Alex Smith's return to the playing field last year was a Hollywood movie come to life.
Smith suffered a horrific leg injury in 2018 and then suffered a life-threatening infection that required 17 surgeries and nearly cost him his leg. But the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft recovered and made six starts for the NFC East champions in 2020, winning five.
It was an inspirational story, one that culminated when Smith won Comeback Player of the Year honors.
If his NFL career is going to have a Hollywood ending, though, it'll come somewhere besides the nation's capital. Reports indicate Washington plans to move on from the 36-year-old. But while Smith may no longer be the player who made it to three Pro Bowls, teams still could benefit from his experience, accuracy and leadership.
The news isn't surprising. Washington has been rumored to have interest in a number of veteran signal-callers this offseason, including Ryan Fitzpatrick and even Russell Wilson. And in a recent interview with Clay Skipper of GQ, Smith said he got the feeling last year from the new coaching staff in Washington that his comeback was as much annoyance as inspiration:
"When I decided to come back, I definitely threw a wrench in the team's plan. They didn't see it, didn't want me there, didn't want me to be a part of it, didn't want me to be on the team, the roster, didn't want to give me a chance. Mind you, it was a whole new regime, they came in, I'm like the leftovers and I'm hurt and I'm this liability. Heck no, they didn't want me there. At that point, as you can imagine, everything I'd been through, I couldn't have cared less about all that. [laughs] Whether you like it or not, I'm giving this a go at this point."
Those comments generated a kerfuffle (and a clarification from Smith's camp), but the reality is that while Smith was decent in 2020, he wasn't much more than that. The team won five of his starts in spite of his play as much as because of it. He threw six touchdown passes against eight interceptions and averaged less than 200 passing yards per game with a passer rating of 78.5.
Smith's return was a great story, but he's not the quarterback he was even a few years ago. The injury appears to have sapped the mobility that has long been part of his game. Throw in a 2021 cap hit north of $23 million, and it's not a shock that Washington is looking to shed Smith's salary and potentially land a sizable upgrade under center.
Still, Washington's loss could be another team's gain. Just because one team doesn't view the 16-year veteran as the answer at quarterback doesn't mean he can't be a stopgap solution for another.
A few teams stand out as landing spots that make sense for Smith, assuming he intends to keep playing.
It shouldn't be a surprise to see the Chicago Bears listed as a potential landing spot. After all, the only veteran quarterback who might be available in 2021 who hasn't been connected to the Bears is Mitchell Trubisky.
OK. That was mean.
Smith has a connection to the Bears. In 2017, he enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career playing for then-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy in Kansas City—career highs in passing yards (4,042), touchdown passes (26) and passer rating (104.7) with just five interceptions.
But if the Bears believe Smith can improve on last season's numbers with more playing time, he'd be a step in the right direction. Chicago can obtain his services without sacrificing a staggering haul of draft capital and over $30 million in cap space, while he would get a chance to start for a team that made the postseason in 2020.
After two seasons, something has become plainly evident in the Mile High City.
Drew Lock isn't "the guy" at quarterback for the Denver Broncos.
In 2020, Lock completed 57.3 percent of his passes for 2,933 yards and 16 touchdowns. His 15 interceptions tied for the NFL's most, his passer rating of 75.4 was 14 points lower than in his rookie year and he won four of 13 starts.
The Broncos have been linked to a number of quarterbacks who could be on the move this offseason, whether as a contender in the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes or for a temporary solution like Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Smith fits the latter category, and the Broncos could draft a quarterback with the ninth overall pick. But Smith could serve as either a bridge to that rookie starter or as relatively inexpensive competition for Lock.
Given the skill-position talent (Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant) and defense in Denver, the team around Smith wouldn't be markedly worse than what he played with in 2020.
The New England Patriots have tried the veteran retread route to fill the hole under center created by Tom Brady's defection to Tampa Bay. Cam Newton's first season in New England was unimpressive—2,657 passing yards, eight touchdowns and seven wins in 15 starts.
Per Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, Bill Belichick was impressed by what Newton accomplished in 2020 despite the lack of an offseason, so it's possible he will be back with the Patriots for a second go-round in 2021. There have also been no shortage of mock drafts that connect New England to a rookie like Trey Lance of North Dakota State or Mac Jones of Alabama.
If the Patriots do invest their first pick on a quarterback in 2020, Smith could serve as an interesting bridge to that rookie before the youngster is ready to start and a mentor once the torch is passed. Smith is also as tough as they come and the definition of a "pro's pro"—traits that would appeal to the league's most no-nonsense coach.
Of the teams listed here, the Patriots have the weakest assemblage of skill-position talent. But it would still be an upgrade for Smith as opposed to joining a team in the opening phases of a rebuild like the New York Jets. And with the third-most cap space in the NFL ($68.9 million), the Pats have the wiggle room to add some passing-game weapons in free agency.