The Daily Briefing Tuesday, May 30, 2017
AROUND THE NFL
Like Tiger Woods, Cowboys CB NOLAN CARROLL gets busted for DUI in the early hours of Memorial Day. Todd Archer at ESPN.com:
Dallas Cowboys cornerback Nolan Carroll was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated early Monday morning in the Uptown section of Dallas.
A Dallas police officer pulled Carroll over after an unspecified traffic violation. Carroll posted bond Monday afternoon after he was booked into Dallas County Jail.
According to a team spokesman, the Cowboys are aware of the situation and gathering information.
Carroll, 30, could be subject to the NFL’s personal conduct policy in which a fine or suspension could be levied.
The Cowboys signed Carroll to a three-year, $10 million deal in free agency that included $4 million guaranteed. He played for the Philadelphia Eagles from 2014 to 2016, starting all 16 games for the first time in his career last season. He had one interception and 41 tackles.
With the departures of Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne in free agency, Carroll has been expected to compete for a starting job. During last week’s organized team activities, he worked out with the first team at right cornerback.
For the first time in his career, WR TERRELLE PRYOR is playing with an accomplished quarterback. So far so good. Max Meyer at NFL.com:
The early reviews on Terrelle Pryor in Washington D.C.: Overwhelmingly positive.
The electric wideout was arguably the biggest prize of the Redskins’ offseason. While he was signed to be one of Kirk Cousins’ top weapons, it’s Pryor’s past experience as a quarterback that has allowed him to quickly build rapport with his new signal caller.
“I like it because I’ve never had a conversation with a receiver like I’ve had with him where he said, ‘Yeah, it was two-invert, so I took it to the post. It was quarters on the backside,'” Cousins said, via WJFK-FM. “He really can see it and he’s going to hold me accountable, so you take the good with the bad. I love it.
“He’s an enthusiastic guy. He’s always wanting to run another route. ‘Let’s try it again, let’s do it again,’ just a positive attitude and he’s been a joy to work with thus far.”
Pryor exploded onto the scene in his first full season as a wideout, despite working with a carousel of quarterbacks this past campaign in Cleveland. The 6-foot-4 target racked up 1,007 yards and four scores through the air.
The promising early returns are an encouraging start, but Redskins coach Jay Gruden believes that Pryor still has a lot to learn in his journey to becoming a true No. 1 receiver.
“Terrelle is a different target and gives us some different options down the field, but we do have to get him squared away on some of the fundamental route concepts that we have,” Gruden said. “He’s only been playing receiver for a couple of years, so there’s some things we’ve got to get caught up, but he’s got a great skill set.
“He’s long, he can run, [has] a great catch radius and he’s been a pleasure to coach so far.”
If Pryor can take the next step as a pass-catcher in his prove-it year, there will be several suitors offering multi-year deals to him when the following offseason rolls around. He’ll certainly have the opportunity to make the leap with DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon leaving the nation’s capital for other pastures.
Things quiet down on the practice field when generational kicker ROBERTO AGUAYO and challenger NICK FOLK take their kicks. Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com:
Buccaneers practice went silent last week as second-year kicker Roberto Aguayo continued to struggle, suggesting that the players and coaches in Tampa realize they’re watching a young kicker show he’s not up to the pressure of the NFL. But Bucs coach Dirk Koetter says he welcomes the tension.
Koetter said veteran Nick Folk was brought in to compete with Aguayo, and the Bucs like seeing that competition in May.
“The competition has definitely started. I know everybody feels it,” Koetter said, via the Tampa Bay Times. “There’s a little tension when we’re going through that. That’s a good thing. That’s a good thing. This is pro football, there’s supposed to be competition.”
The Bucs surprised almost everyone when they chose Aguayo in the second round of last year’s draft, and when they signed Folk this offseason it was an acknowledgement that Aguayo didn’t get the job done as a rookie. From all indications Aguayo won’t have a job anymore in three months, and that’s a tense situation. As kicking in the NFL usually is.
An NFL.com panel ponders the question as to whether or not WR LARRY FITZGERALD will go down as one of the five greatest receivers of all time:
Looking beyond his final career receiving-yards total, when Fitzgerald hangs up his cleats, will he have done enough to establish himself as one of the top five receivers of all time?
Fitzgerald is great, but it’s hard to reach that tier
Larry Fitzgerald has been a really good receiver, able to play inside and outside well. But if you’re game-planning and ask your cornerbacks, “Who are the five guys you don’t want to cover?” No disrespect to Larry, but he wouldn’t be in that conversation with Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, T.O. and even Marvin Harrison. There are so many good receivers that making the top five is tough.
