NFC West players to watch this summer

Last year at this time, NFL Live asked me to project four NFC West players in four categories. I'll revisit the categories with projections updated for 2010, based solely on what we've seen this offseason:

Most Impressive Rookie

Golden Tate, WR, Seahawks. When he wasn't hawking donuts, Tate was catching just about everything from Seattle quarterbacks. It's always best to proceed with caution when evaluating receivers in particular during unpadded practices, but Tate did make an immediate positive impression. The St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals were also excited about rookie receivers, but graduation rules prevented Mardy Gilyard from making a quick impact in St. Louis, while the Cardinals' Andre Roberts has lots of talent ahead of him on the depth chart. Arizona's John Skelton also made a positive impression, but he'll remain a developmental player for the foreseeable future.

Breakout Player

Alex Smith, QB, 49ers. Smith seemed to take a significant step forward while running the same offense for a second consecutive offseason. He was more confident, more assertive and more credible as the 49ers' starter. What will it all mean this season? It's one of the key storylines in the NFC West. Smith does appear to have breakout potential based on his own progress and the strength of a supporting cast featuring Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree.

Best Position Battle

Beanie Wells vs. Tim Hightower in Arizona. Hightower continued working with the first-team offense through offseason practices. Wells will again play extensively this season. His playing time should only increase as he becomes more reliable across situations. This battle could have significant fantasy implications, too. Even if Wells wins the job, Hightower has shown he can rack up touchdowns in short-yardage situations.

On the Hot Seat

Leroy Hill, LB, Seahawks. The St. Louis Rams' Alex Barron was the choice in this category last July, and the team traded him to Dallas this offseason. Unlike Barron, Hill attained his hot-seat status through off-field troubles. Coach Pete Carroll asked him to stay away from most offseason practices. This is a make-or-break season for Hill.