As we head into the upcoming NFL season we are bombarded with plenty of headlines from around the league. We’re always told these things have to be on our radar. The AFC West looks stacked, Joe Burrow is melting hearts, Aaron Rodgers is being a weirdo, and Cowboys fans already think it’s their year. From those headlines, you might think that not much has changed since football was last here. Au contraire, the NFL landscape is a vastly different place filled with the usual crop of overrated players and teams and their counterparts: the underrated.
Now I’m not going to go out and make enemies by writing an article calling half the league overrated. Instead, let’s look at some things around the NFL that may be flying under the radar heading into a new season that is bound to be full of surprises.
The Detroit Lions
This is one way to get people’s attention to start this off, but I promise it’s not a joke this time. The Lions are following a path that I stand by as a precursor to success in the NFL. Finding a coach that gains the trust of the locker room, drafting well, and, most importantly, winning in the trenches. The strength of this Lions team is on the offensive line and the defensive line. I don’t care how many analytics try to tell you other positions are more important, winning on the line is the best way to find success in football and it has been that way since the NFL was started. The Lions could be a team that follows that path right to a surprisingly good season and maybe even a playoff berth. They are definitely a team kept off too many people’s radar.
When we talk about elite head coaches around the NFL, there are always those names that never failed to get mentioned like Bill Belichick, Sean McVay, Andy Reid, and others. However, Kyle Shanahan is a guy that deserves that same praise. He is forward-minded and is often at the forefront of trends that take over the league, after all, it is a “copycat” league. Moreover, Shanahan turned Deebo Samuel from an injury-prone young receiver into a versatile weapon that just got quite a payday. He is always in the playoffs, even in a loaded NFC West.
Another way to tell how successful a coach is or how the league feels about him is the coaching tree that he gives off. Robert Saleh and Mike McDaniel are now both opposing head coaches, and numerous assistants under Shanahan have gone on to be coordinators as well. His style of coaching is often at the forefront of trends and breakthroughs, and he gets his players and coaching staff some nice paydays. Don’t sleep on Kyle Shanahan as a top-tier head coach, maybe even the best in the NFL right now.
The 2021 quarterback draft class did not have much success last season, other than Mac Jones’ win-loss record. Many were thrown into bad situations and couldn’t do much to find success. Of all these quarterbacks though, you could argue that the one thrown in the worst situation was Davis Mills. He had no offensive line, weak skill position players, a first-year head coach, and a putrid defense. So how did he, a third-round pick, play arguably the best out of all the rookie quarterbacks?
That is a great question that I don’t even know the answer to. He simply was more efficient and looked more fluid than the other passers in his draft class yet went under the radar. His team didn’t get much better, but it’s time to stop disrespecting Mills. He was often one of the best players on the field for the weak Texans team and should be once again in 2022.
The New Orleans Saints
Saints hate is not uncommon at all and that’s probably a major reason for them not getting the recognition they deserve heading into this season. They were 5-2 with Jameis Winston as their starter and he was a bonafide early MVP candidate. Then, numerous injuries derailed their promising season. This team has only gotten better in the off-season, bringing in Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu to bolster themselves into arguably the league’s best secondary. They drafted Chris Olave and signed Jarvis Landry to give them a top ten receiving corps after last year’s group was underwhelming. Their skill position players are elite, the secondary is unmatched, and they should still be able to get elite-level play out of aging stars like DeMario Davis and Cam Jordan long enough to make quite a playoff push this year and maybe win the division.
Before you cry about a new head coach, just keep in mind that Sean Payton missed one game last year with COVID. The result? The team’s eventual 9-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers electric offense thanks to great leadership by new head coach Dennis Allen. This team is only going to get better and should be on more people’s radar.
The Fullback Position
Quite a random take here but one I’m fairly firm on. The fullback position has been underutilized for the last 2 decades. Think about who the league’s most prolific back has been over the last few seasons. The answer is Derrick Henry by the way. He runs like a fullback and teams often have to stack 8 defenders in the box to stop him. Imagine a league where big running backs and a committee workload at the position exist, oh yeah, we already have one. It is crazy that fullbacks haven’t bounced back to work as a tandem with a speedy receiving running back to form a deadly combo out of the backfield.
I think we could see Kyle Shanahan utilize this position and be on the forefront once again, putting the position back on the league’s radar. John Harbaugh is another guy who could be the leader of this revolution. Having a bruiser to match the speed back who is prevalent in many offenses today would be tough to beat, and the best way to do that is a fullback renaissance and the return of more I-Formation plays. This could be the year coaches finally realize how unbeatable it could be, and the next Mike Alstott may already be on an NFL roster.
The memes around the man who came to be nicknamed “Shooter McPherson” during his historic playoff stretch were quite numerous. His charisma and golden leg made him a lovable character in the exciting Bengals Super Bowl run. All jokes aside though, he will be an underrated player at a wildly off-the-radar position this year. He may already be a top 3 kicker in the league, and you look around at all the missed field goals and PATs meshing with all the one-score games and you start to realize just how important the kicker position is. Don’t believe me? Ask the 2018 Bears and come back. Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Having a good kicker is the difference between a 9-8 season and a 12-5 season in a league as competitive as this one, and a competent kicker is a luxury that is flying way under the radar. A prime example of this is Shooter McPherson, who was just as important as anyone in getting the Bengals through the AFC playoff gauntlet last season.
Not nearly enough people are talking about the make-or-break year that we will see from Trubisky this season. He spent the early part of his career as the scapegoat for Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace’s incompetence, and when they sent him away there was no one else to blame. Look where that got the Bears now. People still have the nerve to blame Mitch anyway. He was a double-doink away from the NFC divisional round (see the Evan McPherson section). He was also 8 points from beating the Saints in the 2019 wild card round a year later. The Bears haven’t done much since then.
He sat in a great system behind Josh Allen in Buffalo and earned his shot at the starting spot in Pittsburgh now. He’ll have the skill position weapons to find success and a top-tier defense on the other side. Don’t be shocked when the man of many memes shows what he can do in a competent system under Mike Tomlin and company. I’ve been a Mitch Trubisky fan since college, and the former NVP and Chicago scapegoat has something to prove this year, and I think he’ll catch a lot of eyes. I’ll keep the “I told you so” in my back pocket for when he pans out.
The 2022 Draft Class
I can’t remember the last time a draft class entered the league with such a negative stigma around it, and it’s very misplaced. People tend to only look at the quarterback position when analyzing a draft class and have immediately written this one off because they have a historically poor QB class. Looking around at other positions, I have no doubt that there are plenty of future superstars at other positions littered about this draft class, and some of my favorite prospects ever at a couple of positions. Guys like Ahmad Gardner and Kyle Hamilton were some of the best at their position that I have ever seen, and the receiver class should be elite as well. I’m also very high on Evan Neal and Ikem Ekwonu.
The defensive end class is the pride of this draft with guys like Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchison, and Kayvon Thibodeaux being taken in the top 5 also. We shouldn’t write this class off just because of how poor the quarterback class was. There are some studs in this class all over the field. This underdog group of draftees will surprise a lot of people who were so quick to talk down on them. Watch your radar.