<
>

Poll: Best defensive players in NFC West

The San Francisco 49ers' Patrick Willis stands out as the best defensive player in the NFC West.

The inside linebacker has earned four Pro Bowl trips in as many NFL seasons, and ESPN.com panelists named him the NFL's best linebacker.

Basically, Willis has no weaknesses as a player. He can run, hit, tackle, blitz and cover. We should expect to see his name high on any list ranking the NFL's best defensive players. That will be the case when Kevin Seifert publishes our Power Rankings for defensive players on his NFC North blog later Tuesday.

Willis, teammate Justin Smith and Arizona Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett were the NFC West defensive players I considered most strongly in putting together a ballot. Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson wasn't consistent enough while playing injured last season. Dockett also had injury issues, making it harder for him to defeat double-team blocking. The St. Louis Rams' Chris Long is moving into the fringes of these discussions. In the future, I would expect to see Seattle's Earl Thomas move into consideration, although my ballot favored front-seven players. The Rams' James Laurinaitis is another to watch.

Willis, Smith, Dockett and Long stand out for their versatility. They can play the run or pass at a high level. They are also durable. Willis has missed only one game. Smith has started 155 consecutive games, easily the longest streak among NFL defensive linemen. Dockett has missed one game in seven seasons. Long has not missed a game in his three seasons.