— Great teams rely on their superstars in clutch situations, but sometimes that's not enough to win. Teams must develop talent. Average players have to become good players. Good players have to become great ones. And sometimes, those players don't get much attention.
With that in mind, here are the NFL's 10 most underrated players.
Kevin Boss, Giants
Boss’ numbers are decent – 27 catches for 315 yards and 5 touchdowns – but they are not the reason the Giants tight end deserves recognition.
“I love the guy,” says Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, who knows a thing or two about tight ends. “He just goes out there and does whatever Tom Coughlin wants. He blocks, he catches the ball, he runs well and he’s tough. He one of the most underrated players I’ve ever seen."
The other big stat that Boss has going for him: The Giants are 16-3 (including last year’s postseason) with Boss in the starting lineup.
Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders
There’s no love lost between Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and the Raiders, the team that fired him 19 years ago. But that doesn’t stop Shanahan from recognizing Asomugha as an outstanding cover man.
“Asomugha is probably the most underrated player to ever play the game,” Shanahan said earlier this year. “He’s never been All-Pro, he’s never been to the Pro Bowl. I don’t know what this guy has to do to get there.”
Asomugha only has one interception this season, but that’s because opposing quarterbacks rarely throw his way. Asomugha has seven passes defensed and 33 tackles in his sixth year with the Raiders.
Chad Pennington, Dolphins
The Dolphins have become respectable again as Bill Parcells and head coach Tony Sparano have changed the team's culture. The team is tougher and more aggressive, but the success also has to do with Pennington's accurate passing and smart execution.
Rendered extraneous by the Jets after they acquired Brett Favre, Pennington has fit in beautifully with the Dolphins. With the playoffs in sight, Pennington has shown great leadership. He has completed 261-of-393 passes for 3,062 yards with 12 TDs and 6 interceptions.
Leon Washington, Jets
Washington is one of the league's most versatile performers and perhaps the Jets’ most valuable. He is a gamebreaker as a running back, receiver, punt returner and kickoff returner. He has impressed Brett Favre with his ability to make big plays.
“I know it’s just a matter of time before Leon makes a big play,” Favre said. “He’s got the quickness and explosiveness that help you when the game is on the line."
Washington is averaging 5.3 yards per carry as a runner and has caught 40 passes. He has 6 touchdowns (4 rushing, 1 receiving and 1 as a kickoff returner).
Andre Johnson, Texans
He’s one of the league's top receivers and nearly every cornerback he has faced knows the talent, strength and determination that Johnson brings with him on an every game basis.
He probably ranks with Randy Moss and Terrell Owens in terms of talent. But while those guys get the headlines and make the highlight films, Johnson continues to linger in the background. He can run past the defender and leap over him. Johnson is also a willing blocker.
He has caught 92 passes for 1,201 yards and 5 TDs and his numbers might be out of sight if Houston quarterback Matt Schaub had not missed five games this season due to injuries.
LaMarr Woodley, Steelers
Steelers opponents certainly know Woodley and his 11.5 sacks. But the sacks don't give the true picture of Woodley as a solid all-around linebacker who can make plays in coverage and is also an excellent and punishing hitter against the run.
At 6-2 and 265 pounds, Woodley can overpower blockers with his strength, but he has outstanding instincts and takes very good angles to the ball. He has 53 tackles, 2 passes defensed and an interception.
Barrett Ruud, Bucs
Why are the Bucs atop the NFC South? The defensive play has been outstanding and nobody brings more to that unit than Ruud.
At 6-2 and 241, Ruud is barely average-sized among linebackers. However, he is a big-time hitter who gets to the ball carrier in a hurry and causes havoc when he makes contact. Ruud is a relentless film student and he considers it his business to know the opponent’s gameplan from start to finish when he steps on the field.
Ruud has 95 tackles and 3 forced fumbles and also gets the job done against the pass. He has 6 passes defensed, 2 interceptions and 3 sacks.
Kyle Orton, Bears
The Bears quarterback situation looked like a cross between miserable and awful during training camp. Yet he has give the Bears relatively mistake-free play throughout the season. Orton reads defenses well and offensive coordinator Ron Turner has not had to limit the Chicago playbook for Orton.
“Kyle is not a game manager,” Turner said. “We have no limitations on him and he is asked to do everything he can to win the game."
An ankle injury has slowed Orton a bit in the second half of the season, but he has completed 212-of-361 passes for 2,414 yards with 15 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Orton’s accuracy was noted by a streak of 205 passes without an interception.
Matt Forte, Bears
When the Bears selected Forte in the second round of last April’s draft, the move was viewed as a bit of a reach by a team that was desperate for a running game. But instead of plucking a green recruit from Tulane, the Bears found a mature player who has run with quickness and authority, catches passes and blocks with a purpose.
Forte has run for 1,081 yards and 6 touchdowns and has a sense of calm and cool in pressure situations.
Steve Slaton, Texans
The Texans have been looking for a consistent ground game since they came into existence in 2002. They may have finally found that rushing attack when they selected Slaton in the 2008 draft.
Slaton isn't big (5-8 and 203 pounds), but he packs a surprising punch when he initiates contact and can break any play the distance once he gets into the open field. He has run for 1,024 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry as a rookie and has opened things up for quarterback Matt Schaub in the passing game.