Underappreciated players on every NFC team: 49ers' Brandon Aiyuk leads group of undervalued stars

There are plenty of players in the NFL who never seem to get the recognition they deserve, no matter how well they perform. Some of those players are already stars in the league, while others have yet to establish the footing of their counterparts. 

Not only are these players performing at a high level, the value of their contracts significantly benefits the overall roster. These types of players aren’t necessarily underpaid, but their contract is undervalued (essentially they are outperforming it). 

Regardless of the contract, these players continue to perform week in and week out and play a massive role in leading their teams to victories. The NFC has a few players who outperform their contracts (whether it’s on a rookie salary or not), resulting in them being “undervalued” or “underappreciated.” So who’s that one player on each team?

Keep in mind the fan bases of said teams don’t undervalue these players, but fans around the league might if they are not watching every single snap of this player. 

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McBride rewrote the record books for tight ends in Arizona. In just his second season, McBride set the franchise record for receptions in a season by a tight end (81) and has the most receiving yards by a tight end since the franchise moved to Arizona in 1988 (825).

Only Jackie Smith (1,205 receiving yards in 1967) has more receiving yards by a tight end in a season for the franchise than McBride, who was the top receiving option in Arizona last year. Smith had the top-six seasons for receiving yards by a tight end for the franchise until McBride last year. 

Having a cap number of just $1,718,089 in 2024, McBride is one of the top value tight ends in the league. He’s primed for another huge season. 

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Perhaps Elliss was an excellent scheme fit for former defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, but he played a massive role in the Falcons’ defensive turnaround last year. Elliss only rushed the passer 95 times last season and notched 26 pressures (pressure rate of 27.4%), while finishing with six quarterback hits and four sacks. 

Elliss played a mix of off-ball linebacker and pass rusher, making hm valuable as a hybrid player in today’s NFL. He finished with 122 tackles (82 solo), helping the Falcons defense improve from 29th in points allowed per possession (2.27) and 31st in yards allowed per possession (36.2) to 15th (1.86) and seventh (28.0). 

Even under a different defensive coordinator (Jimmy Lake), Elliss still has an excellent contract with a cap number of $8.5 million over the next two years. He’ll be a vital part of the Falcons defense in 2024. 

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Perhaps the Panthers overpaid Hunt, but the market dictated Hunt was going to get an average annual salary of $20 million a year ($63 million guaranteed in five-year, $100 million deal). Carolina’s offensive line also allowed 65 sacks and a sack rate of 10.0% (31st in NFL), along with a pressure rate of 41.1% (29th in NFL). This is the same offensive line that didn’t help Bryce Young at all in his rookie season, so signing Hunt to that contract was needed. 

Hunt had a career year last season for the Dolphins, despite playing just 11 games. He allowed just one sack and three pressures in 315 pass-blocking snaps (1.0% pressure rate allowed per dropback), a significant upgrade over what Carolina had at guard last season.

For Year 1 of the deal, Hunt has a cap number of $6.45 million. The Panthers will certainly live with the contract (cap number rises to $21.65 million in 2025) if Young remains upright. 

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The impact Sweat make on Chicago’s defense transformed that side of the ball. The first player to lead two teams in sacks in a season, Sweat had six sacks, 37 pressures, and 14 quarterback hits in nine games with the Bears — a pressure rate of 13.8%. The Bears defense allowed 17.9 points per game (5th in NFL) and 309.2 yards per game (10th in NFL). 

Since Sweat arrived, the Bears had a plus-7 turnover margin (fourth in NFL). Sweat finished his 2023 season with 12.5 sacks, 64 pressures, and 25 quarterback hits. Sweat is in the first year of a four-year, $98 million extension with a cap number of $25,085,294 each year. 

What Sweat brought to the Bears can’t be underestimated. 

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Not only was Smith one of the most improved offensive linemen in the league last year, he was one of the game’s best guards.  A Second Team All-Pro in his first full season playing the position, Smith allowed just one sack and 15 pressures in 565 pass-blocking snaps last season, a pressure rate allowed per dropback of 2.7%. 

