The San Francisco 49ers have a fairly extensive history of great players, and given their great teams in the 80s and early 90s, it is easy for a late of players to get a lot of national love. However, some players outside of those squads that get a ton of praise from 49ers fans are often overlooked elsewhere.
Recently, Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier put together a ranking of the 25 most underrated players in NFL history. It’s incredibly hard to figure out what constitutes “underrated,” so Tanier included some rules. He did not include Hall of Famers or recent Hall of Fame finalists; No Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks running backs, or wide receivers are included; and no players from the 1960s Packers, 1970s Steelers, 1980s 49ers, 1990s Cowboys, or 2000s Patriots. You can make underrated arguments for players on those teams, or on the Super Bowl winning teams, but it’s a good way to clear out some names right off the bat.
Tanier had two big names from 49ers history on the list: Bryant Young and NaVorro Bowman. You could make arguments for plenty of players from the pre-Walsh days, but these are two interesting figures.
I think BY is an easy argument for any underrated lists. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks, with 89.5. Even when he was not getting sacks, he was all over the field. The year Dana Stubblefield claimed defensive player of the year with 15 sacks, Young was the guy taking up a ton of double teams. Stubblefield turned that season into a big deal with Washington, and I still contend BY deserved a commission on that one.
Tanier brought up excellent points about what Young could have done if he played a decade earlier or later. He could have been part of those multiple Super Bowl-winning 49ers squads, or he could have been part of Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio’s great defenses in 2011, 2012, and 2013. If he was on those 80s teams, I would bet decent money he’d be getting more Hall of Fame consideration.
The 49ers have had a ton of great names, but there aren’t many that inspired and led like Young. he took home a comeback player of the year award in 1999, and he won the team’s Len Eshmont Award eight times. That award goes to the player, “who best exemplifies the ‘inspirational and courageous play’ of Len Eshmont.” No other player has won it more than twice. It’s hard to fully evaluate “leadership,” but the fact that he won that award four times as often as any other player in franchise history is pretty close.
This one caught me off guard, given the praise he gets in the media. However, there could be some arguments to be had that one day he’ll get that underrated tag. Tanier offered this argument that includes some areas I agree, and one where he’s off base:
Bowman makes this list because he has the makings of a player who will be underappreciated historically. He began his career at the tail end of Jim Harbaugh's great defensive teams, but he has since battled both injuries and the incompetence of the Jim Tomsula and Chip Kelly experiments. He is now stuck in a rebuilding cycle that may take a few years. By the time the 49ers are great again, Bowman may be in his early 30s or on another team. And because versatility is his calling card, he'll never produce gaudy sack totals or climb any all-time leaderboards.
On that second sentence, Bowman moved into the starting lineup during Harbaugh’s first year as head coach. He took home first team All-Pro honors during the first three years of Harbaugh’s tenure, before tearing up his knee at the end of the third year. At times he seemed overshadowed by Patrick Willis, but at other teams it seemed like he moved out of his shadow. It was not a simple situation.
Where it gets interesting for Bowman’s long-term assessment is the past couple years. He missed 2014 with his knee injury, but took home All Pro honors in 2015. He tore his Achilles in Week 4 of 2016, and is now working his way back. He just turned 29, so he still has plenty of time to build on the early part of his career.
But 10, 15, 20 years from now, how will Bowman be viewed on this kind of list? The next three or four years could dictate quite a bit as to how he is viewed outside the lens of 49ers fans.