Thirty-eight players and two offensive lines had drawn mention by Wednesday morning after I asked for candidates -- sleeper and otherwise -- for 2010 NFC West player of the year.
norcal114 made a good point about the Seattle Seahawks' LenDale White being in a contract year. Seattle fans remember how well Shaun Alexander performed when a payday was on the line. Alexander was also running behind a formidable offensive line, but for as bad as Seattle appeared up front last season, Justin Forsett still averaged 5.4 yards a carry.
"LenDale White definitely merits inclusion, if not the top spot," TitoKohout wrote. "He's going back to Pete Carroll, [for whom] he played his best, he's in shape, he's the No. 1 back, he's in a contract year and the Seahawks have a pretty easy schedule. Barring injuries, I wouldn't be surprised to see him hit 1,000 yards."
Rushing for 1,000 yards won't qualify anyone as player of the year, of course, but White still probably deserves at least some acknowledgment.
Few rookie quarterbacks have tossed 20 touchdown passes and Bradford would deserve acclaim if he could hit that mark, but in focusing on the most legitimate candidates, I settled on the Arizona Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald as the favorite, with the San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore next on my list (more on them in a bit).
Steven Jackson is a worthy candidate even after recent back surgery, but I question whether the Rams can win enough games to give Jackson a more realistic shot.
What about defense, you say? Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. can help.
"Gore is a great choice for sure and even though he has QB concerns, Larry Fitzgerald is real hard to bet against," Williamson said, "but I will go with Patrick Willis. I expect San Francisco's defense to take a big step up this year (maybe a top 5 defense?) and Willis to be leading the way. As much as I like Gore -- especially this season -- I still don't trust him to dress for 16 games."
The 49ers' defense does have that type of potential, but I'm not seeing many defensive upgrades in San Francisco this offseason. Rookie linebacker Navorro Bowman could surprise in a situational role. Rookie safety Taylor Mays could add flair to the secondary.
"I'm not real excited about those two pickups, per se," Williamson said, "but I do expect the offense to control the football much better and I also expect the defense to be a year older/better across the board, especially with the pass-rushers at outside linebacker."
Those rush linebackers would include Ahmad Brooks, one of the 38 players mentioned as potential POY candidates. The others: the 49ers' Smith, Gore, Josh Morgan, Kentwan Balmer, Manny Lawson, Crabtree, Willis, Ted Ginn Jr. and Vernon Davis; the Cardinals' Wells, Ben Patrick, Darnell Dockett, Joey Porter, Skelton, Kerry Rhodes, Fitzgerald and Leinart; the Rams' Bobby Carpenter, Chris Long, Donnie Avery, James Laurinaitis, Bradford and Steven Jackson; and the Seahawks' Aaron Curry, David Hawthorne, Golden Tate, J.P. Losman, John Carlson, Josh Wilson, Forsett, White, Leon Washington, Lofa Tatupu, Hasselbeck, Mike Williams, Mare and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. The offensive lines for the 49ers and Seahawks were also mentioned.
Some of these suggestions fell into the general sleeper mold. They obviously weren't legitimate candidates for POY in the division.
Leinart sparked the most divergent predictions. ryanct42 predicted a Pro Bowl season for the Cardinals' quarterback. While ryanct42 will take a No. 7 with (Super Bowl) rings, machinemansky predicted Leinart would be working at Whataburger within three years. davey_dolphination broke the tie by offering analysis: "Hey, I agree that Leinart is a solid sleeper pick for the NFC West. Any quarterback throwing passes to Fitzgerald and Steve Breaston should maybe even be higher on this list. I think he is going to surprise some people."
Gore's candidacy tempts me now that Smith is more comfortable as the 49ers' quarterback.
"(Mike Singletary) wants a smashmouth running game and (the 49ers) drafted two offensive linemen that should improve the line right away," flipdhart wrote. "If Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati perform to what we all expect, Gore could have a monster year."
The 49ers struggled with offensive identity last season largely because Smith was so much more comfortable working from the shotgun formation. The shotgun takes Gore out of his comfort zone. Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye will presumably work through those issues this offseason. The result should be a more consistently productive running game led by Gore, who still managed to finish last season with a career-high 13 total touchdowns, as crabman82 pointed out.
Gore's ability to hold up physically through a full season is one factor steering me toward Fitzgerald as my top choice for NFC West POY. Fitzgerald is a safe choice for the following reasons:
He's a perennial Pro Bowl player who works hard to improve;
He has shown great durability (Fitzgerald returned to the game at San Francisco after suffering what appeared to be a serious knee injury);
He plays a high-profile position for a team with a chance to win the division;
He plays a position that is relatively easy to quantify through statistics;
He should be good enough to transcend quarterbacks and produce without Anquan Boldin on the other side.
That last bullet point is critical to any thought that Fitzgerald will emerge as POY in the NFC West.
I've analyzed it from a few angles -- by quarterback and otherwise -- without seeing enough evidence to suggest Fitzgerald will suddenly fall off the statistical map. In 2007, Fitzgerald caught 19 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown in two games with Leinart starting and Boldin unavailable. Warner played in both games, but Leinart found Fitzgerald for completions of 38, 27, 14, 14, and 12 yards (Warner found Fitzgerald for completions of 34, 20, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 9, 7, 6, 6, 6, 4 and 4 yards).
Fitzgerald's candidacy generated no debate in the comments section of the initial item. It makes too much sense.