Smith has the makings of a franchise left guard, and only has a cap number of $3,651,577 in 2024. With guards making over $20 million a year now, the Cowboys have Smith for two more years on his rookie deal. They’ll certainly take that value with all the players that need to be paid in the coming months. 

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The impact Gibbs had on the Lions offense was more than good enough to win rookie of the year honors, yet Gibbs fell into a year where Puka Nacua broke receiving records. 

A Pro Bowler in Year 1, Gibbs led all rookies with 10 rushing touchdowns, while producing the second-most rushing yards (945) and the third-most scrimmage yards (1,261). He finished first in rushing yards before contact (377), second in rushing yards after contact (568), second in missed tackles forced on rushes (40) and second in rushing first downs (42).

Gibbs was third in the NFL in yards per carry (5.3) and was one of just three rookies in NFL history to have 80+ rushing yards, 80+ receiving yards and two touchdowns in a single postseason. 

The Lions have a franchise back in Gibbs, who has a cap number of just $4,055,713 this year. 

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Who was the leading receiver on the Packers last season? That would be Reed, who burst onto the scene as a rookie as a reliable target for Jordan Love. Reed became the first Green Bay rookie to lead the team in catches (64) and receiving yards (793) since Sterling Sharpe in 1988.

Reed’s 10 receptions of 30+ yards tied Puka Nacua for the most among rookies in the NFL. He was one of only three players in the NFL this season to have 8+ receiving touchdowns and multiple rushing touchdowns (CeeDee Lamb, Jakobi Meyers) and was just the third rookie in NFL history to hit those marks in a season (Ray Ramsey in 1947 and Chase Claypool in 2020).

Reed became the first rookie in NFL history to have 100+ rushing yards, multiple rushing touchdowns, 60+ receptions, 750+ receiving yards and 8+ receiving touchdowns in a season. He’s a massive part of the Packers future and has three years left on his rookie contract ($1,631,995 cap number in 2024). 

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Kobie Turner earned plenty of recognition in 2023 as a rookie, but Young was also impactful on the defensive line. Young finished with eight sacks, 50 pressures, and 19 quarterback hits in 17 games — a pressure rate of 10.7%. 

Young played 917 defensive snaps in 2023, the most among rookie defensive players. He was second among rookies in sacks (8.0), behind only Turner (9.0), while being tied for first in quarterback hits and tied for second in pressures. 

The Rams have a future on the edge with Young, and have him on his rookie contract with a cap hit of $1,262,554 in 2024. 

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The Vikings are going to miss Hockenson if he misses the start of the season recovering from his ACL injury. There is no timetable for Hockenson’s return, as Minnesota will have to find a way to replace one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the game. 

Minnesota knows how valuable Hockenson is to the offense, as he finished with a career-high 95 catches for 960 yards in 2023. Only Hockenson and Travis Kelce have finished with 80+ catches and 900+ receiving yards in each of the last two seasons, adding even more importance as a  pass catcher in the Vikings offense. 

The Vikings need Hockenson back if they are going to compete for the NFC North in 2024, and help J.J. McCarthy’s development in the process. 

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Another year Shaheed should be well known around the league for his big-play ability. Shaheed is third in the NFL in yards per reception (16.3) over the last two seasons, while also leading the league in yards per target (11.1) during that stretch. 

An All-Pro in 2023, Shaheed tied for the NFL lead in punt-return touchdowns (1) and was 10th in all-purpose yards (1,479). He was also third in kick and punt return yards (723) and third in punt-return average (13.6). 

The Saints have a big-play threat in Shaheed, who can score a touchdown every time he touches the ball. He only makes $985,000 this season too. 

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Lawrence is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL and the Giants’ best player. A Second Team All-Pro for the second consecutive year, Lawrence had 4.5 sacks and 21 quarterback hits last season.

Those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Lawrence got to the quarterback as an interior pass rusher, finishing with 65 pressures and a 15.3% pressure rate (both career highs). He was tied for fourth in the NFL among interior defensive linemen in pressures and pressure rate, as well as being tied for sixth in quarterback hits. 

