The NFL is loaded with star power, and belong to the AFC, which just happens to house most of our . But not every important player is nationally recognized, or at least as much as they should be. That's why we're highlighting some of the conference's most underappreciated talent going into the new year:
Teammate Tremaine Edmunds just left for lucrative bucks, and while Milano makes a pretty penny as well, he doesn't get nearly enough league-wide acclaim as a difference-making linebacker for Sean McDermott's annually feisty defense. The last three times he's started at least 15 games, he's combined for 34 pass deflections and 20 QB hits, affecting the entire field.
Everyone talks about Garrett Wilson and Brock Purdy when it comes to 2022 rookie stars, but Linderbaum seamlessly replaced Bradley Bozeman as a 17-game starter on Baltimore's busy front. While he's got room to grow as a pass blocker, his quickness fits the Ravens' run game like a glove, and he's vital to keeping Lamar Jackson upright with Ronnie Stanley in and out.
Like Matt Milano, he's far from a nobody, but for as productive as he's been, he gets nowhere near the attention he warrants. In three years as a full-timer with the Saints and now Bengals, he's only racked up 35.5 sacks, 30 tackles for loss and 76 QB hits. As the headlining pass rusher for an annual title contender, he belongs in conversations with the best at his position.
New to the scene in Cleveland, the former Rams and Eagles veteran proved with the Colts in 2022 that he's still got savvy deep-safety touch, posting career highs in tackles (96) and pass breakups (8). As a No. 3 and/or utility man in the Browns' secondary, he could also pay dividends for his locker-room leadership. He's the type of role player who can truly help you go places.
His numbers have never been gaudy, but he's been an above-average interior man for at least four years now, dating back to his days with the 49ers. Removed from the Nick Bosa companionship in 2022, he still starred as a top-flight run stuffer in Denver. With 20 tackles for loss and 10 QB hits the last three seasons, he's a legit anchor alongside newcomer Zach Allen.
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A third-round Alabama product in 2022, Harris was busy in 11 rookie starts, chipping in all over the field with six tackles for loss, five pass deflections and three QB hits. New coach DeMeco Ryans has since hailed his "God-given ability" as a future three-down starter, signaling an expanded role -- perhaps as a sort of coverage chess piece a la Fred Warner with the 49ers.
He probably gets enough love in Indy, but what about elsewhere? Do we take into account the fact he's experienced the Colts' infamous QB whirlwind firsthand? Even with Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz as his top arms the last two years, he's totaled 187 catches for 2,007 yards and 10 touchdowns, securing almost 70% of his targets. Get him a real counterpart and let him thrive.
Calvin Ridley is the talk of the town as Trevor Lawrence's new No. 1 opposite Christian Kirk. But let's not forget Jones' clutch emergence after mercurial stops in Buffalo and Las Vegas; after quietly topping 80 catches and 800 yards as Jacksonville's No. 2, he went off for 13-157-1 in the team's two playoff games. He should be even more efficient back in a secondary role.
Center Creed Humphrey rightfully gets lots of love, and new tackles Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor are well-paid. But Thuney has done nothing but live up to his own spendy free-agent deal since coming over from the Patriots. Even with the All-Pro nod as Patrick Mahomes' most accomplished interior protector, he deserves more respect around the NFL.
Like Trey Hendrickson, he's been a steady terror off the edge, only to pale in comparison to guys like Nick Bosa and T.J. Watt in terms of QB-hunting recognition. In his four NFL seasons, he's combined for 37.5 sacks, 65 tackles for loss (including an NFL-leading 22 in 2022) and 93 QB hits. The man stays in opposing pockets, often single-handedly giving life to Vegas' "D."
Is he a superstar at a position that kind of lacks them? Not necessarily. But coming off four straight years with at least 400 yards, including a career-high 555 in his Chargers debut, Everett proved in L.A. to be a requisite safety valve for Justin Herbert, which is more impressive when considering opponents often keyed in on him amid a rash of wide receiver injuries.
All eyes are on the Dolphins' speedy offensive weapons, and Christian Wilkins commands the big money on the defensive front, but his teammate, Sieler, has been almost equally effective against the run, rotating with Emmanuel Ogbah. With 24 tackles for loss and 26 QB hits the last three years, it's no wonder the former Ravens seventh-rounder is reportedly eyeing a new deal.
New England Patriots
If Jack Jones owns the off-field headlines and Jonathan Jones commands respect as the veteran in the room, this Jones clearly has the most overlooked promise at cornerback in Foxborough. An All-Pro returner as a rookie, he also flashed dynamism as an occasional offensive gadget. It'll be a genuine surprise if the Patriots don't feature him even more, in multiple ways, this year.
For years, the Jets got results but also drama with Jamal Adams and then Marcus Maye at safety. Now, Whitehead offers a quieter but just-as-steady presence as the back-end patroller; he's had eight pass breakups in back-to-back years, at least two picks in three straight, and he stands to benefit from Year 2 of the Sauce Gardner experience on Robert Saleh's "D."
We rave about Derwin James and Justin Simmons and Jessie Bates, but this guy should probably lead every conversation about top safeties. While Pat Freiermuth and Cameron Heyward are also worthy candidates here, Fitzpatrick has been an absolute ball-hawking machine since arriving in Pittsburgh, with 17 picks and 38 pass breakups in just under four full seasons.
His fellow D-lineman Jeffery Simmons just got paid the big bucks, but let's give Autry some love for his own longevity in the trenches. He's totaled 37 sacks, 44 tackles for loss, 69 QB hits and 15 pass deflections over his last five seasons with the Colts and Titans, moving between 4-3 and 3-4 systems. Even at 33, he does everything well for a defensive-oriented team.