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NFL's most underappreciated players: Cowboys' Brandin Cooks, Eagles' Reed Blankenship among NFC picks

As we head into the summer, it's a time for optimism across the NFL landscape -- not just in terms of team outlooks, but also more granularly at the individual level. That said, player puffery is NOT an evenly distributed currency. Certain guys just don't get the love they deserve.

Well, Tom Blair and Gennaro Filice are here to change that, spotlighting one underappreciated player on each of the 32 rosters. Check out Tom's selections for every NFC team below.

Dortch's season stat line (41 targets, 24 catches, 280 receiving yards, two TDs) looks kind of lame, but that's because through mid-November, he was limited to punt- and kick-return duties. Most of his 2023 production came after Kyler Murray returned from injury, with Dortch becoming the second most-targeted player on the team from Week 11 to Week 18, when he also racked up the second-most receiving first downs (14). The spotlight might linger on superstar rookie Marvin Harrison Jr., but it wouldn't be surprising if Murray continued to look in the direction of Dortch (who, by the way, will count for just $985,000 against the cap after signing a one-year exclusive rights tender in April). After a full season of being called a "glue guy" on TV, Dortch might graduate from this list. For now, let's join Marquise Brown in showing this former practice squadder .

Onyemata practically turned "flying under the radar" into an art form in New Orleans over the first portion of his career, averaging nearly four sacks and 28.8 QB pressures between 2017 and 2022, according to Next Gen Stats. And he didn't miss a beat in his first season with the Falcons, providing a respectable 35 QB pressures and four sacks. It was the fourth straight time that he finished with 31-plus pressures, and the fifth time in his eight seasons. Onyemata's age (he's turning 32 in November) should only help boost his underappreciated bona fides.

Hubbard made my colleague Cynthia Frelund's list of underappreciated players last year, but I'm going with him here again because of what he did after that -- and because, for the second straight offseason, the Panthers have invested in competition for Hubbard. In 2023, Carolina signed Miles Sanders to a fat new contract, only for Hubbard to end up carrying the ground game (238 carries, 902 rushing yards, five rushing TDs) in his third pro season. He also became the second Panthers running back to top 1,000 scrimmage yards in a season since Christian McCaffrey did it in 2019. This year, they drafted Jonathon Brooks in the second round -- but the rookie is coming off a torn ACL. At the least, Hubbard can serve as a reliable option while new coach Dave Canales attempts to straighten out the rest of the offense around Bryce Young.

Johnson was probably appreciated at an appropriate level in 2023, when he was a fourth-round pick showing flashes for a stuck-in-the-mud offense, topping 50 scrimmage yards in five games and breaking off the occasional monster gain. That was before GM Ryan Poles supercharged the depth chart with attention-grabbing names like Caleb Williams, Keenan Allen, Rome Odunze and -- most crucially for Johnson -- D'Andre Swift. Don't forget about Johnson, though. For the first time in his career last season, Swift served as a clear-cut lead back for the Eagles, and while he played well, his production also sputtered toward the end of the year. Giving Johnson a healthy share of the workload seems like a good way to bring the young back further along while perhaps keeping .

Cooks has definitely been appreciated by NFL teams, who have paid him plenty and traded for him several times since he was drafted in 2014. But he's never made the Pro Bowl or first-team All-Pro, and in four of his six 1,000-yard seasons, his team had a losing record, meaning he's spent a good portion of his career on the fringes of the competitive landscape. So even before 2023, he probably could have qualified for a "lifetime underappreciation award." Now -- as even -- he is no longer the top pass-catching option on the field. That said, he's kept his per-catch mark above 12 yards over the past two seasons, and he says he's "" after picking things up in the second half last season. The volume might not be there, but he's a consummate pro who can still play an important role for Dallas.

I thought I would end up naming more linebackers to this list, given the stat-sheet-stuffing nature of the position, but I made it all the way to the Ds before selecting Anzalone, whom teammate Alim McNeill described as the "" of the Lions' defense while attempting to illustrate how much Anzalone does for Detroit. It might seem that being compared to one of the greatest NBA players of all time would be a sign of sufficient appreciation. Then again, if Anzalone were truly fully appreciated, would McNeill feel the need to evangelize that hard? Anzalone paced Detroit in tackles (129) while chipping in three sacks and six passes defensed last season. He's also clearly morphed into a leader for a team cementing itself among the NFL's top contenders.

Zach Tom
OL · Age: 25

So many young Packers stepped up in so many key positions in 2023 that it might be easy to gloss over Tom's emergence at right tackle. The 2022 fourth-round pick started all 17 games, yielding just two sacks, according to Pro Football Focus, helping keep Jordan Love clean while he established himself as Green Bay's next franchise quarterback. Tom also earned the fourth-best offensive grade on the Packers, per PFF. That alone would be enough to net him a spot here, but what really cinched it was a report by Rob Demovsky that the Packers see Tom as "." Whether Tom eventually moves to the pivot or not, it's impossible to resist someone who's been the subject of such an exquisite example of offseason hype.

