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Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Leading Questions: NFC West

By Mike Sando

With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team upon beginning preparations for the 2012 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Why so much hedging over the quarterbacks?

Team president Michael Bidwill and general manager Rod Graves are both on record as hedging their bets about Kevin Kolb returning for a second season with the team. Coach Ken Whisenhunt has recently made it clear the team would not make Kolb its outright starter for 2012, instead forcing him to compete with John Skelton.

The money Kolb would earn if he did return will guarantee him riches, but not a starting job.

The approach is vintage Whisenhunt. Now entering his sixth season with the team, Whisenhunt has remained consistently averse to anointing starters. The approach reflects his own NFL playing career. Whisenhunt stuck with Atlanta as a 12th-round draft choice in 1985, starting 43 of the 74 games he played over seven seasons. Nothing was handed to him and nothing will be handed to his players now.

The Cardinals' relatively noncommittal approach with Kolb has left the impression Arizona could go after Peyton Manning. That could be a difficult decision to make strategically, however, because Manning might need time to get healthy. Letting Kolb hit the market without knowing whether Manning could hold up would leave the Cardinals with Skelton as their fallback option.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

How can the Rams help themselves in free agency?

This is a tough one. Very few of the Rams' own free agents qualify as players the team must re-sign.

Receiver Brandon Lloyd is arguably the only clear starting-caliber player on the list. He is 30 years old and, by all accounts, hoping to catch on with Josh McDaniels in New England.

Teams with new coaching staffs often sign players with connections to various assistants. The Rams could follow that path.

Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was in New Orleans, where cornerback Tracy Porter might be the most impressive defensive player scheduled to hit free agency.

Coach Jeff Fisher was with Tennessee when another potential free-agent corner, Cortland Finnegan, was building his reputation as one of the NFL's most hard-nosed defensive backs.

Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was with the New York Jets, but their list of offensive free agents features older players such as Mark Brunell, LaDainian Tomlinson and Plaxico Burress.

New general manager Les Snead has ties to the Atlanta Falcons' free agents, including 35-year-old center Todd McClure and 35-year-old outside linebacker Mike Peterson. Linebacker Curtis Lofton is only 25 and a productive player, but he has played the one linebacker position where the Rams are set, in the middle. Cornerback Brent Grimes is 28 and has a Pro Bowl on his résumé, giving the Rams a connection to another established corner.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How much better can Alex Smith become?

The 49ers plan to re-sign Smith after the veteran quarterback finished the 2011 season with 17 touchdown passes, five interceptions, a career-best 90.7 NFL passer rating and a signature playoff victory over New Orleans.

It's easy to forget that rules governing free agents prevented Smith from participating in formal 49ers practices until Aug. 4, only five weeks before the regular-season opener. Smith nonetheless appeared in tune with new coach Jim Harbaugh and new coordinator Greg Roman. He did take too many sacks and, until the team's divisional playoff victory over New Orleans, became best known for avoiding turnovers.

Smith did seem to progress as the season went along. It'll be tough for him to match or improve upon his TD-to-INT ratio. Opponents will be better equipped to counter scheme advantages the 49ers enjoyed with a new staff fresh from the college ranks. Durability will be another concern if Smith takes another 44 sacks.

But logic also suggests Smith can continue to grow within the 49ers' offense. He proved skeptics wrong last season and appears positioned to do so again.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

What is the holdup with Marshawn Lynch's new contract?

Yes, the Seahawks want to bring back Lynch. His physical running style gives them an edge Seattle cannot realistically get from another back in 2012.

There have been no hard reasons to get a deal done quickly, however. Seattle can name Lynch its franchise player, an appealing alternative for teams wary of how long running backs will hold up physically. Lynch has until March 13 before becoming a free agent for the first time in his career. His next long-term deal could be his final one. He'll want to get more than what Seattle would pay him in guaranteed money as a franchise player over the next couple seasons.

Lynch is 25 years old and has 1,280 career touches. Steven Jackson (2,507), Frank Gore (1,940) and Maurice Jones-Drew (1,762) are among the prominent backs with considerably more touches. Seattle should be able to get three more productive seasons from Lynch, enough to justify doing a multiyear deal with him.

But the franchise tag provides a tantalizing fallback.