Not a year goes by in the NFL where a significant amount of teams head into the offseason with a need at quarterback. Typically, the primary place to fill that need is in the draft because it's so incredibly rare that a franchise QB is available as a free agent.
The fact that Peyton Manning was last year may be the first time it's ever happened. Drew Brees hit free agency once, but when he left San Diego he wasn't seen as the kind of player he is now.
This is what makes Alex Smith so intriguing. He clearly seems above the likes of Matt Flynn, who was a free agent last season. Michael Vick will likely be a free agent this offseason, but would you take him over Smith? Tough to say. I wouldn't.
Smith has actually had success as a starter in this league and seems to be hitting his prime. Prior to getting hurt this year and then getting Wally Pipp'd by Colin Kaepernick, Smith was completing over 70% of his passes and thrown for 13 TDs against just 5 picks (over 10 games).
He really looked good. And he looked good last season as well. He had a QB rating of 90.7, completed over 60 passes and his TD/INT was 17/5.
The 49ers are in an interesting position with him. He's set to make $8.5 million next year, so keeping him as a backup is basically out of the question. Reports today suggest that he wants out as well. So unless Kaepernick shreds his ACL next Sunday... Smith is gone from San Francisco.
The question is what will be his route out. He wants an outright release so he can be a free agent. Obviously that's the best move for him because he can possibly get a bidding war started and/or pick the best situation for him. And by the way, given his experience in the spread offense from college, that could very well be here.
But for the 49ers, he's an asset that they'll hope to get something in return for. Problem is, his contract may severely limit the market for him. He's guaranteed $1 million next year, so that will be on the 49ers cap whether they trade him or not. After April 1st, his full $8.5 million becomes guaranteed. So the 49ers have to deal him before then (before the draft) and find a team willing to take that contract.
If teams know the Niners can't hold onto him after April 1, it's hard to see why they'd pull the trigger on a trade before then. Not when they could get him for a lower cap number and with no compensation going the other way.
He's an interesting option. He'll be 29 years old next year, which isn't that old for a QB. He's never really looked like a franchise QB, but he has been on an upward trend and at the very least has shown himself to be an efficient guy who can play within in a system. He's more athletic than people realize and he's familiar with the concepts of Chip Kelly's offense.
If Kelly really doesn't see Foles as the guy and doesn't see this year's QB class as the one to find a signal caller, Smith could really be a solid option. And his contract and age probably wouldn't prevent them from targeting one of the promising crop of athletic QBs next season.