In a tumultuous off-season that brings uncertainty both to the world as well as the NFL, there is time for reflection on the players currently in the league. This week we look at the 10 best players in each division heading into the 2020 season. Rather than focusing on a player’s past accomplishments, today’s list looks at which players will be the best in the upcoming season. Today, the Last Word On Pro Football team chooses the ten best players in one of the best divisions in football: the NFC West.
Top Players of the NFC West Heading Into 2020
Patrick Mahomes has officially made Aaron Donald the second best player in the NFL. This is truly an incredible feat because Donald is an absolute monster. The Los Angeles Rams took a big step back in 2019 after their Super Bowl appearance, so Donald somehow went under-the-radar last year. 12.5 sacks aren’t quite as impressive as the 20.5 he had in 2018, but Donald still posted the second-most combined sacks, hurries, and quarterback knockdowns of all defenders. He continued his streak of never missing a Pro Bowl in six seasons in the league. He also has five consecutive All-Pro nominations. Sorry J.J. Watt, Donald is the best defensive player of the 21st century.
What more could anyone ask of Russell Wilson? The guy was a third round afterthought. He won a Super Bowl in his second season but loses credit due to the dominant Legion of Boom defense. He just continues to shake off doubt and raise his game to new levels. This version of the Seattle Seahawks is frankly not very good. Their defense is porous with zero pass rush, the offensive line has struggled for years, and, after a red-hot start to his tenure, general manager John Schneider continues to strike out in the first round. Keeping this team competitive showcases Wilson’s greatness more than his Super Bowl appearances. He enters his ninth NFL season never recording a losing record and never missing a game. If there is a jump from second-year wideout D.K. Metcalf and an improved team around him, Wilson could very easily be the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2020.
After the sudden retirement of Luke Kuechly, Wagner becomes the unquestioned best middle linebacker in the league. Somewhat of a devalued position, Wagner is doing everything he can to alter that narrative. In 2019, Wagner continued his streak of six straight Pro Bowls. The eight-year pro has never recorded fewer than 104 tackles in a season and has amassed nearly 20 sacks and ten interceptions over that time. Wagner’s ability to dominate in both the run and pass game are what separate him as one of the game’s elites. Seattle’s defense is almost unrecognizable from their Super Bowl victory, but Wagner remains. He is the lone bright spot on that side of the ball and masks many of the Seahawks’ deficiencies.
Hopkins lands as the fourth best player in the NFC West after being shipped to the Arizona Cardinals for a sack of potatoes. Hopkins began his career by putting up sensational numbers with horrible quarterback play. Enter Deshaun Watson. To everyone outside of the Houston Texans’ organization, it appeared that this could be one of the best quarterback-wide receiver duos in the NFL for the foreseeable future. Instead, Hopkins was sent to Arizona where he will pair with second-year sensation Kyler Murray. Not a bad transition. Hopkins is unquestionably a top three receiver and takes the crown for best hands in the league. Hopkins has looked like a young Larry Fitzgerald his entire career. It’s only fitting that he will take the torch from the future Hall of Famer and be the next dominant receiver in the desert.
If you’re surprised to see Jones ranked this high, go watch him be a one-man wrecking crew on a bad Cardinals defense. Since heading to the desert in 2016, Jones leads the league in sacks and hasn’t missed a game. How does a guy who has recorded at least 11 sacks in the past five years not gain more recognition as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate? He is quietly putting together a Hall of Fame career. Jones is relentless and has been a high-effort player for some very bad Cardinals teams. The future is bright in Arizona, but the organization needs to get Jones some help on the defensive side of the ball.
Kittle was recently ranked as the seventh-best player in the league by the NFL’s Top 100. There’s no denying Kittle’s enormous talent to the San Francisco 49ers, but the players listed above make a larger impact at some of the game’s more premiere positions. That being said, Kittle is the most dominant tight end in the league. He excels both as a blocker and receiver. Just ask the New Orleans Saints how tough he is to bring down in the open field. Kittle has recorded 12 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards over his first three seasons. He should reset the tight end market with a blockbuster contract extension at some point this off-season.
The 2019 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year was one of the largest factors in the 49ers surprise Super Bowl run. The Bosa family continues to churn out dominant players and Nick could be the best of the bunch. He plays with incredible strength and ferocity while providing versatility along the Niners defensive front. His nine sacks and 47 tackles aren’t eye-popping, but if you watched any San Francisco games last year, his impact was evident. The loss of DeForest Buckner could put more burden on Bosa in year two, but he has the pedigree and ability to be one of the game’s best defensive players.
This may be a bit high for Ramsey, but again we’re looking at the projection of how he will perform in 2020. No disrespect to Richard Sherman, who has been the best cornerback in the NFC West for the last decade, including this past season. Ramsey’s transition to the Rams after being traded by the Jacksonville Jaguars could have been smoother. Going through his first off-season with the Rams will pay big dividends for the fifth-year corner. He could just now be entering his prime at age 25. Ramsey’s combination of length, ball skills, and tenacity are what every team covets in a number one corner. I still believe he could be the best cornerback in the league. With Donald wrecking opposing offensive lines, there will be more opportunities for Ramsey to have a dominant season in 2020.
One of the league’s most versatile defenders, Adams was recently traded to the Seattle Seahawks. Two first-rounders and a third is quite the price for any safety, but there’s no denying Adams’ talent. Also, what organization values safeties more than the Seahawks, who have been searching for Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor replacements the past few years? Adams could be higher on this list, but there is always a risk when switching teams. Known primarily for his specialty near the line of scrimmage, Adams can also play deep and match up with receivers on the outside. Assuming the Seahawks are ready to shell out a hefty new contract, Adams could be their defensive leader for years to come.
Murray showed enough in 2019 to warrant the final spot on this list of top NFC West players. It seemed like a risky move for the Cardinals to go all-in on an undersized quarterback who almost chose to become a member of the Oakland A’s. Not to mention, they drafted Josh Rosen with the 10th overall pick just one year prior. Cardinals fans should rest easy as Murray looks to be one of the league’s new stars. The comparisons between Murray and Russell Wilson are warranted. Murray’s throwing motion is like a pitcher, which allows for a special combination of velocity and touch. His decision-making and understanding of Kliff Kingsbury’s offense allowed for a quick transition to the NFL game. Now he gets to throw to DeAndre Hopkins. The Cardinals will be better in 2020, and their ceiling is mirrored by Murray’s.
- Richard Sherman
- Larry Fitzgerald
- Tyler Lockett
- Fred Warner
- Cooper Kupp
Sherman and Fitzgerald were by far the toughest players to leave off this list. If we’re grading by career accolades, they would easily both be in the top five best players in the NFC West. When looking towards 2020 and beyond, however, the players listed above have higher ceilings. Fitz still provides a strong skill set as a physical slot receiver, but the addition of Hopkins should make him no more than the number three option. Sherman just delivered his sixth Pro Bowl nomination and first since 2016 and he’s the leader of the 49ers secondary, but his athleticism is dwindling rapidly. Lockett and Kupp are solid number one options on their teams, but they need another strong season or two to enter this elite company. Warner had a breakout campaign in 2019 and has officially entered the national scene. He could quickly rise up this list with another impact season as one of the best coverage linebackers in the league.