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NFL's most underappreciated players: Tee Higgins, D.J. Reed among AFC picks

Every offseason, one of my favorite 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 receive as much attention as it should have during the season.

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

First, I calculate and then rank each player's season-long contribution metric by team (win share). To sum it up without getting overly technical, the contribution metric (or win share) measures each player's production during the previous season. 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 factor 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 have not switched teams in the current offseason (since it's harder to be underappreciated by a team you haven't played for yet), but that keeps getting harder to do, due to tons of free-agent movement. Then I weight players drafted in Round 2 or later who have been to no more than two Pro Bowls and aren't in the top 10 at their position. That said, the most critical component to this entire method remains the contribution metric.

Just like I did in this space for the past three years, I'm providing one player from each AFC team that my model flagged as being underappreciated.

NOTE: Players are listed with the ages they will be as of Sept. 7, when the 2023 NFL season is set to kick off.

Average salary per year (APY): $5 million (21st among right tackles).

In terms of return on investment, the signing of Moses last offseason has been a home run. During a season when the Ravens were beset by injuries, including to left tackle Ronnie Stanley and quarterback Lamar Jackson, Moses was a bright spot. Computer vision shows Moses improved as the 2022 campaign went on, especially at run blocking; his win share increased by more than 18 percentage points between Week 4 and the end of the season, the third-best figure among right tackles in that span. Pro Football Focus graded Moses as the 13th best tackle (including left tackles) with a 78.6 grade last season; his run-blocking mark (80.7) ranked eighth. Moses helped lift the Ravens' offensive line to an 82.5 pass-blocking grade (second-best in the NFL, behind the Eagles) and a 70.6 run-blocking grade (ninth). Beyond the value Moses provides at the position, based on his current APY ranking among right tackles, he's set to count for just 2.3 percent of the Ravens' cap charge this season.

Micah Hyde
S · Age: 32

APY: $9.625 million (15th among safeties).

A neck injury ended Hyde's season in September after two games, and I don't usually include players who lost that much time to injury in this piece. But I decided to make room for him, because his projected win share for 2023 is very high, and because of his overall impressive body of work. PFF gives Hyde a coverage grade of 95.2 since 2017, ranking second at the position over that time period. Next Gen Stats also shows he's allowed a passer rating of just 63.5 in that span, ranking eighth best among all defensive backs (minimum 100 targets). In the brutal QB gauntlet of the AFC -- and in the AFC East specifically -- Hyde's value is very important, especially considering he'll be paired again with Jordan Poyer, who elected to re-sign in free agency. Hyde and Poyer forecast to have the highest win share for any two starters at the safety position.

APY: $2.17 million (rookie contract; 84th among receivers).

Going with Higgins feels a little like cheating, since he qualifies as "underappreciated" in part because he's still on his affordable rookie contract -- at least, for now. There's no denying his impact in Cincinnati. Per computer vision, he ranked among the top 18 wideouts in win-share ranking in 2021; last season, that ranking jumped to 14th. NGS shows Higgins earned 207 receiving yards over expected on passes of 10-plus air yards, ranking fourth best in the NFL. He led the league in catch rate over expected when targeted in the middle third of the field (13.1%), and he finished fifth in the NFL in catch rate when targeted on in-breaking routes (81.1%).

APY: $6 million (10th among centers).

The Browns' offensive line did not exactly dominate in 2022, ranking sixth in run-blocking grade (74.1) and tying for 10th in pass-blocking grade (73.1), per PFF. But it was not because of any underperformance by Pocic, whose offensive grade (78.9) was the third-best among centers, per PFF. Computer vision shows his lateral movement after the snap -- that is, the speed with which he moved to his left or right after snapping the ball -- was third-best among centers last season. When I was working with offensive line coaches to define the optimal metrics for measuring centers, that is one that correlated strongly to better passing and rushing conditions for the offense. Even with the pay raise that came with the extension he signed to stay in Cleveland this March, Pocic represents a real value.

APY: $1.18 million (rookie contract; 39th among right guards).

There's a lot to like about a Denver defense that ranked seventh in yards allowed during an otherwise lost 2022 campaign. For this piece, I wanted to seek out the nuggets of good on offense. Ascending to full-time starter in his second season out of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Meinerz improved his leverage in pass protection more than any other guard in the NFL in 2022, per computer vision, increasing the amount of time he stayed even when contact was made with a defender by 0.9 seconds, on average. PFF also gave him the sixth-best offensive grade (77.7) among NFL guards.

APY: $1.22 million (rookie contract; 144th among receivers).

I feel like the Texans, especially on defense, will have a lot of top-end options for me to choose from in next year's version of this article. In terms of 2023, though, Collins has a chance to really break out this season, based on the clues provided by his past performance. NGS shows that he posted three receptions over expected on in-breaking routes last season, ranking 14th among wide receivers. The Texans have a great opportunity to leverage a strong run game with higher-probability passes early in the season to acclimate rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud, progressing to more complex passes when Stroud is ready. Keep an eye on both Collins and John Metchie III to produce at a higher level as the season goes along, in concert with their new QB.

APY: $860,031 (rookie contract; 301st among cornerbacks).

The 2020 sixth-rounder has allowed less than 6.7 yards per target over the past two seasons, per computer vision. After serving as a backup in 2021, Rodgers worked his way into the starting lineup in 2022, earning PFF's fifth-best defensive grade among NFL corners (82.1). He also posted a coverage grade of 81.5. Both marks were the best of Rodgers' career thus far.

