The most maligned division in the NFL once again produced a mixed bag from its teams this season and for the eighth straight year an NFC West squad collected a postseason victory. The division produced one of the best sides in the NFL, one of the worst, and two teams who had up-and-down season that offered hope to the optimistic that they might make strides next season and equal evidence to doubters that they could fall back in 2012.
But 2012 is for the future and right now we are honoring the best players from the NFC West for the 2011 regular season as we make the final stop on our All-Division tour. The team unsurprisingly features a high number of San Francisco 49ers, but each team had players to be proud of this season and one St. Louis Ram has a rare honor that was afforded to no other player in this series. What was that honor? Read on and find out as we unveil our last All-Division Team for 2011.
Quarterback: Alex Smith, SF
Much needed and much overdue positive strides for Smith in his first year under the tutelage of Jim Harbaugh saw Smith establish himself as the best quarterback in the division in 2011. Smith wasn’t really close to any league-wide accolades, but he was a level apart from every other signal-caller in the NFC West. His career development curve hasn’t been what 49er fans had hoped, but Smith showed on a more consistent basis this season that he can be the dependable starter for the 49ers in the mold from which they are currently drawn.
Running Back: Marshawn Lynch, SEA
If 2010 was “Beast Mode” then the 2011 season became the “Search for Skittles” for Marshawn Lynch. Lynch got off to a slow start, but from Week 9 in Dallas he topped the 100-yard mark in six of nine games, only dropping below 85 yards once (against Chicago). He got into the end zone in 11 of his last 13 games, and along the way broke the 49ers’ streak of not conceding a rushing touchdown this season.
Wide Receivers: Larry Fitzgerald, ARZ, Brandon Lloyd, STL, and Doug Baldwin, SEA
Fitzgerald just continues to quietly show why (in terms of consistency) he might just be the best receiver in the league. With no help from his quarterbacks and more than his share of hospital passes, Fitzgerald showed his strength, consistency, and class as a receiver. Alongside him as a starter Brandon Lloyd was the acrobat this year, splitting his season between Denver and St. Louis. His career rebirth continued as he putting up big numbers and came up with arguably the two most spectacular catches of the season. Our slot receiver from the NFC West is Doug Baldwin. The undrafted free agent not only contributed as a receiver, but also put in his time with some efficient special teams play as well. A diamond in the rough, if you will.
Tight End: Vernon Davis, SF
With the pressure on Davis due to fellow TE Delanie Walker missing time and a lack of production at receiver, it could be argued that Davis was the 49ers’ most valuable offensive player. He may not have put up the gaudy numbers that some of the other receiving tight ends did, but Davis’ contribution to the 49ers’ offense was crucial–above and beyond the contribution of any other tight end in the division.
Offensive Tackles: Joe Staley, SF, and Harvey Dahl, STL
That Staley is only around the middle of the league in terms of our grading of offensive tackles and that Dahl only played 380 snaps as a starting right tackle is proof enough of how bad this division was at offensive tackle in 2011. Staley was the class of the division at tackle while Dahl was the West’s highest-graded pass-protecting tackle. Dahl yielded no sacks during his time at OT, one of only three tackles (who played at least 300 snaps) along with Jared Gaither and Duane Brown not to do so.
Offensive Guards: Mike Iupati, SF, and Harvey Dahl, STL
The rare honor for Dahl is that he makes the team at two spots and thank goodness it’s an All-Star team as otherwise the NFC West would be stumped having to field the same man at guard and tackle. Iupati is being overrated in parts, he isn’t among the league’s elite just yet, but he is making strides and showing in flashes that he is capable of reaching that plateau. Dahl was one of the few success stories for the Rams this season, showing solid play at guard before being moved out to tackle when injuries started to take their toll.
Center: Max Unger, SEA
Unger is only an average run blocker but was one of the most efficient pass-protecting centers in the league this year, yielding only seven pressures all season long, never giving up a hit or a sack. San Francisco’s Jonathan Goodwin is a better run blocker, but his five sacks and five hits allowed is a very poor return for a center.
Defensive Ends: Ray McDonald, SF, and Justin Smith, SF
The first of two no-brainers pairings on this defense for the 49ers. Calais Campbell can consider himself unlucky to miss out, but McDonald and Smith simply offer too much as both pass rushers and run defenders while Campbell is one dimensional towards his pass rushing. Smith is the man who makes the No. 1 defense in the NFL work and McDonald ensures that if the line focuses too much to their left that they will be made to pay. In front of the next 49ers two-defender set coming up later in this team, San Francisco has the best interior defense in the NFL off of the back of these two.
Defensive Tackle: Alan Branch, SEA
The class of the division at defensive tackle and one of the best run-stopping DTs in the league, Branch far from let himself down as a pass rusher, recording a hit and 14 pressures to go along with his three sacks. Branch’s 25 defensive stops ranked him in the same league as the likes of Haloti Ngata and Cullen Jenkins as he put some disappointing seasons in Arizona behind him. After truly emerging in Pete Carroll’s defense–that seems to produce a top quality season for at least one player on that D-line each season–can Branch maintain this form next year?
Outside Linebackers: Aldon Smith, SF, and Chris Clemons, SEA
This isn’t the primary position for either of these players but they both need to be on this defense as reward for their quality seasons. Smith has burst onto the scene as a nickel package specialist with both consistent play and some utterly dominant performances (such as his demolition job on the Steelers). Clemons wasn’t quite at his best, but was still the second-best edge defender in the division with some excellent pass rushing and significantly stronger run defense than St. Louis’ Chris Long who was extremely one dimensional this season.
Inside Linebackers: NaVorro Bowman, SF, and Patrick Willis, SF
Where else could you go than this phenomenal pairing? They were our first team All-Pro ILB tandem and their dominant seasons dwarf the solid seasons of David Hawthorne and James Laurinaitis with only Arizona’s Daryl Washington even getting within range of the stunning performance from San Francisco’s duo.
Cornerbacks: Carlos Rogers, SF, Richard Sherman, SEA, and Brandon Browner, SEA
Three new faces to the division make the All-Division team at corner this year with the veteran Rogers shifting to the slot when Browner comes on the field in nickel situations for this team. All three put in Pro Bowl-caliber seasons with the pairing of rookie Sherman and NFL returnee Browner being a pleasant surprise for the Seahawks. They did so after a slow start from Browner against the Steelers and Sherman taking his time to find the field before emerging as the best corner of this year’s rookie crop. Rogers went to San Francisco knowing he needed a good season to re-establish his name after a disappointing stretch in Washington, and he did just that with a strong start that he maintained through the season.
Safeties: Adrian Wilson, ARZ, and Earl Thomas, SEA
Wilson has been inconsistent as a box safety in recent seasons, but was outstanding in run defense and pass coverage in 2011 while Thomas makes the team as the best free safety in the division; making a number of plays with his great range. Fellow Seahawk Kam Chancellor outperformed Thomas as did 49er Donte Whitner, but unfortunately for them, they were beaten to the punch by Wilson as the best strong safety in the division.
Kicker: David Akers, SF – An NFL record for field goals made this season.
Punter: Andy Lee, SF – Consistently excellent. Pivotal in a number of San Francisco’s victories playing his part in winning field position battles.
Returner: Patrick Peterson, ARZ – Provided some unforgettable moments for the Cardinals as a returner.
Special Teamer: Heath Farwell, SEA – New team, same performance level from the former Viking.
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