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Tough keeping NFC West QBs in one piece

Alex Smith had a sturdier look to him upon reporting for San Francisco 49ers training camp last season.

That was my first impression while watching Smith walk toward an interview podium between practices.

One of the quarterback's best friends on the team, left tackle Joe Staley, was standing nearby. I mentioned something about Smith's guns and Staley, ever the jokester, used the opportunity to tease Smith, striking body-building poses from a distance while Smith answered questions at a podium.

It's tough to say whether Smith was actually sturdier, but he did start all 16 games in a regular season for the first time since 2006. He started two playoff games as well. Smith's body held up through 18 starts, 51 sacks and 59 rushing attempts.

Other NFC West quarterbacks weren't as fortunate.

With Dan Graziano taking a closer look at Michael Vick's injuries, I decided to revisit the ones affecting NFC West passers in 2011, with special attention toward whether they could have been avoided.

  • Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams: Bradford suffered a season-altering high-ankle sprain on the Rams' final offensive play during a 24-3 defeat at Green Bay. Why would the Rams risk injury by having Bradford drop back to pass on fourth-and-12 during the final minutes of a blowout defeat? This was a fair question at the time. We could use this injury to argue that coaches need to protect their indispensable players when a game is out of reach. However, the Rams' offense was moving the ball effectively that day, finishing with 424 yards. Bradford had played every snap of every game the previous season, answering questions about durability. The Rams took possession near midfield with 5:37 remaining. It was too early to give up.

  • Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks: Jackson suffered a season-altering torn pectoral injury during an 11-yard scramble against the New York Giants in Week 5. Designed quarterback runs can keep a defense off-balance. Smith and the 49ers proved a well-timed keeper can change field position and swing momentum in the postseason. We could argue that Jackson should have done more to protect himself during the run against the Giants, but I thought the Seahawks' coaching staff took an undue risk in this situation. The Seattle offense had come to life against Atlanta the previous week, but with Jackson ailing, the Seahawks lost their next three games, failing to exceed 13 points in any of them. That stretch might have cost Seattle a winning record.

  • Kevin Kolb, Arizona Cardinals: Kolb suffered a turf-toe injury during a Week 8 game at Baltimore. He stayed in the game, making it unclear exactly when he suffered the injury. Kolb was under pressure frequently, however. Pass protection was a problem. Kolb eventually returned, only to suffer a concussion during a Week 14 game against San Francisco. Kolb took an inadvertent knee to the helmet. These could have been fluke injuries. In general, though, Kolb would benefit from improved pass protection and better pocket instincts.

Jackson and Kolb have competition for their jobs this year.

New Seahawks quarterback Matt Flynn hasn't played enough to demonstrate durability one way or another. His ratio of pass attempts (115) to sacks (12) over the last two seasons was about 9.6 to one, between those for Kolb (8.4) and Smith (10.1) last season.

Kolb's competition, John Skelton, appears durable. He's the biggest starting quarterback candidate in the division at 6-foot-6 and 244 pounds.