It certainly has been an interesting NFL career for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. From being drafted #1 overall in 2005 by the 49ers, through virtually annual changes in offensive coordinator to finding a head coach that believed in him in Jim Harbaugh. Even through San Francisco’s apparent interest in Peyton Manning last offseason, Smith persevered and signed a three-year deal with the 49ers to remain the team’s starting quarterback.
But he suffered a concussion in Week 10 against the St. Louis Rams, which opened the door for 2011 second round pick Colin Kaepernick to start Week 11 against the Chicago Bears. Kaepernick performed well enough (16-for-24 for 243 yards and two touchdowns) in that game to earn another start this past Sunday against the New Orleans Saints despite Smith being cleared to play.
Kaepernick looks likely to remain the 49ers’ starting quarterback for the rest of the season as long as he stays healthy and continues to perform well, and there’s a good chance he’ll enter 2013 as at least part of a competition for the starting job. That clearly puts Smith’s future in San Francisco in doubt, and the fact he is due his full $7.5 million base salary for next season if he is on the roster next April 1 may be enough for the 49ers to release him. It can be expected multiple teams would have interest in Smith if he were available.
The Minnesota Vikings have a starting quarterback in place with second-year man Christian Ponder, who has had some ups and downs this season in his first full year as a starter. His best games this season have come when he has avoided turnovers and effectively “managed the game”, but some bad moments at inopportune times have prevented the Vikings from being able to keep pace in some other games. It’s hard to give a fair evaluation of Ponder from the outside looking in due to the lack of talent Minnesota has at wide receiver, but at some point all quarterbacks have to be able to overcome adverse situations.
Smith has been the quintessential game manager over the past two seasons, completing just over 64 percent of his passes and throwing just 10 interceptions in 25 starts over that span. He also has a 19-5-1 record as a starter over the past two regular seasons as the 49ers’ have largely relied on a competent running game and one of the league’s top defenses to win games. In a lot of ways Smith has become the type of quarterback Ponder should aspire to be, given that the Vikings are built similarly with one of the league’s best running backs in Adrian Peterson and a defense that has some recognizable veterans.
As we have learned this season around the league, having a competent backup quarterback has become essential no matter how good a team’s starting quarterback is. Signing Smith next offseason would put the Vikings in a position of strength in that regard, with the residual benefit of forcing the team’s offensive coaches to find other ways to use current backup quarterback Joe Webb. The big question is if Vikings’ general manager Rick Spielman will be willing to alter his plan at quarterback and bring in legitimate competition or a potential replacement for Ponder.