Introducing the Next Generation of NFC West Studs

Dan KuklaCorrespondent IIIAugust 9, 2012

Introducing the Next Generation of NFC West Studs

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    Dynamic rookies and second-year players look poised to change the NFC West from NFL laughingstock to a collection of legitimate contenders.

    The 2008 Arizona Cardinals had the worst regular season record (9-7) of any team in Super Bowl history, a feat matched only by the 2011 New York Giants and 1979 Los Angeles Rams. They appeared on a Top 10 list of worst Super Bowl teams published by the New York Daily News.

    Then the 2010 Seattle Seahawks had the worst regular season record (7-9) of any division winner and playoff team in NFL history as the NFC West failed to produce a winning team.

    Only one NFC West team finished with a winning record in 2009 and 2011.

    It won't happen overnight, but a turnaround is coming. All four teams feature exciting young players ready to make an instant impact.

    Let's take a closer look at the best of the bunch.

Ryan Williams, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Don't forget about Ryan Williams.

    His torn patella tendon suffered during an exhibition game against Green Bay on Aug. 19 last year put him out of sight and out of mind for an entire season.

    But recovery from offseason surgery went well. Williams will avoid the physically unable to perform list and be ready to play by Week 1. He missed Arizona's preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints in the Hall of Fame Game, but expects to be playing in the near future.

    If you have any doubts about how he will hold up after suffering such a brutal injury, just take a look at the endorsement of his training camp performance by Bucky Brooks on NFL.com.

    The versatile power back is an extraordinary runner with outstanding skills. He is ideally suited to grind between the tackles, but also possesses the speed and quickness to make plays on the perimeter. In watching Williams work at practice, I was impressed with his ability to find seams in the middle of the defense and stick his foot in the ground to explode through holes. He shows remarkable stop-and-start quickness and his decisiveness will lead to few negative runs for the offense. In addition, Williams is a capable receiving threat out of the backfield with the hands and route-running skills to catch 50-plus passes in the Cardinals' scheme.

    Beanie Wells isn't exactly a model of health himself. Expect Williams to quickly play his way into regular carries. If Wells suffers another injury, Williams is more than capable of taking over as a feature back.

Michael Floyd, WR, Arizona Cardinals

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    Michael Floyd possesses the skills to become the best receiver out of a deep and talented draft. He also landed in a prime place for quick development as he will learn from Larry Fitzgerald, one of the league's best and hardest-working veterans.

    Unfortunately, Floyd doesn't seem to possess the work ethic required to earn a starting spot alongside Fitzgerald by Week 1. He may not even climb above No. 4 on the depth chart anytime soon.

    Floyd is a tremendous talent who projects as another dominant target for Arizona to deploy deep. It just looks like it will take him a bit longer to fulfill those lofty expectations.

Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Aldon Smith set a franchise record for the San Francisco 49ers with 14 sacks during his rookie season. That fell just shy of Jevon Kearse's rookie record of 14.5 sacks.

    Smith served as a situational pass-rusher during his rookie campaign, but projects as a full-time starter in 2012. He switches to outside linebacker after playing defensive end at Missouri.

    His elite speed and size make him extremely versatile. He fives the 49ers a dominant force to deploy anywhere they want on the front seven.

    Veteran teammate Ahmad Brooks liked what he saw in 2011, according to a story by Kyle Bonagura for CBS Sports.

    Aldon is so swift. It's unbelievable to watch him go out there and perform....If they do double-team him, triple-team him, then someone has to be open.

    San Francisco's defense quickly transformed into an elite unit last year under head coach Jim Harbaugh. Expect Smith to factor in as a big reason why that trend continues.

LaMichael James, RB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Frank Gore still leads the 49er backfield, but that won't last forever. Backup Kendall Hunter now has serious competition from rookie LaMichael James to take over that lead role when Gore wears down.

    Hunter averaged 4.2 yards per carry in strong but limited work as a rookie. He continues to impress offensive coordinator Greg Roman, according to a story by Taylor Price on the team's official website.

    I’ve never seen Kendall Hunter have a bad day or a bad snap where he wasn’t totally tuned into football....Kendall’s becoming more of a well-rounded football player. We’re really glad we have him. He gets better every day.

