Yesterday, the good folks at Turf Show Times, our resident St. Louis Rams blog, put together a post about the top ten players in the NFC West. This, of course, comes in the wake of Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranking the division and coming up with some questionable entrants. Williamson's top five included four 49ers players, and our own Tre9er had a post looking at the 49ers on the list specifically. There's also links to Williamson's six-through-ten and eleven-through-fifteen.
In short, the 49ers on the list included Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis, Justin Smith, Aubrayo Franklin and Mike Iupati. The Rams fans over at TST gave the 49ers their due credit for the most part, and even populated them near the top of the list, giving them the credit we all know they deserve. I do agree with them that the Rams probably should have been better represented on the list, but their talk about James Laurinaitis is just crazy at this point. I recognize that he is a great linebacker, he's their Willis, but he's not Willis. They say that he will be on Willis' level soon, and while I obviously can't rule it out ... it's probably not going to happen.
There's no shame in being number two.
That being said, it got me thinking how I'd rank the players in the division if I was to do it. I'm not a big fan of lists when it comes to sports, but I figured I'd take a crack at it just this once. I was going to make a list of honorable mentions, but I've decided to not include them. If anybody wants to know my next five, I'd be happy to post them in the comments but I think ten is always a good list to make, fifteen just seems like a consolation. After the jump, I list them from ten on.
10. Mike Iupati - He's become the best guard in the division after just one season and has been pegged as a future Pro Bowler by ... just about everybody. Iupati is strong, intelligent and also strong. Did I mention strong? The only negative regarding Iupati is the fact that with the state of the 49ers offensive line, defenders key in on him and simply guess that the team is going to run the ball directly behind him. They usually do, and you know what? Iupati delivers regardless.
9. Steven Jackson - I'm of the opinion that this man doesn't get the props he deserves. While I feel like Jackson's merits as a running back do not far exceed those of Frank Gore, he is healthier more often, but he is slowing down. Jackson gets the nine spot, but a season ago he might have been top five or higher. Explosive, impossible to bring down and a penchant for punishing defenders everywhere, Jackson is a force to be reckoned with ... though for how long is anybody's guess.
8. Chris Long - When Long came into the league, he was next to useless and I figured he wasn't going to pan out into anything special. In his second season, he wasn't much better. But last year, he blew up and became a force to be reckoned with. Where I perceived him to be a little lazy and unassuming, he transformed into a guy who made me worry about [insert 49ers quarterback here]'s safety. His sack numbers might not ever be eye-popping, but his stoutness against the run and ability to move east and west make him an asset to the Rams, and a scary bookend to rookie Robert Quinn.
7. Darnell Dockett - A lot of 49ers fans may not like Dockett due to his propensity for obsessing with everything red and gold, but that doesn't detract from his ability as a player. What does detract from his ability as a player is Arizona's 3-4 defense, where he doesn't fit at all, but still manages to worry me every time he's on the field (read as: the entire game). Dockett would be much better in a 4-3, but I'm glad the Cardinals have yet to switch, because I don't want him to be as good as he can be. He's tough, hard-charging and extremely physical, a recipe for disaster to any offensive line. He's also the guy I see falling on top of Frank Gore behind the line of scrimmage every other play.
6. Aubrayo Franklin - We don't know if he'll be re-signed with the team, but I think smart money is that he will. We've got cap space and Vic Fangio needs a suitable nose tackle who's ready to play like ... yesterday. Franklin absolutely blew up in 2009 and was the best nose tackle in the league that year. He fought on every play, he got penetration and stopped the run, he earned the respect and public admiration from linebackers Patrick Willis and Takeo Spikes, and was generally just the guy you wanted in the middle of your line. Any present option in free agency or on the team is a clear step down from Franklin.
