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NFL's most underappreciated players: Browns' Martin Emerson Jr., Jaguars' Andre Cisco among AFC picks

As we head into the summer, it's a time for optimism across the NFL landscape -- not just in terms of team outlooks, but also more granularly at the individual level. That said, player puffery is NOT an evenly distributed currency. Certain guys just don't get the love they deserve.

Well, Tom Blair and Gennaro Filice are here to change that, spotlighting one underappreciated player on each of the 32 rosters. Check out Gennaro's selections for every AFC team below.

The selection for Baltimore came down to a difficult decision between Patricks. “Project Pat” Ricard was an enticing option, especially considering the fullback will now be blowing open holes for Derrick Freakin' Henry. But despite the general lack of appreciation for his position, Ricard has received his share of individual shine in the form of four straight Pro Bowl selections from 2019 through 2022, as well as a second-team All-Pro nod this past season. So, Patrick Mekari, come on down! Esteemed colleague Kevin Patra recently spotlighted the biggest remaining question mark in Baltimore: the offensive line. Multiple spots appear iffy, thanks to injuries and inexperience. Fortunately, the Ravens employ one of the best swing linemen in football today. In five NFL seasons, Mekari has ably logged snaps at all five OL positions. This is a utility man with immense value, especially on this particular roster.

In the 2022 NFL Draft, Buffalo spent its first-round pick on pedigreed Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam. Two days, five rounds and 162 picks later, the Bills went back to the corner well, this time selecting a far less heralded prospect out of FCS program Villanova. Shockingly, Benford promptly proceeded to beat out Elam for a starting CB spot in Year 1, though injuries abbreviated his rookie campaign. In Year 2, Benford fully broke out, starting 14 games and posting a top-10 PFF grade among qualified cornerbacks. With offseason attrition across Buffalo’s secondary, the Bills will rely on this former Day 3 steal to play a critical role in Sean McDermott’s defense.

Of the 16 AFC players listed in this file, Brown is definitely the biggest projection. The 2023 fifth-round pick played a total of eight offensive snaps in the first three months of his rookie season, initially buried on the depth chart behind bell-cow back Joe Mixon and then sidelined on injured reserve with a hamstring issue. But over the final six weeks of last season, Brown showcased his ability as a rusher/receiver, piling up 173 yards on the ground and 149 through the air, including a 54-yard catch-and-run touchdown. He displayed nice burst and tackle-breaking ability, bringing some needed juice to the Bengals’ backfield. In March, Cincinnati traded Mixon to Houston and signed veteran back Zack Moss. While Moss could start the 2024 campaign as Cincy’s early-down/goal-line hammer, I expect Brown to continue making his mark as a versatile playmaker -- and don’t be surprised if he increasingly takes over the timeshare.

On a recent episode of The Xs and Os podcast, NFL Films' Greg Cosell and USA Today Sports' Doug Farrar explored an increase in press coverage across the league. The defensive trend, which combats the quick passes that spring from RPO concepts, further underscores the talents of universally lauded cornerbacks like Sauce Gardner, Pat Surtain II and L’Jarius Sneed. But it also puts a deserved spotlight on Emerson, a key cog in Cleveland’s top-ranked total defense this past season. A third-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2022, Emerson has emerged as a press-man savant, thanks in large part to his pterodactyl wingspan. Standing a smidge under 6-foot-2, Emerson’s tall for a corner, but it’s his extraordinary arm length (33 1/2 inches) that really allows him to stymie receivers at the line of scrimmage and clog passing lanes down the field.

Three years ago, Meinerz burst onto the football scene with an unconventional star turn at the Senior Bowl. The barrel-chested big man out of Wisconsin-Whitewater initially turned heads with his crop-top jersey, but it was his mauling dominance in Mobile that ultimately made him just the fifth Division III player ever to be drafted in the top 100. Now he’s one of the best young guards in football, with a nasty playing style that makes offensive line coaches swoon. Oh, and he’s heading into a contract season at a position that’s suddenly commanding NINE figures in free agency. Yep, life is good for the 25-year-old RG, whether he’s throwing defenders or throwing corn.

