Six projected NFC West backups exceeding expectations in more prominent roles:
1. David Hawthorne, MLB, Seahawks. He has three interceptions and two sacks in four starts, plus another sack after replacing Lofa Tatupu in the first game against Arizona. How Hawthorne plays over the next seven games could influence how seriously Seattle considers incorporating more 3-4 principles on defense.
2. Barry Sims, LT, 49ers. Left tackle Joe Staley was the one offensive lineman the 49ers could not afford to lose, right? The answer has gone from a definitive "yes" to something less than that given how well Sims has played in two starts and nearly three full games since Staley suffered a knee injury. Sims has done his job as a backup. The next challenge becomes sustaining this level of play for longer than most backups generally would.
3. Adam Goldberg, RG, Rams. Goldberg worked with the starters all offseason, but everyone knew Jason Smith would probably replace him at right tackle for the regular season. Goldberg knew the deal and embraced the role as mentor. And when a foot sprain sidelined right guard Richie Incognito, Goldberg stepped into the lineup and played well enough for the line to continue improving.
4. Justin Forsett, RB, Seahawks. The team has thrown around a few million bucks trying to find the right mix of backups, but Forsett has outlasted T.J. Duckett and Edgerrin James. Forsett has embraced the third-down role and proven he can run effectively across all downs, at least in relief. Not bad for a 2008 seventh-round draft choice from Cal.
5. Anthony Becht, TE, Cardinals. The Cardinals aren't afraid to use double-tight end sets even though wide receiver is a strength of the team. Becht's value increased when the Cardinals lost projected starter Ben Patrick to a four-game suspension entering the season. Becht has six receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown with seven starts.
6. Brandon Gibson, WR, Rams. Gibson caught seven passes for 93 yards in his first extensive action for the Rams. His role will increase now that Keenan Burton is on injured reserve. The Rams could find out quickly whether Gibson projects as a prominent player in 2010. So far, so good.
Beanie Wells has been good off the bench for Arizona, but he was a first-round pick, so expectations were high.