2017 NFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense

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During the month of August, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the NFC West defenses. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2017 NFC West Breakdown by Position: The Defense

Defensive Line

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals

The Seattle Seahawks have the deepest defensive line in the NFC West. Their defensive line is led by Pro Bowl defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Although Bennett does not get a lot of sacks, he is always near the top of the league in pressures. He plays as a defensive end on first and second down and slides inside to defensive tackle on obvious passing downs. Avril wreaks havoc off the edge and is always towards the top of the league in strip sacks. Frank Clark is their third defensive end. He had ten sacks as a rotational player in 2016. Cassius Marsh will be their fourth defensive end. He can play inside too and is one of the best special teamers in the NFL. Ahtyba Rubin and Jarran Reed are the starting defensive tackles. Both have some pass rushing ability but are known for their ability to stop the run and allow linebackers to flow to the football. Rookie Nazair Jones and second-year defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson will be the primary backups. Jefferson is coming off of an injury plagued rookie season. The wildcard is second round pick Malik McDowell. He has a ton of talent, but had effort issues in college. He might miss this season because of an ATV accident.

Aaron Donald is the best defensive lineman in the division, and puts the Los Angeles Rams in second for defensive line. He might even be the best defensive player in the entire NFL. Donald is that talented. He’s an undersized defensive tackle that constantly lives in the backfield. He can rush the passer and stop the run. Most elite pass rushers are defensive ends, but it’s much harder for most quarterbacks to avoid interior pressure from pass rushing defensive tackles. This is part of the reason that Donald is so effective. He’s currently holding out for a larger contract, which could carry into the regular season. Tanzel Smart will take his place while he’s holding out. Smart is a serviceable backup, but he’s no Donald. Michael Brockers is the other starting defensive tackle. He’s able to rush the passer and stop the run like Donald, but he’s not nearly as talented. Donald and Brockers make one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the NFL. Ethan Westbrook is the other starting defensive lineman in Los Angeles’ 3-4 defense. He’s easily the weak link on this defensive line.

The San Francisco 49ers are switching from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense this year. This will give both Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner a chance to start on the defensive line. The two former first round picks from Oregon play a similar style of football, but they will likely be starting Armstead as a defensive end and Bucker as a defensive tackle. Neither has lived up to the hype so far in their young careers, but their talent is undeniable. They are both versatile enough to play multiple positions on this defensive line. Earl Mitchell will be the 49ers starting nose tackle. He is a solid run stuffer that should clog up lanes allowing linebackers to flow to the ball. Tank Carradine will likely be the fourth starting defensive lineman. He’s talented and injury prone, which makes him a wildcard. The 49ers also have Elvis Dumervil as a rotational pass rushing specialist. Dumervil is way past his prime, but still has some ability. Quinton Dial, Chris Jones, and D.J. Jones are all talented backup defensive tackles that should see the field this season. Sen’Derrick Marks is another talented defensive tackle that has fallen off a cliff in recent years. If he can regain form from his Jacksonville Jaguars days, he will likely move up the depth chart and frequently see the field in 2017.

The Cardinals have the worst defensive line in the NFC West, but they still have a lot of talent. This shows how talented the defensive linemen are in the NFC West. The Cardinals will likely start Josh Mauro, Corey Peters, and Frostee Rucker on their defensive line. Rucker is versatile enough to play any spot on the defensive line. Peters will be the team’s run stuffing nose tackle. Mauro is a consistent player, but does not have a lot of upside. On the contrary, Robert Nkemdiche could be the best player on this defensive line. He could also be the worst player on the entire team; It’s completely up to him. The 2016 first round pick and former number one overall recruit coming out of high school disappointed in his rookie season. However, he iss an extremely talented athlete with the ability to play any position on the defensive line. If he can keep his motor running all year, he’ll have a chance of becoming a quality starter this season.

