In football, it’s often easy for key players to get a little lost in the shuffle, which is why we wanted to find a way to pay homage to some of the more underrated NFL players in league history.
Unlike overrated football players who are often stars who have been given way too much credit, the most underrated NFL players of all time have made big contributions without too much fanfare. That’s something we’d like to rectify right now.
Underrated NFL players
But who are the most underrated players in NFL history? There are a lot of good candidates, so narrowing our list down to 10 wasn’t easy.
However, we took a long look back at the history of the league and picked out 10 underappreciated NFL players who deserve a special mention. While we could have included a few more, here is our list of the 10 most underrated players in NFL history.
10. Mark Schlereth
Today, most people know Mark Schlereth mostly as an analyst, but he was also one of the most underrated NFL players of his day. His NFL story is quite amazing, as he grew up in Alaska, played his college football at Idaho, and was then selected in the 10th round of the 1989 Draft.
He never fit the profile of someone who was going to succeed in the NFL. But even as the 263rd overall pick in his draft class, Schlereth started 140 games over 12 seasons. He was a key part of a lot of good offensive lines, which is why he won three Super Bowls with two different teams.
9. Ken Norton Jr.
As the son of a famous boxer, Ken Norton was always known for his toughness and hitting ability. Yet, his efforts are often underappreciated, as he only made the Pro Bowl three times in his 13 seasons.
Over those 13 years, Norton averaged close to 100 tackles per season, which is impressive for a player who had such a long career. He remains the only player in NFL history to win three straight Super Bowls, as he was a part of back-to-back championships with the Cowboys and then won another Super Bowl with the 49ers.
Norton often gets lost in the shuffle amidst a sea of other great linebackers from the 90s, but he’s not far behind some of the best of all time at that position.
8. Bryant Young
While he finally got into the Hall of Fame in 2022, it’s hard not to look at Bryant Young as one of the great underrated defensive players in NFL history, as he needed to wait more than a decade after retiring to get Canton.
He played 14 seasons as a defensive tackle and rarely missed a game. Even at a position that doesn’t rack up a lot of eye-popping numbers, Young had eight seasons with at least eight sacks, including one year with 11.5 sacks. Among defensive tackles, he ranks sixth on the all-time sacks list. Then why did it take him so long to get into the Hall of Fame?
7. Warrick Dunn
Warrick Dunn deserves far more credit than he’s received for playing 12 seasons in the NFL as a running back, especially one who was always undersized at just 5’9’’ and 187 pounds. Despite his size, Dunn won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 1997.
He ended up putting together five seasons with over 1,000 rushing yards, not to mention four seasons with at least 400 receiving yards. He was a little ahead of his time as a dual-threat running back and actually had some of his best seasons in the back half of his career.
6. Henry Ellard
Henry Ellard is one of the great forgotten players of yesteryear. He put together a long career, playing from 1983 to 1998. In the middle of his NFL career, he qualified for the Olympic trials in the triple jump but had an injury keep him from getting to the 1992 Olympics.
Nevertheless, he was a three-time Pro Bowler and led the NFL in receiving yards in 1988. Despite racking up over 13,000 career receiving yards and 65 touchdowns, Ellard isn’t in the Hall of Fame, even though virtually every other receiver with comparable career numbers is enshrined in Canton.
5. Ken Riley
It’s almost appalling that Ken Riley isn’t in the Hall of Fame. He played 15 seasons in the NFL, all with the Bengals, and was constantly overlooked even then. Riley was one of the best cornerbacks of his generation and a true ball hawk, amassing 65 interceptions during his career, including five that he turned into touchdowns the other way.
When he retired, he ranked fourth on the all-time list for interceptions. All three players ahead of him are Hall of Famers, so it makes no sense for the late Riley to not be a Hall of Famer too.
4. Fred Taylor
Fred Taylor is one of the most underrated running backs of all time and one of the underrated NFL players of the 2000s. Granted, expectations were high for him as a top-10 pick. But he rushed for over 1,200 yards in two of his first three seasons in the league.
Taylor seemed to get better with time, peaking between years five and 10 in the NFL, rushing for over 1,100 yards five times in six seasons. In fact, his 10th season in the league ended up being one of his best and the only year that he went to the Pro Bowl.
Taylor surely deserved more than one Pro Bowl selection, and the fact that he played 13 seasons as a running back in the NFL doesn’t get him enough credit either, which is why he’s one of the great underrated NFL players in league history.
3. Ken Anderson
Ken Anderson is easily the most underrated quarterback of all time. He’s still a beloved figure in Cincinnati, where he played from 1971 to 1986. During that time, he led the league in passer rating four times and passing yards twice.
Anderson also won MVP honors the same year he won Comeback Player of the Year. He also helped the Bengals win more than the franchise ever had before, including their first-ever Super Bowl appearance. It’s a shame that he’s not in the Hall of Fame because Anderson had a long and productive career with his efforts still being underappreciated outside of Cincinnati.
2. Rod Smith
Rod Smith is another example of a player who was overlooked every step of the way but ended up putting together an impressive career. Nevertheless, his exclusion from the Hall of Fame makes him one of the most underrated NFL players of all time.
Despite being undrafted, Smith played 14 seasons in the NFL, all with the Broncos. In Denver, he became a favorite target of John Elway and formed one of the NFL’s most underrated receiver tandems of all time along with Ed McCaffrey. Smith helped the Broncos to win two Super Bowls while going to the Pro Bowl three times and leading the NFL in receptions in 2001. He’s truly one of the great overlooked NFL players of all time.
1. Corey Dillon
Somehow, Corey Dillon is always overlooked as one of the best running backs of his generation. He began his career with six consecutive seasons with 1,100 rushing yards or more, amassing at least 1,200 rushing yards in four of those seasons.
Dillon set a career-high in his eighth pro season with over 1,600 rushing yards in 2004, helping the Patriots to win the Super Bowl that season. Even when he slowed down a little late in his career, he was still a productive runner.
In the end, Dillon played 10 seasons in the league and retired with over 11,000 career rushing yards, putting him in the top 20 of all-time rushers, which is a feat that few recognize, making him the most underrated player in league history.