With old age ahead of him and youth nipping at his heels, Marc Bulger's time is now.
The St. Louis Rams
— signal caller has been one of the NFL
's most consistent quarterbacks over the past four seasons, but has led the Rams to only one division title and one playoff victory in that span.
With the NFC West in limbo and one of the most talented offenses in football at his disposal, Bulger needs to make his move in 2007.
In his own division, Bulger finds himself surrounded by quality quarterbacks on every team. Seattle
's Matt Hasselbeck has owned the West for the past three years. San Francisco
's Alex Smith and Arizona
's Matt Leinart are budding stars and the faces of their respective franchises.
Bulger, by contrast, seems to ply his trade in near anonymity, putting up great numbers every season without being recognized as a star quarterback.
If he's ever going to get noticed, this is the year.
Hasselbeck's play dropped off considerably after he suffered a knee injury last season. Leinart and Smith are at least a year away from being legitimate NFL stars.
That leaves Bulger as the premier quarterback in the division.
2006 was a revelation for the former West Virginia Mountaineer. The switch to new head coach Scott Linehan's balanced offense could have exposed Bulger as a product of Mike Martz's aerial circus. Instead, he finished among the top 10 in the league in every meaningful statistical category: passer rating, yards, touchdowns, and completion percentage.
Only Peyton Manning
and Drew Brees
threw for more yards, and Bulger set a Rams record for fewest interceptions in a season.
Bulger is tough, smart, and cool under pressure. And the scary news for Rams opponents in 2007 is that the offense was only just starting to click at the end of last season.
After a shutout loss to Carolina
in Week 11, the Rams scored more than 20 points in each of their remaining games, and finished their schedule with three straight wins. In 2007, Bulger and his stable of talent could form the NFL's best offensive unit.
The Rams have the division's top back in Steven Jackson, whose bruising, high-stepping style belies his soft hands and dangerous receiving ability.
Jackson is, simply, fantastic.
At wide receiver, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce keep on ticking. Both are in their 30s, but Holt remains one of the league's best, and Bruce is a solid number-two.
Ex-Titan Drew Bennett was brought in during the offseason to replace Shaun McDonald and Kevin Curtis, both lost in free agency. Bennett and new TE Randy McMichael will upgrade the receiving corps substantially.
The offensive line will benefit from the healthy return of Orlando Pace and the continued development of OT Alex Barron. Losing G Adam Timmerman will not be too big a blow if Richie Incognito can play well in his stead.
For all their offensive prowess, though, the Rams learned last year that they can't win without a better effort from their defense.
Jim Haslett's unit finished 23rd in the NFL—and spent a busy offseason ensuring that it won't happen again.
First-round draft pick Adam Carriker should start immediately on the defensive line, and DE James Hall, acquired in a trade with Detroit
, will help take pressure off veteran pass rusher Leonard Little.
Chris Draft, meanwhile, was brought in to challenge Brandon Chillar for playing time at outside linebacker. Free agent additions Mike Rumph, Lenny Walls, and Todd Johnson should all provide quality depth in the secondary.
Bulger and the Rams have spent the last three years looking up at Seattle in the NFC West, and they may spend the next three looking up at Arizona or San Francisco. That's why 2007 is so important for them.
Provided the fixes on defense work—and barring any major injuries—St. Louis should come out on top in one of the NFL's toughest divisions.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Projected finish: 10-6, 1st NFC West
Keep your eyes on: MLB Will Witherspoon—Kept the defense from being much worse than it was.
Take your eyes off: DT Jimmy Kennedy—The Jamie Kennedy of NFL defensive tackles.