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Who Is Ready to Join the Elite?
September 03, 2007
THE CASE FOR . . . MATT LEINART
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September 03, 2007

Who Is Ready To Join The Elite?

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THE CASE FOR . . . MATT LEINART

With Leinart, the real question is his offensive line. When his blockers protected him last year, Leinart did well. In October, his first month on the job, Leinart was sacked 13 times in five games and had a dismal 66.9 passer rating. But over the final six games Leinart was sacked just seven times and his passer rating jumped almost 20 points. (In one of those games, against the Vikings, he threw for an NFL rookie-record 405 yards.) The encouraging news for Leinart is that in 2007 his line should be stronger. Arizona added veteran free agents Al Johnson (center) and Mike Gandy (left tackle) and used the No.�5 pick on Penn State's Levi Brown (right tackle). More important, the Cards hired Pittsburgh offensive line guru Russ Grimm. Those moves should solidify Leinart as a viable starting QB this season. --A.D.

. . . ALEX SMITH

He's come a long way from his one-TD, 11-interception rookie season, but the No.�1 pick in the 2005 draft, who threw 16 touchdowns and 16 picks last year, is still a work in progress--more David Carr than Peyton Manning. Smith shows signs of being ready to break out, however. Like Philip Rivers in '06, Smith has a workhorse running back who can catch passes ( Frank Gore had 61 receptions last year) and a tough-to-cover tight end ( Vernon Davis). If Darrell Jackson can stay healthy, Smith will have a more reliable first receiver than Rivers did last year in San Diego. The real plus for Smith is that the Niners' schedule includes the five worst pass defenses of '06. The conditions are ripe for him to make that great leap forward. --J.Q.

. . . JAY CUTLER

Called on to start the last five games of Denver's playoff drive in '06, Cutler, in his eagerness to make plays, relied too much on his rocket arm and his athleticism. The result: He threw five interceptions and fumbled eight times, losing two of them. In '07 a more prepared and experienced Cutler should cut down on his mistakes. But what will really help him is the addition of tight end Daniel Graham from the Pats, wideout Brandon Stokley from the Colts and running back Travis Henry from the Titans. With those players and Denver's always-solid offensive line, the Broncos will field one of the league's most balanced attacks. The supporting cast is the best reason to believe Cutler's first full season as a starter will be a good one.-- David Epstein

. . . JASON CAMPBELL

O.K., so the Redskins' Campbell was just passable in the seven games he started at the end of '06, but give him a chance. Though he completed only 53.1% of his passes, he still threw 10 TDs against six picks, and those numbers figure to improve now that he has had another summer to immerse himself in Al Saunders's offense and entered camp as the unquestioned starter. You have to like his weapons: He's got two 1,000-yard runners in Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, a 1,000-yard receiver in Santana Moss, and one of the league's most productive tight ends in Chris Cooley. And Campbell can move the sticks with his legs--he ran for eight first downs last year. At worst he'll be a solid backup. --Andrew Lawrence


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