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The Seven Most Underrated Units in the NFL

The Jets pass catchers will give Sam Darnold more help than you think. And the Packers secondary might slow some folks down this year. Who else made the list?

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The Jets generated drama this week by firing general manager Mike Maccagnan … after allowing him to run the team’s free-agency spending spree and the draft. Despite the weird timing, there’s plenty of logic behind the move: Maccagnan had a few too many head-scratching decisions on his résumé and the Jets haven’t made much progress in the three years since he won Executive of the Year. Still, I actually like much of the talent Maccagnan added this offseason, particularly among the team’s pass-catching corps—which might be one of the most underrated groups in the league.

That thought spurred the question: Which NFL units are flying under the radar or packing untapped potential heading into 2019? Taking offseason free-agency boosts, rookie additions, and the development curve of a few promising young players—or a little bit of all three—into consideration, I put together a list of the league’s most underrated position groups.

Jets Pass Catchers

Let’s kick this off with the Jets. The Maccagnan–Adam Gase power struggle aside, New York quietly has built a quality pass-catching cast around sophomore quarterback Sam Darnold. They made a splash in free agency by signing receiver Jamison Crowder to a three-year, $28.5 million deal. The 25-year-old fell off the map a bit last year due to injuries but gives New York a dynamic slot weapon who excels where Darnold has been comfortable throwing the ball: in the intermediate area of the field. Crowder is a run-after-the-catch threat on screens and quick passes, too—he averaged 7.31 yards after the catch per reception last year, per Pro Football Focus, sixth among all receivers—giving the team another creator with the ball in his hands.

Crowder joins a nucleus that already includes a dangerous, field-stretching deep threat in Robby Anderson and a big, versatile possession guy in Quincy Enunwa. Anderson—who caught an NFL-high seven touchdowns on deep passes in 2017, per Pro Football Focus—struggled at the outset of 2018 but came on strong in the late part of the season as a downfield weapon for Darnold. And Enunwa is a physical and supremely athletic pass catcher who can play on the outside or in the slot. Along with tight end Chris Herndon, an ascending talent who caught 39 passes for 502 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie, the Jets can now line up with playmakers at all three receiver spots and at tight end. Oh, and we should include Le’Veon Bell in this group, too. Bell is a uniquely talented running back who doubles as a de facto receiver, capable of lining up all over the formation to run downfield routes and reel in passes.

Past those major contributors, I like what the team’s done to build the depth of that pass-catching group. They drafted dual-threat tight end Trevon Wesco in the fourth round, then landed one of my favorite sleeper receivers in Greg Dortch in rookie free agency, giving the player many have compared to Crowder a big signing bonus and $50,000 in guaranteed salary—an indication he has a strong chance to make the team. Add in promising youngsters like JJ Jones (who stood out last preseason with the Chargers and made their roster as an undrafted free agent), Deangelo Yancey (a former fifth-round pick by the Packers), Deontay Burnett, and Charone Peake, and it’s easy to like the potential this group has for a breakout next season.

Packers Secondary

The Packers kicked off an offseason defensive remodel with a flurry of free-agent signings, including the four-year, $36 million deal they gave to former Bears safety Adrian Amos. The 26-year-old veteran projects as the experienced linchpin of the team’s ascending secondary and as a major upgrade to last year’s starter, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. He can play the deep middle, in two-safety looks, or come down in the box with equal skill, and he pairs nicely with third-year pro Josh Jones, whom the team selected in the second round back in 2017. Green Bay then traded up in the first round of the draft to grab Maryland safety Darnell Savage Jr., who comes with an aggressive playing style, excellent ball skills, and the versatility to play just about anywhere in the secondary. That trio, along with longtime vet Tramon Williams (who paced the defense with 1,059 snaps last season), should give Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine the ability to deploy his safety group in any number of schemes or coverage looks—and should augment his ability to send blitzes from everywhere on the field.

The Packers also boast a talented young cadre of cornerbacks. That group is led by 2018 first-rounder Jaire Alexander, who played well as a rookie both in the slot and on the outside, and is bolstered by a pair of former second-rounders in Kevin King and Josh Jackson. King and Jackson both had up-and-down performances in 2018, but each brings the potential for major jumps forward next season. Put together, Green Bay has amassed one of the most talented, versatile, and high-upside secondaries in the NFL.

Bills Offensive Line

After watching their offensive line finish 28th in pressure rate (35.3 percent) and give up 41 sacks last season, Bills GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott made fixing that unit a major priority over the offseason. The team signed former Chiefs center Mitch Morse to a market-setting four-year, $44.5 million deal in free agency, plus added starting-caliber talent in guards Quinton Spain and Jon Feliciano, tackles Ty Nsekhe and LaAdrian Waddle, and lineman Spencer Long. Those new additions join a group led by quality left tackle Dion Dawkins and 2018 fifth-rounder Wyatt Teller—and gives the team multiple potential starting lineups and an incredible amount of newfound depth and flexibility.

The Bills took it a step further in the draft, though, and snatched up Oklahoma tackle/guard Cody Ford when he shockingly fell into the second round. Ford’s a mountain of a man with light feet and a nasty temperament; he’s a perfect fit for the smashmouth, physical identity the Bills are building and has day-one starting potential at either guard or tackle.

