Avoiding the Next Alex Smith: San Francisco 49ers Must Play Hand They're Dealt

Joseph BurkeyAnalyst IMarch 3, 2011

Was it the situation, or was it the hands? Better safe than sorry...again.
Was it the situation, or was it the hands? Better safe than sorry...again.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Alex Smith's hands measure 9.375" long. Although this isn't a ridiculously tiny measurement, it has (at times) been blamed for the first overall pick from 2005's tendencies to fumble over the years, as well as his inaccuracy.

Maybe Alex comes back next year, maybe he doesn't. Most fans can't see him stomaching another shower of boos, even if he did have a catch with newly landed head coach Jim Harbaugh.

Regardless, it's highly probable that the 49ers will draft at least one quarterback this April, and could very well bring in another passer via free agency or even trade.

Naturally, as the move at quarterback should speak volumes to the direction the franchise is headed, the goal should be rather obvious: don't waste another top pick on a quarterback likely to go bust.

Fans pretty much realize that Smith's situation in San Francisco is more to blame for his shortcomings than his average-sized mitts. Mike Nolan, a defense-minded coach, drafted Smith only to throw him into the fire, then under the bus.

Smith continued in a similar pattern with Nolan's coaching protege, Mike Singletary; and blah blah blah. I've told this story far too many times and I'm sure fans have read more than their share of it.

It breaks down to nature vs. nurture, or a combination of both.

The situation Alex Smith was exposed to in SF was toxic from the beginning, and it's nothing like the scene the 49ers' next passer will find. There was no Vernon Davis when he got there. There was no Michael Crabtree (for better or worse) and there was not two first-round draft picks on the offensive line.

Perhaps most importantly, there was no Jim Harbaugh.

Frank Gore, David Baas and Adam Snyder were untested rookies with Smith, but they all now have valuable seasons under their belts.

The next passer to land in San Francisco has been set up for success. There are sharp tools all around the passing attack, and a coaching staff that knows how to use them.

So the next thing is to avoid passers of overly similar nature. Alex Smith's physical tools were not really in question during the combine. His 4.7 40-yard dash and 37" vertical jump proved he was an athlete. Scoring a 40 on his Wonderlic proved he was smart. And his prototypical height seemed to indicate NFL success was right around the corner.

But we all know what happened next.

So which quarterback prospects have scary similarities to Smith? And who is so different that there could not possibly be a repeat?

Breaking it down, piece by piece:

Cam Newton

At 6'5", 248 pounds, Cam Newton doesn't look a thing like Alex Smith. His 9.875" hand length is a bit bigger than Smith's "average" paw size as well. The offenses they ran in college, however, are fairly similar. At Auburn last year, Cam took pretty much every snap out of the shotgun, and he hardly read a defense before making his pass or tucking the ball and running with it. His dropbacks have thus been a concern in moving to the NFL level, as is his ability to read defenses. The fact that several of the long passes he threw sailed on him is eerily familiar to 49ers fans as well.

Blaine Gabbert

Gabbert actually has a surprising amount of dissimilarity, and although he did play in a spread offense at Missouri, he was the No. 1-rated pro-style passer coming out of high school. It's reasonable to believe the muscle memory in his footwork is still there somewhere. Passing accuracy has not been considered an issue for him at any point; conversely, it's a big part of his draw. Gabbert's hand length is 10".

Jake Locker

Locker experienced No. 1-overall hype last year, which may have a faint smell of Alex Smith to it. Locker, however, returned to Washington University for his senior season with the Huskies, and saw his stock drop significantly. Although he did play a decent amount under center, Locker often used his foot speed as a crutch, which won't translate well at the NFL level, given his (ahem, Alex) tendency toward getting injured. Locker's hand size is 9.625".

Christian Ponder

Ponder also has a few injury concerns floating around him, but his impressive release and accuracy makes him seem like a reasonable option. Ponder's speed is quite decent, and he took plenty of snaps from under center at Florid State. And if there's one more huge discrepancy between Smith and Ponder, it's hand size. Ponder's 10.25" mitts are among the largest of any quarterback this year, and that's a quarterback who stands 6'2".

