5 underrated offensive difference makers

Of the many ambiguous terms we toss around, “underrated” is among the industry leaders. What exactly constitutes an underrating? And who is doing the rating? We are. We all are.

An underrated player is someone who makes an unexpectedly awesome play, and then you say “hey, who’s that guy?”. Or he can also make you say “hey, how do you pronounce his name?”

Mostly, we’re talking about players you recognize, although they generally don’t (and won’t) post stats that pop off the page, or be an offensive or defensive anchor. But they still play an important and much needed contributing role.

Let’s meet five underrated offensive players.

Marquise Goodwin (wide receiver, Buffalo Bills)

When Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams were added to the Bills’ wide receiver depth chart, Marquise Goodwin slid down. At best he’ll occupy the fourth spot heading into the season, a title with little meaning because his role will remain the same.

Goodwin is stupid fast. The sort of fast that ends in him covering 40 yards in 4.27 seconds, his time at the 2013 Scouting Combine that nearly broke Chris Johnson’s record (4.24). For the Bills, less means more with Goodwin, as that speed is often deployed stealth style.

The element of surprise which comes from Goodwin’s sparse deployment as a home run threat makes him a unique piece in the Bills’ offense, and one that’s used in a highly specific — and pretty predictable — way.

Of the 181 routes Goodwin ran last year, 48 percent were “go” routes (no break, running down the field in a straight line). Here’s how fast he was on those routes: on average he was 33 yards past the line of scrimmage by the time the ball arrived, according to the excellent tape analysis at Buffalo Rumblings.

The result of that downfield burst during his rookie season was three catches for 40 yards or more, despite only 17 total receptions.

Levine Toilolo (tight end, Atlanta Falcons)

If Levine Toilolo and Goodwin raced, the Bills wideout would run the length of a football field before the Falcons tight end reached the 20-yard line. Thing is, Toilolo (stop singing that wretched song) is roughly the size of three Goodwins.

He’s 6’8” and weighs 265, meaning an escalator is needed to reach a ball thrown to the outstretched arms of Tony Gonzalez’s replacement. Due to that lack of anything that resembles speed, it’s unlikely the Falcons will feature him often outside of the red zone, instead showcasing their depth elsewhere with three wide receiver sets.

But scoring time will be Toilolo time. Consider him this year’s Joseph Fauria model, the Lions tight end who believes receptions are a waste of time unless they’re touchdowns. Fauria caught seven touchdown passes in 2013, and needed only 18 total receptions to get there.

Andrew Hawkins (slot receiver, Cleveland Browns)

Josh Gordon is likely about to be lost for the year, leaving newly named Cleveland Browns starting quarterback Brian Hoyer with Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins as his top receivers. Woah boy is right, but in Hawkins there’s intrigue, while with Austin all we have is hamstring pain.

Hawkins is a slot receiver, and is best utilized in space when he can create after the catch. In that role his opportunities were sparse in Cincinnati last year while buried on the depth chart, but similar to Goodwin he still did a lot with little. Of his 12 receptions, three went for over 30 yards.

Without a truly menacing deep threat, the Browns will turn to Jordan Cameron and Hawkins at intermediate depths often.

Lance Dunbar (running back, Dallas Cowboys)

Lance Dunbar may only get a handful of carries per game as the primary backup behind DeMarco Murray in Dallas. But that matters little, because new offensive coordinator Scott Linehan really enjoys passing. So much that last year in Detroit he orchestrated the first offense to have two running backs who each finished with over 500 receiving and rushing yards.

Dunbar has done little so far through two NFL seasons, with only 316 total yards through 21 career games. This year he’ll be a Joique Bell, and be heavily utilized on passing downs.

Khiry Robinson (running back, New Orleans Saints)

The Saints will roll with a three-headed rushing attack, trotting out Khiry Robinson, Mark Ingram, and Pierre Thomas. Robinson’s specific role will be to remain a ball of fury.

At 6’0” and weighing 220 pounds, he has a little more bulk than the other two, though Robinson still isn’t lacking in breakaway speed once he reaches the second level. As an undrafted rookie last year he emerged late, and had 152 rushing yards over the Saints’ final regular-season game and the playoffs, averaging 4.6 yards per carry.

Along with Ingram he’ll be relied on to bring the power, and also be used to supplement some backfield pass catching that left when Darren Sproles departed for Philadelphia.

About Sean Tomlinson

Hello there! This is starting out poorly because I already used an exclamation point. What would you like to know about me? I once worked at a mushroom farm, which is sort of different I guess (don't eat mushrooms). I'm pretty wild too, and at a New Year's Eve party years ago I double-dipped a chip. Oh, and I write about football here and in a few other places around the Internet, something I did previously as the NFL features writer and editor at The Score. Let's be friends.