After years of being, on average, the fifth-most targeted player in Kansas City (and one season as the second-most targeted player in an anemic Ravens passing game in 2022), Robinson signed with the Rams, where he was ... the team's sixth-most targeted player in 2023. But that's largely because he was not a part of the passing game at all until Week 9, when he logged his first target (and catch) in a Rams uniform. And he really started putting up numbers down the stretch, helping the team secure a playoff berth with 21 catches for 319 yards and four TDs in five games between Weeks 13 and 17. This offseason, Robinson re-upped in L.A. on a one-year deal. So the stage is set for him to finally, in his ninth pro season, establish himself as an essential supporting member of a capable passing game. If he's about to level up from yeoman status playing alongside star receivers Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua, now's the time to put Robinson on this list.

I was thinking of naming Josh Metellus, but he seems to be an underrated favorite of the moment, so I'm rolling with Bynum, who led the Vikings in tackles (137) in his second season as a full-time starter. He was the fourth-highest graded defender on the roster, according to PFF, and he ranked second in Minnesota in passes defensed (nine) -- with his two picks both coming in a Monday Night Football win over the 49ers in Week 7. With Bynum, Metellus and Byron Murphy Jr. all showing they can excel under Brian Flores, Minnesota's secondary seems to be in strong shape for 2024. 

As a 27-year-old entering his sixth NFL season, Slayton is definitively not a hotly anticipated rookie receiver who was thought of by some as one of the best players in his draft class. That would be Malik Nabers, taken by the Giants with the sixth overall pick in April. But Slayton -- whose contract was to included added incentives -- can play an important role on this team. He's never topped 800 receiving yards in a season, but he's also only put up less than 700 once, in 2021, when he also made a career-low five starts, and he's been a regular contributor to an often shaky passing game, putting up a useful 15.1 yards per catch in his career. This is a crucial season for Daniel Jones, and Slayton can be the steady veteran who gives the QB some security while providing space for Nabers to find his footing.

One highlight of the Saints' forgettable 2023 season was the pass defense -- and one player who shined individually within that unit was Adebo, a second-year pro who tied for the team lead in picks (four). He also ranked third in the NFL in passes defensed (18) and posted the 10th-best passer rating allowed (58.5), according to NGS (min. 400 coverage snaps). Whether or not Derek Carr and the offense can fully cohere after an up-and-down 2023 is still uncertain, but Adebo is one of a handful of young standouts (along with Carl Granderson, Bryan Bresee and Alontae Taylor) who can help keep New Orleans competitive on D while Carr and Co. try to take a step forward.

How's this for being underappreciated? You sign a contract extension, and a local media outlet responds with a write-up about how you could still this season. That's not an outlandish proposition. Though Blankenship led the Eagles in tackles (108), finished third on the team in passes defensed (11) and was the fifth-best defensive-graded player in Philly, per PFF, he was also credited with allowing six touchdowns as the nearest defender last season, tied for ninth-most in the NFL, according to NGS. I'm not here to wallow in Blankenship's shortcomings, however. What I really want is to call out two facts: 1) Blankenship in performance-based pay last season, and 2) He logged an in Week 12 against the Bills, which is the most in a game since 2012. Being able to handle an extraordinary workload on one late-November day obviously isn't everything, but it is something. Whatever direction Blankenship's career takes going forward, his promising 2023 makes me comfortable listing him here at this moment.

San Francisco's been in three straight NFC title games and just lost the Super Bowl -- good luck finding an underappreciated 49er. In fact, Jennings himself was personally responsible for some of the team's biggest moments on the game's biggest stage in February. He also just got paid, landing a with $10.5 million guaranteed, which is more than he would have received had he signed the second-round tender assigned to him as a restricted free agent. Jennings is far from the most famous Niners receiver, though, easily ranking behind Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and probably even rookie Ricky Pearsall in name recognition -- except for among those who thrill to , which, let's be honest, should be everyone. When you're a third or fourth receiver who earns praise from George Kittle (George Kittle!) for , you belong on this list.

Boye Mafe
OLB · Age: 25

Mafe's spot atop the team's sacks leaderboard (nine) can't be ignored. Neither can the franchise record he set for consecutive games with at least one sack (). Seahawks fans are surely aware of his Year 2 breakout. His spot on this list is for anyone who might still see Mafe as somewhat unproven after an unremarkable rookie year, or who might have lost sight of his emergence after the Seahawks fell short of a playoff berth. Mike Macdonald wasn't brought in to salvage a lost defense; he has pieces to work with, and Mafe is definitely a key one.

Diaby racked up his first five career sacks in a six-game span between Weeks 8 and 13, when Tampa was between one and three games under .500 and seemingly in danger of falling into oblivion. By the end of the year, the 2023 third-round pick had claimed a starting job, and the Bucs were NFC South champs. Tampa fans who felt like Diaby should have earned have a case, but his emergence was sudden, and perhaps overshadowed by the many other developments around Baker Mayfield's crew. Even with second-round pick Chris Braswell in the fold, Diaby has a chance to leave no doubt about his quarterback-hunting prowess in Year 2. 

In 2021, Washington chose Cosmi with a second-round draft pick. Since then, the team has changed names, owners, head coaches, front-office leadership and quarterbacks, while Cosmi missed parts of both of his first two seasons with injuries. In 2023, though, he from right tackle to right guard, and things seemed to really click. PFF credited him with just one sack allowed all season, awarding him the second-highest offensive grade of the entire team. With the Dan Quinn-Jayden Daniels era about to kick off, Washington must be glad to know Cosmi has developed into a pass-protecting, run-blocking rock up front.

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