- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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My early favorites to represent the NFC West for the 2013 version:
Favorite: Larry Fitzgerald. Bradford beat out Fitzgerald in the first round this year. The Cardinals will need to improve their record, which will require upgrading their quarterback situation. Fitzgerald's contract situation will ultimately determine whether he's a candidate. His contract expires after the 2011 season. We should know by this time next year where Fitzgerald is staying.
Sleeper candidates: Fitzgerald's consistency and high profile make it highly unlikely a defensive player would do enough to represent Arizona. A breakout season from running back Beanie Wells probably would not be enough, either.
Co-favorites: Bradford and Steven Jackson. Bradford played well for a rookie and was a logical choice to represent the Rams this offseason. His career should continue on an upward trajectory. It's tough to bet against Bradford if he plays well enough for the Rams to win the NFC West. Jackson remains the only Rams player to reach the Pro Bowl in recent seasons, so we should not forget about him. His track record makes him a safer pick.
Sleeper candidates: Chris Long pressured quarterbacks far more than his sack total (8.5) indicated. He has a good chance to reach double-digit sacks for an improving defense. Middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is also important to the Rams' defense, but Long's ability to rack up sacks gives him a clear edge.
Favorite: Earl Thomas. The rookie safety finished the season with five interceptions and seven passes defensed while starting all 16 games. He was on pace for double-digit interceptions through Week 7. Sustaining that sort of production over the course of the 2011 season would push Thomas into consideration. The Seahawks' lack of start power left the 12th Man as Seattle's representative this year.
Sleeper candidates: Mike Williams dominated at times on his way to a 65-catch season. Can he continue on his current course? Running back Marshawn Lynch could emerge as another worthy candidate if Seattle improves its offensive line enough to pay off in the running game. Lynch's 67-yard touchdown run in the playoffs put him on the map, at least.
Favorite: Willis. The 49ers can bank on Willis' production. Ray Lewis singled out Willis as the young linebacker most likely to follow in his footsteps. An ESPN.com panel voted Willis the best linebacker in the league. Willis has the ability to rack up tackles, pick off passes, sack quarterbacks and generally dominate. He's a force in the Madden game, too.
Sleeper candidates: Tight end Vernon Davis has 20 touchdown receptions over the last two seasons. He has the potential to score 15 touchdowns in a season, which would put him in the mix. Running back Frank Gore needs better luck with injuries to reemerge as the 49ers' favorite for the cover. Does receiver Michael Crabtree face an uphill fight playing in an offense that could lean heavily on running backs and tight ends? On defense, Justin Smith should get consideration based on how well he plays, but 3-4 defensive ends general are not flashy enough to become cover boys. That is probably fine by Smith.
Who am I missing?