Best after Willis: Smith now, Thomas later?

The San Francisco 49ers' Justin Smith earned a spot on two ballots -- mine and Kevin Seifert's -- as ESPN.com sought to rank the 10 best defensive players in the NFL.

Smith was also faring well in unscientific polling here on the NFC West blog.

Smith's teammate, Patrick Willis, was the only NFC West player to earn a spot in ESPN.com's top 10. He and Smith were the only NFC West players to draw votes.

Let the debate continue for the division's best defensive player not named Willis.

"I see Chris Long along the same lines as Justin Smith," joe_cool585 wrote. "An ironman of sorts who doesn't take a play off at defensive end."

Smith has 21.5 sacks in three seasons as a 3-4 defensive end. He's a power player and was one of the keys to the 49ers' success against Arizona when Kurt Warner should have given the Cardinals a significant advantage.

Long will get more acclaim if the Rams keep improving. His sack numbers are on the rise and should continue rising.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said he thought Long would become St. Louis' version of Justin Tuck now that the Rams have added a pure pass-rusher, Robert Quinn, to the rotation. Tuck has reached double-digit sacks in three of his last four seasons. He and Long are similar in weight. Tuck is a couple inches taller. The idea, though, is that Long could move around more.

Arizona's Darnell Dockett was polling second behind Smith among candidates as the best defensive player in the division beyond Willis. That did not sit well with Furfanam, who noted that Seattle's Chris Clemons (11 sacks) and Raheem Brock (nine sacks) were more productive rushing the passer.

All three played defensive end, but Dockett (five sacks) played the position in a 3-4 system. Comparing sack numbers doesn't really apply because Dockett was not asked to be a pure pass-rusher. He had other responsibilities. Clemons was very good as a pass-rusher last season. Brock was very good as a situational player. Dockett has been better for longer even though injuries hurt his performance in 2010.

Furfanam wasn't the only one taking shots at Arizona.

"It wouldn't have shocked me at all if 'super hype' Patrick Peterson somehow made it on this list," Lotharun wrote. "I still wonder if he can throw the ball because it looks like Arizona is going to need him there too."

Now, now.

"It is going to be Earl Thomas, but right now, it has to be Justin Smith," Tigre1629 wrote.

Tigre1629 closed with a question: "Sando, are you going to do a best NFC West offensive player, as well?"

That is coming next week.