NFC West's top 40 players

Posted June 23, 2011 @ 4:40 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

So which team in the NFC West is the most talented?

In an effort to answer that challenging question, I figured I would borrow a page from Casey Kasem and take a stab at identifying the division's top 40 players, regardless of position.

Before launching full bore into this admittedly very subjective endeavor, I thought the selections would be pretty evenly distributed among the division's four teams, and it appears my suspicion was confirmed.

While the Rams and Seahawks tied for the top spot with 12 players each, the Niners (nine) and Cardinals (seven) produced seven of the top 10 and four of the top five. The top player from the free-agent-heavy Seahawks, meanwhile, is RS-RB Leon Washington, who was ranked 11th by virtue of his exceptional kick-return skills.  

Draft picks from April are not included, although a case arguably could be made for a player like Cardinals first-round CB Patrick Peterson cracking the list before even playing a down in a division in which mediocrity has been a staple for some time now.

For better or worse, what follows is a quick rundown of the best of the best in the NFC West:    

(1) ILB Patrick Willis / 49ers: A Pro Bowl no-brainer in each of his four seasons, Willis is widely considered to be the NFL's top inside linebacker. Although he was subpar by his lofty standards — with the opposition frequently ganging up on him with extra blockers — Willis still registered a team-high 153 tackles (according to team statistics) and a career-high six sacks, which tied for the most in the league among inside 'backers.

(2) WR Larry Fitzgerald / Cardinals: Any close league observer will tell you that Fitzgerald continues to rank among the NFL's top wideouts, even though his numbers were down a bit last season due primarily to Arizona's awful play at quarterback. He has the best ball skills in the league and has become a top team leader, as evidenced by the players-only workouts he has been instrumental in organizing this offseason.

(3) RB Steven Jackson / Rams: Coming off his third Pro Bowl berth, Jackson surpassed Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson as the Rams' career rushing leader last season and added to his own franchise record with his sixth consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, the NFL's longest active streak in that category.

(4) TE Vernon Davis / 49ers: The freakishly athletic former first-round pick has arguably become the NFL's most complete tight end. Davis led the Niners in catches (56), receiving yards (914) and touchdowns (seven) last season — the first tight end in franchise history to accomplish that feat — and had a career-high 16.3 yards per catch, tops among NFL tight ends.

(5) DT Darnell Dockett / Cardinals: As was the case with most of his top-level teammates, Dockett had a down year in 2010. But he is still without a doubt one of the league's most intimidating interior defenders with his wickedly quick first step and undeniable nasty streak.

(6) DT Justin Smith / 49ers: A Pro Bowler each of the past two seasons, Smith seldom leaves the field — his 155 consecutive starts ranks first among active NFL D-linemen — and prides himself on doing the dirty work as well as being occasionally dominant (three sacks in the 2010 season finale).

(7) QB Sam Bradford / Rams: Bradford more than justified his selection as the first player overall in the 2010 draft, setting league rookie records for completions (354) and pass attempts (590) without the benefit of any elite pass catchers. He very nearly led the Rams to a surprising playoff berth.

(8) RB Frank Gore / 49ers: The two-time Pro Bowler was well on his way to another banner all-around season in 2010 when he went down for the count with a dislocated hip in Week 12. One of the league's best backs when it comes to burrowing through small cracks for positive yardage, Gore also is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and could be the league's top back in terms of blitz pickup.

(9) MLB James Laurinaitis / Rams: The brains of the Rams' rapidly improving defense, Laurinaitis led the team in tackles for the second season in a row and has become one of the league's best run-stopping middle 'backers. His pass coverage also has improved steadily, and there isn't a player in the league more committed to his craft.

(10) SS Adrian Wilson / Cardinals: A starter in three consecutive Pro Bowls, the Cardinals' longest-tenured player is on the downside of his career but remains one of the league's best playmaking safeties (career-high 118 tackles last season, according to the team). Look for Wilson to be rejuvenated by new Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who coached Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh.

(11) RS-RB Leon Washington / Seahawks: Bouncing back from a gruesome leg injury in 2009, the electrifying Washington became the first player in league history to return three kickoffs for scores in two different seasons.

(12) DE Chris Long / Rams: Benefiting from being entrenched on the left side after bouncing from side to side his first two seasons, the former first-round pick and son of Hall of Famer Howie Long registered 8½ sacks, a team-leading 21 QB hits and 16 QB pressures last season.

(13) FS Earl Thomas / Seahawks: Tying a franchise record for rookies with five interceptions, the 2010 first-rounder looks like a superstar in the making with his blazing speed, off-the-charts instincts and physical run-support skills.

(14) NT Aubrayo Franklin / 49ers: A free agent whose return to San Francisco is looking increasingly iffy, the solid but unspectacular Franklin has established himself as one of the league's most capable nose tackles.

(15) CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie / Cardinals: His disappointing play has been well-documented, but "DRC" is still a first-rate ballhawk with world-class speed and excellent closing ability. Like his secondary mate Adrian Wilson, he is a good bet to rebound in a big way under the Cardinals' new defensive coordinator.

(16) OT Rodger Saffold / Rams: Greatly overshadowed by Sam Bradford, the Rams' second-round pick last season could not have been a more pleasant surprise protecting Bradford's blind side in 16 starts. Initially projected at right tackle, Saffold figures to be a fixture at left tackle for a long time to come.

(17) OT Russell Okung / Seahawks: Despite sitting out 6½ games with injuries to both ankles, the Seahawks' top pick in last year's draft displayed enough flashes when healthy to become a perennial Pro Bowler in short order. While he might never reach the level of former Seahawks great Walter Jones, Okung could come close down the road. 

