It’s not hard to figure out which position groups are the best in the NFL. The Giants have the enviable trio of Odell Beckham Jr., Brandon Marshall, and Sterling Shepard at wide receiver. And the Patriots have Tom Brady under center, but Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett also got New England off to a 3-1 start last year while Brady served his DeflateGate suspension.
Defensively, look at Broncos cornerbacks Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, and Chris Harris Jr., or the Seahawks’ starting safeties, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Denver’s No Fly Zone allowed just over 185 passing yards per game last season. The Seahawks’s defense was highly ranked like usual, but was never the same after Thomas went down with a broken leg late in the year.
So that was the easy part. Deciding which teams are underrated ... well, there’s a little more room for debate there. But there are plenty of position groups around the league that don’t get the credit they deserve.
Cincinnati Bengals quarterbacks
Andy Dalton, AJ McCarron, Jeff Driskel
The Bengals’ quarterback situation is one that doesn’t get close to the same attention as the Patriots’ does for obvious reasons. But they still possess one of the better groups of quarterbacks in the NFL, where backups are more valuable than ever.
Andy Dalton has proven to be a good quarterback since entering the league in 2011 — and has reduced his interceptions by more than half the past two seasons. His backup, AJ McCarron, filled in for an injured Dalton in seven games in 2015, completing 66 percent of his passes for 854 yards and six scores. McCarron was considered one of the more prized quarterbacks for teams to acquire this offseason, but the Bengals decided to hold on to him.
As for Jeff Driskel, well ... he’s just there.
Detroit Lions running backs
Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, Dwayne Washington, Matt Asiata
Admittedly, this is banking on health. Abdullah missed most of the 2016 season with a foot injury, while Riddick is recovering from double wrist surgery.
Abdullah is heading into his third season and has yet to put it all together, but he’s shown to be a dynamic playmaker when healthy. Riddick has already proven himself as one of the best pass-catching RBs in the league, hauling in 80 catches in 2015. Zenner, Washington, and Asiata don’t have the same skills, but they’re perfectly serviceable at grinding out yards between the tackles.
A lot depends on injury luck, but when everyone is ready to go, the Lions’ backfield boasts an eclectic and versatile group of players.
Los Angeles Chargers wide receivers
Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin, Dontrelle Inman, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams
It’s often discussed how Philip Rivers hasn’t had enough threats around him during his career. Last season — despite No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen missing nearly the entire season — the Chargers wideouts had the third-best average in yards per catch. They also had the second-most catches of 40 yards or more. Tyrell Williams was the team’s leading receiver with 69 receptions, 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns. Inman was second, with 58 catches, 810 yards, and four scores.
Allen will be back in 2017, and if he’s able to maintain health, could have a big year for the Chargers. They also selected Mike Williams, who was a constant problem for defenses during college, with the No. 7 overall pick in the draft. Dabo Swinney has churned out some great receiving prospects since his tenure in Clemson started, and the Chargers will expect a lot out of Williams.
Washington tight ends
Jordan Reed, Niles Paul, Vernon Davis, Jeremy Sprinkle
Reed, a 2016 Pro Bowler, has been slowed by injuries throughout his brief career. So has Paul, who started seven games in Reed’s absence in 2014 and recorded more than 500 receiving yards. Fortunately, Washington has planned for that. If Reed and Paul are incapacitated, the veteran Davis is here to help. His last season was his best since 2013; he had 583 receiving yards in Washington’s pass-heavy offense. Sprinkle, a fifth-round pick out of Arkansas, gives the team a strong blocking tight end.
Atlanta Falcons offensive line
Alex Mack, Jake Matthews, Ryan Schraeder, Andy Levitre, Ben Garland
Atlanta’s roster is stocked with talent at every offensive position, but when you have players like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Devonta Freeman making jaw-dropping plays, it’s easy to forget the role the offensive line plays in it.
The addition of center Alex Mack last offseason may have been the most important move the team made. Ryan can, in part, thank the consistent protection he got from the line for his 2016 NFL MVP award.
They were also key to the success of Freeman and Tevin Coleman on the ground.
Cleveland Browns defensive line
Myles Garrett, Danny Shelton, Emmanuel Ogbah, Carl Nassib, Desmond Bryant, Caleb Brantley, Larry Ogunjobi
The Browns made some significant improvements to their front three this offseason, most notably grabbing Garrett with the No. 1 selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. He’ll be the headliner of one of the league’s deepest — and most overlooked — defensive lines.
Cleveland is loaded with young, developing talent who will have the opportunity to learn and grow from eight-year veteran Desmond Bryant. Shelton, the team’s top pick in 2015, has developed into a 340-pound blocker black hole at nose tackle. Ogbah, a second-rounder in 2016, started all 16 games last fall and recorded six sacks while showcasing steady growth.
Behind those four, three uber-productive college players — Nassib, Brantley, and Ogunjobi — will try to work their way into the team’s rotation. GM Sashi Brown is building his franchise from the inside out, and few clubs can match the Browns’ combination of depth and potential up front.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebackers
Ryan Shazier, James Harrison, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, T.J. Watt, Tyler Matakevich, Arthur Moats
Pittsburgh has been working to rebuild its Steel Curtain defense after falling into the latter half of the league’s “yards allowed” list in 2014 and 2015. After some extensive drafting, those plans are coming to fruition.
Shazier has blossomed into a Pro Bowl talent, Harrison returned from a brief retirement to regain his status as the league’s preeminent tackling lunatic, and Bud Dupree showed flashes of pass-rushing brilliance in his seven games last season.
Wisconsin All-American T.J. Watt will add another quarterback-chasing threat this fall, and he’ll be flanked by a combination of veterans and younger talent. The Steelers aren’t yet their former fearsome selves, but the pieces are in place for a major revival at Heinz Field.
Baltimore Ravens secondary
Eric Weddle, Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, Tony Jefferson, Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb, Tavon Young (injured)
The Ravens had a top 10 defense in 2016 and led the league in interceptions with 18. The unit was helped plenty by the addition of Eric Weddle — a two-time All-Pro with the Chargers — who returned to form and landed all the way at No. 10 in Pro Football Focus’ ranking of players for the 2016 season.
But an already strong secondary got much better in the offseason with the additions of Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr in free agency. The cherry on top was first-round draft pick Marlon Humphrey, giving the Ravens a formidable group of defensive backs that should provide any quarterback with problems.
Los Angeles Rams special teams
Tavon Austin, Pharoh Cooper, Johnny Hekker, Greg Zuerlein
The Rams didn’t do much right last year, except for special teams. Jeff Fisher’s interim replacement — special teams coach John Fassel — was an easy choice because of this. You wouldn’t have known how good their special teams unit was because of how boring the offense was, which ultimately made things tougher on their defense.
But Johnny Hekker and company held their own. Hekker led the league in yards per punt, and had the second-most fair catches with 40. Greg Zuerlein also had the second-highest field goal percentage of his career at 86.4 percent. Long snapper Jake McQuaide was named to the Pro Bowl.
In 2017, it’ll be either the shifty Tavon Austin (who was second in the league in punt return yards) or Pharoh Cooper returning kicks, but they Rams can’t go wrong either way.