|The guy on the left, Bowman, is underrated, but he might turn out better than the guy on the right, Willis. (US Presswire)|
Sometimes, I worry if last week's list (the top-10 over-the-hill players) created too much of a negative vibe. I mean, you can't talk about Ray Lewis or Brian Urlacher or Jeff Saturday being old and (possibly) ineffective without wondering if the big shadow on the brick wall of the alley in which you're walking is one of those large men who has come to extract his revenge.
So, let's put a more positive spin on our Top 10 with a Twist list this week by showcasing those who deserve a little more … well … showcasing. In effect, we're focusing on those players who are underrated.
Last year's list included Sean Lee, Hakeem Nicks and Rob Gronkowski. So, obviously, most of the players on this list will instantly shoot into superstardom. But until then, revel in your knowledge of them before they hit the big time. And maybe some of these guys can protect me from a potential over-the-hill player beating.
10. Colin Kaepernick, 49ers QB: When you have to hear about the Wildcat scheme in 2012, you most likely can buckle in for a long discussion about the pros and cons of replacing Mark Sanchez with Tim Tebow. But what you probably won't hear about is how effectively the 49ers' second-round pick from 2011 has been used when San Francisco wants to showcase a non-Alex Smith look. So far this season, Kaepernick has shown off his quickness en route to 106 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries. The 49ers have shown the Jets how they should be using Tebow.
9. Kyle Rudolph, Vikings TE: When you're talking about the top tight ends in the game, you think Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Tony Gonzalez (the receptions leader in the NFL). But don't be surprised if Rudolph joins those standouts in that stratosphere relatively soon. With the way that Christian Ponder has blossomed, look for Ruldoph -- like Ponder, a second-year player -- to do the same. He's already tied for second in the league with four receiving touchdowns.
8. Connor Barwin, Texans DE: After a breakout season in 2011, in which Barwin recorded 11.5 sacks, it'd be easy to dismiss his 2012, considering he has zero sacks and eight total tackles in five games. But if you listen to his coaches, they praise him for his ability to draw double-teams and for his success in stopping the opponent's run. Yeah, not having a sack is brutal for a guy in a contract year, especially when J.J. Watt is the undeniable star on defense. But Barwin is plugging along as one of the most important figures in Houston's No. 3 ranked defense.
7. Daryl Washington, Cardinals LB: Considering Arizona signed him to a $32.5 million deal before the season, the team certainly knows his worth. He has accumulated 39 tackles and four sacks this season, so that new contract has been well worth it so far. This is only his third year in the league. It could be scary to see how good he is three years from now.
6. Brandon Weeden, Browns QB: Of all five rookie quarterbacks starting this season, Weeden has been the least-valued, probably because Cleveland has been terrible in starting the season 0-5, the last winless team in the NFL. But Weeden has been the most improved of the five. Consider that his first start was disastrous; he went 12-for-35 for 118 yards and four interceptions in Week 1. But after Week 5, Weeden is completing 55.4 percent of his passes (admittedly, a low figure) for 1,288 yards (10th in the league ahead of Philip Rivers, Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Matthew Stafford). Sure, Cleveland is throwing the ball a ton, but Weeden is trying to show the new ownership group that he's the quarterback whom the new bosses need to keep going forward.
5. Tim Jennings, Bears CB: It's hard to tell at this point if Jennings' interception total of four (second-best in the league) is the result of an underrated player finally making a big-league impact or if the first five games of 2012 have been a fluke for the seventh-year player. Jennings never had intercepted more than two balls in any season of his career, but now, according to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks have a rating of 23.4 (!) when they throw his way. Charles Tillman is the Bears' better known defensive back, but Jennings might be just as good.
4. Jeff Fisher, Rams coach: Yeah, I'm cheating by putting a coach on this list. But I think we all forgot how good of a coach Fisher is. His record at Tennessee wasn't all that outstanding (142-120 with six playoff appearances in 16 full seasons). But the job that he has done with St. Louis has been fanastic, winning three of the first five games with a team still needing to add top-notch talent. For some perspective, St. Louis has surpassed the three-win total in only one of the past six years. If we're talking about elite players, the Rams have one on offense (running back Steven Jackson). A solid defense and Fisher are the difference.
3. Stevan Ridley, Patriots RB: I suspect that by the end of this season, similar to Gronkowski in 2011, Ridley won't be considered underrated. He's fifth in the league with 490 rushing yards, and his four rushing touchdowns is tied for second-best. But he had to beat out Shane Vereen in the preseason to win the spot vacated by BenJarvus Green-Ellis. And with all the talk about Tom Brady, Aaron Hernandez's health and if the Patriots are phasing out Wes Welker, Ridley has slipped through the first quarter of the season without much fanfare. He has to watch out for fumbles, which caused Bill Belichick to bench him at the end of last season. But if Ridley keeps up this pace, that semi-anonymity won't continue.
1. NaVorro Bowman, 49ers linebacker: Even casual fans know about linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive tackle Justin Smith. While those two are vital to San Francisco's top-notch defense, Bowman is having a standout season. He has recorded 49 tackles (tied for fifth in the league) to go with six passes defended (the most of any inside linebacker). You could have seen this last year, when he notched 143 total tackles. But the fact he's doing it again in such a talented lineup leads us to believe Bowman won't be underrated much longer -- and he might even turn out to be a better player than Willis.
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