Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Nation [Print without images]

Monday, April 4, 2011
The best defensive line in NFC West

By Mike Sando

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. ranks NFC West defensive lines in this Insider piece posted Monday. I've listed the teams alphabetically while offering a few thoughts of my own, each punctuated with what to watch for from Williamson:

Arizona Cardinals: They have the best young talent across the board with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell and the emerging Dan Williams projected to start in 2011. I'm with Williamson in thinking the 2010 season was an aberration for this group. Dockett played hurt. Williams, as a rookie, faced an adjustment period. The Cardinals should expect improvement up front. Dockett expressed frustration during the season when his injured shoulder would not let him fight through double teams as effectively. He's a hard worker and should come back strong. New coordinator Ray Horton is adapting his system to fit some of the Cardinals' existing terminology, but the key is whether Williams builds on a strong finish to 2010 and whether Campbell bounces back from a down season. What to watch for from Williamson: strong thoughts regarding what's in store for Campbell.

St. Louis Rams: Chris Long's development has accelerated since moving to the left side. Some other key members of the line will decline in the near future. Will it happen in 2011? That is not known. Fred Robbins and James Hall defied their age last season. Robbins had a career-high six sacks last season at age 33. Steve McMichael, John Randle and Warren Sapp are the only defensive tackles since 1990 to hit that number in a season at 34 or older. It's a bonus if the Rams' older linemen continue to defy the odds, but it's not something the team should bank on. What to watch for from Williamson: how he sees George Selvie and Gary Gibson fitting into the rotation.

San Francisco 49ers: Williamson graded them lower than I would have anticipated, based mostly on Aubrayo Franklin's uncertain status. Using the franchise tag for Franklin last season allowed the team to keep him at a palatable salary number. I see some parallels between Franklin's situation and the situation the Rams encountered with Oshiomogho Atogwe. Both have been franchise players, but neither was a Pro Bowl performer. Their teams used franchise tags on them out of convenience, not because they viewed either player as indispensable. Replacing a solid safety such as Atogwe is easier than replacing a solid nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme. The 49ers might need to draft one. What to watch for from Williamson: where he ranks Justin Smith among linemen in the division, and what might be in store for Ray McDonald.

Seattle Seahawks: Health will be a key variable after Red Bryant, Colin Cole, Brandon Mebane and Chris Clemons battled through or succumbed to injuries last season. There is also the detail of re-signing Mebane, who could become a free agent. Williamson ranks the Seahawks' defensive line higher than I would have anticipated, to the point that he sees no reason for the team to address the position in the first round of the draft. I could see the team looking to use one of its choices for another player in Bryant's mold -- a big, top-heavy defensive tackle with the ability to serve as a run-stuffing defensive end opposite Clemons. Bryant, a fourth-round choice in 2008, is coming off his second ACL surgery since 2006. What to watch for from Williamson: where he sees Clemons fitting among the top pass-rushers in the NFL.