Recently, Fooch posted about the top 20 players in the NFC West and solicited lists from the readers. One reader brought up the good point that it was always interesting to look at the division by position, something we've done in the past here at Niners Nation but for some reason did not get to this offseason. Well, there's still time so that's what we're going to do.
Since this is the first post, I'll explain what the format will be like. I'll be going through each position on each team and ranking them to determine which team comes out better when it comes to that position. This will be based on my opinions and my opinions alone -- this is not a collaborative effort. However, I'd love for folks to post their rankings in the comments and maybe we can even get some good cross-blog discussion going.
Things will obviously be waited more heavily toward which team has the best starters, though if the gap is small the depth might make a difference. If that ends up being the case I'll try and be as clear on that as possible.
Today, I've decided to start with the safety position, one that's strong for the 49ers but also competitive within the division. Overall, I think the safety position is a strength for the position, possibly the strongest safeties overall in the NFL when I really think about it. That's more heavily weighted toward the top two teams but hey, let's get right to it. All players taken from official rosters.
Seattle Seahawks with Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, DeShawn Shead, Ryan Smith-Murphy, Dion Bailey, Ronald Martin, Keenan Lambert, Triston Wade
There's no way I could possibly justify having the Seattle Seahawks anywhere but at the top of this particular position. Earl Thomas might be the best safety in the league period, and Kam Chancellor is basically as good as it gets from the strong safety position on top of that. The Seahawks don't just have the best starting safeties in the division, they have the best starting safeties in the NFL and relative to the talent of the guys in play, it's not close.
Thomas managed 71 tackles, six pass deflections and an interception last season. Chancellor totaled 60 tackles, six pass deflections and an interception as well. Those numbers won't blow anyone away, but the pair is rarely ever out of position, and quarterbacks are typically more concerned with not throwing interceptions to Richard Sherman than them. There may be a lack of picks, but there was not a lack of big plays from these guys, especially when you factor in Thomas' three forced fumbles.
I'm not familiar with several of the guys behind them, though DeShawn Shead and Dion Bailey are probably the top backups at this stage. Neither provides a whole lot of value, so much so that I might even put San Francisco's backups above Seattle's. Rookies Ryan Smith-Murphy and Triston Wade may or may not compete, and if one of Thomas or Chancellor goes down with an injury, there's a big concern there. Of course, the rest of the secondary is such a strength that the Seahawks can afford not trying to bring in a better backup.
San Francisco 49ers with Eric Reid, Antoine Bethea, Craig Dahl, Jimmie Ward, L.J. McCray, Jaquiski Tartt, Jermaine Whitehead
The San Francisco 49ers are really close to the Seahawks, and I think that's because I'd put Antoine Bethea, based on their play in 2014, above Chancellor. That said, Thomas is otherworldly in his abilities and he's a lot better than Eric Reid but then again, he's a lot better than everyone else, too. As far as safety pairs are concerned, I think the 49ers have a good case for the second-best pairing in the league, though I thought the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions made serious strides in those areas last year.
Reid and Bethea are both excellent at what they do. Reid is a hard tackler and a playmaker who excels in run support. He's been beaten a few times through the air, but I would call him above average there as well. The biggest issue is his concussion history, but the 49ers actually got some kind of decent play out of Craig Dahl last season, believe it or not. Then there's Jimmie Ward, who is hard to judge, along with L.J. McCray, a guy the 49ers like. San Francisco also spent a high pick on Jaquiski Tartt this offseason. They've got better depth than Seattle, but I couldn't give them the nod overall.
Arizona Cardinals with Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Bucannon, Tony Jefferson, Rashad Johnson, DJ Campbell, Chris Clemons, Harold Jones-Quartey, Brandon Person
The Cardinals definitely have the best depth at the position, and it's not even close. All of Tyrann Mathieu, Deone Bucannon, Rashad Johnson and Tony Jefferson can start if need be, with Bucannon even playing most of his time as a linebacker last season, due to injuries at the position. But it's looking like (and I apologize if I've got this wrong) that Mathieu and Bucannon are the starters going forward, and I think that's a very respectable group, to be sure.
Mathieu had his struggles last season, and was particularly poor against the run. But he was hampered by knee and finger issues throughout the season, and by all accounts he's 100 percent and ready to go for this coming year. I'd expect him to bounce back fully and be the playmaker everyone knows he can be. Actually, looking at Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals safeties as a whole graded out rather poorly against the run, save for Jefferson.
Both Johnson and Jefferson are interesting players with their own strengths, and both are playing on expiring contracts. They should see the field plenty, however, as Mathieu moves around and plays cornerback and as Bucannon will probably take more snaps at linebacker. It's a talented, versatile unit with plenty of depth. No one player stands above either of the 49ers or Seahawks starting safeties, however.
St. Louis Rams with T.J. McDonald, Rodney McLeod, Cody Davis, Lamarcus Joyner, Mo Alexander, Mark Barron, Christian Bryant, Jacob Hagen
In recent seasons, the St. Louis Rams have had one of the worst safety positions in the league. Yes, they're here at the bottom of the NFC West rankings, but I'd like to note that I think the Rams have improved an awful lot. It's not a great pair of safeties by any means, but T.J. McDonald was solid last season and Rodney McLeod wasn't far behind him.
I think behind those guys, the Rams have almost nothing to offer, but McDonald and McLeod combine for what is, at the very least, an average to above average safety position. Where things get interesting is Mark Barron. I have no idea what to expect out of Barron.
He was a first-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2012, but wound up being traded to the Rams for mid- and late-round picks. He didn't do a whole lot last season, but he's in a contract year and anything can happen. Will he wind up being a starter at some point, and if so, will he live up to his status as a first-round pick? I think Barron is an interesting player from that point of view but I legitimately have no idea what to expect.