Well, Autry certainly isn’t underappreciated by the AFC South. The former undrafted free-agent signee of the Raiders really came into his own during a three-year stint with the Colts. Then he spent the past three seasons racking up 28.5 sacks with the Titans. And in March, he signed with the Texans, giving Houston a powerful, versatile defensive lineman to complement edge terrors Will Anderson Jr. and fellow free-agent addition Danielle Hunter. Titans star Jeffery Simmons was NOT happy about Autry’s intra-divisional relocation, while Texans OL Tytus Howard appeared quite pleased about not having to block him anymore.

Ebukam started 61 games in his first six NFL seasons with the Rams and 49ers, but he didn’t fully blossom into a true edge menace until his arrival in Indianapolis and implementation into Gus Bradley's defense. Seen as a replacement for Yannick Ngakoue in the LEO role -- essentially the weak-side DE/OLB -- Ebukam not only matched Ngakoue’s 9.5 sacks from 2022 but also provided the kind of run-stuffing prowess his predecessor lacked. With Ebukam, Kwity Paye, Dayo Odeyingbo, Tyquan Lewis and first-round pick Laiatu Latu on the edges, in addition to DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart inside, the Colts boast an embarrassment of riches on the defensive front.

Jessie Bates III was an established stud before last season, but playing under defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen in his Atlanta debut, the safety finally earned his first Pro Bowl nod. Now that Nielsen’s running the defense in Jacksonville, could Cisco experience a similar reputational glow-up? It’d be financially convenient for the fourth-year pro, as he’s heading into the last season of his rookie contract. Though not as polished as Bates at this point in his career, Cisco brings the same kind of skill set as a rangy center fielder with supreme ballhawking instincts. Also like Bates, Cisco can pack a wallop as a heat-seeking missile in the middle of the field, though his aggression sometimes gets the best of him. Under Nielsen's watchful eye, Cisco could iron the kinks in his game and maximize his earning potential. Make paper, young man!

Signed by the Chiefs on a one-year, $3 million deal last offseason, Tranquill proved to be a godsend when star LB Nick Bolton was forced to miss half the regular season due to ankle and wrist injuries. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo masterfully deployed Tranquill, repeatedly leaning on the versatile linebacker’s plus coverage ability before unleashing him on a well-timed blitz from the second level. Bolton returned to action for Kansas City’s postseason title run, but Tranquill just kept making plays and trolling opposing fan bases. In March, the Chiefs rewarded Tranquill with a three-year, $19 million extension. And with Willie Gay Jr.‘s departure in free agency, Tranquill’s due for an uptick in snaps. More opportunity to wreak havoc.

The Raiders have seen plenty of change in recent years, but one thing remains the same: Clear respect for Andre James. An undrafted free-agent signee back in 2019, James played a grand total of 116 offensive snaps in his first two seasons with the franchise. But that didn’t stop Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock from trading veteran center Rodney Hudson in the 2021 offseason and immediately handing the positional reins to James via a three-year, $12.5 million extension. The bold move paid off, as James capably filled the role for the past three years. After Tom Telesco took over as Las Vegas’ general manager this past January, one of his first orders of business was locking up James on a three-year, $24 million extension. And just before the Raiders spent April’s second-round pick on Jackson Powers-Johnson -- an interior offensive lineman who played center last season at Oregon -- they reached out to James to assure him that he’ll remain in the pivot while the rookie will get in where he fits in. New regime, same old respect.

After taking over a cap-strapped roster this January, Jim Harbaugh and Joe Hortiz decided to create financial flexibility by gutting the receiver room. In the absence of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, who will emerge as Justin Herbert’s downfield target? Last year’s first-round pick, Quentin Johnston, left a lot to be desired in Year 1. This year’s second-round pick, Ladd McConkey, looks like he’ll do most of his work from the slot. So, when the Bolts' cannon-arm quarterback wants to cut it loose, who’ll test the defense on the perimeter? It seems like a lot of people are forgetting about Palmer, possibly due to his injury-riddled 2023 campaign. The fourth-year pro already has a nice rapport with Herbert -- as we saw in a handful of 100-yard outings over the past two seasons -- and he possesses the most well-rounded, polished game in this receiving corps.

