2010 NFL Preview: Predicting The 2010 All-NFC West Defense
While the NFC West continues to receive a more than healthy dose of criticism - often being referenced as the weakest division in the NFL - there remain several players within the division who just might deserve mention among the NFL elite by the end of the 2010 season.
Preseason All-Division First-Team predictions are merely educated (or in some instances, uneducated) guesses as to which players will be able to display consistent, game-changing impact across a 16-game (or more) season, all while avoiding or managing injury in a league and sport where each player virtually volunteers himself for an hour of crash-test dummyism every week.
Chances of getting it one hundred percent right? Probably not too strong.
However, for the sake of having a little fun and even perhaps ticking a few folks off (a.k.a. having a LOT of fun), the following is a somewhat educated prediction at how the NFC West All-Division First-Team Defense might look at the end of the season.
CB - Marcus Trufant - Seattle Seahawks
A back injury limited the former Pro Bowler (2007) to only 9 starts and a sub-par performance last season, but early signs during training camp and preseason this year seem to indicate that Marcus Trufant may be returning to top form.
Trufant is an extremely physical defender with elite closing ability, and when healthy, he's a legitimate shutdown corner as capable as anyone in the league of defending the NFL's elite receivers.
CB - Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - Arizona Cardinals
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has been turning heads since coming into the league in 2008, and the heads aren't just turning in the NFC West.
He's quickly becoming one of the top cover corners in the NFL.
In 2009, Rodgers-Cromartie ranked second in the NFL, with 31 passes defensed behind only Darrelle Revis of the Jets, and tied for fifth in the league with 6 interceptions.
His combination of size, speed, ball skills and big-play ability make him a dangerous challenge for any NFL quarterback, and there's no reason to believe he won't resume his post in 2010 as the top cornerback in the NFC West.
SS - Adrian Wilson - Arizona Cardinals
After a career-high 5 interceptions in 2009 to go with a firmly established reputation as being one of the most physical and fierce defenders in the league, Adrian Wilson only affirmed his place in the NFC West as one of it's most dangerous safeties last season.
With linebacker-like size (6'3, 230lbs) and a pass-rushing ability unique for a safety, Wilson is a legitimate multi-threat defender with an ever-growing resume of game-changing plays.
FS - O.J. Atogwe - St. Louis Rams
O.J. Atogwe had been a dynamic play-maker out of the Rams' defensive backfield for several years before suffering a dislocated right shoulder last season that limited him to 12 starts. In those 12 starts, Atogwe still managed 3 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions and a sack.
A notorious ball-hawk of a safety known just as much for his fierce hitting and physical style of play, Atogwe has a unique combination of instincts and athleticism that put him in a class with the truly elite safeties in the league.
Rams fans are hoping that a healed shoulder and new contract will return Atogwe to his 2007 form when he managed an NFC-leading 8 interceptions, 75 tackles and a touchdown.
OLB - David Hawthorne - Seattle Seahawks
An undrafted free agent out of Texas Christian in 2008, David Hawthorne burst onto the scene last season when he filled in for an injured Lofa Tatupu at middle linebacker, starting 11 games for Seattle.
Hawthorne finished the season with a team-leading 117 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles in limited duty, and made more than a case to challenge for a starting linebacker spot coming into 2010.
With Tatupu healthy, it's now Leroy Hill's spot at weak-side linebacker that is up for grabs, as several legal troubles and a one-game suspension loom for the five-year veteran. Hawthorne's quickness, speed and unteachable instincts should make his transition to the outside a smooth one, and his aggressive play style should cause havoc in the NFC West.
OLB - Manny Lawson - San Francisco
Manny Lawson was drafted 22nd overall in 2006 by San Francisco, prompting high expectations from fans and coaches alike.
Now he hopes to finally live up to the hype.
Lawson's elite speed would seemingly make him an ideal impact player as a pass-rusher, and he's shown the athleticism to be effective in coverage, although he has struggled to be consistent in both areas.
In 2009, Lawson showed some progress with a career high 6.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles, playing in the 'Niners' 3-4 scheme, but fans and coaches still want more.
If he's able to display consistency in combining better instincts with his rare athletic ability, Lawson has the makings to be a top outside linebacker in the division for quite a while.
