As we continue through our halfway-point landmark columns, we thought it would be a good idea to point out some of the great players in the NFL who don't get the recognition they deserve for whatever reason — they are eclipsed by more famous players, they don't get a lot of national TV time, they play in Buffalo, whatever. Here's our team of guys who deserve a bit more of your critical eye — we think you'll be impressed, and you can find the All-Underrated Offense here.
Defensive End: Charles Johnson, Carolina Panthers/Jarret Johnson, Baltimore Ravens
Johnson got some love when he replaced Julius Peppers as the Panthers' primary pass rusher and had a great season in 2010, but he's worth mentioning again. All the talk about the Panthers surrounds Cam Newton, and that's justified, but Johnson is following up his 11.5-sack breakout season of 2010 with an even higher pace in 2011 — seven sacks in eight games.
Johnson gets a bit lost on a defense full of playmakers, but he's our kind of player — the guy who brings a lunchbox to work every day and just beats you over the head with it. Few hybrid ends flash better ability to close off rushing lanes, he can cover, and he'll play all over the line.
Defensive Tackle: Antonio Garay, San Diego Chargers/Ahtyba Rubin, Cleveland Browns
It was tough to exclude Houston's Shaun Cody from this list, so we'll sneak him in here, but even fewer people are talking about the Browns' front line, and you'll see two more of their linemen in our All-Rookie team a bit later. Garay had a career year in 2010, but like Johnson, he's no one-year wonder — he's been dominating at the nose tackle position all season.
Rubin's one of many Browns linemen who may have escaped your notice, but don't let that fine run by Dick Jauron go ignored too much longer. Rubin is that star of that line — he got a fat contract extension in the offseason after leading all defensive linemen in tackles last season with 82 — an amazing feat for an interior lineman. This season, he's got 39 tackles (30 solo), and three sacks.
Outside Linebackers: Parys Haralson, San Francisco 49ers/Antwan Barnes, San Diego Chargers/ Aaron Maybin, New York Jets
The Jim Harbaugh 49ers would like you to know that Harbs wasn't the only coach who came over from Stanford in the offseason — defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is doing an unbelievable job with what has become the best front seven in the NFL. We like Haralson on this list for his versatility — he's disrupted opposing offenses in just about every way possible. He's among the league leaders at his position with three forced fumbles (tied with well-known teammate Patrick Willis), and his two sacks speak to his — and the 49ers' — renewed commitment to dealing with quarterbacks.
Barnes is an underrated pass rusher whom the Jets were also looking at in the offseason. In a rare fit of understanding player value, Chargers GM A.J. Smith locked Barnes up, and Barnes has five sacks for the Chargers as a result. He's really coming on of late with three sacks in his last two games. Maybin was a lost cause with the Buffalo Bills, but maybe he's right when he says that Rex Ryan is seeing something in him that the Bills never did — he's got three sacks in five games with the Jets, which is three more than he had in two years in Buffalo.
Middle/Inside Linebacker: NaVorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers/Desmond Bishop, Green Bay Packers
Bowman may be the most underrated player in football, period. Few defensive players have made more of an impact on their defenses, and his name is very hot among those who watch a lot of game tape. He's a downhill run-filling force, and he's got the most solo tackles in the NFL through nine weeks with 61. Add in his six passes defensed and two fumble recoveries, and you've got a player who's more than earned the right to play alongside the great Patrick Willis.
Second on the solo tackle list? That's where you'll find Bishop's name — he's got 60 of them, and he's also picked up four sacks in Dom Capers' scheme-versatile defense. Bishop locked up a starting role late last season as the Packers made their Super Bowl run, and he's developed into one of the most versatile linebackers in the game.
Cornerbacks: Chris Houston, Detroit Lions/Corey Webster, New York Giants
Remember when the Lions were a team with a great front four and very little behind it? That's not the case anymore, which is one reason the team is 6-2 right now. Houston's four picks is impressive, and he's also got at least one pass defensed in every game but one this season.
Webster used to be a liability in coverage, but as Tom Coughlin's team has gone through more than its share of injuries to the defensive backfield, he's really stepped up — he has done well as the team's No. 1 cornerback by default. In a three-week stretch this season, he was matched up on Larry Fitzgerald, Sidney Rice and Stevie Johnson, and gave up just 16 catches for 132 yards combined.
Safeties: George Wilson, Buffalo Bills/Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks
Another underrated Bills player — are we sensing a trend here? Wilson has been among the most valuable and productive players at any position — not only does he have the most solo tackles of any non-linebacker (54), but he's also picked off four passes and has six passes defensed. Generally, the safety who leads the NFL in tackles will be the box guy who can't cover as well, but that's just one more indicator of Wilson's true value.
Chancellor got lost in the 2010 draft that also brought the team super-safety Earl Thomas, and it took a bit longer for him to get the hang of the position. But the Seahawks decided to let veteran Lawyer Milloy go in the offseason and rely on what they perceived to be Chancellor's improved abilities and leadership. The team has been rewarded with three picks and 10 pass deflections this season from Chancellor, who can also play all over the field.