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Wednesday, March 17, 2010
NFC West quarterback analysis

By Mike Sando

Leinart/Smith/Bradford
Matt Leinart, Alex Smith and Sam Bradford could all be starting quarterbacks in the NFC West in 2010.
The division that produced Joe Montana, Steve Young and Kurt Warner finds itself fawning over Charlie Whitehurst.

Such is the state of quarterbacking in the NFC West, where even A.J. Feeley and David Carr have a chance to start in 2010.

It's still early in the offseason, of course, and rosters are evolving. But with Warner retiring, Marc Bulger possibly done in St. Louis, Derek Anderson heading to Arizona, Whitehurst coming to Seattle and Matt Hasselbeck entering the final year of his deal following two down seasons, it's time to take inventory.

Arizona Cardinals

Projected starter: Matt Leinart. Coach Ken Whisenhunt keeps saying he's confident in Leinart. Whisenhunt also believes in promoting competition. That's why he said the Cardinals will not hand the starting job to Leinart until he appears in multiple Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl. Of course, Whisenhunt didn't hand the job to Warner entering the 2008 season even though Warner had Pro Bowls and Super Bowls on his résumé. It's fair to wonder whether an inexperienced quarterback such as Leinart might have a better chance for success if Whisenhunt endorsed him less conditionally. Whisenhunt's approach was good for Warner, though, and Leinart must prove he can handle the challenge.

Backup: Anderson. The Cardinals are expected to sign Anderson and let him compete with Leinart for the job. Anderson will need time to learn the offense. He has a strong arm and starting experience, but accuracy has been a problem. Anderson should benefit from working with a receiving corps vastly superior to the one he left behind in Cleveland.

Third-stringer: None. Brian St. Pierre is an unrestricted free agent. He suffered back trouble last season.

Issues to resolve: Any moves the Cardinals make at quarterback should also take into account the longer-term future of the position. Leinart's deal balloons in value for 2011. A disappointing or even unconvincing performance in 2010 could end his tenure in Arizona. Anderson could benefit from such a scenario. The Cardinals probably do not draft early enough to consider selecting a franchise quarterback. Adding Anderson gives the Cardinals some flexibility on that front. He might not be the long-term answer, but he gives Arizona another option. It'll be interesting to hear how Whisenhunt frames the quarterback competition.

San Francisco 49ers

Projected starter: Alex Smith. The 2005 first-round choice posted a 5-5 record as the 49ers' starter last season. He set career highs for completion percentage (60.5), touchdown passes (18), touchdown-to-interception ratio (18-12) and passer rating (81.5). It wasn't enough for the 49ers to seriously consider extending his contract. Smith must show continued improvement. He also needs to win games.

Backup: Carr. The 49ers signed Carr and traded former starter Shaun Hill even though the 49ers had a 10-6 record in games Hill started. Hill was 3-3 as the starter last season and his career as a starter had plateaued. He looked like the perfect backup, but the 49ers do not need a backup. They need a starter. Smith can still be the starter, but if he falters, Carr could provide more upside as a starter than Hill, whose time in the role had passed.

Third-stringer: Nate Davis. Giving Davis a couple of years in Jimmy Raye's offense could give Davis a chance to emerge as the eventual No. 2.

Issues to resolve: Smith is entering the final year of his contract. He needs a productive season to stay in the team's plans beyond 2010. Smith must become more comfortable operating from under center. The offense lost too much of its stated identity when Smith took over and the 49ers suddenly became more of a shotgun passing team. Frank Gore operates most comfortably running out of the I-formation. The 49ers need to bridge the Gore-Smith gap this season. Drafting a quarterback could make sense for the 49ers, but the top two prospects could be gone and the 49ers might find more value at other positions early in the draft.

Seattle Seahawks

Projected starter: Hasselbeck. He turns 35 in September and has missed 11 games over the past two seasons, playing hurt much of the time. The Seahawks need to line up his long-term replacement even if Hasselbeck shows he can start for a couple more seasons. Hasselbeck is learning a new system for the second consecutive offseason. He had more value in Mike Holmgren's offense because he knew it so well.

Backup: Whitehurst. The Seahawks traded longtime backup Seneca Wallace to the Browns for a conditional 2011 late-round pick. Whitehurst could be in line to replace Hasselbeck beginning in 2011. The parameters of his deal will be telling. It's unlikely Whitehurst would agree to a trade for insignificant money, however. The deal he signs with Seattle should position him as a likely future starter.

Third-stringer: Mike Teel. The Seahawks' previous leadership used a 2009 sixth-round pick for Teel, who played well enough during the preseason to justify his role. New general manager John Schneider believes teams can find good value by drafting one or more quarterbacks per year, developing them and then either keeping or trading them. That makes Teel's status uncertain.

Issues to resolve: The team could still draft a quarterback in the first round. The main issue in the meantime is determining whether Whitehurst legitimately has a future as an NFL starter. It just seems unlikely for a third-stringer with zero regular-season attempts to suddenly emerge as a franchise quarterback. I checked in with Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. for a second opinion.

"That seems farfetched, as he has been the No. 3 in San Diego, while guys like Matt Schaub and Kevin Kolb are at least the immediate backup," Williamson said. "Still, it is very much of a QB-starved league, and he comes from a potent passing attack. He also has good physical skills. He's tall and stands tall in the pocket. Quick, crisp release. Enough arm strength, but not a cannon. Arm strength may have improved as he has physically matured while in the NFL. Needed a few pounds/bulk/strength when entering the league and probably has gotten some of that, but that is speculation by me. Well-coached, though, under Norv Turner/Philip Rivers/Billy Volek. Overall, he is still quite an unknown, but I see why some are intrigued."

St. Louis Rams

Projected starter: Sam Bradford. The Rams have put themselves in position to draft a quarterback first overall. It doesn't mean a decision has been made. Bradford's health and performance at his pro day could affect how teams view him. But if Bradford checks out fine physically and the Rams think he possesses the intangibles to become a face of the franchise, the decision should be pretty straightforward. I'll project Bradford as the long-term starter for now even though it's possible the Rams could draft someone else, and likely that Bradford or any rookie might start the season on the bench.

Backup: Feeley. The Rams paid backup money to Feeley, so I'll leave him in this role even though he could conceivably open the season as the starter. He certainly wasn't signed as the long-term starter. Feeley knows the Rams' offense and knows his role. He'll mentor the next starter.

Third-stringer: Keith Null. Null's overall stats were dismal last season, but I thought he held up reasonably well under the circumstances. No sixth-round rookie should start four games for a team with no chance. It's possible the experience damaged Null, but at least he got to play.

Issues to resolve: Bulger remains on the roster with only an outside chance of figuring into the team's plans. His salary for the 2010 season is $8.5 million. The Rams will presumably release him at some point. The team also must firm up its draft plans relative to the position. Selecting Bradford would give the franchise needed direction overall and at quarterback.