Interested to see the Rams fan reaction to no Ram being in the Top Five. Can't imagine it's going to be good... :<>
Ranking NFC West players: Nos. 1-5
July, 8, 2011
By Matt Williamson
Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranks the top 15 players in the NFC West. Today: Nos. 1-5.
1. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals receiver: If a down year for a wide receiver is producing 90 catches for more than 1,100 yards, it just shows how great that player really is. Fitzgerald had awful quarterback play to blame for his decreased production in 2010. Fitzgerald is an extremely hard worker and does everything well. His ball skills are the best in recent memory, he catches anything thrown near him and his ability to use his body is unmatched. Arizona’s poor pass-protection (and the guys throwing the ball) limited Fitzgerald’s ability to stretch the field last season, but despite just average playing speed, Fitzgerald is extremely dangerous deep.
2. Patrick Willis, San Francisco ***** linebacker: Willis is the best second-level defender in the NFL. That distinction doesn’t include 3-4 outside linebackers, but no one does what Willis does as well.
He is one of the few players in the league who really doesn’t have a discernable weakness. Willis is simply exceptional stopping the run and also when used as a blitzer, registering six sacks last season. He is flawless.
3 Justin Smith, San Francisco ***** defensive tackle: There are three “A Level” players in the NFC West, and Smith is the last of the three. Frankly, he is as good at what he does as Fitzgerald is at wide receiver or Willis is at linebacker. He is an exceptional all-around player. He is stout at the point of attack versus the run and can make plays in pursuit in the running game. Smith is a violent and reliable tackler. He is an exceptional pass-rusher with a variety of effective moves, especially considering the position he plays. Smith doesn’t take snaps off. The more you watch this guy, the more you realize that adjectives like “solid” just don’t do him justice. He is fantastic.
4 Vernon Davis, San Francisco ***** tight end: Davis has really come into his own. Always an excellent physical specimen, Davis now has refined the finer points of playing tight end. He is about as dangerous as any tight end in football and has fantastic deep-ball ability. He is the No. 1 option in San Francisco’s passing attack. Davis is exceptional in the red zone, catching 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He is physical, fast, explosive and can be a very capable blocker. And he might just be getting better.
5 Chris Clemons, Seattle Seahawks defensive end: This is a throwing league, and getting after the quarterback is of paramount importance. Clemons was simply exceptional for Seattle last season. Somewhat of an outside linebacker/defensive end tweener, Clemons has found a home in a defense that suits him perfectly by keeping him mostly on the weak side of the offensive formation and allowing him to operate in space. He is both powerful and incredibly quick, and he can translate speed into power. Clemons can beat his opponent with pure speed off the edge or with an array of pass-rush moves. Clemons wreaks havoc.
6. Aubrayo Franklin, San Francisco ***** defensive tackle: Franklin, a free agent-to-be, will be highly sought after once the bell sounds for free agency to open. Teams such as Washington and Kansas City should covet him to anchor the middle of their 3-4 defenses, because Franklin does that very well. A pure nose tackle who is very difficult to move off his spot, Franklin makes everyone around him better. He offers little as a pass-rusher but is extremely effective against the run. Trust me, Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes are extremely grateful to him. San Francisco should do everything possible to keep him. Whatever he signs for, Franklin is worth it.
7. Brandon Mebane, Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle: Like Franklin, Mebane should become a free agent. Mebane isn’t a slouch against the run, but he is much better suited for a 4-3 where he can use his array of abilities, including a quick get-off.
Mebane doesn’t get the publicity that he deserves, but he does everything asked of him well. Carolina or Denver would love to have him.
8. Russell Okung, Seattle Seahawks offensive tackle: Rookies are not supposed to make the game look as easy as Okung did last season. If had been healthy for 16 games, he might already be considered amongst the best left tackles in the league. That might be a bit premature, but he is quite high on my left tackle list. Okung is very fluid for his size and light on his feet. His technique in both protection and as a run blocker is refined for someone his age. He will only get better. It won’t be long before people are comparing Okung to Joe Thomas and Jake Long as the best player at the position. As long as Okung can stay on the field, he is the cornerstone of Seattle’s offense.
9. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams linebacker: Laurinaitis is improving rapidly. He is already a fixture in the middle of the Rams’ defense and has the intelligence and toughness to lead for years to come. He is still developing as a coverage linebacker, but he isn’t a liability. Laurinaitis is exceptional against the run. He is quick to diagnose and wastes little time getting to the ball carrier. Fred Robbins (who nearly made this list) does deserve an assist here, because he was great on the interior in front of Laurinaitis last season.
10. Mike Iupati, San Francisco ***** guard: This guy is just a masher. He was outstanding as a rookie and got better as the season went along. That is a fantastic accomplishment, considering that his adjustment from the University of Idaho to the NFL was a very drastic one. Iupati still has a lot of technique work to do, especially with his hand placement in pass protection. But he is extremely nasty, massive and moves very well for his size. Led by Iupati, expect the *****' young offensive line to take a major step forward in 2011.
11. Chris Long, St. Louis Rams defensive end: Long really took a step forward last season. In fact, I might have him a little low. Long is a much better athlete than he is given credit for, and his motor runs hot all game long. Although he doesn’t post high tackle numbers, he is very solid against the run and can hold the point of attack. He really improved versus the pass last season and got after the quarterback with much more regularity. He is the perfect base end to complement the potentially dynamic first round pick Robert Quinn for years to come. I could also see Steve Spagnuolo increasing Long’s role and using him as he did Justin Tuck in New York, with Long lining up over a guard on throwing downs.
12. Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle: Miscast in a 3-4 defense, Dockett didn’t have a great year in 2010. But he still demands a ton of attention from opposing blocking schemes and can be incredibly disruptive. He is also an extremely effective interior pass-rusher on throwing downs and has a flair for making big plays. I wish we could see this guy in a 4-3 as an upfield penetrating 3 Technique. If that were his role, he could be among the very best defensive tackles in the league.
13. Frank Gore, San Francisco ***** running back: Gore missed five games in 2010, and injuries remain a constant concern with him. Gore is the focus of every defense he faces and takes a beating every week. I worry that the arrow is beginning to go down on Gore’s excellent career. The drafting of Kendall Hunter could pay huge dividends for Gore and the San Francisco offense if it helps to keep the star back fresh for an entire season. Gore played the fewest games and had his worst yards-per-carry average of his career in 2010. His sub-par supporting cast obviously contributed to Gore’s decrease in rushing production, but he needs to take some of the blame as well. The play-calling and San Francisco’s young offensive line should be improved in 2011, which will help. He was better than ever in the passing game and remains a very impressive do-it-all running back.
14. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals defensive end: It could be argued that Campbell is more effective than his Arizona defensive end counterpart, Dockett. To me, it is a coin flip to decide. Although he also took a slight step backward last season, Campbell is an ascending player with a boatload of talent. Only 25 years old, Campbell is still learning how to best use his outstanding length and agility while playing with proper leverage. The best should be yet to come. Mix in Dan Williams, who almost made this list, and Arizona has a chance to have a fantastic defensive line.
15. David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks linebacker: You might be asking, "Who?" Get to know this player. All he does is produce. When Lofa Tatupu went down in 2009, Hawthorne burst onto the scene, well, quietly burst onto the scene. He was a tackling machine and still is. In 2010, he went from the middle to the weak side but didn’t skip a beat. Hawthorne might not excel in one particular area, but he truly does everything well. He is now just entering his prime. Amazingly and under the radar, Hawthorne is the Seahawks' best linebacker.