Underrated, but strong up the middle
Even without former Pro Bowlers and first-round picks, this is one stout team
Chris Myers of the Houston Texans is a center who draws plenty of praise from scouts around the league. Josh Sitton of the Green Bay Packers is emerging as one of the next top guards. Terrance Knighton is an anchor in the middle of the Jaguars' defensive line, and Antonio Garay came out of nowhere to become a force at nose tackle for the San Diego Chargers.
To come up with this list, I tried to stay away from Pro Bowl selections and former first-round picks. This isn't the next group of breakout players -- these are good players performing under the radar who deserve recognition.
For quarterback, I had no choice but to go with Kyle Orton. He was a winner in Chicago with the Bears and was on pace for a possible 5,000-yard season until the Broncos dropped off as a team under Josh McDaniels and Tim Tebow was given some starts.
Clayton's All-Underrated Team
|WR||Steve Breaston, Cardinals|
|WR||Jacoby Ford, Raiders|
|TE||Brent Celek, Eagles|
|LT||Doug Free, Cowboys|
|LG||Rob Sims, Lions|
|C||Chris Myers, Texans|
|RG||Josh Sitton, Packers|
|RT||Sebastian Vollmer, Patriots|
|QB||Kyle Orton, Broncos|
|FB||Marcel Reece, Raiders|
|RB||LeSean McCoy, Eagles|
|DE||Charles Johnson, Panthers|
|DT||Terrance Knighton, Jaguars|
|DT||Antonio Garay, Chargers|
|DE||James Hall, Rams|
|OLB||Shaun Phillips, Chargers|
|MLB||James Laurinaitis, Rams|
|OLB||David Hawthorne, Seahawks|
|CB||Brent Grimes, Falcons|
|CB||Brandon Flowers, Chiefs|
|S||Dashon Goldson, 49ers|
|S||Nate Allen, Eagles|
Nevertheless, Orton is good enough to compete with the elite quarterbacks and not be embarrassed. If the Arizona Cardinals can't acquire Kevin Kolb in a trade, they can go after Orton and significantly upgrade their offense.
Some members of the underrated team are free agents. Doug Free of the Cowboys played well enough replacing Flozell Adams at left tackle that he should get a nice contract from Jerry Jones. The Cowboys can't afford to let him go. Steve Breaston of the Cardinals played in the shadow of Larry Fitzgerald, but he's had 179 catches over the past three seasons.
Most impressive is he caught 77 passes for 1,006 yards in 2008 as the third receiver behind Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
Defensive end Charles Johnson of the Carolina Panthers could command top dollar after a 11.5-sack season on a 2-14 team. Johnson had 10 sacks over his first three seasons as a backup and situational pass-rusher. He's only 24, and he's played four seasons.
Some of these underrated players are classic overachievers. David Hawthorne of the Seahawks was a top special-teams player, but injuries at the Seahawks linebacking corps gave him starts. Hawthorne made the most of them. He's had 117 and 106 tackles over the past two seasons and continues to get better each year.
James Hall of the St. Louis Rams has been performing under the radar his entire career. Because he's played on losing teams in Detroit and St. Louis, few have noticed him. Last year, he had 10.5 sacks, his second double-digit sacks season. Though he isn't particularly known for his pass rush, Hall has 57 sacks during his career.
I tried to get a few rookies on the list. Nate Allen of the Philadelphia Eagles came into the league last season in what was a pretty good class of safeties in 2010. Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs immediately established himself as a star. Earl Thomas of the Seahawks is heading in the same direction. But Allen, a second-round choice, established himself early as a starter -- and a good one -- for Andy Reid.
The deepest position on the underrated team was cornerback. Brandon Flowers of the Chiefs came into the league with Brandon Carr in what was a great draft class for the Chiefs in 2008. Carr was the man-to-man specialist. Flowers was more of a Cover 2 corner, who could read a quarterback and close on the ball to make an interception or tackle. Brent Grimes of the Falcons has had to play harder than his peers because he was undrafted, but he has fought off competition to be a starter.
But to go with Flowers and Grimes, I had to pass on Jerraud Powers of the Colts, who might make a Pro Bowl sometime in the future.
Two Eagles made the offensive list -- tight end Brent Celek and running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy has been the perfect replacement for Brian Westbrook. Celek nosed out Kevin Boss of the Giants for the tight end spot.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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