Top Players Of The NFC West Heading Into 2017

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NFL rosters are pretty much well set at this point in the long off-season. The NFC West is chock full of young, exciting, talented players. While it is tempting to list only the talented Seattle Seahawks on this list, this is an effort in diplomacy. Here are the top players of the NFC West heading into 2017.

Top Players Of The NFC West Heading Into 2017

1. David Johnson

While most of the talent in the West resides in Seattle, the best player in the division is in the desert. Not only an upper-tier talent in the NFC West, Johnson is one of the NFL’s premier running backs. Johnson accounted for more than 2,000 all-purpose yards in 2016, and scored 20 touchdowns – on a middling Arizona Cardinals team. He is a workhorse that demands defenses attention, and provides head coach Bruce Arians a multitude of play options on the call sheet. The Pro Bowler and first-team All-Pro last season is the center of gravity for the Cardinals offense.

2. Aaron Donald

The quintessential 3-tech defensive tacke in a 4-3 system, Donald is a major disruptor. He must be schemed and blocked with urgency, on every snap. Able to anchor against double teams, Donald has an uncanny ability to gap penetrate and pressure the quarterback. Donald logged eight sacks in 2016, earned Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors, and probably haunts Russell Wilsons dreams. He doesn’t get enough attention nationally languishing on a perennial mediocre team, but any general manager in the league would kill to acquire him.

3. Earl Thomas

The impact of Thomas can be measured more by what happens when he is not on the field, than when he is. The Seahawks pass defense went from one of the NFL’s best with him in the line-up to a shadow of itself down the stretch. Thomas, always a ball hawk, suffered a devastating lower leg injury in early December last season. He flirted with retirement, but ultimately decided to come back to the game he loves. Passionate and instinctive, his deep coverage ability and the real estate he can patrol is incredible. His presence in center field is the foundation for the Seahawks defensive philosophy.

4. Richard Sherman

One of the game’s true shutdown corners and as talented as he is opinionated, Sherman continues to force opposing quarterback’s to throw to other spots on the field other than the player he is defended. The Seahawks may have flirted with the idea of trading him during the off-season, but the King’s Ransom associated with such a move (at least a first-round pick, another pick, and absorbing his $11 million per season contract) prevented that from happening. Sherman may have even asked the team to look into the idea. We will probably never know the full truth. The dust seems to have settled, and Sherman is poised to have another great season, especially with Earl Thomas back patrolling the center of the field. In six seasons, Sherman has four Pro Bowl selections, three first-team All-Pro nods, and was the 2014 NFC Defensive Player of the Year.

5. Michael Bennett

When defensive coordinators game plan against the Seahawks, Bennett is the player they prioritize. Listed as a defensive end, Bennett has exceptional flexibility and speed and slides inside on passing downs. His get-off is both a blessing and a curse. It puts fear into his opponents, but also comes with a lot of off-sides penalties as well. For what the team gets out of having him on the field, they are willing to take those penalties with a grain of salt. Bennett will never register elite statistics (his career high for sacks in a season is ten, set in 2015). However, he is the blue collar/lunch pail guy on the defense that creates opportunities for others. Bennett has been voted to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons.

6. Russell Wilson

Wilson struggled through an injury plagued 2016 season. His grit, competitive fire, and desire to win are unbreakable. Playing with three different injuries and possibly a little more weight than is optimal, Wilson didn’t look like his usual magic Houdini. Behind an admittedly inferior offensive line, his escapism and ability to make gold from dust enabled the Seahawks to reach the post-season (and win at least one playoff game) for the fifth straight season. He is not only far and away the best quarterback in the West, he remains firmly entrenched as a Top-10 league-wide talent as well. A lot of things other than injuries stacked up against Wilson last season (his line; the lack of a running game; a disappearing act from Jermaine Kearse; loss of Tyler Lockett). Expect a big bounce back in 2017.

7. Chandler Jones

The trade for Jones in the 2016 off-season was a great move for the Cardinals. Over the last two seasons, only Von Miller and Khalil Mack have more sacks than Jones. Jones is in the prime of his career (27 years old), and has the size/speed combination that gives opponents problems. He had a relatively quiet first season in Arizona, but still managed 11 sacks, four forced fumbles and three passes defensed. He will likely miss the presence of Calais Campbell (now in Jacksonville) on the Cardinals defensive line, but there are still enough play makers on that defense to create some opportunities for Jones.

8. Bobby Wagner

Wagner doesn’t make as many “splash” plays as he did his first few seasons (he has only one interception in the last three seasons), but he is a tackling machine. He is intelligent and passionate, and always knows where the play is going. He has only missed eight games over his five NFL seasons, but his absence is glaring when not on the field. As important as Thomas is to the back end of the Seahawks defense, Wagner is the foundation in the middle. Wagner is a sneaky pass rusher (4.5 sacks in 2016) and is ultra-reliable in pass coverage. Only 26, Wagner’s best years are still ahead of him. The three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro stands to flourish with the Seahawks improved pass rush.

9. Doug Baldwin

From undrafted free agent to one of the NFL’s elite receivers, Baldwin continues to refine his skills and is Wilson’s favorite target. Despite not having prototypical number one receiver size (he is 5’11”, 190 pounds), Baldwin always draws attention from the defense. In his last two seasons, Baldwin has 172 receptions and 21 touchdowns. He tied the franchise record for receptions in a season in 2016 (94), joining Bobby Engram. The 2016 Pro Bowl selection is elusive, crafty, and an expert route runner. He also has clear chemistry and trust with Wilson.

10. Cliff Avril

Avril recorded 11.5 sacks last season, but managed only 1.5 in his final six regular season games. Several of those games coincided with Bennett’s absence in the line-up. Consequently, Avril became the primary blocking target for offensive coordinators schemes. The 31-year old has incredible speed, off-the-snap quickness, and pursuit energy. A little unheralded on a defense with a constellation of big stars, the quiet workman is the master of the strip sack (five forced fumbles in 2016). He is also extremely durable, missing just one game during his four full seasons in the Pacific Northwest. Avril joins Bennett, Frank Clark, and rookie Malik McDowell on what has the chance to be a relentless pass rush for the Seahawks.

Honorable Mentions: Jimmy Graham, K.J. Wright, Navorro Bowman, Larry Fitzgerald, Kam Chancellor, Justin Britt, Tyrann Mathieu, Tyler Lockett, Joe Staley.

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