Let Smith-to-Cards speculation commence

Oddly enough, maybe the two biggest stories out of Super Bowl week have
been related to deer-antler spray (?) and the future of one team’s
backup quarterback.

With rumors circulating that
49ers quarterback Alex Smith will request his release after the season,
FOXSports.com
reported Tuesday
that the Niners instead will seek
to trade their former starter in hopes of recouping a draft pick,
probably a fourth- or fifth-rounder. Considering the dearth of similarly
quality options in the upcoming free-agent class and the lack of an
Andrew Luck/RGIII-esque franchise QB in the draft, it seems likely that
Smith will draw sufficient interest for a deal to be consummated,
especially since the FOXSports.com report indicated that the Niners are
willing to work with Smith to send him to his preferred destination
“regardless of whether it’s a division opponent.”

You
know where this is going. The Cardinals’ quarterback situation after
the Kevin Kolb injury was not good. It was bad. It has been widely
speculated that John Skelton won’t be back next year, and it was clear
from Ryan Lindley’s no-touchdown, seven-interception rookie season that
he’s not close to being ready for an NFL starting job. So even if Kolb
is brought back — his contract would almost certainly need to be
renegotiated since he has a $9 million salary for next year along with a
$2 million roster bonus due in March — the Cards will probably still
want to add a veteran QB, either as a backup to Kolb or as competition
for him. And it’s unknown exactly what Bruce Arians’ opinion is of Kolb,
as pretty much all there is to go on is this quote from his
introductory press conference.

“The first thing is
you look at the skill level. I see what I see. Fundamentally, can I
correct things or can we correct things? Is he salvageable? Has he been
hit out?”

It wasn’t much of an endorsement, but it
wasn’t much of anything else, either. Keep in mind that before Kolb was
injured, he had thrown eight touchdown passes and three interceptions as
the Cardinals had started 4-1; if he had thrown enough passes to
qualify, he’d have finished 16th in the NFL (exactly average among
starters) in passer rating at 86.1, and the Cardinals probably wouldn’t
have finished 5-11 (that extrapolation can go on for a while). At the
very least, he appeared to be a viable starter, albeit a fairly
expensive and injury-prone one (hence the need for an
alternative).

For reference, Smith lost his starting
job in Week 11 after suffering a concussion but finished the season with
a quarterback rating of 104.1, which ranked third in the league behind
only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. He also had a 90.1 rating last
year (continuing an upward career trend) while taking the Niners to the
NFC title game, and his mobility is of some unquantifiable benefit. Is
he better than Kolb? That’s debatable and probably dependent on the
offense/system. But at only 28 and with four years of decent starting
experience, he’d seem to be well worth a mid-round pick for any team
desperately in need of competent quarterback play.

So
it would seem that there are really two questions (related questions)
for Arians, new GM Steve Keim, et al. The first: With Smith owed $7.5
million next season in the second year of a three-year deal, can the
roster sustain two quarterbacks making starter-level money? Because if
Smith is acquired but Kolb isn’t retained, the Cardinals would be in
almost the exact same situation they’re in now, with one quarterback
coming off an injury and nothing behind him (and no long-term guarantee
of stability at the position). The second and bigger question: Smith is
obviously seeking a starting job, but do the Cardinals’ new decision
makers see him as a franchise quarterback — or at least a
definitely-better-than-Kolb quarterback — within their system to the
extent that they’d guarantee him the starting job before determining
Kolb’s future? If not, their interest might end up being irrelevant
since Smith presumably would have little interest in moving from San
Francisco as Colin Kaepernick’s backup to Arizona to potentially be
Kolb’s backup. But if so, and if the price is really only a fourth- or
fifth-round pick, the Cards would probably be more than willing to meet
it and figure out both the cap ramifications and the backup situation
later.

By the way, the Cardinals have all their own
picks this year other than their seventh-rounder and have two additional
sixth-round picks in the April 25-27 draft. Kolb’s roster bonus is due
March 16.

— Matt
Swartz