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Decade's 25 most underrated players

By Aaron Schatz

Football Outsiders

Football Outsiders analyzes the 25 most underrated players of the current decade, going back to 2000. Some of these comments will mention our advanced statistics, including DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) -- which takes every play during the season and compares it to the league average based on situation and opponent -- and DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) -- which uses a similar method to measure a player's total value compared to a "replacement-level" player. These and other advanced stats are explained here.

1. Derrick Mason: Mason has seven different seasons with at least 1,000 receiving yards and ranks seventh overall in total wide receiver DYAR for the decade. He ranked among the top 20 wide receivers in DYAR (total value) for five straight years in Tennessee, then did it again last year in Baltimore. He also ranked among the top four wide receivers in DVOA (value per play) three times in four years (2000, 2001 and 2003), and he has put up an above average catch rate every single year this decade, including two years over 70 percent. Yet somehow, he's only made two Pro Bowls.

2. Matt Lepsis: Lepsis anchored the fabulous Denver offensive line for five years at starting right tackle, starting left tackle for another four, but never made a Pro Bowl. Honestly, that's a little mind blowing.

3. Adrian Wilson: For three straight years (2004-2006) Wilson made his average run tackle closer to the line of scrimmage than any other safety. In 2005, he was the only safety responsible for at least 15 percent of his team's total tackles. He also had eight sacks that year. He was the first safety since 2001 with more than five sacks in one season. For years, he was one of the top two or three safeties against the run and the pass. The only reason we didn't put him at No. 1 is that recently he has started winning the acclamation he deserves.

4. Aaron Smith: A consistent performer in one of the league's most consistently strong defenses. Twice, Smith had eight sacks in a season, despite being a 3-4 end whose job isn't to get to the quarterback. He's only made one Pro Bowl because apparently, Richard Seymour always fills the quota for 3-4 ends who soak up blockers without impressive statistics.

5. Shaun O'Hara: O'Hara was fine as a guard in Cleveland, even better as a center in New York, holding down the middle of one of the best offensive lines in the league, but he never made the Pro Bowl until 2008 at age 31.

6. Dan Koppen: This 2003 fifth-round pick went right into the starting lineup, and won two Super Bowls in his first two seasons. The New England line has seen inconsistency at the tackle positions, but never at center. Still, Koppen has only one Pro Bowl selection, 2007.

7. Bobby Engram: The Third Down Machine. For most of this decade, nobody was better at moving the chains. Engram put up a 67 percent or better catch rate for six straight years, 2002-2007. He ranks 31st among wide receivers in receptions this decade, despite having only three seasons in which he started at least eight games.

8. Keith Bulluck: Bulluck is one stable anchor in a Tennessee defense that has had up and down performances because of salary cap constraints. Year after year, Bulluck has led his team among outside linebackers in highest percentage of defensive plays, with numbers similar to inside linebackers on other teams. He might be underrated because he rarely rushes the passer. Aaron Curry, this is your future.

9. Shawn Springs: Springs came out of Ohio State as the good Lord's gift to pass defense, and looked like a Hall of Famer in 1998-99. He got hurt in 2001, came back a little slower and suddenly everyone forgot about him. Fans often think of Springs as a guy who "used to be good," but the fact is that when healthy, he's still very good, and he's always been very good. He's just not the Hall of Famer people originally expected, and he's much better at coverage than at making big plays (only 19 interceptions since 2000).

10. London Fletcher: Tackle totals can be awfully misleading. You have to consider how many plays a defense is on the field, and the middle linebacker will almost always lead the team in tackles. Still, you have to give Fletcher some serious credit for leading his team in tackles for 10 straight seasons. He hasn't missed a start since 1999, but he's never made the Pro Bowl, partly because during his best years he was stuck behind Ray Lewis and Zach Thomas in the AFC pecking order.

11. John Abraham: Abraham ranks second in total sacks since 2000, behind Jason Taylor. He's had five seasons with 10 or more sacks, plus a sixth season with 9½ in 12 games. He was a first-round pick and was later traded for a first-round pick, but he's oddly under the radar. He hasn't made the Pro Bowl since 2004, even with 16½ sacks last season.