Colin Kaepernick

If Urban Myer's "spread option" offense doesn't translate easily to the NFL, what do we make of Chris Ault's "pistol" offense that Colin Kaepernick ran at Nevada? Basically, nothing. It just means that he'll be a project wherever he ends up, and is a couple years away from starting for any team. Kaepernick was accurate with his throws, and may have put the most impressive zip on the ball (clocked at 59 mph) but when thinking of the sporadic fumble issues he had in college, one can't help but notice his hand length of 9.25" is actually smaller than Alex Smith's. Be warned.

Ryan Mallett

If there is a polar opposite to Alex Smith, then it's Ryan Mallett. Mallett is the only true six-and-a-half-foot passer at 6'6.75". Mallett has a swagger unlike anything Smith ever exhibited. Mallett took his share of snaps under center, and from the gun; at two separate schools, in two of the NCAA's better divisions. "Big Tex," as he's often called, did not participate in any benchmark physical exercises at the combine, but he did show off a cannon of an arm in passing drills.

Mallett has more red flags around him than any other quarterback right now, many of which are the result of his brash personality. Mallett was arrested in 2009 for public intoxication, and the media raked that muck at the combine. He was never a captain at either school he attended—his maturity has been scrutinized endlessly.

Ryan Mallett may have absolutely nothing in common with Alex Smith, but he has been compared to far worse busts such as Ryan Leaf, JaMarcus Russell and Jim Drukenmiller. It's up to him to prove the world wrong now.

Ricky Stanzi

Stanzi is under the radar, and played in a pro-style system; that's very different from Smith. Stanzi figures to fall to later rounds (perhaps as far as the sixth) and the knock on him will be his speed. Everything he does, he will need to do faster. Now this sounds more like Tom Brady when he came in as a rookie than Alex Smith. Stanzi's hands measure 10" long.

Greg McElroy

McElroy is smart. Just like Smith, he's been crowned the Wonderlic king of his draft. Only McElroy scored a 48 in contrast to Smith's 40. Like Smith, he was surrounded by talent in college, and was able to exploit mismatches between his receivers and defenders. His hands are also the exact same 9.375" measurement.

Andy Dalton

Dalton knows what he needs to work on: dropbacks. He has potential, and he understands that for what it is. He's been up front with his need to work on his dropbacks, as he took most of his snaps from the gun in college. His run-of-the-mill combine stats aren't going to be a crutch he can lean on, but his work ethic is all but guaranteed. Dalton's hands measure 9.5" inches.

Pat Devlin

Devlin is from a small school, and thus untested against premium opposition. Though his delivery is smooth and accurate, he also has very limited experience playing under center. His hands measure 9.875".

Josh Portis

Speaking of unknowns, Josh Portis is from an even smaller school, but his combine proved he's a real workout warrior. Portis' 10'6" broad jump, 40" vertical jump and very nice foot speed give him high-end potential. But has anybody honestly heard of California, PA? Those who have: Did you know they had a college with a football team? I'm not making any of this up. But look out! Portis' hands measure 9.375"—the same hand size as Alex Smith.

Scott Tolzien

Tolzien played in a pro-style offense against tough Big Ten competition, but he lacks NFL arm strength, and his mobility is just not impressive. He's destined to find the later rounds as well, but his potential ceiling is limited. Then again, Joe Montana was similarly described at one point coming out of Notre Dame. Tolzien's hands measure 10" long.

Tyrod Taylor

Taylor has serious mobility, thus potential. His height is his shortcoming (get it?) but Michael Vick and Drew Brees aren't exactly towering over people, and they do...okay. Taylor has very limited experience under center too, but he does have some, and what's been seen isn't too bad. Additionally, Taylor's mobility could and should help him in this particular endeavor.

The 49ers quarterback situation is in a state of peril, but help is on the way. Should Baalke and Harbaugh retain Smith, he will be on a short leash once again. Should he leave as expected, however, the 49ers decision makers would be wise to look to the past, and avoid repeating it.


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