A look back at the 2009 NFL draft shows seven NFC West choices projected to start this season. The future appears brightest for the Arizona Cardinals' choices, at least in my assessment of the choices' prospects.
The breakdown is heavily weighted toward early choices. The San Francisco 49ers were the only division team with fewer than two projected 2010 starters from the class, but the team did not have second- or fourth-round choices.
The players I projected as starters were: first-rounder Beanie Wells and fourth-rounder Greg Toler of the Arizona Cardinals; first-rounder Michael Crabtree of the 49ers; first-rounder Aaron Curry and second-rounder Max Unger of the Seattle Seahawks; and first-rounder Jason Smith and second-rounder James Laurinaitis of the St. Louis Rams.
The Seahawks' sixth-round choice, Mike Teel, is the only 2009 NFC West choice without an NFL job at present (Seattle and the New England Patriots have both released him in recent weeks).
My take on the most promising 2009 NFC West choices by round:
First: Crabtree, 49ers. Wells also showed excellent potential. Crabtree was instantly the best player at his position on the team, however. Tim Hightower is still working ahead of Wells in practice.
Second: Laurinaitis, Rams. This was a tough call because Unger also projects as a long-term starter and the Cardinals' Cody Brown hasn't had a chance to show anything after suffering an injury. Laurinaitis projects as a defensive leader. He has a chance to have the greatest impact based on his position.
Third: Glen Coffee, 49ers. The third round was a rough one for teams in this division. Rams cornerback Bradley Fletcher is coming off injury. It's unclear how well Deon Butler will fit as a receiver for Seattle. The Cardinals haven't seen much from safety Rashad Johnson. It's Coffee by default for now.
Fourth: Toler, Cardinals. This was an easy choice because the 49ers and Seahawks did not have fourth-round choices and the Rams' pick, defensive tackle Darell Scott, projects as a role player. Toler projects as a starter, although we're taking the Cardinals' word for his value at this point.
Fifth: Herman Johnson, Cardinals. I thought he showed promise at right tackle during the exhibition season. The Cardinals haven't raved about him, but in looking at the other fifth-rounders -- Scott McKillop and Nate Davis of the 49ers and Brooks Foster of the Rams -- I'll stick with Johnson.
Sixth: Will Davis, Cardinals. Davis showed signs of developing into a potential starter until suffering a knee injury. He'll probably sit behind Clark Haggans for a while, but don't count out Davis as a potential starter eventually. The other sixth-rounders -- Bear Pascoe, Teel and Keith Null -- do not measure up.
Seventh: LaRod Stephens-Howling, Cardinals. He provided Pro Bowl-caliber play on special teams as a rookie, particularly in coverage. His kickoff return for a touchdown nearly beat the Tennessee Titans. The 49ers are giving one of their seventh-rounders, nose tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, a chance to develop while Aubrayo Franklin stays away. I thought the Rams' Chris Ogbonnaya showed some promise last season as well.
The chart shows a round-by-round look at 2009 NFC West choices projected to start this season.