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The 5 Biggest Threats in the NFC West - Part 2 - The In-Between

ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01:  Kellen Winslow #82 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulls in this reception against Thomas DeCoud #28 of the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on January 1, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 01: Kellen Winslow #82 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulls in this reception against Thomas DeCoud #28 of the Atlanta Falcons at Georgia Dome on January 1, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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In part one of this series(link to part one), I explored the players in the Rams' division with a big reputation, but who won't have the production to match. I referred to these guys as The Ignored.

In part two, we move on to the next group of players in this series. They are called The In-Between. This group encompasses the players I see as being threats the Rams have to deal with, but who are perhaps deficient in a key area. Or perhaps they are too naturally talented to be ignored, but don't put out the production to match their talent. Or perhaps I just don't like them as players.

None of my top five NFC West Players are Seattle Seahawks. While writing this series of articles, I was surprised; both at the huge number of potential impact players in the "weak" NFC West, and at how few of them were Seahawks. There are some Cardinals, and quite a few 49ers, but very few Seahawks.

Perhaps more intimidating than taking on such a big series as this one was deciding on which guys belong in which tier. Some I felt strongly about (Randy Moss was the first guy I thought of when I was deciding on The Ignored), others were much tougher ("wait, I'm really going to put Michael Crabtree on a list of players the Rams have to care about?"). In the end, most of these guys ended up going where my initial instinct put them.

The In-Between

The following group of players are those that I don't consider to be imminent threats, nor are they guys who must be dealt with at all costs if the Rams hope to win, but players who also can't be ignored. These are the men that are bound to make one or two good plays per game, and if the Rams aren't ready for that, those plays could make the difference.

Kellen Winslow Jr. - On Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012, Kellen Winslow was sued by the owner of a home he had rented for six months in 2011. Without going into too much detail (you can read the entire article here, rest assured that the words "dog feces" and "animal waste" are prominently involved...

...and so goes the life of Kellen Winslow Jr.

Drafted out of the University of Miami with the 6th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Winslow was expected to be the prototype for the tight end of the future. He had the size (6' 4"), speed (4.55 in the 40), and pedigree (his father is a five time Pro Bowl tight end) that makes scouts salivate.

In his first two seasons, he played a grand total of two games. Over a period of just one year, he broke his leg, and needed two operations to get it fixed. He got into a motorcycle accident (that violated his contract with the Browns), tearing his ACL in the process. He then came down with a staph infection due to the injuries sustained in the accident

This isn't a history lesson on Kellen Winslow, but this period of time showed you all you need to know about Kellen Winslow Jr. Amazing potential, but always overshadowed by off-the-field issues. He was named to a Pro Bowl in 2007, then publicly criticized the Browns' front office when he suffered a second staph infection. He signed the biggest contract for a tight end in NFL history with the Bucs in 2009, then spent three years almost never practicing because of bad knees.

In spite of all this, Kellen Winslow is a productive player. Despite his reputation of being injury prone, he hasn't missed a game in 3 years, while averaging over 70 receptions and over 750 yards per season. The Rams also tend to struggle with athletic tight ends, and Kellen Winslow is still athletic, despite the knee problems.

Kellen Winslow is unlikely to ever beat the Rams by himself, but he is not a player that can be ignored. If the Rams don't account for him, they will be in trouble.

NaVorro Bowman - "Wait, NaVorro Bowman? The other inside linebacker for the 49ers? The one not named Patrick Willis?", you ask. Yes, indeed, NaVorro Bowman, the other inside linebacker for the 49ers.

When you talk about the 2011 49ers defense, the first thing you have to mention is the 14 straight games they didn't give up a rushing touchdown. A defense doesn't accomplish a streak like that with Patrick Willis and "some other guy". Both of them have to be top notch, or there will be holes to run through. NaVorro Bowman was a top notch inside linebacker last year.

Coming into the 2011 season, the 49ers were so confident in Bowman, they allowed Takeo Spikes to walk away in free agency. He came through for the 49ers with 111 solo tackles( 143 total tackles). He also showed off his pass coverage chops with 8 deflected passes, and was named a First Team All-Pro by the Associated Press.

Unfortunately for Bowman, being on a defense with Willis, Justin Smith, and Carlos Rogers, among others, didn't allow him to get the attention he deserved. This didn't keep other NFL players from taking notice, though, and they named NaVorro the 85th best player of 2012.