We’ll have to wait until the preseason to see how the starting lineups shake out, but Buffalo has quickly put together what should be a wildly improved unit—not just in its ability to protect quarterback Josh Allen, but in opening up holes in the team’s heavily utilized ground game.

49ers Defensive Line

The Niners may have turned a major weakness in 2018 into a strength going into next season. The team got the ball rolling when they traded for former Chiefs pass rusher Dee Ford in March before giving the 28-year-old a big-money extension. Ford racked up 13.0 sacks, 29 quarterback hits, and a league-best (among edge players) 77 pressures last year, and provides a much-needed speed rusher on the edge of the San Francisco defensive line. He’ll drop right in next to an elite interior penetrator in DeForest Buckner—who grabbed 12.0 sacks, 20 QB hits, and 53 total pressures—and line up opposite the team’s first-round pick from April’s draft, former Ohio State star Nick Bosa. Bosa has an elite first step, powerful hands, and the ability to bend the corner and finish. Like his brother Joey did three years ago, Nick can hit the ground running as an early-impact rusher with double-digit sack potential.

That trio is bolstered by a pair of former top-20 picks in defensive end/defensive tackle hybrids Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas, plus quality rotational guys in Sheldon Day, Kentavius Street, and D.J. Jones. After registering just 37 sacks last year (tied for 22nd), the 49ers defensive line could be one to contend with in 2019.

Colts Pass Catchers

It’d be an understatement to say that last year, the Colts pass-catching corps—particularly the receivers—lacked much depth behind T.Y. Hilton. Andrew Luck was throwing to a mishmash of drop-riddled journeymen and relative unknowns, including Chester Rogers (53 catches, 485 yards, two touchdowns), Ryan Grant (35 catches, 334 yards, one touchdown), Dontrelle Inman (28 catches, 304 yards, three touchdowns), and Zach Pascal (27 catches, 268 yards, two touchdowns). This year, that group looks far more talented: In free agency, the team signed former Panther Devin Funchess, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound pass catcher who should provide Luck with a big target on the outside, over the middle, and in the red zone. They then grabbed former Ohio State standout Parris Campbell in the second round, giving the offense an elite speed threat out of the slot. Campbell excelled in college on mostly underneath routes like quick slants, drags, and screens; with 4.31-second 40-yard dash speed, he should immediately be a dynamic yards-after-the-catch creator for Indy. Picture Percy Harvin.

Past those two big additions, the Colts also get 2018 training-camp standout and sixth-round pick Deon Cain—who impressed early on before tearing his ACL in the preseason opener—back onto the field. They also added a pair of promising undrafted free agents in Penny Hart and Ashton Dulin. Hart stood out for his quickness and burst at Senior Bowl practices and has a chance to earn a roster spot this fall; Dulin, meanwhile, boasts elite athleticism and track speed and racked up 61 catches, 984 yards, and 11 touchdowns to go with three kickoff return scores at D-II school Malone in 2018. That unproven trio—along with Rogers, Pascal, and developmental upside guys in Daurice Fountain, Steve Ishmael, and Marcus Johnson—makes the Colts’ receivers group suddenly pretty intriguing.

Add in the team’s deep tight ends group—which was led last year by Eric Ebron (13 touchdowns), should get a healthy Jack Doyle back for more than six games, and is bolstered by the athletic Mo Alie-Cox—and the Colts’ pass-catching depth chart has plenty of promise this season.

Falcons Offensive Line

The Falcons didn’t mess around this offseason when it came to addressing their aging, underperforming offensive line, adding a bevy of starter-caliber linemen to a group that gave up 42 sacks and a 31st-ranked 204 quarterback pressures last season. The team signed interior linemen James Carpenter, Jamon Brown, Adam Gettis, and veteran offensive tackle John Wetzel in free agency, and then drafted a pair of rookies—former Boston College standout Chris Lindstrom and former Washington tackle Kaleb McGary—in the first round of the draft.

Training camp battles still must play out, but the team’s looking at a starting lineup that includes Jake Matthews at left tackle, Carpenter at left guard, Alex Mack at center, and Lindstrom and McGary at right guard and tackle. That group still has much to prove—especially on the right side, as Lindstrom and McGary will be under pressure to hit the ground running. But that unit also might have more potential than any starting five we’ve seen in Atlanta for years.

Lions Defensive Line

Former Patriots pass rusher Trey Flowers was Detroit’s big-ticket offseason signing and could end up being the capstone piece of an underrated, talented defensive front. Flowers, along with fourth-round rookie defensive end Austin Bryant, joins an ascending core featuring Da’Shawn Hand, A’Shawn Robinson, Damon Harrison, and Romeo Okwara.

The Lions already boast a strong run defense, but the addition of Flowers—who tied for 10th among all edge defenders last year in pressures, per Pro Football Focus, with 64—could really augment their anemic pass rush. The continued development of a couple of young standouts in Hand and Okwara could boost that group, too: 6-foot-3, 297-pound Hand showed a lot of promise in his first season (he racked up 25 quarterback pressures, fourth among all rookie interior lineman) and 23-year-old Okwara (who grabbed 7.5 sacks in 2018) is an ascendant talent who signed a two-year extension over the offseason. We might be sleeping on just how good this Lions front could be in 2019.