By Steve Silverman
(CBS) Great stories are being written all over the NFL this season, and the Bears may very well be a big part of the best story. They are going to have to overcome the Atlanta Falcons, New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers, but the Bears are prime NFC Super Bowl contenders.
That’s a good position to be in this year, because the NFC appears far superior to the AFC.
The Bears have their fair share of big-name superstars in Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman, but don’t overlook the contributions of cornerback Tim Jennings, who is leading the NFL in interceptions with six in his first seven games.
Jennings may not get much hype, but he is doing a stellar job in coverage and he has a chance to get to double-figure in interceptions and he also has 19 passes defensed and 39 tackles. That’s eye-opening production for a player who does not get a lot of publicity.
Jennings is among the eight most underrated players in the NFL. Here are seven more who are playing well above expectations.
QB Josh Freeman, Tampa Bay – A year ago, the Bucs were in the NFL’s toilet as they were being led by a clueless head coach in Raheem Morris. Nobody was hurt more by his presence than Freeman, who could not read defenses and almost always made the wrong decision with the ball in his hands. Greg Schiano is not making any friends around the NFL, but he can coach. He has given Freeman a gameplan that is easy to follow. Freeman has thrown for 1,800 yards and he has a shocking 18-to-5 TD-to-interception ratio. Last year those numbers were 16-to-22.
RB Alfred Morris, Washington – It’s not just about RGIII in Washington. The rookie quarterback has been even better than advertised, but the Redskins have had a solid running game in the first half of the season. Morris may be an unknown, but he is a knockout-type running back who may hit opposing linebackers harder than they hit him. Morris has rushed for 717 yards and five touchdowns with a 4.7 yards per carry average.
LB Jerod Mayo, New England – The Patriots are no longer the defensive black hole they were a year ago. They still can’t stop opposing receivers, but they are one of the better teams in the league against the run (88.6 rushing yards allowed per game, 8th in the NFL) and there’s nobody who is more responsible for that improvement than Mayo. He is second in the league in tackles with 79 stops, and he also has three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, an interception and a sack.
WR Brian Hartline, Miami – Going into the season, no team appeared to have a worse offense than the Dolphins. The receivers were the least impressive part of the offense, but that has not stopped Hartline from making a contribution every week. While he’s not explosive, he’s faster than you think and he knows how to get open and hold onto the ball. Hartline has caught 33 passes for 555 yards and five touchdowns. Whether Ryan Tannehill or Matt Moore is throwing the ball, Hartline has become their No. 1 option.
DT Geno Atkins, Cincinnati – The Bengals have not won a game this month and they may be in the process of blowing their playoff chances. However, it’s not Atkins’ fault. He is one of the best interior run stuffers in the league, but he’s not content to stop there. He has become an explosive pass rusher and he already has 7.0 sacks. Once Atkins gets in his first step, he is nearly impossible to block when he attempts to collapse the pocket.
RB Stevan Ridley, New England – The Patriots can stop the run and they can also run the ball this year (149.6 yards per game; 5th in the NFL). Ridley is an explosive back from Louisiana State who hits the hole quickly and finishes his runs similar to Frank Gore of the 49ers. Ridley has 716 rushing yards, a 4.8 yard average per carry and five touchdowns.
FS Thomas DeCoud, Atlanta – It’s difficult to win in the NFL if you don’t have a superior player at the free safety position. The free safety must have excellent understanding of what the opponent’s tendencies are and he must find a way to defuse those plans. DeCoud, in his fifth season, is rapidly becoming one of the best players at his position. He has four interceptions, a fumble recovery and 36 tackles. DeCoud has made a habit of making big plays that have allowed the Falcons to become the only undefeated team in the NFL.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.