With better QB play, Fitzgerald could have been the G.O.A.T.
Larry Fitzgerald will be considered a top-five receiver. There was a three- or four-year span when Fitzgerald didn’t even have a second-tier quarterback to work with. Jerry Rice played with two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Joe Montana and Steve Young), while Terrell Owens and Randy Moss played with some great quarterbacks as well. If Fitz had guys like that his entire career, we might be talking about Fitz challenging Jerry Rice as the G.O.A.T. when it comes to wide receivers.
Fitz has done so much, but not quite enough to break into the top five
I would painfully say no. I love Larry. And if I were starting a team, I would build around him on offense, because he’s done everything in his career. But I can’t put him in the list with guys like Jerry Rice, T.O. and Randy Moss. There’s three guys right off the bat.
I need the WRs in my top five to have the scary factor, and Fitz just doesn’t
He’s one of the best players to ever play the game, but I’m not ready to call him a top-five all-timer. When I think about the likes of T.O., Randy Moss and some of those guys, I don’t believe Fitzgerald had the same impact on the game. In ranking the top five, I’m looking for guys who have the scary factor that you really worry about, from a game-planning standpoint. I think he’s just a notch below players like Jerry Rice, T.O., Moss, Cris Carter and Art Monk.
No … But I don’t want to take anything away from what Larry’s accomplished
I think Larry is a phenomenal player, but I don’t think he’s in my top five. When I think of the upper echelon in terms of wide receivers, I look at Jerry Rice, of course. Then it goes Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Marvin Harrison and Sterling Sharpe. The former Green Bay Packer’s career-ending neck injury shouldn’t hurt his chances here. Nobody could stop Sharpe.
The DB thinks that PK ADAM VINATIERI is going to end up in the Hall of Fame. But that won’t be for a while now. Michael David Smith at ProFootballTalk.com:
Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri is the oldest player in the NFL at age 44, but he doesn’t appear to be winding his career down.
Vinatieri isn’t even thinking about retiring yet, according to the Colts’ website.
“Yeah, you know I still love the game as much as I ever have,” Vinatieri said. “It’s fun running out onto the field. It’s much more fun playing in the playoffs. Cleaning out your locker the first week of January is not a whole lot of fun and it always leaves a lousy taste in your mouth. I still love running out onto the field. I still think I can help our team win games and why not keep going?”
Vinatieri turns 45 on December 28, meaning in the Colts’ Week 17 game he’s set to become the eighth player in NFL history to play at age 45. The oldest NFL player ever was George Blanda at 48, and the next-oldest was Morten Andersen at 47. It wouldn’t be a shock to see Vinatieri play until 2019 or 2020 and make it to 47 or 48. Maybe even longer.
Vinatieri was one of the better kickers in the league last year, hitting 27 of his 31 field goal attempts and making all 44 of his extra point tries. As long as he can keep playing at that level, there’s no reason he shouldn’t keep having fun.
NEW YORK JETS
CB MORRIS CLAIBORNE says you ain’t seen nothing yet. Mark Cannizzaro in the New York Post:
To date, Morris Claiborne might not have come close to touching the potential he had as the sixth-overall draft pick in 2012 by the Cowboys.
You, however, would have a difficult time finding an NFL player with more resolve than the talented but star-crossed cornerback.
Claiborne — whom the Jets signed to a one-year, $5 million contract in March — is nothing if not resilient.
He has not blinked in the face of adversity, which is one of the virtues of playing his position, one that requires a short memory and supreme confidence — as preposterous as that confidence may seem to outsiders.
That is why — despite the fact a laundry list of injuries has limited him to just 47 games in his five NFL seasons — you should not be surprised when you listen to Claiborne speak of how good he can be as a Jet as he embarks on a new chapter to his life.
“I feel like I can be the No. 1 corner in this league if I’m healthy … when I’m healthy,’’ Claiborne told The Post after his first OTA practice as a Jet earlier this week. “When I’m out there playing and I’m healthy and I’m on my game, I don’t feel like there is anybody better than me.’’
Though these words — taken at face value without any context of how they were delivered — sound cocky, the 27-year-old Claiborne does not come off that way at all. He simply comes off as a determined young man hell-bent on fulfilling the potential the Cowboys saw in him when they traded up eight spots in 2012 to snag him.
