Is Bowman already one of the NFL's best?

The 49ers promise to have a strong representation on this year's list of the NFL Network's Top 100 players of 2012, and the first San Francisco player to check in on the countdown is NaVorro Bowman, showing just how big a splash the third-year linebacker made in the NFL consciousness with his breakthrough sophomore season last year.

It's a subjective list, to be sure, but when you see Bowman ranked at No. 85, it shows how far the team's third-round draft pick in 2010 has come in the space of one tackle-packed season, his first as a starter.

Has Bowman already established himself as one of the NFL's best linebackers, despite lining up next to one of the very best of them all in Patrick Willis? There obviously is a growing legion of supporters for that premise, as Bowman's appearance on the NFL Network's list of the league's elite suggests.

But those who follow the league closely already have been giving Bowman his due, even though he was inexplicably shunned in NFC Pro Bowl voting last season, getting passed over for a spot on that team to some more established veteran names, one of them Willis. That team is voted on by NFL players, coaches and fans.

But Bowman's impact 2011 season for San Francisco's fourth-ranked defense wasn't overlooked when the All-Pro team voted on by a nationwide panel of Associated Press media had the Penn State product on the first team, again sharing a spot next to Willis.

And that's where Bowman deserved to be. He led the 49ers with 173 tackles, finishing among the league leaders in that department and ending Willis' four-year reign as San Francisco's leading tackler.

Bowman was a difference-maker from start to finish for the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense, several times overshadowing his more-heralded partner in the middle. Bowman hit double figures in tackles 11 times in 16 regular-season games, recording a career-high 17 tackles twice four games apart in marquee victories over the Detroit Lions and New York Giants.

And he spearheaded the defense over the final month of the season after Willis went down with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss almost four full games. Bowman finished the season with a combined 38 tackles in wins over Pittsburgh, Seattle and St. Louis.

He then kept up the pace in the playoffs, recording 27 tackles in San Francisco's postseason games against New Orleans and New York.

Bowman also was one of the team's few established starters to make an impact on special teams, reprising his standout role on those units as a rookie in 2010, when he ranked third in the NFL with 20 special teams tackles. Playing less frequently on those units in 2011, Bowman still finished fifth on the team with nine tackles and also forced a fumble.

Moving forward, Bowman already has become a key cog in defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's 3-4 system with his ferocious style and run-stopping prowess. Bowman also displayed his versatility to be an every-down linebacker with two sacks, eight quarterback pressures, seven passes defensed and two fumble recoveries.

The NFL Network has noticed, making him the first 49er recognized among the league's top 100 players. Others likely to follow on the list are Willis, defensive tackle Justin Smith, tight end Vernon Davis and running back Frank Gore. All four players make the NFN Top 100 last year. Other candidates to join them this year include cornerback Carlos Rogers and offensive tackle Joe Staley.

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