After his brilliant debut season with the Rams in 2010 – when he was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year – Sam Bradford appeared to establish himself as the king of QBs in the division for many years to come, particularly with no other front-line starters distinguishing themselves among the NFC West’s other three teams.
That no longer appears to be the case.
After taking over as the starter near midseason, Kaepernick was electric as San Francisco’s quarterback, taking the 49ers all the way to Super Bowl XLVII and within five yards of winning it. Wilson had a similar kind of impact in Seattle.
The Seahawks forked out some considerable cash to sign free-agent Matt Flynn as their presumptive starter last year, but Wilson came in as a third-round draft pick and won that job before the season started. Then he came on strong over the second half of the season to take the Seahawks to the playoffs and within a few plays of the NFC Championship Game.
Bradford bounced back from an injury-plagued sophomore season to lead the NFC West with 3,702 yards passing last season, but he has seemed to settle into a pattern as a good – but not necessarily great or difference-making – QB after his auspicious rookie season.
In Arizona, the position is in disarray after the Cardinals started four different quarterbacks last year during a 5-11 season of regression.
Here’s the breakdown of the NFC West’s quarterbacks after the first major wave of free agency as teams begin establishing their 2013 rosters with the NFL draft a month away:
Current projected 2013 starter: Colin Kaepernick
Backups currently on roster: Scott Tolzien
Unit analysis: Alex Smith had the best season of any NFC West quarterback in 2011, moving the 49ers near the top of the division at the position. Then Smith got off to an even better start in 2012, leading the NFL in completion percentage and ranking among the league leaders in passer rating before a concussion put him on the sidelines in Week 10 against St. Louis. That gave an opening for Kaepernick to get on the field as a regular, and the second-year pro literally took the opportunity and ran with it. Kaepernick had an auspicious starting debut before a national Monday night television audience to lead a rout over a 7-2 Chicago team, and he never slowed down the rest of the season while taking the 49ers to a second consecutive NFC West title and No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Amid the universal glare and high pressure of the playoffs, Kaepernick shined brightly, setting an NFL record for quarterbacks with 181 yards rushing in a divisional victory over Green Bay, a game in which he also passed for 263 yards and accounted for four total touchdowns. His ability to run the read option and the threat he possesses with both his quick feet and strong arm gives Kaepernick the potential to become an elite NFL QB at the age of 25. After everything he has gone through in San Francisco after the team made him the No. 1 selection of the 2005 NFL draft, the 49ers never really considered keeping Smith around as a (likely unhappy) backup to Kaepernick, trading Smith to Kansas City earlier this month for draft picks. That leaves the 49ers searching for backup competition for Tolzien, who looked good in the preseason last year but doesn’t have the skill set to run the kind of offense the 49ers are evolving toward with Kaepernick at the controls. Tolzien has yet to throw a regular-season pass after two NFL seasons, and the Niners are likely to add both a veteran and youngster to their new QB mix before training camp begins in July.
NinersDigest rank in division: 1
Current projected 2013 starter: Undetermined
Quarterbacks currently on roster: Brian Hoyer, John Skelton, Drew Stanton, Ryan Lindley
Unit analysis: Arizona’s quarterback situation is in such shambles that the Cardinals literally don’t know who their starter will be entering training camp, more less the 2013 season. The Cards unceremoniously released Kevin Kolb on March 15, just two years after they gave him big money as a free agent to come in and potentially become a franchise quarterback. Kolb was productive when healthy during his first season with the team, but he missed 13 games to injury in his two Arizona seasons and obviously wasn’t the solution last season as the team sent out three other QBs as a starter besides Kolb. None of them were very effective, and it’s possible two of them won’t return. Skelton had three chances to win the starting job but had accuracy problems and finished with a 55.4 passer rating. Lindley – a 2012 sixth-round draft pick – showed flashes of potential but had a 46.7 rating with some horrid outings during his shot. It got so bad for the Cards that they picked up Hoyer off the free-agent scrap heap late in the season, and he started the season finale against the 49ers. Hoyer, who finished with a 65.8 rating in 53 pass attempts with Arizona, showed the Cards enough for them to retain him with a one-year, $2.023 million tender as a restricted free agent. But no holdover QB on this roster should feel comfortable, and the Cards immediately addressed their future at the position by signing Indianapolis backup Drew Stanton to a three-year, $8.2 million deal in free agency with $3 million guaranteed. That means Stanton likely will get the first shot to be the team’s new starter under new coach Bruce Arians – who coached Stanton with the Colts – but Arizona is likely to select another quarterback high in the upcoming draft, possibly with the team’s No. 7 overall pick in the first round.