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Doug Farrar at Bleacher Report takes on QB CHRISTIAN HACKENBERG:
To put it kindly, the New York Jets have not enjoyed great luck with their second-round picks in recent years.
Ohio State receiver Devin Smith, taken in the second round of the 2015 draft, has played in just 14 games through his first two seasons, and was given a waived/injured designation in May after suffering a torn ACL in April that will cost him the entire 2017 season.
Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro, selected in the second round the year before, had a nice rookie season with 38 receptions for 345 yards and two touchdowns, but missed the entire 2015 season with a shoulder injury and didn’t make final cuts in 2016. He signed with the Tennessee Titans, for whom he caught three passes for 59 yards in three games.
In 2013, there was Geno Smith, the alleged quarterback of the future who never panned out and is now with the Giants. Stephen Hill came in 2012. The Georgia Tech speed receiver couldn’t get past injuries and off-field issues, and lasted two seasons.
Massachusetts power lineman Vlad Ducasse was in 2010 and never played more than 331 snaps in a season for the Jets from 2010 through 2013. He has filtered through five teams in the last four years—New York, Minnesota, Chicago, Baltimore and now Buffalo.
When a team consistently spends high picks on players who turn out to be journeymen at best and cautionary injury tales at worst, it affects the roster to an extreme degree. It’s one of the reasons general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles are currently steering a roster that may be the NFL’s weakest overall.
In 2017, the Jets are desperately hoping that quarterback Christian Hackenberg can buck this disastrous second-round trend. It might be a curse at this point. In any event, with a quarterback depth chart that has veteran Josh McCown up top as a Band-Aid until a younger prospect can take over, Hackenberg, selected in the second round of the 2016 draft, would help by showing the potential the Jets saw in him during his collegiate career.
To date, that hasn’t happened. Despite a Ryan Fitzpatrick/Bryce Petty/Geno Smith quarterback trio that combined for a 56.5 completion percentage, 6.6 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns and 25 interceptions last season, Hackenberg didn’t see a single snap—and this was after a preseason in which he completed just 17-of-46 passes for 160 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. His yards-per-attempt total (3.48) was just as bad as his quarterback rating (36.5).
One NFL scout who spoke off the record to ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini was aghast at how many off-target passes Hackenberg threw in warm-ups last season, and Maccagnan himself wasn’t exactly conclusive in January as to whether he had second thoughts about selecting a quarterback in the second round that the team never even put in a meaningless game.
“You make the best decision at the time,” Maccagnan said, per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “I’m not necessarily in the business of looking back. We’re focused on making sure Christian can develop into the player and fulfill the potential we think he has.”
Things don’t look much better now as the Jets start their 2017 OTAs, where Hackenberg appears to be the third quarterback in drills, though new offensive coordinator John Morton has said that McCown, Petty and Hackenberg will get equal reps throughout the process.
If Hackenberg is going to make a serious leap forward in his second NFL season, especially in a West Coast offense like Morton’s, he’s going to have to transcend several glaring faults that go back to his college days.
To start, Hackenberg is not consistently accurate on passes in which he must hit his target with timing and rhythm. After watching every snap he took in the 2016 preseason, it was clear that the Jets just wanted him to get his confidence together. There were a ton of easy, short passes, and of his 46 attempts, only six went longer than 20 yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus. Hackenberg completed two of those for 53 yards. Both came against the Giants in the third preseason game, and both were fairly easy open reads.
(If you go here you can go through a lot of preseason tape with Farrar, which we opted to edit out)
Needless to say, if Hackenberg is ever going to play in the NFL at a credible level, he’s going to have to adjust his reads and throws for elementary changes in defensive coverage.
Most of the hype surrounding Hackenberg came from his 2013 season when, as a true freshman, he threw for 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions under the tutelage of current Texans head coach Bill O’Brien. Hackenberg set a school record with 2,955 passing yards—a record he broke the next season with 2,977—but when O’Brien returned to the NFL before the 2014 season, Hackenberg’s regression was obvious. He threw 12 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 2014, and though his 2015 season was a bit of a turnaround with 16 touchdowns and six picks, there is plenty of college tape which shows conclusively that he was not ready for prime time.
That the Jets selected him in the second round doesn’t make it any less true. It just puts more pressure on the franchise to try and validate what looks like another unfortunate second-round pick. Maybe if Hackenberg and O’Brien had reunited in Houston with a later pick, things would be different. Maybe that will happen in time.
