By Steve Silverman
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This is going to be a classic Rex Ryan year on the Jets’ sideline.
If last week’s declaration that David Harris is the most underrated player in the NFL is any indication, Ryan will be as bombastic as ever in what will almost certainly be his last season on the sidelines if the Jets don’t make the playoffs.
Ryan made his statement to the New York Daily News last week, and he is on the right track with Harris. Many of the preseason magazines that rate football players didn’t even have Harris in their top dozen inside linebackers. Don’t believe that for a second. He is easily top five in that group, and he could probably give any inside linebacker besides NaVorro Bowman of the San Francisco 49ers a run for his money.
Harris is a glue-fingered tackler. Once he gets his digits on a ball carrier or a receiver, he is not going to let go. Harris is not a sack artist or a guy who is going to come up with a lot of interceptions. He is going to break down the running game and he is not going to whiff on tackles. Harris had 124 last season and he is a dependable player who has started every game for the last five years.
No wonder Ryan is in love with him.
Harris has plenty of company when it comes to being an underrated player. As training camps get underway, here’s a look at the most underrated players in the NFL.
(You will note that we are not looking at any quarterbacks. Josh McCown of the Tampa Bay Bucs won the title of the best backup quarterback last season in Chicago, and that earned him a starting job with Tampa Bay. While he was superb in a relief role for the oft-injured Jay Cutler, he still has to prove himself as a starter.)
RB Alfred Morris, Washington — NFC East teams have to realize that Morris is the real thing in the Redskins’ backfield. As a rookie in 2012, he was eclipsed by teammate Robert Griffin III, but he still ran for 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Redskins’ offense took a big hit last season and RGIII was never in top form, but Morris still ran for 1,275 yards, seven touchdowns and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. In addition to being tough enough to take on linebackers and win battles, Morris showed his intelligence and will use his moves to get into the open so he doesn’t have to play Neanderthal on every touch. If RGIII is healthy and can come close to his top form, the Redskins could be a lot tougher than anyone thinks, and much of that has to do with Morris’s ability to run with the football.
DE Calais Campbell, Arizona — While Campbell never hit the big time in his six previous seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, he is a consistent producer on one of the best defensive teams in the league. Campbell is a tall defensive end at 6-foot-8, and he has extra-long arms that allow him to reach over the blocker and make tackles and sack the quarterback. He had nine sacks last season, and he should be able to reach double digits this season. When that happens, Campbell will almost certainly get his Pro Bowl invitation. Campbell also plays the run hard, and he will punish opposing ball carriers and blockers.
TE Brent Celek, Philadelphia — The Eagles are blessed with two fine tight ends in Celek and second-year phenom Zach Ertz. Quarterback Nick Foles will probably look more to the angular Ertz when it comes time to stretch the field, but Celek is the tight end who can do it all. He is one of the best blockers at his position, and he is a solid route runner with dependable hands. Celek caught 32 passes for 506 yards and six touchdowns last year, and those numbers could go up across the board as Foles is likely to be even more comfortable in Chip Kelly’s offense than he was a year ago.
MLB Bobby Wagner, Seattle – The Seahawks are loaded with defensive players who make headlines and highlights, but don’t think for a second that they would have gotten to and won the Super Bowl without Wagner manning the middle. He has excellent football instincts and knows where opposing quarterbacks are going with their attack. In addition to studying film like few others, Wagner has top-notch instincts that tell him when a team is going in the opposite direction of its tendency. Wagner is super-quick, and that allows him to go sideline to sideline to make plays. Wagner is listed at 6-foot and 241 pounds but he may be 5-11 and 230. However, he plays big and never takes a down off.
WR Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh — Brown had a huge year in 2013 as he caught 110 passes, so he may not be truly underrated. However, many scouts around the league would like to see him do it again because he had never caught more than 69 passes before last season. Brown has explosive speed and can run by any defense. However, he will continue to be underrated until he can do it two years in a row. Look for that to happen in 2014.
NT Damon Harrison, New York Jets – If Ryan thinks that Harris is underrated, you know his feelings about Harrison. This undrafted free agent is one of the best run defenders in the league, and he is coming off a breakout season in which he had 66 tackles and seven for loss. “Big Snacks” will only going to get better as long as he stays healthy. At 350 pounds, he cannot be moved. He also has tremendous strength in his hands and arms that allow him to deliver forceful, nasty blows and help him to control the interior defense.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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