5. James Laurinaitis - Like I said earlier, he's their Willis. He's not Willis, though. Fortunately for Rams fans and Laurinaitis himself, you don't have to be Willis to be a great player of Pro Bowl caliber. That's just what he is, he does almost everything well out there and looks good doing it. He's the quarterback of their defense and leads by example. Shedding blockers and making fundamentally sound tackles are his stronger points, with a mention of his ability to take great angles to prevent big plays as well. I don't like him being trusted for too much coverage, but he's ever-improving in that regard and might climb a bit higher on this list with some more developmental time. He'll get a couple Pro Bowls under his belt before it's all said and done.
4. Justin Smith - Relentless, hard-working and brutal, Smith is a constant. He simply is. There's nothing you can do about it, there's nobody (other than Garth DeFelice) you can talk to and get him taken out. From the first defensive snap of the game to the last, Smith will be putting a hurting on offensive linemen, running backs and most deliciously, quarterbacks. He eats them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I fear that if Smith ever saw Sam Bradford or any other NFC West quarterback in a grocery store, he'd flip out and sack him for a five-yard loss. His "On" switch is permanently stuck in position and he's the kind of player who will be good right up until the day he retires. Criminally underrated.
3. Vernon Davis - It's crazy how much a good portion of us wanted Davis gone after a couple seasons of mediocrity. A recent comparison would be Vernon Gholston, who is now (apparently) a lost cause, despite his freakish athleticism and adoration of pain. Davis wasn't much but a big play here and there and a lot of hot air to fill the gaps where more big plays should have been. His ability to separate with his athleticism was topped only by his ability to not catch a football when it was thrown perfectly to him. Something happened with Mike Singletary (yes, there are good things that came of Singletary's time in San Francisco) and Davis exploded onto the scene. He started working even harder than before (he was always a workout warrior) and spent as much time catching passes after practice as we heard guys like Jerry Rice and Isaac Bruce doing. Davis tied a tight end touchdown record and is a fantastic blocker to go along with it. He should be scary in the offense of Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman.
2. Larry Fitzgerald - It really feels like 1a and 1b with these two, they're both just so ... fantastic. The scary thing is, I don't consider Fitzgerald the best receiver in the league, but he's right there and is, at the very least, arguable in regards to that number one spot. While I personally have Andre Johnson above him, his hands and agility are the best out there. His ability to go up and make any catch is matched only by the raw power and physicality of Johnson. While the .gif image of Fitzgerald watching the Super Bowl get away from him remains one of my favorite things to watch to this day, I have to give the man my respect and major props.
1. Patrick Willis - The best linebacker in the league, let alone the best middle linebacker, Willis is so very fitting as Kenny Powers' Vice President of Carnage. He can cover any tight end in the league and hang with many receivers, I've seen him play both zone and man-to-man well, despite his size. His freakish athleticism is unmatched among middle linebackers and his strength and ferocity is among the best. Willis can cover, make any tackle, catch up to any running back, shed any blocker and pick off any quarterback. Patrick Willis is a weapon developed by the government to be awesome and make other players feel bad about themselves for not being Patrick Willis. You guys shouldn't worry about it, nobody but Patrick Willis is Patrick Willis.
So there you have it, folks. Numbers one-and-two are so close it hurt. I had Fitzgerald in first, and then I switched it to Willis, that's how close it is. There's a step down after those two, but it's definitely not a big one. For people who are wondering why Jackson is on the list and not Gore, that's just how it goes when you're hurt as much as Gore is. I think the two are comparable, and Gore certainly does some things better, but I feel like Jackson is the better player, if he's got anything left.
That all being said, I didn't notice until the end that there are no Seattle Seahawks on this list. I mean, I do think they're a good team and they won this sorry division last season, but I really don't see that being because of any one player, they really did their best to lose plenty of games like the rest of us. I would have to say that Brandon Mebane would be my highest rated Seahawks player, with guys like Lofa Tatupu and Chris Clemons being honorable mentions. I also think Mike Williams has the potential to continue to progress and be something special. So no offense Seahawks fans.
Proceed to complain.