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NFL’s Most Underrated Players: Lee A Future Star

By Mike Freeman, CBS Sports
Dallas Cowboys
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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 11:  Sean Lee #50 of the Dallas Cowboys returns an interception of 37-yards in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets during their NFL Season Opening Game at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Sean Lee returns an interception of 37-yards in the fourth quarter against the New York Jets during their NFL Season Opening Game at MetLife Stadium on September 11, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

These are the players who deserve a pat on the back. Not because they’re good but because they’re good and remain, in some ways, vastly underappreciated. There are some stars on this list and yes, stars can be underrated, especially when you’re a running back toiling alongside a horrible quarterback, or a wide receiver dissed by his own franchise.

Most of these players are not stars. Their orbit does not sail through Forbes’ list of the most influential athletes. It goes through the mud and the snow and in the corner of the locker room where reporters aren’t doing interviews.

These are the most underrated players in football.

1. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville: There isn’t a tougher running back in football. The quarterbacks he’s played with are a who’s who of the downtrodden, the scrubbish, the interception machines. Names like McCown and Gabbert. And still he churns along. No excuses. No crying. Just production.

If MJD played in New York, he’d be hailed as a hero. If he played with Eli Manning, he’d have two rings. In an era where the passer dominates, Jones-Drew proves that backs still matter.

2. Andre Johnson, WR, Houston: How can Johnson be on both underrated and overrated lists? Because he’s both. He’s overrated because to be a truly devastating wide receiver, you need to score double digits in touchdowns at least once in your career. Johnson is 31 and was drafted in 2003.

But this is why he’s actually underrated. Big time scorers should be able to, you know, score. Johnson hasn’t because he is constantly double teamed (I’ve actually seen where he’s been triple teamed and not infrequently). ESPN blogger Paul Kuharsky comprised several remarkable stats about Houston’s over-reliance on Johnson. Johnson was targeted 58.1 percent of the Texans’ pass attempts to wideouts, highest in football.

Quarterback Matt Schaub completed 70.9 percent of his throws to Johnson and had 31.6 attempts per interception. That’s pretty damn good. Yet he completed 56.5 percent of his passes on 21.6 attempts per pick. That’s pretty bad.

That doesn’t just signal Schaub’s reliance on Johnson. It also says Schaub doesn’t trust the other receivers.

Johnson is underrated because in many ways he’s the entire Houston passing game.

3. Sean Lee, LB, Dallas: Will be a star in this league. Almost already there. The only thing that kept him from being No. 1 was an injury last season.

4. London Fletcher, LB, Washington: The old man who has a remarkable 195 consecutive starts. In a nasty, violent sport this achievement will go down as his most stunning, and that’s saying something.

5. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago: Forte gets injured (he missed four games in 2011 and one last season) and that will be the counter-attack picking him for this list, but imagine that crappy Bears offense without Forte. Imagine if you had to rely on Jay Cutler, the interception machine. Forte has had 1,000-yard seasons in three of his five seasons and the other two were 929 yards and 997 yards. In four of his five seasons, he’s caught at least 50 passes. He’s one of those weapons who isn’t noticed until he’s caught an 89-yard pass for a touchdown, which he has done.

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