The reason Bowman didn't make one of the two higher groups on my list, despite being one of the best players in the NFC West, is because I don't consider linebackers who don't pass rush to be threats that must be dealt with. They are more immovable objects than unstoppable forces. If the Rams want to successfully run on the 49ers, they'll certainly have to get someone to block Bowman, but he is unlikely to disrupt an entire game.

Beanie Wells - No player caused me to vacillate between tiers more than Beanie Wells. I had him as low as "Ignored", and as high as the 4th most important player for the Rams to stop. There was screaming, crying, hair pulling, and throwing of computer mice, even though I made this decision alone. After spending a week in silent meditation, I finally decided to put him in this tier of players.

Here is some random thoughts and pieces of information about Beanie Wells, all of which contributed to the difficulty of this decision:

· I feel like he's been in the league forever, but it has only been 3 years.

· He is just 24 years old, but is constantly dinged up, appearing on the Cardinals injury report in 13 of 16 weeks in 2011.

· He hits holes like a top tier running back, but ran a 40 time that would make my grandmother cringe (4.62).

· On November 6th, 2011, he averaged 2 yards per carry on 10 carries, for a total of 20 yards, in a game against the Rams. On November 27th, 2011, he averaged 8.4 yards per carry on 27 carries, for a franchise record 228 yards, also against the Rams.

· He had games in 2011 where he averaged 5.1, 6.6, and 8.4 yards per carry. He had games in 2011 where he averaged 1.9, 2.0, and 2.7 yards per carry.

· Before the 2011 season, Coach Ken Whisenhunt said the Cardinals would place a heavy emphasis on the run, with Wells as the feature back. Then, they drafted running back Ryan Williams with the 38th overall pick.

So what does all this tell us about Beanie Wells? Honestly, it's impossible to say. I think, in the end, it tells us the career of Beanie Wells is still up in the air. He could end up as a feature back, rushing for 1500 yards and 15 TDs, or he could be a career backup, with the highlight being his spectacular game against the Rams last season.

For now, maybe the Rams can just settle on splitting the difference between the two games last year, and holding him to his career average of just over 4 yards per carry. If they are able to do so, Wells won't be a real threat to a Rams' victory.

Michael Crabtree - "(Michael Crabtree)'s got the best hands I've ever seen on a wide receiver". Not buying it? Yea, me neither. But that's the quote from 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh from last week.

I am not a fan of Michael Crabtree. I just want to put that out there in advance, so there are no accusation flying about later. You don't have to accuse me of being biased, because I am openly admitting to the fact that I don't like Michael Crabtree.

He played for the Mike Leach offense, which makes every mildly talented offensive player look like the perfect fit for the next Air Coryell offensive system. Under Leach, Graham Harrell won the "Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award" , and became just the 6th player in NCAA history to throw for over 5,000 yards. Graham Harrell...

Crabtree followed up his inflated college career by holding out for top pick money, despite falling to the 10th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. This caused him to miss all of his first training camp, his first preseason, and the first 5 games of his rookie year. During all of this, he was threatening to sit out the entire season, which would have caused him to be put back into the draft the following year.

He followed all of this up, for the next two-and-a-half years, by being...a league average receiver. He had a bit of a breakout last year with 72 receptions, over 800 yards, and 4 TDs, but averaged an abysmal 12.1 yards per catch(78th in the league). He disappeared against the Giants in the NFC Championship game, ending up with just 1 catch for 3 yards, when the 49ers needed someone - anyone - other than Vernon Davis to put some pressure on the Giants' defense.

After having said all that, I still can't say the Rams can afford to ignore Michael Crabtree. Over the final 11 games of the regular season last year, Crabtree was in the top ten in both receptions and yards. He also had 9 games last season with at least 5 catches, and 10 games with at least one 20+ yard reception. He also scored 4 TDs in the last 7 games of the season, after scoring only 1 over the first 10 games.

He also has the possibility of the "third year wide receiver bump" coming this year. Despite this actually being his 4th season, this will be his first EVER full offseason, having missed the first to a holdout, the second to a neck injury, and the third to the labor dispute. Add this to his jump in stats last year, and there is the possibility Crabtree may finally live up to his promise coming out of college.

My final thoughts on Crabtree: He has talent, but is one of the poster children for why NFL receivers are considered divas. He's proven to be susceptible to injury, and has been known to be sidelined by simple nicks, or even malicious footwear. He came into the NFL overhyped, and still gets the benefit of the doubt, despite a relative lack of production. The talent means the Rams can't ignore him, but, in the end, he's unlikely to be a real threat.

