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Niners' homegrown underdogs display team-building at its finest

SAN FRANCISCO -- Quick. Name four San Francisco 49ers on the team's current roster.

Was Alex Smith one? Maybe Patrick Willis? Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree might've also made your list. This all makes sense because all of those players, as former first-round draft picks for San Francisco, have soaked up plenty of attention.

Yet as the 49ers charge toward their first NFC Championship Game appearance since 1998, there's an amazingly unavoidable aspect of this San Francisco roster that might be unrealized by the rest of the NFL: It's overflowing with homegrown underdogs.

Not counting current rookies, 18 players (nine of which are starters) were drafted by the organization in the third round or later. And now that coach Jim Harbaugh has found a way to bring them all together for a playoff run, it has morphed into an ideal example of how to build a team.

So with all due respect to Smith, Willis, Davis and Crabtree, it's time we shined the spotlight on the other side of this 49ers team -- the side that's filled with players making an impact without all the fanfare.

Here are five of them:

NaVorro Bowman, Starting ILB
2010 Draft: Third Round (91st Overall)

Why should I know you?

I don't want to ruffle any feathers by suggesting Bowman might actually be better than Patrick Willis, but let's just say ... Bowman might be better than Patrick Willis. Don't agree? That's fine. But you must at least agree that Bowman and Willis combined make up one of the finest inside linebacker duos in the NFL. It's about time Bowman starts getting similar credit as Willis.

What have you done for me lately?

Bowman's introduction into the playoffs went quite well, as the hard-hitting linebacker recorded 11 tackles against New Orleans -- 10 of which were solo. That's not too unusual for Bowman, who had seven games with double-digit tackles. Not bad for a guy playing next to Willis.

Dashon Goldson, Starting FS
2007 Draft: Fourth Round (126th)

Why should I know you?

When someone describes a safety's best attributes, they'll usually say he's either a ball hawk or a ruthless hitter. Goldson, you see, happens to be both. He's willing to kill you across the middle while also strategically seeking out an interception. You don't often find a guy who is violent yet aware, but Goldson just so happens to fit the bill.

What have you done for me lately?

Saints quarterback Drew Brees had thrown 226 consecutive passes without an interception -- until he ran into Goldson last week. The safety made a key first-quarter interception that helped create some nice momentum for the 49ers. Goldson, who also added 11 tackles, suffered an ankle injury in the third quarter, so the Niners will keep their fingers crossed that he'll be healthy for Sunday.

Andy Lee, Starting Punter
2004 Draft: Sixth Round (188th)

Why should I know you?

Sometimes, when there's a trendy restaurant down the street, it causes you to stop noticing the true quality food at the quiet spot around the corner. That's Andy Lee, who might be lesser known around the league than Raiders punter Shane Lechler. I know, I know: Who knows any punters anyway? But you've got to check out Lee, who almost pops the football every time he crushes it with his foot. Lee might not wear a Raiders jersey, but he's probably more like Ray Guy than anyone in the league.

What have you done for me lately?

If you've never heard of Lee, just check out the stat sheets. He's the one at the top. Lee led the league in average (50.9 yards per punt) and net gain (44.6). In what will surely be a huge battle for field position against the Giants, Lee will be a massively important contributor.

Delanie Walker, Backup TE
2006 Draft: Sixth Round (175th)

Why should I know you?

There's no question Davis belongs atop the depth chart at the tight end spot, but Walker's complementary role makes for a really good tandem at this increasingly important position. The 49ers have found nice ways to maximize Walker's skill set.

What have you done for me lately?

Almost a month ago, Walker was sidelined by a broken jaw, but the team might be on the brink of getting him back just in time for Sunday's game. You might remember when Walker scored a late touchdown to give the Niners a big win against the Lions. If San Francisco can get him back in the fold against the Giants, he might be able to sneak up for a few big plays again.

Ray McDonald, Starting LDT
2007 Draft: Third Round (97th)

Why should I know you?

You might remember McDonald as a team captain for the Florida Gators' 2006 national championship team, but he has developed into a solid NFL player since getting his ring in college. He had a career-high 5.5 sacks this season, while contributing a few forced fumbles in the second half of the season.

What have you done for me lately?

Surrounded by solid, playmaking teammates, McDonald has quietly been a force up front. The general presence of the 49ers' defensive line has been a big reason why the players behind it have been able to make such an impact. (This will be key on Sunday, with San Francisco looking to counter Eli Manning's hot hand.) McDonald's 5.5 sacks are a nice addition, but his influence on this team is felt in much more subtle ways. Just ask Willis and Bowman, who both benefit from McDonald's ability.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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