W/L 98-62-1
62.6% Comp. % 59.0%
35,650 Passing yards 37,276
6.9 Passing Yards/Attempt 6.9
199/109 TD/INT 234/117
86.9 Passer Rating 85.6

Both were accomplished runners, as well. Smith ran 580 times for 2,604 rushing yards. McNabb ran 616 times for 3,459 rushing yards.

Smith wasn’t a great quarterback, but he sure was underrated.

Chandler Jones

Here we go again. He has played on too many teams (like Cooks). He has a too-common last name (like Smith). And he happens to be one of the best defensive linemen of his generation.

But man is he underrated!

He is probably not even as famous as his brother Jon (competing in the UFC and current heavyweight champion of the world). Of course, his brother has what is essential if you have a common last name: a great nickname. “Bones” Jones is memorable in ways that Chandler Jones is not.

Key Comparison

Now, Jones is not J.J. Watt. Watt was a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and six-time All-Pro. But look at how close Jones is to him in key statistical categories.

J.J. Watt   Chandler Jones
151 Games 154
4,264 Def Snaps Pass Rush 4,751
114.5 Sacks 112
74 PFF Hurry 58
195 TFL 121
10.2% PFFPressure% 10.0%
27 Forced Fumbles 34
17 Fumble Recoveries 13

In the 2021 season, they were teammates with the Arizona Cardinals. In Week 1, Jones had five sacks and six QB hits on Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill. I am not saying he had the career of Watt. I am saying Jones is really underrated.

Honorable Mentions

Stars Underrated Due to Common Last Name

Steve Smith Sr.

Only one wide receiver (Larry Fitzgerald) has more receiving yards than Smith (14,731) since the start of the 2001 season.

Andre Johnson

He played 193 regular-season games brilliantly but only played in four playoff games and never came close to a Super Bowl.

Chris Johnson

One of a handful of players to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season, and likely the only one that doesn’t come to mind quickly (Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Jamal Lewis, Barry Sanders, Derrick Henry, Terrell Davis, O.J. Simpson). He is also likely to be the only one who will not be enshrined in Canton.

Stars Underrated Because of Where They Played/Longevity Issues/etc.

NaVorro Bowman

Inside linebackers don’t get as much press as the outside backers. Bowman was sensational, but his career was basically five seasons because of injuries. Still, being All-Pro for four seasons (2011, 12, 13, 15; missing the 2014 season with torn ACL and MCL) gives him Hall of Fame credentials, at least in my eyes.

He’s always been underrated. In middle school, he was a point guard on his basketball team, a teammate of a young Kevin Durant.

Maurkice Pouncey

Yes, he was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection and still is underrated.

As good as he was, he’ll never be considered the best Pittsburgh center ever. Not even close. He won’t be considered the second-best Pittsburgh center of all time either.

Hall of Famers Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson played the position at a Hall of Fame level for teams that won Super Bowls. Pouncey never played in a Super Bowl (he was on injured reserve in Super Bowl XLV).

Marshal Yanda

How is Yanda on a list of the most underrated stars of the 2000s?  Sure, he was one of the best to play his position on a marquee team. Sure, he was selected to the Pro Bowl eight times and was twice an All-Pro guard. But Yanda played a position — guard — that is underrated.

The offense took a backseat to the defense on his Ravens' teams. He also lined up alongside a player, Michael Oher, who got attention from even casual fans thanks to the movie “The Blind Side.”

Elliott Kalb has been known in the sports television industry as “Mr. Stats” for more than 35 years. He is a 13-time Sports Emmy winner as a writer, researcher and producer. Follow him on Twitter @MrStats50.