By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. Now it is time to check out the NFC West’s top players on offense.
QB: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Wilson did not have much competition for this spot considering the other QBs in the division are Carson Palmer, Brian Hoyer, and Jared Goff. Even so, the former Super Bowl champion had a solid 2016 campaign, despite dealing with numerous injuries suffered at the beginning of the season. Wilson threw for 4,219 yards with a 64.7 completion percentage, but only 21 touchdowns with his 11 interceptions. He added 259 yards and a touchdown on the ground, but it was clear the quarterback was hampered by the ankle and knee issues. Wilson’s overall Pro Football Focus grade of 89.6 was the second-lowest of his career, but still ranked fifth among quarterbacks. The 28-year-old has ranked in the top 10 at his position in every season he has been in the NFL. Now fully healthy, there is no reason to think Wilson won’t repeat as a top 5 quarterback in 2017.
RB: David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Johnson had a truly remarkable season in 2016. Not only did he carry the ball 293 times for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns, but he also caught 80 receptions for 879 yards and four more touchdowns, ending the season as the only player in the NFL to top 2,000 yards from scrimmage. Johnson led all running backs in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and missed tackles forced in the passing game, and put a lot of distance between the next closest back in three of those four categories. In just his second NFL season, the young running back made his first Pro Bowl, was named first-team All-Pro, and was named to PFF’s All-Pro team. He was also awarded PFF’s Best Receiver award for the 2016 season after his receiving grade of 92.6 narrowly beat out Julio Jones and Mike Evans. Johnson has said he wants to amass 1,000 yards rushing and receiving this season, and after looking at what he did last year, that goal does not seem too far out of reach.
WR: Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks
Baldwin was once again one of the best receivers in the NFL last season. The 5-foot-10 receiver caught 94 passes for 1,128 yards and seven touchdowns in 2016, finishing the season as the seventh-highest-graded player at his position with an overall PFF grade of 88.2. Baldwin caught 80.9 percent of the passes thrown his way, the highest percentage among players with at least 100 targets. Seahawks quarterbacks had a passer rating of 119.7 when targeting him, which was the seventh-best mark by a receiver with a minimum of 44 targets. Baldwin was successful all over the field last year, but really thrived in the slot, where he finished with the fourth-most receptions (60) and the fifth-most yards (649) of any receiver from that position on the field. With Wilson healthy heading into the 2017 season, the sky is the limit for the QB-WR duo.
WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
Apparently someone forgot to remind Fitzgerald that he was 33-years-old all of last season. The veteran wide receiver seems to get better as he gets older, and that was put on full display in 2016 when he led the NFL with 107 receptions. Fitzgerald turned those 107 receptions into 1,023 yards and six touchdowns, and was rewarded for his play with his 10th trip to the Pro Bowl. The future Hall of Famer also earned the ninth-highest overall PFF grade among wide receivers with a mark of 86.8. Fitzgerald has transitioned into more of a slot receiver in recent years, and the move has not fazed him whatsoever. Fitzgerald tied Julian Edelman for the second most catches from the slot (63) last season, and now has two consecutive seasons with a catch rate of over 70 percent. With his 34th birthday coming up in less than two weeks, Fitzgerald has shown that there is still plenty of football left in him.
WR: Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers
Garcon had a quietly good season in 2016, catching 79 passes for 1,041 yards and three touchdowns. But his year was even better than those numbers show. Garcon earned a grade of 85.8 last season, the highest in his career, which ranked eighth among the league’s wide receivers. The veteran has also had some of the best hands in the NFL over the last two seasons. Since 2015, Garcon has dropped just six total passes on 157 catchable targets. His drop rate of 3.8 percent ranks fourth among receivers with 100 catchable targets or more, and he was even better last year. In the 16 games last season, Garcon dropped just one of his 80 catchable targets, tying him with Emmanuel Sanders for the second-best drop rate in the NFL. Now serving as the 49ers No. 1 receiver, Garcon will likely be Hoyer’s go-to guy in 2017.
