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Thursday, December 27, 2012
NFC West wrap: All-division team

By Mike Sando

NFC Season Wraps: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five things to know, and my 2012 all-division team:

Division MVP: Russell Wilson. Raise your hand if you thought the Seattle Seahawks rookie would become the best quarterback in the NFC West and the No. 1 reason Seattle would challenge for the NFC West title. OK, you can put your hand down now, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. You were perhaps the only analyst I can recall being bullish enough to go all-in for Wilson entering the regular season.

Russell Wilson
Russell Wilson has surprised draft day pundits and has become the best quarterback in the NFC West.
"I think Russell Wilson is going to be great," Williamson said back on Aug. 30. "I very much believe Russell Wilson will have the best year of any quarterback in the division. ... Wilson puts up a ton of points at every level -- NC State, Wisconsin, the preseason with Seattle. There is no down side to him, except he’s short. But he knows how to get around that."

Wilson enters Week 17 with 25 touchdown passes, three rushing touchdowns and a Total QBR score (70.0) that ranks higher than than the score for any other NFC West quarterback with at least 10 starts in the history of the ESPN metric, which dates to 2008. Kurt Warner is second at 68.7. San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick (76.2) has set a similar pace through six starts, further brightening the future of the position in the NFC West.

Biggest disappointment: Injuries and horrendous quarterback play prevented the Arizona Cardinals from building on their 4-0 start to the season.

We knew their quarterbacks had issues. We knew the offensive line would be a problem, particularly after the team lost left tackle Levi Brown to injury. We knew there was risk associated with banking on a couple of recently injured running backs. We did not know everything that could go wrong would go wrong to such a degree.

Arizona's mismanagement of the quarterback position has been epic. The team's move to replace quarterbacks coach Chris Miller with John McNulty was supposed to pay off through renewed attention to fundamentals. There is no substitute for talent at the position, of course, but when was the last time a young Cardinals quarterback made meaningful progress over time? It hasn't happened in six seasons under coach Ken Whisenhunt.

Coach of the year: Check back Sunday. St. Louis Rams first-year coach Jeff Fisher gets the call if his team knocks off Seattle in Week 17.

Fisher has outcoached San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh and Seattle's Pete Carroll in particular while posting a 4-0-1 record in division play. Fisher has posted a 7-7-1 record without a single player voted to the Pro Bowl. (San Francisco had nine and Seattle five.) The Rams don't even have a first or second alternate.

But if the Seahawks close out the season with an 8-0 record at home and an 11-5 record overall, Carroll will get my vote as top coach in the division.

Carroll risked public ridicule and perhaps even his job by going with Wilson, a third-round rookie, when free-agent addition Matt Flynn had recently signed a three-year deal for $19.5 million. The move was subjecting Carroll to criticism as late as Week 4, when the Rams picked off Wilson three times during a 19-13 Seahawks defeat. Carroll trusted what he knew to be true about Wilson, and he has been proved right.

Executive of the year: Seahawks general manager John Schneider gets the call over St. Louis Rams counterpart Les Snead largely because he was the driving force behind the team's decision to draft Wilson in the third round. Schneider took some heat for failing to resolve the quarterback situation more quickly. He has repeatedly made fools of draft day critics, however, and that is happening in a big way this year.

Schneider and the Seahawks emerged from the 2012 draft with Wilson, pass-rusher Bruce Irvin (eight sacks), middle linebacker and defensive rookie of the year candidate Bobby Wagner, running back Robert Turbin, cornerback Jeremy Lane, guard J.R. Sweezy and defensive tackle Greg Scruggs. Wagner, Wilson, Lane and Sweezy started for Seattle during its 42-13 victory over the 49ers in Week 16.

Jim Harbaugh and Alex Smith
This may be Alex Smith's final season in San Francisco after Colin Kaepernick's emergence.
Vets to watch this offseason: Steven Jackson (Rams), Alex Smith (49ers), Flynn (Seahawks), Adrian Wilson (Cardinals) and Beanie Wells (Cardinals) are veterans with cloudy futures.

Jackson can void his contract after what figures to be his eighth consecutive season with at least 1,000 yards rushing. His 2013 salary would be $7 million. Will the team want to pay that much for an older running back with injury concerns? Might Jackson want to sign with a team closer to championship form?

Smith's run in San Francisco could be nearing its end. His contract calls for an April bonus payment that would make his 2013 salary guaranteed. The 49ers might not want to pay that much for a backup. Smith might not want to stick around after Harbaugh surprisingly benched him.

Then again, Smith surprised us previously when he decided to stay with the team in 2011. Harbaugh surprised us previously by backing Smith and winning with him.

In Seattle, Flynn has become expendable after Wilson's emergence as a franchise quarterback. The Seahawks could consider trading him.

In Arizona, Wilson lost his job in the nickel defense. He is 33 years old and might not project as a starter in the future. Wells, meanwhile, might not figure into the Cardinals' plans after his second disappointing season in three years. The team might want a more consistent, durable and hard-nosed back.

ALL-DIVISION TEAM

There were some tough calls when putting together the all-NFC West team for 2012.

I wasn't going to go with name players just because they were name players.

Vernon Davis made it at tight end even though Lance Kendricks and Zach Miller closed the gap at the position.

Larry Fitzgerald wasn't able to overcome bad quarterback play the way he had in the past. His inability to make a key catch at Atlanta stood out in my mind when putting together this team. Had we gone with three receivers, I would have strongly considered St. Louis Rams rookie Chris Givens after his string of five consecutive games with a 50-yard reception. No player had done that since Detroit's Pat Studstill did it in 1966. Givens also had 11 receptions to help the Rams upset the San Francisco 49ers.

Another Rams rookie, Michael Brockers, made the cut at defensive tackle. Seattle's Brandon Mebane would have been a worthy choice as well. Mebane would have been the clear choice earlier in the season. Brockers has put together some dominant performances more recently, however. He was particularly good against 49ers guard Mike Iupati during the Rams' victory over San Francisco. He has four sacks and a deflection for a pick.

Update: Aldon Smith of course needs to be on this all-division team. The intial format of the team -- four defensive linemen, three traditional linebackers -- did not leave room for an outside linebacker type. My oversight there. With apologies to Brockers, I've subbed him out and created a DE/OLB spot for Smith, who just happens to have a franchise-record 19.5 sacks heading into Week 17.

Seattle's Russell Okung and San Francisco's Joe Staley both would have been worthy choices at left tackle. Okung has come on strong lately. His team has been flourishing offensively. That is why Okung got the call.

Competition was fierce at safety. Seattle’s Earl Thomas edged the 49ers’ Donte Whitner mostly for his range. Whitner is the bigger hitter. Both are very good. You take one and I'll take the other. Whitner’s big-hitting teammate, Dashon Goldson, was the choice for the other spot.

Fullback is a strength in the NFC West. The Seahawks' Michael Robinson and the 49ers' Bruce Miller were the leading candidates. Arizona's Anthony Sherman probably has the most potential among the three. If only he had a running back worthy of his blocking.