Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, wraps up the series with thoughts on where NFC West teams stand overall.
Williamson: I think Seattle is the best team in the league right now.
Sando: Spoiler alert.
Williamson: The 49ers are the second-best team. The Rams are maybe 12th or in that neighborhood and a very legitimate playoff contender, particularly if they were in another division. But it wouldn't shock me if three teams from this division made the postseason.
Sando: Arizona sends its regards.
Williamson: I think Arizona is underrated, definitely better than most people probably realize. Carson Palmer will help. Bruce Arians will help. Everyone talks about Palmer getting crushed behind that Arizona line, but Arians can scheme that up.
Sando: Andrew Luck was under duress or hit while throwing more than any quarterback in the NFL last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Arians was running that Colts offense. At the same time, Palmer has done a good job over his career getting rid of the football. He takes relatively few sacks.
Williamson: Ben Roethlisberger took hits when Arians was coordinating the Steelers' offense, but they still had a great offense throwing the deep ball with a bad offensive line. That was even more true with Indy. It's not like this coach [Arians] has never played with a bad offensive line.
Sando: Palmer will certainly benefit from playing with Larry Fitzgerald and a strong group of wide receivers.
Williamson: Last year, if you watched Raiders, Palmer had extreme knuckleheads playing receiver, running the wrong routes, dropping the ball. He’ll throw too many picks, but his circumstances will be better in Arizona.
Sando: It's only fitting we go on at some length about Arizona. We've spent quite a bit of time anointing Seattle and Arizona while pointing to what should be a bright future in St. Louis with all those draft choices.
Williamson: It just dawned on me that I ranked Seattle first or second on my list at every position but tight end. San Franciso actually has a couple fours. Some of these are pretty debatable, of course.
Sando: No question. The gap between first and fourth on the defensive line is miniscule. It's laughable in some ways to rank the 49ers fourth at more than one position on defense until you realize fourth in this division can still be really good. Back to the Cardinals, though. What do you think of their additions at running back?
Williamson: Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams, one can be very legit. The offensive line has to be better. It wasn't as bad in the second half of last season. They got an awful player off the field when they moved on from D'Anthony Batiste. Now you throw in Levi Brown and you are, say, the 25th-best line.
Sando: Sounds like the Cardinals think they'll be better than that. They could address the position in the draft, too. They will.
Williamson: Levi Brown is much better than a guy off the street, which is what Batiste was. I feel bad for Ken Whisenhunt. He had no chance.
Sando: We're out of time. Thanks for doing this, Matt. We'll revisit the rankings down the line.
The St. Louis Rams posted a 4-26 record against NFC West opponents over the five seasons preceding Jeff Fisher's arrival as head coach.
They were 4-1-1 against the NFC West under Fisher in 2012.
The Rams from 2007 through 2011 lost by 11.1 points per game in division play. The final scores for those games were 25-14 on average. Those figures flipped to plus-five points per game with a 20-15 average final score under Fisher.
"Fisher is a heckuva coach," ESPN's Matt Williamson said, "but he is behind two of the top five in the league when it comes to ranking head coaches in the NFC West."
Williamson, who scouts the NFL for ESPN.com, ranked the San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh first and the Seattle Seahawks' Pete Carroll second as part of his predraft positional rankings for NFC West teams.
We pick up the conversation there.
Williamson: You have to put Bruce Arians fourth even though Arizona made a good hire. Fisher vs. Carroll is really the only conversation and I think Fisher has done a good job with the Rams, including the team building aspect. You look at the RGIII trade, building this defensive line. And yet I thought Carroll should have been coach of the year last season.
Sando: We could have made that call on the Russell Wilson move alone. General manager John Schneider was the driving force behind drafting Wilson, but Carroll was the one who decided Wilson should be the starter in Week 1 -- a move I'm not even sure Schneider would have made so quickly. Coaches are under so much scrutiny that it's sometimes easy to make the decisions perceived to be "safest" in the short term. Starting Matt Flynn would have been the "safe" decision last year. It also would have been the wrong one. Carroll trusted what he saw from Wilson and made the call.
