Heading into Sunday's slate, there are some surprising teams in strong contention for a playoff spot. The Chiefs sit atop the pecking order in Week 9 with the Patriots and Steelers in the AFC, as we would have expected prior to the season, but the fact that they are also now competing with the Jaguars, Titans and Bills is much more surprising. Meanwhile, in the NFC, the playoffs could feature players like Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and … Case Keenum?
A lot of the unexpected success stories in football this season have to do with the player contributions that people didn't see coming. These are the most underrated players on each team.
Kansas City Chiefs
Harrison Butker, K
Butker, whose Twitter handle is appropriate @buttkicker7, was signed off the Panthers practice squad in Week 4 and is 13-of-14 on field goals and 9-of-9 on extra points.
Javon Hargrave, NT
The Steelers are back in the position of being the most dominant team in the AFC mainly because of their defense. And maybe the most underrated player on that D is Hargrave, the second-year nose tackle out of South Carolina State who had one hit and three hurries in Pittsburgh's 20-15 win over the Lions last week. He is a part-time player and certainly a work in progress, but given the "underrated" aspect of this list, I'd say a lot more people know about Artie Burns or Vince Williams than Hargrave.
New England Patriots
Trey Flowers, DE
Defense is certainly not New England's strength, but how many people realize that Flowers came into Sunday tied for fifth in the NFL in QB pressures? The former fourth round pick could be that guy in a year or two who gets that mega-contract that not a lot of people saw coming.
Kevin Byard, FS
He got noticed last week after his three interceptions against the Browns earned him AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, but Byard's been doing well all season long. The second-year safety has yet to miss a snap and he has four picks, seven passes defensed, and a fumble recovery.
Micah Hyde, SS
Hyde has a league-leading five interceptions on the year. Pretty good for a guy who apparently wasn't offered a deal by his original team, the Packers, before signing with the Bills this past offseason.
Cam Robinson, LT
I'm sure a person could overestimate the job done by Robinson so far, but it would take a lot of estimating. The second round rookie has arguably been an improvement over Branden Albert and to be playing at this level already, he could end up being a very special player long-term.
DeVante Parker, WR
Strangely, it's hard to find positives for this 4-3 team, probably due to the fact that they are coming off of a 40-0 loss. But the season is far from over and getting Parker back, who had 230 yards in his first three games prior to Thursday's total Miami dud, is significant.
Jimmy Smith, CB
Imagine being the team that won 40-0 despite still being behind to the team you beat in the standings. Smith hasn't really been beaten all year, though, and not only is he looking at his first Pro Bowl nod, he could get recognition as the best corner of 2017. On Thursday, he had a pick six and allowed 12 yards on seven targets.
Garett Bolles, LT
Another rookie left tackle, Bolles has been an upgrade over Russell Okung, who left Denver and is now the highest-paid lineman in the NFL. If only he was blocking for a better quarterback.
Bruce Ellington, WR
You'll obviously find a lot of receivers with better receiving stats, but Ellington has been a reliable target, putting up 155 yards in four games prior to Sunday. He had just one catch on four targets in the loss to the Seahawks, but Ellington clearly has a second chance after having sat out all of 2016 and getting released by the 49ers and Jets before he landed in Houston. We'll see if Tom Savage can get the ball to him.
Tyler Kroft, TE
He's not Tyler Eifert but he's also not Tyler Boyd. He's his own Tyler. This Tyler had five catches for 46 yards in Cincy's win over the Colts last week and has 203 yards over the last five games. This is a surprisingly good pace for a player who had 221 yards over his first two seasons.
New York Jets
Robby Anderson, WR
The Jets have been up and down, but at least they may have found a long-term keeper in Anderson. He had 104 yards last Sunday, a key receiving TD in Thursday night's win against the Bills and now has 485 yards in eight games.
Desmond King, CB
Not only did he record a sack on Tom Brady this week, a pass defensed, and allow only 12 yards through the air, but King is also L.A.'s kick returner. The rookie slot corner has already proven to be a steal in the fifth round, potentially giving the Chargers another piece to build around Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
Rodney Hudson, C
For all the credit Kelechi Osemele and Donald Penn get, less is made of Hudson, who might be the best center in the NFL this season. As the Raiders continue to fall, Hudson has done a perfect job of keeping Derek Carr on his feet. If only Carr knew what to do next.
Jacoby Brissett, QB
It's hard for any starting quarterback to be "overlooked" and certainly people are aware of Brissett's season. But he deserves even more credit, despite the Colts' 2-6 record, for doing what he's managed to do. Joining the offense just before the season, Brissett has been adequate. He's clearly not the worst quarterback in the league, a conversation that even players like Joe Flacco, DeShone Kizer, and other higher-profile QBs haven't escaped. Brissett had his best game yet, throwing for 233 yards and two touchdowns in Indy's near-win over the Bengals. He may not be great, but he's been a great value in return for Phillip Dorsett.
Briean Boddy-Calhoun, CB
He's been a do-it-all for Cleveland this season, as their defense has been their surprising strength against a sinkhole of an offense. Boddy-Calhoun plays corner, safety, and can blitz the QB. Per PFF, he had allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap in the NFL prior to Week 8, and then he exited with a hamstring injury against the Vikings. Just when you think the Browns could catch a break ...
Jalen Mills, CB
At this point it would be hard to ignore Mills, and not just because of his color rush hairdo. Mills has quickly overcome the long odds of being a seventh-round pick by earning a starting job in his second season, intercepting three passes, and returning one of those for a touchdown last Sunday.
