NFL Analysis


9 min read

Who Is The Most Underrated Player in the NFL Entering 2024?

New York Jets cornerbacks Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed
New York Jets cornerbacks Sauce Gardner (left) and D.J. Reed (4) get psyched up before the game against the Cleveland Browns at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Dec. 28, 2023. (Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports)

The topic of “Who is the most underrated player in the NFL?” is an endless debate with no right answer. 

One could easily answer Patrick Mahomes because, however good you think he is, he’s probably better — and throughout his career, there have been debates on who is on his level or has surpassed him as the best quarterback in the league, only for there to be no rightful contenders to that status.

One reason the underrated argument is often contentious is the lack of clear guidelines. Everyone seems to have their own criteria. So, let’s open up the discussion and try to answer the question of who the most underrated player in the NFL is.

The guidelines for this exercise are simple. For a player to qualify, he must not have made a Pro Bowl or be paid as a top-10 player at his position. Admittedly, those are not the best performance indicators, but they give us objective measures of how a player is viewed by the general public (Pro Bowl) and the front offices (contract value).

We’ll also use some common sense with those parameters. A player like Brandon Aiyuk qualifies, but it would be difficult to make a good-faith argument that a player about to get paid is one of the most underrated players in the league, even if some don’t appreciate him as a top-10 receiver.

This also applies to a player like Christian Darrisaw. He’s yet to make a Pro Bowl and is still on a rookie contract. However, before the 2023 season, the 23-year-old was voted the ninth-best tackle in football by a group of executives, coaches and players in an ESPN poll.

Age and consideration of current ability will also play a part here. While Brandin Cooks also qualifies and could have made this list many times during his run of six 1,000-yard receiving seasons in seven seasons from 2015-21, the 30-year-old is coming off two sub-700-yard receiving seasons. 

It’s also difficult to justify many offensive players because of the attention given to that side of the ball. If there is a most underrated player, it’s almost undoubtedly a defensive player. 

We’ll also consider their overall impact. As much as I could go on about the hidden value of veteran journeymen like Samson Ebukam or Maliek Collins, they might not be the most underrated.

So, with those parameters in place, and after diving into film and numbers to whittle down candidates, let’s look at the three players who could claim to be the NFL’s most underrated players.

Contenders for NFL's Most Underrated Player

Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Ed Oliver
Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Ed Oliver (91) celebrates a sack of New England Patriots quarterback Bailey Zappe (4). (Democrat and Chronicle/USA TODAY-Sports)

3. Ed Oliver, iDL, Buffalo Bills

Ed Oliver has the rare feat of getting a sizable second contract as a first-round pick yet still sitting well outside the top 10 at his position. Oliver signed a four-year, $68 million extension last offseason and his $17 million average annual value only ranks 17th at the position. His three-year cash flow of $51.4 million ranks 16th.

When he signed that deal, Oliver was coming off an uneven 2022 season. He produced just 2.5 sacks after starting the year with an ankle injury and playing in only 13 games. But Oliver was a productive player when healthy and in stretches of that 2022 season, even if some of the raw numbers did not indicate it.

In 2021, Oliver ranked seventh in pass rush win rate and ninth in run stop win rate, the only interior defender to rank in the top 10 of both metrics. While he was only 59th in pressures, he tied for ninth among all defenders that season in tackles for loss against the run.

This past season, Oliver’s production started to match his impact on the field. His 9.5 sacks were a career-high, while his 65 pressures ranked 21st and tied with Justin Madubuike.

But even that underrated what Buffalo asked Oliver to do this past season. Oliver moved around the defense at a higher rate than ever and was a big part of opening up opportunities for others.

Oliver played nearly 65 percent of his snaps on the edge on third down in 2023, and his 30 third-down pressures ranked 15th in the league.

He also kept up with his run defense, with seven run tackles for loss (16th) and an average depth of tackle behind the line of scrimmage. 

Oliver might not have the impact of Chris Jones, but that’s not what we’re looking for here. He is closer to that type of player than he’s been given credit for, and at 26, he still has room to grow.

Los Angeles Rams linebacker Ernest Jones
Los Angeles Rams LB Ernest Jones (53) improved his pass-rushing in 2023, as New York Giants QB Tyrod Taylor discovered during the teams' game on New Year's Eve. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

2. Ernest Jones, LB, Los Angeles Rams

We reviewed Ernest Jones’ qualifications in our piece on breakout candidates for 2024, but they bear repeating because his play has gone overlooked in the middle of the Rams’ defense.

