In our latest series, the Last Word on Sports NFL department will be selecting the best players in each division by position. The defense and special teams of the NFC West will be the focus here. Without further ado, let’s delve into who made the cut.
2016 NFC West All-Division Team: Defense & Special Teams
(4-3 BASE DEFENSE)
Left Defensive End: Calais Campbell (Arizona)
Campbell excelled in 2015. He finished the season with 61 tackles, five sacks, and one fumble recovery. Campbell’s best game came in week 16 against Green Bay, when he sacked All-Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers two and a half times. His overall production wasn’t quite on par with his number from the past, but his presence on the field and in the locker room aided the defense in developing into one of the league’s best. Campbell, a 6’8” monster defensive end, was drafted by the Cardinals in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft. He will enter his ninth season this fall.
Right Defensive Tackle: Chandler Jones (Arizona)
This offseason, Arizona traded Jonathan Cooper and a second round pick to the Patriots for the rights to Jones’ services. Jones adds to a Cardinals defense that already ranked in the top five in most defensive categories, their weakest link would be their pass-rush, though. Which is why the front office felt compelled to make the move. Jones had 44 tackles, four forced fumbles, and 12.5 sacks for New England last season. He immediately slots in on the All NFC West Defensive Team without even playing a snap for his new team. But don’t underestimate his talent, because his quickness off the edge will help Arizona create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2016.
Left Defensive Tackle: Aaron Donald (L.A.)
Donald had a dominant year in 2015. He is a force to be reckoned with along the defensive line. Standing at 6’1” and 285 pounds, Donald is slightly undersized for a defensive tackle, but he makes up for it with his explosiveness and extreme agility. Donald is able to extend his arms and generate power without over torqueing his body against bigger offensive lineman to gain leverage. This allows him to power through almost anyone who gets in his way. Donald finished 2015 with 69 tackles, 11 sacks and one fumble recovery. He will look to head into training camp and prepare to make it two dominant seasons in a row.
Right Defensive End: Robert Quinn (L.A.)
Quinn had a down year in 2015, playing in only eight games due to injury. He still managed to record five sacks, and three forced fumbles. Quinn still gets to make this list because he is a key cog on the Ram’s defense, especially after former teammates Chris Long and James Laurinaitis departed during the offseason. Quinn will be asked to do more along the defensive front, and could see production similar to that of his breakout year in 2013. That season Quinn compiled 19 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. If he can get back to those numbers…Los Angeles could have the best defensive line in the entire NFL.
Left outside Linebacker: Alec Ogletree (L.A.)
After a spectacular 2014 season, Ogletree suffered a season ending ankle injury in week four of the 2015 regular season. He still finished with 42 tackles and two sacks. Now that Ogletree could shift to the middle linebacker spot more often, his numbers should trend upward. He will be the new signal caller on defense for the Rams this fall, and his talent and ability should vault him into the top 10 of defensive signal callers in the NFL. Ogletree is definitely a player to keep an eye on this season.
Middle Linebacker: NaVorro Bowman (S.F.)
Entering his seventh season, Bowman may be coming off his best year as a professional. He racked up 154 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks, and one forced fumble in 2015; earning his third trip to the Pro Bowl. The 49ers defense may not be what it once was, but Bowman has definitely held his own at the middle linebacker position. Certainly no one expected him to play this well after his career was in jeopardy just a few years ago when he suffered a gruesome leg injury in the NFC Championship Game. If he replicates his 2015 production this fall Bowman could be headed to another pro bowl at season’s end.
Right Outside Linebacker: K.J. Wright (Seattle)
After being selected in the fourth round of the 2011 NFL draft, Wright has made himself a commodity in Seattle. The Seahawks saw potential in Wright that most teams didn’t see during that year’s draft process. Now they are reaping the rewards, Wright has had back to back 100-tackle seasons. In 2015 he totaled 116 combined tackles, one sack, four forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. He tends to be around the football at all times and the numbers bear that out on paper.
Cornerback: Richard Sherman (Seattle)
Sherman is now a seasoned veteran by all standards in the NFL. Entering his sixth season, he will look to improve on his career low interception total from a year ago. Whether or not teams choose to throw his way throughout the course of a season goes a long way in adding to his numbers. But only having two interceptions and no fumbles forced or recovered is a bit concerning. However, Sherman is still an elite lockdown corner and fans should expect to see a few more picks by him this season.
Cornerback: Patrick Peterson (Arizona)
Speaking of not getting the ball thrown his way. . . Patrick Peterson had only eight passes defensed and two interceptions in 2015. Very rarely did the opposing quarterback challenge Peterson with a one on one matchup. After returning four punt returns for touchdowns in his rookie season, Peterson has seen his punt return attempts go down each of the last three seasons; perhaps aiding the idea that Arizona’s coaching staff wants to reduce the injury risk on one of their star players. Nonetheless, Peterson will be primed for another stellar season in the Cardinals’ secondary.
Free Safety: Earl Thomas (Seattle)
Thomas is entering his seventh season in the NFL. Drafted out of the University of Texas by the Seahawks, Thomas was always considered to be ‘undersized’ as a safety. Standing at 5’10” and weighing in at 200 pounds, he’s gone on to have a stellar career as a professional. In 2015 he ended the season with 64 combined tackles, one forced fumble, and five interceptions. Seattle has done a nice job keeping their super bowl holdovers together on the defensive side of the ball. Thomas will be aiming to do his part to get the Seahawks back in contention for the Lombardi Trophy this fall.
Strong Safety: Kam Chancellor (Seattle)
Chancellor is the most feared hitman in the NFL today. Players on the offensive side for every team know to be aware of his location on the field at all times. It’s no secret anymore, that he’s the one who brings the ‘Boom’ to the Legion of Boom defense. In 2015 Chancellor totaled 74 combined tackles, one forced fumble, and two interceptions. The former Virginia Tech Hokie will be entering his seventh training camp with the Seahawks.
Kicker: Steven Hauschka (Seattle)
In 2015 Hauschka made 29 of his 31 field goal attempts, and 40 of his 44 extra point attempts. His longest field goal of the season was 54 yards, and his career long is 58 yards. Hauschka was the best kicker in the NFC West last season, and he will look to make it two years in a row in 2016.
Punter: Johnny Hekker (L.A.)
Hekker is entering year five of his NFL career, hailing out Oregon State University, he has found a home with the Rams. He punted for an average of 47.9 yards on 96 punts in 2015, and his longest on the season was a booming 68 yard punt. He is one of the best punters in the league entering the 2016 season.
Kick/Punt Returner: Tavon Austin (L.A.)
Austin has played for three professional seasons. Throughout those three seasons he has totaled 23 career kickoff returns for 433 yards and 102 career punt returns, amassing 939 yards and scoring three touchdowns. Perhaps his best career highlight came during his rookie season when he took back a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown. His highlight reel on returns is extensive. Austin possesses a Dante Hall-like wiggle and electric speed which is very difficult for defenders to contain in open space.
Now that the Defense and Special teams are done, be sure to check out the NFC West Offense.