One of the game’s elite interior linemen, Lawrence is in the first year of a new four-year deal. He has a cap hit of $14,575,776 this year. 

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The Eagles owned up to their mistake of letting Gardner-Johnson walk in free agency by bringing him back on a three-year deal after one season with the Lions. Gardner-Johnson tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (six) in his 12 games with the Eagles in 2022, a vital part of their No. 2 pass defense that season. He had a 63.8 passer rating in coverage for the Eagles in 2022, along with a career-high 67 tackles.

While Gardner-Johnson played just three games with the Lions last year (22.6 passer rating when targeted), the Eagles missed his personality in their defense. The pass defense went from No. 2 in the league to No. 31, while also allowing 35 touchdowns (all without Gardner-Johnson in the secondary). 

Gardner-Johnson worked in a Vic Fangio-style defense. The Eagles are banking on that again, with Gardner-Johnson having a $2,682,353 cap hit in 2024. Excellent value for a player vital toward their defense. 

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The 49ers have not given Aiyuk a contract extension yet, but this should have been taken care of months ago. Aiyuk proved in 2023 he’s the best wide receiver on the 49ers after having the best season of his career. 

Aiyuk had 1,342 receiving yards last year (seventh in NFL) and joined Jerry Rice as the only players in franchise history with 7+ 100-yard receiving games in a season. He averaged 3.1 yards per route run in 2023, the third-best rate in the NFL behind Tyreek Hill and Nico Collins (minimum 400 routes). Aiyuk was second in the league in yards per catch (17.9) and led the NFL in percentage of catches going for a first town or touchdown (81.3%). 

Aiyuk is the first player in 49ers’ history with 55+ catches, 740+ yards and 5+ touchdowns in each of his first four seasons. He’s 11th in receiving yards (2,357), 16th in yards per catch (15.4) and tied for 11th in receiving touchdowns (15) over the last two seasons — all while being the No. 2 wideout on a stacked 49ers roster.

Playing under the fifth-year option on his rookie deal at $14.124 million, Aiyuk is worth significantly more than what he’ll make this season. With the wide receiver market booming, Aiyuk deserves to get a hefty raise — from the 49ers or someone else. 

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After a career year in 2022 with the Giants, the Seahawks couldn’t have asked for more out of Love in his first season with the team. Love notched a career-high four interceptions while allowing two pass touchdowns and a 54.2 passer rating when targeted by opposing quarterbacks (the lowest mark of his career). 

Love also had 123 tackles and a career-high 10 passes defended in earning his first Pro Bowl selection. Now, he’s going to play in Mike Macdonald’s scheme, which significantly benefits secondaries.

In the final year of his contract, Love has a cap number of $8.09 million in 2024. The Seahawks have excellent value for a player who was productive against the run and pass last season. 

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The Buccaneers were wise to keep Winfield in the fold and reward him with a four-year, $84.1 million contract after a dominant 2023 season. Winfield was one of just three players in the NFL last season to post 100+ tackles (122) and 6+ sacks (6), and the only safety to accomplish the feat. He also led the league with six forced fumbles and was an All-Pro. 

Winfield also allowed a 46.1 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks when targeted and just one passing touchdown with three interceptions. He can make the case as the Buccaneers’ best player last season. 

For a player who has a cap number of $8 million (up to $25 million next season), there isn’t a price that can be paid on how valuable Winfield is to the Buccaneers roster. 

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The Commanders had one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL last season, allowing 65 sacks (tied for second-most in NFL) and a pressure rate of 38.7% (ninth-worst). Don’t blame Cosmi for any of that. 

Cosmi started all 17 games, allowing one sack and 30 pressures in 736 pass-blocking snaps (pressure rate allowed per dropback of 4.1%). Washington moved Cosmi inside to guard and he became one of the best in the league. 

Having a cap number of $3.66 million in the final year of his rookie deal, Cosmi is set to get paid. For what he gave the Commanders in 2023, he was one of the best value players in the league. 

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