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 South.
Most Underappreciated: AFC East
Most Underappreciated: AFC North
Brandin Cooks, WR
Brandin Cooks has been nothing short of consistent throughout his career, but he has struggled to stay with the same team for multiple seasons. Cooks was selected with the 20th pick in the 2014 draft by the New Orleans Saints and became an important part of their offense quickly. Despite producing quality numbers for the Saints, he was traded to the New England Patriots. He spent one season with the Patriots before he was shipped to the Los Angeles Rams, where he spent two seasons. Cooks saw a significant decrease in production from year one to year two with the Rams, causing the team to trade him to the Houston Texans for a 2020 second-round pick.
Whether it was the situation he was in or a personal problem, it is very rare to see a player of his caliber produce as consistently as he has and play on four different teams in seven seasons. Cooks has produced five 1,000-yard campaigns in his seven seasons in the league. One of the two seasons in which he didn’t reach the 1,000-yard mark was his rookie year, when he only played in 10 games.. To put that into perspective, Hall of Famer Andre Reed finished with four 1,000-yard seasons in his 16-year career, and former All-Pro Dez Bryant only had three 1,000-yard seasons in his eight with Dallas. Since entering the league in 2014, Cooks is eighth in receiving yards and T-10th in receiving touchdowns. Despite these impressive rankings, Cooks has never been selected to a Pro Bowl or as an All-Pro. Every other player ahead of him on the lists has been selected to at least one Pro Bowl.
Cooks proved once again in 2020 that he can be a true WR1 for a team, leading the Texans in receptions, receiving yards, YAC, first downs and explosive plays (15-plus yards, 11th in the league). He started in all 15 games he was active for and he finished the season with 81 receptions, 1,150 receiving yards (12th in the league) and 6 touchdown receptions. This was a big increase in production from 2019, his last season with the Rams, where he finished with 42 receptions, 583 receiving yards and 2 TD receptions.
In addition, he finished with an approximate value (AV) of 9 in 2020, which was T-2nd (Laremy Tunsil) on the team. Deshaun Watson was the only player ahead of him, and both Watson and Tunsil were selected to the Pro Bowl. He has been very valuable for every team he’s been on when looked at by AV. In 2018, his AV ranked him T-4th on the Rams. In 2017, he finished with the second-highest AV on the Patriots (behind only Tom Brady). Based on combined AV from 2014 to 2016, he was the fifth-most valuable player on the Saints, yet he was traded away. In 2016, his AV (11) was good for T-2nd on the Saints. His 2015 AV (9) was T-3rd highest on the team.
The Texans just recently restructured his deal to help give the team more financial flexibility, and it will also make him a free agent after the 2022 season. It would not be too surprising to see the Texans let Cooks walk after the 2022 season due to his age, but look for him to continue to produce at a high level while he is still with the team and possibly earn another extension. A player who can produce a 1,000-yard season 71.4% of the time deserves a lot more love than Cooks has received over the years.
Braden Smith, OT
The Indianapolis Colts have one of the top offensive lines in the NFL; they were ranked as the seventh-best offensive line in 2020 by Pro Football Focus. People tend to focus on star left guard Quenton Nelson when talking about the Colts line, but their line is not this good just because of Nelson. They have talent at every spot on their offensive line, so it is understandable that right tackle Braden Smith does not get talked about as often. Smith was drafted in the second round in 2018 and has started 46 of 48 career games.
Smith’s AV has been very solid since he has been with the team. His combined AV since he has joined the team ranks him as the fifth-most valuable player on the team (tied with T.Y. Hilton). He has never finished lower than sixth on the team in AV. In 2020, he was given an AV of 6, which was T-6th on the team. In 2019, his AV (8) was good for T-4th on the team. In 2018, his AV of 7 ranked him T-6th on the team.
Smith had a very good 2020 season and he was a huge reason why Philip Rivers was able to stay healthy throughout the season. Smith ranked first on the team in sacks allowed with a perfect zero. He also finished first in QB hits allowed (2). Pro Football Focus graded him as a better run blocker than pass blocker, which makes those numbers even more impressive. In addition, he had the second-highest run blocking grade on the team and fourth-highest overall grade on the offense.