TE: Jimmy Graham, Seattle Seahawks
After tearing his patellar tendon during the 2015 season, Graham came back strong last year. In his second season in Seattle, the tight end had 65 receptions for 923 yards and six touchdowns, and averaged a career-best 14.2 yards per catch. He led the league’s tight ends in receptions on deep passes (targeted 20+ yards downfield) with eight, and finished the season as PFF’s fifth-highest-graded tight end with an overall grade of 85.1. Including the postseason, Graham averaged 5.0 yards after the catch, which is not an easy feat. Graham was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl in 20016, while PFF ranked him No. 92 on their list of top 101 players from the 2016 season. Entering a contract-year, Graham is healthy and could be in for a monster season.
OT: Andrew Whitworth, Los Angeles Rams
Similar to Fitzgerald, Whitworth has defied logic by continuing to get better each year he gets older. The 35-year-old left tackle earned the second-highest overall grade among all tackles from PFF with 91.3, marking his eighth consecutive season with an overall grade of at least 85.0. Whitworth led all offensive tackles with a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 98.0 since he surrendered just 14 total pressures on 561 pass-blocking snaps. But the veteran tackle has been doing this for years now. Over the last three seasons, Whitworth has allowed just eight sacks, two hits, 34 hurries, accumulating 44 total pressures. Those are unbelievable numbers for anyone, let alone a tackle in his mid-30s. Heading into the 2017 season, the only thing Whitworth and the Rams have to worry about is the tackle’s inevitable battle with Father Time.
OG: Mike Iupati, Arizona Cardinals
Iupati has only been in Arizona for two seasons, but he has already established himself as one of the most dependable linemen on the Cardinals’ roster. The guard has started in 28 of the 32 games over the last two years, and was a Pro Bowl and All-Pro lineman in 2015. His 2015 Pro Bowl nomination, his fourth consecutive, also represented the first time an Arizona offensive lineman received a bid to the game since 1996. He finished the season as PFF’s 32nd-highest-graded guard, which of course isn’t going to make anyone get out of their seats. However, Iupati played a big role in David Johnson setting Arizona’s single-season record for total touchdowns and total yards last season, and will likely be a factor in Johnson’s success this season as well.
C: Justin Britt, Seattle Seahawks
In just three NFL seasons, Britt has found himself playing all over the offensive line, spending time at tackle, guard, and center. But it was last year, his first campaign as the starting center for the Seahawks, that saw Britt have his most successful season. The 26-year-old earned the highest grade of his career with a 79.9 overall PFF grade, just one season after he posted a 37.6 while playing guard. Britt was one of only four centers that did not allow a sack or hit in all of 2016, ranking No. 11 among the league’s centers, and was also the only Seattle offensive lineman to grade higher than 70 in both run-blocking and pass-blocking. Britt’s 98.3 pass-block efficiency was the seventh-best mark of 28 eligible centers last season, and with a full year of experience now under his belt, Seattle is hoping their center can improve even more in 2017.
OG: Rodger Saffold, Los Angeles Rams
After appearing in only five games in 2015 due to injuries, Saffold returned more determined than ever last season. The seven-year veteran and longest-tenured Rams player started in 15 games in 2016, allowing three sacks throughout the season. His 78.8 overall PFF grade ranked 26th among all of the league’s guards, but Saffold was easily the best lineman the Rams had last year. During his seven years with the Rams, Saffold has shown the team is versatility, lining up at every position on the offensive line except for center. With the addition of Whitworth to Los Angeles’ offensive line, Saffold will have plenty of help protecting Goff this season.
OT: Joe Staley, San Francisco 49ers
Staley was the only bright spot on the San Francisco offensive line, and even he did not have an amazing season. Staley appeared in 13 games for the 49ers last year and earned an overall grade of 81.4, which was good for 24th among all tackles. That is by no means a weak season, but it was Staley’s worst grade since 2011. However it was not all bad for the 10-year veteran, as the lineman finished with a run-blocking grade of 82.5. This ranked Staley as the 12th-best run-blocking tackle in the NFL in 2016. While he may be on the back nine of his career, Staley proved last season that he can still be a valuable offensive tackle.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.