With eight seasons and 93 starts under his belt, Fuller certainly isn’t underqualified. But underappreciated? Indeed he is. Fuller has never earned Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors, but he’s annually proven himself to be an adept cover man who provides inside/outside versatility, reliable tackling and plus ball skills. Nothing about Fuller’s game is spectacular, but in Year 9, everything remains good -- and that’s good enough at a position that’s often more defined by its valleys than its peaks. Poised to line up across the formation from Jalen Ramsey in Miami, Fuller gives the Dolphins one of the more experienced, well-rounded CB2s in football.

Back when Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn were attempting to turn the Lions into the Midwest Patriots, Detroit raised eyebrows by spending a high second-round pick on Tavai, an unremarkable athlete who possessed many of the traits Bill Belichick values at the linebacker position. Widely viewed as an overdrafted player, Tavai lasted just two seasons in Detroit before a new Lions regime cut bait, allowing the Patriots to scoop him up off the scrapheap. A reserve in his first season with New England, Tavai emerged as a starter in 2022 and then took his game to a whole other level this past year. In fact, among LBs with at least 500 snaps, Tavai posted the fourth-best PFF grade, ahead of such linebacking luminaries as C.J. Mosley, Bobby Wagner and Roquan Smith.

Garrett Wilson has led the Jets in receiving yards during each of his first two seasons with the franchise. That’s not surprising. But raise your hand if you had Conklin ranking second in this category during his first two seasons with the franchise. Heading into the final season of a three-year, $20.25 million deal, Conklin has provided solid ROI to Joe Douglas, especially considering the motley crew of quarterbacks who've thrown him the football. With Aaron Rodgers under center in 2024, Conklin's set up for success in a contract year. And if the guy needed any extra motivation, remember when we spent months talking about tight end Brock Bowers as a no-brainer first-round pick for the Jets? Douglas instead opted for OT Olu Fashanu. Now it’s on Conklin to help prove his general manager right.

Now on a fourth team in Year 7 of his professional career, Elliott’s vagabond existence might lead some to question his reliability, but that’d be a mistake. While injuries did impact multiple seasons at Elliott’s first NFL stop in Baltimore, whenever the man played for the Ravens, he proved dependable. And over the past two seasons, he capably started 13 games for the Lions and 15 games for the Dolphins, providing the kind of rock-solid returns at defensive back that should never be overlooked in today’s pass-happy league. Elliott’s ability to seamlessly transition between teams and schemes is a testament to his versatility. Boasting ample experience as a free safety, strong safety and nickelback, Elliott wasn’t just blowing smoke when he offered this decidedly diplomatic statement in his introductory press conference with the Steelers: “With me being able to move around, it just gives them the flexibility to put me wherever they want me at. I mean, I’m open to playing wherever they want me and just being a part of this defense, so it doesn’t really matter to me. I want to be productive in this defense by any way possible that I can.” With Minkah Fitzpatrick in place as one of the league’s best center fielders, Elliott figures to spend plenty of time in the box, where he’s a force player with violent hitting ability.

Tennessee’s secondary was a persistent problem throughout Mike Vrabel’s tenure in Nashville, with the cornerbacks, in particular, plagued by injury and inconsistency. Unsurprisingly, the Titans aggressively pounced on a pair of outside cover men in March, trading for L’Jarius Sneed and signing Chidobe Awuzie. One starting spot GM Ran Carthon left alone this offseason: nickelback. That’s because McCreary emerged as a standout in the slot. After spending the majority of his rookie snaps outside, providing mixed returns, McCreary moved inside and flourished. New defensive coordinator Dennard Wilson comes to Tennessee with a wealth of experience coaching NFL defensive backs. Look for him to continue molding McCreary at a position that’s increasingly critical.

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