NEW ORLEANS -- It's not often backup quarterbacks draw a crowd at Media Day, but San Francisco's Alex Smith might be an exception.
Smith was the 49ers' starter a year ago. He's not the 49ers' starter now and might never be again. So he wants out, and he wants out now, which is fine, except the 49ers -- not Alex Smith -- will determine what happens next, and so far they're saying they're simply open to trading him.
Well, of course they are. With the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, Smith becomes expendable -- especially with a contract due to pay him $8.5 million next season. But San Francisco must first find a trading partner, and tell me who makes the first overture.
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"I have no idea," an NFC head coach said, "but in a quarterback-starved market, somebody is going to overpay."
He's probably right, and here's why: First, there's a shortage of decent quarterbacks in the NFL, and if you don't believe it you haven't been paying attention to what's going on in places like Arizona, Kansas City, Buffalo, Cleveland and the New York Jets. Then there's the 2013 draft. There's a shortage of top quarterbacks there, too, with some draftniks telling me there's not one worth taking with a top-15 draft pick.
Honest. So that leaves Smith, and let the bidding begin.
Until Jim Harbaugh showed up to coach San Francisco, Smith was considered little more than adequate. Then he went 20-6-1 with his new head coach, led the 49ers to a division championship as well as the 2011 conference championship game, was the league's most accurate passer one year later and finished as the NFL's third-rated quarterback in 2012.
The assumption is that Smith is a luxury the 49ers can't afford and that, if they fail to find a suitable suitor, they might be forced to release him. Only that's not true. They can afford him. Kaepernick is scheduled to make $740,844 in 2013, and last time I checked, $9 million for your first and second quarterbacks is a bargain.
That means San Francisco doesn't have to budge until or unless someone makes it an offer it can't refuse. But when you listen to coaches and scouts size Smith up, you wonder what the 49ers could command in return.
"He's smart and athletic enough," one AFC offensive coordinator said of Smith. "He can run and move in the pocket, and he's accurate on short throws. But his arm is not strong enough or accurate enough to formulate a deep passing attack. So you have to have a strong running game and outside weapons to be successful. Basically, he hasn't shown he has the ability to carry a team. I just think he's an average player."
Nevertheless, most people think Smith plays for another team next season -- partly because he's little more than a high-priced caddy now and partly because too many teams out there are looking for their next quarterback -- and Smith is still only 28.
But be careful what you wish for. Kaepernick is a quarterback who likes to run, and running quarterbacks are accidents waiting to happen. San Francisco would be wise to have a suitable backup just in case, and Smith fits the description.
Still, the 49ers probably make a move because he's of more use to someone else than he is to them.
"His market is going to be really big," predicted one AFC offensive coordinator, "bigger than anybody realizes -- maybe bigger than it should be. Because there's nowhere to find these guys. If there were more guys coming out in the draft who could come in and be the starter it would be different. But there's not enough supply for the demand. So Alex Smith is going to get a really nice deal."
Matt Flynn was a free agent a year ago, and he didn't start a game in 2012. Seattle signed him to a three-year, $19.5 million contract, even though he had two career starts with Green Bay. But the Seahawks' expectation was that he would win the job, so they were only too willing to make the deal.
Of course, then Russell Wilson came along and Flynn disappeared.
Flynn could be on the market again, but that shouldn't affect Smith's status. Smith has more experience (75 starts), a history of recent success and a history of avoiding fatal mistakes. Some people identify him as a game manager, but that's inaccurate -- and if you watched San Francisco's 2011 playoff defeat of New Orleans you know what I'm talking about.
"But he had a very good football team around him," one coach said. "Physically, he's a big enough guy, and he appears to be a smart quarterback. But I'd consider him a mid-to-low starter out of 32 quarterbacks on there. How he does depends on the team he's with, and he can be better with a better team.
"People are going to look at what he did with the 49ers and the success he had and think, 'OK, the guy can do it.' But up until the last two years he wasn't a great quarterback. To think he's going to an ordinary offense and will make it better ... well, he hasn't shown that. He's a good player, and on a good team he can be good."
And there's the problem for Alex Smith and the 49ers: Good teams aren't looking for quarterbacks. They already have them. Miami wasn't a good team in 2011, yet the Dolphins weren't interested in Smith when he was an unrestricted free agent a year ago.
So who will be interested now? Smith and the 49ers are eager to find out, and it shouldn't take long for them to get an answer.