Commence Smith-to-Cards speculation

Jan. 31, 2013


USA Today Sports

49ers quarterback Alex Smith is a center of attention at Media Day in New Orleans.
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, 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 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 — 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 going forward.

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-to-excellent 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