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Who are the most underrated current Patriots players?

Related: Will the offensive coaching arrangement be a problem for the Patriots?

NFL: OCT 10 Patriots at Texans Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Earlier this offseason, ESPN published a story written by Football Outsiders outlining the most underrated players on each of the NFL’s 32 franchises. The New England Patriots’ representative was wide receiver Kendrick Bourne, who had a productive first year in the system after arriving on a three-year free agency contract in March 2021.

Bourne set new career-highs in virtually every receiving category, and proved himself one of rookie quarterback Mac Jones’ most reliable targets. His effectiveness was illustrated in the story on the league’s most underrated players:

Kendrick Bourne, WR

With a career high of 74 targets, Bourne has fallen well short of the 100-catch and 1,000-yard benchmarks that earn receivers the most attention. But not even Cooper Kupp or Davante Adams could match Bourne for efficiency last season.

The Patriots receiver led his position (minimum 50 targets) with a 30.1% receiving DVOA. And he ranked in the top 12 at the position with both a 7.0 receiving plus/minus — which estimates that he caught seven more passes than an average receiver with his distribution of targets — and 7.0 average yards after the catch.

Bourne is a good choice, but he does not appear to be the only Patriots player deserving of the “underrated” label. So, with that in mind, let’s wrap up our five-part Q&A series with Football Outsiders by asking the question:

Who are the most underrated current Patriots players?

We asked Cale Clinton, co-author of the Football Outsiders Almanac — please click here to purchase your copy — to get an answer to that question, especially focusing on the defensive side of the ball. So, if Bourne is the representative on offense, who would make the most-underrated team on the opposite side of the ball?

There’s a few ways I could go with this one. I don’t think enough people are talking about how good Adrian Phillips was at safety last year. He and Kyle Dugger could both fit the bill for this pretty easily, but I think both have gotten recognition at least by those who follow the team. Christian Barmore pretty quietly had one of the best seasons of any interior pass rusher in the league as a rookie, finishing eighth among interior defensive linemen with 29 hurries.

Coming into this season, though, the player no one seems to be talking about is Ja’Whaun Bentley. That’s going to change quickly, because with Hightower and Jamie Collins gone, Bentley is going to be the lead off-ball linebacker in a defense typically reliant on them. He previously held this lead role in the COVID-stricken season, where Bentley played over 600 defensive snaps while no other Patriots linebacker played more than 300. In that season, though, Hightower had opted out, and Collins was in Detroit. With both of them back in the fold, though, Bentley quietly led all off-ball backers in defensive snaps played again in 2021. Bentley has his weak points, namely in the run game. His 52% run stop rate ranked 58th among linebackers in 2021. But Bentley still managed a 26th-best 3.2 rushing yards per attempt allowed. He also excels in passing coverage, something I expect New England linebackers will be asked to do more often as the Patriots incorporate more zone. Last year, Bentley’s 59% success rate in pass coverage ranked 16th among linebackers, while his 4.8 yards per pass allowed was 10th best. Bentley has the frame of a prototypical Belichick linebacker, can get downhill in blitzing situations, and still hold his own in passing coverage.

In a way, the Patriots of 2022 look a lot like the franchise’s early-dynasty squads. There are some Hall of Fame-caliber players, a young quarterback who has shown plenty of promise early on, a lack of household names, and, as a consequence, a lot of players worthy of the “under the radar” designation.

Obviously, there are major differences between those teams from two decades ago and this year’s, but the fact remains: New England does not have a ton of star power, but a lot of very good players capable of making a positive impact on the team this season and beyond.