This is not intended to crucify the player; more to detail and indicate just how far Hackenberg is right now from having the attributes required to be a successful starting quarterback in the NFL. Perhaps if he had been selected in the fifth or sixth round, which would have been commensurate with his talent, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. He’d be rightly tagged as a developmental quarterback and brought along as such. That appears to be how the Jets are handling this, but after watching the tape, the question looms larger.
Just how much is there to develop?
THIS AND THAT
Mike Tanier of Bleacher Report has a long look at those who he considers to be the 25 most underrated players in NFL history. We have substantially edited his long look at each player which you can read here.
It takes more than mere greatness to be considered one of the most underrated players in pro football history.
It takes bad timing and bad luck. It takes years of playing the wrong position for the wrong team in the wrong league at the wrong time. To make our list, a player must contribute to a winning effort while putting up bad stats, misunderstood stats or no stats. He must either play for teams so good that they overshadow his accomplishments, or teams so bad that he had to do it all by himself.
“Underrated” is in the eye of the beholder, so let’s establish some ground rules for these rankings:
No Hall of Famers or recent Hall of Fame finalists. It’s hard to be underrated when you’ve been immortalized. Active players who are Hall of Fame shoo-ins are also excluded. Even Joe Thomas.
No Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, running backs or wide receivers. Even the least heralded of them get plenty of recognition.
No 1960s Packers, 1970s Steelers, 1980s 49ers, 1990s Cowboys or 2000s Patriots. Sorry, Jerry Kramer! Being part of an era-defining dynasty brings with it a base-level acclaim that the players on this list cannot match.
After that, players are ranked based how underappreciated they are, not how great they are. You will find some familiar Hall of Fame snubs on this list (like Jim Marshall, pictured above), but also plenty of players who were even snubbed from the Hall of Fame snubs, plus some current players who aren’t getting their due.
And you’re never going to guess who’s No. 1.
25. Steven Jackson, RB, Rams
It’s hard for a running back to be underrated. Even unspectacular ones manage to rack up a few 1,000-yard seasons and get drafted early in fantasy leagues. Running backs suffer none of the “didn’t win the big game” biases that color our perception of quarterbacks. Even pesky third-down backs and gritty fullbacks may seem underrated until you realize how many of them become local heroes. C’mon, who doesn’t love Darren Sproles and Mike Tolbert?
So it takes a remarkable streak of hard luck for a running back to make this list.
24. Louis Wright, CB, Broncos
Let’s face it: An entire All-Underrated Team can be assembled using only Broncos defenders.
Randy Gradishar. Karl Mecklenburg. Steve Atwater. Tom Jackson. The Hall of Fame has turned up its nose on all of them. Super Bowl victories? Defensive Player of the Year awards? Anchoring defenses with catchy names like the “Orange Crush?” It doesn’t matter: If you are a Broncos defender, you might as well forget about a bust in Canton.
But here’s the thing: Gradishar, Mecklenberg and Atwater are famous for being snubbed. That’s its own kind of recognition. And Jackson spent a generation as a pre- and postgame show staple, which puts him in a whole different category.
Poor Louis Wright has a hard time even making the Broncos’ overcrowded All-Snub Team. Now that’s underrated.
23. Lomas Brown, OT, Lions
Lomas Brown played left tackle for four Lions playoff teams. He started for an offensive line that helped Barry Sanders win two of his four rushing titles. He played in the run-‘n’-shoot offense, which means he was on an island against the NFL’s best pass-rushers on every snap for a half-decade—no tight end flanking him, no blocking back behind him.
Brown earned seven Pro Bowl berths and an All-Pro selection. But the run-‘n’-shoot took away more than it provided, and the early 1990s Lions kept getting obliterated by better defenses in the playoffs. A new generation of superstar left tackles entered the league as Brown was peaking, and he spent the latter half of his career bouncing from team to team as Tony Boselli, Willie Roaf, Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones turned the blindside protector into an almost glamorous position.
22. NaVorro Bowman, LB, 49ers
NaVorro Bowman trade rumors surfaced in early spring, only to be quickly squelched by new 49ers general manager John Lynch.
The rumors themselves were not surprising. The 49ers drafted linebacker Reuben Foster at the bottom of the first round. Bowman is coming off an Achilles tear in 2016. The 49ers are installing a new system and reshaping their roster. Why retain an expensive vestige of the last regime, or really the last three regimes?
Because he is one of the NFL’s best defensive players, for one thing.