NinersDigest rank in division: 4
St. Louis Rams
Current projected 2013 starter: Sam Bradford
Backups currently on roster: Kellen Clemens, Austin Davis
Unit analysis: Bradford bounced back from his injury-plagued 2011 season with a solid performance last year that helped the Rams bounce back to a respectable 7-8-1 finish in new coach Steve Fisher’s first season with the team. That included a division-best 4-1-1 record in NFC West games, with the Rams going 1-0-1 against the 49ers. Bradford was productive during that resurgence, completing 328 of 551 passes for 3,702 yards and 21 touchdowns with 13 interceptions to finish 18th among NFL quarterbacks with a passer rating of 82.6. That’s not bad, but the Rams expect – and probably need – more from Bradford after he became the last of the overall No. 1 picks in the draft to hit the jackpot with his contract in 2010, then raised hopes with his standout rookie season. After the success last season of rookies Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III – a player the Rams could have drafted had they kept the No. 2 overall pick last year – Bradford’s play becomes even more scrutinized and the expectations for him and pressure on him remain high. Bradford was learning his third offense in three seasons last year, however, and he could easily emerge as the division’s best once he becomes comfortable and secure in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer’s system. Clemens took just one snap last season, but his familiarity with Schottenheimer’s offense helped Bradford, whom Clemens strongly supported. Clemens remains an unrestricted free agent, but he has established himself as a solid backup during the past two seasons in St. Louis – he had a strong performance against the 49ers in the 2011 season finale – and he is expected to return to St. Louis on another one-year contract. Davis, an undrafted rookie free agent last year, showed some promise in the preseason and could be back for another look.
NinersDigest rank in division: 3
Current projected 2013 starter: Russell Wilson
Backups currently on roster: Matt Flynn
Unit analysis: After his stunning rookie campaign, it’s all about Russell Wilson in Seattle. Following a lukewarm start, Wilson ended up having a fabulous first season with the Seahawks, and if it weren’t for the standout debut seasons enjoyed by Andrew Luck in Indianapolis and Robert Griffin III in Washington – the top two picks of the 2012 draft – Wilson would have been a strong choice for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Wilson was a big surprise and huge bargain for the Seahawks, who drafted him in the third round last year expecting to groom him as a backup to Flynn. Instead, Wilson won the starting job in training camp and developed into a legitimate playmaker who carried the Seahawks to an 11-5 finish and within a whisker of the 49ers for the NFC West title. Wilson finished an impressive fourth among NFL quarterbacks with a passer rating of 100.0, completing 64.1 percent of his throws for 3,118 yards and 26 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. He also finished third among NFL quarterbacks with 489 yards and four TDs rushing and was particularly elusive down the stretch and during the playoffs, when Wilson led the Seahawks over Washington in a first-round game and within seconds of an upset over No. 1 seed Atlanta the next week. Wilson is under contract on a four-year, $3 million deal and is scheduled to make just $526,217 in base salary this season, which gives the Seahawks plenty of flexibility to address their situation at the position behind him. Flynn – who was signed to a three-year, $19.5 million deal last year as a free agent with the full expectation he’d become the team’s starter – is still owed $2 million guaranteed after making $8 million in total compensation for holding a clipboard behind Wilson last year. Flynn is still a young and promising prospect at the position, and Seattle general manager John Schneider is listening to trade offers, with CBSSports.com recently reporting that the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills are “in the mix” to acquire Flynn from the Seahawks. But with Wilson’s low cap figure and Flynn scheduled to make $5.25 million in base salary in 2013, Schneider and the Seahawks are under no pressure to move Flynn. And if they do, that would leave them with no quarterback on their current roster other than Wilson. Whether Flynn remains with the team or not, the Seahawks will look to add to their roster a more athletic quarterback with a similar skill set to Wilson.
NinersDigest rank in division: 2