The SEC has sent several top players to the NFC South in the last several years, and a couple rookies are posed to join that list this season. 247Sports takes a look at the top impact players in the NFC West out of the Southeastern Conference.
1 – Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Arguably the league’s most complete cornerback, Peterson is physical and able to line up in man coverage against the opponent’s top wideout each week, something few NFL defensive backs do, much less do it as well as the former LSU All-American. In 16 weeks, the other team’s best receiver only caught 54.4% of the passes thrown to them, combining for 59 catches for 917 yards and five touchdowns, less than four catches and 58 yards a week.
With the addition of Antonio Cromartie, free safety Tyrann Mathieu entering his second season, and rookie first round pick Deone Bucannon, Peterson should be able to smother his assigned wideout on a weekly basis.
2 – Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers
Willis is still an upper echelon linebacker, but last season saw teammate NaVorro Bowman become the better player. Unfortunately for the 49ers, Bowman will miss a large chunk of the upcoming season. Possessing elite natural instincts and still one of the most athletic run stuffers in the league, the former Ole Miss All-American should be able to pick up the slack as long as Quinton Dial can keep the offensive linemen off him.
3 – Percy Harvin, WR, Seattle Seahawks
While many look at the 87 catches Harvin was able to reel in from Christian Ponder and immediately project him to 100 with Russell Wilson, that is simply not going to happen in Seattle’s offense. Even if the Seahawks are able to employ a healthy Percy Harvin this season, the offensive philosophy is not going to change. The team is going to rely on Marshawn Lynch and the ground game, but the former Florida Gators standout’s versatility as an offensive threat means he will get plenty of touches at both running back and receiver.
Additionally, just the mere presence of Harvin, one of the game’s most explosive offensive talents will still change how opposing defenses line up against the Seahawks.
His speed will be a threat to the edge on any given play, causing coverages to rotate in an attempt to make sure the outside lanes are sealed, which in turn should help Seahawks’ playmakers get advantageous matchups.
Of course, this is all assuming Harvin can avoid injury this season.
4 – Eric Reid, FS, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers traded up 13 spots to take the LSU All-American in the first round, and Reid made sure their aggressive move was worth it. A well-rounded safety, Reid’s 77 tackles and four interceptions landed him in the Pro Bowl, one of only four in the 2013 draft to earn the honor as a rookie. If Reid can avoid getting more concussions, his improved understanding of NFL offenses with a year of experience should allow him to play even faster in season two.
5 – Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Bennett is not considered one of the game’s elite pass rushers, but there is something to be said about being the best defensive lineman for the Super Bowl Champions. What the former Texas A&M defensive lineman does have is a motor that few in the league can match.
Last season the Seahawks were able to put Bennett in multiple alignments and the 6-foot-4, 275-pound lineman was equally disruptive, especially inside in their nickel sub-packages. A return to the Seahawks could result in 50 tackles, 10 sacks for the 28-year old.
6 – Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco 49ers
If he were playing the entire season, Smith would be pushing Willis for No. 2 on this list. But a series of legal troubles has Smith looking at a potential six-to-eight game suspension. When on the field, Smith is a good of a pass rusher as anybody in the NFL, and can completely wreck opposing offenses at any moment. But it has been a struggle for the former Missouri standout to maintain his focus off the field, so Smith’s impact will be potentially cut in half, which could amount to 40 tackles and nine sacks.
7 – John Abraham, LB, Arizona Cardinals
Very quietly, the former South Carolina All-SEC selection has amassed a Hall of Fame career as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, and the 36-year old is not showing any signs of slowing up. Abraham enters this season with 133.5 sacks, needing only 8.5 sacks to pass Michael Strahan for fifth on the All-Time career sacks list. The possibility exists that the league will not discuss a penalty for Abraham’s offseason DUI until after the 2014 season, which means the Cardinals can count on 35 tackles and 10 sacks from the 14-year veteran.
8 – Tyrann Mathieu, FS, Arizona Cardinals
The Honey Badger was one of the NFL’s feel-good stories of 2013 before he tore his ACL and LCL in week 14. A consensus All-American at LSU, Mathieu was taken under the wing of fellow LSU star Patrick Peterson and thrived as the teams nickel/safety hybrid, the in vogue position in secondaries now.
A full season and a year of experience could translate into better performance than Mathieu had as a rookie (68 tackles, one sack, two interceptions, one fumble forced and nine pass breakups). However, first Mathier will have to find his fit in a Cardinals’ defense that prepared for the possibility he would not fully recover by bringing in cornerback Jerraud Powers and free safety Rashad Johnson.
9– Justin Smith, DE/DT, San Francisco 49ers
A model of consistency since he was taken No. 4 in the 2001 draft out of Missouri, Smith is still one of the more powerful defensive linemen in the league. Smith can be locked in for 57 tackles and 5.5 sacks this season as he helps one of the more complete NFC teams return to the Super Bowl.
10 – Zac Stacy, RB, Alec Ogletree, LB, St. Louis Rams
This type of cheating is a cardinal sin in whatever rules exist in journalism, but there is no denying both second-year players are pegged for key roles for the Rams. Stacy will be the team’s workhorse, and with a healthy Sam Bradford to keep defenses honest, the former Vanderbilt tailback benefit from teams not stacking the box against him quite as much.
Ogletree led the team with 117 tackles, was second on the team with 11 tackles for loss, and his six fumbles forced were the most among rookies, second on the team and third among the entire NFL. The team will likely blitz him more this season, and if he cuts down on missed tackles Pro Bowl honors could be in his future.
By | Kipp Adams