Is the toughest division in the NFL also the most talent-laden?
It’s a question that must be posed in light of last year’s four-horse race, which could become even tighter this fall. But while all of us are aware of the overall strength of the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams, let’s take a closer look at some of the finest individual performers for these clubs.
Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams
With a healthy Sam Bradford back at the controls, look for this dynamic playmaker to take the next step as a receiver, attacking multiple levels of the defense with explosive run-after-catch production. Austin will also create big plays in the return game.
Antonio Cromartie, CB, Arizona Cardinals
This newcomer to the NFC West brings size, length, exceptional speed, experience and production. Aligning opposite of Patrick Peterson might provide Arizona with the best CB tandem in the entire NFL.
Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers
How do you put pressure on a defense? Speed down the seam. Davis is still playing at a high level, and his speed puts pressure on the coverage, drawing double teams and forcing the defense to respect his ability. Because he will attract a lot of attention, concentration in traffic will be key to his explosive playmaking skill set in the seam and outside the numbers.
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
Yes, a rookie makes the cut for the top 15 impact players. He will need to make the adjustment at the NFL level of competition against blocking schemes, but his exceptional initial quickness out of stance and advanced hand combat make him a favorite to succeed early in his career. A rare interior pass rusher coming out of Pitt, he will contribute in the run game, too, with a high number of TFL’s.
Johnny Hekker, P, St. Louis Rams
Winning field position is one of the key factors in the game of football, and Hekker provides that for the Rams. On the heels of his first Pro Bowl appearance a year ago, Hekker will once be one of the difference-makers this season. ] This young punter’s hang time tilts the chins of opposing punt returners, forcing fair catches, and his directional kicking is among the best in the NFL.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
After the offseason distraction in Miami was resolved, the 49ers’ brass inked the dual-threat signal-caller to a well-deserved, long-term extension. With the 2014 grand opening of the Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, the big question for Kaepernick and Co. is whether the Niners can take advantage of the excitement and extend a window of opportunity that is closing rather quickly. Kaepernick will need to have his best season yet to dethrone Seattle and keep St. Louis and Arizona from nipping at his heels.
James Laurinaitis, LB, St. Louis Rams
Rams defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will lean on “55” to be the bellcow and lead the Rams’ defense in 2014. During Laurinaitis tenure, this iron man has not missed a game. His production from the middle linebacker position comes out to over 100 tackles in each of his seasons as a pro.
Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks
When the beast is allowed to eat, the Seahawks are victorious. In order to grab another NFC West crown, Seattle must maintain balance during the 2014 campaign by staying in “Beast Mode” a high percentage of the time. Lynch is a physical runner with excellent second effort and an uncanny ability to pick up yards after contact – perfect for such a ball-control offense.
Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Already one of the best athletes in the NFL, Peterson is arguably the best corner man in the NFC West. This all-purpose, three-phase player aligns on offense as a toy, mans his spot in the defensive secondary and is a returner as well. He is the ultimate difference-maker with the ball in his hands.
Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams
The North Carolina product’s 2013 season ended in a Pro Bowl berth. With an outstanding spring and the implementation of a new defensive scheme, will Quinn duplicate his sack numbers from a year ago? Count on it. Quinn’s relentless motor, passion and desire make him the best pass rusher in the NFL.
Joe Staley, OT, San Francisco 49ers
One of the top blindside tackles in the NFL, equipped with high playing time and production. Despite protecting a mobile quarterback in Kaepernick, Staley’s impact in terms of sealing the edge and run blocking will be critical in the 49ers’ offensive success.
Earl Thomas, S, Seattle Seahawks
An explosive hitter with corner coverage skills, he has excellent football instincts, read-reaction quickness and is a difference-maker. With apologies to Richard Sherman, Thomas is the leader of the “Legion of Boom” and he and his teammates are aiming higher in 2014. While the word “repeat” is not being said, it is definitely in the minds of those in the know within the Seahawks’ organization and the 12th Man.
Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks
If this player can remain healthy, he is a lock for Pro Bowl honors. Wagner is versatile and a three-down with the complete package when it comes to tackling, blitzing and man-to-man coverage; one of the young and dominant linebackers in the game today.
Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Detractors say he is only a two-down linebacker. In reality, Willis is a sideline-to-sideline wrecking machine, and his blitz production is off the charts. When you’re building a defense and looking for a middle linebacker who not only looks the part, but has all the physical tools, athletic ability, speed and nasty demeanor, look no further than Patrick Willis.
Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks
Having led his team to a Super Bowl title, the 5-foot-11 QB proved height doesn’t matter. It will be interesting to see how the offseason changes that the Seahawks made, both offensively and defensively, keep the divisional foes at bay. Without Wilson, Seattle doesn’t soar as high or as far – despite a very strong defense.
Top rookies to watch in the NFC West in 2014
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis
Chris Borland, LB, San Francisco
Deone Buccanon, DB, Arizona
Greg Robinson, OG, St. Louis
Tre Mason, RB, St. Louis
Jimmie Ward, DB, San Francisco
Bruce Ellington, WR, San Francisco