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This is the fifth in a series of opinionated fantasy football columns that will be posted daily in July and August, providing fantasy owners with some insights to consider as they prepare for their drafts. You can get an in-depth preview of the upcoming fantasy football season with the purchase of the Yahoo! Sports / Pro Football Weekly Fantasy Football Guide 2010, available now in newsstands and bookstores, or online at PFWstore.com.
While the NFC West arguably remains the league's weakest overall division, it shapes up as one of the strongest in terms of individual fantasy defenders, led by Niners ILB Patrick Willis, the NFL's no-brainer No. 1 overall IDP.
What follows is a rundown of the NFC West's top seven IDPs entering the 2010 season, according to Pro Football Weekly.
1. 49ers ILB Patrick Willis — How good is Willis, whom the Niners didn't hesitate to give a well-deserved five-year, $50 milion contract extension? After making his first delayed appearance in the team's OTAs this offseason, coming off rehab from right knee surgery in mid-March, there was unanimous agreement from daily team observers that he was immediately the best defender on the field. Willis has averaged a whopping 155.7 tackles in his three seasons in the league since being selected as the Niners' No. 1 pick in 2007. In '09, he led the league in tackles (for the second time in three years) with 152 and tackles for loss with 13. With his superior sideline-to-sideline speed and uncanny knack for always being around the ball, he tied his career-high mark with four sacks, had a career-high three forced fumbles and tied for second among NFL linebackers with a career-high three interceptions, one of which he returned for a TD — a further testament to his range and versatility. Did we mention that he's just coming into his prime at the age of 25?
2. Rams MLB James Laurinaitis — A second-round pick by the Rams last season, Laurinaitis wasted no time being named the starter at middle linebacker. A quick study with a tremendous work ethic, he finished the season as the team's leading tackler with 120. Laurinaitis had six or more tackles in 10 games and proved to be an extremely tough customer, gutting out shoulder problems down the stretch. He still has some work to do in coverage, but taking into account his 24/7 commitment to improving his game, the odds are good that he will keep getting better and better as a pass defender. Performing in an improved LB corps flanked by fellow Ohio State graduates Na'il Diggs and Bobby Carpenter certainly won't hurt his cause.
3. Rams FS O.J. Atogwe — After looking for the longest time like he was destined for a change of scenery due to a prolonged contract impasse, Atogwe will be ready to give his all after signing a new five-year contract in late June. The Rams' most proven playmaker has registered 18 picks and averaged 76.5 tackles the past four seasons. Since becoming a fulltime starter in 2006, Atogwe has more interceptions and forced fumbles (37) than any player in the league. Before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury last Dec. 6 against Chicago, he started 60 consecutive games and says he's back to being 100 percent healthy.
4. Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett — Blessed with a wickedly quick first step, the high-energy Dockett has established himself as one of the league's best interior pass rushers. Last year he led all NFL interior linemen with seven sacks and registered a career-high 15 tackles for loss. His tackle totals are most impressive, considering how many teams put together game plans specifically designed to stop him.
5. Cardinals DE Calais Campbell — Campbell racked up seven sacks in his first full year as a starter and quickly filled the hole left by Antonio Smith's departure to Houston. Very physically gifted, he works hard and plays with excellent leverage, despite his 6-foot-8 height. Campbell says he is determined to become a perennial double-digit sacker and appears right on course to accomplish that goal. His long arms should allow him to force more fumbles.
6 49ers FS Dashon Goldson — After getting off to a slow start in his first season as a starter, Goldon ended up being one of the league's most productive fantasy DBs. He led the Niners with four interceptions and registered three forced fumbles, two sacks and 94 tackles, which tied for third-most in the league among free safeties. A head hunter of the highest order, Goldson showed how dominant he could be in an outstanding Monday-night victory over the Cardinals, when he had six tackles, two forced fumbles and an interception.
7. Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson — An oldie but goodie, Wilson can be a dominant defender whose impact increases the closer he lines up to scrimmage. An elite in-the-box safety who plays linebacker in the dime, he tackles superbly, blitzes effectively and delivers crushing hits. One of only 10 NFL players to record at least 20 sacks and 20 interceptions, Wilson made his second consecutive Pro Bowl start after finishing the season with 74 tackles and a career-high five interceptions.
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