A team-by-team look at the players I expect to be the most dominant in the NFC West from 2014-2016.
NFC West teams have drafted eight players among the Top 10 overall selections since 2008. No other division has landed as many.
The Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and San Francisco 49ers should, therefore, have a few future stars on their rosters. And they do. I've singled out four of them, one per team, for consideration as part of our Dream Team project this week.
Russell Okung, Seahawks tackle: By now regular visitors to the NFC West blog have read plenty about the talent that makes Okung such a bright prospect at left tackle. Some Rams fans have heard enough about Okung and think their team's young left tackle, Rodger Saffold, should get stronger consideration after exceeding expectations as the 33rd player chosen in the 2010 draft. I won't bore them with more generalities. Instead, let's consider a few specific examples suggesting Okung has the temperament, not just the talent, to excel for years to come. Three examples of Okung's aggressiveness stand out as I look back on his rookie season: the way Okung drove back and ultimately ticked off Chicago's Brian Urlacher during Justin Forsett's touchdown run in Week 6; the way Okung clobbered Kansas City's Mike Vrabel in Week 12 when it wasn't really necessary; and the way Okung blasted Carolina's Captain Muderlyn during an interception return in Week 13.
Sam Bradford, Rams quarterback: The NFL's offensive rookie of the year will be only 26 years old when the 2014 season begins. The Rams went from 1-15 without him in 2009 to 7-9 with him in 2010. Bradford played a bigger role than anyone in turning around the Rams. Defenses caught up with Bradford and his diminished receiving corps late last season, but the arrow is pointing up overall. Bradford is only getting started. He had 11 touchdown passes with only one interception from Weeks 6-12. Bradford finished 2010 with rookie records for completions (354) and pass attempts (590). Only Peyton Manning has passed for more yards as a rookie in NFL history. Bradford also answered questions about his durability, playing every offensive snap.
Colin Kaepernick, 49ers quarterback: This is a more tenuous projection and even a stretch. The young players I've singled out from other teams are safer bets. Guard Mike Iupati was a candidate, but even the best guards aren't really stars so much as they're valued contributors. Linebacker Patrick Willis would have been an obvious choice -- too obvious. He'll still be only 29 in 2014. Tight end Vernon Davis should remain in his prime from 2014 to 2016. He'll also be in his 30s by then, something I hadn't noticed when considering Davis for a video we shot this week. Receiver Michael Crabtree was a consideration. I went with Kaepernick because he has uncommon physical skills and a promising mental makeup, and he'll presumably get good coaching from Jim Harbaugh. He'll push veteran Alex Smith for the starting job this season. If all goes to plan, Kaepernick will be entering his third full season as the starter when the 2014 season rolls around.
Patrick Peterson, Cardinals cornerback: Peterson appeared twice on our Dream Team ballot, once as a cornerback and also as a return specialist. There's no such thing as a sure bet coming out of college. Peterson looks like one. The physical talent he possesses is obvious. His confidence and strong presence persuaded me to list him as a future star even though Peterson hasn't even lined up for a minicamp practice, let alone for a regular-season snap. Peterson's decision to drop 10 pounds to disprove speculation that he might evolve into a safety seemed to show Peterson has the right makeup. His talents in the return game will give him an opportunity to make an immediate impact, diminishing the pressure upon him to excel immediately as a cornerback.