Given his immediate impact and his youth by comparison, Colin Kaepernick is the future for Jim Harbaugh. But Smith has proven to be a starting-caliber quarterback in pro football up until his injury this season.
Obviously, had Kaepernick flopped once getting the nod, San Francisco wouldn't be in this conundrum. However, just the opposite occurred, and Kaepernick has the 49ers playing for a sixth Super Bowl ring.
The mirrored image of this situation, however, is also a good thing for each party. Smith's established development under Harbaugh makes him an appealing get this offseason. As a result, that ups his trade value for anyone interested.
Back in early December 2012, Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area argued in favor of trading Smith this offseason:
If the 49ers were to get rid of Smith's base salary, they could then use that money to tender safety Dashon Goldson at the franchise tag of 7.45 million. Smith is the 20th-highest-paid quarterback in the league, which could make him an attractive option for some quarterback-needy team to acquire in a trade—probably for a 2014 draft pick.
Whether it's this draft season or next, San Francisco would be taking advantage of a win-lose situation. A win constitutes trading Smith and getting a fourth-round pick or higher. Losing here would occur if the 49ers missed out on trading Smith and he walked.
Smith is as hot as he's going to be during his career regarding trade interest. Turning 29 years old this spring, there's also plenty of time remaining for him to improve under center.
A twist, however, has come, per Mike Florio of NBC Sports:
The player prefers not to afford the 49ers a chance to trade him. Instead, a source with knowledge of the situation tells PFT that Smith is expected to seek his release before the start of free agency.
It’s a calculated risk for Smith. On one hand, he’d be able to join any team he wants. On the other hand, he’d be losing the $8.5 million that he’d earn this year if his contract is traded.
Certainly, releasing Smith would be an interesting way for him to depart. And when you factor in his contract, there won't be an extensive number of teams biting. Currently, he's, at best, worthy of a late-second-round or mid-third-round selection.
What is Alex Smith's draft-pick trade value?
The next issue resides with those potentially interested.
San Francisco's NFC West rival, the Arizona Cardinals, could use Smith, but they can't afford to give up a second- or third-rounder. The Cards simply have too many holes to fill.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are another appealing trade partner. They need a reliable signal-caller, and the impact of a healthy Maurice Jones-Drew would be a great complement. Jacksonville also doesn't have nearly as many issues as Arizona.
The Jags were banged up offensively, but the defense simply failed to encore a strong 2011 campaign. Provided Jacksonville gets healthier, adding Smith could turn the franchise around. And, even better, Jacksonville is located across the country.
In short, a fresh start for Smith by moving to the AFC.
Regardless of where Smith ends up for 2013, though, San Francisco helps itself out much more by finding someone to tango with. The 49ers could then move on with both Kaepernick and an extra draft pick in their back pocket.