ESPN's List Of The AFC North's Top-25 Players

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 02: Nate Clements #22 and Thomas Howard #53 of the Cincinnati Bengals celebrate during the 23-20 victory against the Buffalo Bills at Paul Brown Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The folks at ESPN have been on a roll with NFL player lists recently. Recently, Ron Jaworski released his quarterback rankings, where he placed Andy Dalton at No.19. The fad has trickled to the web, where various NFL blog writers are releasing their own lists, including AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley.

He's counting down the top-25 players in the AFC North division, which has to be a difficult task because of the overabundance of talent within the four teams. And, wouldn't you know it? Hensley kicks off his list with a Bengals player.

Thomas Howard, one of the most underappreciated players in the NFL, comes in at No.25:

Why Howard is ranked 25th: The six-year veteran is the most underrated outside linebacker in the division. Howard led the NFL's seventh-ranked defense with 99 tackles in replacing Keith Rivers, a big reason why the Bengals felt comfortable enough to trade away the former first-round pick. This season should be even better for Howard, who had to learn Mike Zimmer's defense on the fly after signing with the Bengals on July 30 last year. Howard is an extremely sure tackler, missing nine tackles over the past three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. If anyone has a problem with Howard making the list, you should listen to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis who considers Howard "one of the most athletic linebackers he's ever coached." That's strong praise considering the linebackers -- which includes Ray Lewis -- who have played under Marvin Lewis.

We've said it over and over here at Cincy Jungle: Howard was the team's top free agent acquisition of 2011 and really helped to solidify the team's No.7 overall defense. It's quite possible that Howard could be looking at another big year, as he's entering the final year of a two-year deal and he'll have a little extra incentive to perform well this year.

If you're wondering if it's just us that feels that Howard is in for a big 2012, we're not. Howard himself thinks he's going to be even more productive this season. He recently said:

"After being here for a year, you get a little more comfortable and play with a little more confidence," said Howard. "You get a better feel for where everybody is and you understand Zim’s system better. Your communication is better and it’s all about communication on defense."

"When I’m playing behind guys like Geno Atkins, Robert Gathers, and Domata Peko, I should have a good year because those guys are phenomenal and they make my job easy…or at least easier," said Howard.

Howard could be in line for an extension along with some other young talented Bengals like Atkins, Jermaine Gresham and Michael Johnson. A solid 2012 will ensure that he receives that extension.

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