Williamson: He also gets the most from his guys. His team building has been phenomenal, starting with all the changes they made as soon as he got there. And then he brought along Wilson extremely well -- just did a phenomenal job there.
Sando: Carroll has admitted some shortcomings in the game-management department. He's called it going "hormonal" with some of his decision making. That is one area where I think he can continue to improve. As far as ranking the best coach in the division, it's tough to argue with the results in San Francisco. Harbaugh and staff have gotten more than anyone could have expected they would get from two completely different quarterbacks. The team has won consecutive division titles, reached two NFC Championship Games and gone to a Super Bowl.
Williamson: I think Harbaugh is the second-best coach in the league behind Bill Belichick. He took over a bad team and was competitive immediately. His offensive mind is off the charts. He got so much from Alex Smith, who I don't think is a very good player. He brought along Colin Kaepernick. They have the most physical and diverse offense. His offensive mind rivals anyone's and meanwhile, they've had the best defense in the league. They've been fortunate with so few defensive injuries, but you can't knock him for that. He was in the Super Bowl last year. He saw that day coming with Kaepernick and he planned for that last season. Randy Moss and A.J. Jenkins and Mario Manningham were not for Alex Smith. Those were all for that day when Kaepernick would start. And meanwhile, he did not hurt himself in the short term until Kaepernick was ready.
Sando: Putting Harbaugh up there with Belichick is high praise. It's interesting, I think, that Belichick enjoyed tremendous success after moving away from Drew Bledsoe, who was the safe choice at quarterback, and moving forward with a less-proven Tom Brady.
Williamson: The biggest problem for Seattle and San Francisco is what happens when they have expensive quarterbacks. They have such an advantage right now with great quarterback play costing them nothing. The Patriots won the Super Bowl before Brady was making huge money. There are some parallels that way.
Sando: The Patriots have been awfully close to winning it all more recently, but there's no question it's tougher building a dominant team when the quarterback's contract is eating up considerable cap space. Kaepernick is under contract through 2014, with a chance to renegotiate his current deal following the 2013 season. Wilson is signed through 2015 and cannot renegotiate until after the 2014 season.
Williamson: You're really tested two years from now if you win the Super Bowl and get raided like the Baltimore Ravens did and then have to pay your quarterbacks.
Sando: Fisher inherited a quarterback earning $50 million guaranteed under the old labor deal. Arians inherited Kevin Kolb, whose old contract is eating up $6 million in cap space for 2013 even though Kolb is playing for the Buffalo Bills now. Those situations put Fisher and Arians at a disadvantage.
Williamson: No argument there.
Sando: Overall, I'd say the NFC West is in good hands with two head coaches arguably ranked among the top five in the league, plus Fisher and now Arians, who happens to be the reigning NFL Coach of the Year for his work on an interim basis with Indianapolis last season. We'll revisit this one again following the 2013 season.
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com
The San Francisco 49ers have fielded an effective, sometimes dominant defensive line recently, even without factoring outside linebacker Aldon Smith into the line equation.
That's why it was shocking to see ESPN's NFL scout, Matt Williamson, rank the 49ers' defensive line fourth among those in the NFC West.
The No. 4 ranking could be misleading, however. Williamson explained why in kicking off the latest conversation in our series ranking NFC West teams at each position.
Williamson: I could make an argument to put these defensive lines in almost any order.
Sando: So, you're not necessarily downgradingJustin Smith and the rest of that 49ers line.
Williamson: I still think Smith is the best defensive lineman in the division and that is really saying something. But I wonder if his best days were in 2011. Those were very good days. He was the best defensive player in the league. You wonder if he is 90 percent of his best days, which is still a great player and the best defensive lineman in the division, but he might not be quite the same. I like Ray McDonald. Glenn Dorsey will be a nose tackle/McDonald type. They will move him around. He'll be a better version of Ricky Jean-Francois. That is who he is replacing, not Isaac Sopoaga.
