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NFL's most underappreciated players: Hunter Renfrow, Chuck Clark among AFC picks

One of my favorite offseason tasks is to scour every NFL roster and identify the most underappreciated player on each team using my context-based models. In the fast-paced NFL season, it's easy to focus on superstars or skill-position players who help us win in fantasy football, but one of the most useful applications of analytics is to view every game from the previous campaign through the lens of a total-contribution metric, to see where teams earned an edge that perhaps didn't get as much attention as it should have during the season.

With that in mind, here's how I came up with my list of the most underappreciated players ...

First, I calculated and then ranked each player's season-long contribution metric by team (win share). To sum it up without getting overly technical, contribution metric, or win share, measures each player's production during a season, in this case, the 2021 campaign. The metric encompasses a value for every snap by each player and reveals each player's contribution to the team's overall win total.

After making those calculations, I factored in each player's salary by position (contract data via Over The Cap) to add some context around who was being "underappreciated." I always try to give priority to players who do not switch teams this offseason (since it's harder to be underappreciated by a team you haven't played for yet), but this season that was significantly harder due to tons of free agent movement. (As for players on rookie contracts, while those are restricted by draft slot and will thus inherently rank lower than many veterans who have had a chance to negotiate a new deal, that doesn't mean they should be disqualified from consideration, given that they can still seriously outperform their compensation.) Then I weighted players drafted in Round 2 or later who have been to no more than two Pro Bowls. That said, the most critical component to this method is contribution metric.

Just like I did in this space for the past two years, here is one player from each AFC team that my model flagged as being underappreciated. Be sure to check back Thursday for my list of underappreciated players in the NFC.

NOTE: Players are listed with the age they will be as of Sept. 8, when the 2022 NFL season is set to kick off.

Average salary per year (APY): $5.1 million (24th among safeties).

The 2017 sixth-rounder was sort of an honorable mention entrant for the Raven on this list last year, so I think I have to include him here this year, after he got even better in 2021, finishing with two picks and 12 passes defensed, both career highs. Since 2020, Clark has generated 18 pressures on 127 pass-rush snaps for a 14.2 percent rate, per Next Gen Stats. As far as defensive backs go, he's tied for third in that span with the recently retired Malcolm Jenkins in pressures; only the Seahawks' Jamal Adams (35) and the Dolphins' Brandon Jones (21) have more.

Micah Hyde
S · Age: 31

APY: $9.625 million (13th among safeties).

I went with Jordan Poyer last year, so it only seems right that the other half of the NFL's most valuable safety tandem in 2021 earns the honor for the Bills this year. Since 2020, Hyde ranks fourth among all defensive backs in ballhawk rate (31.3%, min. 35 targets) in the regular season, per NGS, and second best (30.5%) when postseason stats are included. The one-time Pro Bowler's Pro Football Focus numbers are similarly impressive; he was awarded a coverage grade of 88.3 last season, which was third-best among DBs with at least 200 such snaps.

APY: $6 million (tied for 35th among cornerbacks).

Coverages that utilize more than four defensive backs have become a common sight in the NFL, and slot corner is now more of a full-time position than one that can be filled only situationally. Hilton, who signed with Cincinnati in 2021, is a great example; he played slot corner on 76.2 percent of his snaps in his first year with the team, per NGS, and improved his effectiveness in each game last season. Computer vision shows that in his first 10 games as a Bengal, he allowed a passer rating of 83.0 in coverage (that is, when he was within 3 yards of the nearest target at the time the ball arrived). Over his last 10 games (including playoffs), that number reduced to just 61.2. NGS shows that when he was the nearest defender in 2021, he allowed a 72.0 completion percentage in the regular season (+4.3 percent completion over expected) but only a 66.7 completion percentage (-5.2 percent CPOE) in the playoffs. It stands to reason that the 35th-highest-paid corner will improve even further with more time in this system.

APY: $1.6 million (rookie contract; 63rd among linebackers).

JOK missed three games last season due to injury, but the 2021 second-rounder managed to net 74 combined tackles and 48 solo tackles, tying for fourth and seventh, respectively, among rookie defenders. Computer vision shows that his win-share stopping the run and on passing downs is balanced; he ranked in the top 10 in both categories among rookie defenders in 2021. There are also some markers suggesting big improvement ahead in 2022, with my favorite being that computer vision shows his fatigue level improved (that is, decreased) the most of any defensive rookie last season. 

APY: $1.01 million (rookie contract; 85th among tight ends).

The Broncos' depth chart might look unsettled at tight end, with former first-round pick Noah Fant heading to Seattle in this offseason's Russell Wilson trade. But don't overlook Okwuegbunam, whose catch rate of plus-15.9 over expected on passes of fewer than 10 air yards was the highest in the NFL (minimum of 30 such targets) last season. His pass-blocking win share also ranked ahead of Fant's. 

Marlon Mack
RB · Age: 26

APY: $2 million (tied for 36th among running backs).

OK, so, it's not ideal, for the purposes of this list, that Mack has played in just seven games over the past two seasons, and for a different team, at that -- but my models love this fit and the upside. The last time Mack had a full season's worth of workload, in 2019, he ran for 1,091 yards, the 10th most among running backs in the NFL that season. Computer vision shows that the ex-Colt's change-of-direction speed ranked seventh-highest in the NFL that season. NGS shows he exceeded 15 miles per hour on 51 runs in 2019, which ranked fourth among RBs.

APY: $5.85 million (23rd among tight ends).