21. Eric Allen, CB, Eagles, Saints, Raiders
Eric Allen’s job in Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense was simple. He had to blanket a wide receiver in man coverage with no safety help on every play.
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Allen has much in common with many others on this underrated list. His stardom was spread among three teams, robbing him of local hero status (or Hall of Fame momentum) in any one city.
20. John Hadl, QB, Chargers
If John Hadl is remembered for anything these days, it’s for one of the most disastrous trades in NFL history.
The Packers believed they were a veteran quarterback away from a playoff run in 1974, so head coach/GM Dan Devine acquired the 34-year-old Rams quarterback by surrendering a ransom of draft picks huge enough to cause even Ryan Pace to do a spit take: two first-rounders, two second-rounders and a third-rounder. Old-timers call it the Lawrence Welk trade after a television bandleader of the era who would begin songs by counting off “A one, and a two, and a three…”
The trade went how you might expect a lopsided midseason deal for an aging quarterback to go. But Hadl had to do something to make the Packers think he was worth two armfuls of draft picks. That “something” was throwing for more than 29,000 yards and going to four AFL All-Star Games and a Pro Bowl with the Chargers and then leading the Rams to a 12-2 record in 1973.
19. Neal Anderson, RB, Bears
The easiest way to be overlooked by history is to replace a legend just after a franchise has peaked.
Neal Anderson replaced Walter Payton. He took over as the Bears’ featured offensive weapon after the Super Bowl Shuffle years. Anderson was not Payton, and the later-era Mike Ditka Bears could never approach the heights reached by the 1985 Bears. So Anderson cranked out a few 1,000-yard seasons and played in some Pro Bowls, and that was that.
But Anderson was an extraordinary talent. He had the speed to get to the edge and beat defenders down the sideline, the power to plow through tackles, the elusiveness to make things happen in the open field and receiving chops to rival contemporaries Roger Craig or Thurman Thomas.
18. Jahri Evans, OG, Saints
In Jahri Evans’ four All-Pro seasons (2009-12), the Saints ranked first, sixth, first and second in the NFL in total yards. They would rank first in the NFL in yardage four other times while Evans was a starter. Drew Brees endured an average of just 24 sacks per season in Evans’ All-Pro seasons, despite typically dropping back to pass over 650 times per year.
Much of the Saints’ offensive success in Evans’ prime years is rightfully credited to Brees. But the diminutive Brees would not have been able to lead the Saints to a Super Bowl and several seasons as top contenders without a clean pocket, particularly right in front of him. Evans, the best pass-protecting guard of his era, was charged with making sure pass-rushers didn’t get close enough to Brees to bat his passes down, let alone sack him.
Evans is still playing at a high level; the Packers hope that he can do for Aaron Rodgers what he did for Brees. Guards don’t make the Hall of Fame unless they win multiple Super Bowls or play forever. Evans is a long shot to do either, which is a shame. For a few years, he was not only the best guard in the NFL, but the most important.
17. Johnny Robinson, S, Chiefs
Johnny Robinson’s credentials make you want to drive to Canton, kick down the Hall of Fame’s door and clear a spot for his bust yourself.
Six All-Pro selections. Two 10-interception seasons, with 57 career interceptions. A Super Bowl ring and two AFL championships. Membership on various All-1960s teams.
To understand why he is not in the Hall of Fame, you must familiarize yourself with both the era he played in and the vagaries of Hall voting.
The AFL was an eight- to 10-team league, so All-Pro selections were easier to come by. The best teams in the AFL proved to be NFL-caliber, but the bottom of the league was populated with a nearly bankrupt franchise or two, so the best players clumped on the best teams and stood out from the crowd.
Robinson was one of those players. But so were teammates like Len Dawson, Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell, Curley Culp and Jan Stenerud, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
That’s where the politics of Hall voting come in. Once an arbitrary number of players from a historic team get enshrined, the committee moves on in search of underappreciated players from other franchises.
16. Derrick Mason, WR, Titans, Ravens
Derrick Mason recorded four 1,000-yard seasons for Jeff Fisher teams and four more for the Baltimore Ravens. ‘Nuff said, right?
No modern coach suppressed passing offenses quite like Fisher, and no team produces offensive stats that look like they come from the early 1930s quite like the Ravens. Mason’s 95-catch, 1,200-yard seasons translate to 115-catch monsters in more pass-oriented schemes. Put him on the Tom Brady-led Patriots, and Mason might have invented a new branch of mathematics.
