Although Alex Smith had a great season, the jury is still out on if he's the answer at quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. I'm a fan of Smith. It was great seeing him finally produce for the team that drafted him No. 1 overall. But Smith has limitations as a player that could hold back the 49ers from ever becoming a routinely dominating team like the New England Patriots or the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Harbaugh tailored the 49ers offense last season around Smith's shortcomings. Because of the 49ers championship-level defense, strong running and kicking game, Harbaugh didn't ask Smith to do much other than not make mistakes.
He threw the fewest passes of any quarterback that started 16 games. He also threw the second fewest third-down passes. Clearly Harbaugh didn't have the confidence in Smith to let him sling the ball on third down, which is a large reason why the 49ers were such a bad red-zone offense and settled for so many field goals.
49ers fans who feel confident that Smith is the answer at quarterback must ask themselves this—if the Arizona Cardinals acquired a competent quarterback would you still feel good about the 49ers' chances at winning the division?
The 49ers would still be the favorites, but the division definitely wouldn't be a cakewalk like last season. The Cardinals are a quarterback away from being a legitimate team. You could say the same thing about the Seattle Seahawks as well. Improving at quarterback should be a priority to make sure the 49ers stay ahead of everyone in the division.
It's assumed that Smith, who is a free agent, will return to the 49ers. Even if Smith returns, the 49ers should still look at improving the quarterback position. Bringing in some competition may be what Smith needs. Competition will only further Smith's improvement. The 49ers may also find a player who is an improvement over Smith in the process. The team should also look on its own roster, as they drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round a year ago.
Here is a list of players I could see becoming the team's future play-caller:
Let me make this clear: ESPN's Adam Schefter has said that the 49ers are not one of the teams interested in acquiring Peyton Manning.
That makes sense. The team wants to show they have faith in Smith as their starting quarterback going into next season. The last thing the 49ers need is rumors going around how they are trying to acquire Manning when their current starting quarterback just led them to the NFC Championship game.
Acquiring Manning would mean Harbaugh would have to change the offense to suit Manning. If Manning does come back, there's also question if he will ever be the player he was before. But if it is revealed that Manning is healthy and available, don't you believe the 49ers would consider changing their mind about trying to get Manning?
When Manning is healthy he's not only a very good quarterback, he's a legend. Why would any team who could use improvement at quarterback not try to go after one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL if he were healthy and available? Sure, Harbaugh would have to change the offense to suit Manning, but he's already doing that now to some degree to suit Smith's limitations as a player.
There's not much more to say about Manning until it is revealed just how healthy he actually is. But if Manning is healthy, it would be a mistake for the 49ers to let him join another team when they were only a few pieces away from making the Super Bowl.
NFL.com's Michael Lombardi, a candidate for the general manager job a year ago, has said one of the first moves he would have made if he was hired would have been to trade for Brian Hoyer. Hoyer, who has been Tom Brady's backup since 2009, has shown flashes of being a good player in his limited playing time.
This offseason, Hoyer is a restricted free agent. The Patriots drafted Ryan Mallett in last year's draf,t so unless the coaching staff doesn't feel he is ready to take on the role as Brady's backup, Hoyer should be free to go. It should not be forgotten that Hoyer has been learning under one of the greatest coaches and quarterbacks of all time. He's a smart player that could flourish in Harbaugh's offense.
Hoyer may pan out like former Patriots backup Matt Cassel, an average quarterback that ultimately isn't anything special. Regardless, Hoyer would be a good option to bring in and see what kind of a player he has developed into after learning from Brady and Belichick. He may just be a hidden gem.
A lot of teams want Matt Flynn. The Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins and Seattle Seahawks all need improvement at quarterback. Flynn could sign with anyone of those teams and instantly be named the starter. But if I were Flynn, I'd have to consider the 49ers.
Of the teams that need an upgrade at quarterback, the 49ers are the best situation. They have a great running game with two solid running backs. They have a great kicking game. They also have the most physical defense in the league that always puts them in a great position to win, even when there is little offensive production. Could Flynn walk into a better situation?
Flynn can make the all passes that Smith is unable to throw. His addition could unleash a more consistent Vernon Davis, a guy who is capable of putting up Rob Gronkowski-type numbers on a weekly basis.
If I were a betting man, going into last season I would have bet that Kaepernick would eventually become the 49ers' starting quarterback. I had little faith in Smith turning his career around.
I was wrong. Smith played well and Kaepernick never won the job.
Because Smith played so well last season, Kaepernick spent the year on the bench. For a rookie quarterback who didn't have the regular-length offseason to adjust to the NFL, sitting and watching was probably the best thing for Kaepernick.
Kaepernick wants the starting job, as he stated in an interview with Dan Hinxman. He believes the starting quarterback job is open and that he will be given a fair shot to compete. Kaepernick has a stronger arm than Smith, and if he can show that he is accurate in camp and the preseason, he could have a real shot at stealing the starting job away from Smith.