In today's News & Notes: Seattle's receiver corps continues its redefinition; the Cardinals expect…
NFC West Quarterback Rankings
The highly competitive NFC West features four quarterbacks whose teams' ultimate fortunes are tied to their individual successes. Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck is an eight-year veteran signal caller, originally selected by the Packers in the sixth-round of the 1998 NFL Draft, who has defied long odds to develop into a more than respectable NFL quarterback. The son of a former NFL tight end with the New England Patriots (Don) and brother of the Giants backup quarterback (Tim), seemingly lacks top physical skills for the position and was not highly ranked or regarded as a collegiate player. But he has improved with each professional season, culminating with his leading the Seahawks during a 21-10 Super Bowl XL loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's gutsy, tough and smart -- with solid short and intermediate throwing skills. He doesn't lose his composure in the heat of battle and has shown the ability to come back from adversity. His 2006 season was marred by injuries to his right knee (missed five games) and ribs, and he also suffered three broken fingers to his non-throwing hand. But in spite of the injuries, he was still able to lead the Seahawks to their second consecutive NFC West divisional title. The question heading into the 2007 season is whether or not the two-time Pro Bowl selection peaked? Or will he continue to make strides at the position? It's anyone's guess, but I really like his makeup and overall game. (Getty Images) San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith was the first player selected in the 2005 player draft, and on paper has every quality necessary to become a top NFL quarterback. But the reality of the situation is that with two seasons in the books, he has been a dismal failure and has not come close to what was expected of him as a junior-eligible selection out of the University of Utah. Few players in my 34 years of scouting have generated as much controversy in our draft meeting as Alex Smith. And this particular difference actually led to my having to restrain a colleague from engaging in fisticuffs with another scout! The 49ers have made a huge financial commitment to Smith and are not about to give up on this player any time soon. But it is imperative for a player entering his third season to begin to show substantial improvement and on-the-field progress. Alex is an extremely bright individual, was an accurate thrower working primarily out of the gun at the college level, and has enough mobility and quickness to make the necessary time in the pocket. But his arm strength appeared to be just adequate, he does not seemingly have the confidence to work vertically down the field, was careless at times with the football, and showed a tendency to hold the ball. The 49ers have made some great strides from a personnel standpoint over the last two seasons and again appear poised to return to their past glories, but this resurrection lies squarely upon the right arm of Alex Smith. Today, I see a quarterback with a great deal of physical potential, but the words of the aforementioned respected Rams talent evaluator still ring clearly in my mind. "He is without question a product of the system and in my mind the second coming of Rick Mirer," he said. (Getty Images) Former 2004 Heisman winner, Matt Leinart, enters his second year poised to lead the Cardinals to a place they have seldom seen over the last three decades -- the NFC playoff picture. I thought the big rookie southpaw made great strides after replacing former league MVP Kurt Warner in the fourth game of the 2006 season. Like all rookies, he at times looked overmatched and confused, but when one looks at the big picture, you see a player who appeared to improve with each passing game. I particularly liked his efforts in three Cardinal losses to Chicago, Kansas City, and Minnesota and his showings in late-season victories versus division rivals St. Louis, Seattle, and San Francisco. He's poised, patient, intelligent, and an accurate thrower with good downfield vision. I also believe strongly that with a new system in place and a full offseason of instruction, Matt's game should improve immensely from where it was at a similar stage in 2006. Like Alex Smith, Leinart does not possess a top arm, body quickness, and his overall mobility is at best adequate. But I see good things ahead for both this player and the upstart Cardinals football club. If he can stay healthy, and come out of the box quickly, he and his club might well be the surprise of the 2007 season. (Getty Images) I've saved the best for last. Marc Bulger of the St. Louis Rams is without question the superstar that nobody knows. My last official act as a pro scout before leaving the Saints to join the Rams was getting the Saints to draft this unassuming University of West Virginia product, who in spite of an injury-plagued senior season, I had rated as a second-round selection for the 2000 player draft. Based on his junior year performance (3607 yards and 31 TD passes), I actually saw the Pittsburgh native as a possible top-round selection, and was totally shocked when he was still available to the Saints in the sixth-round at pick No. 168! After failing to appear in any preseason game, he was unceremoniously released by the Saints. And hopefully due to my unrelenting prodding, was signed by the Rams for the 2001 season. I've been doing this for a very long time, and have been around some solid NFL performers, but I have got to tell you I've never been around one with the skills of Marc Robert Bulger. And I'm not alone with my opinion of him. No less than Mike Martz, the most skilled offensive mind in the game today, told me in 2005 that Marc is the very best quarterback he has ever been around in all the years he has coached at the professional level. Bulger's accuracy is uncanny and his throwing release is on a level with the very best that have ever played this game. He's extremely bright with a great understanding of the game of football. If I were to compare him to a signal-caller from the past, I guess the closest comparison would be to former 49er-great and fellow western Pennsylvania product, Joe Montana. Another quality that will probably surprise even the most astute football fans about the Central Catholic High School product (the same high school that produced the great Dan Marino), is that he is a fierce competitor. No, you will never see him run 60 yards down the field into the waiting arms of a wide receiver, nor will you see him leap into the stands. But believe me when I tell you that between the lines, Bulger is one stone-cold killer, who will do anything in his power to beat you. His playing demeanor is surprisingly similar to that of former female tennis great Chris Evert (another baby-faced assassin). One final word on Bulger. Aside from his quarterback skills, he is also one of the true class acts in the game today and hails from a great family. His grandfather and dad were both former NFL players, sister Katie was drafted in the WNBA while younger sister Meg (a senior at WVU) is considered one of the top women's basketball players in the country, and older brother Jim was considered on of the top collegiate golfers in the country during his undergraduate years at Notre Dame. In 2006, despite throwing for 4,301 yards, 24 TDs and only 8 interceptions, Marc was sacked a career-high 49 times. And if the Rams do not improve significantly in that area, that statistic alone could spell doom for a squad that -- on paper -- appears to be the odds-on favorite to capture the NFC West division. NFC West Quarterback Rankings 1. Marc Bulger, St. Louis Rams 2. Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks 3. Matt Leinart, Arizona Cardinals 4. Alex Smith, San Francisco 49ers Tom Marino has over 35 years of experience as a professional scout working for the NFL's Bears, Saints, Rams, Giants and Cowboys along with both the WFL and USFL. As Scout.com's Lead NFL Analyst, he has primary responsibility for network reporting, the NFL Draft, Free Agency databases and rankings.
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