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Niners QB Smith one of five players facing make-or-break season

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This is the time of year we hear universally optimistic chatter about quarterbacks spending more time working with their receivers, running backs getting in the best shape of their lives and just about every other player mentioning the need to be more committed to greatness.

Life will be far more strenuous in a few months for these players, however.

Some players have their careers and their teams at a crossroads. If they play well, like Oakland quarterback Jason Campbell, they could earn bigger contracts and elevate their teams. If they maintain on a plateau, regress or simply don't perform at a status deemed good enough by the organization, they could be replaced, and, in some cases, looking for work elsewhere. They could even cost coaches their jobs.

Let's take a look at some players who are feeling some heat:

Alex Smith, QB, 49ers:

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There are high expectations for San Francisco, with Smith the big question mark. In his five seasons, he hasn't developed playing within offensive systems seemingly miscast for his skill set. A shoulder injury in 2008 also kept him off the field. After restructuring his contract (pay cut) to remain with the team in 2009, he couldn't crack the starting lineup for the first six games. When given the chance to start, he finished 5-5 and put up solid numbers (15 TDs, 11 INTs, 2,144 yards).

San Francisco's offensive line has been upgraded and Smith has a full offseason to work with potential star WR Michael Crabtree. The 49ers won't ask Smith to be Aaron Rodgers in the passing game, but he will have to be more than a caretaker. If he falters, the backup plan is David Carr or second-year player Nate Davis. That's not overly reassuring for a team that looks pretty good in most other areas.

Should Smith play well, the 49ers could emerge as the new NFC West champs.

Matt Leinart, QB Cardinals:

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No unproven quarterback will be watched more than the guy who blew his chance to hold his starting job and opened the door for Kurt Warner to elevate himself into Hall of Fame contention. Now, Leinart has to fill in for the beloved and recently retired Warner, who took the Cardinals to unprecedented success the past two seasons. From folks I've spoken to, Leinart seemingly has matured and has shown this offseason that he's far more serious about his craft than before. He better be, because this roster is pretty solid and coach Ken Whisenhunt is one of the best in the game. The Cardinals don't want to see what they've assembled regress because of Leinart.

Arizona isn't totally sold on Leinart, as its serious flirtation with Charlie Whitehurst proved. It also signed Derek Anderson, a former starter, to challenge Leinart.

Leinart will be given marginal slack to succeed, but if Whisenhunt feels his team's recent run of success slipping because of quarterback play, Leinart could get pulled as the starter for the second time in his brief career. From that point, he could be viewed as a career backup, like Joey Harrington or Carr.

David Garrard, QB, Jacksonville:

Things began to simmer around the time of the 2009 NFL Draft when there was plenty of talk about the Jags making a play for Mark Sanchez or Josh Freeman. After another unsuccessful run at the playoffs by Jacksonville last year, Garrard is in a make-or-break year. He has even admitted as much.

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Garrard was decent in 2009 (61 percent completion rate, 3,597 yards, 15 TDs, 10 INTs) behind a young offensive line that surrendered 42 sacks, but what really put him on the ropes was his marginal output during a four-game losing skid to end the season. He failed to throw for more than 223 yards in any of those games, and had just five touchdown passes with four interceptions as the Jaguars stumbled to last place in the AFC South at 7-9.

With coach Jack Del Rio in need of competing for the playoffs to possibly retain his job, the Jags' coaching staff has been speaking very highly of backup Luke McCown. Whether they are trying to motivate Garrard, or set the table for a possible change, it's clear he is under pressure to perform this year.

Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland:

The Raiders have already dispatched a No. 1 overall pick in quarterback JaMarcus Russell, so anyone who has underachieved, like McFadden, should feel comfortable. McFadden has been bothered by injuries and a shaky offensive line during his first two seasons, but the Raiders are clearly expecting a better return from the No. 4 overall pick in 2008.

In two seasons, McFadden has just 217 carries and 856 rushing yards. For comparison sakes, Dallas' Tashard Choice, a fourth-round pick taken in the same draft as McFadden, has 156 carries for 821 yards -- and he's the third-string tailback.

Oakland has not given up on McFadden, who is incredibly gifted but clearly an enigma, yet. If he can provide the big-play production that he's capable of, the Raiders could be a team to reckon with. Should he continue to stagnate, however, he might be on the street after the season.

Bob Sanders, S, Colts:

Sanders doesn't necessarily have to have a big season. He simply needs to get on the field and contribute. The 2007 Defensive Player of the Year missed all but two games in 2009 after an arm injury and the Colts went to the Super Bowl without him.

Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt formed a solid safety tandem, but if Sanders were able to return to anything like the player he once was, he could be a huge help. If he can't get it done, can't get on the field, or can't stay healthy once he does, it will likely be time for Indianapolis to cut its losses and part way with a player who has played just eight games the past two seasons because of injuries.

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