With the season halfway in the books, we thought it would be a good time to point out those players who, in our humble opinions, have not received the attention deserved for their performances so far. We'll see how many of these names hold up when the season is over, but for now, here's an underrated offense you can take to the bank.
Quarterback: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
San Francisco's Alex Smith almost made this spot, but after looking at a few key numbers for both quarterbacks -- efficiency in third-down, red-zone, and fourth-quarter situations -- the third-round rookie from Wisconsin gets the nod. Wilson, who wasn't expected to start this season and got all kinds of pre-draft scouting dings as a result of his 5-foot-10 5/8 stature, has become the epicenter of the Seahawks' offense in the last few weeks. It's an impressive feat for a team that's been run-based and centered around Marshawn Lynch.
But as head coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell have taken the training wheels off of late, Wilson has responded with great production. His three-touchdown performance against the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday was the sixth-best of the week among quarterbacks per Football Outsiders' efficiency rankings, and we have a feeling that the best is yet to come. Wilson has more passing touchdowns than any other rookie quarterback (yes, more than Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III), and only Griffin has a higher passer rating.
Near-Misses: Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers/Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Running Backs: C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills/Stevan Ridley, New England Patriots
Spiller has seen his snap counts reduced over the last few weeks, which doesn't make a lot of sense. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said as much after Buffalo's loss to the Houston Texans last Sunday. "I mean, the story of the day for us is we've got to get C.J. more touches," Fitzpatrick said, via the team's official site. " I think everybody knows that and we've got to find ways to do that ... we had three field goals and another field-goal attempt. Something this team over the last few years has been good at is converting those drives into seven points, not three. To me, that's where our issue was today, not being able to get the seven points, driving it down the field and doing different things and not being able to convert."
We agree. Spiller may have struggled to find his place early in his NFL career, but there are few better overall offensive threats in the game today. We hope Chan Gailey gets the memo sooner than later.
As for Ridley, he's become the Patriots' first true every-down rushing threat since Corey Dillon bulled his way for over 1,600 yards in 2004. He's been helped to a degree by the Pats' spread offense sets, which force defenses to cover more horizontal ground and keep them from stacking the box, but this isn't a case where any other back would do the same. Ridley is just as tough in tight formations, and he's been great in the red zone.
Near-misses: Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh Steelers/Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins
Receivers: Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts/Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
Reggie Wayne underrated? Well, yes, when you think about his last full calendar year. This time in 2011, Wayne was the main man in offense as the Colts suffered through one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Wayne was almost swept aside in the subsequent team reconstruction, but stuck around to work with rookie quarterback Andrew Luck and new head coach Chuck Pagano (who recruited Wayne to Miami 16 years before). This season, while Luck has been rightly praised for a marvelous first NFL campaign, he wouldn't do nearly as well without Wayne, who has had an amazing rebound season. Not only is the veteran producing from everywhere possible in the formation (something he never really did before), but Wayne is doing the little things as well as any receiver in the game. Watch him sell out to run-block, and you'll understand just how valuable Wayne is to the Colts now -- he may be more indispensable than ever before.
We like versatile receivers, and that's why Cobb is on our team, as well. Through the 2012 season, he's been all over the place in Mike McCarthy's offense -- even in the backfield. He had a breakout two-touchdown game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, and with Green Bay's top three receivers (Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson) dealing with various injuries throughout the year, Cobb's value has never been more obvious. Add in his ridiculous potential production as a return man, and you have one of the emerging receivers in the NFL.
Near-Misses: Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos/Malcom Floyd, San Diego Chargers
Tight Ends: Brandon Myers, Oakland Raiders/Kellen Davis, Chicago Bears
Oakland's offense is the veritable definition of a dumpster fire most weeks, which the team's new regime should have expected with Greg Knapp in charge of it. But in a season of maddening inconsistency from Carson Palmer's targets, Myers has been a very solid under-the-radar player. It's a shame he's producing in a scheme that's so tough to watch.
Now that Mike Martz is out of the picture in Chicago, we have tight ends again! And when it comes to underrated players at the position, we have Davis as one of the favorites. Not only has he been very efficient in an offense that runs hot and cold, but he's also been a complete player at the position. No big wide receiver, he -- Davis can actually block, too.
Near-misses: Owen Daniels, Houston Texans/Martellus Bennett, New York Giants
Tackles: Sebastian Vollmer, New England Patriots/Andrew Whitworth, Cincinnati Bengals
We spoke of New England's schematic versatility, and it's worth mentioning how much consistency and discipline it takes to block at the NFL level against multiple blitz packages when you're running all kinds of spread sets that take ancillary blockers away. Both Vollmer and his tackle bookend Nate Solder have played very well this year, and each have been among the league leaders in snap counts as well. We'll give Vollmer the edge with slightly better pass protection, which is a key asset in such an offense.
Whitworth has been one of the game's better tackles for years, and he never seems to get enough credit for it. As the Bengals are putting out one of the better lines in the league out there this season, perhaps we should give Whitworth a Lifetime Achievement Award at this point. Those who study the "big uglies" understand that there are few better in the NFL. We'll assume you already know who Houston's Duane Brown is, which is the only reason that the league's best tackle this season isn't on this first team.
Near-misses: Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs/Anthony Davis, San Francisco 49ers
Guards: Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers/Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals
Iupati has been an absolute monster all season -- he's the main reason San Francisco's offense line has been a true strength this season, when you could have argued that the team went 13-3 in 2011 despite its front five at times. Zeitler, who was a total leverage freak at Wisconsin, has slipped into our first team with no rookie yips at all.
Near-misses: Alex Boone, San Francisco 49ers/Evan Mathis, Philadelphia Eagles
Center: Jonathan Goodwin, San Francisco 49ers
This may have been our easiest selection on offense. San Francisco's schemes call on the center to make an enormous number of pre-snap adjustments, and block at multiple gaps and levels. Goodwin has been a complete force in the middle of the league's most-improved offensive line, working at an elite level for a coach in Jim Harbaugh who does not tolerate protection mistakes.
Near-misses: John Sullivan, Minnesota Vikings/Max Unger, Seattle Seahawks
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