Linebacker

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Los Angeles Rams, Arizona Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers

The Seahawks have the best linebacker corps in the NFC West. They are led by middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who is finally starting to get credit as arguably the best linebacker in the NFL. He led the NFL in tackles in 2016, and will have a good chance of repeating as tackling champion in 2017. Wagner’s partner in crime finally got a Pro Bowl nod in 2016. K.J. Wright has been one of the most underrated players in the NFL during the past few seasons. He has been overshadowed by Wagner and the Legion of Boom, but Wright is a legitimate stud in his own right. The third linebacker will likely be Michael Wilhoite now that Kevin Pierre-Louis was traded for special teams ace D.J. Alexander. The veteran will have to hold off Terrence Garvin, who is having a great off-season. Michael Morgan was the starter last year, but he’s been a disappointment during the preseason. Marcus Smith II was signed as a free agent. The former first round pick probably won’t make the team. Kache Palacio is also competing for a roster spot. The former Washington State Cougar has not impressed this off-season like he did last year. There’s a good chance he ends up on the practice squad again.

The Rams have four starter quality linebackers on their roster. Connor Barwin and Robert Quinn are their pass rushing outside linebackers. Quinn was a great 4-3 defensive end, but will now have to prove he can rush the passer as a linebacker. Barwin has proven that he does not need his hand in the ground to get after the quarterback. Alec Ogletree is a tackling monster as an inside linebacker. Ogeltree is not a thumper in the middle, but is a speedy coverage linebacker that can cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Mark Barron should be the fourth starting linebacker on the roster. The former first round safety was a colossal bust until he moved to linebacker. He’s thrived in this role as a run-and-chase linebacker. He was a physical safety, but is more of a finesse linebacker. This linebacker corps should be one of the NFL’s best in 2017.

The Cardinals have one of the most interesting linebacker corps in the NFL. Chandler Jones and Markus Golden are their two pass rushing linebackers. Both are coming off of impressive 2016 campaigns. Golden is not quick or an explosive athlete like most elite pass rushers, but he’s a technician with a relentless motor. Chandler also has a strong motor, but is able to use his superior athleticism to beat most offensive tackles. Karlos Dansby will have a chance to start as a middle linebacker if Deone Bucannon isn’t healthy. The former Washington State Cougars safety has revolutionized the hybrid linebacker position. Bucannon has been a star when healthy, which hasn’t been too often. 2017 first round defensive end Haason Reddick is making the switch to off-ball linebacker. He should be one of the two starting middle linebackers this season

Although the 49ers have talented linebackers on their roster, two of their three starters are past their prime. NaVorro Bowman has a Hall of Fame resume to his name. He spent most of his career overshadowed by Patrick Willis, but he was arguably the better player during both of their primes. Unfortunately for the 49ers, Bowman is way past his prime. Ahmad Brooks is another linebacker that is past his prime. The pass rushing specialist has lost a few steps in recent years, but can still get it done in a rotation. But he’ll need the backups to give him a breather. Brooks can also play a little bit of defensive end on third downs and in obvious passing situations. Rookie Reuben Foster was a projected early first round pick before a disastrous draft season sent him tumbling to the end of the first round. He was sent home from the combine and has injury concerns that may shorten his career. But Foster is still a supreme talent that should have a chance of taking home the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award this season.

Cornerback

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

The Seahawks have the best cornerbacks in the division, and possibly the entire NFL. Richard Sherman gets a lot of flak from the media for his mouth and zone tendencies, but he has played a lot more man-to-man in recent years. Without a bonafide starter on the opposite side, Sherman has been asked by his coaches to follow around number one receivers more often during the last two years. Even though the Seahawks are predominately a cover three team, they play a hybrid man-zone defense where the outside corners play more man-to-man coverage. DeShawn Shead would be Seattle’s second corner, but he is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the playoffs. He will likely miss the beginning of the regular season. Jeremy Lane and rookie Shaquill Griffin will take Shead’s place. Lane will start as the outside corner and slide inside to nickel when three corners are on the field. That will allow the Griffin to play outside. Neiko Thorpe, Pierre Desir, Deandre Elliott, rookie Mike Tyson, and newly signed Tramaine Brock will be competing to make the roster. All of these corners will play somewhere next season, but some won’t make the cut in Seattle because of the elite depth.

Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the division. No disrespect meant towards Sherman, but Peterson is the best in the NFL. Nobody else combines his size, strength, speed, overall athleticism, and intelligence on the football field at the cornerback position. Peterson is talented enough to play some receiver and double as a returner, but he is such an elite cornerback that the Cardinals do not want to subject him to extra hits. Justin Bethel will start opposite of Peterson. He’s a decent number two corner, but will get picked on by opposing quarterbacks all season because of Peterson’s ability to lockdown the other half of the field. Tyvon Branch will likely start as the nickel corner. Since defenses are in nickel during roughly seventy percent of snaps, Branch will be an important part of the team. Brandon Williams is an extremely raw corner, but has starter upside. He’ll have a chance of seeing the field this year, but will need to improve before getting an opportunity. Veteran Tramon Williams isn’t a Pro Bowl caliber player anymore, but he still has some juice left in his legs. Even if he doesn’t get a lot of snaps, he’s a good leader to have on the roster.

The Rams secondary is the weak link on their defense. Trumaine Johnson is a talented corner, but he sometimes struggles with consistency. His peaks are as good as anyone in the league, but he occasionally allows inferior receivers to dominate him. The Sammy Watkins trade led to the Rams trading away corner E.J. Gaines. Although this was a clear upgrade for the team as a whole, it leaves a hole in their secondary that’ll need to be filled. The second corner spot might be filled by Kayvon Webster. He has some ability, but will be one of the lesser starting corners in the league. Nickell Robey-Coleman showed flashes in Buffalo, but was extremely inconsistent at times. He’s best served as a rotational nickel corner, not as a starting outside corner. The Rams will need some of the younger corners to step up if they want to avoid giving up big plays. Luckily the Rams have a great front seven, but they won’t be able to cover up all of the mistakes that the corners make.

The San Francisco 49ers have the worst cornerback group in the NFC West. Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson will be the starting corners. Robinson has some talent, but neither deserves to be starting cornerbacks on any NFL team. There’s a good chance that most offenses will work them up-and-down the field all year. K’Waun Williams and Keith Reaser will be two of the backups that’ll compete for playing time this season. Neither Williams nor Reaser should see the field often, but they might have to if Robinson and Johnson struggle. Rookie Ahkello Witherspoon might become a starter this season if he can improve on weaknesses from Colorado. Witherspoon was one of the worst tackling corners in all of college football last season. He’ll have to prove that he can tackle before ever getting a chance to play on defense.

Safety

The Best: Seattle Seahawks

The Rest: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers

The Seahawks have the best safety tandem in the NFL. Earl Thomas is the best safety in the NFL and it’s not all that close. Neither Thomas nor Chancellor are versatile safeties, they both have their roles and are extremely good at it. No defensive player is asked to do more than Thomas is in Seattle’s scheme. They ask him to be the mistake eraser on the back end. His ability to cover sideline-to-sideline is what makes him a future Hall of Famer. He’s undersized, but hits harder than almost every other safety not named Kam Chancellor. Chancellor is the enforcer and leader of the Legion of Boom. He’s the size of a linebacker, hits like a lineman, and runs like a safety. His physical style leads to a lot of injuries, which is why the Seahawks signed Bradley McDougald as insurance this off-season. McDougald will be the backup to both Thomas and Chancellor. With all of the mismatch receiving tight ends in today’s NFL, teams need a third safety like McDougald that can cover these athletic freaks. Seattle had been using a third corner in nickel defenses in the past, but now will be putting in McDougald as part of their big nickel package. Although he’s not considered a starter, he’ll get as many snaps as most starters. The Seahawks also drafted two safeties in Delano Hill and Tedric Thompson. Hill will be the third strong safety and Thompson will be the third free safety.

The Cardinals have the second best safety group in the NFC West. Tyrann Mathieu is one of the most versatile players in the NFL. Mathieu can play as a corner and safety, but will be the team’s primary free safety in their base defense. He’s been extremely injury prone in the past, so the Cardinals drafted insurance in Budda Baker. The second round rookie out of Washington would’ve been a high first round pick if he wasn’t undersized. But Baker doesn’t play small. He’s a lot like Mathieu in many ways, including having injury concerns. If both are healthy, they should have a huge impact on this defense. Deone Bucannon is the Cardinals versatile middle linebacker, but he was a safety in college and can play either safety position if needed. Antoine Bethea will be Arizona’s other starting safety. He’s a solid starter that hasn’t gotten a lot of credit over the years. Tyvon Branch will be his primary backup. Branch is a borderline starter that should be considered one of the league’s best backups.

The Rams secondary is their weakness on their defense, but they have some talent amongst their safeties. Lamarcus Joyner is a speedy free safety that can double as a corner at times. He has experience playing both positions, but is at his best as a free safety that can use his quickness to erase mistakes made by corners. Joyner is athletic enough to cover most tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Mo Alexander will be the Rams starting strong safety. The fourth year pro will have to improve if he doesn’t want to be considered the weak link by opposing teams. If he doesn’t improve, opposing offenses will attack him whenever they can. The Rams don’t have any backup safeties that’ll scare teams. Rookie John Johnson has some talent, but he’s likely a few years away from competing for a starting job.

The 49ers should have one of the better safety tandems in the NFL, but their young safeties have drastically under performed. Jimmie Ward and Eric Reid are both former first round picks that would be considered busts at this point in their careers. Both have shown flashes, but they’ve been too inconsistent. Jaquiski Tartt has also disappointed since entering the league in 2015. He’s still young and has a lot of ability, but will need to improve if he wants to overtake Reid as the starting strong safety. Rookie Lorenzo Jerome had a great draft season minus his incredibly slow 40 yard dash time. He’s great in every area expect his deep speed, which could cost him a chance of seeing the field more than just a special teams role. The 49ers have some safety talent, but they’ll need someone to emerge as a leader to help this underachieving group reach their potential.

Special Teams

The Best: Los Angeles Rams

The Rest: San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals

The Rams have the best special teams group in the NFC West. Greg “the leg” Zuerlein isn’t the most consistent kicker in the NFL, but he has an extremely strong leg and hits most of his field goals. Johnny Hekker is the best punter in the NFL. The former high school star quarterback is known for his fake punts during the Jeff Fisher era, but does an amazing job at pinning the opposing teams inside the twenty yard line. Now that Fisher is gone, there’s a chance that Hekker won’t get to show off his arm anymore. But he’ll get plenty of chances to show off his leg, especially with the Rams offense likely putting him on the field many times per game. Tavon Austin is one of the most electric players in the NFL, which he gets to show as a returner.

The 49ers have a great special teams unit. Their special teams talent doesn’t make up for their putrid offense and defense, but it’s still better than the alternative. The ageless Robbie Gould is still kicking field goals. Bradley Pinion is one of the better punters in the NFL. Jeremy Kerley is an electric punt returner that has a chance of scoring every time he touches the ball.

The Seahawks special teams has fallen off in recent years. Jon Ryan is still a good punter, but he’s gotten consistently worse during the last few seasons. Kicker Steven Hauschka is gone after a surprising down year in 2016 and is being replaced by Blair Walsh. Walsh was one of the best kickers in the NFL before missing a chip shot in the playoffs that eliminated his team, ironically against the Seahawks. If he regains his confidence, he could be one of the league’s best kickers. Tyler Lockett should be the team’s starting returner this year after fully recovering from a nasty broken leg in 2016.

The Cardinals have the worst special teams unit in the NFC West, which will probably drive coach Bruce Arians as crazy as it did last season. Chandler Catanzaro struggled mightily in 2016, and will be replaced by veteran Phil Dawson. Matt Wile will be the starting punter. He’s serviceable, but isn’t an elite punter by any stretch of the imagination. Kerwynn Williams will get the first crack at being the team’s starting returner. He’s a good athlete with the ball in his hands, which will give him a chance to score every time he touches the ball.

If you have not yet checked out the NFC West offensive breakdown, do so now!

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