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Vet on the hot seat: Alex Smith

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The assignment sounded simple enough: Identify and elaborate upon a veteran NFC West player "on the hot seat" this season.

Smith
The hard part was settling on just one.

I chose 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, with Rams quarterback Marc Bulger earning honorable mention, even though other candidates also seemed worthy.

The stakes are always highest for quarterbacks.

Smith is probably feeling less heat after accepting a reduced contract and the reduced expectations that came with it, but his career is unmistakably at a crossroads. That's a big deal for the first player chosen in the 2005 NFL draft.

Smith is one of 21 players remaining on the 49ers' roster from the most recent regular-season game he played, a 24-0 defeat to Seattle on Nov. 12, 2007. While the 49ers promised Smith a chance to battle Shaun Hill for the starting job in return for Smith accepting a significant pay reduction, they won't wait forever.

The agenda for Smith, still only 25, should include the following priorities:

  • Getting healthy. Smith still isn't 100 percent following shoulder surgery. He should be much closer to full strength by training camp.

  • Staying healthy. Smith described his most recent shoulder injury as "freaky" because nothing seemed to cause it. Injuries suffered for no apparent reason fail to inspire confidence in future health.

  • Asserting himself. The college scouting reports described Smith as a terrific leader by words and actions. Smith is smart, amiable and a sympathetic figure. Those traits aren't enough. Perhaps a return to health will help Smith assert himself in other ways. He'll have to step forward to win over the team and coach Mike Singletary.

  • Having fun. Smith is newly married and sounds at peace with his personal situation. He likes the new attitude Singletary has brought. Football needs to be fun for him and others need to see that he is having fun.

Smith will have gone 671 days between regular-season starts if he beats out Hill for the No. 1 job heading into the 2009 opener. The future is now for Smith.

Bulger, trying to bounce back after three poor seasons, was arguably more qualified than Smith for the NFC West veteran's hot seat. Two main reasons:

  • New blood: The Rams have remade their front office and coaching staff since Bulger signed his current deal before the 2007 season, with Chip Rosenbloom taking over for his late mother as principle owner. Fewer people in the organization have a stake in whether Bulger succeeds.

  • Old money. Bulger's inflated salary -- $6.5 million this season and $24 million over the next three -- carries inflated expectations. Salary-cap ramifications made releasing Bulger nearly prohibitive in 2009, but less so after the season.

The Rams' irrelevance after posting a 5-27 record over the past two seasons made Bulger less appealing than Smith as my hot-seat choice.

Additional hot-seat candidates from the NFC West, arranged by team:

Arizona

  • Alan Branch, nose tackle. Second-round choice has shown little in first two seasons.

  • Matt Leinart, quarterback. The Cardinals gave raises to fellow quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brian St. Pierre, even offering St. Pierre a chance to compete with Leinart for the No. 2 job.

  • Deuce Lutui, right guard. The Cardinals weren't always happy with Lutui last season.

San Francisco

  • Mark Roman, free safety. The 49ers have already benched him and let him seek trade opportunities. There were no takers.

  • Arnaz
    Battle
    , receiver.
    Will the 49ers have a roster spot for him? Prospects could be dim if the team keeps five receivers instead of six.

Seattle

  • Patrick Kerney, defensive end. He is coming off another shoulder surgery while carrying a massive contract into his third season with the team.

  • Kelly Jennings, cornerback. Adding Ken Lucas affirmed where Jennings stands, particularly while he recovers from a shoulder injury.

  • Chris Spencer, center. First-round pick enters the final year of his contract with rookie second-rounder Max Unger onboard as a potential successor.

  • Deion Branch, receiver. Adding T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deon Butler gave the Seahawks options. Branch needs to justify his contract this season.

  • Nate Burleson, receiver. Burleson is more affordable than Branch, but he is also coming off knee surgery.

Rams

  • Tye Hill, cornerback. Has yet to play like the 15th player chosen in his draft class (2006).

  • Alex Barron, tackle. How he performs in 2009 will determine whether Barron finds riches in free agency after the season.

  • Joe Klopfenstein, tight end. Hasn't lived up to second-round draft status.

  • Jacob Bell, guard. The Rams invested heavily in him last offseason. Time to see some results.

  • Everyone predating the current staff. The Rams are remaking their roster. Tis better to be a newcomer than a holdover in St. Louis.