Projected 2012 starter: Alex Smith
Other QBs currently in camp: Colin Kaepernick, Josh Johnson, Scott Tolzien
Unit analysis: Smith made the most of his latest last-chance opportunity with the Niners in 2011, emerging under new coach Jim Harbaugh as an efficient and capable leader of the offense. After finishing ninth among NFL quarterbacks last year with a career-best 90.7 passer rating, Smith enters training camp this year as the clear starter, particularly after standing out amongst his competition during a strong spring during which Harbaugh continually praised Smith's progress. Harbaugh squelched any notion of a quarterback competition early in the offseason, and Smith proved deserving of his coach's faith. Smith still has plenty to prove as far as taking his game – and his team – to the next level, and he has some quality young competitors with potential behind him. Smith threw just five interceptions last season – fewest among regular NFL QBs – and he looked even more comfortable in the system of Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman this spring. Smith's had career-best passing numbers in almost every category while completing 273 of 445 passes (61.3 percent) for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns. Plenty of competition exists between the other three, not only to back up Smith but also for the third spot. Kaepernick has the most raw talent of the three – he may have the most physical talent of any QB on the roster – but he also is the most volatile in his performance and must continue to refine his game. Tolzien really came on at the end of the offseason and Johnson is a natural thrower who needs to distance himself from his Tampa Bay experience. His experience with Harbaugh in college when both were at the University of San Diego is a plus. The 49ers have said all spring that they have four quarterbacks who will play in the NFL for a long time on their roster, and that should provide some lively competition since the team almost certainly will only keep three because of its other roster constraints. After Sam Bradford's step back in St. Louis last year, and the unproven QB situations in both Arizona and Seattle, it's fair to suggest the 49ers have stepped to the front of the class among NFC West quarterbacks.
NinersDigest rank in division: 1
Projected 2012 starter: Kevin Kolb
Other QBs currently in camp: John Skelton, Rich Bartel, Ryan Lindley
Unit analysis: The expensive trade for Kolb hasn't worked out yet for the Cardinals, but they retain hope that it will. Kolb was a considerable disappointment in his first season with the team after Arizona relinquished a second-round draft pick and Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to acquire him from the Philadelphia Eagles last year. Kolb, practically given the starting job to begin the season, won only three times in nine starts and regressed after a solid start. He struggled to buy time in the pocket and also with his accuracy, finishing 17th among NFL quarterbacks with an 81.1 passer rating. Kolb's 57.7 completion percentage also was the lowest among the league's top 17 QBs. Arizona's pursuit of Peyton Manning in the offseason suggests this surely is a make-or-break season for Kolb in Arizona, and there now are legitimate questions about his inconsistency and health issues. Skelton went 5-2 as a starter last year – including an upset victory over the 49ers in December – and he shows composure and creativity in bringing the team from behind. But he also had the advantage of starting at a time when the defense was playing very well. Kolb never had that. The Cards, however, finished 7-2 in games in which Skelton played. Skelton finished near the bottom of the NFL passer rankings with a rating of just 68.9, mainly because he threw 14 interceptions against 11 TD passes. The numbers of Kolb (146 completions, 1,955 passing yards) and Skelton (151 completions, 1,913 yards) were very similar in other areas. Bartel is very smart and will make an excellent coach one day. He is just hoping for a chance to play and must hold off Lindley for a roster spot. The Cardinals took a sixth-round flyer in the draft on Lindley, an intriguing 6-foot-4, 230-pound slinger. He has a strong arm and the Cards like his makeup, making him a legitimate challenger for the No. 3 job.
NinersDigest rank in division: 4
St. Louis Rams
Projected 2012 starter: Sam Bradford
Other QBs currently in camp: Kellen Clemens, Tom Brandstater, Austin Davis
Unit analysis: After his auspicious rookie season, when Bradford was everybody's choice as NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, the No. 1 selection of the 2010 draft appeared poised to be the NFC West's QB king for many years to come. But his injury-marred sophomore season bordered on disaster as the Rams fell apart around him and Bradford's completion percentage fell to 53.5 – worst among NFC starters – and his passer rating fell to 70.5, among the very worst of regular NFL starters. A high ankle sprain suffered in Week 5 affected Bradford for the rest of the season, and he played in only 10 games. But his poised rookie season suggests he has the ability to be elite if he has quality personnel around him. Bradford's underwhelming 2011 totals included 191 completions in 357 attempts for 2,164 yards and just six touchdowns. Bradford now enters his third season in the league learning his third offensive system. He had been hoping to have the same system last season after being successful as a rookie under coordinator Pat Shurmur. Little did he know that the Josh McDaniels 2011 system would also last just one season. Bradford says he is getting comfortable with new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's system, but putting it into action in game situations is different from offseason workouts. Most important is that Bradford should be over the ankle sprain that sabotaged his 2011 season, and he is counting on stability in the offensive line, the return of receiver Danny Amendola from injury, and for some young receivers to make an immediate impact. Clemens was solid last season coming in late and to a difficult situation, including a solid performance in the season finale against the 49ers. He has experience with Schottenheimer's offense while with the Jets, and that should help Bradford. Brandstater's experience would seemingly give him the leg up on the No. 3 job, but Davis, an undrafted free agent, won't give up without a fight. Bradford still could very well by the best QB in the division, but after last year, now he has to prove it all over again. And the backup situation behind him is underwhelming at best.
NinersDigest rank in division: 2
Projected 2012 starter: Tarvaris Jackson
Other QBs currently in camp: Matt Flynn, Russell Wilson, Josh Portis
Unit analysis: Coach Pete Carroll said that incumbent starter Jackson will get the first-unit reps to begin training camp, but Seattle didn't sign Flynn to a three-year, $19 million deal to sit the bench. Flynn, Jackson and rookie Wilson will continue to split reps with the first unit, but expect the team to make a decision on which player will be the starting quarterback by the end of the second preseason game in Denver. Carroll has said that money will not factor into his decision, but it's hard to believe with Flynn making $8 million in total compensation this season that he will not be the starter at some point this season. Flynn, obviously, is unproven in that role after backing up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, so it is uncertain what kind of player he can actually be. Jackson was 7-7 as the starter in his first season in Seattle last year, playing most of the season with a torn pectoral muscle on the throwing side of his body, which earned him respect for his toughness. Even with the injury, Jackson was solid over the second half of the season, finishing 5-3 with an 85.7 passer rating and proving to be a much more viable option than the disappointing Charlie Whitehurst, whom the Seahawks showed no interest in re-signing. But Jackson threw nearly as many interceptions (13) as touchdown passes (14) and the Seahawks ranked among the bottom third of the NFL in most passing categories, with Jackson finishing a distant 21st among the league's qualifying QBs with a passer rating of 79.2. Flynn has a limited body of work, but in his two pro starts, he completed 68 percent of his passes for 731 yards with nine TDs and just two interceptions. Portis is an explosive athlete with a strong arm, but he faces an uphill battle to remain on the roster after Seattle invested a third-round draft pick in Wilson this spring.
NinersDigest rank in division: 3