Squad Leader  

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NFC West: Cards' Wilson tries to make up for lost leaders

Leaders come in all types. Some are quiet, some flamboyant, some spiritual, some charismatic. But in the NFL, they all have one thing in common: They are the guys their teammates follow in tough times and rally behind, the guys setting the tone at practice, the first ones there, the last ones to leave. They're the ones who have no fear of game deficits or the two-minute warning, the ones players turn to for direction in trying to achieve the ultimate team goal -- winning on Sundays. This week, NFL.com identifies the squad leaders of each team.

Squad Leaders:
» AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
» NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West


No team in the NFL lost more leaders -- and standout players -- than the Arizona Cardinals. Quarterback Kurt Warner and outside linebacker Bertrand Berry retired; wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who had tremendous cache, was traded; and linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Antrel Rolle left via free agency.

The departure of talent at those positions is obvious as the two-time defending division champs are digressing. The loss of leadership is even more evident. There are still a few guys who can demand accountability, but those were players who were lower in the pecking order before this offseason's exodus.

Who are they? It's not who you might think.

NFC West squad leaders

Cardinals: SS Adrian Wilson

The Pro Bowl safety is one of the most feared players at his position, but he's always let his play and how he carries himself inspire, leaving more of the vocal stuff to Rolle, his former teammate. Nothing has changed in the way Wilson has played, but according to someone with the team, he has tried to have more of a guiding hand to others.

Veteran linebacker Joey Porter has been the emotional cog, but he didn't arrive until this summer, so his pull isn't as impactful as Wilson's, who has been with Arizona since 2001.

Offensively, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is the model of professionalism, but he's a quiet guy who doesn't elicit the magnetism that Warner or Boldin did. Newly acquired guard Alan Faneca is said to be the closest thing to a leader on that side of the ball.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is finding out that losing so much leadership at once is tough to overcome. Wilson and the Cardinals might be able to overcome that void with their talent and an overall weak division, but with times getting more challenging, they might not if more players don't step up.

Seahawks: QB Matt Hasselbeck

With so much roster turnover it's not hard to figure out who leads this ship, but it's not as easy to tell if players are following with the recent downturn after a quick start.

Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who might be playing his last season in Seattle, seized control of the team not long after Pete Carroll was hired as coach and immediately put his job up for grabs with a trade for Charlie Whitehurst.

Instead of grousing, the effervescent Hasselbeck spent more time training and studying at the team facility. Once offseason workouts started, it only took a matter of days for him to prove to everyone that he was still the best option at quarterback. By setting the example of embracing competition instead of running from it, other players stepped up their level of commitment, and we've seen how guys like castoff wide receiver Mike Williams has blossomed.

Hasselbeck has serious backup on the defensive side of the ball in veteran safety Lawyer Milloy, who has seized the leadership reins at his stops in New England, Buffalo and Atlanta before stepping up again in Seattle. He has an intimidating personality, but he's also very protective of his teammates.

Rams: FS O.J. Atogwe

Coach Steve Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney have not only tried to upgrade the talent in their two seasons in St. Louis, they've also tried to add high-character players -- like quarterback Sam Bradford and linebacker James Laurinaitis -- to nurture leadership.

While those two work their way up the credibility ladder, Laurinaitis said it's safety O.J. Atogwe who is the best example for young players like him to follow.

"O.J. is crucial for us," Laurinaitis said. "He's a guy who isn't going to make mistakes and makes sure we don't either. He's very prepared. He's the example of how to be a professional. Juice is a class guy."

Atogwe is eclectic and low-key, but he handles his business. He almost didn't return to the Rams after hitting the free-agent market this offseason. But interest outside of St. Louis was cool, so he returned and is now part of a revival.

Running back Steven Jackson and defensive end Chris Long are also players looked to because of their relentless work ethic, ability to play through injuries and their refusal to let their effort wane despite years of losing in St. Louis.

49ers: LB Takeo Spikes

It should come as no surprise that very few offensive names popped up when leadership was mentioned. Tight end Vernon Davis is the man in that regard on that side of the ball, but with so many new, old or ineffective players, the point man is 12-year veteran linebacker Takeo Spikes.

Spikes actually is viewed as the co-op leader with fellow linebacker Patrick Willis, arguably the best player in the NFL at his position. However, Spikes' experience and leadership in so many facets of the game on and off the field, is why so many of his teammates tend to listen to him or seek him out.

Spikes remains productive (43 tackles, one interception), which helps in his role. With a youth movement underway in San Francisco, Spikes has been willing to help his future replacement, Navarro Bowman. Spikes wants to win more than anything and with things not going as planned in San Francisco, he's tried to be part of the answer -- in whatever way he can.

As for Willis, he's much like the young version of Spikes. He's intimidating but also approachable. Both guys also are some of the hardest workers on the team when it comes to physical and mental preparation. Having Spikes and Willis set the tone each day helps hold things together.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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