Dream Team: Lessons in NFC West, beyond

To the weary, our Dream Team project smells like an attempt to mask the NFL lockout's foul odor with cologne we wouldn't consider wearing during less malodorous times.

Go ahead and inhale. I've opened a window and sniffed out greater meaning from the ballots showing players deemed most likely to succeed well down the road, beginning in 2014.

The ballots aren't perfect. I'm sure we could justify subbing in a few players into the eight spots set aside for each position. But in looking at the bigger picture, these ballots offer insight into which teams arguably have the most appealing young core players.

A few quick observations:

  • Five defensive linemen from the NFC West earned spots on various ballots: Calais Campbell, Aldon Smith, Chris Long, Robert Quinn and Dan Williams. Brandon Mebane will be 29 in 2014, so it's possible he'll be playing at a high level at that time.

  • Arizona had the most players listed in the NFC West: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Patrick Peterson, Campbell, Dan Williams, Ryan Williams, Larry Fitzgerald and LaRod Stephens-Howling. Peterson appeared as a cornerback and return specialist. Stephens-Howling appeared as a kick returner, but that is tough duty over an extended period. Fitzgerald, who turns 28 next month, will be only 31 in 2014. That's a scary thought.

  • The St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford was the only NFC West quarterback on the ballot. The NFC South had three quarterbacks listed. Two of them, Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan, have shown enough to qualify as more than hopeful projections.

  • Long, Quinn, linebacker James Laurinaitis, tackle Jason Smith, tackle Rodger Saffold and Bradford gave the Rams six candidates.

  • Safety Earl Thomas and tackle Russell Okung were the only Seattle players listed. Mebane also has star potential in the right scheme, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. has suggested. But Thomas and Okung possess more frontline talent. Seattle selected them among the first 14 choices of the 2010 draft. Aaron Curry, chosen fourth overall in 2009, was not listed.

  • Some of the candidates at safety seemed weak. The San Francisco 49ers' Taylor Mays appeared on the defensive ballot despite an underwhelming rookie season. The 49ers' Vernon Davis and Patrick Willis joined the Cardinals' Fitzgerald and Rodgers-Cromartie as the only NFC West candidates with Pro Bowls already on their resumes.

  • The 49ers' seven candidates were: Mays, Aldon Smith, guard Mike Iupati, Willis, tackle Anthony Davis, Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree. Free safety Dashon Goldson needed a stronger 2010 season to appear on the defensive ballot. He'll turn 30 early in the 2014 season.

  • Davis was the only NFC West tight end to earn a place on the offensive ballot. The division invested heavily in the position during the 2011 draft, however. We could see Arizona's Rob Housler and/or St. Louis' Lance Kendricks emerge as strong candidates.

  • Eleven of the 180 total candidates remain in college. Green Bay and Buffalo each placed nine players on ballots, most in the league. Kansas City, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Arizona were represented eight times (twice by Peterson in Arizona's case). San Francisco and the New York Giants were next with seven apiece. St. Louis was part of a group with six.

  • Some of the Bills' candidates -- Leodis McKelvin, Donte Whitner and Andy Levitre -- are either coming off down years or do not seem to posses star potential.

  • Chicago and Indianapolis had only one candidate apiece, fewest in the league. Seattle and Minnesota had two apiece. Jacksonville had three. Five teams had four. Eight had five. The Packers appear far better positioned than the Bears to remain among the NFC North's best, according to these ballots.

  • The AFC East was the only division without a tight end on the ballot. That was an upset given New England's strength at the position. The eight tight ends on our ballot: Jermaine Gresham, Marcedes Lewis, Zach Miller, Tony Moeaki, Jason Witten, Jermichael Finley, Jimmy Graham and the 49ers' Davis. Witten will be 32 by 2014, however.

The first chart breaks down NFC West candidates by team and position.

2014-2016 NFC West Dream Team Candidates

The second chart breaks down candidates by division and position.

2014-2016 Dream Team Candidates by Division

Dan Graziano, Pat Yasinskas, James Walker and I offered additional thoughts in the video below.