The doormat division of the National Football League isn't getting stepped on anymore.
Once the punchline of every overused sports joke, the NFC West has taken on a whole new persona. Hard-nosed defense, and grind-it-out offense, have now made this division one of the more revered in football. Although just two teams finished with an above .500 record and trips to the playoffs, each is undoubtedly on the rise and only getting better.
As the San Francisco 49ers prepare to represent the division this Sunday in Super Bowl 47, let's look at the NFC West as a whole and formulate an all-division team. Who are the best in the West? Read and find out.
QB - Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams
Backup QB - Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Sam Bradford may have had his best season in 2012, but, for the first time since 2010, he was far from the discussion as the best quarterback in the NFC West. With that said, I'm leaning on the side of his remaining untapped potential and the "prototypical franchise quarterback."
It's hard to go wrong in this scenario. Bradford is a former Offensive Rookie of the Year, while Russell Wilson is a potential ROTY and Pro Bowl MVP snub. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick is the sixth-youngest quarterback to reach the Super Bowl. Each brings a different style of play to their offenses, but Bradford simply isn't fleet of foot. Also, there hasn't been an arm as strong as Kaepernick's in the NFL since Brett Farve.
My omission of Colin Kaepernick from the division's best was simple - this is my team and I will not run a pistol option offense. Perhaps I'm bitter?
RB1 - Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks
Backup RB - Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers
With absolutely no exception, the NFC West currently features the best running backs in football. If Arizona's Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams could stay healthy, the division would be a rushing power house. Naturally, someone has to be left out.
Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore are - to my utter dismay - the best of the bunch. Steven Jackson of the Rams has held that distinction for nearly a decade since Shaun Alexander's MVP 2005 season, but the tread on his tires is now wearing thin.
Both Gore and Lynch more than doubled Steven Jackson's touchdown total (4) in 2012. It's all about production.
WR1 - Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
WR2 - Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers
WR3 - Danny Amendola, St. Louis Rams
TE - Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers
This would be one fun group to watch. Larry Fitzgerald may be quickly approaching 30, but he has shown no sign of slowing down. All the future Hall of Famer needs is the ball in his hands. Michael Crabtree started his career poorly - actually, he hardly started it at all - but he's since become a quality target in the Bay Area, quietly topping 1,100 yards in 2012. Fitzgerald hasn't had a great player opposite of him to divert coverage since Anquan Boldin left in 2010.
With two big options on the outside, Danny Amendola is able to return full-time to his true position - the slot. Injuries have become a nuisance with Amendola in the past couple years, but he wouldn't be taking such a beating if he didn't average 10+ targets per game. This could give him the opportunity to prowl the middle of the field freely.
Vernon Davis is - bar none - the best tight end in the NFC West. Like Crabtree, his career began less than adequately for a top-10 pick, but he has met and exceeded his potential. Since 2009, Davis has averaged 804 yards and 7 touchdowns per year.
LT - Russell Okung, Seattle Seahawks
LG - Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers
C - Max Unger, Seattle Seahawks
RG - Alex Boone, San Francisco 49ers
RT - Joe Staley, San Francisco 49ers
Shocking, no? No. This team features only representatives from the Seahawks and 49ers. Russell Okung has coasted the weekly injury reports for his entire career, but there's no denying the work he did in 2012 to keep his rookie quarterback upright. Joe Staley plays the same position for the 49ers, but he has the road-grading size and ability that teams covet in right tackles.
The interior is equally impressive. Alex Boone was an undrafted free agent for the 49ers in 2009, who fought his way into the starting lineup this past training camp, and starting every game. Mike Iupati was a first-round pick in 2010 who has never missed a game, while Max Unger of the Seahawks was taken in the second round the year prior.
All five linemen were voted to the Pro Bowl in 2012.
RE - Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers
DT - Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers
DT - Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals
LE - Chris Long, St. Louis Rams
The 4-3 defensive alignment has been largely fazed out of the NFC West, with the 49ers and Cardinals converting to 3-4 hybrid schemes, while the Seahawks do a little of everything. However, because this is a St. Louis Rams site, we are going to stick with the formation the team has thrived in for decades.
In this case, Chris Long is the only player whose actual position has carried over. Justin Smith and Calais Campbell typically work from the 5-technique, but at 285 and 300 pounds respectively, they should easily make the transition to defensive tackle. As for Aldon Smith, well, when a player like Long calls him "the best pass rusher in the game," it pretty much sums everything up. Smith originally played defensive end for the University of Missouri and, given his resounding success coming off the edge, there is no reason to suspect that he couldn't thrive with his hand on the ground in the NFL.
This front-4 combined for 40.5 sacks in 2012.
WLB - Navorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
MLB - Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers
SLB - Daryl Washington, Arizona Cardinals
This was tough because all of the best linebackers in the division play in the middle. Patrick Willis is obvious; he's a beast. With Ray Lewis set to retire after Super Bowl 47, Willis is only 3 days away from unequivocally being the best in the business. After him, I had to get creative.
Willis' teammate, the third-year Novorro Bowman, has the speed to transition into pass coverage with both slot receivers and tight ends. That's what sets the weakside linebacker, or "Will," apart. On the other end, Arizona's Daryl Washington slides to the strongside, where he was originally projected as a 2010 draft prospect. Washington has been tremendous in run support.
There's no surprise that St. Louis' James Laurinaitis missed the cut. Although he lit up the stat sheet, Laurinaitis had his worst season in four years in 2012. He simply wasn't going to beat Willis for the middle job and doesn't fit the bill to play on the outside.
CB1 - Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
CB2 - Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
CB3 - Cortland Finnegan, St. Louis Rams
FS - Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
SS - Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers
The Greatest Show on Turf couldn't cross mid-field against this secondary. As much as I disapprove of cornerbacks who could play basketball with Hakeem Olajuwon, there's no arguing with the results. Seattle coach Pete Carroll took a flier on the gargantuan Richard Sherman in the fifth round of the 2011 draft and it has paid dividends immediately with 26 consecutive starts and a Pro Bowl.
Arizona's dynamic Patrick Peterson earned the second spot with his second Pro Bowl berth and knack for huge plays. He also kicks Danny Amendola out of return duties on special teams. Lastly, Cortland Finnegan is a true No. 1 corner, but he thrives inside across from the slot. On this team, he lines up there permanently, using his feisty, aggressive style of play to stunt quicker receivers in their routes.
If this team were being made any other year in the past decade, Arizona's Adrian Wilson would have made the cut. Unfortunately, the 33-year-old, 5-time Pro Bowler is on the down side of his career, and the emergence of Dashon Goldson pushes him aside. Both Earl Thomas and Goldson have two great things going for them - they have ball hawking capabilities and can "lay the boom." They are reliable in coverage and don't shy away from run support.
San Francisco 49ers - 11
Seattle Seahawks - 6
St. Louis Rams - 4
Arizona Cardinals - 4
So, how did I do? Does everything appear to fall into place or could I not be more wrong? Let us know in the comments and be sure to follow me on that Tweeter - @Joe__Mazzi