15. Steve Wisniewski, OG, Raiders
Steve Wisniewski played guard on a Raiders team that moved in the middle of his career and was just good enough to remind you it was not in the same class as the great Raiders teams that preceded it.
We could just trudge onward to the next player right now. The least glamorous position on the field, a so-so team, a franchise move—Wisniewski pulled three lemons on the recognition slot machine.
Wisniewski reached eight Pro Bowls and was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame All-Decade team for the 1990s, so he’s not exactly obscure. But his Hall of Fame candidacy has been stuck in semifinalist limbo.
14. Kent Hull, C, Bills
Modern centers don’t get the credit they deserve.
Jeff Saturday had to translate Peyton Manning’s spur-of-the-moment audibles into protection schemes a split second before the snap. He’s rarely mentioned as an all-time great. Tom Nalen protected John Elway in a pair of Super Bowl victories and helped trigger a zone-blocking revolution as part of Alex Gibbs’ influential offensive lines. But a double whammy—playing center and playing for the Broncos—has kept him miles from Hall of Fame consideration.
And then there is Kent Hull, the first center to achieve greatness in a no-huddle offense.
13. Philip Rivers, QB, Chargers
If Marlon McCree hadn’t fumbled that interception in the playoffs after the 2006 season, everything might have been different.
If McCree doesn’t cough up that fourth-quarter pick, the Chargers beat the Patriots, and perhaps Philip Rivers leads a team that went 14-2 in the regular season to the Super Bowl. Maybe that victory gives them the psychological edge they need to beat the undefeated Patriots in their 2008 playoff rematch. Maybe Rivers takes his place among the all-time greats. Maybe there is still an NFL team in San Diego.
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Rivers’ excellence, longevity and ability to barely dodge immortality make him the John Hadl of his era. The difference between the great and the all-time great is often a matter of timing and luck. Rivers had neither, but he possessed just about everything else.
12. Jimmy Smith, WR, Jaguars
Twenty years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars were one of the marquee organizations in professional sports, and Jimmy Smith was one of their brightest stars.
Time has been hard on both of them. When the team inducted Smith into the Pride of the Jaguars ring of honor last year, it was the strange case of a moribund franchise honoring a former receiver still on parole for succumbing to the demons of addiction.
But things were different in the long-ago 1990s, when the sports universe belonged to teal-emblazoned expansion franchises and a youngish Tom Coughlin received a binder full of press clippings from the mother of a wide receiver ready to call it quits after injuries derailed his Cowboys career. Coughlin gave Smith a tryout, then kickoff return duties, and then teamed him with Mark Brunell and Keenan McCardell to create one of the most dangerous passing attacks of the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Smith produced nine 1,000-yard seasons in 10 years, including two 100-plus-catch seasons in an era when they were still relatively uncommon. He enjoyed one of the greatest receiving games in NFL history: 15 catches, 291 yards and three touchdowns against the historic 2000 Ravens defense. The Jaguars upset John Elway’s Broncos and reached the AFC Championship Game as a second-year expansion team and then went on to three more playoff berths, culminating in a 14-2 season.
Addiction soon began consuming Smith’s career, and then his life. He was arrested four times after his abrupt retirement. The Jaguars, meanwhile, slowly descended to their current status as the NFL’s punching bag. For years, the team couldn’t even harken back to its glory days properly, as Smith’s Pride of the Jaguars induction was delayed until he was sober and no longer under house arrest.
Jacksonville’s all-time leading receiver is now beginning what he calls the “second chapter in his life.” Perhaps it’s time we look back on how much of an impact he and his Jaguars had on the NFL two decades ago.
11. Sam Mills, LB, Saints, Panthers (and Stars)
A Hall of Fame voter once warned me that “every town has its linebacker.”
That voter meant every fanbase has a beloved old defender, renowned for his toughness and leadership, that they swear belongs in the Hall of Fame. An all-underrated team like this one can get flooded with Zach Thomas, Hardy Nickerson, Tommy Nobis and Tedy Bruschi types if we don’t get a little choosy.
Sam Mills rises above the rest of the gritty linebacker pack, at least when it comes to being underrated, because three of his greatest seasons have been erased from history. Mills and Reggie White were the USFL’s two greatest defenders ever.
10. Ron McDole, DE, Bills, Redskins
There’s underrated, underappreciated and overlooked. And then there is plain old forgotten.
Ron McDole falls into that final category.
