The San Francisco 49ers reportedly agreed to trade Alex Smith to an unknown team. Who will acquire Smith, and which version of Alex Smith is being traded?
Alex Smith is on his way out of San Francisco. According to some reports, it's a matter of who Smith is traded to and when, not a matter of if.
Though trades can't be finalized until the new league year begins on March 12, the San Francisco 49ers reportedly agreed to trade their backup quarterback. Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, however, reports that the 49ers do not have a trade in place for Smith currently. Even if the 49ers don't have a trade in place now, it's likely they will soon.
It's unknown where Smith will be traded once the reported deal becomes official, but all signs point to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Kansas City is expected to part ways with Matt Cassel, who struggled as Kansas City's starting quarterback. While in Philadelphia last offseason, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid courted Smith to join the Eagles, but Smith ultimately decided to stay in San Francisco. Reid appears poised to acquire Smith this offseason, as he aims to rebuild Kansas City into a contender in the AFC West.
After all, Chiefs' quarterbacks posted a quarterback rating of 63.8 in 2012 -- the second-lowest number in the entire NFL. As pass-happy as Reid is, he needs a smart and accurate quarterback to fit his system -- and Alex Smith is just that.
Other quarterback-needy teams in the league have been linked to Smith, but many deny involvement in trade talks. According to Mary Kat Cabot, the Cleveland Browns are not acquiring Smith from San Francisco. Cleveland used one of its two 2012 first-round draft choices on Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden, but opinion on Weeden is split. As a 29-year-old-rookie in 2012, Weeden completed just 57.4% of his passes and threw more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (14).
Despite the shoddy play, the Browns appear determined to give Weeden at least one more chance.
Like the Browns, the Jacksonville Jaguars appear to have a quarterback problem, but the Jaguars aren't the team acquiring Smith. New Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley appear poised to give Blaine Gabbert a year under their tutelage.
Jacksonville and Cleveland aren't the only other destinations that make sense for a Smith trade. The Arizona Cardinals have been linked to Smith, but the 49ers could be skeptical of sending Smith to an NFC West rival, especially one that has Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald on its roster.
Still, new Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians could be willing to part with a fair amount to acquire Smith. Arians took over a team that struggled mightily at quarterback last season, starting Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer at various points of the season. Arizona's collective quarterback rating in 2012 was a league-worst 63.1.
With a need as desperate as any team in the league, and a new coach in place, the Cardinals simply can't be ruled out until a finalized deal says otherwise.
On the surface, Smith-to-New York makes plenty of sense. The Jets are an AFC team that poses no threat to San Francisco, and the Jets have a dire need for a quarterback.
Financially, Smith-to-New York is complicated. The Jets recently cleared up over $30 million in cap space by releasing Bart Scott, Calvin Pace and three others, but New York still doesn't have much cap room to work with. The Jets will ask Santonio Holmes to restructure his contract, which could help them free up necessary cap space to acquire Smith.
Since Smith's trade won't be finalized until Mar. 12, the Jets would have time to better position their cap number in advance of a trade.
Ultimately, it seems unlikely that the Jets acquire Smith, but it certainly can't be ruled out.
Since Jim Harbaugh took over as San Francisco's head coach, Smith has been a much better quarterback, with a very good +23.6 Pro Football Focus grade. In the previous two years, per PFF, Smith's grade was an ugly -12.4.
Smith was in the middle of a career year before his concussion and subsequent benching in 2012. Smith completed a career-high 70.2% of his passes and averaged a career-high 7.97 yards per attempt. With 13 touchdowns in 10 games, Smith could have eclipsed his career-high in touchdowns (18), had he remained San Francisco's starter.
However, it's fair to wonder which version of Smith his next team will acquire: the pre- or post-2011 Smith?
Before teaming up with Harbaugh, Smith's career was spiraling downward. In 2009 and 2010, Smith averaged 6.32 and 6.93 yards per attempt, throwing 32 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions, while showcasing an inability to be anything more than a game manager.
San Francisco's brass used a second-round draft pick on Colin Kaepernick following the 2010 season, illustrating the team's lack of full confidence in Smith.
Harbaugh's influence on Smith is ultimately immeasurable. One thing is for certain, though: Smith has been a much better quarterback the last two seasons.
Nothing to win, nothing left to lose
No matter who he is traded to, Smith will be in a no-win situation in 2013. At least Smith will be a starting quarterback next season, but the results likely won't be pretty, and he could draw the ire of his next team's fanbase.
It took Smith five seasons in San Francisco before he and the 49ers started to enjoy success in 2011. Smith finally developed some chemistry with first-round draft pick Michael Crabtree, who had a breakout year of his own in 2012. Smith also developed a fair amount of chemistry with tight end Vernon Davis, who caught 26 touchdown passes between 2009-11.
When Smith takes over in Kansas City, Arizona, New York or wherever in 2013, he's not going to have a lot to work with. Yes, in Arizona he would have Larry Fitzgerald; in Kansas City he could have Dwayne Bowe; and in New York, he could have Santonio Holmes. But what Smith won't have is familiarity or chemistry, two qualities that are essential to quarterbacks.
Further, the Chiefs have to compete with the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning. The Cardinals have to compete with the 49ers, Seahawks and an up-and-coming Rams team. The Jets have to compete with the Patriots, who have owned the AFC East since 2001.
No, success is not likely to come in 2013 for Smith. But that's all right, as long as Smith and his new team show progress. Expecting the 2012 version of Alex Smith in 2013 is unfair to both the coaching staff and to Smith. It is, however, reasonable to expect Smith to be the post-Harbaugh version of Smith, the same Smith that led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game in 2011 while completing 61.3% of his passes.
A competent quarterback would be a welcome sight in Arizona, Kansas City or New York -- and that's likely what one of those three teams will acquire on Mar. 12.
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