2010 could be a make-or-break year for the former North Caroline State'r.
MLB - Patrick Willis - San Francisco 49ers
When it comes to Patrick Willis, it's not a question of whether he's the top middle linebacker in the division as much as it is a question as to whether or not he's the best in the universe.
And even that may not be in question.
The NFL's leading tackler since coming into the league in 2007, Willis tied for second among inside linebackers in 2009 with 4 sacks and tied for the league lead with 3 interceptions among the same group, including a touchdown return. He also forced 3 fumbles which also tied him for the league lead among all NFL linebackers.
Patrick Willis could arguably be considered the best middle linebacker in the game and after three straight seasons of consistent, dominant play from the position, there's no reason to believe that he'll regress in 2010.
MLB - James Laurinaitis - St. Louis Rams
As a rookie in 2009, James Laurinaitis looked more like a veteran at middle linebacker for the Rams with a team-leading 120 tackles to go with 2 sacks, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble.
The former Ohio State Buckeye was extremely active in run support, wreaking all kinds of havoc around the line of scrimmage and displaying above-average instincts at the position, not just for a rookie but among other middle 'backers in the league.
With a year under his belt, expect Laurinaitis to pick up right where he left off and challenge Lofa Tatupu for the NFC West's No. 2 middle linebacker ranking next to (substantially lower than) Patrick Willis.
DE - Calais Campbell - Arizona Cardinals
There aren't many 6'8, 300-pound defensive ends, let alone human beings, with the speed and quickness that Calais Campbell possesses.
The third-year former University of Miami standout took a huge step in 2009 starting 15 games at defensive end for the Cardinals, racking up 7 sacks, 5 pass deflections and a forced fumble.
Campbell's growth and maturity from his rookie year in 2008 to last season was undeniable, and one can only assume that with another year under his belt and Darnell Dockett returning as a disruptive force from the other side (3-4 defense), Campbell's impact should be even greater in 2010.
With such a rare combination of length, speed and power, Calias Campbell could become a truly dominant force off the edge.
DE - Red Bryant - Seattle Seahawks
If I were to have a "sleeper" pick for the NFC West First-Team Defense in 2010, Red Bryant would be it.
The former fourth-round pick out of Texas A&M was originally drafted by the Seahawks in 2008 to be a run-stopping 1-technique defensive tackle, but struggled in his first two seasons, spending a good chunk of his two NFL years on the inactive list.
Pete Carroll came in and determined very quickly during OTA sessions that Bryant's skill-set was a better fit for the base end (strong-side defensive end) position, and thus the change was made and Bryant was converted from the interior to the edge.
At 6'4, 330lbs, Bryant has rare quickness for his size, allowing him to get off the snap quickly and drive his blocker backward. His length gives him the ability to spot the ball carrier early and squeeze down on running lanes.
He may not be a sack leader in the division by the end of 2010, but he could prove to be the most disruptive 4-3 defensive end in the division, against the run.
DT - Darnell Dockett - Arizona Cardinals
Darnell Dockett is one of only a few interior defensive linemen in the league who can almost single-handedly take control of the line of scrimmage.
His burst off the line, quick hands to shed blockers, power to knock O-linemen off balance and closing speed to finish off sacks and tackles behind the line, make him the most dangerous defensive tackle in the NFC West.
Dockett, like Calais Campbell, often lined up at defensive end in 2009 with Arizona shifting to a 3-4 defense, and he tallied 7 sacks on the season.
He's also about as dirty of a player as there is in the league, but seems to be shrewd and discreet enough to somehow get away with it...which, could almost be considered an attribute in and of itself.
Anyway, he's good.
DT - Brandon Mebane - Seattle Seahawks
Brandon Mebane was moved to the 3-technique defensive tackle position in 2009 to focus more on rushing the passer after racking up 5.5 sacks from the 1-technique spot in 2008.
The switch didn't necessarily go so well for Mebane as the Seahawks lacked a consistent pass-rush from the edges, enabling opposing offenses and blockers to focus on containing Mebane.
With an entirely new defensive scheme that utilizes speed off the weak-side edge and puts the strong-side linebacker up on the line of scrimmage, Mebane could see more favorable match-ups inside and re-emerge as a legitimate pass-rush threat in 2010.