McDole was a starting defensive end for two of history’s legendary defenses: the AFL champion Buffalo Bills of 1964 and ’65 and Washington’s “Over-the-Hill Gang” of the early 1970s. McDole’s Bills defenses held opponents to fewer than 3.1 yards per carry across three consecutive seasons. The Over-the-Hill Gang fielded one of the most ferocious pass rushes of its era, notching 53 sacks in 1973.
McDole, nicknamed “The Dancing Bear” because of his boogie on the dance floor rather than his on-field footwork, was known as more of a run defender than a pass-rusher.
9. Mike Kenn, OT, Falcons
Mike Kenn began his career playing left tackle for a lumbering 1970s power-running offense. He rose to Pro Bowl status playing left tackle for a single-back, Joe Gibbs-style 1980s offense. He became an All-Pro playing blindside protector in an early 1990s run-‘n’-shoot offense.
So Kenn basically had three careers. Actually, make that four careers.
Kenn was one of the leaders of the NFL Players Association during the era of replacement players and court battles over free agency. Without Kenn, there might not be free agency in the NFL, to say nothing of limitations on practice conditions and other initiatives that make pro football less dangerous than it was decades ago.
Those accomplishments may soon finally land Kenn in the Hall of Fame. A longtime semifinalist, his case is about to be handed over to the Veterans Committee, which has done a fine job recently of correcting oversights from Kenn’s era.
8. Bryant Young, DT, 49ers
Quick: Name the 49ers’ all-time sack leader.
Nope, not Charles Haley. Not Fred Dean. Not one of the Jim Harbaugh-era guys.
It’s Bryant Young, who recorded 89.5 sacks for the 49ers, 23 more than Haley. No one else is even close.
7. London Fletcher, LB, Rams, Bills, Redskins
When London Fletcher retired after the 2014 season, Robert Klemko of The MMQB asked him if he was motivated by feeling underappreciated for most of his career.
“It pissed me off,” Fletcher replied. “Even now I still get pissed off. I still don’t know that people gave me my due respect for my production. It was a motivating factor for a number of years in my career. That feeling never really went away.”
Success came early for Fletcher, recognition late. He started for the Rams in their Super Bowl seasons at the beginning of his career and then earned Pro Bowl berths for Washington from 2009 through 2012 when he was in his mid-30s. But no one remembers the Greatest Show on Turf for its defense, and Fletcher spent the prime of his career playing for mediocre Bills teams.
6. Henry Ellard, WR, Rams, Redskins
Henry Ellard spent the first five seasons of his NFL career returning punts and putting up humdrum receiving stats. In his most prolific early season, he caught 54 passes for 811 yards and five touchdowns.
It’s not that Ellard, an Olympic-caliber triple-jumper with 4.4 speed, didn’t know what he was doing. But his Rams had a running back named Eric Dickerson and quarterbacks named Dieter Brock and Jeff Kemp. Passing wasn’t really their thing.
The Rams eventually acquired Jim Everett and opened up their offense, transforming Ellard into one of the NFL’s most dangerous deep threats.
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The Hall of Fame eluded Ellard for several reasons: comparisons to Rice, the Rams’ move to St. Louis (it takes hometown writers and buzz to mount a campaign) and those five early seasons in a ground-and-pound offense. Ellard was an Antonio Brown-level talent in his prime, but his teams were in no hurry to get him the ball.
5. Isiah Robertson, LB, Rams, Bills
If Isiah Robertson is famous at all, it’s for being “posterized” by Earl Campbell in one of the most famous NFL Films highlights of all time.
Roberston is the guy getting head-butted in the sternum and knocked backward by Campbell before the running back’s jersey gets torn off. One of the greatest defenders of his era reduced to stuntman status in Campbell’s action movie—all it takes is a moment to make a player underrated forever.
Robertson was one of the NFL’s fastest linebackers in the 1970s. He was a Pro Bowl regular, two-time All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1971. He intercepted 25 career regular-season passes and two more in the postseason. He ran a Sonny Jurgensen pass back 59 yards in the fourth quarter to seal a Rams playoff win over the Redskins in 1974. But no highlight clip of that play can be found on the internet.
Robertson’s Rams made a habit of reaching the playoffs every year and losing to the Vikings or Cowboys. When the Rams finally earned a Super Bowl berth, Robertson was in Buffalo, playing for another playoff also-ran.
