Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranks the top 15 players in the NFC West. Today: Nos. 11-15.
11. Chris Long, St. Louis Rams defensive end: Long really took a step forward last season. In fact, I might have him a little low. Long is a much better athlete than he is given credit for, and his motor runs hot all game long. Although he doesn’t post high tackle numbers, he is very solid against the run and can hold the point of attack. He really improved versus the pass last season and got after the quarterback with much more regularity. He is the perfect base end to complement the potentially dynamic first round pick Robert Quinn for years to come. I could also see Steve Spagnuolo increasing Long’s role and using him as he did Justin Tuck in New York, with Long lining up over a guard on throwing downs.
Dockett12. Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle: Miscast in a 3-4 defense, Dockett didn’t have a great year in 2010. But he still demands a ton of attention from opposing blocking schemes and can be incredibly disruptive. He is also an extremely effective interior pass-rusher on throwing downs and has a flair for making big plays. I wish we could see this guy in a 4-3 as an upfield penetrating 3 Technique. If that were his role, he could be among the very best defensive tackles in the league.
Gore13. Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers running back: Gore missed five games in 2010, and injuries remain a constant concern with him. Gore is the focus of every defense he faces and takes a beating every week. I worry that the arrow is beginning to go down on Gore’s excellent career. The drafting of Kendall Hunter could pay huge dividends for Gore and the San Francisco offense if it helps to keep the star back fresh for an entire season. Gore played the fewest games and had his worst yards-per-carry average of his career in 2010. His sub-par supporting cast obviously contributed to Gore’s decrease in rushing production, but he needs to take some of the blame as well. The play-calling and San Francisco’s young offensive line should be improved in 2011, which will help. He was better than ever in the passing game and remains a very impressive do-it-all running back.
Campbell14. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals defensive end: It could be argued that Campbell is more effective than his Arizona defensive end counterpart, Dockett. To me, it is a coin flip to decide. Although he also took a slight step backward last season, Campbell is an ascending player with a boatload of talent. Only 25 years old, Campbell is still learning how to best use his outstanding length and agility while playing with proper leverage. The best should be yet to come. Mix in Dan Williams, who almost made this list, and Arizona has a chance to have a fantastic defensive line.
Hawthorne15. David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks linebacker: You might be asking, "Who?" Get to know this player. All he does is produce. When Lofa Tatupu went down in 2009, Hawthorne burst onto the scene, well, quietly burst onto the scene. He was a tackling machine and still is. In 2010, he went from the middle to the weak side but didn’t skip a beat. Hawthorne might not excel in one particular area, but he truly does everything well. He is now just entering his prime. Amazingly and under the radar, Hawthorne is the Seahawks' best linebacker.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL