When I was asked to compile a list of the top 10 current NFL players with local ties, it took 0.2 seconds to figure out who's No. 1.
Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata is the no-brainer pick. He isn't just the best current active NFL player with ties to the Beehive State. He is one of the league's elite players.
The Highland High product has proven that on a consistent basis and was named to his first Pro Bowl last season. If he wasn't already a household NFL name before last Sunday, he solidified his status in the Ravens' 13-10 loss to the Steelers in what was the most entertaining game of the season so far.
Ngata bloodied the nose of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger early in the game. Later, analyst Cris Collinsworth paid him the ultimate compliment when he said, "If there's a better defensive lineman in the NFL than Haloti Ngata, I don't know who he is."
After Ngata, though, picking the rest of the top 10 was much more difficult.
There is no foolproof formula for selecting which players belong on the list. Some of our local players have better supporting casts than others. Some are near the end of their careers. Some are just starting out and could challenge for Ngata's spot at some point.
In selecting the top 10, I considered those factors, but I mostly went by what the players are doing right now and what they mean to their respective teams. On to the list, which is headlined by a 6-foot-4, 350-pound beast.
1. Baltimore DL Haloti Ngata (Highland High): He is arguably the most important player on the Ravens' defense. He has recorded six quarterback sacks and 54 total tackles so far this season. Ngata typically plugs the middle of the Ravens' defense, but he can line up as an end and rush the passer. He's also been in a handful of plays for Baltimore's goal-line offense during his career.
He'll be on another national stage on Monday night when the Ravens play at Houston. The Texans are well aware of Ngata's abilities.
"He's a great athlete," Texans quarterback Matt Schaub told the Houston Chronicle this week. "He's got that rare combination of speed, quickness and strength."
2. Tampa Bay OL Donald Penn (Utah State): He has emerged as one of the top players on a solid young team. At left tackle, he protects the blind side of up-and-coming quarterback Josh Freeman. He signed a six-year, $48 million contract in July and could be headed to the Pro Bowl.
It's been an unexpected journey for a player who wasn't drafted out of Utah State.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him in a grass skirt," Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris recently said, making a reference to Penn reaching the Pro Bowl. "He is playing Pro Bowl-caliber football. He wasn't given, he earned, a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He is over-playing his contract."
3. Pittsburgh DL Brett Keisel (BYU): He has been hampered by a hamstring injury this season and missed five games, but he showed his value to the Steelers in their win over the Ravens last week. He does a lot of the dirty work for Pittsburgh's defense, while stars such as James Harrison and Troy Polamalu get all the credit and publicity.
4. San Diego FS Eric Weddle (Utah): Mr. Everything at Utah has become a solid pro and anchors the Chargers' secondary. He is San Diego's second-leading tackler with 66 stops and one quarterback sack. The highlight of his season was intercepting Peyton Manning and returning it 41 yards for a touchdown. He is having the best season of his four-year NFL career.
5. N.Y. Jets DL Sione Pouha (East High/Utah): He is in his second season as a starter, filling in for injured star player Kris Jenkins. He is a high-energy player who anchors the Jets' run defense. He has recorded 45 total tackles and a quarterback sack so far this season.
6. Indianapolis WR Austin Collie (BYU): He has been outstanding when he's been able to play this season, catching 50 passes for 562 yards and six touchdowns. He has only played sparingly since withstanding a devastating hit and suffering a concussion against the Eagles in Week 9.
It's too bad Collie has been dinged up. He started the season on fire, recording 44 receptions for 503 yards in the Colts' first six games. He was the league's top receiver after three games with 27 catches for 359 yards.
7. Philadelphia LB Stewart Bradley (Highland High): He has come back from missing all of the 2009 season with a torn ACL, and played mostly well at middle linebacker. He is the Eagles' second-leading tackler with 57 stops, one quarterback sack and an interception.
8. Carolina OL Jordan Gross (Utah): He is one of few quality players on a Panthers team (1-11) that is the worst in the league. He anchors an offensive line that has struggled, but Gross has played to the best of his abilities.
9. Carolina WR Steve Smith (Utah): The feisty veteran receiver is still an elite talent, but his season has been wasted by the subpar play of four different quarterbacks and the team's conservative play-calling. He has caught 39 passes for 498 yards and two touchdowns so far this season.
10. Washington TE Chris Cooley (Logan HS/Utah State): He is his team's second-leading receiver and among the top 10 tight ends in the league. He has caught 60 passes for 664 yards and two touchdowns this season.
Cooley has put together a nice career since being picked in the third round of the 2004 draft. He has caught 403 passes for 4,453 yards and 32 touchdowns.
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