    Fullback Rock Cartwright endorsed James, calling him "special" and "the truth" in a story by the San Francisco Chronicle.

    The two small backs have a big future by the bay. Both will develop into studs as San Francisco's current workhorse ages.

Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Injuries to Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond pushed rookie Richard Sherman into Seattle's starting lineup just six weeks into his NFL career.

    His ensuing performance ensures he will keep that role in 2012.

    Sherman finished 2011 with four interceptions and 55 tackles while appearing in every regular-season game but only starting 10. He ranked second among all NFL cornerbacks for success rate, eighth in yards after the catch allowed and 10th in yards per pass, according to Football Outsiders.

    The rising star played wide receiver during his first two years at Stanford before switching to cornerback as a junior to improve his chances of making it to the NFL. His 6'2" body featuring good hands and quick feet allows him to match up well with the league's larger receivers.

    Sherman was the only member of Seattle's starting secondary that did not end up on the Pro Bowl roster. He has a great shot to change that during this coming season.

    The Others:

    Linebacker K.J. Wright is literally making big noise at training camp after an impressive rookie season. The fourth-round pick played so well last year that Seattle traded away former fourth overall pick Aaron Curry to Oakland.

Bruce Irvin, DE, Seattle Seahawks

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    Seattle's first-round draft pick Bruce Irvin caught the eye of ESPN's NFC West blogger Mike Sando at training camp and head coach Pete Carroll is literally singing his praises.

    He could reach double-digit sacks if the Seahawks use him as a pass-rusher in nickel packages like San Francisco did with Aldon Smith last year. Known for his elite speed that projects him as a dominant edge rusher, Irvin now looks like he will be much more than a one-trick pony.

    The Others:

    Russell Wilson doesn't fit the prototypical mold for an NFL quarterback. Matt Flynn earning the start in Seattle's preseason opener to go with his big contract hints that Wilson isn't the Seahawks' quarterback of 2012. He may, however, be the team's quarterback of the future. His arm strength and leadership give him the tools to overcome anything he lacks in stature.

Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams

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    Robert Quinn has literally stood out at training camp. Of all the mammoth defensive linemen that Jeff Fisher loves to collect, Quinn's stature and talent are the most impressive so far.

    Here's what his performances look like through the eyes of St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell.

    Quinn has been impossible to miss in the first weeks of camp. He seems to flash across your eyes in every pass-rushing drill like a blur. In 11-on-11 drills, every time you see the flash of white jersey slashing around the edge on the pass rush right into the lap of nearly every quarterback before they can cock their throwing arm, it seems to be No. 94. He has burst past every offensive lineman put in front of him.

    The Rams took a risk by drafting Quinn after his suspension at North Carolina. The large lineman looks ready to help his team cash in on that risk very soon.

    The Others:

    Tight end Lance Kendricks has the talent to become a dominant force in the passing game if he can overcome his nasty habit of dropping the ball. Kendricks shined during the preseason last year before struggling during the regular season. He is off to another hot start in the summer of 2012.

Janoris Jenkins, CB, St. Louis Rams

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    Janoris Jenkins is making everyone at Rams training camp forget about his many pre-draft character concerns by flashing the top-15 talent everyone knew he possessed.

    He has been so impressive in training camp that ESPN's Adam Schefter already projects him as a Pro Bowler.

    Jenkins began practicing with the first team just three days into training camp and now looks like a lock to start at left corner opposite Cortland Finnegan. Strong safety Quintin Mikell likes what he see, according to ESPN's NFC West blogger Mike Sando.

    He is a young guy who is coming in with a lot of confidence. He has come in and made a lot of plays already. I can see it coming. He's going to have a good year. They're going to test him and he might have a little bit of struggles here or there, but he has a lot of confidence and is a guy who can make plays.

    St. Louis' draft-day gamble on Jenkins looks like it will pay big dividends.

    The Others:

    First-round pick Michael Brockers is another physically imposing defensive lineman like Robert Quinn who has stood out in training camp. In addition to his noticeable size, Brockers is already impressing his teammates with his work ethic and maturity.

    Even though wide receiver Brian Quick continues to draw gaudy expectations because of his size, fellow rookie Chris Givens looks like the more polished receiver early on because of his speed. Both possess raw talent that will make them important staples in the team's suddenly deep receiving corps.