Separating 'elite' from the rest in NFC West

Neil Hornsby of Pro Football Focus has just about finished ranking primary players from each NFL team into seven categories from elite to poor, with a special designation for rookies.

He has covered every NFC West team, allowing me to put together the chart below. Hornsby did not focus solely on starters. He rather focused on primary personnel packages. In some cases, that meant considering a nickel cornerback instead of a run-stopping linebacker. I ordered the chart by most players ranked above average. The order would change if we ranked teams by most players rated elite or high quality.

The Seattle Seahawks came away with the most "elite" players even though Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch were considered "high quality" and Earl Thomas fell into the "above average" category, two levels below elite. Hornsby cited missed tackles in keeping Thomas from the top category. As I noted in the NFC West chat, even if you accept the premise, grading down Thomas in that way struck me as similar to downgrading Shaquille O'Neal for missing foul shots. He still would have started for every team in the league.

Hornsby's full analysis is behind a paywall, so I'll single out one interesting note for conversation regarding each team:

  • Arizona Cardinals: Receiver Andre Roberts is the only primary player in the division to get a "poor" grade, a bit of a surprise to me. PFF had Roberts with 10 dropped passes last season using a standard that differs from the stricter one ESPN Stats & Information employs. We had Roberts with eight drops and a 7.3 percent drop rate, which ranked 70th out of 76 qualifying wide receivers. The Cardinals' offense, including their receivers, suffered through a tough 2012 season. We should expect Michael Floyd to gain momentum in the offense even if Roberts plays well.

  • St. Louis Rams: Not to worry, Rams fans. Hornsby is taking the same approach I've advocated regarding your team. Excitement is warranted, but with so many young and unproven players on the roster, it's tough to issue complete grades. We simply haven't seen enough of the young running backs or wide receivers. Left tackle Jake Long and defensive end Chris Long were the only Rams to get "high quality" grades. I'd expect Michael Brockers to be among those joining that list in the not-too-distant future. Quarterback Sam Bradford comes in at average, fair based on results so far.

  • San Francisco 49ers: Hornsby gives Patrick Willis elite status and a clear edge over fellow linebacker NaVorro Bowman. He wonders whether Justin Smith will consistently dominate, and that seems reasonable with Smith coming off triceps surgery. One big question is whether the team will develop and use a deeper rotation of defensive linemen, making it easier for Smith and the other linemen to maintain their high level of play. Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner got the lowest grades. Note that Vance McDonald and Eric Reid were the two rookies under consideration, assuming the 49ers play with two tight ends quite a bit.

  • Seattle Seahawks: Antoine Winfield is part of the equation as a nickel corner and he gets an "elite" grade for his specific skills in playing that role, including his ability to play the run. Percy Harvin, Richard Sherman and Max Unger also get the highest acclaim. No member of the defensive front seven gets a higher grade than middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. Certain aspects of the offensive line stand out as question marks, an analysis most fans would probably embrace even though the Seahawks haven't expressed much concern in that area. Hornsby's focus on a defensive sub package removed from consideration which tackle will start next to Brandon Mebane. Rookie Jesse Williams is a candidate there.

Pro Football Focus Starter* Grades