A look at my all-NFC West picks for the 2011 season, continuing with the defense:
San Francisco 49ers rookie Aldon Smith defied categorization. I wasn't going to list him at the expense of every-down players at defensive end or linebacker. Neither was I going to leave him off the team after Smith collected 14 sacks. Smith commanded his own category as a situational pass-rusher. Consider that a compliment.
Some St. Louis Rams fans I know will insist James Laurinaitis should show up among the linebackers. I wasn't going to list him above Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman or Daryl Washington. The Cardinals blocked Laurinaitis well while Beanie Wells set a franchise rushing record with 228 yards. The Rams ranked 32nd against the run most of the season, settling in at No. 31. Dallas' DeMarco Murray also set a franchise single-game rushing record against the Rams. Laurinaitis was not primarily to blame, obviously, but neither was he able to stem the bleeding. He remains a good player with a bright future, but this was not his year.
The choices along the defensive line forced leaving off very good players such as Darnell Dockett, Ray McDonald and Red Bryant. Alan Branch also played well after leaving Arizona for Seattle. Chris Clemons' obvious strength as a pass-rusher and strong play against the run made him stand out. Insider subscribers might have noticed Clemons showing up third behind Jared Allen and Jason Babin on a list of most valuable sack artists. The piece ranked pass-rushers by the importance of their sacks relative to game situations.
Seattle's Kam Chancellor was a narrow choice over Arizona's Adrian Wilson at strong safety. I had no problem with Wilson beating out Chancellor in Pro Bowl balloting. Wilson earned that recognition. He was a worthy choice. I do think Chancellor made a bigger impact from start to finish this season, and he did it for a defense that was far more consistent. Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. agreed with me on that choice. An NFL scout I called for another opinion also gave Chancellor a slight edge. Both players were legitimate choices.
The division has good, young prospects at cornerback. Arizona's Patrick Peterson will probably show up on this team next season. He was trending that way. The 49ers' Carlos Rogers was an easy choice. Seattle's Richard Sherman enjoyed a breakout rookie season and was even better, I thought, than teammate Brandon Browner, a first-alternate to the Pro Bowl.
The chart breaks down all-division choices from 2008-10, plus this season. Still to come: special teams. Let the discussions begin.