APY: $2.73 million (rookie contract; 75th among receivers).

Ridley qualifies here in part because his rookie contract tolled through a suspension (for violating the NFL's gambling policy) that lasted from March 2022 until March of this year, giving him an APY that is even lower than the cap charge he'll carry on his fifth-year option in 2023 ($11.116 million). Acquired in a trade with Atlanta last November, Ridley hasn't appeared in a game since Oct. 24, 2021. But we do have three prior seasons of film on him, and my computer vision shows that his route-running has been a thing of beauty going back to his time at Alabama. When aligned wide, Ridley's route-running ranked him in the 90th percentile from 2018 to 2020, per computer vision; NGS syncs up with this, as his 22 receiving TDs when aligned wide in that span tied (with Mike Evans and Davante Adams) for the most in the NFL. His 18 TDs on passes of 10-plus air yards over that time tied for fifth most.

APY: $1.46 million (rookie contract; 72nd among linebackers).

Only one player (Jacksonville's Foye Oluokun) had more regular-season tackles than the 180 registered by Bolton, who set a single-season franchise record in that category. The 2021 second-rounder also logged nine games with double-digit tackles. Computer vision shows that his 2022 closing speed and angle (reflecting the last yard traveled and how squarely he made contact) was in the top 86th percentile of all LBs in the past eight seasons. NGS shows he allowed 3.7 yards after the catch per reception last season, the fourth-lowest mark among LBs.

APY: $11 million (26th among receivers).

As a Patriot last season, Meyers earned 210 yards on crossing routes (fifth most in the NFL). He also posted a career-high 51 receiving yards over expected on all routes (his previous high was 13), 2.2 receptions over expected on go routes (eighth best among NFL receivers) and a 130.5 passer rating when targeted on passes of 10-plus air yards (fourth best in the NFL). There is volume to be had in Meyers' new home with the Raiders, thanks to the exit of tight end Darren Waller this offseason. Defenses will have to figure out both Meyers and Davante Adams; they are a receiving duo for fantasy players to keep an eye on.

APY: $8.4 million (24th among cornerbacks).

Davis carries a relatively high cap charge in 2023 ($9.4 million), but his computer vision charts show that he was highly productive in several alignments last season. Asked to do a lot, thanks to a slew of injuries that cost the Chargers some of his highest-value defensive teammates, Davis stepped up. Computer vision shows his fatigue was the seventh lowest among defensive backs who logged at least 60 percent of their team's defensive snaps. He tied for sixth in the NFL with 15 passes defensed last season.

Zach Sieler
DE · Age: 28

APY: $2.86 million (73rd among interior defensive linemen).

In Weeks 1 through 12 last season, Sieler logged 13 total pressures. He then doubled that total in Weeks 13-18, putting up two-plus pressures per game over the Dolphins' final six regular-season games, per NGS. Finally, in the Dolphins' wild-card loss to the Bills, Sieler racked up a career-high six pressures and two sacks, along with his first NFL touchdown. Miami's fans (and opponents) have seen him take serious steps forward in 2021 and '22. The addition of Jalen Ramsey to the defensive backfield this offseason should improve the coverage and provide Sieler with more time to work. Expect him to make good use of it by piling up more pressures and sacks.

APY: $2.08 million (rookie contract; 56th among safeties).

Computer vision shows that Dugger ranked third among safeties in burst on run plays when aligned within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2022. PFF's grade for Dugger in run defense is in alignment with that metric; he was one of only six safeties to post a grade of 75 or better against the run (76.7) and in coverage (78.3). His overall defensive grade (78.4) ranked 11th at the position.

D.J. Reed
CB · Age: 26

APY: $11 million (17th among cornerbacks).

We shouldn't let a stellar draft class (which included eventual Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson and Defensive Rookie of the Year Sauce Gardner) overshadow the exceptional free agent crop from a ridiculously strong 2022 offseason by general manager Joe Douglas. The Reed signing was one of the most underrated moves of all of free agency last year. NGS shows he was targeted on 14.3 percent of coverage snaps in 2022, the seventh-lowest rate at the position among those with 300-plus coverage snaps. (Respect.) Further, he allowed just 5.3 yards per target, which was the fifth-lowest of that group. (Earned respect.)

APY: $1.51 million (rookie contract; 47th among tight ends).

The offense is likely to improve, due to the Steelers' great 2023 draft class as well as forecast improvements in production by the offensive line and second-year pro Kenny Pickett having a year of play under his belt at quarterback. When aligned in the slot last season, Freiermuth earned 100 receiving yards over expected and 73 yards after the catch over expected, ranking fourth at the position in both categories, per NGS. The third-year pro has the potential to ascend to the ranks of the top pass-catching tight ends in the NFL in 2023. (OK, this is kind of a fantasy note.)

APY: $1.04 million (rookie contract; 81st among tight ends).

Last season, Okonkwo recorded 2.9 receiving yards per route, the most by a rookie in the NGS era (minimum of 30 targets). He also netted 79 receiving yards over expected when facing zone coverage (second among rookies last season). Computer vision shows that his ability to square his body to the pass (which correlates with increased odds of making a successful catch) when facing zone ranked third among all tight ends last season. With a healthy Derrick Henry this season, the Titans should be able to make even better use of Okonkwo's skills.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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