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Top 10 NFC West IDPs

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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Posted Aug. 02, 2011 @ 4:27 p.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

Not surprisingly, the NFC West once again looks extremely mediocre. But when the subject of fantasy IDPs (individual defensive players) is brought up, the league's most downtrodden division is usually treated with a lot more respect than regret.

It can thank perennial IDP heavyweight Patrick Willis for that.

Despite missing the 2010 season finale with a broken hand that was operated on twice, the Niners' extremely gifted defensive centerpiece had another IDP output to die for after signing a five-year, $50 million contract extension before last season that made him the league's highest-paid inside linebacker.

A Pro Bowler in each of his four seasons, Willis is a no-brainer No. 1 selection as the NFC West's top IDP, even though he is coming off a subpar season by his lofty standards. Especially early on in his fourth season, opposing offenses made a concerted effort to limit Willis' impact by frequently pulling guards in his direction. But he still managed a team-high 153 tackles (according to team statistics) and made strides as a pass rusher, registering a career-high six sacks, which tied for the most in the league by an inside backer.

Tackles … sacks … interceptions (a pair returned for TDs) … forced fumbles (eight in his career).

Pick your poison with Willis, whose newest defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, has a great reputation for getting the most out of his linebackers. Fangio should have all kinds of fun coming up with clever scheme variations that take advantage of Willis' blazing speed (4.37 40-time), off-the-charts range and all-world work ethic.

Let's take a quick look at the rest of the NFC West's top 10 IDPs:

2. Rams MLB James Laurinaitis — The Rams are living large at middle linebacker, with Laurinaitis quickly having developed into one of the league's best and most productive players at that position. A workaholic who spends the majority of his time at Rams Park, he has racked up a whopping 234 tackles in his first two seasons and takes great pride in having so quickly become the brains of the Rams' defense. Laurinaitis greatly improved his coverage (five passes defensed and an interception) and his blitzing skills in his second season, and he seldom comes off the field (team-high 1,093 snaps in 2010).

3. 49ers RDT Justin Smith — Smith can be dominating at times, as evidenced by his three sacks in the Niners' season finale that emphatically justified his second consecutive Pro Bowl berth. There's strong reason to believe that he will benefit from the pass-rushing presence of another Smith up front this season — first-round draft pick Aldon Smith. Relentless and durable, Justin Smith's 155 consecutive starts rank first among active NFL D-linemen. He led the Niners last season in sacks (8½, his highest total since his rookie season in 2001), tackles for loss (13), QB pressures (73) and QB hits (48), according to team statistics.

4. Seahawks FS Earl Thomas — Thomas, the second of two first-round picks by the Seahawks last season, showed considerable potential as a rookie with 76 tackles and five interceptions, which tied the franchise record for a rookie. He is blazing fast with a fantastic first step and a great combination of acceleration and instincts. Thomas started off fast, picking off three passes in his first four games before tailing off a bit, and he figures to be a lot more consistently productive in his second season. A conscientious worker who is determined to be good, Thomas has sideline-to-sideline range and a center fielder's instincts, but he's also a very physical tackler and run supporter.

5. Cardinals DT Darnell Dockett — Despite being forced to deal with a nagging stinger that reduced his strength last season, Dockett still registered five sacks and 52 tackles. Look for him to return to his Pro Bowl form with better health, a more aggressive scheme under new coordinator Ray Horton and a few more plays off that will allow him to be fresher in crunch time.

 6. Cardinals FS Kerry Rhodes — Obtained in a trade with the Jets last season for a fourth-round draft pick in 2010 and a seventh-rounder in ’11, Rhodes did a very commendable job replacing the departed Antrel Rolle. An every-down player with a big-play flair, Rhodes tied a league record in '10 by returning fumbles for TDs in back-to-back weeks (Week Four and Week Five). He was the league's only player in 2010 to register at least four interceptions and four fumble recoveries, and his 174 interception return yards were the second most in the league behind Baltimore's Ed Reed. Rhodes also had 90 tackles.

7. Rams DLE Chris Long — Benefiting from staying put on the left side after bouncing from left to right end the previous season, the former first-round draft pick and son of Hall of Famer Howie Long had a breakout year in his third season with 8½ sacks and a team-leading 21 QB hits and 16 QB pressures. Going all out on every snap, Long had at least one sack in seven of his last 11 games and could be on the cusp of becoming a perennial double-digit sacker.

8. Seahawks OLB David Hawthorne — The extremely underrated Hawthorne has become the Seahawks' most productive linebacker, reaching 100 tackles for the second consecutive campaign. Nicknamed "the Heater," Hawthorne has excellent natural instincts that allowed him to switch from the middle, where he had replaced the injured Lofa Tatupu in 2009, to the outside without missing a beat last season. This season he will be back in the middle replacing Tatupu, who was cut by the team on July 31.

9. Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson — The Cardinals' longest-tenured player was admittedly far from his best last year after a tremendous season opener (two interceptions, a sack and the first blocked punt of his career), but he still ended up registering a career-high 118 tackles (according to the team). Wilson recently underwent surgery to repair a torn abductor that made it difficult for him to turn his hips and change direction. New Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who brought out the best in Troy Polomalu in Pittsburgh, figures to create more playmaking opportunities for Wilson, who has a real chip on his shoulder after underachieving in ’10 that could make him very dangerous.

10. Rams CB Ron Bartell — Although he had trouble hanging on to interceptions, Bartell returned to form in 2010 after a subpar ’09 brought on by a nagging thigh injury. Bartell led the Rams with 10 pass breakups in 15 games (13 starts), registered 61 tackles and frequently shadowed the opponent's top receiver.

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