- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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The way Jackson ran during the final minutes of a 35-0 defeat at San Francisco -- violently, defiantly -- ranked among the more admirable individual efforts of the season.
Football is ultimately a team sport, but playing for a bad team can add impact to the performance of a great individual. Other times, it's the way an individual leads his team to victory that earns our acclaim.
Taking a cue from NFC North maestro Kevin Seifert, let's tackle a direct question: Who will be the NFC West's best player in 2010?
The big names in this division are well-established. Jackson, Larry Fitzgerald, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Adrian Wilson, Patrick Willis, Vernon Davis and Darnell Dockett were named to the Pro Bowl last season. Frank Gore and Justin Smith were named as injury replacements. Alan Faneca, now with Arizona, represented the Jets on the AFC squad.
I'll jump-start the conversation by listing five sleeper candidates (guys who have not been to a Pro Bowl recently, if at all):
1. Beanie Wells, Cardinals RB. Listing Wells in this spot guarantees I'll receive a mocking e-mail from Seifert stemming from our 2009 debate about whether Wells or the Vikings' Percy Harvin would prevail as rookie of the year. It's still not clear how many carries Wells will share with Tim Hightower, but multiple important factors point to a big year from Wells. The Cardinals should become less pass-happy without Kurt Warner and Anquan Boldin. Their personnel almost assures more prominence for the ground game. Wells had 176 carries for 793 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Give him 300 carries and the other categories project to 1,351 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. Arizona drafted Wells in the first round. Time to give him the ball.
2. Alex Smith, 49ers QB. Expect Smith to be much more comfortable now that he has a firmer grasp on the offensive system the 49ers installed before last season. A more comfortable quarterback tends to be a more productive one. The 49ers have promising weapons on offense. Smith has much to prove and he's finally in position to take the next step. It doesn't mean he'll succeed, but he's the perfect sleeper candidate now that Warner's retirement has removed the most productive passer from the equation.
3. Matt Hasselbeck, Seahawks QB. Two down seasons have made it easy to argue that Hasselbeck is pretty much finished at age 34. Take a closer look, though, and reasons for the decline are open for interpretation. Age has ranked well down the list of problems for Hasselbeck. The back injury that wrecked his 2008 season wasn't a problem in 2009. The damaged ribs Hasselbeck suffered at San Francisco in Week 2 last season affected his performance, but Hasselbeck had seven touchdown passes and two interceptions heading into a Week 6 game against Arizona. Everything fell apart for Hasselbeck that week when Seattle realized the difference between third-string left tackle Brandon Frye and fourth-stringer Kyle Williams. Give Hasselbeck a better line and he'll have a chance. This is also a contract year for Hasselbeck and the Seahawks brought in Charlie Whitehurst as competition.
4. Michael Crabtree, 49ers WR. Crabtree's performance after missing training camp and the first five games showed he has vast potential. It's early to consider him among the elite players in the division, but he outperformed expectations as a rookie (under the circumstances). Smith is commanding most of the attention at 49ers practices this offseason and that will continue because he's the key variable and most compelling figure. Crabtree could sneak up on people.
5. Matt Leinart, Cardinals QB. The Leinart haters will have a field day with his inclusion on this list. Some probably will miss the point that this is a sleeper list. They'll accuse me of listing Leinart fifth overall, ignoring the sleeper factor. The truth is that I had a hard time coming up with a fifth true sleeper candidate and I wasn't quite ready to list Seattle's Mike Williams. It's a little early to know whether the first-round bust will stay in shape, earn a roster spot and become more than just an offseason curiosity.
OK, my turn's up. Let's get this conversation started already. And if you see a sleeper defensive player worth including on the list, please do share. Joey Porter? Chris Long? Aaron Curry? I'm not seeing it.