(18) P Andy Lee / 49ers: While he wasn't as good as he was in an exceptional 2009 campaign, Lee is right up there among the league's top punters. His net average dropped nearly three yards in 2010 (to a still-respectable 38.2 yards per punt), but he still landed an NFC-high 34 punts inside the 20.

(19) DE James Hall / Rams: Like a fine wine, the 34-year-old Hall appears to have gotten better with age. In his 11th season, he registered a team-leading 10½ sacks (two sacks in three different games) and a career-high six forced fumbles. And his quiet leadership skills make him even more valuable in the twilight of his career.

(20) PK Josh Brown / Rams: With a cannon for a leg, Brown booted a career-high 33 field goals last season and scored 125 points, the third-best total in the NFC. Since entering the league in 2003, he has made 28 field goals from 50 yards and beyond — the most in the league in that span.

(21) OLB David Hawthorne / Seahawks: Nicknamed "The Heater," Hawthorne gets my vote as the NFC West's most underrated performer. After seamlessly switching to the weak side from the middle, where he replaced the injured Lofa Tatupu in 2009, Hawthorne reached triple digits in tackles for the second season in a row and has become Seattle's most productive 'backer.

(22) DE Calais Campbell / Cardinals: A potential perennial double-digit sacker, the 6-foot-8 Campbell came on after a disappointing start last season, registering four of his team-high six sacks in his last seven games.

(23) DE Chris Clemons / Seahawks: Clemons was a major force at the "Leo" position, using his excellent leverage and quickness to post a career-high 11 sacks. He also was a punishing tackler at times and was a better run defender than expected.

(24) FS Kerry Rhodes / Cardinals: The former Jet did a nice job replacing the departed Antrel Rolle in 2010, registering a career-high 111 tackles and finishing the season as the only NFL defender with at least four interceptions and four fumble recoveries.

(25) DT Brandon Mebane / Seahawks: Strong and aggressive, Mebane offers consistent penetration from the three-technique spot when healthy. Seattle's run defense really suffered when he missed four games last season with a calf injury.

(26) DT Fred Robbins / Rams: Like James Hall, Robbins, a free-agent addition last season who played under Steve Spagnuolo with the Giants, provided quality play and valuable veteran leadership on the D-line in 2010. He posted a career-high six sacks and was the Rams' best run stuffer since Ryan Pickett, who moved on to the Packers.

(27) WR Mike Williams / Seahawks: After managing only 44 catches and two scores in his three previous pro seasons, the former first-round pick of the Lions who played under Pete Carroll at USC had a breakout season last year. Williams frequently dominated one-on-one matchups with his imposing 6-foot-5 presence and is now envisioned as the cornerstone of Seattle's passing game. 

(28) OG Mike Iupati / 49ers: The massive Iupati (6-5, 331 pounds) quickly emerged as the Niners' primary run blocker in his first season, displaying impressive athleticism and mobility for his size.

(29) RB Marshawn Lynch / Seahawks: Expect a significant increase in production next season from Lynch, whose eye-popping, tackle-breaking 67-yard TD run in Seattle's wild-card upset of the Saints might have been the best play of last season.

(30) QB Matt Hasselbeck / Seahawks: After struggling much of the 2010 season, Hasselbeck turned things around big time in the postseason, registering a 7-1 TD-interception ratio. If the veteran free agent does not re-sign with Seattle, the odds are strong that he will be picked up by another team to serve as a potentially excellent "bridge" field general.

(31) P Donnie Jones / Rams: Despite a nagging calf injury much of last season, Jones remained one of the league's best punters, ranking third in net average and tied for seventh in gross average.

(32) DE Red Bryant / Seahawks: Bigger than most right ends at 323 pounds, the converted DT was a revelation last season until suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week Eight.

(33) RS-RB LaRod Stephens-Howling / Cardinals: The diminutive Darren Sproles clone was Arizona's most explosive weapon last season, leading the league with 1,548 yards on kickoff returns, including TD romps of 102 yards against Oakland and 96 yards against Minnesota.

(34) WR Michael Crabtree / 49ers: The Niners' top pick two seasons ago has yet to consistently perform like a true No. 1 receiver. But he has great hands and body control, and the Niners' new regime believes he will be a really good fit in the team's revamped West Coast offense that is expected to feature more short, quick strikes in his direction.

(35) WR Danny Amendola / Rams: Undersized but extremely feisty, Amendola excelled in the slot for St. Louis last season and finished the season as the team's leading receiver. He also did a quality job returning kicks and led the league in all-purpose yardage (2,364).

(36) C Jason Brown / Rams: Brown regressed a bit last season but remains a very solid, durable center who has started 76 consecutive games.

(37) MLB Lofa Tatupu / Seahawks: Tatupu is coming off surgeries on both knees and could be starting to wear down. But he does a great job as the defense's veteran traffic cop and still has tremendous instincts.

(38) FS Dashon Goldson / 49ers: Goldson was a disappointment in 2010 after a banner '09 campaign (four interceptions, three forced fumbles). But he still has the potential to become one of the league's top playmaking safeties.

(39) WR Mark Clayton / Rams: A smart, disciplined route runner, Clayton quickly became Sam Bradford's favorite target after being obtained in a trade with Baltimore. He is expected to be back to full speed well before training camp and pick up where he left off after suffering a season-ending patellar injury in the fifth game last season

(40) DE Raheem Brock / Seahawks: Picked up by the Seahawks a week before the 2010 season, Brock ended up making a career-high nine sacks and was one of the league's most potent pass rushers down the stretch.