The Colts should be a competitive team this season. Look for Smith to continue to play a key role in their offense’s success and look for him to earn a contract extension as he is entering the final year of his rookie contract in which he will make a base salary of $2,433,000. A true bargain for a tackle that has been very valuable and impactful for the team.
Editor's Note: Smith may not be underappreciated much longer after signing a massive $72.4M extension
James Robinson, RB
The 2017 AFC Championship feels like forever ago, and life after that game has not been pretty for the Jaguars. They finished with the worst record in the NFL in 2020, winning just one game. The 2020 season marked their third straight season with a losing record and their third straight last-place finish in the AFC South. Although the past few years have been rough, there is hope for the franchise. They have Trevor Lawrence, a potential generational prospect, under center next season to go along with a new head coach in Urban Meyer and a new coaching staff. Players like James Robinson bring a lot of excitement for their future. Robinson went undrafted in 2020 yet was able to earn a spot on the Jaguars roster.
Robinson exceeded all expectations in his rookie season, becoming the Jaguars’ workhorse at running back leading the team in all rushing categories by a significant margin. He finished with 240 carries, 1,070 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, 344 receiving yards and 3 receiving touchdowns. He was tied for fifth in the league in rushing yards, third in rushing yards after contact, fourth in explosive rushes (10-plus yards) and T-8th in rushing touchdowns. He finished with a solid 4.5 yards per carry and, most importantly, finished the year without any fumbles.
Robinson had an AV of a 8, which was tied for first on the team (with Joe Schobert). His AV was T-7th among all running backs in the NFL. He was T-4th out of all UDFAs (not just from the 2020 draft) in the NFL and T-1st among all UDFAs who played 14 games or less. His AV ranked him T-4th among all rookies in the league and T-1st among all rookies who played 14 games or less. His AV also ranked him T-2nd among all rookie running backs and first among all UDFA rookie running backs.
Despite all of this, the Jaguars decided to use their second first-round pick in the 2021 draft on Travis Etienne, a running back out of Clemson. It was surprising to many that Jacksonville made that pick after Robinson’s 2020 success. This is as underappreciated as it gets.
Harold Landry III, OLB
The Tennessee Titans have been very impressive recently and are looking to continue their success in 2021. The Titans have one of the league’s top offenses, led by QB Ryan Tannehil and RB Derrick Henry. The addition of star wide receiver Julio Jones has only brought more hype for the offense and the team in general. With the focus on their offense, players on defense are being overlooked. One example is Harold Landry, who has been one of their best defenders since being drafted in the second round in 2018.
Landry is most impactful for the Titans as a pass rusher. In 2019, he had 9 sacks in the regular season, which led the team, and he had 1 sack in the playoffs. He also led the team in total pressures (64) by a significant margin, with the next closest being 34. In addition, he led the team in QB hurries with 45 in 2019. Although his numbers took a slight dip in 2020, he still led the team in sacks with 5.5 in the regular season, and had 2 sacks in the playoffs. He also led the team in total pressures (54), ranked third most among all defenders 25 years and under, behind only John Franklin-Myers (55) and Brian Burns (66). In addition, he had the third-highest pass rush win rate and second-highest pressure % on the team. He was also effective for them in the run game, with the second-most defensive stops in the run game and third-most tackles against the run game. Lastly, he finished with the most solo tackles among all edge defenders in the league with 49 in 2020.
Landry has proven to be productive in terms of AV as well. He has the fourth-highest combined AV out of all defenders on the Titans since 2018. He was given an AV of 7 in 2020, which was good for T-6th on the team, and T-1st on the defense. In 2019, he was given an AV of 9, which was T-4th on the team, and T-2nd on the defense. In 2018, he finished T-4th out of all defenders who started three games or less with an AV of 3.
Although the Titans offense will continue to hog the headlines, don’t forget about Harold Landry III. Look for him to continue to produce for the team as he enters a contract year. He is set to earn a base salary of $2,433,000 in 2021, a bargain for the team’s best edge rusher.
*All stats from Pro Football Focus unless marked otherwise
*Approximate Values from Pro Football Reference
*All contract information received from Spotrac.com