2011 NFL draft update: The elite eight

The second in a series of items revisiting 2011 NFC West draft choices and their 2012 outlook:

Eight NFC West draft choices from 2011 enter their second season having secured starting jobs.

2011 NFL Draft: Projected Starters

That number matches the average for the NFL's eight four-team divisions.

There was nothing average about the first two players NFC West teams selected. Arizona's Patrick Peterson, chosen fifth overall, returned four punts for touchdowns while developing as a cornerback. Peterson played 96 percent of the defensive snaps and more than a third of them on special teams.

Aldon Smith, chosen seventh overall by San Francisco, set a 49ers rookie record with 14 sacks. He was one of the players most instrumental in the 49ers' rise to playoff contender.

There were a few pleasant surprises later in the draft.

A quick look at the eight projected NFC West starters from that class:

  • Arizona (three): Peterson (first round), outside linebacker Sam Acho (fourth) and fullback Anthony Sherman (fifth) have cracked the lineup. The Cardinals think Peterson has the talent, work ethic and overall makeup to become one of the very best corners in the league. Peterson is already among the best returners. Acho had seven sacks as a rookie, starting 10 of 16 games. The team is relying on him even more to help with the outside rush. Sherman was advertised as the best fullback in the 2011 draft. He hasn't disappointed, although an injury limited him some as a rookie. Sherman played 22 percent of the offensive snaps, a relatively high percentage for an NFL fullback. He also played nearly half of the special-teams snaps.

  • Seattle (two): Linebacker K.J. Wright and cornerback Richard Sherman became starters as rookies. Both appear to be ascending rapidly. Wright impressed during camp with physical play. He stays on the field in nickel situations. Sherman was arguably the Seahawks' best corner by season's end, no small feat. Wright is 6-foot-4. Sherman is 6-3. These are rangy defenders with bright futures. Seattle would ideally have four projected starters from this class, but it's looking like offensive linemen James Carpenter (first) and John Moffitt (third) will enter the season as backups. Rookie seventh-rounder J.R. Sweezy has played very well since replacing an injured Moffitt. Breno Giacomini won the job at right tackle after Carpenter suffered a season-ending knee injury last year. Carpenter could start at some point this season, probably at left guard. Moffitt could back up the three inside spots if Sweezy sticks in the lineup.

  • St. Louis (two): Defensive end Robert Quinn (first) moves into the starting lineup on the right side after collecting five sacks and factoring as a punt-block threat as a rookie. Quinn incurred a DUI arrest over the offseason. His quickness as a pass-rusher is obvious. Experience should help him grow into a multidimensional player. Tight end Lance Kendricks (second) was the Rams' most impressive rookie during their 2011 camp. He struggled with dropped passes once the regular season started. Quarterback Sam Bradford has found Kendricks down the field in preseason. Kendricks has the strength to block and the speed to factor as a receiving threat. That versatility should help him weather the change from 2011 offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and successor Brian Schottenheimer. McDaniels had been particularly excited about drafting Kendricks. Sometimes a scheme change can marginalize recent draft choices. That doesn't appear to be happening here.

  • San Francisco (one or two): The 49ers had the best roster in the division, leaving fewer clear openings for rookies to crack the lineup. Smith (first) was an exception. He was also exceptional, collecting 14 sacks while playing half the defensive snaps, most in sub packages. Smith is making the transition to full-time outside linebacker. He's also coming off a tumultuous offseason in which he incurred a DUI arrest and stab wounds suffered at a party. Smith is expected to play Thursday night after a hip injury sidelined him. Update: Seventh-round pick Bruce Miller is the starting fullback. I didn't list him initially because I consider the 49ers to be more of a two-tight end team, with Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker as starters. Miller started eight games last season. Walker, injured at Seattle late in the year, started seven.

While every team strives to find immediate starters in the draft, bad teams have an advantage. They draft earlier, giving them access to higher-rated players. They also have more holes on their roster, making it easier for those choices to contribute.