True to form, the NFC West appears to leave a lot to be desired.
If you don't believe me, just check out any of the NFL power rankings currently flooding the Internet and try to find one NFC West team ranked higher than the No. 15 status PFW has granted the Niners.
That's right. The way we see it, the best team in the NFC West this coming season is only slightly above average, the result of numerous factors, most notably the tenuous QB situations on all four teams at the moment.
That's not to say, though, that the division won't be fun to watch, what with the Niners adding an intriguing wrinkle with their newfound stature as the division favorite in the eyes of most league observers.
Are Mike Singletary's troops capable of making an impact in the playoffs? Only time will tell. In the meantime, what follows is a breakdown of the top five key players on every NFC West team heading into the 2010 season.
The end result is the 20 most captivating characters in the NFC West, according to yours truly. Who knows? If I'm right, maybe they could all eventually make a movie and call it "How the NFC West was Won — or Not."
Let's reel 'em out, team by team, presented in predicted order of finish in the division:
San Francisco 49ers
1. ILB Patrick Willis — The Niners' biggest strength is their feisty 3-4 defense, and Willis, who was rewarded in early May with a five-year, $50 million contract extension ($29 million guaranteed), is considered by many to be the best all-around defensive player in the NFL. He's been a tackle machine from the get-go and has gotten better and better in coverage.
2. QB Alex Smith — What the Niners have in Smith, the former No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, is a quarterback who either looked really good or really bad last season after reclaiming the starting job from Shaun Hill in Week Seven against Houston. For the Niners to finish on top in the division, Smith must be a great deal more consistent.
3. TE Vernon Davis — Despite the expected emphasis on the run game this season, Davis still shapes up as the Niners' most potent offensive weapon after his eye-popping coming-out party last season in coordinator Jimmy Raye's very TE-friendly offense. Did I mention that he's looking to become the NFL's highest-paid tight end?
4. NT Aubrayo Franklin — Will Franklin finally sign his franchise tender and report to training camp without missing a beat? If he doesn't, the Niners will be missing their second-most important defender behind Willis, who receives many of his numerous playmaking opportunities courtesy of Franklin's dirty work.
5. FS Dashon Goldson — Goldson is the Niners' first genuine playmaking safety since Merton Hanks. With his sights set on a contract similar to the one Antrel Rolle got from the Giants, look for more dominant performances like Goldson's Monday-night classic last season against the Cardinals (six tackles, two forced fumbles and a pick, in addition to hitting Cardinals player so hard that it made my TV shake).
1. QB Matt Leinart — With Kurt Warner vacating the premises, the Cardinals will be finding out once and for all whether Leinart can live up to his first-round billing. While a more conservative offensive approach should help him, Leinart is still going to have to thread the needle on a regular basis and not just be a caretaker.
2. WR Larry Fitzgerald — He's still the best receiver in the league by a wide margin in my book. But will he be as dominating with Anquan Boldin no longer around?
3. DT Darnell Dockett — Rightfully regarded as one of the better players at his position, Dockett needs to be even more dominant than he was last season and set the tone up front for a defense that lost its leading tackler and one of its more active players in Karlos Dansby.
4. RB Chris "Beanie" Wells — Wells became the team's featured runner by midseason as a rookie last season and kept on improving, barreling over and around defenders with an impressive combination of speed and power. He'll never be the offensive centerpiece as long as Fitzgerald is on the team, but he could be on the cusp of becoming one of the league's more potent backs.
5. OLB Joey Porter — Defensive coordinator Billy Davis is hoping Porter can provide enough pass rush to allow him to cut back on blitzes and gain more flexibility with his pass coverages. But Porter became a part-time player with the Dolphins, even though he had nine sacks, and at the age of 33 it will be interesting to see just how much gas he has left in the tank in a starting role.
1. QB Matt Hasselbeck — The way I've been hearing it, the 34-year-old Hasselbeck has a firmer grip on the starting QB job than many people have been led to believe. He's feeling a lot healthier and, by all accounts, he has quickly caught on to a new system for the third straight season.
2. MLB Lofa Tatupu — Speaking of feeling healthy, Tatupu is feeling frisky again, on the mend from a season-ending torn pectoral muscle. That's key, considering the shaky status of OLB Leroy Hill and the work in progress that 2009 first-round draft pick Aaron Curry continues to be. Daily team observers agree that Curry quickly started regressing in ’09 after Tatupu went down for the count.
3. OLT Russell Okung — There isn't a team in the league that needs a first-round draft pick to make an immediate impact more than the Seahawks with Okung, who is being asked to fill the gargantuan shoes of retired nine-time Pro Bowler Walter Jones and keep Hasselbeck upright.
4. RB Justin Forsett — Easily the Seahawks' most explosive offensive player last year, which isn't saying much, Forsett would again appear to offer the most big-play flair, although it's worth keeping a close eye on newly acquired Leon Washington, who would provide a huge boost if he can come all the way back from the gruesome leg injury he suffered last season.
5. CB Marcus Trufant — Extremely anxious to make up for what he considered a lost season in '09, Trufant appears to have regained his previous form, which should bode better for a secondary that has taken a nosedive the last couple of seasons.
St. Louis Rams
1. QB Sam Bradford — Only a heartbeat away from signing his first pro contract as I write this, Bradford has been anointed the new face of the franchise, which is why I will be stunned if he isn't the starter in Week One.
2. RB Steven Jackson — The NFC's leading rusher in '09 remains the offense's undisputed workhorse. But the lack of a proven backup could start to wear him down this season, which is something Steve Spagnuolo can ill afford.
3. DLE Chris Long — The Rams really need for Long to pick up where he left off down the stretch last season and become a bona fide double-digit sacker who applies constant pressure in a pass rush that must show major improvement.
4. MLB James Laurinaitis — A quick study who made a lasting impression as a rookie with a team-leading 146 tackles, Laurinaitis needs to spearhead the defense along with Long. He should enjoy having nothing but fellow ex-Ohio State Buckeyes in the Rams' LB corps.
5. OLT Jason Smith — The Rams need Smith to provide steady protection on Bradford's blind side, but considering how hard it's been for last year's first-round pick to stay healthy, that could be asking an awful lot.
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