Sando: The 49ers could have significant plans for Dorsey, although those remain a little vague.
Williamson: Dorsey was my favorite player in the '08 draft as a Warren Sapp type and a perfect fit for the scheme the Chiefs had at the time, but then everyone got fired, they turned him into a 3-4 defensive end and it was a totally wasted resource of a high pick. The 49ers will be smarter about how they use him than Kansas City was, but I don't think he is the same player because he has added weight and has been a slight bust.
Sando: Looking at the division overall, I might have put the Rams ahead of the Seahawks. For Seattle, Chris Clemons is hurt, Alan Branch departed, Tony McDanielwas arguably a so-so replacement and Red Bryant is coming off a tough year. Michael Brockers looks like a star in the making for the Rams. Chris Long and Robert Quinncan easily combine for 20-plus sacks. William Hayes is in there too.
Williamson: I didn’t penalize the Seahawks in the rankings for Clemons' injury. He is still a really good player who will factor in at some point. He was really good on last viewing. Bruce Irvin will be better. Michael Bennett is a great addition. Cliff Avril is a phenomenal addition. They will put that NASCAR package out there when Clemons is healthy. Brandon Mebane is really good. I believe in Red Bryant. That is six quality defensive linemen and they can add somebody. McDaniel can hold his own. They can go eight deep with quality players and some fringe Pro Bowlers.
Sando: The depth is impressive. That is one area where I think the 49ers are lacking. They don't need as large of a rotation because Aldon Smith plays in their four-man line packages. Still, the Seahawks are stacked up front to a degree that came into clearer focus the way you spelled it out.
Williamson: They have a wide skill set, which I like, too. Irvin and Bryant are totally different players at defensive end. Irvin, Clemons, Avril and Bryant give you versatility. For the Rams, Hayes is an important part of that equation. He had seven sacks last year. Quinn and Long are questionable against the run. Hayes can be a base run defensive end. Plus, he moves inside and can be a quality rusher there.
Sando: I hadn't really thought of Long as a liability against the run.
Williamson: You can run at Long. Part of that is scheme. Sort of like in the Dwight Freeney-Robert Mathis days, they play the run on the way to the quarterback. With the Rams, a lot of it is ahead of them. I'd draft Quinn very high if I were building a team, but he is not as good as Cliff Avril right now. Brockers is going to be a total stud. I didn't love him coming out of LSU, but he far exceeded my expectations. I think he'll be a multiple Pro Bowl player.
Sando: We haven't even mentioned the Cardinals, who have, by the way, Calais Campbell -- arguably the best defensive lineman in the division at any given time. There are some unanswered questions about scheme as the team transitions to a new staff, however.
Williamson: Even though they ran a 3-4 defense under former coordinator Ray Horton, they allowed those defensive ends to penetrate. If they were to go to a 4-3, it would be great forDarnell Dockett. He could compete for being the best three-technique in the league. The old scheme hurt Dockett. He is a great player and a better player than people realize because he hasn't been used properly.
Sando: We'll have a better feel for the Cardinals' line once we learn more about how new coordinator Todd Bowles plans to use everyone. Dan Williams is a key variable, too. He was drafted as a 3-4 nose tackle, a position pretty specific to the Horton scheme.
Williamson: Williams has come along and is an above average 3-4 starting nose tackle.
Sando: The Cardinals also added Frostee Rucker and Matt Shaughnessy for depth, but their line's ranking probably hinges on whether the new scheme maximizes Dockett. There are also some questions about the outside pass rush. Some of those questions will arise again when we look at the Cardinals' linebackers.
Williamson: Overall, I don't love their depth on the line. They don't have that guy off the bench like Hayes or all those defensive ends in Seattle or even Dorsey in San Francisco.
Sando: Great discussion, Matt. The takeaway is pretty clear to me. This division should be strong along its defensive lines. Keeping a straight face while ranking the 49ers' line fourth drives home the point.