And when I say the 49ers can't afford Smith, I'm not just talking about money.
Sure, Smith's $7.5 million base salary is a huge amount of cash to pay for a backup quarterback, especially because the 49ers don't have much wiggle room this offseason.
Team president Jed York said that Smith's salary won't be an issue in 2013, and he hinted that the 49ers wouldn't mind having him stay on (via Bay Area News Group's Cam Inman). His comments may have been honest, but they may have been a ploy to make other teams think the 49ers don't need to trade Smith.
Smith was the unquestioned leader of his team and a proven winner before a concussion knocked him out of action in the second quarter of the 49ers' Week 10 contest against the St. Louis Rams.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to continue playing Colin Kaepernick over Smith for the rest of the season was hard for many of the team's players, including stalwarts like Frank Gore, Joe Staley and Vernon Davis.
Given the way the second-year quarterback was playing, though, the players were able to see past their personal allegiance to Smith. They rode Kaepernick all the way to the Super Bowl, and there's nobody on the team complaining about the decision now.
Via the San Joe Mercury News' Tim Kawakami:
So, yes, even Alex Smith's best friends on the team can accept the way he lost the job, because Kaepernick was such an instant revelation.
But the feelings probably would change if the 49ers kept Smith -- and his salary -- as insurance when the money could be used to sign safety Dashon Goldson long term or keep tight end Delanie Walker from leaving as a free agent.
The 49ers fell short of their ultimate goal last year, and getting back to the big game in 2013 won't be easy. The team needs to focus on certain areas of its roster, but the quarterback position isn't one of them.
The team needs to add depth on its defensive line—both through the draft and free agency—and the team's secondary is in need of a tuneup. Carlos Rogers looked much older and slower in 2012 than he did in 2011, and both Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner struggled in coverage this past season.
Personally, I'm in favor of making a run at Jairus Byrd rather than paying Goldson the $8 million per year he's reportedly seeking (via CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco). Goldson has a tendency to play out of position at the worst possible times, and combined with Whitner's horrible coverage "skills," the duo gets burned by elite quarterbacks far too often.
Regardless of whether it's Goldson, Byrd, Ed Reed or Charles Woodson, the 49ers need to spend some cash on a safety this winter.
Furthermore, with guys like Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings available in free agency, this is the perfect time for the 49ers to make a big splash and acquire a game-breaking wide receiver not named Randy Moss.
The 49ers have too many other needs to be hanging on to Smith as an insurance policy this year. General manager Trent Baalke would be wise to either trade or release Smith as a means to bring in the players that will spur San Francisco to greater glory.
Will the 49ers hang on to Smith as insurance in 2013?
There's always the argument that Smith deserves a shot to start for another team—an argument I support wholeheartedly—but the real issue here for the 49ers is that this isn't a time to stand pat with Smith and the current roster.
The players deserve the franchise's best shot at improving its roster for the future. It's time to get aggressive and bring in the players needed for another run at the Super Bowl.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78