How I See It: NFC West Stock Watch

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Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando



1. Shaun Hill, QB, 49ers. The 49ers are following a familiar pattern here. A year ago, J.T. O'Sullivan started the first eight games before newly named interim coach Mike Singletary benched him for Hill. Hill lasted seven weeks this season before Singletary made the move to Alex Smith. If Smith plays reasonably well but not great down the stretch, the 49ers could enter the 2010 season in the same spot they found themselves heading into this season -- feeling OK about their quarterback situation in the short term, but not longer. Hill wasn't entirely to blame for the 49ers' problems on offense, of course. He wasn't the solution, either. Hill has proved he can lead the 49ers to victory when the team plays games on its terms. But continued problems on the offensive line were making the 49ers too predictable, exposing Hill's limitations.


2. Billy Devaney, general manager, Rams. Midseason is generally a bit early for team executives to start appearing in stock watches. Their work is best measured over the longer term, and Devaney is still in the early stages of a massive rebuilding project. Still, it was a bad week for him. The Rams traded veteran linebacker Will Witherspoon, weakening their defense in the short term, and Witherspoon repaid them with a monster performance for the Eagles on "Monday Night Football." Witherspoon returned an interception for a touchdown, forced a fumble and sacked Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell in his Eagles debut. Receiver Brandon Gibson, acquired from Philadelphia in the Witherspoon trade, wasn't active for the Rams in Week 7 even though Devaney said he expected immediate contributions. Again, the one-week mark isn't time to evaluate trades, but this wasn't a good week to be the Rams' GM.


3. Marc Bulger, QB, Rams. Two second-half interceptions against the Colts helped turn a 21-6 deficit into a 42-6 blowout as the Rams fell to 0-7. Bulger completed 14 of 26 passes for 140 yards and no touchdowns. He took three sacks and the Colts laid him out on a few other plays. This was supposed to be the season when a restored offensive line gave Bulger the time he needed to rejuvenate his career. Instead, the line still has issues and Bulger lacks the receivers he needs exploit defenses. It's a dispiriting combination. The longer this goes on, the more it seems as though Bulger will have to continue his career elsewhere. It's just not working in St. Louis.


1. The Cardinals in general. I couldn't single out one player as the key to Arizona's eye-opening victory over the Giants in the Meadowlands. That was the best part of this victory from the Cardinals' perspective. It was a team effort all the way and a potentially transforming victory for coach Ken Whisenhunt. Arizona has won its last four road games, counting playoffs, and six of eight dating to a 34-13 victory at St. Louis in Week 9 last season. Rookie Beanie Wells made strides toward providing the needed balance to the Cardinals' offense. The last couple of weeks have also given first-year defensive coordinator Bill Davis something to build around. Even third-year nose tackle Alan Branch is turning into an effective player.


2. Alex Smith, QB, 49ers. Three second-half touchdown passes against the Texans made Smith an easy choice to replace Hill as the 49ers' starter until further notice. The past few years have tested Smith on and off the field. I get the sense he has emerged in a better place. That doesn't necessarily mean Smith will pick up where he left off against the Texans (minus that desperation interception on fourth down to end the 49ers' final rally). But it's clear the 49ers' offense needed to change something. Smith appeared relaxed, decisive and in control while completing 15 of 22 passes for 206 yards. The 49ers will be eager to see him develop more of a rapport with rookie first-round draft choice Michael Crabtree.


3. Vernon Davis, TE, 49ers. A career-high and team-record three touchdown receptions against the Texans left Davis with six in seven games this season. The 49ers have overhauled Davis' role. They are sending him into pass routes more regularly and building him into the passing game. Davis spent much of last season serving as a glorified offensive tackle for Mike Martz's pass-oriented offense. Davis has proven to be a difficult matchup for safeties and linebackers down the middle of the field. He stands as the biggest success story of the Singletary era in San Francisco. Adding Crabtree to the offense should give defenses more to think about in the passing game. If only the 49ers could protect the quarterback more consistently.