A third-round pick in 2021, Jones played 38 percent of the snaps as a rookie but started seven games. Once he got on the field as a starter, he did not play fewer than 60 percent of the defensive snaps in a game until an injury in Week 16 forced him to miss the next two regular-season games and the first two games of the Rams’ playoff run. He returned to play 43 percent of the defensive snaps in the NFC Championship Game, and 93 percent in the Super Bowl win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Jones started as the type of late-round pick that found success during the Rams’ picks-don’t-matter era — a player with a specific skill set dropped into a defense full of stars so the transition period could be as easy as possible. 

During the next two seasons, Jones’ role in the defense grew, and he became a bigger part of making it go.

In 2022, his ability to play with range lessened the responsibility on Bobby Wagner and opened up clear lanes for the veteran to shoot through and rack up high-impact tackles when the Rams were in nickel personnel. Jones played 66 percent of the snaps that season alongside Wagner, who was a second-team All-Pro.

Last season showed what Jones could do on his own. He had 145 tackles and made a stop on 27.9 percent of his run-defense snaps. Only one other player of the 62 with at least 100 tackles had more than 25 percent.

He also ranked 19th among linebackers in yards allowed per coverage snap last season. Jones added a pass rush to his arsenal, as the Rams used him more as a blitzer than he had been during the first two years of his career. He rushed the passer on 22.6 percent of his pass snaps in 2023, resulting in 33 pressures and 4.5 sacks.

Jones is entering the last year of his rookie deal. If he gets an extension, he’ll likely jump into the top 10 at the position—though that’s because the bar is quite low there, at just $10 million per year. But if that is the case, plenty of NFL observers will need to come to this write-up to find out why.

New York Jets cornerback D.J. Reed
D.J. Reed of the New York Jets tackles Tyreek Hill of the Miami Dolphins at the goal line during the Dolphins' 34-13 victory against the Jets at MetLife Stadium on Nov. 24, 2023. (The Record/USA TODAY-Sports)

1. D.J. Reed, CB, New York Jets

It might be bold to say the NFL's most underrated player plays on a team that was scheduled to have six primetime games and an international game within the first 11 weeks of the season. However, D.J. Reed can easily be overlooked on a team filled with star power and potentially the best player at the position playing opposite him.

Reed was a fifth-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers in 2018 as a slot/safety hybrid. After his second season, Reed tore his pec in the offseason, was placed on the non-football injury list to start training camp and was eventually released by the 49ers. 

He was claimed by the Seahawks, still under his rookie contract, and had two productive seasons. Despite being 5-foot-9, Reed played on the outside in Seattle, opposite Shaq Griffin. He played 71 percent of his snaps outside in 2020 and 85.5 percent in 2021.

Following the 2021 season, Reed signed a three-year, $33 million deal with the Jets. He's played 89 and 93 percent of his snaps outside opposite Sauce Gardner. Reed, who is entering the final year of that contract, won't turn 28 until November.

For the Jets to do what they do in coverage — play sides with their corners — Reed must be good. If there is a weakness at the second outside corner opposite Gardner, opposing offenses could just barrage that player with targets. That has not been the case with Reed, who has deterred targets.

In 2022, Reed ranked 12th among cornerbacks in yards allowed per coverage snap and just 22nd in targets per coverage snap. This past season, Reed was 40th among 150 cornerbacks with at least 100 coverage snaps. He was 30th at the position in coverage DVOA, per FTN.

Because the Jets play sides, Reed sees opposing No. 1 receivers more than a typical CB2. But with Reed taking on that responsibility, the Jets haven’t seen a split in coverage. Last season, the Jets ranked sixth in DVOA against opposing No. 1 receivers and fifth against opposing No. 2s. They were seventh in DVOA on throws to the left and second on throws to the right.

In his two seasons with the Jets, Reed has 21 passes defensed (T-24th) but just two interceptions. Those numbers are going to stand out. That adds to the underrated aspect of his game. He’s not a boom-or-bust corner. Reed often plays with good technique that allows him to stay on the receiver and not give up many big plays — if he allows a target at all.

A worse corner would make life harder on Gardner and the Jets. Reed doesn’t just avoid that; he makes life easier. He doesn’t get enough credit for that, so he tops this list.