Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranks the top 15 players in the NFC West. Today: Nos. 1-5.
Fitzgerald1. Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals receiver: If a down year for a wide receiver is producing 90 catches for more than 1,100 yards, it just shows how great that player really is. Fitzgerald had awful quarterback play to blame for his decreased production in 2010. Fitzgerald is an extremely hard worker and does everything well. His ball skills are the best in recent memory, he catches anything thrown near him and his ability to use his body is unmatched. Arizona’s poor pass-protection (and the guys throwing the ball) limited Fitzgerald’s ability to stretch the field last season, but despite just average playing speed, Fitzgerald is extremely dangerous deep.
Willis2. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers linebacker: Willis is the best second-level defender in the NFL. That distinction doesn’t include 3-4 outside linebackers, but no one does what Willis does as well.
He is one of the few players in the league who really doesn’t have a discernable weakness. Willis is simply exceptional stopping the run and also when used as a blitzer, registering six sacks last season. He is flawless.
Smith3 Justin Smith, San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle: There are three “A Level” players in the NFC West, and Smith is the last of the three. Frankly, he is as good at what he does as Fitzgerald is at wide receiver or Willis is at linebacker. He is an exceptional all-around player. He is stout at the point of attack versus the run and can make plays in pursuit in the running game. Smith is a violent and reliable tackler. He is an exceptional pass-rusher with a variety of effective moves, especially considering the position he plays. Smith doesn’t take snaps off. The more you watch this guy, the more you realize that adjectives like “solid” just don’t do him justice. He is fantastic.
Davis4 Vernon Davis, San Francisco 49ers tight end: Davis has really come into his own. Always an excellent physical specimen, Davis now has refined the finer points of playing tight end. He is about as dangerous as any tight end in football and has fantastic deep-ball ability. He is the No. 1 option in San Francisco’s passing attack. Davis is exceptional in the red zone, catching 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He is physical, fast, explosive and can be a very capable blocker. And he might just be getting better.
Clemons5 Chris Clemons, Seattle Seahawks defensive end: This is a throwing league, and getting after the quarterback is of paramount importance. Clemons was simply exceptional for Seattle last season. Somewhat of an outside linebacker/defensive end tweener, Clemons has found a home in a defense that suits him perfectly by keeping him mostly on the weak side of the offensive formation and allowing him to operate in space. He is both powerful and incredibly quick, and he can translate speed into power. Clemons can beat his opponent with pure speed off the edge or with an array of pass-rush moves. Clemons wreaks havoc.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL