NFL Preview 2019: These four defensive players could surprise NFC West

Marcus White
NBC Sports BayArea
The NFC West's big names will shine brightly in 2019, but which players could join them in stardom?
The NFC West's big names will shine brightly in 2019, but which players could join them in stardom?

The NFC West doesn't lack big names on defense.

The 49ers have their own collection of talent after adding pass rushers Dee Ford and Joey Bosa during the offseason, supplementing a group that already featured breakout defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and cagey veteran cornerback Richard Sherman. The Legion of Boom is no more in Seattle, but Bobby Wagner still headlines the Seahawks defense. Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson rescinded his trade request and is staying in the desert -- although he will miss the first six games of the season due to a PED suspension.  Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams might have the NFL's best player on their roster in defensive lineman, Aaron Donald.

Those stars will shine brightly in 2019, but which players could join them? Here are four NFC West defenders -- one from each team -- who could surprise the rest of the division this season. 

John Johnson III, Los Angeles Rams S

Johnson had a very productive second NFL season last year, accounting for 82 tackles, 11 passes defended, four interceptions and a forced fumble. His name wasn't the one dominating headlines this offseason, however, after the Rams signed veteran safety Eric Weddle to play alongside him. 

The two should form one of the league's best safety duos next season, in large part because of Johnson's ability. Pro Football Focus gave Johnson an 86.1 coverage grade during the regular season, which was the fifth-best mark among safeties who faced at least 20 targets. The Rams will have eyes on their secondary because of Weddle, but those eyes could quickly shift their attention to Johnson. 

Ezekiel Ansah, Seattle Seahawks DE

Ansah is by no means an unknown, but he'll be tasked with filling a big hole for Seattle next season. The Seahawks traded edge rusher Frank Clark to the Kansas City Chiefs for a haul of picks before this year's draft and signed Ansah a couple weeks later. 

Clark led the Seahawks with 13 sacks in 2018, and Ansah is a good low-risk bet to replicate some of that production. Although injuries have limited Ansah to just 34 games over the last three seasons, he still has 18 sacks during that period. If he can stay healthy next season, Seattle's bet could pay off in a big way. 

Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals CB

Murphy stands to gain from Peterson's aforementioned suspension. After being pegged as a late first-rounder, the Cardinals selected Murphy with their first pick of the second round on the 2019 NFL Draft's second day. The Scottsdale native comes in with plenty of pedigree, being named First Team All-Pac-12 as well as first- or second-team All-America by various outlets in his final season at Washington. 

Although he is listed at 190 pounds and likely will need to bulk up before his first NFL season, Murphy should get an opportunity right away. If he can hit the ground running in his first six NFL games, the Cardinals' secondary looks a lot stronger once Peterson returns. 

[RELATED: Gould still unsure he'll report to 49ers if he's not traded]

Ahkello Witherspoon, 49ers CB

Witherspoon will face stiff competition from veteran Jason Verrett, but that could be a good thing for the 24-year-old. If he's able to beat out Verrett for the starting spot opposite Sherman, he arguably will have won the toughest position battle at this point in his career.

Although his second NFL season was up and down, Witherspoon is coming off of a strong offseason. NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco noted last month that Witherspoon was one of the defense's best players, and that his coverage really stood out. With opposing quarterbacks likely to continue avoiding Sherman at all costs, Witherspoon stands to see plenty of targets come his way next season. They might need to give that approach a second thought if Witherspoon continues along his offseason trajectory. 

NFL Preview 2019: These four defensive players could surprise NFC West originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

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