Comparing the NFC West: 49ers climbing at QB

At the beginning of the 2011 season, the 49ers' situation at quarterback would have rated as the worst among the four teams in the NFC West, with San Francisco going forward at the position with much-maligned veteran Alex Smith as the starter and two rookie backups behind him. But after Smith's breakout season vaulted the Niners to the top of the division, things have changed in a big way.

Dare we say, as NFL teams begin shaping their 2012 rosters this month, that the Niners – and Smith – have jumped to the head of the class in the division at quarterback?

Sam Bradford believers would have something to say about that.

But after Bradford regressed during a season of implosion in St. Louis, and Smith stepped up behind the direction of new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to produce the best season of his seven-year career, it's reasonable to assert that the 49ers enter a new year with the best situation in the NFC West at quarterback in a division that's perhaps the NFL's weakest at the position.

Of course, Smith isn't even signed for 2012. He can become an unrestricted free agent on March 13, but all signs point to him returning to the 49ers with a new deal in place.

Bradford remains arguably the top talent in the division, but he's starting over with a new coaching staff and a defensive-minded head coach in St. Louis.

Seattle and Arizona both brought in young free-agent quarterbacks last season to be their new starters – and both teams finished the season less than satisfied with the results.

Despite the price the Cardinals paid for Kevin Kolb last year, he still needs to establish himself as the team's undisputed starter and Arizona could be looking at other options at the position in the upcoming months.

The same is true in Seattle, where Tarvaris Jackson showed flashes but ultimately wasn't consistent enough to become a winning quarterback. Which was pretty much the way he played during his first five NFL seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.

Here's the breakdown of the NFC West's quarterbacks:


Current projected 2012 starter: Alex Smith
Backups currently on roster: Colin Kaepernick, Scott Tolzien

Unit analysis: Seemingly on his way out of San Francisco when last year began – something that would have made a lot of people happy, including Smith – Smith had one of the most stunning quarterback transformations the QB-rich San Francisco franchise ever has seen. The No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 NFL draft, Smith finally reached the next level after six checkered seasons during which he seldom played above the level of a marginal starter. But with a new coaching staff and newborn confidence, Smith became a smart, efficient, mobile, ball-protecting quarterback who could both manage a game and move the offense and also step up as a playmaker when needed on occasion. Smith tied for the NFL lead and set a franchise record with five comeback victories during the regular season, then added another in the playoffs with a glittering performance against New Orleans that rated as the best game of his career. The most promising thing about Smith is he still has room for growth and is playing for a coaching staff that puts him in a position to succeed and seems to get the most out of his talent. Smith had the fewest interceptions among NFL starters last year and finished the season ranked ninth among the league's leading QBs with a career-high passer rating of 90.7. Another bonus in Smith's emergence was it allowed Kaepernick – a raw prospect with substantial ability – the opportunity to develop an entire season in a pro system without the need to throw him into the fire or put him in situations for which he wasn't ready. Kaepernick is the most physically-talented QB on the roster and has starting potential. Tolzien also got a redshirt year to develop and has the potential to run a NFL offense.

NinersDigest rank in division: 1

Arizona Cardinals

Current projected 2012 starter: Kevin Kolb
Backups currently on roster: John Skelton, Rich Bartel

Unit analysis: The Cardinals gave up plenty in a trade with Philadelphia last year to acquire Kolb, and then they lavished upon him a six-year, $65 million deal from which they received little immediate return in 2011. Kolb battled injuries and played in only nine games – all starts – while finishing 17th among NFL starters with a passer rating of 81.1 that included just nine touchdown passes. That's not exactly the production Arizona was paying for, but the Cardinals retain hope the trade for Kolb will eventually work out for them. Despite speculation the Cardinals may be interested in entering the potential Peyton Manning sweepstakes, Kolb is expected to enter offseason workouts as Arizona's starter. But Skelton – who directed a 21-19 upset of the 49ers last December, San Francisco's final loss until the NFC Championship Game – has closed the gap and could challenge to be the starter. Skelton's problem is inconsistency. He looked good in some starts last season but was shaky at other times. His numbers bear out his hot/cold nature – 11 TD passes and 14 interceptions for a passer rating of 68.9. That left Skelton 32nd among the 34 quarterbacks who qualified for the league's passer rankings. Bartel is very smart and has a future in coaching one day. But first, he'd like to make it as a player. He has bounced around three NFL teams in four seasons and has thrown 50 career passes for a career rating of 55.1.

NinersDigest rank in division: 3

St. Louis Rams

Current projected 2012 starter: Sam Bradford
Backups currently on roster: A.J. Feeley, Kellen Clemens, Tom Brandstater

Unit analysis: After becoming NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year during an auspicious debut season in 2010, Bradford had a disappointing sophomore season for a variety of reasons. He and running back Steven Jackson played one game healthy together, and there was a learning curve involved in Josh McDaniels' offense without an offseason. Then, after passing for 321 yards against Green Bay in the fifth game of the season, Bradford suffered a high ankle sprain that affected him for the rest of the year. He ended up starting just 10 games, and his passer rating plummeted to 70.7 – just 30th among the NFL's 34 qualifying quarterbacks. Bradford's six touchdown passes ranked last among regular NFL starters. But his body of work as a rookie suggests that Bradford still has a promising future and the best is ahead of him. Feeley led the Rams to their signature win of the season over New Orleans, but then he suffered a broken thumb on Dec. 4 against San Francisco and missed the final four games of the season. Clemens did well, considering he didn't join the team until late November. Clemens had the Rams flirting with a season-ending upset of the 49ers, rushing for a touchdown and passing for another before getting knocked out late in the fourth quarter of San Francisco's 34-27 victory. That gave journeyman Brandstater an opportunity to throw the first two passes of his career, both of which fell incomplete during St. Louis' final offensive drive. With Feeley a free agent, the Rams have a decision to make whether to bring back both him and Clemens or just one to be Bradford's backup in 2012.

NinersDigest rank in division: 2

Seattle Seahawks

Current projected 2012 starter: Tarvaris Jackson
Backups currently on roster: Charlie Whitehurst, Josh Portis

Unit analysis: Jackson is in the final season of a two-year, $8 million deal and likely will enter the 2012 season as the team's starter. Jackson has ability but was inconsistent directing a Seattle offense that ranked just 28th in the NFL last season. He started 14 games, completing 60.2 percent of his 450 passes for 3,091 yards and 14 touchdowns to go with 13 interceptions. His passer rating of 79.2 ranked 21st in the NFL. Whitehurst has been a major disappointment for the Seahawks and was quickly yanked after being given a starting opportunity near midseason. The Seahawks relinquished a third-round draft pick to acquire Whitehurst in 2010 and then signed him to a two-year, $8 million deal, expecting he could become a quality successor to Matt Hasselbeck. The Seahawks were rewarded with Whitehurst completing just 54 percent of his throws with more interceptions than TD passes and a passer rating of 64.6 over those two seasons. Whitehurst is now a free agent and Seattle is unlikely to ask him back. The Seahawks like Portis as a developmental prospect who could potentially be the team's quarterback of the future. Seattle will look at options like Matt Flynn to improve the position through free agency, but if that option proves too expensive, the Seahawks will draft a quarterback early in the college lottery to come in and compete for the job.

NinersDigest rank in division: 4

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