Case Keenum, QB
Keenum will never be confused for a top-20 starter but he deserves more credit than he's getting for the Vikings being in first place in the North. He doesn't need to be great, and he's certainly not, but the Brett Hundley situation in Green Bay is another reason that Minnesota is running towards a home game in the playoffs -- it's a reminder that you can't undervalue a good backup. He has the same Y/A as Dak Prescott, a higher passer rating than Philip Rivers and Jameis Winston, and more game-winning drives than Deshaun Watson.
New Orleans Saints
Sheldon Rankins, DT
He has only eight tackles through seven games, playing in over 70 percent of the Saints snaps this season? Don't worry, Rankins is having a significant impact on New Orleans' defense, which is suddenly an average unit. He's freeing up his linebacker teammates, splitting double teams, and pressuring quarterbacks. Soon enough people will take notice of his value.
#Saints' Sheldon Rankins was top 5 in Pass Rush Productivity, generating 5 total pressures on 32 pass rushing snaps- John Hendrix (@JohnJHendrix) October 29, 2017
Paul Richardson, WR
At his current rate, the soon-to-be free agent will finish the season with 50 catches, 855 yards and 11 touchdowns. But he's actually heating up as the year goes on and "Preach" could easily top 1,000 yards along with one of the top yards per target marks in the NFL.
Pharoh Cooper, KR
Cooper has had basically zero impact on offense, which is not ideal, but as a kick returner he leads the NFL in yards and averages 30.9 per return. He's another special teams star for the Rams.
Pharoh Cooper || "Pick It Up" ᴴ ᴰ || Los Angeles Rams Highlights || pic.twitter.com/T0HNntMQDZ- Lp ® (@primetimelaguna) October 20, 2017
Daryl Williams, OT
Carolina is spending big bucks on Matt Kalil, Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner, but Williams has been their most valuable offensive lineman this season. The third-year right tackle, who was a fourth rounder, is making $754,000 this season.
De'Vondre Campbell, LB
The Falcons may have not made the Super Bowl without 2016 rookies Keanu Neal and Deion Jones on defense, but they aren't the only defensive players from that class making a huge impact on the franchise. Campbell, a fourth round pick out of Minnesota, is perhaps their best and most versatile linebacker on the team now.
Green Bay Packers
Jahri Evans, G
Here is a rare six-time Pro Bowler who is being underrated. Evans may be overlooked because his last such nod was in 2014 and he's switched teams three times in the last two years, but he's been a great stabilizing force for an offense that desperately needs that right now.
David Irving, DT
Who is Irving? He's the guy who has played in 10 quarters this season and has five sacks. As a defensive tackle. That's an even quicker pace than teammate Demarcus Lawrence, the NFL leader in sacks. That's quite the combo.
DLaw with pressure around the edge giving Rodgers nowhere to go to avoid David Irving's 2nd sack of the day. pic.twitter.com/S2EoYeX5hh- Cowboys Nation (@CowboysNation) October 8, 2017
Darius Slay, CB
Would you be surprised to learn that Slay is the 10th-highest paid corner in the NFL in average salary per year? Do you think he doesn't deserve it? Slay has been a solid player over his four-plus seasons in the league, but by shutting down Antonio Brown on Sunday night, he reminded people that he can also stand up against any team's number one receiver.
Preston Smith, LB
It's been two games since Smith's last sack -- the only two games this year in which he doesn't have a sack. Smith has already matched his sack total from 2016 (4.5), but this week he also had four QB pressures while going up against All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith.
Corey Peters, DT
If Arizona had more underrated players, perhaps they wouldn't be falling apart. Instead, the player who is most overlooked might be Peters, who has been quietly doing very solid work up the middle for the Cards over the last two seasons after spending his first five seasons being ignored in Atlanta.
Akiem Hicks, DE
Why did the Bears give Hicks a four-year, $48 million deal just before Week 1 if he had never produced more than seven sacks in a single season? They must have seen this breakout season coming. Hicks already has seven sacks through eight games and he remains among the league-leaders in pressures. He has five of those sacks in the last four games alone.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cameron Brate, TE
The Bucs drafted O.J. Howard, one of the best tight end prospects in NFL history, but he's got nothing on Brate yet. With 57 catches, 660 yards, and eight touchdowns last season, Brate is on pace this year for 71/926/9. The former undrafted free agent making less than $700,000 will be getting a significant raise in about six months. It probably won't come from Tampa, though.
New York Giants
Darian Thompson, FS
It's easy to get overshadowed playing in a secondary with Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but Thompson isn't a "name" anywhere outside of New York. Not yet at least. After missing all but two games as a rookie, Thompson has returned to be a reliable force at free safety, even being named as a defensive captain. His time is coming.
San Francisco 49ers
Ahkello Witherspoon, CB
It's basically impossible to go down the Niners roster and find a player with positive things to say about right now. Seriously try. That is, find someone besides Jimmy Garoppolo, who of course every Niners fan is going to be hopeful about right now. The 49ers are 0-8 for a reason, without a ton to brag about outside of DeForest Buckner, and everyone raves about him so he's certainly not underrated. Instead, I'll look at a guy who is at least having a good week, like Witherspoon. He intercepted Carson Wentz, the odds-on favorite to win MVP, so that's a thing. The rookie third rounder was also recently named a starter, so that's another thing to hang your hat on. That is, until it all blows up in another month like everything else for the 49ers. (Sorry, Jimmy.)