12. Al Wilson: Yes, he was a Pro Bowl regular, but few fans knew who he was. Perhaps he needed to jazz up his name with more apostrophes (D'Al Wil'son?) or let NFL Films mic him up every other game as it does with Ray Lewis. The Denver defense has completely imploded since a neck injury ended Wilson's career in 2006.

13. Chad Pennington: The NFL's version of Bret Saberhagen, Pennington always has been one of the league's best quarterbacks when healthy. The problem is that he only seems to be healthy every other year. Pennington ranked among the most valuable quarterbacks, according to Football Outsiders' DYAR stats, four times: 2002 (second), 2004 (10th), 2006 (seventh) and 2008 (sixth). That sound you hear is the 2009 Dolphins saying "Uh-oh."

14. Torry Holt: Everybody knows he's good, and he has made seven Pro Bowls. But at no time this decade did conventional wisdom hold that Holt was the best wide receiver in football, and for some reason nobody includes him in the conversation, even though he leads all receivers in catches and yards this decade and is fourth in total receiving value (by DYAR).

15. Brian Westbrook: People finally have realized how good he is and how important he is to the Eagles' offense, but guess what: he has been this good the whole time. In fact, he's been better in the past than his recent statistics show. Last year, Westbrook had career lows in both yards per carry and yards per reception, but he ranked among the top three running backs in our DVOA stats (value per play) three times -- 2003, 2006 and 2007 -- and ranked among the top five running backs in receiving DYAR (total value) for five straight seasons.

16. Kelly Gregg: Nose tackle is an underrated position in general, but is extremely important to the success of strong 3-4 defenses. Guys like Casey Hampton, Vince Wilfork and Jamal Williams have received that all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii and the accolades that go with it, but in Baltimore, Gregg spent six years quietly holding down the middle for one of the league's best run defenses and never made a Pro Bowl, partly because, with the 3-4 primarily an AFC-only scheme for most of the decade, he had to stand in line behind those other equally deserving players.

17. David Akers: If we're making an all-decade team, Akers should be the kicker, not Adam Vinatieri. No kicker has been as consistent and as well-rounded when it comes to both field goals and kickoffs than Akers. Philadelphia ranked 11th or higher in both placekicking and kickoffs every year from 2000-2004. For the decade, we estimate that Philadelphia has gained 31.4 points on field goals, compared to the average team, second only to Baltimore, and 65.0 points on kickoffs, second only to Atlanta.

18. Antonio Pierce: For an undrafted free agents to make it in the league, they need to get an edge any way they can. In Pierce's case, it's maniacal film study that leads to superior preparation and the ability to overcome his athletic limitations. The Giants defense rose from 21st to 11th in our DVOA ratings after his arrival in 2005, and has remained in the upper half of the league ever since. His single-handed read and stop of a screen pass against three Green Bay blockers in the 2007 NFC Championship Game was one of the plays of the decade.

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Adrian Wilson should be number one. Brian Westbrook should be off. People are always slurping him when I watch Eagles games. Andre Johnson should be on here too. Dude is the best WR in the league, but gets no love when people name the top WR. Springs and Fletcher are in the right spot

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Okay, now is it that Namndi Asomguha isn't on this list? Didn't John Gruden say he was the most underrated player in the HISTORY of the NFL? I've seen that guy play and he's a rare type of corner. He doesn't have numbers because nobody throws it to his side of the field. You just put him on a guy and forget it, that guy is no longer a factor. He should be at the very top of the list, even if he's playing on a sub-par team like Oakland.

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10. London Fletcher: Tackle totals can be awfully misleading. You have to consider how many plays a defense is on the field, and the middle linebacker will almost always lead the team in tackles. Still, you have to give Fletcher some serious credit for leading his team in tackles for 10 straight seasons. He hasn't missed a start since 1999, but he's never made the Pro Bowl, partly because during his best years he was stuck behind Ray Lewis and Zach Thomas in the AFC pecking order.

Finally some love for London. I love that guy, all heart.

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