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Not everyone can receive the recognition that Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson do.
Both of the quarterbacks have been at the forefront of discussion about the NFL’s MVP this season, and their contributions have been lauded on a weekly basis. For many of the league’s other standouts, however, widespread praise can be more difficult to come by. Whether it’s a function of their production outpacing their reputation or being overshadowed by their peers, several of the NFL’s most accomplished players this season haven’t had their time in the spotlight.
With that in mind, we asked reporters and editors from USA TODAY Sports and around the USA TODAY Network: Putting aside star players like Wilson and Jackson, who is the most overlooked top-performing player in the NFL this season?
While I could make a case for Richard Sherman and/or Nick Bosa, and considered doing so, I have to go with Teddy Bridgewater.
When Drew Brees injured his thumb in Week 2, it was not an overreaction to write New Orleans off. Yes, Bridgewater was a former first-round pick who made the Pro Bowl in his second season. But the knee injury he suffered before his third season was devastating, and it was bound to have a detrimental impact on his skills. The question was how much, and Bridgewater hadn’t played enough in the last few years for the Saints to have total confidence that he could carry the load for an extended stretch.
But he could. And he did.
New Orleans’ defense is phenomenal, and it no doubt made Bridgewater’s job easier. Same for Sean Payton’s game plans. But Bridgewater still had to make plays, and he did. He completed almost 68 percent of his passes and threw for nine touchdowns while throwing just two interceptions, compiling a 98.9 rating in Brees’ absence.
The most impressive stat, though, was 5-1. That was New Orleans’ record while Brees was out, and that loss came in the game where the future Hall of Famer got hurt. Instead of coming back to a team in disarray or one that’s just trying to stay afloat, Brees returned to a team that is oozing confidence and has to be considered the favorite for the NFC title. The Saints have Bridgewater to thank for that.
Did somebody mention Russell Wilson? Well, the Seahawks’ MVP-mode QB is a factor in this equation, too, as his brilliance overshadows the consistent punch that running back Chris Carson brings. Seattle has a top-10 rushing attack largely because of Carson, who ranks fifth in the NFL with 764 yards – and is among the best runners in the NFL for breaking tackles and piling up yards after contact, to a degree reminiscent of the “Beast Mode” component that Marshawn Lynch once delivered for the ‘Hawks. With four 100-yard games, Carson has taken some of the pressure off Wilson and the much-maligned O-line to provide a measure of balance for the offense. Sure, the Seahawks’ pattern has been to get into shootouts that go down to the wire and without the dominant defense once enjoyed in the Pacific Northwest, allow Wilson (4 fourth-quarter comeback W’s this season) to typically pull out some magic at the end. That’s a big reason why Carson is overlooked, which is par for the course for running backs supplemented by star quarterbacks.
The same can be said for Green Bay’s Aaron Jones, playing in the shadow of Aaron Rodgers. But every championship-contending team needs the ability to run the ball when it needs to or wants to – to move the chains, or control tempo and pace, or close out games that don’t require a furious finish. That’s what Carson offers. Yet there’s also a need for improvement in an area where he’s drawn attention for a not-so-good reason: 5 fumbles (4 lost) in 9 games. All in all, the Seahawks have scored another hit with a late-round draft pick, getting way more bang from a seventh-rounder (249th overall in 2017) than you’d expect. Guess he was overlooked coming into the NFL too.
Is anyone talking about Leonard Fournette? ICYMI, he’s the AFC’s No. 1 rusher right now with 831 yards. He’s had at least 72 yards from scrimmage in every game – largely because a guy some scouts didn’t think could catch the ball has already established a new career best with 40 receptions. In my estimation, Fournette has kinda been backburnered on the national stage following a disappointing sophomore season and then getting outshined by Minshew Mania this year. But make no mistake, Jacksonville’s rookie passer was successful in Nick Foles’ absence because Fournette was really the guy driving this bus – almost exclusively on crowded roads with seven, eight, nine defenders in the box. He deserves a lot more credit than he’s gotten to date.
No question, Buccaneers outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett is having a career year. He’s already tied his best season mark for forced fumbles, and is half a sack away from doubling his best season on that front as well … with eight games to play. In his first year in Tampa, Barrett leads the league with 10 1/2 sacks. No one has forced more fumbles than his four (some have tied). There has been no transition lull in Barrett’s move from Denver, where he spent the last five years, to Tampa. Instead, he’s hit a groove in helping the Bucs to wins over talented teams like the Panthers and Rams. Barrett’s imposing force won’t salvage an offense ranking among the league-worst in sacks, fumbles and interceptions. But when this one-year, $4 million deal in Tampa ends, Barrett should cash in.
