Who are the AFC East’s most overlooked difference-makers?
The beauty and the frustration of football is that it is a team sport.
Despite the increasing importance of the quarterback in today’s NFL, no team can win a championship with its quarterback alone. Just ask Dan Fouts, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, Donovan McNabb, and Philip Rivers (no Super Bowl victories) or Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Steve Young, and Russell Wilson (one ring each). These players have all had sustained periods of top-of-the-league success while losing in the playoffs year after year.
An NFL roster must be constructed from one through 53 for a team to be successful. Injuries are an unfortunate but integral part of team success, as the next-man-up philosophy is what separates the men from the boys. This means that every season, there are players who help their team but rarely get recognition.
Let’s take a look at some of the under-the-radar contributors in the AFC East from the 2021 season and other potential ones that have joined the division in 2022.
Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, S, Bills
These are two of the most underrated players in the entire NFL. While Tre’Davious White has received recognition for his cornerback play, Hyde and Poyer continue to fly right under the radar.
The pair put up Pro Football Focus grades of 83.8 and 77.7, respectively, with astonishing coverage grades of 89.8 and 86.8 (2nd and 6th among 62 qualifying safeties). Good luck throwing deep on the Bills; these two will blanket receivers and tight ends alike. Hyde and Poyer helped the Bills’ defense allow the fewest pass completions, total yards, net yards gained per pass attempt, passing touchdowns, and passing first downs across the NFL.
Poyer gave up 4.7 yards per reception on a 46.4 reception rate across 28 targets, both the lowest marks of any safety in the NFL. Hyde led all safeties with six interceptions.
These guys show up on film and all over the stat sheet. They are, hands-down, the best safety one-two punch in the NFL, and they barely get recognition for it.
Michael Onwenu, OG/OT, Patriots
Onwenu posted the best PFF grade of any Patriots player in 2021. He earned an 87.0 mark, third among 63 qualifying guards in the NFL. His run-blocking was unstoppable, earning him an 89.8 grade, also third in the league.
Onwenu split time between guard and tackle in 2021, and he’s listed on the Patriots’ depth chart as a tackle. Either way, he has quietly become a force to be reckoned with on the Patriots’ offensive line, fueling their strong rushing attack and taking the pressure off Mac Jones.
Connor Williams, OG, Dolphins
While everyone talks about the Dolphins’ bigger moves this offseason, including the trade for Tyreek Hill and the signing of Terron Armstead, Williams’s arrival is quietly a major move for Miami, as well.
The Dolphins had one of the poorer offensive lines in the league last season, putting up the third-worst PFF run-blocking grade and ranking third-worst in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric (which attempts to separate offensive line play from running back play). The Dolphins allowed 40 sacks, ranking 21st in the league.
Williams comes in with a strong rep in both pass and run blocking. He put up PFF grades of 74.0 and 76.9 in each respective category. His overall grade of 75.9 was 11th out of 82 guards. Williams has improved in each of his seasons in the league.
Although he had a penalty problem last season, taking the second-most penalties among guards with 15, Williams’s arrival in Miami further steadies a line that was the team’s biggest weakness in 2020.
John Franklin-Myers, DL, Jets
Jets fans will wonder at this ranking, seeing as Franklin-Myers was the team’s best defensive player last season. Despite that, how many fans across the league even know JFM’s name?
Playing as an edge rusher, Franklin-Myers posted an 80.3 PFF grade, the 12th out of 65 edge rushers (min. 500 snaps). He played pretty strongly against both the run and pass, with a 75.5 run defense grade (5th) and a 74.1 pass rush mark (20th).
Those numbers are likely to invert next season as Franklin-Myers moves inside, where he is a stronger pass rusher but weaker run defender due to his smaller size (288 pounds). Still, JFM provides immeasurable value to the Jets, and his contract was just rated the team’s best value signing by PFF.
Other underrated players
Michael Carter, RB, Jets: Carter led the league in missed tackles forced per touch and put up a 77.3 run grade as a rookie. Injuries prevented his cumulative numbers from popping off the page. Still, Carter is poised to be part of a lethal one-two running back punch with Breece Hall.
Laken Tomlinson, LG, Jets: Tomlinson was the Jets’ biggest free agency addition. His 82.6 zone-blocking grade will slot right into Mike LaFleur’s offense. The Pro Bowler will also help accelerate Alijah Vera-Tucker’s development.
Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stephenson, RB, Patriots: The Patriots always pull out random running backs who succeed in their system. These guys were no different, posting 86.6 and 81.1 PFF grades while each averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Great value for a 3rd and 4th round pick.
Adrian Phillips, S, Patriots: Phillips’s 80.0 PFF grade is exceeded only by his 84.5 coverage mark. The Patriots used Phillips all over the field last season, splitting time between the box, free safety, and slot corner. He’s also on a steal of a contract.
Zach Sieler, interior DL, Dolphins: Sieler plays about 50% of the Dolphins’ snaps, but he makes them count. He ranked fifth among interior defensive linemen with 34 run stops, earning an 84.9 PFF grade that is totally underestimated across the league. Sieler doesn’t pop out in the box score, but he certainly shows up on film.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Dolphins: Bridgewater may be the best backup quarterback in the NFL. If Tua Tagovailoa struggles or gets hurt, the Dolphins still have a good chance to make a run. Some would even argue that he gives Miami the best chance to win. Eventually someone will realize that Teddy is one of the top 32 quarterbacks in the league.
Cedrick Wilson, WR, Dolphins: Wilson posted a 71.6 receiving grade with Dallas last season and has a chance to light it up as the slot receiver in Mike McDaniel’s offense. He recorded 602 receiving yards and six touchdowns on only 61 targets.
Gabriel Davis, WR, Bills: Davis made his name in the playoff game vs. the Chiefs, going off for four touchdowns. He is poised for a bigger role with Buffalo this season. He showed teams that they cannot sell out to cover Stephon Diggs.
Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Bills: His PFF grade was 23rd out of 63 qualifying edge rushers, not bad for a rookie. This came on the strength of his run defense, as he tied for the league lead among edge rushers with 32 run stops. Rousseau will garner more favorable matchups this season with Von Miller opposite him.