If quarterbacks were cars, Alex Smith would be a used-lot gem.
When someone wanders into a used car dealership, they have a firm price or payment in mind. Usually, they'll tell the salesperson they "just want something reliable."
Whether they realize it or not, they're looking for something special, something that excites them, something that makes them proud to get behind the wheel every day. They still can't spend more than they can spend, but they're hoping to get something worth more than its price tag.
When NFL teams go looking for a quarterback this offseason, Smith will be like a clean, smooth-running, one-owner, low-mileage ride with a suspiciously low price tag.
Smith passes the eyeball test. With a lean, athletic frame standing 6'4", Smith fits the NFL's pocket-passer prototype. Smith, though, is anything but a statue.
The man who usurped Smith's starting gig, Colin Kaepernick, is a breathtaking athlete, but Smith is no slouch. He doesn't have Kaepernick's deep speed, but Smith is much more athletic than most quarterbacks, and may even be more agile than the dual-threat beast he gave way to.
Smith's official combine 40-yard dash time was 4.71 seconds. That won't touch Kaepernick's 4.53, of course, but Smith's outstanding short shuttle (3.97) and three-cone (6.82) times were both lower than Kaepernick's (4.18, 6.85). It's his combination of size, athleticism and quarterbacking talent that got him drafted No. 1 overall in 2005.
As per Matt Miller's evaluation, Smith lacks elite arm strength. He can't put much zip on deep routes or intermediate outside routes. This season, Smith averaged 11.4 yards per completion, much shorter than Kaepernick's league-leading 13.3. Per Pro Football Focus, Smith threw for 173 fewer in-the-air yards than Kaepernick with exactly the same (218) number of attempts.
A team that wants to win doesn't necessarily need a rocket-armed quarterback, though. Peyton Manning averaged only 11.6 yards per completion this season. Like Manning (and unlike Kaepernick), Smith had an NFL passer efficiency rating over 100 and a touchdown percentage of at least six.
Overall, Smith is a very well-balanced quarterback, with the accuracy and decision-making skills to play winning football in most offensive systems. He's also, at age 28, still a better athlete than most quarterbacks in the NFL.
Smith, like Kaepernick, came from a Western school, Utah, that wasn't then in a BCS auto-qualifier conference. Like Kaepernick, Smith ran an unconventional offense built by an innovative head coach (Urban Meyer) around the quarterback's athleticism.
For a lot of the same reasons Kaepernick fell in the draft, there was doubt as to whether Smith could make good on his physical potential in the NFL. The 49ers needed a quarterback, though, and per the San Jose Mercury News decided Smith's personality was a better fit than Aaron Rodgers'.
Smith had a rocky run in San Francisco. His rookie year, he was in and out of the lineup, accruing nine starts, throwing 11 interceptions and just one touchdown. In his second season, he started all 16 games, threw 16 touchdowns and as many interceptions, and his NFL passer efficiency rating crept above Pro Football Talk's "Kordoza Line" (74.8).
He progressed in fits and starts, working under a different offensive coordinator in each of his first five seasons. The fifth coordinator was fired midway through Smith's sixth season; the Jim Harbaugh regime came in for Smith's seventh.
Under Harbaugh, Smith finally hit his stride. He completed more than 60 percent of his passes for only the second time, threw for 3,000 yards for the first time and led the NFL in interception percentage (1.1 percent). Smith's performance finally gave the 49ers wheels to match their defensive horsepower. They went 13-3 and earned a first-round bye.
In the playoffs for the first time, Smith found another gear. He led San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game (and four points shy of the Super Bowl). In two playoff games, Smith threw for 495 yards, five touchdowns, no interceptions, a passer efficiency rating of 101.0 and an outstanding average adjusted yards per attempt of 8.75.
The most indelible moment came in the dying minutes of the divisional-round game, when he took a naked bootleg 28 yards to the house:
It seemed to be the fulfillment of all that potential and a rebirth of the Alex Smith Era in San Francisco.
Smith's dramatic improvement under Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman led Michael Schottey to predict Smith would "shock the world" by leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012. If it weren't for Smith's midseason concussion and Kaepernick's emergency promotion, Smith very well could have.
Smith had one of his best games as a pro this season against Buffalo in Week 5. In the first quarter, there was a perfect example of how to maximize Smith's passing talent.
The 49ers set up in a strong running formation—very strong, with a single back, single receiver and three tight ends to the strong side. The receiver and two outside tight ends will run routes:
After the snap, the outside tight end takes off down the seam, while the second, Vernon Davis, chips a linebacker. The left guard pulls, helping to sell play-action:
The play fake freezes the linebackers, preventing them from getting depth to defend the routes. Smith has already read that the receiver's comeback route will be open, so he looks at the single deep safety:
The safety is in position to make a play on the tight end running a seam route, but not on Davis. Davis, after releasing his chip, broke for the sideline, then cut back upfield, his double-move slaloming through the linebackers. As soon as he makes his second cut, Smith decides to throw. He takes a step, winds up and throws to a spot 40 yards away:
The pass is perfect, dropping right into Davis' arms for a 53-yard gain.
The ideal fit for Smith is a team with a strong running game and a defense that's at least solid. He could take a team that's a quarterback shy of contention and make them contenders.
A team like the New York Jets could be a perfect fit; Smith is already familiar with the West Coast offense terminology Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg uses.
For that matter, Mornhinweg's longtime boss, new Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is also looking for a signal-caller. The Chiefs defense isn't as strong as the Jets', but running back Jamaal Charles can certainly keep defenses honest on play fakes.
Smith would be an upgrade over any quarterback the Arizona Cardinals have on the roster and fits the prototype of big, athletic quarterbacks whom new head coach Bruce Arians has found success with (Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisbeger).
As a bonus, Smith's lack of a cannon won't trouble the Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald. According to the team's official site, quarterback John Skelton told The Dan Patrick Show, Fitzgerald hates to be overthrown because he's sensitive about his lack of elite deep speed.
Ironically, the best fit of all might be a team looking to add the pistol formation or zone-read looks to their offense. Smith would be nearly as dangerous as Kaepernick in such an offense, and he may even be more effective as a passer once out of the pocket.
Whichever ends up making a move for Smith, they'll get a quarterback likely worth much more than the price they'll have paid for him.