I’m going to go with Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb. He’s overlooked because the rest of his team is such a disappointing mess, but Chubb is quietly having a very good season and the Browns would be in even worse shape if it weren’t for him. The second-year pro is averaging 100.4 yards per game (second most behind Christian McCaffrey) and 5.2 yards per carry (fourth-most among running backs). What makes Chubb’s production even more impressive is the fact that he’s doing this despite running behind a line that has a lot of underperforming pieces.
Before I give my answer, two players who warrant mention in this space: Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, who will become the youngest player (currently 25) to reach 50 sacks so long as he gets his next 1 1/2 at some point this year, and Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones, who has been among the league’s elite tier or pass rushers in recent years yet been perpetually underrated since he was discarded by the New England Patriots. But it’s time to give Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett the national recognition he deserves.
When Russell Wilson established a perfect 158.3 passer rating on the 70 throws he made to Lockett last season, the stat was treated mostly as an intriguing factoid rather than reflective of the receiver’s ability. But with Lockett taking over as the unquestioned primary target after Doug Baldwin’s retirement this offseason, the fifth-year veteran is delivering incredible efficiency in a featured role. He’s ranked fourth in both receiving yards (767) and catches (59), and Wilson has a league-best 158 passer rating when targeting him.
Operating primarily out of the slot at 5-10 and 182 pounds, Lockett isn’t reminiscent of the prototype for a No. 1 receiver established by the likes of Julio Jones and Mike Evans. Yet on a team that includes physical one-percenters in DK Metcalf and newcomer Josh Gordon, it’s Lockett and his on-field mind meld with Wilson that remain the key to those crazy completions and the offense establishing itself as one of the league’s best units.
I’m going to go with Matthew Stafford. Considering all the questions he faced entering the season about his health and about his future with the team, he is playing at an extremely high level. He ranks fourth in the NFL in passing yardage (2,499), has an impeccable 19:5 TD-to-interception ratio and his QB rating of 106 ranks him fifth in the league and would be a career best, by a wide margin. Yet, Stafford isn’t getting any love whatsoever in the MVP conversation. A big reason, likely, is because the Lions are just 3-4-1 and aren’t as relevant as the teams of players who are getting mentioned – the Seahawks, Ravens, Texans, Packers, etc. One more reason why I find Stafford’s year to be exceptional is because Detroit’s rushing game has been so inconsistent. The Lions rank 21st in rushing yards, with just 96 per game. Stafford has elevated the players around him; just look at the numbers Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay have put up.
Without getting super philosophical here about what constitutes an “overlooked” player, I’m going to go with New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas. Yes, I know he’s the best wideout in the league. And yes, he’s been elite for several years now. But I still don’t think he’s gotten enough credit for what he’s done so far this season, amassing 73 catches, 875 yards and four touchdowns despite the extended absence of quarterback Drew Brees.
Thomas, 26, is currently on pace to finish with 146 catches (which would be an NFL single-season record) and 1,750 receiving yards (which would rank sixth all-time). But even if his production dips a bit in the second half, he will still likely put together one of the best statistical seasons by a wide receiver in the history of the league; Only three wideouts, for example, have ever recorded 120 receptions and 1,500 receiving yards in the same season.
Jim Ayello, Indianapolis Star
Matthew Stafford. In his 11th season, Stafford is quietly enjoying his finest year as a pro. Despite a Week 5 bye, he’s second in the league in touchdowns passes (19) and fourth in yards (2,499). The only quarterbacks ranked ahead of him have yet to hit their bye weeks.
He’s also been hyper efficient throwing just five interceptions, resulting in a passer rating (106.0) that tops MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers (104.3).
Bob McManaman, Arizona Republic
He leads the league in rushing, is second in rushing touchdowns and is tied for second in most rushing first downs. So why aren’t we hearing enough about Dalvin Cook? The Vikings are 6-3 and have a very viable chance to make the playoffs, thanks to Cook. He’s on pace to finish with nearly 1,600 yards and 16 touchdowns. Those are All-Pro numbers and really, it should be impossible to overlook this top-performing player.
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