It certainly doesn't show up in a traditional box score, but run-blocking for tight ends, especially in run-first offenses, is extremely important -- and Alie-Cox ranked 12th best in the NFL in 2021, per computer vision. Alie-Cox also hauled in four touchdowns last season, which doubled his career total prior to 2021. Look for the recently re-signed veteran to be a frequent target of Matt Ryan, as the Colts' new quarterback is at his best when working with a dominant tight end.

APY: $10 million (tied for 17th among interior defensive linemen). 

Fatukasi set career highs in pressures (15) and combined tackles (46) last season, his final with the Jets. Computer vision shows that between 2019 and 2020, he ranked ninth among defensive tackles against the run in terms of win share. Robert Saleh implemented changes to the defense in his first season as Jets head coach in 2021, and Foley didn't fit as well. He signed with the Jaguars this offseason, and his projected use in Duval, by contrast, gives him the potential to outperform expectations. Stopping the run in the AFC South has even more value than it does in other divisions, given the ground-heavy strategies favored by the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts, specifically. 

APY: $1.15 million (rookie contract; 91st among safeties).

The Chiefs' secondary changed significantly over the offseason, with the departures of Charvarius Ward, Mike Hughes, Daniel Sorensen and, most notably, Tyrann Mathieu -- and Thornhill will be asked to continue the trajectory of improvement and reliable production he showed last season (remember, the defense had a big turnaround). The 2019 second-rounder set a career high in tackles (64) in 2021. It wasn't just about more playing time, but also understanding and being able to fully execute defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's scheme. Computer vision shows that when Thornhill's hips are facing the right direction at the time a ball arrives into his coverage area, opposing passers experience a decrease in passer rating of 35.5. The more Thornhill learns, the worse the opportunities will be for opposing passers.

APY: $708,987 (rookie contract; 349th among receivers).

Yes, Renfrow is coming off his first career Pro Bowl -- but it's fair to wonder if the former fifth-round pick has been overshadowed in Las Vegas by this offseason's Davante Adams acquisition. NGS shows that Renfrow's plus-11.5 catch rate over expected when aligned wide last season paced the NFL. He also averaged 3.4 yards of target separation when aligned wide (fourth-most). His versatility will allow him to pair well with Adams, too; Renfrow's 643 receiving yards last season from the slot ranked sixth in the NFL, while he scored five times on passes outside the numbers (tied for 10th).

APY: $6.125 million (13th among running backs).

How is Ekeler still eligible for this list? I feel like I'm cheating by highlighting a player who has racked up 4,999 scrimmage yards over the past four seasons, but I'll take it. In 2021, he tied for second among running backs with six rushing touchdowns when facing stacked boxes, averaging 4.0 yards per rush in such situations (which was tied for eighth among those with at least 25 carries). His eight rushing touchdowns inside the tackles were tied for third most in 2021, and his 637 yards after the catch ranked fifth (all per NGS). I feel like this barely scratches the surface -- but I'll end this blurb by saying he's my RB3 in fantasy for 2022.

APY: $2.125 million (35th among running backs).

The Dolphins have a crowded running back room right now, but Mostert's reunion with Miami coach Mike McDaniel, with whom he worked in San Francisco, on a very reasonable one-year deal is looking like a potential steal. Mostert has missed chunks of time over the past two seasons, including most of 2021 because of a knee injury. But his career yards-per-carry mark stands out: at 5.7, it's tied for the second-highest in NFL history among all RBs with at least 250 career carries. A healthy Mostert is a problem for opposing defenses.

APY: $2.13 million (rookie contract; 74th among interior defensive linemen).

Barmore led all rookie interior defenders with 33 QB pressures last season. It's rare to see rookies on a Bill Belichick-led team play significant snaps (except for, of course, QB Mac Jones), but Barmore played 55.4 percent of them last season, which was the second-highest share of any Pats defensive lineman. PFF, meanwhile, credited him with 38 hurries, the most on New England's squad.

APY: $13.75 million (23rd among edge defenders).

Guess who had the most pressures on the Jets' defense last season? John. Franklin. Myers. The former Rams fourth-round pick, who was scooped off waivers by New York in 2019 and landed a four-year, $55 million extension last October, tallied 43 pressures, according to NGS, and earned a defensive grade of 80.3 from PFF, the highest on the team and 16th best among all edge rushers. Computer vision shows that Myers' burst (speed of first 3 yards traveled) ranks in the top 16 in the NFL at his position. Head coach Robert Saleh's ability to craft fronts that maximize efficiency is well documented from his success in San Francisco, and Franklin-Myers is the type of player we've seen excel and then continue to grow in his system.

APY: $1.51 million (rookie contract; 44th among tight ends).

My computer vision loves a versatile tight end, and that is exactly what Freiermuth was in 2021. Computer vision shows that his blocking win-share metric ranked fourth best among tight ends in the NFL last season. Per NGS, his +19.3 catch rate over expectation on tight-window throws was the highest among TEs. The 2021 second-rounder's utility in the red zone was also tied for top three in the NFL, as he hauled in all seven of his touchdowns in this area. Freiermuth helps make up for deficits along the Steelers' O-line and creates an outlet in the passing game, both of which combine to make him an incredibly important factor for Pittsburgh's new signal caller, whether veteran Mitchell Trubisky or rookie Kenny Pickett takes the QB1 job.

APY: $7.67 million (27th among interior defensive linemen).

Being multiple, especially on a team that values that ability in the players along its defensive front, is a huge key to Autry's value. NGS shows that he lined up on the edge on 81.7 percent of early downs and had a 7.6 percent quarterback pressure rate when doing so. On third down, he lined up on the interior on 66.5 percent of snaps and had a 9.4 percent pressure rate when doing so. Teams are increasingly utilizing the pass on first down, and interior pressure has also had an uptick in value.  

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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