Marshawn Lynch - Marshawn Lynch ended the 2011 season with 1204 yards rushing, scored 13 touchdowns, and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. On the surface, those numbers sound very impressive. But when one takes a deeper look, it's clear that he is a "volume" player, and not a great running back.

In today's NFL, a running back has to be more than just a ground-and-pound guy. All of the best offenses have running backs who can also be threats out of the backfield. But Marshawn Lynch brings little to the Seahawks running game, averaging only 170 yards per season in the receiving game. He is also a liability as a blocker, and, combined with his receiving struggles, it's clear Lynch is a detriment to the passing game of the Seahawks.

Lynch isn't nearly the pure runner his traditional stats seem to imply. He benefited greatly from a good offensive line in 2011. The Seahawks line ranked among the elite in the NFL in both power blocking and stuffs (a measure of plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage). Unfortunately for Seattle, their good run blocking did not show dividends in their Lynch-led running game. The team was 25th in the league in yards per carry, and 21st in total yards.

Marshawn Lynch also lacks the explosion of the typical NFL feature back. He has a great first step to get to top speed, but his top speed certainly isn't very fast. Here are his longest carries in each of the 15 games he played in 2011: 12, 7, 23, 11, 47, 9, 29, 8, 12, 12, 40, 16, 15, 18, and 18. That is only 4 games out of 15 with a carry of over 20 yards.

Last but not least, he is yet another character and injury concern. Marshawn has never played 16 games in a season, averaging just 12 per year. Over a period of 32 months between 2006 and 2009, Lynch was on the receiving end of a shooting (that fortunately missed him), was accused of sexual assault, pled guilty in a case involving a hit and run, pled guilty to a gun charge, and was accused of stealing $20 from a police officer's wife. The gun charge resulted in a 3 game suspension to start the 2009 season.

Over his career, Marshawn Lynch will rack up plenty of "22 carries for 85 yards" type games, but, in the end, he is not the kind of explosive player that generally makes the difference in winning or losing a game. Add that to the fact that he could go out with an injury or suspension at any time, and despite his great traditional numbers, he just isn't a threat.

A Few Final Thoughts - I really wanted to find a place somewhere in these articles to talk about 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. It felt awkward putting him in one of the groups of players, since he's a coach. But I also felt like he couldn't go unmentioned when this is about NFC West threats.

In the ten seasons prior to the arrival of Jim Harbaugh as head coach, the Stanford Cardinals were 46 - 57, with only two bowl appearances. During Harbaugh's four years with the team, the team improved each year, going 4 - 8 in 2007, 5 - 7 in 2008, and 8 - 5 in 2009, leading to an appearance in the Sun Bowl. His tenure at Stanford culminated in 2010 with the school's best record in 70 years, when they went 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. That team's only loss was to the eventual "national championship" runner-up Oregon Ducks.

In the ten seasons prior to Harbaugh's arrival in San Francisco, the team's record was 68 - 92, with just two playoff appearances. Ten years is a long time in the NFL, so if we want to cut the sample size in half, the team was still just 33 - 47, and never made the playoffs. His first year as head coach of the 49ers, he lead the team to a 13 - 3 record, and an appearance in the NFC Championship game.

Now, let's not go crazy and call him the next Bill Walsh or anything. Before his arrival, the 49ers were one of the most talented teams in the league, and had been underperforming for years. But turning perennial underperformers into a group of winners is one of the tougher things for a coach to do in the NFL, and Harbaugh did a masterful job doing so. He'll be a threat to the Rams, and the rest of the NFC West, for a long time.

As for the rest of the players, I guess it's pretty clear I'm down on NFC West running backs. The only one who really worries me is LaMichael James of the 49ers, but I don't think he'll get the carries in his first year to make a big difference. There is not a single starter in the group who makes me cringe.

I've now been down on every 49ers wide receiver, except A.J. "I came into camp so out of shape - my coach called me out to the media" Jenkins. I feel like they are trying to glue a wide receiver group together with a bunch of spare parts, but don't really have a single guy Alex Smith can point to during the 4th quarter and say "that's my guy, if I throw it his direction, he's going to get it for me". His only weapon is still Vernon Davis, and a lot of teams will follow the Giants game plan by smothering the outside receivers, running zones at Davis, and hoping he doesn't beat you by himself (which Davis almost did to the Giants).

Finally, I want to thank everyone for reading. The next part in this series, titled The Threats, will be coming soon. As usual, any thoughts or comments you have are welcome...