4. Ken Anderson, QB, Bengals
Kenny Anderson may be the most “so underrated that he’s overrated” player in NFL history—a darling of the stat-head community and common first-guy-mentioned when Hall of Fame snubs come up.
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Anderson is no Hall of Famer—the middle of his career is a morass of ordinary-at-best seasons—but he was a pioneer and an innovator. If Anderson had failed, the 49ers may never have lured Walsh away from the Bengals staff. Who knows what the NFL might have looked like then?
As for being so underrated he’s overrated, well…that’s extremely underrated, which justifies Anderson’s ranking here.
3. LeRoy Butler, S, Packers
There’s a statue outside of Lambeau Field commemorating the Lambeau Leap, perhaps the most recognizable and beloved (except to Packers opponents) end-zone celebration in the NFL.
The statue portrays jubilant Packers fans in tundra-weather gear appearing to cradle a player who just pounced into the stands. But there is no player; fans themselves get to “leap” into the statue for photo ops.
So LeRoy Butler, innovator of the Lambeau Leap, is excluded from his own statue.
That, dear readers, is underrated.
2. Jim Marshall, DE, Vikings
There are no official sack statistics before 1982, but the Minnesota Vikings credit Jim Marshall with 127 career sacks.
That’s a higher sack total than Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis. It would rank 16th all-time, except that if we allow Marshall’s sacks into the record, we would have to make room for Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene and others.
Yes, Marshall amassed that sack total by playing forever—he started 270 games (plus 19 playoff starts) from 1961 through 1979. He was an iron man for a powerhouse franchise that reached four Super Bowls while playing many of their home games in arctic conditions. That’s not something to hold against a player.
Marshall reached just two Pro Bowls. Teammates Alan Page and Carl Ellar were held in higher regard. It was the era of great defensive lines with catchy names—the Rams had the Fearsome Foursome, the Cowboys the Doomsday Defense, the Steelers later added the Steel Curtain, and so forth—and Marshall was the Ringo Starr of the Purple People Eaters, the guy who once ran the wrong way for a touchdown and was happy just to be in the band.
But c’mon: 289 regular-season and postseason starts, 127 sacks and four Super Bowl appearances, yet the Hall of Fame turns up its nose at Marshall as just a pretty good defender with a long career?
The career active leader in games started by a defensive lineman is Julius Peppers with 227. Peppers will have to play three more seasons to catch Marshall, and Peppers’ starts are non-consecutive. Oh, and sub-packages were pretty rare in the 1960s and 1970s, so Marshall didn’t leave the field much. Also, the field was often a block of ice.
There will never be another player like Marshall. Maybe he wasn’t the best defender on the field for any one play, but he stayed on that field for an entire generation.
1. Frank Ryan, QB, Browns
Frank Ryan led the NFL in passing touchdowns twice. He led his team to an NFL championship. He once threw three touchdowns in a shutout victory in a title game. He won 65 percent of his NFL starts.
Unless you live in Cleveland or are over 50, you probably have never heard of him.
Ryan was Jim Brown’s quarterback and then Leroy Kelly’s quarterback. Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield was on the receiving end of many of Ryan’s touchdowns. But don’t write him off as some 1960s product of the system. Ryan threw five touchdown passes and ran for a sixth to beat the Giants and lead the Browns to the NFL championship in 1964. He then led three fourth-quarter comebacks to bring them back to the playoffs in 1965. With Warfield hurt nearly all of that season, Ryan helped make a Pro Bowler out of receiver/punter Gary Collins.
Ryan made three Pro Bowls, but All-Pro status was blocked by a couple of guys named Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. His career was cut short by injuries suffered in the first of those three Pro Bowls. The Colts accused Ryan of running up the score in the 27-0 championship rout of 1964. A Colts defender delivered some payback in the all-star game. Ryan needed surgery and was in constant pain for the rest of his career. Yet he still led his team to the playoffs three more times.
The Pro Football Reference Similar Players tool compares Ryan’s five-year peak to that of Joe Theismann. That makes sense: Both started their careers late, played with workhorse running backs, won a championship and had their careers curtailed by vicious hits.
But everyone remembers Joe Theismann.
There have been many better quarterbacks than Ryan in NFL history. But none accomplished more than Ryan while receiving less acclaim. By being overshadowed by Brown, achieving his greatest success just before the dawn of the Super Bowl era and getting stuck behind the Tom Brady and Peyton Manning of your grandfather’s generation, Ryan earned the title of the NFL’s All-Time Most Underrated Player.
Let’s hope the fame doesn’t go to his head.