A week ago today, I wrote one of my favorite articles of the year, and the beginning of a series that I will be continuing with the AFC North, and other divisions into August. In a league full of so much talent, a lot of amazing players get swept under the rug.
After listing off the AFC East, I realized one of my problems. Although the players I listed are heavily underrated, some of them play in premium positions. There are players at less regarded positions that deserve even more respect for putting in the dirty work.
That’s why today, I am strengthening my analysis for the AFC North. Digging deeper, looking into advanced statistics, and finally determining who the most underrated players are.
This time, we head to the AFC North. Not only is it a division filled with underrated players, but it may be one of the most underrated divisions in football. With 4 teams with legitimate playoff ability, the unseen value of their players is more valuable than most.
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Cincinnati Bengals – D.J. Reader, DT
D.J. Reader is an incredible run stuffer and line mover for Cincy. He does a job that doesn’t involve much recognition, and he takes a lot of heat from opposing offensive linemen.
However, you need to give Reader credit for how he opened up the defense. He played an integral role in making the Bengals’ front seven so successful. Logan Wilson’s breakout year, although mostly due to his own ability, was helped by Reader opening up the O-Line.
Reader had 43 tackles and 2 sacks during the 2021 season, yet he played less than 60% of defensive snaps. He had an 80.8 PFF grade on the season, which is closing in on the Pro Bowl category. He’s an incredible defensive threat, and will only improve this next season in the AFC North.
Cleveland Browns – Greg Newsome II, CB
Everybody sings their praises for Denzel Ward, the star defensive back for the Browns. However, people forget that Newsome had a pretty good AFC North rookie season.
Defending the weak side, he had a major impact on the Browns’ defense. He only played 12 games during his rookie campaign, but he still managed to rack up 33 solo tackles. He was top 25 in targets allowed and was 18th in yards of separation from his receiver while attempting a catch.
He has elite breakaway speed, always finds a way to recover, and in his 12 games played, only allowed a single touchdown.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Pat Freiermuth, TE
One of the most dynamic tight ends in the league, and AFC North, he could easily be thrown into top 5 conversations next year. His skills as a pass catcher and an elite blocker remind me somewhat of George Kittle.
He ended the season with almost 500 yards and 7 touchdowns, even with Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback. Roethlisberger had significant trouble throwing the deep ball and may have been the reason the team failed to succeed. However, with Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett at QB, they have the arm talent to get him the ball downfield in situations where he can succeed.
I project over 700 yards for Freiermuth in 2021, possibly more depending on consistent QB play. If Trubisky can reach his potential, we may see Freiermuth hit number 4 in tight end receiving yards.
Baltimore Ravens – Tyler Huntley, QB
Some may find it interesting how I chose a backup quarterback as an underrated player for a team. But please, watch him play before you make that same judgment.
Huntley started 4 games from the Ravens, and he made a pretty good impact. Sure, he threw some picks, but he is a backup quarterback on an injured roster that got his first taste of NFL minutes.
Tyler played good minutes in 5 games of the season. Of those 5, he started in 4. In every start except for 1, he threw for over 200 yards, and in the only game he didn’t, he threw for 197. Every game he played was a close game, with everyone ending within one possession.
Speaking of those games, he lost by 1 point to the Super Bowl champions, the reigning 2-time MVP, and went to overtime with a playoff-bound Steelers squad. If given the chance somewhere, he may be a serviceable quarterback and may be one of the best backups in the league.